Gettysburg Ghost Tour Dilemmas

Yesterday, I happened to mention that a small town not too far from us will be holding weekly ghost walks every Friday during the summer. My 14 year old daughter piped up with, “Can’t we go to Gettysburg instead?” (She remembers neighbors talking about ghost walks they took there a few years back) Well, I answered that I’d check it out; Gettysburg’s proximity to Washington, DC may pre-empt my original plans to do a Philadelphia/Washington trip on Amtrak. So, I spent some time researching, and I’ll share what I found with you. Please feel free to contribute your own experiences with Gettysburg and their ghost tours as well.

There are many organizations offering tours in the area, which, surprisingly, is a turn-off to me. With so many vying with each other, I tend to fear that there may be a tendency to do whatever it takes to attract business away from competition. When I see cartoon ads with Casper-like, smiling ghosts, my first reaction is to cross the company off my list. The idea of creating a tourist attraction off lives-and deaths-of soldiers is bad enough, but to cutesy it up even further does not seem right at all. Yes, I am intrigued about the battlefields and the possibility of residue energy-to which others have alluded after capturing orbs on their photos- but I don’t know if I want a costumed comedian leading me down a path in the dark, creating dramatization geared to tourist naiveté. The fact that at least one store in town sells equipment to pick up electronic voice phenomena (and electrical magnetic energy spikes) capitalizes on peoples’ hopes to experience the unexplained. This underlines another fact: serious ghost hunters descend upon Gettysburg regularly and often.

Although I did not spend time checking out each of the ghost tour companies individually, I did go onto Trip Advisor to read about the Farnsworth House. This bed and breakfast inn was named #7 on a list of the Most Haunted Hotels in the country, compiled by a cable TV travel series. Not only is it supposed to be home to 14 spirits, there is also a tour or the facility open to the public. If you have free time and you’d like a few shivers, read some of the travel experiences of those who stayed at the Farnsworth House; they will either make you rush for reservations or adamantly insist on staying elsewhere.

Now, I must admit that I find the paranormal more intriguing than most people, but even I am a bit cynical regarding some of the stories relayed. I believe the gal who said that the unclasped necklace she left on her dresser at night was found clasped and hanging over her coat rack the following morning. I also believe the fellow who claimed his recorder wouldn’t tape or playback while he was in his room. I even believe that the room door suddenly opened by a woman juggling the doorknob who had forgotten her key, while her husband was in the bathroom, after having had locked the room door. But I don’t think I can really accept that a child ghost kept caressing one traveler’s hair throughout her visit, or that someone just happened to smell putrid odors during the tour of the basement after the guide mentioned “rotting flesh”. On the other hand, looking one visitor’s photography taken on the battlefield after midnight did send chills down my spine.

The question remains: does the inundation of tourists with ghost-hunting gear make an area that suffered tragic death any less significant, or does it make it more so?

Over the next few weeks, I’ll continue to investigate the possibilities and will keep you up to date. It’s good to know that there are also 32 Gettysburg tours that focus on battlefield history; such an amount has to offer historical perspectives in ways that can accomodate everyone’s personal interests. There is also a huge selection of times, lengths and costs in other local tours as well. In the meantime, in case you are interested in finding out more about the Farnsworth House, or Gettysburg itself for that matter, here are a few resources that I found to be helpful:

Convention and Visitor’s Bureau: http://www.gettysburg.travel/visitor/tours.asp?category_sub_id=195

Trip Advisor, Best Gettysburg Ghost Tours:
http://www.tripadvisor.com/ShowTopic-g60798-i335-k766599-Best_Ghost_Tour-Gettysburg_Pennsylvania.html

The Farnsworth House:
http://www.farnsworthhouseinn.com/rooms.html

Hanauma Bay Snorkeling

Some years back, I had the privilege of visiting Hawaii. For my honeymoon, my husband I decided to take an extra-special trip to the islands, so we stayed for a total of 10 days on Oahu, Maui and the “big island” of Hawaii. Suffice it to say that it was absolutely gorgeous, and hard to remember that we really weren’t in foreign country. My clearest memories of this state involve the strong aroma of native flowers that filled every hotel lobby (open aired as they were), eating macadamia nuts, and snorkeling in Hanauma Bay. Probably due to the fact that I’d never before snorkeled, this adventure would probably have stayed with me regardless, but doing so in this nature preserve was especially gratifying for a number of reasons. (I later snorkeled in Cancun, but still preferred Hanuama Bay.)

