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Karen Rubin is an eclectic travel writer who has been spanning the globe for more than 30 years reporting on interesting, intriguing people and places to explore for magazines, newspapers and online. She publishes Travel Features Syndicate in newspapers and online including examiner.com, Huffington Post and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate and blogs at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com. "Travel is a life-changing and an interactive experience that mutually benefits travelers and community." Contact Karen at FamTravLtr@aol.com. 'Like' us at www.facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures


Where Everyman is Hero

By Karen Rubin

Arriving at Ellis Island after exploring the Statue of Liberty on Liberty Island, you can easily imagine what it was like for the throngs of people who came in such waves that it collectively formed the largest migration in human history.

Immigrants to Ellis Island were welcomed at a fabulous building (© 2009 Karen Rubin).

Between 1892 when Ellis Island became an immigration center and 1924 when it ceased, some 12 million people passed through, the greatest tide of incoming humanity in the nation’s history. There are 100 million Americans today – about 30 percent of the population – whose ancestors made the journey through these portals.

They would have had that first sight of the Statue of Liberty, that welcoming beacon of hope and freedom, before arriving. Today, you would have likely explored Liberty Island before getting back on the ferry for Ellis Island.

But then, as now, you get off the ferry en masse, walk up the steps into a great hall, the sounds magnified from the tile. You stand confused among the hubbub of people and noise, not knowing where to go first, what to do first. There are people from everywhere – and until you get your bearings, you get that glimmer of what it was like.

But of course it is different. You are not carrying all everything you own in your hands, not in terror over being sent back to whatever compelled you to leave your native land to begin with. Not being panicked at the possibility of being separated from the rest of your family. Not straining to make sense out of a new language, new customs. Not having endured weeks in cramped quarters rolling on the high seas before being dropped at a pier and loaded onto the ferry to come to Ellis Island, the immigration center for New York.

The confusion, now, is mostly what to do first, where to go first. (I have the added realism of being a little tuckered out from having climbed to Lady Liberty’s crown, an experience now available to a lucky 240 people a day; see Discovery, 6/12).

The first people I see are dressed in early 20th century clothes (how odd that sounds now, in the ‘oughts’ of the new millennium), hawking tickets for a new live-stage performance (amazingly not a first for Ellis Island the immigration center).

Taking a Chance on America: Bela Lugosi’s Ellis Island Story, which was brought back by demand at the Museum’s intimate Living Theater for a limited run ending September 5), written by playwright and screenwriter Aurorae Khoo, portrays the immigrant experience of legendary movie actor Bela Lugosi-best known for his portrayal of Count Dracula-and features a reenactment of the Ellis Island inspection process.

Bela Lagosi came in 1920 from Hungary. He actually first snuck in at New Orleans and lived in America illegally for a time. But he wanted to be “legitimate,” so he went to Ellis Island.

It strikes me during the course of my visit, that except for Bela Lugosi, there is hardly any “name-dropping.” I imagine that instead of an American flag which turns into faces of immigrants today, there could be a whole hall of people who became famous or important who can trace their arrival here – people who literally were self-made successes because only those traveling third class or steerage (the vast majority) had to go through the immigration process at Ellis Island (first and second class passengers were interviewed onboard the ship and then disembarked at the New York City pier). Ellis Island is more of a people’s museum, the museum of the common man, Everyman. Out of many, one.

How they came to be, what that experience would be like – these halls veritably echo with the stories. You feel chills to picture your own forebears – not so far removed for most – grandparents or great-grandparents. It is not someone else’s story. It is your own personal story, and the halls and the presentation let you easily put your own family’s portrait into the scene.

Then as now, people arrive at Ellis Island by ferry, but today, instead of looking in awe at the Statue of Liberty, visitors typically would have visited Lady Liberty(© 2009 Karen Rubin).

Ellis Island, which only became a museum in 1990, is a shrine to their courage and their ordeal and all the things that drove people to leave all that they knew behind to start life anew in a completely new and strange land. Some came by themselves – there were even women who were literally mail-order brides who met their prospective grooms for the first time on Ellis Island.

It is a homage to America, as well – who we are and how we came to be. It is the best example of what we profess to be, “The Land of Opportunity.”

Ellis Island Immigration Museum articulates these experiences, these emotions very clearly. There is a very human feel to everything – sensitive, as it turns out, most of the officials that the immigrants encountered. It was frightening and wondrous and wonderful all at the same time.

I am impressed by how respectful, and I believe honest, the depictions are – not necessarily the story we would wish to remember or the story that is politically advantageous or politically correct to remember.

And what is so fascinating is how contemporary it all feels. The issues and concerns resonate today, even though the fashions may have changed.

And so you enter at what you come to learn is the “baggage room” and imagine the dilemma of leaving all that you own with a stranger in exchange for a receipt or else lugging everything upstairs and possibly being rejected as being feeble. Pass through the baggage area to a large room, “Peopling of America,” where “street markers” post the inflow and outflow of arrivals and departures.

In just an eight-year period, between 1900 and1908, some 8.2 million – a veritable tsunami of people – entered the United States, with some 3.0 million flowing out.

In those early years, with the Industrial Revolution transforming America’s economic, social and political landscape, the hordes were welcomed to man the factories and build the railroads, roads and edifices of a booming society.

But the climate changed, from welcoming to forbidding, as Americans feared their culture (whatever that was) would be overwhelmed, and even new Americans, fearing competition for their jobs, wanted to close off the avenues to opportunity they themselves enjoyed.

Visitors look at piles of luggage in the "baggage room," the first stop for most immigrants after entering the immigration center (© 2009 Karen Rubin).

Some of the programs require a timed ticket, even if there is no charge. And so the first thing I do is get a ticket for the next showing of a fabulously produced documentary, “Island of Hope, Island of Tears,” made by Charles Guggenheim and narrated by Gene Hackman.

The film starts off where the immigrants themselves started off – the rural villages and teaming cities a world away from America. You follow them with their carts on dirt roads crammed with possessions, then onto the trains as the whistle sounds and the traincars rattle, into the port city – Bremer, Antwerp, Hamburg and Liverpool – to be “processed” by the steamship company.

Those images provide the missing link, I think, in what we know of the story before. It is that heart-wrenching scene that ends “Fiddler on the Roof,” as you see the families leaving the only homes they have known for generations. More typically, the story about Ellis Island starts with that first profoundly moving sight of the Statue of Liberty holding the torch of freedom, and then the process of going through Ellis Island.

But the movie shows what happens before all of that, which puts what happens at Ellis Island into context.

The vast majority of immigrants to America came in third class and steerage – a ship might have carried 50 passengers first class but 1,000 in steerage. And for the steamship company, “it was a business of numbers – to house, feed, process 40,000.”

At first, the steamship lines would simply load up immigrants, but after 8 percent of the arrivals into Ellis Island were being sent back for failing to meet the minimal criteria at a phenomenal expense to those who had already spent their life savings, Teddy Roosevelt’s administration made the steamship company responsible to bring them back at its expense.

At that point, the steamship lines became more diligent about identifying those who would not pass muster, de-lousing people and cutting off their hair, and cutting the rejection rate to 2%.

While we might have the idea that Ellis Island officials were dispassionate, actually, the immigrants were at the mercy of steamship company.

Faces, then and now: 12 million people came through Ellis Island, ancestors of some 100 million Americans today (© 2009 Karen Rubin).

The voices of the immigrants, recounting their experience during this film and throughout the museum, are poignant and powerful: they describe being stuffed in steerage like animals, where they could see water but not sky, where they were sickened by odor of spoiled food and oil. “We had one bag, one basket, no other possessions.”

The voyage might have taken three or four weeks. The ship would have pulled into a pier on New York City, but only the first and second class passengers – who would have paid $150 for their passage (probably two-year’s wages for those who traveled in third class or steerage), would have disembarked, having been interviewed by Immigration officials onboard.

The rest, by the hundreds, would be loaded onto ferries and taken the short distance, as we did that morning, to Ellis Island. They might have had to wait hours or even days, before they finally were deposited at the Immigration Center there.

From the film, I peer into some of the exhibits myself before latching on to one of the free, 45-minute Park Ranger-guided tours, offered on the hour. The tour is a fabulous way to put everything into context.

From almost the first moment they were dislodged from the ferries, they were watched by doctors and inspectors for further scrutiny as to those who might have physical or mental defects, or who might become a public liability, an agitator or an anarchist, or who might have come as a contracted worker, stealing a job or undercutting the wage from an American.

A doctor would use a sterilized button hook to lift the eyelid to look for one of the most dreaded diseases, trachoma, that could cause blindness, which would have resulted in deportation.

If they passed that initial test, they were sent up to the second floor Registry Room, a cavernous tiled hall with big windows from which sunlight would stream in, where the sounds of the vast multitudes would resound. If you would have come in 1920, this Great Hall would have been filled with as many as 2,000 people speaking 51 languages.

As they made their way up the stairs, doctors would watch (the so-called “six-second checkup”), doctors would be positioned to watch to see who seemed short of breath, who limped, who seemed confused or disoriented, would be marked on their shoulder in chalk for further scrutiny: an “H” for respiratory, an “B” for back problem; “P” for physical limitation like a limp, an “X” for possible mental defect and a circled “X” for definite mental defect and sent for an IQ test (put together a puzzle of ship, horse).

The Registry Room, where fates and names were decided (© 2009 Karen Rubin).

I can imagine the terror for people who had risked everything, given up everything, and did not have the option of returning, being confronted by officials, wearing uniforms they had learned to fear.

And I can imagine the terror of a family that might have been separated if one had to be sent to the hospital on the island. In one of the exhibit rooms, I read about a two-year old boy who was sick and taken into the hospital on Ellis Island and the family lived in the dormitory for six weeks, able to visit him only five minutes a week, and then he died there.

You can sit on the few remaining wooden benches where immigrants would have sat until their name was called from the ship’s manifest by the official standing behind a wooden podium. Park Ranger Jesse Ponz holds up a ship’s manifest, about eight columns of information. What can be learned from these notes, I wonder? Apparently, quite a lot.

(You can make an appointment to examine the ship’s manifest of your own family member at the American Family Immigration History Center. It is like a library room, with computer stations. I resolve to come back and do that.)

“Are you a communist or anarchist? Did you come with pre-arranged contract to work?” the inspectors would ask. If you answered yes, you would be deported. If you were under-aged you would be deported, or if you did not have $25, you could be deported (in 1909, it was a requirement, but later it became a “rule of thumb.”)

We see the Stairs of Separation – where a lot of families were broken up – and the “Kissing Post” downstairs, where many were reunited.

I think of the families named “Goodman,” whose ancestor might well have told the Inspector, “I’m a good man, please let me in,” and the families who wound up in Houston, Texas, instead of Houston Street, Manhattan, or who wanted to go to Springfield and were sent to any one of the dozens of Springfields throughout the nation when they bought their train ticket at the depot.

For the vast majority, the process lasted some three to five hours – pretty remarkable considering the numbers – some had to endure much longer, if they had to go into the hospital, or wait for a family member to come for them, or challenge a deportation order in the courtroom in the same lofty building.

For most who arrived, Ellis Island’s buildings were not harsh at all – in fact, they were among the most splendid, grand structures of their time.

There was a dining hall, which served with china and silverware, to accommodate 2,000 people at a time.

Rather than sending sick or weak people away, almost every ailment was treated in state-of-the-art hospital facilities on Ellis Island, at nominal cost (likely paid for by one of the various ethnic benevolent groups).

I am amazed to learn that for those who had to be quarantined on the island until they could be admitted, they would bring musical entertainment.

Those who were designated for deportation even had the right to appeal at a court within the same building (an issue that resonates in today’s news). Out of 12 million who were admitted through Ellis Island, 240,000 were rejected.

Indeed, for most of the time that Ellis Island functioned, America welcomed its immigrants.

Peopling of America

Park Ranger holds up a ships manifest to show the information for each passenger, perhaps your own ancestor (© 2009 Karen Rubin).

The “Peopling of America” exhibit on the main floor, notes that since 1600, some 60 million people have come to America, producing “a multi-ethic population unparalleled in the world”. In that same hall is a sculpture of sorts in which an American flag changes into the faces of immigrants, as you shift your angle.

You appreciate how Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty are reflective of the changing economic, social and political landscape of the nation, as you wander through the various exhibit rooms.

In the mid-1800s, the Irish Potato Famine saw a wave of immigrants settling in New York, Philadelphia and Boston, as well as Canada and Australia/New Zealand, putting pressure on facilities. The anything-goes attitude toward immigrants changed, and for the first time, the federal government started restricting immigration. Castle Clinton, in 1855, became the first immigration depot in the world – a step up from the chaos that had existed.

Between 1855 and 1892, when the federal government imposed order, immigrants were abused and taken advantage of. Ellis Island was created in 1892 to cut down on abuse.

All of the nation’s major ports have a similar immigration center, but three out of four immigrants who came by steamship came to Ellis Island.

People came from everywhere, but the vast majority who came through Ellis Island came from southern Italy and Eastern Europe.

The first person to come through Ellis Island in 1892 was 15-year old Annie Moore from County Cork. 12 million followed after her, the biggest migration in history.

In the decade after the American Revolution, about 5,000 people a year emigrated; by the early 1900s, that many people arrived at Ellis Island each day, with a peak of 11,747 on April 17, 1907.

From the earliest time, there were the competing interests: bringing in low-cost labor to build the infrastructure of an industrializing nation, its canals, railroads, roadways and buildings against the push to protect jobs and wages and the fear that “American” culture would be changed.

When Italian Catholics, Russian Jews, Eastern Orthodox came in after World War I, anti-immigration sentiment won out; quotas were imposed, Ellis Island was closed and processing immigrants was done overseas, instead.

Through America’s Gate

“Through America’s Gate” exhibit lets you roam through the various rooms the immigrants would have, with wonderful exhibits that personalize the experience. There is the graffiti that was etched during periods of boredom.

One room describes the experience of 231 “Picture Brides” – literally mail-order brides. One ship carried more than 50 of these women whose prospective grooms would have come to Ellis Island to meet them. “Occasionally,” a panel reads, the woman might have exercised her woman’s prerogative and changed her mind – in one instance, a woman fell in love with a man on the ship. When the women arrived, they were under the protection of one of the benevolent agencies; they would meet their groom and decide whether they would be married. The ceremony took place on Ellis Island.

A fascinating newspaper article described the overnight transformation of a woman and her daughter, from the traditional clothes of a rural European village, to the fashion of the new, young nation.

“Peak Immigration Years” exhibit rooms further personalize the immigrant experience, but do much more. They tell more about the before and the after.

There is the display that documents the pograms in Eastern Europe – 1,200 of them just between 1918 and 1919, that propelled one-third of Eastern European Jews to emigrate to other lands, over 90 percent of them to the U.S. Philip Comen, an immigration officer at the time, researched the pogroms in Russia and listed how many were injured, killed, and the value of property destroyed. “Over five million people were made to realize that their birthplace was not their home.”

There is a room devoted to the steamship lines – fabulous posters, steamship tickets, manifests, postcards, passports and visas, notes written and personal possessions.

“By 1910, 75% of residents of New York City, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland and Boston were immigrants or children of immigrants.”

Symbol of Ellis Island: an American flag made up of faces of immigrants (© 2009 Karen Rubin).

Another room depicts how immigrants brought and retained their own culture – music of immigrant communities plays – there are photos of social clubs and parades.

And then there is the pressure, subtle and not so subtle, to become Americanized.

Jacob A. Riis coined the expression “Go Betweens” to describe immigrant children who walked that fine line between opposing cultures – parents who were bastions of ethnic traditions versus new friends and the public school teachers who frowned on foreign ways. They had the role of shuttling back and forth between those worlds, carrying messages from doctors, landlords, and shopkeepers for their parents. They are portrayed in photos by Lewis W. Hine, sociologist and photographer.

Another room greets you with massive sign, “Be Loyal” showing the increasingly aggressive effort by government and institutions to Americanize immigrants, possibly to counter the growing alarm among native Americans that the vast melting pot of the 1910s would overwhelm American culture.

There are photos, news clippings and artifacts showing the political forces – like Meyer London, the first Jewish Socialist elected to Congress.

At this point, the whole tenor of the exhibit changes. Immigration which had been welcomed is now increasingly reviled.

And those who would press for better wages and working and living conditions were being accused of being anarchists and agitators.

An exhibit displays New York Times banner headlines, “500 Reds at Ellis Island,” – the result of the Palmer raids which were a precursor to the McCarthy era. Another headline, “Habeas Corpus Writ Halts Deportation: Emma Goldman and Alexander Beckman, the intellectuals of agitation …of the radical movement.”

Finally, a 1924 New York Times headline, “America of the Melting Pot Comes to End.”

An exhibit “Treasures from Home” on the third floor displays more than 2,000 possessions that immigrants brought from their homelands like a teddy bear form a Swiss immigrant Gertrude Schneider Smith.

Wall of Honor

I go out to where there is the American Immigrant Wall of Honor. To help raise the funds for the rescue (literally) and refurbishment of Ellis Island, which had been abandoned and deteriorating for 30 years, Lee Iacocca, the head of the foundation, raised money (in the same tradition as Joseph Pulitzer raised money for the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty) by letting people honor their relatives who went through Ellis Island by etching their names in plaques.

I find the names of my grandparents, grandaunt and granduncle fairly easily – they are in alphabetical order – but I wonder if they renew it as they add to the list. I am later told that they add the names out of order, making it more difficult to find them. I wish they would have included the year they entered the country of it were known, that would have been a lot more meaningful and personal.

The number that is already there makes a long sweeping wall of silver. It is the backdrop to where archeological excavation exposed the foundation of the original fort, Fort Gibson, that was on the island, and where the island would have ended.

Ellis Island dates back to Indian times. The explorer Verrazano, in 1524 became the first European to come to New York Harbor, noting in his logbook that “semi nomadic” people pulled up in canoes. It was more than 100 years later before the Dutch came. Where Staten Island ferry lands at the tip of Manhattan is where the Dutch set up their trading post. By the 1640s, when the Dutch bought the island, there were 18 languages spoken, including Spanish, Portuguese, Frisian.

In the 1700s, the 3.5-acre island was owned by Sam Ellis, who built a tavern on the island (which was known as a “party” spot at the time). But after the U.S. Revolution, and anticipating war with the British, the federal government purchased the island in 1790 for a few thousand dollars to use as a defense. The island was expanded to 27 1/2 acres with landfill – much of it from the construction of New York City subway. (A fight between New York State and New Jersey over who actually owned Ellis Island was settled by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that New York owns the original 3 1/2 acres but the rest is in New Jersey.)

Most major port cities in the U.S. had an immigration center; up until 1892, when Ellis Island opened, the task was undertaken by the states, themselves (Castle Clinton, on Battery Park where the Liberty Island experience starts, was New York State’s center) but with the wave of immigration increasing, the federal government took over.

The views from Ellis Island, which has a park-like setting and the most magnificent of buildings – are stunning. You have a wonderful view of Manhattan’s skyline in one direction, and the Statue of Liberty in the other.

From this vantage point, you can also appreciate the building’s architecture – not at all institutional as you might expect of a federal immigration processing center. In fact, for most of the immigrants, it was the grandest building they had ever seen – a crystal palace.

A newspaper heralds the before/after fashion transformation of a mother and daughter (© 2009 Karen Rubin).

That’s what is most impressive. It isn’t institutional, and I expect that even though there were thousands of people being processed, – by definition it had to be bureaucratic and factory-like – it was as humane as possible. You get that feeling from the photos of the staff, and the images of the people.

The ferry building is the first of 30 of the other buildings on the island that have been restored and open for tours. I sign up for a 2:30 tour and continue my own exploration.

The ferry building tour proves to be a more intensive understanding of the hospital facilities offered here; indeed, the ferry building is the first of 30 buildings that the Park Service would like to restore.

But in 1900 to 1920, the Ellis Island hospital was the biggest, best medical complex in the world – this was the first hospital where a stethoscope was standard issue. Just about every ailment could be treated here. In fact, only 60,000 people were sent back because of diseases that could not be treated.

The medical people had learned by the 1880s how diseases like small pox, cholera, were spread. And they knew to quarantine to prevent epidemic.

The doctors told the architects to create environment where thousands could be processed in a day, and in fact, they developed a system that accommodated up to 5,000 people a day.

It is mind-boggling to contemplate that 10 percent of the 12 million who came through Ellis Island – 1.2 million – were treated in the 700-bed hospital. There were 353 babies born here.

There is a panel in this building that puts into perspective the pressure on the medical people: “It wasn’t unusual to have 100 cases at the hospital in one day. The task of admitting, examining, treating this number in 5-6 hours would tax even the largest hospital, but it is further complicated by the fact practically none spoke English.”

After Ellis Island was shut down as an immigration processing center in 1924, it took on new roles – as a deportation center in 1928 from which accused anarchists rounded up in the Palmer raids were thrown out, and in housing Prisoners of War in World War II. It was finally and summarily closed in 1954 – the buildings just locked up with everything still inside, a ferry left to sink at the dock (it is still there). It was left to deteriorate until President Lyndon B. Johnson, recognized the essential unity of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, placed it under the care of the National Park Service in 1965. But it wasn’t until after Lee Iacocca’s massive fund-raising effort, raising $160 million, that Ellis Island was restored to its appearance in 1918-1924, and reopened as a national museum in 1990.

I can only imagine the thrill for the relative few immigrants each year who take the oath of citizenship here.

You need at least three hours to visit Ellis Island. And it is appropriate that you will likely come after having visited the Statue of Liberty, so you will be a little tired and better appreciate what the immigrants would have felt.

Looking for ancestors' names on the silver Wall of Honor(© 2009 Karen Rubin).

There is a charming caf�, with outdoor tables (a priceless view) and indoor seating and a lovely selection of items at moderate prices.

What resonates most clearly though, is how timely this place and the story it tells is. We have all been here before. I ask the Park Ranger taking us around, as he finishes the 45-minute guided tour to reflect on today’s immigration policy debate. How much the same, how much different? Have we all been here before? Does he have any thoughts about what the policy should be?

“There is a lot in common,” he says. “The immigration issue has never been solved. It is impossible to tell who comes over the border what kind of citizens they will become. People are coming in at the rate of 850,000 a year, but if we let in all who would come, that number would be 3-4 million. It is a major problem, a dilemma. We want a viable working population.”

I go outside and wait on line for the ferry back to Castle Clinton at Battery Park.

Ellis Island is open daily (except Dec. 25);visiting is free though you have to pay $12/Adult, $10/Seniors and $5/child for the ferry; tickets can be booked in advance, Statue Cruises, 877- LADY-TIX (877-523-9849),www.statuecruises.com. For Ellis Island information, 212-363-3200 or www.nps.gov/elis/index.htm.


But my experience is still not complete.

It has been a long day that started, like it did for the immigrants, with a ferry ride. Seeing the two – the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island – in one day is exhausting, but brings you to an exquisite place.

I am exhausted but reinvigorated by the brief ferry ride back, and I venture across the street from Battery Park, to the New York City branch of the National Museum of the American Indian, one of the Smithsonian museums. And it is most appropriate to complete my journey of the immigrant experience with an enhanced understanding of the only non-immigrant Americans.

The museum is housed in the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Customs Building – a stunning architectural jewel, with an elliptical rotunda that is decorated with paintings depicting American commerce. Those paintings tie in the themes of the day in a way that was unintended, I am sure, but poignant.

Off from the rotunda are the exhibit rooms. Currently on display is “Identity by Design: Tradition, Change and Celebration in Native Women’s Dresses” (on view through fall 2009).

A long history: Ellis Island dates back to the 1600s, the remains of Fort Gibson mark the original boundary (© 2009 Karen Rubin).

The exhibit is an intriguing counterpoint to the Ellis Island story: the dresses are from the late 1800s, when immigration began to build because of the Industrial Revolution and the need for labor.

The Indians adapted imported materials from Europe, cloth, glass beads, silk ribbons that became available.

The dresses represent cultural identity, materials, techniques and their connection to past. For the makers, they represented a spiritual experience.

They were produced in confinement on reservations and reserves – done in sacred ceremonies that were banned by American and Canadian government.

In place of their traditional celebrations, tribes held huge celebrations over July 4 and other patriotic and Christian holidays, for which the women made elaborate dresses, turning enforced idleness of confinement to advantage by using time and experience with new styles and designs such as squared sleeves and beadwork of American flags.

“People would do anything to keep religion going under the nose of government – and conduct ceremonies under the guise of acceptable functions.”

“My mom taught me that a lot of the dresses were reflections of what the people saw, and what they had going on in their lives at the time,” wrote Juanita Growing Thunder Fogarty, Assiniboine/Sioux, wrote in 2005.

(Free admission; open daily except Dec. 25, until 8 p.m. on Thursdays. National Museum of the American Indian, One Bowling Green, New York, NY 10004, 212-514-3700, www.AmericanIndian.si.edu.)

See also:

Thursday, 16 July, 2009

© 2009 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit us online at www.travelwritersmagazine.com and at www.familytravelnetwork.com. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com.

Chihuly Collection Enriches St. Petersburg’s Rich Cultural Offerings

With new Salvador Dali Museum opening, two giants of modern art bookend Beach Avenue

by Karen Rubin

The opening of the Chihuly Collection further cements St. Petersburg, Florida’s undisputed position as a Top Arts Destination among mid-sized American cities.

Dale Chihuly's Ruby Red icicle Chandelier is the signature piece for the newly opened Chihuly Collection in St Petersburg, Florida © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com.

There are only about 20 museums dedicated to a single artist, and St. Pete already has one of them: the Salvador Dali Museum, which is the city’s biggest attraction. Now, with the opening of the Chihuly Collection, it has the 21st and another blockbuster.

The Collection is housed on the ground floor of a new office/retail building on the north end of Beach Drive. (The Salvador Dali Museum is moving to a new building that is being constructed at the south end of Beach Drive, scheduled to open Jan. 11, 2011, so there will be wonderful end-to-end balance, with the Museum of Fine Arts in between.)

Dale Chihuly – the Louis Comfort Tiffany of our time – is a pioneer, a visionary, and a master of glass-making, the student of the legendary Murano glass works in Venice who returned as a teacher. The variety of techniques, the use of color and texture and shape, are marvelous to behold and are fabulously displayed here. His pieces have the uncanny ability of complimenting – not competing – with nature.

Glass making goes back 5,000 years, and glass-blowing 3,000 years. Chihuly takes the art to new frontiers.

A pioneer of the studio glass movement, Chihuly is credited with transforming the methods of creating glass art and thereby leading the development of complex, multi-part glass sculptures and environmental art. However, his contributions extend well beyond the boundaries of the studio glass movement and even the field of glass: his achievements have influenced contemporary art in general.

My own view is that so much of modern art is harsh, designed to shock, and depends on intellectual gimmickry; Chihuly brings back a reliance on ingenious craftsmanship and emotionally satisfying aesthetics.

The Chihuly Collection (it isn’t technically a museum, but is the first permanent collection of his work) is presented by Morean Arts Center, an arts-education institution, where there is a glass studio and hotshop that can also be visited (separately, as well as with a combination ticket).

Make time to see a DVD about Dale Chihuly which is more about the creative process than a straight-forward biography – and follows the development of several of his major installations around the world, including “Chihuly Over Venice” with the sculptures installed over the canals and piazze; “Chihuly in the Light of Jerusalem”, a millennium exhibition at the Tower of David that drew more than one million visitors, and the “Chihuly Bridge of Glass” in Tacoma, Washington.

Chihuly, who is a native of Tacoma, Washington, was one of first American glass blowers welcomed by Venetians and Murano to study. But he evolved different techniques, which he was able to demonstrate to master glass artisans Lino Tagliapietra and Pino Signoretto when he went back to Murano to create the “River of Glass.”

Chihuly got the idea for "Float Boat" - a boat filled with glass-blown balls and objects after his "River of Glass" project, when kids picked the glass objects out of the river and put them into their boat © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com.

The whole film takes about 90 minutes, but you can visit at any point and pick up the story. But here is where you get a much fuller appreciation for how he incorporates the culture and texture of different places in his various works.

The film also shows the collaborative “team” approach – Chihuly, who has lost sight in one eye, has a team of about 20 glass artisans who work with him and contribute to the creative process. At one point in the film, one of his artisans reflects at a massive chandelier that went from conception to assembly in just 24 hours.

Then you walk through some 16 installations – each one made up of as many as hundreds of separate pieces – so there are some 4,000 pieces in all.

The basis of The Collection is $6 million in acquisitions by Beth Ann Morean and includes Chihuly’s spectacular large-scale installations such as Ruby Red icicle Chandelier, created specifically for the Collection, as well as several popular series works including Macchia (not just breathtakingly beautiful, you have the feeling of seeing am absolutely remarkable human creation), ikebana (stunning flowers of glass which reflect his study of master flower arrangers), Niijima Floats, Persians and Tumbleweeds, which have been exhibited around the globe.

Each gallery space has been designed individually to complement the installation – the lighting arranged to produce the most spectacular visual effects emanating from the glass, and best appreciate the artistic elements. There are no ropes to separate you from the works, so it is a very intimate experience.