Located 10 miles east of Waikiki, Hanuama Bay was formed inside a volcanic cone by the oceanic incursion into two craters. One of the loveliest areas of the island, it was suggested by a concierge as the best place to snorkel. There are several tour operators that charge around $17-$20 per person; the one we chose offered a shuttle bus for transportation to and from our hotel. (It can be easily reached by public transportation as well.) We chose to spend about a half day, which offered plenty of time to spend in the water, as well as on the beach. For one price, we received flippers, a mask and snorkel, and an allotment of fish food-which I don’t believe is offered any longer. (We also chose to rent an underwater camera, and have realized countless times since then what a good decision that was. It’s still worth it at around $13 for 27 shots.) Anyway, after a short lesson, we were able to snorkel wherever we wished in the bay, along with a good many other guests. One of the really great things about Hanuama Bay is that it is relatively shallow; rarely did the water reach my neck. (That was an ideal situation for anyone who is snorkeling for the first time, as they will often wish to drain excess water from their mask, a task more easily achieved while standing on the firm ocean bottom.)

Believe me when I say that one did not need to look very far or for very long before spying fish! Some people take deep breaths while snorkeling in order to dive deeply, but I was more comfortable staying close to the surface, especially being on the lookout for photo opportunities. When I would see an exceptionally colorful specimen, I’d grab more air, then dive a bit deeper to get as close as possible before snapping. Unfortunately, a good many of the shots did not capture the entire fish bodies (and some included other swimmers as well) but I’m still very glad that I have them. Although all underwater photos are beautiful, knowing that you took them yourself adds even more delight.

The area is considered “one of the most spectacular natural resources in Hawaii” and is enjoying years of working for the re-establishment of its marine ecosystem. It’s clear, as advertised, that its purpose is not for beach sports, but for protecting marine life. As such, it is the first Marine Life Conservation District in Hawaii. Hanauma Bay also offers tours, scuba diving and picnic facilities, and is one of the most frequently visited tourist spots in Oahu. At one time, it was receiving up to 3,000,000 guests each year. This prompted action plans to be put in place to limit the number of guests at any one time, and close for environmental conservation every Tuesday.

Hanauma Bay clearly “walks the talk” when it comes to protecting natural habitat, and by doing so, provides more to be appreciated as well as enjoyed. Anyone who is considering a visit to Waikiki owes it to themselves to visit the park, to witness the way nature intends to be. (And, if they like to swim with the fishes, Hanauma Bay is certainly the best place to do it!)

For recorded information about the park regarding hours of operation and entrance and parking fees, call (808) 396-4229.

Some Philadelphia Tidbits

For a short get-away trip, I’m considering taking my daughter to Philadelphia during the summer. She’s never been there, and it seems like a great place to learn about our nation’s history. Philly holds a place in my heart because, many years ago, as a new manager for Bell Telephone, my initial training was in Center City. I spent 4 months living in a hotel around 20th and Market, which I believe is gone now, and a few more intermittent months at the Holiday Inn at 36th street. However, my real memories of Philly came from that first stay, due to the fact I had a daily walk down to company headquarters, around 13th street. I must admit that returning after all these years is a way to revisit that time of my life, as well as to see how much has changed.

Let me add that, for a young person who had never been away from home on their own before, Philadelphia was a good place to stay as a single traveler. The area that I was easily able to cover by foot extended about 25 blocks, over 4-5 parallel streets-although this was only a small portion of Center City. But, my walks took me through City Hall, past tourist attractions such as the Clothespin sculpture, over to the Gallery Mall, and up and down avenues filled with shops, restaurants and delicatessens. The historical area, waterfront and museum were short subway rides away; there were many other attractions in the nearby area that, unfortunately, I never had the chance to visit. But one thing I did do was take the Amtrak train to New York on weekends. I caught it right at Penn Station on 30th street, and in about 60 minutes, I exited Penn Station in the heart of Manhattan. I think at the time it cost less than $25, but now for an adult and child it’s $64.50.