Dale Chihuly described his technique for the Macchia, saying, "i experimented with putting a layer of 'white clouds' over the color when i was blowing... i could now have one color on the inside and another color on the outside without any blending of the colors." © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com.

Some of these marvelous works, Studio Edition Glass produced at his Portland Press factory, are available for sale in the shop (ranging in price from $4,500-$8,000; seven pieces were sold in the first week the Collection was open), as well as the stunning drawings that reveal Chihuly’s creative process as well as his extraordinary talent in this medium.

i am fortunate to be shown around the exhibit by Jason Bourgholtzer, courtesy guard, who is also a glass blower and has studied Dale’s work for 10 years. He notes that not only is there the stunning realism and emotion in the work, but they are literally alive. “Glass is alive – the molecules move,” he tells me.

Bourgholtzer explains one technique: of using a separate layer of white between the top and the bottom, so that the colors and patterns are different.

There are plans for docent-led tours to be offered every half hour on the quarter hour, beginning at 10:15 a.m.

The Glass Studio & Hot Shop, housed at the Morean Arts Center, provides an opportunity to see working artists in the visually exciting process of creating glass pieces. The artists provide running commentary on the steps they are following, the science behind glass, and the artistic vision guiding the process. You sit in stadium-style seats watching the artist working in front of the furnace (extraordinarily hot, this is not recommended in summer). There are also opportunities to make your own glass piece, working with one of the Morean instructors (Morean Arts Center/Glass Studio & Hotshop, 719 Central Avenue, 727-822-7872, www.moreanartscenter.org, $8/A, $6/Seniors, $5/students and children over 5).

Morean Arts Center: With roots dating back to 1917, the Morean Arts Center has focused on an innovative community-oriented approach to art and arts education. The Morean is known as one of the most successful visual arts organizations in the region, offering studio classes in virtually every visual medium; mounting 15-20 contemporary arts exhibitions a year in its galleries; creating a robust clay program offered at the Historic Train Station; and providing a wide variety of family and children’s programming, school tours, the highly-praised Word & image program, summer camp, and other special events.

The Chihuly glass sculptures, with their exquisite control of color, textures and shape, compliment nature © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com.

To buy tickets for timed entry to either the Chihuly Collection (open daily) or Hot Shop, or for more information about the Morean Arts Center and the Chihuly Collection, visit www.ChihulyCollectionStPete.com, orMoreanArtsCenter.org.

The Collection is walking distance of the Renaissance Vinoy Resort & Golf Club (the hotel has a Chihuly chandelier of its own), the Museum of Fine Arts, a multitude of galleries, restaurants and shops, and soon, the Salvador Dali Museum.

The Chihuly Collection, 400 Beach Drive, St. Petersburg, Florida, 727-896-4527, www.chihulycollectionstpete.com ($15/A, $13/Seniors, $12/students & children over 5; combination ticket with the glass studio is $20, $16 and $14).

Cultural Hub

From the Chihuly Collection, it is a short walk to the Museum of Fine Arts. Newly expanded, it features 4,000 objects including works by Cezanne, Monet, Gauguin, Renoir and O’Keeffe (255 Beach Drive NE, St Petersburg FL 33701, 727-896-2667 ext. 224 www.fine-arts.org)

A short distance away is St. Petersburg Museum of History. The Museum features a permanent interactive exhibition of the chronology of St. Petersburg’s history. What got my attention here was a replica of the plane that had the first commercial air flight – between St. Petersburg and Tampa – carrying the pilot, one passenger (A.C. Pheil, a former St. Petersburg Mayor who had the winning bid of $400 to be the first commercial air passenger in history) and a sack of mail, with a timeline and biographical details about the venture. The museum’s collection of artifacts, documents and photographs also includes a canoe of the Tocobaga indians from the 1500s, and a 3,500 year old mummy (335 Second Avenue, NE, St. Petersburg, FL 33701, 727-894-1052; www.spmoh.org/home.html).

Dale Chihuly's Studio Edition Glass is available for sale at the Chihuly Collection shop © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

i head next to the landmark St. Pete Pier – which is a great place for respite and some lunch. The heart of St. Pete’s downtown, The Pier is a unique piece of Florida architecture that offers a chance to experience the waterfront along Tampa Bay (there is even a public beach along side, plus dolphin tours and a host of ways to get on the water). The distinct five-story inverted pyramid is located at the end of a mile-long. inside, there are touristic shops, restaurants, an outdoor sitting area, live music and even boat docks. A special feature is The Aquarium with touch-tanks. The Pier is open 365 days a year, rain or shine. Most shops open 10 a.m. until 9 p.m. i strolled the length of the pier, but there is a convenient trolley that takes you there (free from the parking lots; there is also valet parking, $4). (St. Pete Pier, 800 Second Avenue NE, St. Petersburg, Florida 33701, 727-821-6164; www.stpete-pier.com).

Salvador Dali Museum

i hop on the Downtown Looper trolley to get to the Salvador Dali Museum, where since 1982, this extraordinary museum has stood at the outer boundary of the cultural district. i am surprised that this is a narrated sightseeing tour (just 25c a ride). The driver points out the St. Petersburg Times (which made its famous guarantee, “if the sun doesn’t shine, the next day’s paper is free”), the US Post Office (one of only two that are open-air)

The Salvador Dalí Museum houses more of Salvador Dalí’s famed masterworks than any other museum in the world, and the collection – really the collection of A. Reynolds and Eleanor Morse – is the largest in the world outside of the artist’s museum in Spain.

The exhibit underway is the last that will be held in the current building, which has stood since 1982. A new building, built in appropriate futuristic style, is being constructed at the south end of Beach Drive, and will open on Jan. 11, 2011.

This exhibit pays special tribute to A. Reynolds and Eleanor Morse who were early and avid collectors of Dali and established the museum in 1982, and is all the more poignant because Eleanor Morse had just passed away, on July 1, at the age of 97.

The landmark St. Pete Pier is a five-story inverted pyramid. inside are delightful shops and eateries, and stunning views of Tampa Bay © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com.

The Morses became enamored with Dali after seeing his work at the Cleveland Museum of Art in 1942, and in 1943, by chance, met Dali and his wife Gala, which started a life-long friendship. Over the next 40 years, the Morses assembled the preeminent collection of Dali outside of Spain, and she used her linguistic skills to translate books by and about Dali, and Reynolds authored books and was considered one of the foremost scholars on Dali.

What was most impressive in the documentary of the couple that is on view, is how when they visited Dali at his home in Spain, they realized that the landscapes were not pure imagination, but were representational of his homeland.

The notes that accompany the final exhibit in this building speak to the provenance of each of the works, and how they came to the museum. The notes put the works into context of Dali’s life and creative process – how he became familiar with Freud in the 1920s – and help explain some of the symbols.

in December 2008, Salvador Dalí Museum officials broke ground on a new $35 million facility, which will be situated along the Tampa Bay waterfront in beautiful downtown St. Petersburg, Florida. The new 66,450 square foot facility was designed by world-renowned architect, Yann Weymouth, who assisted with the renovation of the Louvre in Paris.

Much like Dalí’s work, the building itself will be visually iconic, with a geodesic glass structure enclosing the foyer, a grand double-helix staircase in the building’s center and an outlook to the east with magnificent, palm-flanked views of yachts moored in Florida’s largest municipal marina with Tampa Bay in the distance. A giant boulder from Dalí’s native Spain will appear to support the corner of the museum at its entry, and a versatile theater and separate classrooms will allow for expanded educational sessions. The new Dalí will further enrich the visitor’s experience by more than doubling the size of the current museum and adding 50 percent more gallery space, both for visiting exhibitions and for the permanent Dalí collection, which is comprised of more than 2,100 pieces, including 96 oil paintings.

Children will love the touch tanks at The Aquarium, inside the St. Pete Pier © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com.

“The museum will be a distinguished architectural achievement with innovative design and technology, a combination, as in Dalí’s art, of the classical and the fantastic. it will be like no other building you have seen.” Salvador Dalí Museum Director Hank Hine

“This extraordinary new museum will be a crown jewel to St. Petersburg’s growing cultural renaissance,” said St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker. “The building design is an unforgettable work of art.”

With 66,450 square feet, the new building will provide space for education of school groups, visitor orientation and classrooms, temporary exhibitions to complement the Dali collection, an indoor/outdoor café, and a rentable community room.

The new museum also will provide much-needed safety and security for the Dalí collection. The current facility is vulnerable to storm surge and wind damage in the event of a hurricane, and artwork must be relocated when storms threaten. The new museum will be built to withstand a Category 5 hurricane, and will protect artwork in its third floor galleries well above the 100-year floodplain.

The Dalí is rated by the Michelin Guide as the highest ranked museum in the American South. The museum originally opened in 1982 in a one-story warehouse along the St. Petersburg waterfront. Today, a majority of the museum’s 200,000 annual visitors come to the Tampa Bay area expressly to see the Dalí.

The current facility is remaining open until the new museum is completed in early 2011.

The Downtown Looper trolley bus is more than convenient transportation that links St. Petersburg's cultural attractions, it is also a delightful narrated tour, at just 25c a ride © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com.

Salvador Dali Museum, 1000 Third Street S, St. Petersburg, FL 33701, 727-823-3767; www.salvadordalimuseum.org.

For a previous trip, we made cultural St. Petersburg our focus and enjoyed staying in the downtown district at the luxurious and sophisticated Renaissance Vinoy Resort & Golf Club, right on Tampa Bay. A stunning historic grand hotel which was originally built in 1923, it stood vacant for more than 20 years and at the last moment, was saved from the wrecking ball and restored to its stunning new self, and is now a member of Historic Hotels of America (501 fifth Avenue NE, St. Petersburg, 727-894-1000, 888-303-4430,www.marriott.com/hotels/travel/tpasr-renaissance-vinoy-resort-and-golf-club/).

This time, we wanted a casual beach vacation on St. Pete Beach, with access to the cultural downtown, and found perfection at the Postcard inn (6300 Gulf Blvd, St. Pete Beach, FL 33706, 727-367-2711, 800-237-8918, www.postcardinn.com).

Just outside the Postcard inn, a trolley bus goes along Gulf Boulevard and connects to the #35 that travels into downtown St. Petersburg to experience its astonishingly rich cultural offerings (at this writing, $1.75 per ride or $4 for unlimited travel for the day’ air-conditioned, with bike racks).

To plan a trip, contact St. Petersburg/Clearwater Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, 13805 58th Street North, Suite 2-200, Clearwater, Fl 33760, 727-464-7200, 877-352-3224, www.visitstpeteclearwater.com/.

See also: Postcard inn on St. Pete Beach is picture postcard perfect getaway

Friday, 6 August, 2010

© 2010 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, inc. All rights reserved. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. And check out our blog athttp://goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com.


Colonial Synagogue is Sentinel for Religious Freedom, Even More so Now

by Karen Rubin

On a hilltop in Newport, Rhode Island’s historic district, Touro Synagogue may well be to Jewish Americans what Plymouth Rock is to the Mayflower descendents.

A portrait of Judah Touro, son of Touro Synagogue's first religious leader; going on to become one of the wealthiest men in America, he became one of America's earliest philanthropists and endowed the synagogue and Newport's Jewish cemetery © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

The synagogue, standing as a sentinel for religious freedom since 1763 is that one, tangible place in which colonial forbears – yes, colonial Jews – stood.

Now it has something more – something that the Mayflower descendents experience when they visit Plimoth Plantation and the replica of the ship, Mayflower II. The opening of the Loeb Visitors Center puts faces and biography to hundreds of these colonial ancestors who helped sow the fabric of America, from when the first Jews who settled in Newport in 1658, just 38 years after the Puritans arrived at Plymouth.

The center is a project of George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom in cooperation with the Congregation Jeshuat Israel and Touro Synagogue Foundation, Inc. The Center is named, (and the Institute was founded) by Ambassador John L. Loeb Jr., who is a descendent of Isaac Touro, America’s first rabbi, only then, he was known as Reverend Touro.

The synagogue building, which opened in 1763, contains two items which are cherished with equal passion: a 500-year old Torah Scroll believed to have been saved from the Spanish Inquisition, and a letter from George Washington that codifies this nation’s core belief in the freedom of religion.

The 1790 letter, in which George Washington famously stated that this government would “give to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance,” is a covenant, of sorts, with Jews and others of beliefs different from the majority.

For over two centuries, this small synagogue has stood as a sentinel defending the principle of religious freedom. It has occupied a unique place in American history — not only as a part of the American Jewish experience but also as a symbol of religious freedom for all Americans.

Aaron Lopez, denied citizenship because he was a Jew, went to Massachusetts, instead; his innovation of spermaceti candles and his trade made him one of the wealthiest men in Newport and America © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

The building itself– a National Historic Site and an affiliate property of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, visited by 30,000 people a year – is an important piece of colonial history and filled with artifacts that go back hundreds of years. These are real, structural things that stand as a symbol and a physical cornerstone of what America is.

But with the opening last year of the Loeb Visitors Center and the Patriots’ Garden, Touro also is a testament to what this nation is not: a Christian nation.

The Loeb Visitors Center puts faces on hundreds of Jews who were part of colonial America and were instrumental in building the fledgling nation. There are biographies for hundreds of these early Jewish Americans The feeling of clicking on a portrait and having a biography pop up is akin to what descendents of the Mayflower feel when they go to Plimoth Plantation to come face to face with their ancestors.

One of the most intriguing is Aaron Lopez, who had fled to Newport from Lisbon in 1752 and induced 40 Portuguese Jewish families to come to Newport, too. Lopez invented a new process to manufacture spermaceti candles from whale oil (they burned longer, brighter, without smoking), manufactured ships, barrels, rum, chocolate, textiles, clothes, shoes, hats, and bottles. Within 14 years, Newport had a fleet of 150 vessels, and Lopez became the wealthiest man in Newport and one of the wealthiest in America.

“Most think of Jews coming to America at the end of the 19th and early 20th century, but they came to Newport in 1754,” docent Linda Nathanson relates. “And the early Jewish settlers in Newport wanted to be Americans.”

They took on American names (Aaron was originally Duarte, and his wife was named Abigail). He sought citizenship, based on the 1740 British Naturalization Act which specifically allowed Jewish settlers to become nationalized citizens of the British Colony. But Rhode Island refused to grant him citizenship, saying it was a “Christian colony.”

“Inasmuch as the said Aaron Lopez hath declared himself by religion a Jew, this Assembly doth not admit himself nor any other of that religion to the full freedom of this Colony. So that the said Aaron Lopez nor any other of said religion is not liable to be chosen into any office in this colony nor allowed to give vote as a free man in choosing others.”

Touro Synagogue docent Linda Nathanson explains some of the artifacts of the synagogue, many dating back to its founding in 1763 © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Lopez’ cousin was granted citizenship – after he converted to Christianity. Aaron had a different strategy: he moved across the border to Massachusetts for a short time, and was granted citizenship there, which made him a citizen in Rhode Island, as well.

All of this is related at one of a series of hologram stations – you feel a little like Harry Potter at the urn of memories in Professor Dumbledore’s office, dropped down into these scenes taking place hundreds of years ago. Here, you see a 3-D image of Aaron talking with Abigail. Other stations depict other aspects of life in colonial Newport, including tackling the thorny subject (only now becoming openly discussed in Newport) about slavery in Newport.

This journey back to Colonial America also confronts Newport’s role in slavery By 1770, of the 9000 people in Newport (Jews were at most 300 people), nearly 3000 were slaves, or one-third the population). But in Newport, slaves could earn money – selling produce at the market on Sunday, for example – and could buy their freedom. By 1780, all were free, and they created the First Free Black Church located very near to the synagogue.

But learning of Aaron Lopez’ denial of citizenship, even in violation of the 1740 law, puts the building of the synagogue, between 1758 and 1763, in a different context, along with the trap door under the bima, and gives a subtext to why Moses Seixas, a leader of the congregation, wrote his letter in 1790 to George W. Washington, asking where the new nation, the new government, stood concerning Jews.

“Deprived as we heretofore have been of the invaluable right of free Citizens,” Seixas wrote on behalf of the congregation of Newport, “we now (with a deep sense of gratitude to the Almighty disposer of all events) behold a Government, erected by the Majesty of the People – a Government, which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no existence – but generously affording to Al liberty of conscience, and immunities of Citizenship; deeming every one, of whatever Nation, tongue, or language, equal parts of the great governmental Machine.”

By this time, the Jews had already been in the Newport for more than 100 years.

Fleeing the Spanish Inquisition

The history of Touro Synagogue begins much earlier, in 1492, in Spain, after King Ferdinand issued the Alhambra Decree giving Jews just four months to convert to Catholicism or leave Spain. Many became conversos and converted, but many, in fact, were “crypto Jews,” practicing in secret.

But most fled – first to Portugal, but the Inquisition followed them there, then to North Africa, then to Europe, and then Amsterdam. “The Dutch didn’t care [if you were Jewish], only that you could contribute to the economy,” our Nathanson, tells us during our half-hour tour. “Jews were good in business, and as the world was being explored, Jews went with them – to Barbados, Jamaica, Curacao (which has the oldest synagogue in Western Hemisphere), and Recife, Brazil.”

The Loeb Visitors Center adds a human dimension that had not existed before when visiting the Touro Synagogue, putting faces to colonial American Jews © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Fifteen years later, in 1654, Portugal took Recife from the Dutch, reigniting fears of persecution. Twenty-three Jews fled trying to get to Amsterdam. But pirates waylaid the ship; they were rescued by a French ship bound for New Amsterdam. Peter Stuyvestant didn’t like Jews and didn’t want them. But the Dutch West Indies Co. (which had some Jews on the board of directors, Nathanson relates), demanded Stuyvesant take the Jews in. They established America’s first Jewish congregation, Shaare Israel.

Then in 1658, 15 Jewish families fleeing Barbados came directly to Newport. Rhode Island was already known for its “livelie experiment” in religious tolerance, and Newport had been settled in 1639 – just 19 years earlier – by a group who, like Roger Williams who had founded Providence, Rhode Island, had been kicked out of Massachusetts Bay Colony for believing in freedom to worship.

In Rhode Island, for the first time, Jews were allowed to buy property. In 1677, they bought land for a cemetery (which became either the oldest or second oldest Jewish cemetery in America).

By 1758, the Jewish community had grown and prospered and wanted to build synagogue and school. There was no rabbi in America, so they sent to Amsterdam. A 19-year old rabbinical student, Isaac Touro, came to be their religious leader.

To build the synagogue, Isaac Touro enlisted Peter Harrison, America’s first professionally trained architect. Harrison had already completed Newport’s Redwood Library (the first circulating Library in America) and King’s Chapel in Boston, and was working on the Christ church in Cambridge.

But Harrison, a Quaker, had his doubts. He had never seen a synagogue and had no idea what a synagogue should look like. Touro talked to him about what a synagogue does, and Harrison was able to integrate elements from the Portuguese synagogue in Amsterdam.

“The building combines what’s needed for Jewish ritual, but has classic design and Quaker sensibility ,” Nathanson tells us. There is very little adornment, there are huge windows, and a strong sense of symmetry, balance and serenity.

The building took four years to build, 1759-1763, and opened in time for Chanukah, Dec. 2, 1763. The menorah that is there now, is the same Chanukah light that was used to dedicate the synagogue. With the dedication of the synagogue, the congregation changed its name from Nefutse Yisrael (the Scattered of Israel) to Yeshuat Yisrael (the Salvation of Israel).

But 13 years later, the American Revolution broke out; the British blockaded Newport’s harbor and torched just about every building.

Most of the Jews fled the city and few returned.

The Touro Synagogue and the new Patriots Park; colonial Jews craved being Americans and won George Washington's promise that America would honor religious freedom © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

But Isaac Touro stayed. He is described as being a Loyalist, but perhaps he was also a pragmatist. He allowed the British to use the building as a military hospital, saving it from destruction. When the British were forced out of Newport in 1779, Touro followed them to New York, but found the New York Jewish congregation had fled to Philadelphia. By 1780, he moved his wife and children to British Jamaica, where he died in 1789. His wife, Reyna, took the children, Judah and Abraham, and moved back to Boston to live with her brother.

At the end of the Revolutionary War, the Touro Synagogue was one of the few large buildings left standing, and with such few Jews left in the city, was used for the State Legislature and city meetings. It likely was in this building that the Rhode Island Assembly signed the U.S. Constitution.

And it was here, in 1790, that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson (who coined the phrase “separation of church and state”) visited on a “tour” to promote passage of the Bill of Rights.

During these visits, it was customary for citizens to hand him letters. Moses Seixas, the leader of the synagogue, handed him a letter from the Newport Congregation, asking the fate of the Jewish community under the new government.

Four days later, the congregation received George Washington’s reply affirming that the new nation would give “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance”- language that Seixas had used in his letter.

The Jews of Newport largely scattered in the years after the war.

Issac Touro’s son, Judah, seemed to devote much of his life affirming his patriotism, perhaps to compensate for his father’s act in catering to the British. Judah wound up in New Orleans and though in poor health, enlisted in Andrew Jackson’s army in the War of 1812.

After the war, Judah took a year to recover, then resumed building his business interests in shipping, trade, and real estate. When he died in 1854, he was one of the wealthiest people in America.

Both Judah and his brother Abraham were among America’s first great philanthropists, donating to both Jewish and Christian charities, as well as to the city of Newport.

Touro Synagogue docent Linda Nathanson explains the two most cherished items of the synagogue: a 500-year old Torah (seen in the case) and George Washington's 1790 letter to the congregation © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com.

Upon his death in 1822 Abraham Touro, left a fund of $10,000 for the care and preservation of the synagogue. This is the earliest known bequest for the purpose of preserving an unoccupied historic building.

Judah Touro donated to the Jewish cemetery at Newport, and bought the Old Stone Mill (at that time thought to have been built by Norsemen), giving it to the city. The park surrounding it is still known as Touro Park.

In New Orleans, he used his business profits to buy and endow a cemetery, and to build a synagogue, an almshouse and an infirmary for sailors suffering from yellow fever, as well as a Unitarian church. He was a major contributor to many Christian charities in New Orleans, gave funds to Christians suffering persecution in Jerusalem, as well as to such varied causes as the American Revolutionary War monument at Bunker Hill. He provided the seed money to The Jews’ Hospital in New York City, which opened in 1855 which became Mount Sinai Hospital.

At his death in 1854, his estate provided endowments for nearly all the Jewish congregations in the United States, bequests to hospitals and orphanages in Massachusetts, and the seed of a trust to support almshouses in Jerusalem.

Judah Touro also bequeathed $10, 000 to the state of Rhode Island as a trust fund for the care and preservation of the Touro Synagogue.

Rebirth of the Congregation

Touro Synagogue languished for the lack of a congregation. But in the late 1800s, pograms in Eastern Europe, Russia and Poland sparked a new wave of Jews to Newport. Now, it was the Ashkenase Jews coming for religious freedom.

In 1883, Touro Synagogue was reopened and re-dedicated, and has been used steadily since. “This is not a museum, but a living, working synagogue,” Nathanson says.

In 1946 (likely as a reaction to the Holocaust),Touro Synagogue was made a National Historic Site and part of the National Park System by an Act of Congress. In 2001, The National Trust for Historic Preservation selected Touro Synagogue to become a part of its collection of historic sites. The synagogue was closed in 2005 for a major restoration, and reopened Jan. 1, 2006, the last day of Hanukkah.

Probably, throughout Newport’s history, there has been at most 300 Jewish families; today’s congregation numbers about 100 to 125 families, though visitors are invited to worship (in this building and in another across the street), and people can rent the synagogue for weddings and bar mitzvahs.

The congregation is Orthodox – women sit upstairs – yet women have been in the temple leadership . It remains Sephardic in its practice, even though almost all of the congregants are Ashkenase.

It looks almost exactly as it did in the 1760s, not just in its physical structure, but it is striking how many of the artifacts date from colonial times – the woodwork, brass, ark light, a clock from 1765.

Loeb Visitors Center offers interactive videos - holograms - to explain colonial Newport and colonial Jews' role © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com.

The building is angled to street in order to face east – which must have bothered Harrison’s sense of balance and symmetry. The bima is in the center of the room, in the Sephardic tradition.

Most precious is the Torah, a gift in 1763 from the Great Portuguese Synagogue in Amsterdam. At the time, the deer-skin Torah scroll was already over 200 years old and was believed to have been saved from the Spanish Inquisition.

Three Presidents of the United States have sat in the President’s pew: John F. Kennedy, Dwight Eisenhower and George Washington.

It is understandable why Moses Seixas would have raised his concern as to behalf of the Jewish community asking ‘Will Jews continue to have religious freedom?’ It was a new government, and Jewish history had offered too many examples of what happens to Jews after political change.

Aaron Lopez had the evidence first hand, when he was denied naturalization because he was a Jew, even though existing law, of 1740, had expressly stated Jews were entitled to citizenship.

Even though they had been more than 100 years in America, Jewish history had shown that Jews were first victims of political change.

George Washington wrote back: “All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent national gifts.”

“We take that principle for granted now,” Nathanson tells us, “But at the time, no other country in world had religious freedom written into its laws.

“We are historic site, not just because of a beautiful building, but letter written to Touro Synagogue is symbol of religious freedom for all.”

But perhaps that is why there is the secret trap door under the bima – a reminder, perhaps, or a precaution.

The classic lines of the Touro Synagogue, designed by Peter Harrison, America's first professionally trained architect and Patriots Park © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com.

Loeb Visitors Center

Visiting the building itself is a profound experience; seeing the artifacts and sitting in the pews.

But the newly opened Loeb Visitors Center adds a completely new, biographical dimension to the building as a historic site.

Here, there are not exactly costumed re-enactors as they have at Plimoth, but portraits of early American Jews from 1700 to 1865 – some by such famous painters as Gilbert Stuart, who painted George Washington’s famous portrait, and painted Aaron Lopez (in 1773).

You learn, for example, about Judah Philip Bergman, the first Jew to be elected to the U.S. Senate (a Whig, he served 1853-1861).

I easily could have spent more than an hour there.

The John C. Loeb, Jr. Visitors Center is operated by the George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom (www.gwirf.org). Both were established by Ambassador John L. Loeb, Jr., who is descended from the Touro family. Ambassador Loeb also established the Patriots Park which connects the visitor center with the synagogue, so that now there is this charming campus.

The Institute gives voice to the issue of religious freedom, in a way that the silent structure could not. The Institute gives every Rhode Island high school senior a copy of Washington’s letter and sponsors an essay contest, “What Religious Freedom Means” – the winners are presented a prize from Rhode Island’s Governor and Ambassador Loeb, and the institute is making the contest national.

Touro Synagogue hosts an annual reading of the George Washington letter – this year’s is to be held Sunday, August 22, 2010.

From July-early September, the Visitor Center is open Sunday-Wednesday and Friday, 9:30 am-4:30 p.m., Thursdays until 7 p.m.; Synagogue tours are offered 10 a.m.-4 p.m. (the last tour starts at 3:30 p.m), and until 6:30 p.m. on Thursdays (last tour at 6 p.m.). The tour schedule may vary due to Jewish holidays, ceremonial occasions and special events; additional tours may be scheduled for Holiday weeks and cruise ship dockings. Adults/$12, Seniors/$10, Students/Military/$8, child under 12 free.

For further information, contact the Loeb Visitors Center at Touro Synagogue, www.loebtouro.org or Touro Synagogue, 895 Touro Street, Newport RI 02840, 401-847-4794, www.tourosynagogue.org. To arrange for a wedding or bar mitzvah call 401-847-4794 x 10, or email: cji@tourosynagogue.org.

Wednesday, 01 September, 2010

© 2010 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, inc. All rights reserved. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. And check out our blog athttp://goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com.


A Marvel of Imagination, Creativity & Craftsmanship that will Delight Young & Old

by Karen Rubin

Cross under a stone archway and enter the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com.

I’ve been dying to see Harry Potter ever since I heard Universal Orlando was creating a park around the J.K. Rowling novels and Harry Potter movies. I can’t wait to see how they are able to turn what is in the mind and on the screen into an actual place, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. I am as thrilled at the chance to enter the world of “Harry Potter” as a six-year old is to meet Mickey Mouse.

And now, I’m through the gate of Islands of Adventure, I walk briskly through the Moroccan-themed Port of Entry (stopping at a shop to pick up some Dramamine), dash through the colorful, whimsical Seuss Landing, and cross the bridge from the Lost World straight to Harry Potter.

I’m not alone. It seems that everyone else has the same idea.

I pause at the stone archway that leads into Hogsmeade, and once I cross over, it is every bit as if I left Muggle mundanity behind for this wondrous and magical world.

You suddenly find yourself in this bustling village – snow-topped roofs (you forget you are in Florida and the temperature is about 90 degrees), cobblestone streets, vendors selling Butterbeer and pumpkin juice from carts, and the Hogwarts Express in the station on track 9 3/4.

The Hogwarts Express and its jovial conductor greet you at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com.

The conductor is there, a round-faced, cheery man who is delighted to pose for pictures in front of the train. I can’t resist. I pose.