Surprisingly, it’s only $3 more to travel all the way from our hometown of Pittsburgh
to Philly on Amtrak, which is at least 7 hours non-stop. (But, we may just opt to to fly from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia, which is fairly inexpensive at $64 per person one way and takes just 1 hour.)

Also intriguing is that it costs the same to travel by train from Philly to Washington DC, which is about 4 hours. In fact, travel from Pgh. to Phila. is routed through DC, but the shortest trip that isn’t non-stop adds only 2 hours onto the duration of travel, yet that layover doesn’t offer time to see much of D.C. More investigation revealed that there is one train that has a layover of about 8 hours, which would be adequate for a short bus tour and more than a few photo opportunities, but leaving home before 5 AM and arriving in a Philly hotel around 12:30 AM is too long of a day for anyone. (Those who are considering travel from Philly to New York should know that there is a site called Megabus.com that offers the trip for $1 per person, although it takes 2 hours. How they can offer such a fare seems peculiar, but feel welcome to check it out and let the rest of us know about your experience.)

I also found that the Blue line of the Philadelphia subway, which runs from the Amtrak train station to 2nd street, is along the path of many hotels, so a cab may not even be needed. By the same token, the SeptraR1 bus may be taken from the Philadelphia airport into the middle of the historical district (and near many hotels) for $9 per person. Needless to say, there are numerous options of getting into Philadelphia.

Once a traveler does arrive, it’s clear that there is plenty to do and see. The Independence Visitor Center site offers a large array of entertaining historical venues, such as a night with Ben Franklin, interactive performances, ghost walks, tours, and museum passes, and they all sound like fun for both children and adults. http://independencevisitorcenter.tix.com/ActSelection.asp?OrganizationNumber=881

With so many choices Philadelphia appears to be an ideal location for a short-or even longer-visit if you happen to find yourself in the northeast. You may just also find that Amtak is a great alternative to both flying and driving, depending on your time schedule.

Virginia Beach Delights

If you live in the mid-Atlantic region of North America and have wanted to visit an Atlantic Ocean beach other than on the New Jersey or Maryland shore, you might want to check out Virginia Beach. Travelers not only arrive from Washington, D.C., Pennsylvania and the Carolinas (as well as Virginia), they also come from as far away as New York and Canada. Virginia Beach is located on the south eastern tip of the state, and the average travel time for most visitors is about 6-8 hours by car. If arriving by plane, Norfolk Airport is approximately 45 minutes away from the resort area.

A few aspects of Virginia Beach differentiate it from many beaches. First is its user-friendliness. With the majority of its tourist spots along a 32 block stretch, a visitor can park their car and never have need to move it during their entire vacation; everything is right there. Deli’s, drug stores, churches, shops, restaurants, and entertainment venues are in walking distance or accessible by one of the trolleys or buses that run the length of Atlantic Ave., the main street. Individual or two person bikes, adult tricycles for two riders, and different sized surreys can all be rented, along with rollerblades and scooters as other methods to get around. (Virginia Beach, unlike many beaches, provides a concrete “boardwalk” in between the sand and the ocean front hotel lawns. This wide expanse is divided into a walkers’ path and a lane for all other means of transportation, so folks who are leisurely strolling don’t have to worry about those trying to get from 2nd street to 30th street in record time.)

Also unlike many beach resorts, all businesses are on the other, far side of the oceanfront hotels, on Atlantic Ave. This means that, except for the amusement park across from the pier at 15th street, the boardwalk is free of commercialism, signs and neon. There are a few hotels with outdoor cafes playing music, but, for the most part, the only sounds are surf, wind, voices and laughter for 2 miles of boardwalk. Many visitors like to switch between walking up and down the boardwalk at night, or sitting on its benches, people-watching, and strolling Atlantic Ave. The latter equally draws families, young singles, and baby boomers-plus the weekend surge of Norfolk sailors and occasional hot-rodding teens.

Another reason Va. Beach is so popular is that it truly does offer something for everyone. With a range of accommodations covering modest motels 3 blocks from the beach, to luxury resorts boasting gourmet restaurants, one never need experience a sense of personal discomfort. There are as many high end options when it comes to shopping and dining as there are discount coupons for budget activities, pizza shops and fast food.