I take in the scene, it is absolutely perfect. Enchanting. Magical. Amazing.

You are engaged in everything, the flurry of activity and the interesting, the odd, the strangely familiar, filled with the feeling of wonder, very much as Harry did on his first visit to Hogsmeade.

As enchanting as everything is, and I want to soak it all in, we dare not tarry. We head straight for Hogwarts School of Witchcraft & Wizarding – this awesome castle that seems to rise from a mountain – and the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride and I am worried that if we dally the wait will be terribly long.

Visible from every part of the park, the castle is amazing. Enormous. It rises from a rocky promontory. the stunning detail is marvelous to behold. I can’t wait to see inside.

Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey

The Hogwarts castle, now the iconic structure at Universal Islands of Adventure, is massive, so detailed, and takes your breath away © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com.

At the entrance gate, you can sample the seat for the ride (you can make sure you fit; they are particular about that); I take note that it has a top on it, a clue.

You aren’t allowed to take anything into the ride that doesn’t fit into a pocket. Lockers are available (they lock and reopen with a finger print), free for 80 minutes, but they are too small to hold a backpack (larger pay lockers are available at the train “station” by the Hogwarts Express).

You walk into the darkened castle, lighted as if by torches, and immediately feel the mystery inside. Then the line takes you outside again to a queue.

For us, the posted wait time was 60 minutes, but it seemed like only about 15-20 minutes of it was on the queue (under an awning) before you enter Hogwarts castle, itself.

But the castle is completely enchanting. You want time to take it all in. There are the iconic places and significant artifacts from the stories (see how well you do to identify all of them). The halls lined with the moving portraits engaged in conversations with each other that tell the story; Dumbledore’s office where Professor Dumbledore, himself, greets you. You’ll get a look at the cabinet of memories and the pensieve and see the sorting hat.

In Hogwarts, you walk through vast hallways, filled with portraits that move and have conversations with each other© 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com.

You have to get by the portrait of the Lady guarding the entrance to Gryffindor common room.

The Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom is where Harry, Ron and Hermione make an appearance.

Even if you are not able or interested in taking the ride, take the tour of the castle because before you get to the ride, you can exit off (that is where if you have a backpack you can hand it off to a non-rider in your group). By the time you siphon off to Exit those who don’t want to go on the ride, it is just about another 5 minutes to the ride, and the ride lasts 4-5 minutes.

Just before you get on the ride, there is a Child Swap – a room where you can leave your little one (and perhaps pick up a better one, the attendant jokes).

Now, I am not a roller coaster person. I typically avoid the “thrill” rides. But nothing was going to keep me away from Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey.

So I prepared. I was able to buy Dramamine from a shop at the Port of Entry when we first arrived in the park (the kindly young woman went to the back to get it for me because the shop that sold it hadn’t opened yet) – this actually is my recommendation to enable anyone who gets motion sickness, to enjoy most if not all the rides in a themepark.

My other method is to get as much information I can about the ride, so I can prepare myself – how steep the drops, how sharp the turns, if it goes backwards (this one doesn’t); how long the ride lasts. I ask attendants and as many other guests as I can who have already done the ride. An older gentleman who had taken the ride reassured me that it was not more severe than the Mount Kilimanjaro coaster at Disney’s Animal Kingdom (that is the limit of my coaster tolerance, and I hadn’t even taken Dramamine for that one). What is more, I am told that the technology incorporates hydraulics instead of the older coaster technology, which apparently softens the jerkiness of sudden changes in direction.

Professor Dumbledore greets Muggles visiting Hogwarts School of Witchcraft & Wizarding on their way to the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride housed within the castle © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com.

At last, I am secured into this flying chair, and we are off.

The ride is like traveling through the scenes in the movie, recreating with incredible exactitude the elements and storytelling, literally immersing you in the world of Harry Potter. We travel by Floo Network, soar over Hogwarts, dashing after Harry on his Firebolt, narrowly escape a dragon attack, have a close encounter with the Whomping Willow, and get pulled into a Quidditch match.

It is an amazing and fun ride, and I am thrilled that I did it.

But if you don’t want to do the ride, go through the Hogwarts castle anyway – in fact, you can tell the attendant you aren’t riding, and you can walk the Singles line which bypasses the outside queue (there’s no Express Pass access to this ride).

Before exiting back into Hogsmeade, you find yourself in Filch’s Emporium of Confiscated Goods. If you hadn’t stopped in the shops on the way in, it is here that you get the sense of just how clever and how detailed the Wizarding World is: the shop is full of Ministry of Magic and magical creatures merchandise, Omnioculars, and even remote control Golden Snitches; you can buy your very own Marauder’s Map and even a Deatheater mask. You can also purchase a photo from your ride.

Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey is the centerpiece of the Wizarding World attraction, but there are two other major rides:

The Flight of the Hippogriff is a family coaster simulating a Hippogriff training flight (in a wicker basket fashioned into a Hippogriff) over the grounds of Hogwarts castle. You can learn a few tips from Hagrid before taking flight.

Dragon Challenge is a monster of a twin high-speed roller coaster (not for the faint of heart) with many iconic elements from the Triwizard Tournament, like a blazing Goblet of Fire and shiny Triwizard Cup. Here, you choose your dragon (coaster): the Chinese Fireball or the ferocious Hungarian Horntail. Just looking at the coaster sends chills – huge drops, twists, loops where your feet dangle up. The two coasters have different rides but seem like they will collide at some points.


Harry, Ron and Hermione make an appearance in The Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com.

Having achieved my goal of doing the Harry Potter ride and seeing Hogwarts, I now can take in the full wonder of Hogsmeade. The meticulous detail – you are enthralled to spend time just looking in the windows of the shops.

I see a line into a shop… it doesn’t seem to be marked on the themepark map. I ask the fellow manning the door what people are waiting for: They are waiting to enter Ollivanders Wand Shop, for what I am told is an “interactive experience,” involving a Wandmaster and special effects, letting you experience the same type of magical moment Harry had in “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” when his wand “chooses” him.

This I have to see. So I happily wait on the 35-minute line – it goes quickly because you are watching all the street scenes and there is so much to take in. A young woman behind me gasps when she thinks she sees a bass fiddle move in the second floor window of Dervish and Banges, the magical instruments and equipment shop, featuring Quidditch equipment such as Quaffles, GoldenSnitches and brooms including the Nimbus 2001 and the Firebolt, Triwizard apparel, and magical stuff like Spectrespecs, Sneakoscopes, Omnioculars, and Remembralls.

Before we know it, it’s our turn to enter Ollivanders, “maker of fine wands since 382 BC.”

The darkened hallways of Hogwarts on the way to Harry Potter & the Forbidden Journey © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com.

About 25 people at a time pack into the shop, which looks very much like it does in the film – an intimate, single-windowed building with the same signs, colors and details as described in the books and seen on the screen. It’s crammed floor to ceiling with boxes and boxes and boxes of wands.

The obliging Wandkeeper chooses a visiting “witch” to assist, guiding her through an exchanting experience to find her special wand. He asks a few questions, then selects a wand to try. She gives a wave and magical mishaps occur until the right “fit” is found. (She can purchase it, for $35, the wandmaster tells her as he puts the box into her hands on her way out; in the shop, there are many varieties of wands that you can purchase, associated with the Harry Potter characters.)

Other magical happenings at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter include a Howler featured in the Owl Post shop front window whose ranting can be heard by guests as they pass by; The Monster Book of Monsters in Dervish and Banges that snarls and growls at anyone who tries to get too close, and the Hog’s Head which can be seen puffing his jowls at visitors who visit the Hog’s Head pub. In the window of one shop, you see the globeds shaking with the snitches trying to burst from the quidditch set.

Take time to enjoy the shops and taverns – they are as much fun as the ride.

If you ever wondered what Fizzing Whizzbees, Cauldron Cakes, Acid Pops, Chocolate frogs, Treacle Fudge, Exploding bonbons or Bertie Bott’s Every-Flavour Beans might be, you can find them at Honeydukes where the sweetshop shelves are lined with colorful sweets.

The wandmaster at Ollivanders helps the visiting witch find the wand that's meant for her © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com.

The Owl Post sends letters with a certified Hogsmeade postmark and sells official stamps from The Wizarding World of Harry Potter

The Zonko’s joke shop is here too, with a collection of tricks and jokes, including Extendable Ears, Boxing Telescopes, Screaming yoyos, and Sneakoscopes and sweets like Nosebleed nougat and U-No-Poo.

The dining places here continue the fantasy: The Three Broomsticks and adjacent Hog’s Head pub feature traditional British fare – Shepherd’s Pie, Cornish pastry, fish and chips – and drinks including Butterbeer and pumpkin juice (as well as actual beer, spirits and mixed drinks).

There are also a couple of “entertainments” to enjoy: Catch the Frog Choir, a presentation of songs by a small choir of Hogwarts students, who sing acappella, accompanied by their large croaking frogs.

There is also a Triwizard Spirit Rally, where a colorful procession of Hogwarts Beauxbatons and Durmstrang students whip up support for the Triwizard Tournament.

The level of detail that has been incorporated is truly fantastic. When you visit the Girls/Boys bathrooms, listen for Moaning Myrtle’s voice.

You can easily spend an entire day in the Wizarding World – there is so much to see, so many marvelous and clever details. It in fact a remarkable artistic achievement that adults will appreciate for its masterful craftsmanship.

“Harry Potter” author J.K. Rowling signed off on everything, down to the temperature of the Butterbeer, I am told.

Spend time roaming Hogsmeade and exploring the shops and dining places, including The Three Broomsticks and adjacent Hog's Head Pub © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com.

“I said right at the beginning, either we do it right or we don’t do it at all,” J.K. Rowling said during the opening of the Wizarding World last June. “The teams at Universal and Warner Bros. have done it right, so I am so happy.”

Her Harry Potter series has been translated into 69 languages with more than 400 million copies sold in over 200 territories around the world. The films, produced by Warner Bros. Pictures, have grossed more than $5.4 billion at the box office worldwide, making Harry Potter the largest-grossing film franchise in history.

Surely, the swarm of people in Hogsmeade when we visited reflected the global appeal of the characters.

Five years in the marking, Universal’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter has been one of the most highly anticipated entertainment experiences of the year. Expectations were extremely high. Did it measure up? Absolutely.

“We have created a special place unlike anywhere else in the world,” said Tom Williams, chairman and CEO for Universal Parks and Resorts. “The adventures of Harry Potter are among the most popular of our time – and we are bringing them to life. We will put our guests in the middle of a Harry Potter adventure. They will feel as if they are in the movies with Harry and his friends.”

And that is the truth.

Mischief managed.

The Harry Potter website is part of the fun! It certainly sets the stage.www.universalorlando.com/harrypotter/

A child enjoys the magical experience of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com.

Visiting Universal Orlando Resort

Universal Orlando Resortis a theme park destination that places you in the heart of some of pop culture’s most incredible and timeless stories. The resort consists of two major theme parks – Universal Studios (which puts you into the movies) and Islands of Adventure as well as Universal CityWalk, a 30-acre restaurant, shopping and nighttime entertainment complex (we enjoyed the Hard Rock Cafe and Rising Star karaoke club during our visit); and three magnificently themed on-site hotels – the Loews Portofino Bay Hotel, Hard Rock Hotel and the Loews Royal Pacific Resort. Flagship experiences featured in the theme parks include “The Simpsons Ride,” “Revenge of the Mummy – The Ride,” “The Incredible Hulk Coaster” and “The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man.”

A major advantage to staying in one of the three Universal Orlando Resort world-class on-site hotels is that your room card-key lets you go through the Express Pass line, saving hours of waiting at participating rides and attractions (a feature which is worth $87 per person, per day). Other advantages include the near access (you don’t fight traffic and parking to get into the park, you can take a relaxing, 7-minute boat ride from the Loews Portofino Bay and the Hard Rock Hotel, or simply take a 13-minute walk along the water). You also have the privilege of entering the park an hour before the official opening.

For entertainment, catch the Frog Choir, Hogwarts students who sing acappella, accompanied by their large croaking frogs © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com.

Another reason to choose these hotels is the sheer magnificence of the themed experience that is carried over to the hotels (Loews Portofino Bay is one of my favorite hotels in the world), the top-notch service, resort-style amenities. Also, the hotels have after-hours “camp” and baby-sitting available, so you can go back and enjoy CityWalk . It also significantly extends your themed experience – you can go back to the hotel during the day to relax and get a second wind, and then return to CityWalk for all the restaurants, entertainment places that are open until 2 a.m. (More about the Loews Portofino Bay to come).

There are a score of different ticketing and vacation package options, including single day/single park, multi-day, two-park, peak/non-peak, Park to Park VIP Ticket. You can buy a one-day Express Pass which lets you avoid the lines (quantities are limited and pricing goes up with demand). Purchasing tickets online is cheaper than at the gate (check for special deals), and then you just go directly to an automated machine to issue the ticket, like at an airline e-ticket machine. All the different ticket options and special deals (like a Meal Deal) are explained atwww.universalorlando.com.

Dragon Challenge is a monster of a twin high-speed roller coaster (not for the faint of heart) with iconic elements from the Triwizard Tournament© 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com.

If you’re considering Orlando, whether booking an Orlando vacation at BookIt.com or specific hotels, check into some of these awesome specifics, such as the new Universal ‘Wizarding World of Harry Potter’.

Vacation packages are available with the three on-site hotels (packages start at $650/adult, $1553 for a family of four), as well as partner hotels (4-Night Vacations start at $285 per adult; $829 for a family of four). We recently stayed at Coco Key Hotel & Waterpark, one of the partner hotels which offers free shuttle service to Universal Orlando, has a major on-property waterpark (free to guests), and offers excellent value (CoCo Key Hotel and Water Resort-Orlando, 7400 International Drive, Orlando, FL 32819, 321-206-4377, 877-875-4681, www.sagehospitality.com,www.cocokeywaterresort.com)

Vacation packages at the partner hotels offer Early Park Admission to experience The Wizarding World of Harry Potter; Breakfast at the Three Broomsticks (one per person); Commemorative ticket – one per person; 3-Day Base Ticket to both Universal Orlando theme parks (one theme park, per day) and access to live entertainment at Universal CityWalk.

More information is available at www.universalorlando.com.

[HARRY POTTER, characters, names and related indicia are trademarks of and © Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. Harry Potter Publishing Rights © JKR.]

See also: CoCo Key Hotel & Waterpark-Orlando is Built for Family Fun

Friday, 1 October, 2010


© 2010 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit us online at www.travelwritersmagazine.com and at www.familytravelnetwork.com. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com.

National Cryptologic Museum Sheds Light on Secret Codebreaking Work on History

Penetrating Secrets Resonates in Today’s Wikileaks Headlines

by Karen Rubin

Can’t get enough of the Wikileaks saga of unmasked state secrets? Still smarting over the revelation that the NSA was eavesdropping on Americans without a warrant? Are you hooked on the Spy v Spy intrigues of Cold War? Or does the mysterious Enigma hold allure?

The "celebrity" of the artifacts on view at the National Cryptologic Museum relate to Enigma, the device developed by Germany to render radio communications unintelligible. Hitler thought it unbreakable, but the Allies broke the code, impacting the outcome of WWII © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com.

Then have I got a place for you.

Tucked away in the woods adjacent to National Security Agency headquarters, itself, hiding almost in plain sight is The National Cryptologic Museum, the first and only public museum in the Intelligence Community. The Museum hosts 50,000 visitors annually, letting the public peek into the secret world of codemaking and codebreaking, and discover how this art and science impacted how world events unfolded.

You actually have to be searching for the museum, because there is no sign off of the Baltimore-Washington Parkway (295) – only after you have already turned off to Route 32 East at Ft. George G. Meade, Maryland, do you see a sign that confirms you are on the right track. It’s like passing the first test of worthiness.

The modest building houses a cramped collection of thousands of artifacts that collectively serve to sustain the history of the cryptologic profession. Here visitors can catch a glimpse of some of the most dramatic moments in the history of American cryptology: the Zimmermann Telegram that brought the United States into World War I; Enigma, the encoding machine that Hitler was convinced could never be broken (but was); the voice-encrypting secure phone that Presidents use to talk with other world leaders and that Bush used on September 11, 2001; NSA’s first super-computers; the first eavesdropping reconnaissance satellite; artifacts from the U-2 and the Pueblo.

The only way to really appreciate what you are seeing, though, is to take a docent-led tour. Docents like Sharon Repta, whose tour we joined, are retired NSA personnel, who invariably bring some of their personal experience.

We stop in front of a display that describes the code-breaking intrigue surrounding the Zimmermann Telegram.

It was 1917. World War I was raging in Europe. The British wanted the United States to help them defeat Germany. In an episode that resonates today with Wikileaks’ publication of diplomats’ communications, the British had intercepted a cable from Germany’s Foreign Minister to Mexico in which Mexico is offered some of the territory that it lost to the United States in the Mexican-American War, if it would join Germany’s side. President Woodrow Wilson “leaked” the contents of the cable to the Associated Press on March 1. The ensuing headlines about the proposed alliance angered and shocked the American public, which went from being isolationist to wanting the US in the fight. Wilson declared war against Germany and its allies on April 6.

The incident – of public disclosure of secret diplomatic cables sending the U.S. to war and changing the course of history – resonates in today’s headlines concerning Wikileaks.

The work that the cryptologists do impacts history in direct ways.

Secure phones used by presidents, including George W. Bush on Sept. 11, 2001, on view at the National Cryptologic Museum© 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com.

Indeed, the celebrity artifact is Enigma – an electromechanical, wired-rotor machine used by Nazis in World War II to render a radio message unintelligible to anyone but the intended recipient. Hitler believed the code was unbreakable, but here we see how it was eventually cracked by the Allies.

There is a display of photos headlined, “The Average Americans Who Rose to the Challenge and Broke the ‘Unbreakable’ Cipher”- Frank Rowlett, Geneviene Grotjan, Bob Verner and Al Small.

The reference is to one of the great moments in U. S. cryptologic history. On September 20, 1940, eighteen months into the all-out effort to crack the Japanese Purple cipher by a team headed by William F Friedman (the father of US cryptology), Genevieve Grotjan, a young statistician who came to SIS in 1939, had discovered a repeated sequence in some of the Japanese cipher text; one week later, Frank B Rowlett handed Friedman two decrypted messages. That tool allowed the Allies to have insight into battle strategies, affecting the outcome such as at Midway, and changing the course of the war.

William F. Friedman’s group, in particular Frank B. Rowlett, developed a machine similar to, but more flexible than the Enigma device. The machine, known as SIGABA, was so successful that during the war, the German cryptanalysts gave up on even recording their intercepts of the messages. They found it impregnable.

On the other hand, Soviet codes from a listening post that gathered intelligence from the 1930s to 1950s, that were only broken in the 1980s, Repta said, proved that Alger Hiss and Julius Rosenberg were spies, but not Ethel Rosenberg (both Rosenbergs were executed in 1953 for betraying atomic secrets to the Soviet Union during World War II).

Evidence of changing dynamics of world history is in a display of particular intelligence gathering equipment that was used in Vietnam, captured by the North Vietnamese and sent to the Soviet Union and then to the Poles.

“In 2000, when the Soviet Union broke down, Poland became a separate country and we got message: ‘Dear United States, we think this belongs to you,’ and sent it back,” she says.

Repta, who had worked at NSA beginning in the 1960s, stands in front of a reconnaisance satellite – surprising because it is so small – and says that just whispering about its existence then would have been treasonous.

She knows because just across the room is a wall of infamy of moles and double agents. Among them Ronald W. Pelton, an NSA analyst for 14 years who quit in 1979 after falling deeply in debt, and sold NSA secrets to the Soviet Union between 1980-86, when he was arrested after an NSA colleague recognized his voice on a tapped Soviet Embassy phone.

Early reconnaissance satellite, once super-secret, is surprisingly small; it can be seen at the National Cryptologic Museum© 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com.

The displays are mainly machines (they seem so quaint even ordinary, today), documents, old photos, and lots of commentary. But what comes through are the people who worked the machines, devised the codes and cracked codes.

There are also displays that remind of intelligence failures – like the capture of Gary Powers and the U-2 spy plane, and the ship, the Pueblo, loaded with secret technology.

There is nothing of the intelligence intercepts from the September 11, 2001 attack – not the most famous message of all that warned of the impending attack but was not translated in time (perhaps in the future, after wounds heal). But there is on display a fragment from the Pentagon building where the third plane hit. A plaque reads, “We will come together to strengthen our national intelligence capability to know the plans of the terrorists before they act.” (9/20/01, George W. Bush).

One of the displays is devoted to artifacts donated by David Kahn, author of The Codebreakers and former journalist and editor at Long Island’s Newsday. In that display is Johannes Balthasar Friderici’s book, ‘Cryptographia,’ from 1684.

But the historical piece de resistance from his collection will go on display in the future: a signed 1806 letter from the Emperor Napoleon to his son Prince Eugene Napoleon. In the letter Napoleon instructs his son to “keep sending me the letters from the Archbishop of Silesia sent from Rome to Dresden. The key has been found here so that they can be read just like ordinary writing. But it is necessary to let them continue on their way while copying them exactly.” How cryptic can you get?

David Hamer of the museum explains that Silesia, a historical region of Central Europe located mostly in present-day Poland, with parts in the Czech Republic and Germany, was for centuries a hotbed of religious, political, cultural and ethic differences and long contested between Germany and France. In 1812 students at a university in Silesia took part in a rebellion against Napoleon, presumably with the support of the Archbishop of Silesia and the catholic archdiocese in Rome.

“This letter is a reference to Napoleon spying on the Archbishop, a likely precursor to the student rebellion and to the much larger conflict that started in 1812 called the War of Liberation. An estimated two million people were killed in that war in which a coalition of countries led by Germany defeated France resulting in Napoleon’s exile to the island of Elba in the Mediterranean,” Hamer writes.

Codes and codebreaking is ancient, as a 1518 copy of the first printed book on cryptology, Johannes Trithemius's Polygraphiae shows. The book is part of the collection donated to National Cryptologic Museum by David Kahn of Long Island © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com.

The Wall of Honor reflects that the museum is dedicated to the people who devoted their lives to cryptology and national defense – for the most part, working secretly, in the shadows and therefore unrecognized and unappreciated – the machines, devices and techniques they developed. For the visitor, you come away with a new understanding of some key events in American and world history and are humbled by the thought of how differently things could have turned out. For the cryptologic professional, it is an opportunity to absorb the heritage of the profession, and come out of the shadows to receive justified recognition.

Originally designed to house artifacts from the Agency and to give employees a place to reflect on past successes and failures, the Museum quickly developed into a priceless collection of the Nation’s cryptologic history. The Museum opened to the public in December 1993 and quickly became a highlight of the area.

Visiting the museum, you realize, that codes and code-breaking are ancient – even the Phoenicians had codes. And the methods and techniques are as sophisticated as space satellites and as basic as the Navajo language. But in each instance, there is human ingenuity – a cat-and-mouse game. And the ramifications of the work, done mainly in tiny cubicles, can have extraordinary impact on the course of history.

Museum Library

A key part of the museum, though, is not on display, but its Reference Library, which not only supports the exhibits, but has become an important resource to students, scholars, and those with an interest in this once secret world. You are allowed to read materials at the Library but not take them out.

The Museum Library maintains a collection of unclassified and declassified books and documents relating to every aspect of cryptology. The books and records complement the museum exhibits and artifacts, but also offer unique and in-depth sources of information for researchers.

The library has a very large collection of commercial codebooks. These codebooks were used by all manner of businesses to reduce the costs of cable communications as well as to provide a measure of security for trade secrets. Modern communications and encryption methods have made these books obsolete and they are mainly of historical interest. Some of the most sought after items in the library include the declassified documents. The Museum Library holds all of the released VENONA documents. NSA’s Special Research Histories (SRH) provide documentation of NSA’s predecessor organizations in the U.S. Army and Navy’s cryptologic services. The SRH collection (available in its entirety at the National Archives in Record Group 457) consists of declassified reports dating predominantly to World War II. The library also holds some of the oral histories taken by NSA’s Center for Cryptologic History.

These oral histories provide a detailed and personal view from a few of the people who have been a part of world events, including a radio intercept operator prior to WWI and Navajo Code Talkers.

Americans howled to get into World War I after President Wilson leaked the contents of the Zimmermann Telegram to the press © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com.

A few select, unclassified monographs are also available to the public from the Museum Library. They cover a wide range of cryptologic subjects from early American ciphers to the Vietnam War. Most of the monographs were written and published by NSA’s Center for Cryptologic History. These monographs go into greater depth than the museum exhibits or museum pamphlets and help to provide a greater understanding of the events in which cryptology played a role in world history.

The collection nearly doubled by the gift of the leading historian of cryptology, David Kahn, author of The Codebreakers and former Newsday journalist and editor. The works include more than 2,800 books and over 130,000pages of notes from interviews with hundreds of cryptologic and intelligence personnel, both foreign and American, many now deceased. In addition, the collection houses photocopies of rare or unique intelligence documents from foreign and domestic archives and from private collections. Also, there are 55 extremely rare books, such as a copy of the first printed book on cryptology, Johannes Trithemius’s Polygraphiae of 1518. The one-of-a-kind items in the Kahn Collection include a typescript of Herbert Yardley’s once controversial American Black Chamber.

In June 2010, the library received another gift of the archives of the late John Byrne who invented what he called Chaocipher in 1918. Among these papers are an enciphered excerpt from a speech by General Douglas MacArthurChaocipher – The Ultimate Elusionblueprints of the ChaocipherPreliminary Instructions for Chaocipher II (a computerized version of the Chaocipher developed by Byrne’s son John Jr.), andcorrespondence between Byrne and the RD Development Company.

The Museum Library is open to the public, but the hours vary. (Call ahead to ensure that a staff member will be present to assist you,301-688-2145.) The library is non-circulating, but photocopying is permitted.


Fortunately, the museum also offers age-appropriate, interactive programs designed to engage the students and to make them aware of cryptology’s role in world history and how mathematics plays a role in cryptology.

Docents like Sharon Repta are retired NSA personnel, and help personalize the visit to the National Cryptologic Museum, which is devoted as much to the people behind codebreaking as the machines © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com.

For example, “Who, What, When and Where” program is designed specifically for home schoolers ages 9-16, but available to other small groups as well. This program has students search the museum looking for specific exhibits. They then determine the “who, what, when, and where” regarding each artifact, person, or event.

There’s a gift shop – the NSA Civilian Welfare Fund Gift Shop, located within the National Cryptologic Museum, offers a variety of merchandise ranging from unique NSA logo items to books and videos relating to the art and science of cryptology – but no food. come prepared since you will likely spend 2-3 hours.

Adjacent to the Museum, is the National Vigilance Park. The park showcases two reconnaissance aircraft used for secret missions. The RU-8D serves to represent the Army Airborne Signal Intelligence contribution in Vietnam and the C-130 memorializes an Air Force aircraft that was shot down over Soviet Armenia during the Cold War.

The National Cryptologic Museum is located adjacent to the NSA/CSS at Ft. Meade, Maryland (directions), and is open to the public. Admission is free. It is open Monday-Friday 9 – 4; Saturdays (first and third of the month) 10 – 2 pm; 301-688-5849; Library – 301-688-2145, www.nsa.gov.

Other Places to Unmask Secrets

Your exploration into the world of secrecy should also include the International Spy Museum, a private museum that adds glitz and pizzazz to its important and serious collection of artifacts, and has engaging, interactive, even thrilling ways to appreciate spies and spying. Here, it is hard to figure out whether Hollywood grabbed ideas from the pages of history or the real spies took their cues from Hollywood ($18/adults, $15/youth, 800 F St. NW, Washington, DC 20004, 202-eye-spy-u, www.spymuseum.org).

A polar opposite to the National Cryptologic Museum, which is devoted to the art of secrecy, the Newseum is dedicated to those whose job it has been to expose secrets and serve as a watchdog on government. To speak truth to power, as it were. this push-pull of what it means to be a free press is as current as the Wikileaks controversy, the Pentagon Papers and the Zimmerman Cable.

Known to German cryptanalysts as "the American Big Machine," SIGABA was the most secure COMSEC device used by any nation during WWII © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com.

Located midway between the white House and the Capitol Building, the major exhibit on view now at Newseum is “G Men and Journalists” (on view through 2011). The exhibit focuses on the FBI’s efforts to fight crime and its starring role in popular culture. There are 200 artifacts – including the actual Unabomber’s cabin, Patty Hearst’s coat and gun and the electric chair that killed the Lindbergh baby kidnapper – nearly 300 photographs, dozens of historic newspapers and interactive displays, the exhibit reflects the sometimes cooperative, sometimes combative relationship between the FBI and the news media ($19.95/adults, $1295/youth, 10% discount to purchase online; weekend early bird discount tickets available at admissions desk; Newseum, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, DC 20001, 888/NEWSEUM, newseum.org.