Another fun part about visiting Va. Beach during the summer tourist season is that the tourist bureau offers various forms of free entertainment along a stretch of Atlantic Ave. There are magicians, musicians, and singers, as well as larger acts which put nightly shows in the pavilion park at 24th street. Fireworks are also shot off the pier at least once a week-even a 3 night visit won’t allow a visitor to take in all of the performances.

Virginia Beach also has a historical coast guard station, the Old Cape Henry Lighthouse (it can be climbed right to the top), the Edgar Cayce Center, the Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge, and the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center (allow 4-5 hours to visit). Guests to this wonderful area can also enjoy short cruises focused on sightseeing, dolphin/whale watching, dining or deep sea fishing. For the adventurous types, parasailing and jet skiing beckon, while kids can enjoy miniature golf or game arcades. Plus, there are many family type activities, like walking tours of haunted places, murder mystery theaters and pirate adventures…all usually within walking distance or a short trolley ride from their lodgings.

Should a visitor decide to take a day trip, they can head to Norfolk, Williamsburg, or Bush Gardens for other exciting opportunities. But it’s the variety, attitude and pristine environment of Va. Beach that will make visiting a yearly tradition. Any guest can easily see why Va. Beach was recently named as the American city with the least stress-free living!

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Gaining Confidence with the New York Subway System

A friend is visiting New York next month, and I met with her regarding my favorite vacation city. Just like many who’ve never been to New York, she was surprised at its size. With just a 2 night visit, my friend’s time is limited, but she wanted no suggestions on using the subway. She’d rather eliminate a few stops from her plans via slower-moving cabs, than deal with a train system she considers intimidating.

Last night, two other pals indicated only one would be taking the subway when in New York. If these statistics hold true, 2 out of 3 people who visit Manhattan shy away from an authentic New York experience. It made me wonder if people are more afraid of taking the wrong train or of stories about subway dirt, smells, pickpockets, and vagrants.

Since the environmental issue is no longer as prevalent in today’s New York as years ago, and many folks are helpful, I’d like to put a visitor’s fears to rest. I’m by no means an expert, and my experience is limited to areas south of 80th street and north of Battery Park-but that is the main stomping grounds for tourists. My last visit was about 3 months ago, at which time my 13 year old daughter and I used the subway 3-4 times daily and covered a good deal of territory. If I had any fears, I would not have gone near a station, but years of New York trips have made me confident the subways are as safe as the streets, especially during daylight hours. (I personally have not ridden them past 11 PM., but not due to fearing for my safety.)

One of the best things a visitor can do to gain confidence regarding the New York subway is to study a subway map once their itinerary is somewhat firm. (It may change once the traveler locates stations and routes, and finds that logistics lend themselves to a slightly different agenda.) Anyway, the N.Y. subway map can be found in library books, bookstores, and on line at http://www.nycsubway.org/maps/route.html, or http://www.mta.nyc.ny.us/nyct/maps/submap. At first, the many colored lines are daunting, but the colors make it easier than if the map was in black and white. Most colored lines run north and south, and all have a unique identification by one letter or number. Placing a finger at one destination, and then finding the other, shows just how far apart they are, and what subway line can get a person from point A to point B. It also clearly states where the stops are along the way. Using a subway map in conjunction with a more detailed street map reflects the closest subway stops to every major tourist site, museum, famous structure, or designation of area (for example, Chelsea, Hell’s Kitchen, Soho, etc.)

The main problem is going “crosstown”, or across 5th Ave. Any street with an “east” before it would be on the right side of 5th Ave. when looking at a map and those with a “west” would be on the left side of 5th Ave. (Fifth Ave. is found on a map at the far right lower corner of Central Park.) However, between 14th and 42nd, streets, no lines cross 5th Ave. This makes subway travel a bit more complicated, so first time riders may prefer cabs over trying to find appropriate transfer points.

A creative traveler, or one that has some familiarity with the city, can also take advantage of transfers to or from a bus at no extra cost; it’s still only $2 a person for as long as one wishes to go in one direction. (Bus routes are also online.) In all of the midtown and downtown stations I passed through, machines doled out individual tickets as well as discount passes: With every $10 worth of tickets, a rider gets 2 free. These can be used by anyone, so $20 can provide 3 back and forth trips, or 6 rides, for 2 folks. There are also passes for unlimited riding during 1, 7, or 30 days.