The National Museum of Crime & Punishment includes a crime lab and the filming studios for America’s Most Wanted. A simulated FBI shooting range, high-speed police-chase, and hundreds of interactives and artifacts pertaining to America’s favorite subject fill the 3-floor, 25,000 square foot museum ($19.95/adults, $14.95/child, save $2 if purchase tickets online; 75 7th St. NW, Washington , D.C. 20004, 202-393-1099, www.crimemuseum.org.

Monday, 27 December, 2010


© 2010 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit us online at www.travelwritersmagazine.com and at www.familytravelnetwork.com. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com.


No matter what age, how many times you’ve come, Walt Disney World delights

by Karen Rubin

Disney still has that magic. No matter what age you are, how many times you’ve come, there is always something that astounds, thrills, astonishes, makes you laugh, even makes you think.

Walt Disney World still has the magic: arriving at sunset by ferry to Magic Kingdom © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

We made this visit to Walt Disney World in Orlando (the themepark capital of the world) with an adult child, but it seems that on the sheer-delight meter, I may well have been more the kid than he.

There is always so much to see and do – the trick to getting the most out of two days at Disneyworld is to check the schedules – see which parks are open the latest and have the nighttime parades.

With this in mind, my philosophy is to start with the second favorite place (not the most) – because it takes time to get in the groove of a themepark visit, you will be a little tired from your travels, so you probably aren’t going to be as efficient.

For our two-day visit with a Park-Hopper Pass, we were able to visit three parks, starting with Hollywood Studios (a sentimental favorite).

If you are staying at a Disney Hotel, you can get priority access to attractions; otherwise, you can use your ticket to plug in a time to return to an attraction without waiting on the bigger line.

Another trick is to go on the singles line. This works superbly when you have an older or adult child, especially when you don’t wish to do all the roller coasters, yourself, and if you don’t mind not riding together. (If you are prone to motion sickness, take Dramamine or Bonine so you can take best advantage of the rides.)

At Animal Kingdom, guests stroll in Asia, with the snow-capped peaks of Mount Everest incongruously in the background; it holds one of the best roller coasters anywhere © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Our first stop was Hollywood Studios, which has great appeal regardless of age, and was open until 8 p.m. that night.

One of the charms of Hollywood Studios is that it is a working film, TV and radio studio, as well as a theme park set on 135 acres.

Checking the show schedule, we realized we needed to take advantage of the last show of the day of the incredible Lights, Motors, Action Extreme Stunt show – totally thrilling, you just can’t believe how these stunts are done for movies, performed in front of you so you can see they are the real thing (they also use modified cars and all sorts of techniques so that these are not tricks that can be replicated at home).

One of the surprises (for me) was how popular the “American Idol Experience” was – where all day long, park guests were able to audition and ultimately make it to the finals. The theater filled early (audience members were able to vote), but we were able to watch some of the final performance on a big screen outside the theater.

We were able to enjoy some of our favorites: the Indian Jones Epic Stunt spectacular, the Muppet*Vision 3D (it was a breakthrough when it first opened), and the Great Movie Ride where you get to “travel” through classic film scenes (a bit dated).

There are also the serendipitous entertainments you come upon, like the Block Party Bash and the Hollywood Boulevard Party Zone and Echo Lake Party Zone.

Beginning our ascent to Expedition Everest-Legend of the Forbidden Mountain, a high-speed train ride with encounters with a fierce Yeti © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

My initial plan was to go over to EPCOT which was open late that night, for their laser show. But the rest of the family was too tired after our travels.

Next day, we headed for my favorite of the Walt Disney World themeparks, Animal Kingdom.

I think Animal Kingdom is a true masterpiece – the pinnacle of creativity and artistry, which also manages to educate.

It is all so realistic: in the Africa section, when we took the Kilimanjaro Safari, where you taken an open-air vehicle through an African-style savannah to see giraffes, gazelles, elephants, rhinos and lions roaming freely, we were thinking about our son in South Africa, who had just done a safari to Botswana and to Kruger National Park and spent 8 hours in a car and never saw a lion (we got to see two). Instead of just driving you around to see animals, you become immersed in a hunt for poachers and help save an elephant baby (another clever teaching device; as for poachers, they are a very real and serious problem – our son said he saw some come in with helicopters).

When we came out of the safari, we came upon the Pangani Forest Exploration Trail – a walking trail where you see birds, fish, hippos (you view from underwater), and most spectacularly, a huge environment for silverback gorillas where we were transfixed watching their behaviors and interactions with each other.

The Kilimanjaro Safari provides a close encounter with a giraffe (and other animals), which comes right up to a safari vehicle © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

When we came out, we happened upon the preparations for the daily parade, which uses much of the creative costuming elements of the Lion King Just as the parade ended, a thunderstorm hit and we took shelter in one of the amazing shops that are throughout the Animal Kingdom (they are all different).

It is all so picturesque (and realistic) here – I was determined to overcome my motion sickness to take the Expedition Everest-Legend of the Forbidden Mountain coaster, which is one of the iconic attractions of the park. It was sensational.

We figured out the trick of using our pass to get a ticket for a timed return so you don’t spend so much time waiting on lines – unfortunately, a thunderstorm prevented us from taking the Kali River Rapids ride, a whitewater rafting adventure down the Chakranadi River.

We took advantage of the rain to walk into the base of the Tree of Life (one of my favorite things), to see “It’s Tough to be a Bug” 3-D movie – as much fun as ever. Here there are Discovery Island Trails where you can discover creatures like Galapagos tortoises, African crested porcupines and lemurs.

Walt Disney World's Animal Kingdom is one of the best zoos anywhere; take the Pangani Forest Exploration Trail for a closeup view of silverback gorillas interacting with each other © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

I love the educational elements that are just about everywhere. In Rafiki’s Planet Watch there is Habitat Habit where you see cotton-top tamarins and learn about sharing the world with animals; Conservation Station, and Affection Section, a petting yard where there are a number of rare domesticated breeds from around the world.

At the Maharajah Jungle Trek in Asia, you wander through the ruins of an ancient palace inhabited by exotic animals such as giant fruit bats, birds, tapirs, Komodo dragons and tigers.

The details are just marvelous – as you wait in the queue for the Safari, for example, it is like going through an outpost. The signs read, “Esteemed safari guest,” “eat of it,” “do not block view of guest whilst snapping photographs.”

DinoLand U.S.A. reminds people that North America has a fantastic legacy of dinosaurs (there are active digs in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Montana), so this area has a delightful western theme. You go into the restaurant, even, and see a display identifying the different dinosaurs. There is a marvelous playground, The Boneyard, which is a play maze built around dinosaur fossils – you can even dig up wooly mammoth bones.

The major ride in DinoLand, Dinosaur, takes you back 65 million years to save the last dinosaur.

The daytime parade at Animal Kingdom uses much of the creative costuming and puppetry of the Lion King © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

In Dinoland you will find “Finding Nemo – the Musical” an absolutely sensational original musical stage production that you can easily imagine coming to Broadway in the way of “Lion King.” It is amazing to see the animated film re-created by merging puppetry with actors. It is not to be missed.

I timed our visit to Animal Kingdom so that we were literally the last guests out, and still had time to go over to Magic Kingdom, which was open until 9 p.m. We drove over to that lot, and opted to take the boat over to the park (instead of the tram) which makes you feel as if you have really traveled, and also gives you a spectacular view of Magic Kingdom in the setting sun, as the sky darkens and the lighted buildings become more pronounced (all of this in the matter of minutes it took to take the boat ride).

We arrived just as they were setting up for the Electrical Parade and managed to get a terrific spot at the Town Center.

After the parade, we got some giant hot dogs at Casey’s Corner (a baseball themed restaurant), before getting an amazing spot to see the fireworks above Cinderella’s Castle. This was easily the most amazing fireworks display I have ever seen in my life (how they managed to make the pirate skull and bones out of fireworks, is beyond me..)

We had time for a few of the rides – an altogether different experience at night. We were the last riders on Space Mountain coaster (another experience I wasn’t going to deny myself), in Tomorrowland (a Jetson’s view of how the future would look, now marvelously quaint), and when we came out, the second Parade was coming through. This time, we got a view just in front of Cinderella’s Castle, absolutely exquisite

Planning Tips

"Finding Nemo - the Musical" at Animal Kingdom is not to be missed; it is amazing to see the animated film re-created by merging puppetry with actors © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Wednesday is typically the least crowded day at the theme parks. Check the WDW website to get a schedule for the parks – which are open late, when the parades and the fireworks are scheduled, and special events to help you plan. Pre-planning will really help get the most out of your visit.

I suggest not doing your favorite park on the first day – you will be tired from traveling and you also have to get oriented to the way the parks operate.

Take advantage of singles lines – frequently get you in faster.

Take advantage of FastPass system, offered at certain attractions, where you can get a time to return (it spans an hour) and you just breeze in, so you don’t have to wait on the regular line. You are only allowed to get one FastPass per hour, though. The way it works is that each of your part inserts his or her Park ticket into the Fastpass kiosk and get a ticket with a return time.

They are great about posting how long the wait is for the Standby line, and what time the FastPass is returning.

Get all the info you need and do your vacation planning at http://disneyworld.disney.go.com/, or call: Vacation Package Booking, 407-939-7675; Resort Room-Only Bookings, 407-939-7429, Tickets, 407-939-1289; Dining Reservations, 407-WDW-DINE (407-939-3463); or general guest information, 407-939-6244.

A stuntman is set ablaze during the Lights, Motors, Action Extreme Stunt show at Hollywood Studios © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Themed Resorts

It is particularly fun to stay within the Walt Disney World resort, and hop on the local transportation, and truly be a part of this fantastical world.

Walt Disney World resort has 34 properties (including seven Disney Vacation Club properties) in a variety of price points featuring nearly 28,000 hotel rooms; 3,187 DVC units (2-bedroom equivalents); 799 campsites.

Disney’s Value Resorts (from $82/night): Disney’s All-Star Sports Resort (1,920 rooms), Disney’s All-Star Music Resort (1,704 rooms/215 family suites), Disney’s All-Star Movies Resort (1,920 rooms), Disney’s Pop Century Resort (2,880 rooms).

Disney’s Moderate Resorts (from $149/night): Disney’s Port Orleans Resort-Riverside (2,048 rooms), Disney’s Port Orleans Resort-French Quarter (1,008 rooms), Disney’s Caribbean Beach Resort (2,112 rooms), Disney’s Coronado Springs Resort (1,917 rooms).

The skies are ablaze with the fireworks over the Cinderella Castle at Magic Kingdom © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Disney’s Deluxe Resorts (from $240/night): Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge (972 rooms), Disney’s Wilderness Lodge (727 rooms), Disney’s Contemporary Resort (655 rooms), Disney’s Polynesian Resort (847 rooms), Disney’s Yacht Club Resort (621 rooms), Disney’s Beach Club Resort (576 rooms), Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa (867 rooms) and Disney’s BoardWalk Inn (372 rooms).

Disney’s Deluxe Villa Resorts (from $275/night / units are 2-bedroom equivalents): Disney’s Old Key West Resort (549 units), Disney’s BoardWalk Villas (280 units), The Villas at Disney’s Wilderness Lodge (114 units), Disney’s Beach Club Villas (576 units), Disney’s Saratoga Springs Resort & Spa (924 units), The Villas at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge (449 units), Bay Lake Tower at Disney’s Contemporary Resort (295 units/ opening August 2009).

In addition, Disney’s Fort Wilderness Resort and Campground offers: Disney’s Wilderness Cabins (409 cabins, from $270/night), and Disney’s Campsites (799 campsites, from $44/night)

Official Hotels of Walt Disney World Resort include: Walt Disney World Swan (756 rooms), Walt Disney World Dolphin (1,509 rooms), Buena Vista Palace (1,013 rooms), Regal Sun Resort (626 rooms), Doubletree Guest Suites Resort (229 rooms), The Hilton (814 rooms), Holiday Inn (323 rooms), Hotel Royal Plaza (394 rooms) and Best Western Lake Buena Vista Resort Hotel (325 rooms). Shades of Green on Walt Disney World Resort (586 rooms) is a U.S. Armed Forces Recreation Center for vacationing servicemen and women from all branches of the armed forces.

2011, The Year of ‘Disney Dream Vacations’

Count on Disney for the most spectacular fireworks show anywhere © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

2011 will be a year of “Disney dream vacations,” both figuratively and literally. Disney offers travel experiences and opportunities that go way beyond themeparks – cruises, family adventures to exotic locales. Guests will be making memories over the horizon in Egypt, Hawaii and Alaska, on the aqua waters of the Bahamas, under the sea, over croc and rhino gullies and beyond the solar system.

During 2011, premieres will include an Adventures by Disney itinerary to the land of the pyramids, a Disney Parks virtual itinerary in stunning 3-D to the galaxy of Star Wars, a Disney’s Animal Kingdom ‘Wild Africa Trek’ into the domain of fearsome and fascinating critters, and an experience at Disney California Adventure that plunges guests into the realm of “The Little Mermaid.” Meanwhile, Disney Vacation Club will celebrate the opening of its first property away from the U.S. mainland, in romantic Hawaii, and Disney Cruise Line will launch the Disney Dream and expand the horizons for its existing ships.

Here are some of the details of what’s in store:

Launch of Disney Dream (January 2011) – A first-of-its kind water coaster that sends guests racing above the upper decks of the ship. An animated turtle that engages children in conversation about life in the ocean. A sophisticated lounge where the sun sets over the skyline of a different world-famous city each night. The Disney Dream, newest ship in the Disney Cruise Line fleet, will bring to life these innovations and more, offering a cruise experience from stem to stern that caters to preferences of the whole family.

The Disney Dream, slated to set sail on Jan. 26, 2011, from Port Canaveral, Fla., will have three-to-five-night Bahamian itineraries. The ship has a capacity of 4,000 passengers. For a “boatload” of information about the new ship, go to www.disneycruise.com, click on the Ships & Activities tab and choose Disney Dream.

The Electrical Parade ends up at Cinderella Castle © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

New horizons for Disney Cruise Line (beginning January 2011) – The Disney Wonder cruise ship will “go west” in early 2011. New West Coast itineraries for Disney Cruise Line will include, for the first time, Alaska cruises sailing from Vancouver. The Alaska cruises will combine the natural wonder and adventurous spirit of Alaska with the unparalleled guest experience provided by Disney Cruise Line. The Disney Wonder also is scheduled for cruises out of the Port of Los Angeles to the Mexican Riviera, before and after the summer Alaska cruises. To learn more about Disney Cruise Line or to book a vacation, guests can visitwww.disneycruise.com, call Disney Cruise Line at 888/DCL-2500 or contact their travel agent.