New York subways are fast, efficient, clean, and comfortable-with obvious police presence-so a visitor just may find it a rather fun way to enjoy their New York adventure.

Disney World Decisions

If you are considering a Disneyworld vacation, be prepared to spend a good bit of time researching and comparing options. Some packages of hotel and air are excellent, but may not suit your needs. There may be time restraints, or offerings that you won’t be using, or options that you want but aren’t included. Furthermore, packages, being based on a per person occupancy, may be more expensive than a couple traveling with a older child, since room rates are usually one price for either 2 or 3 people. It all depends on how long you will be staying, what your preferences are, just how many days you’ll be visiting the parks, and whether you’ll want to “hop” between the parks throughout the day.

Start by pricing out an independent trip, beginning with the major airlines directly, and then comparing flight prices to discounters. (They may be no significant difference.) From the east coast, expect to pay at least $200. Research may even uncover non-stop flights that will get you there in about 2 hours, since several airlines service Orlando.

As far as lodging, there are two options: staying at a Disney resort, and not staying at one. If you’ve never been to Disneyworld, and you only have 3-5 days, it’s best to keep it simple and focus on the theme parks instead of trying to do water parks and other attractions where you’ll need a rental car. One park may easily use up an entire day, and Disney has 4, plus resort attractions and Disney Village. If this is how you’ll spend your vacation, there is no reason to spend extra money for a rental car to sit in a hotel garage. There is plenty of airport transportation to and from Disney resorts on free shuttle buses. The question for most families is whether it’s worth the higher price to stay at a resort, when countless chain hotels and motels line roads around Disney World. Again, it depends on your individual situation, especially if you’ll be traveling with younger children.

Disney resort accommodations are great for an early start to the day. With restaurants and coffee shops in every hotel, and buses, boats and monorails to parks, it’s possible to get a family to Epcot by 9 AM-or even before, on days when a park is open earlier. This may be more difficult if you’re staying off-premises, since you’ll have to find a place to eat, then drive to the park and spend 30 minutes parking, catching the parking tram, walking to the entrance, and waiting in line to get in. (If you don’t already have your tickets, you’ll need to wait in another line as well.)

On the other hand, a family may spend $50 a night in an inexpensive motel instead of $120 a night at a budget-level Disney resort. After adding the cost of parking and the rental car, then subtracting the less expensive dining outside of Disney World, it may come out even. The deciding factor may be how fussy the kids are. It’s a hassle driving to and from the park on a daily basis with excited kids, and it is nice to be able to go back to the room for a couple of hours in the middle of a day to let little ones lay down for a short nap or a take a swim. The resorts also offer extras such as baggage handling (from your departing airport right to your room), shorter lines for rides, and other guest courtesies.

The last step is to then check out the park ticket prices and decide how, and when, your group wants to visit the parks. (Disney’s website has all the details, and after getting ticket prices, you can check with discounters, which may save a few dollars per ticket.) To ensure your estimates aren’t low, be sure to add at least another $30 per day, per adult for park food, and a little less per child-depending on age. (Since portions are often large, 2 young kids can usually share meals.)

Finally, compare your total airfare, room and ticket costs with Disney packages to find the best option for the vacation you want.

Making Use of On Line Travel Information

As I geared up for my two latest jaunts to New York and Las Vegas, I made note of all of the “must sees” friends, acquaintance, and on-site reviewers shared. A major problem was deciding where to eat-so much food, so little time.

Therefore, I went online to tourist recommendations to check out menus and prices. Traveling with both a picky eater and one who says “Yuck” at meat and most vegetables, I need to know ahead of time what I’ll be facing. In Vegas, I ruled out eating at Guy Savoy’s establishment after I found out that dinner for 2 adults and one teenager would be around $570 before tax, tip and wine. His menu sounded intriguing, just like Emeril’s, but we weren’t looking for a romantic, unforgettable, culinary experience. Yet, I must mention that I owe thanks and respect to both chefs for allowing their prices to be printed online. They think enough of their diners to be upfront, with apparently no need to trick them in by hiding anything.

However, in the majority of the cases, fine-and not so fine-dining establishments do not post menus with prices online. They don’t share anything other than beautifully worded descriptions of their offerings. Why not? The answer is probably in line with the saying, “If you have to ask, you can’t afford it.” But isn’t that assumption, a bit well, presumptuous? It implies that the owners assume that if you want to eat there, you’ll pay anything, and if you want to know the price ahead of time, you aren’t welcome because you shouldn’t care about price in the first place. It used to be that women were handed menus without prices so that they would order what they really wanted instead of what was either inexpensive or indulgent. That’s not as insulting as on-line menus with no prices. (I have to laugh at places like the Carnegie Deli in Manhattan, whose menus don’t even try to hide the big white-out marks over the costs.) To me, that’s announcing that they want tourists to plan a visit, make reservations, and travel there, after which they’ll be less likely to go elsewhere.

Sometime, as travelers, we want to splurge, but other times, we wish to be prudent. We’re lucky in this day and age to have so much information, regarding reservations, maps, directions, and reviews, all a click away. It can’t be emphasized enough to use these resources while planning your trip. You will not only discover restaurant selections and pricing, you will also find out hours of operation (some closures days may surprise you) and payment policies. (I was glad to have found out ahead of time that New York’s famed Jekyll and Hyde did not take Visa, and how much cash to carry for our meal.)

In New York, almost every restaurant (as well as theatres, museums and business establishments) also includes subway directions on their sites. But, no matter where you’re going, it’s an excellent idea to take things into your own hands when planning your itinerary. Don’t wait until you get to a strange place to pick up a map or get information from the hotel concierge. Online subway and bus maps can be found within seconds, and your investigation may very well change the course of your trip. This is because, often, visitors have no clue just how far apart places are or what it takes to get from point A to point B. Several times, I found out that my plans wouldn’t be feasible ahead of time, which forced me to re-think my agenda. It was disappointing, but much better than the hassle and stress of dealing with it once I had arrived at my destination.

Such research has always served me well. My family has usually found good meals and entertainment at fair prices, and gotten the most out of our vacations by saving time and energy. There will always be a few glitches in even the best plans, but a few hours on the computer can increase your travel pleasure significantly.

Here’s wishing you success in your online travel research, and to no more unhappy surprises.

Niagara Falls Tourism

Most tourist spots seem to have a fair balance between natural and man-made attractions. While planning a personal trip to the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, I’ve discovered a slight imbalance.

Now, there really isn’t a whole lot to do while watching 1/5 of the world’s water crashing down in front of one, other than marvel at it. But after that hour or so passes, what’s next? It’s taken urban planners and the tourist authority several decades, but it looks like they’ve succeeding in making Niagara Falls into a man-made paradise. The natural wonder of falls has become a backdrop for what could be considered the cleverest kinds of family entertainment.

I have vague recollections of visiting there a couple of times as a young child, when the focus was on the colors used to light up the falls at night. There were no Clifton Hill “attractions”, no amusement rides or fun houses, and no wax or oddity museums…I guess those developments constitute progress in their own way, and no one can deny they’re fun. Plus, there are sporting, gaming and cultural venues as well, a little away from the Falls area.

The idea of riding the “Maid of the Mist” brings back good memories, as does the Journey Behind the Falls and a helicopter ride over the falls beckons me to the sky. But experiencing 4-D movies and haunted houses just down the street is somehow incongruent with the natural phenomenon of the falls. In trying to create a simple agenda for a 2 day visit, I found myself overwhelmed with a huge amount of glitzy options from which to choose. How can one visit the Falls without experiencing some of the hype, even if it’s just riding to the top of the Skylon Tower? How can one fail to rise to the challenge of escaping the “chicken list” at the Screamers’ Haunted House as one of the 60,000 unable to make it through without the help of staff?

A family traveling with children under the age of 10 will probably be deluged with pleas to spend money; however, one good thing is that part of the money spent at “Niagara Parks” natural beauty attractions (such as the Maid, Journey, Butterfly Walk, etc.) goes toward maintaining the resources.

American citizens should ignore the Internet information claiming that children merely require a copy of the birth certificate, and parents need photo ID such as a driver’s license. As of September 30, 2007, passports are required. So, if your family does not have theirs, you better start the paperwork now. Does it seem strange to you that we’ll need passports to visit the Canadian side of Niagara Falls? Intellectually and logistically, it makes sense-after all, it is technically another country. Yet, something about half of it being in New York reduces the “foreign country” status of it. After all, when one-day trips offered by bus tour companies get travelers back home by nightfall, it’s hard to feel like we’ve gone to another country!

To give credit where credit is due, the various visitor associations have managed to provide an overwhelming amount of activities (that could appeal to a range of age groups) within a fairly small area. As such, cars aren’t necessarily needed, and the freedom that comes with walking to sights and restaurants adds to the overall relaxation of a trip. As silly as some of the tourist spots may appear, the younger crowd will probably find them great fun, which is sometimes a challenge while on vacation. With fast food chains, families are assured of familiar and inexpensive meals-again, which cater to the tastes of the younger visitors-but there are still many high quality dining establishments for more discerning adult tastes.

The areas around Niagara Falls on both the American and Canadian sides offer countless levels of lodging, depending the desired proximity and budget. The multi-star resorts nearest the falls usually boast falls’ views, casinos, and free shuttle service to other tourist sites. There are also many recreational offerings once a family leaves the immediate urban center, and with the attractions found in nearby towns, there’s a good chance that a Niagara Falls vacation can include everyone’s favorite activity.

Realistic Dining in Las Vegas

Las Vegas has some of the best-and most expensive-restaurants in the world, all within an approximate 4 mile area. From Emeril Lagasse to Bobby Flay to Guy Savoy, to all of the lesser known celebrity chefs, there is a wealth of culinary experience from which to draw…but not for the average tourist, especially if traveling with kids. That’s a whole different ballgame.

For those quick to point out that one shouldn’t even be taking kids to Sin City in the first place, there really are many great things to do there for those under 21, and many families do take kids with them when visiting. So what are the best options for eating meals that are more “normal” than fancy cuisine at greatly inflated prices?

Vegas was always known for its buffets, but they are no longer the cheap eats of the past. Expect to pay upwards from $15 for breakfast, $20 at lunch and $25 per person for dinner at resorts on the strip. (Children under 12 usually receive discounts.) A breakfast buffet could be the best choice if your family enjoys breakfast foods and has a busy day planned. After eating at one of those, most folks aren’t hungry until late afternoon. A buffet’s obviously not for anyone who isn’t a big eater, but even picky diners can find a something to meet with their approval. Plus, buffets aren’t all that much costly than buying items a la carte from a resort coffee shop. (Coffee, milk, juice, and a croissant or muffin can cost $10 per person,) Overall, the value is significantly greater.

However, if a family has opted for breakfast at Denny’s (on the strip near the Venetian) or McDonald’s (near Denny’s and in Circus Circus and Excaliber) with the idea of splurging on a nicer lunch, there are choices in the upscale food courts of the Venetian and Caesar’s Palace. Here, prices are a bit more hefty ($4 for a slice of pizza, for example), but the ambience of being in beautiful surroundings and looking out into the casino may be worth it. The Miracle Mile Shops in Planet Hollywood and the eateries in New York New York also provides small kiosks and tables that offer assortment to all family members at less cost than sit-down establishments.

Most strip resorts’ casual restaurants have wide menu selections, but expect to wait either in line or wait for meals, which take time that you could spend elsewhere. Usually, the portions are large, but the average Vegas hotel room rarely offers refrigerators (or even coffee makers, for that case). Most entrees start around $10.

For those who are looking for a themed, chain-type restaurant appealing to both kids and adults, Vegas is home to the Rain Forest Café, House of Blues, Planet Hollywood, Hard Rock Café, and Margaritaville. Expect to pay at least $15 per person and spend at least an hour.

Should your itinerary take you to downtown Las Vegas, you’ll find down-to-earth prices for full-course dinners and satisfying food. However, it may not be worth the $30 round trip cab fare just to go there for one meal. On the other hand, combining dinner with the Freemont St. Experience, and shopping for moderately priced souvenirs, may be worth it.

It’s not impossible for a family to eat well at a reasonable cost while in Las Vegas, but it does take a little research-and probably a bit of walking!

What about “unrealistic” dining experiences? You know, the ones that start about $100 a person per meal? Every resort has several upscale dining facilities, with names that are recognizable throughout the world. Since my family and I did not frequent those restaurants, I cannot offer opinions, but other’s views may help in your choice. Check with on-line review sites to get an idea of current pricing and offerings at places that allow the dining experience to transcend into once-in-a-lifetime dining memories. That’s what great about Vegas-it has something for everyone-all at the same time, and all in the same general area.

(Note-On a recent trip to Las Vegas, the author’s sit-down restaurant choices were the Flamingo Resort’s Paradise Garden Buffet, the Flamingo Tropical Breeze Café, Rain Forest Café, Bay City Diner and Wolfgang Puck’s Spago.)

Steve Wyrick: Real Magic

If you are considering a magic or illusion show as one of your entertainment choices while in Las Vegas, you may want to consider “Steve Wyrick: Real Magic.” This recent visitor highly recommends it!

I must admit that, until this trip, I’d never heard of Mr. Wyrick. My guide book focused on Lance Burton for his fame, and other shows for their assorted offerings and convenience. (Some are in the afternoon and others offer more than one show per day.) However, in January 0f 2007, Steve Wyrick opened in his own theater, the Steve Wyrick Entertainment Complex in Planet Hollywood. After many years in the business, and 10 in Vegas, he will also be getting his own behind-the-scenes reality show, set to film within a few months.

Mr. Wyrick is an affable, good looking performer, with an innate ability to relate with his audience and involve them in his production, even if they aren’t participating in his acts. He does this with many personal reflections and stories of his past, such as using actors to portray his family while he was young and learning magic tricks. By the end of these 90 minutes, one can’t help feeling that they really “know” Steve Wyrick.

He utilizes audience participation in a number of ways-he pulled one young lady to the stage to join him at a table for a glass of wine and a course of several card tricks-which were displayed on large monitors behind him. On a few occasions, he requested items from the audience members-one including borrowing someone’s engagement ring-and used another individual for help with another very involved trick, as well as a child for another act. In every case, he gave something to the participant (and in the case of the child, a videotape of her involvement). Yet, due to the relative smallness of his theatre, it did not appear that being up on stage would be intimidating, especially since Mr. Wyrick creates the feeling of intimacy; it’s easy to feel that one is amidst friends.

Lest you think that this is another one-man show in a fairly plain and low-keyed setting, with minimal sets and accompaniment, think again; after all, this is Vegas. There is the glitter and glitz in his sets, of course those talented and beautiful backup dancers, and music which appeals to all ages. There is nary a pause between numbers, and Mr. Wyrick’s variety of illusions has been planned to keep viewers from losing interest for even a minute. His screens, props, and professional accoutrements assure that a viewer will leave the show feeling a sense of personal involvement.

My personal favorites involved the “portrait” of the model that came to life, the girl in the tank, and, like most people, the final moment in which he displays his ultimate magical abilities. An unexpected treat was being able to get autographs and individual photos taken with Steve Wyrick after the show. Not many headliners wish to take the time to thank those who have come to see them perform in this way, so it just adds to the overall endearing character of Mr. Wyrick. Although his dancers are sexy, and the show is by no means dull, his show is family friendly, with no profanity or suggestions that make a parent shudder. In fact, it seems that like most high caliber entertainment, Steve Wyrick: Real Magic has universal appeal.

My family and I were able to get discounted tickets for a Sunday evening performance at the half-price outlet near Planet Hollywood, although it meant waiting in line for a half hour about 2 hours before it was to start. But, with everything in Vegas fairly close, we had plenty of time to return to the Flamingo, change, and make it in time.

With his supreme confidence and excellent skill, Mr. Wyrick is well deserving of this new phase of his career. Here’s hoping that after the country sees his new TV show next season, he will become just as highly recognized as David Copperfield and Criss Angel, because he’s quickly moving into their league.

(Note-“Steve Wyrick: Real Magic” takes place at 7 and 9 PM, but days vary. Tickets are priced between $75 and $100, and discounts may be available.)