An African trek … in Florida (beginning January 2011) – A ravine of menacing-looking crocs, pools of hippos, bushwalks along untracked terrain and other thrills await guests on Wild Africa Trek, a unique wildlife experience launching Jan. 16, 2011, into the deepest, most-remote reaches of Disney’s Animal Kingdom at Walt Disney World Resort. The three-hour, expert-led adventure will immerse small groups in an “up-close-and-personal” experience with African wildlife species that make their home in Pangani Forest as well as other areas of the park’s Harambe Wildlife Reserve. Reservations can be arranged at 407/WDW-TOUR (939-8687).

Egyptian wonders ahead for Adventures by Disney (beginning April 2011) – Once upon a time, there were “seven wonders of the ancient world.” Today, one remains: the Great Pyramid of Egypt. Adventures by Disney guests will step off of planes, cruise ships and camels into living chapters of history during seven- and nine-night Egypt itineraries. The pyramids and Great Sphinx in Giza, a Nile River cruise and days and nights in Cairo are all part of the experience. In 2011, Adventures by Disney will offer 25 itineraries, six to 13 days in duration, on six continents – experiences unique in the luxury tour market for their attention to the family in every aspect of the adventure. Guests can learn more at www.adventuresbydisney.com.

New Star Tours adventure out of this world (2011) – Bridging that “long time ago” between the two Star Wars trilogies, new Star Tours adventures debuting in 2011 will take voyagers at Disney’s Hollywood Studios in Florida and Disneyland Park in California – for the first time – to Coruscant and other destinations in the Stars Wars galaxy. The power of the Force and the magic of Disney will combine with the breathtaking immersion of 3-D – for the first time.

A patriotic flourish to Magic Kingdom's Electrical Parade © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Disney Vacation Club says ‘Aloha’ (scheduled to open Aug. 29, 2011) – Aulani, a Disney Resort & Spa, Ko Olina, Hawai’i that includes traditional hotel rooms and Disney Vacation Club villas, is being built on 21 acres of oceanfront property in Ko Olina, approximately 30 minutes from Waikiki. Aulani draws its inspiration from the traditions and heritage of the people of Hawaii. Walt Disney Imagineers, with the help of local architects, artisans and historians, are weaving Hawaiian stories into the buildings, interiors, art and gardens of the resort. Upon completion, Aulani will include 359 traditional hotel rooms and 481 two-bedroom equivalent Disney Vacation Club villas with views of the ocean, mountains and the lush grounds. More information about Aulani is available by visitingwww.disneyaulani.com.

Coming attraction gives new meaning to “immersive experience” (2011) – With the premiere of The Little Mermaid ~ Ariel’s Undersea Adventure, Disney California Adventure will take guests “under the sea” to experience magnificent scenes and magical songs from the popular motion picture. The attraction represents the next big milestone in the ongoing expansion of the park. For information on new attractions and vacations at Disneyland Resort, visit www.disneyland.com, call 866/60-DISNEY or contact local travel agents.

Peeking over the “boards” to a reimagined Fantasyland – The largest expansion project in Magic Kingdom history is underway at Walt Disney World Resort, featuring attractions and experiences in an area that will nearly double the size of Fantasyland. The Walt Disney World project began in early 2010 and will be completed in phases with most new experiences open by 2013.

Changes to Downtown Disney

Meanwhile, Disney is working on a completely re-imagined Pleasure Island and other one-of-a-kind experiences as Walt Disney World Resort continues to bring new stories to life at Downtown Disney.

A nostalgic yet modern take on an early 20th century port city and amusement pier will evolve Pleasure Island into “Hyperion Wharf.” By day, the bustling port district will draw guests in with its stylish boutiques and innovative restaurants and by night, thousands of lights will transform the area into an electric wonderland.

Guests leave Main Street as Magic Kingdom closes for the night © 2010 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Taking its name from Hyperion, the Greek god of light, as well as the street on which Walt Disney built his first major animation studio, the wharf district also will feature a relaxing lakeside park and enhanced pedestrian walkways.

In addition to the new wharf district, numerous other projects are underway at Downtown Disney, including: an extensive renovation of Lego Imagination Center, which will increase its overall footprint by nearly 3,500 square-feet and add new Lego exterior models featuring scenes from classic Disney movies; enhancements at AMC that will take the movie-going experience at Downtown Disney to the next level with new digital technology, a paradigm-shifting Concession Stand of the Future and Florida’s first Fork & Screen Theater; and numerous new or renovated retail shops and merchandise vignettes, as well as additional atmosphere entertainment, throughout Downtown Disney.

Other recent additions to Downtown Disney include: new entertainment, such as the Characters in Flight tethered balloon ride, the ETX theater at AMC and an enhanced outdoor performance area; unique shopping experiences like D Street, littlemissmatched, RIDEMAKERZ, Tren-D and Disney’s Design-a-Tee; and immersive dining, like T-Rex: A Prehistoric Family Adventure, Paradiso 37 and the recently opened Pollo Campero and Fresh A-Peel, a new quick-service restaurant combining authentic Latin-style chicken and side dishes, as well as fresh, healthy creations such as salads, wraps and gluten-free desserts.

Thursday, 06 January, 2011


© 2011 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit us online at www.travelwritersmagazine.com and at www.familytravelnetwork.com. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com.


Gilded Age Mansion, Art Museum, Theater, Gardens make the Ringling a cultural hub

by Karen Rubin

Among the many wonderful beach destinations along the Gulf of Mexico, Sarasota stands out, but not because of sand, surf and dolphins.

As soon as you enter Howard Tibbals' model circus, you realize this is something quite spectacular: tens of thousands of individually, meticulously carved objects, would fill a real three-ring circus © 2011 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

The Circus.

Since the 1920s, when John Ringling made Sarasota the winter home of his famous Ringling Brothers & Barnum & Bailey Circus, Sarasota has been identified with the circus. Indeed, it is where the circus performers – that most vagabond of breed – have laid down roots.

Sarasota, it turns out, is to the circus word what Nashville is for Country Music.

Going through the Circus Museum – which turns out is only one element of an incomparably culturally rich Ringling Museum campus – is very much like going through the Country Music Hall of Fame, in that your appreciation is so enriched by being immersed in a fuller context of how all of this came about and what society was like at the time.

You may have been delighted and been thrilled by the clowning and death-defying stunts – who hasn’t? – and you may even have marveled at seeing a circus parade and wondered how they moved about with all those elephants and such, but here, you more fully appreciate what the circus meant to countless millions of people in thousands of communities across the country, for whom the circus was their only real link to the outside world, and an exotic one, at that.

My reason for coming to Sarasota, in fact, was because of its links to circus – it is what makes Sarasota unique among a string of lovely Gulf Coast beach resort destinations. What I hadn’t realized was the role John & Mable Ringling played in putting Sarasota on the map and making it a cultural hub for central Florida. In fact, when they first arrived here, Sarasota was a quiet little fishing and farming village of just 800 people.

The realism of Howard Tibbals' miniature circus is uncanny - you even see doctors treating injured performers © 2011 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

And it wasn’t until I entered the new John M. McKay Visitors Pavilion that I realized that the Ringling Museum is this most extraordinary campus of culture – in one place, you not only have the most fascinating museums dedicated to circus, but performance venues for theater, ballet and opera including the historic Asolo Theatre (the theater itself actually dates from the Renaissance), the Ringling’s own Gilded Age mansion, Ca D’Zan, now magnificently restored with the Ringlings’ original furnishings, the Ringling Museum of Art, housing their collection of European art – Reubens, Halls, Velasquez, Coptic (Egyptian) antiques; Baroque and sculpture – acquired during their trips to Europe to recruit new circus acts, and magnificent formal gardens (Mable established the first rose garden in Florida).

Be prepared to stay the day, walk a lot, and be enthralled.

Frankly, the biggest surprise to me was that the Ringling Museum we see today is nothing like what visitors would have experienced, even five years ago. The reason is part of the fascinating, dramatic rags-to-riches rise of this dynamic couple, a drama in which the estate itself becomes a character after the Ringlings pass away, bequeathing the estate to the state of Florida. It took 10 years, between 1936-1946 for all the lawsuits from creditors to be resolved.

But for the rest of the 20th century, 1946-1996, the Ringling Museum was a horribly neglected ward of the state, allowed to decline and deteriorate. The magnificent home we see today with its stunning display of furnishings, was almost bare and in disrepair; the Fine Arts museum roof leaked and the Asolo Theatre was condemned. Then a Florida Congressman, John M. McKay, appalled at the condition, intervened, and set the stage for new funding streams, and in July 2000, a new Florida law assigned responsibility for The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art to Florida State University (FSU).

Reopening in 2006, The Ringling Museum has undergone its own Renaissance, and we are the beneficiaries.

There is so much to see and do, it is helpful to have a background for what you see and help organize your visit, so stop first at the Estate Orientation Video in the John M. McKay Visitors Pavilion for an overview of facilities and programs on the Estate, to help you organize your visit (there are also helpful people around).

Howard Tibbals' miniature circus takes you to the backlots © 2011 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Taking note of the timing of the various docent tours and films, we head first for the Tibbals Miniature Circus. I imagine this will be a cute novelty that will take a few minutes; I wind up spending a couple of hours (I can’t be sure how long).

When you first walk in you see a marvelous collection of vintage circus posters, in their day, intended to hype expectation. I don’t realize it then, but it has the same effect here, setting the stage for what turns out to be a day in the life of the circus. Then you walk into what turns out to be a circus-sized room (it happens to be darkened at that moment, mimicking the night) and almost immediately, the bombastic rhetorical flourishes of the circus posters do not even begin to do this marvel justice:

Colossal! Stupendous! The Biggest Miniature Circus the World Has Ever Seen!

This hand-carved circus model, created over a 50-year time span by master model builder and philanthropist Howard C. Tibbals of Tennessee and Florida, depicts with meticulous detail the tented American circus during its heyday, 1919-1938, and would fill three rings of a real circus. There are tens of thousands of individually carved, teeny-weeny figures – each one unique. If there is a team of horses, each one has a different face and expression and pose. Famous circus performers are actually identifiable.

Howard Tibbals, according to the Ringling website, saw his first circus as a three-year-old. When he was five, he watched with fascination through a telescope as a circus set up on a nearby vacant lot, and the impression stayed with him for life. As a teenager, he read a 1952 Popular Mechanics article, “Here Comes the Circus” that detailed the logistics of moving Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. The article contained a schematic of the 79-car train; a cut-away layout of the circus grounds; and a diagram illustrating the rigging and set up of the Big Top tent. Tibbals was hooked, and by 1956, while a student at North Carolina State University, he started sewing a replica of the six-pole Big Top tent that Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus used in 1938. His pastime turned into a life-long passion for accuracy when he met noted circus model builder Harold Dunn in 1958 (whose models are also on display). After picking up tips on model building from Dunn, Tibbals began to create the greatest model circus in the world – the Howard Bros. Circus.

The 1961 Bruno Zacchini Super Repeating Cannon, from which the human cannonball would be shot to soar across the arena. The operating mechanism was removed to preserve the secret © 2011 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

The experience follows the course of a day in the circus – the lighting changes from day to night and back again – the music and sound effects changes as you walk through, from where the circus trains unload, to the back lots where you see massively long tables where circus people are sitting at breakfast (even the bowls of fruit have individually carved pieces piled in), to where you see performers practicing or sitting around or even being tended to by the doctor, and elephants pulling up the poles for tents, to another giant tent where you peak in and see clowns putting on their makeup, to the private areas for the star performers.

When you see it, you couldn’t be more engaged or fascinated if you were watching the actual circus come to town.

The scenes are juxtaposed with even tiny video screens that show actual documentary films from that time, appropriate sound effects and as you move around to the tents where the midway, menagerie and circus are going on, appropriate circus music.

Jaw-dropping, heart-stopping amazing. Even PT Barnum’s words fail to describe it.

I can’t even imagine how all the figures were set up, how someone could have had that kind of patience.

A vintage poster shows five Ringling Brothers, who as boys in Bugaboo, Wisconsin, became entranced by circus, and went on to develop the foremost circus in America © 2011 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

The level of detail is beyond obsessive. Tibbals (who called his circus the Howard Bros. Circus because he wasn’t allowed to use the Ringling name) – even put money into cash boxes that wouldn’t be seen, and there are characters that you don’t see. Why? Because they were there, and because Tibbals wanted there to be this connection, this sense of reality, with the viewer.

I am convinced of the accuracy because as we move to the next building, the Circus Museum where you see the actual circus cars, devices and artifacts, you can see pretty much what Tibbals depicted.

When you get to the Howard Bros. circus tent, the aerialists twirl, the horses speed around the ring, and 7,000 folding chairs that actually fold.

You only just begin to appreciate what the circus meant in those times, when most people lived in rural agricultural villages with limited access to the outside world, let alone the exotic animals and people of the circus.

“The circus lifted people out of the ordinariness of everyday life.” In many places, schools and factories were shut down for that one special day when the circus came to town, starting with the festive parade up main street that finished with the calliope, and ended just as swiftly as a dream, with the stakes and tent poles pulled up and loaded again onto the waiting circus trains.

“It is the only spectacle,” Ernest Hemingway said, “which while you watch it, gives the feeling of being in a truly happy dream.”

“It was a fantastic display, an overwhelming array of sights and sounds.” Two advance advertising railroad cars were come first, unleashing a “Flying Squadron” who plastered posters on every available surface for 50 square miles, with “astounding promises of wonders never seen.”

Each of the 3,000 circus people have their own distinct features © 2011 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

“One thousand workers set up a city without a zip code.” There would be this fantastical transformation from an empty lot to a massive city under canvas.

The circus artists were the blockbuster celebrities of their day. They performed fearless feats of acrobatics and animal tricks. “Men fly through air. Animals walk on two legs.”

You come to the midway, and here, you should really look closely for the level of detail is utterly astonishing – the ticket takers, the balloons, the cotton candy. Then you see how people were funneled into the Big Tent, which held 15,000 people, through the menagerie, which for most was their only opportunity to see animals from exotic locales (and an ingenious way to funnel the crowd into the tent, something that is emulated at today’s themeparks).

As you move around the model, the music and sound effects change, adding to the realism. Peer into the Big Top, and you see aerialists twirl, teams of horses going through their paces around the ring, hear the circus music.

At the end of the show, 150 circus wagons had to be loaded onto flat cars in a precise order in order to fit perfectly.

The “Flying Squadron” would have left in advance, gone on to the next town to paste up the posters and create the hype.

Famous clown Emmett Kelly's hat is on exhibit at the Ringling Circus Museum © 2011 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

By 1 a.m., there would be an empty field, again, and the circus would have already gone on to another town, where it will again be the center of universe for one day.

Seeing it all unfold before you (even in miniature) you begin to appreciate that the circus traveled with 1300 workers and performers and 800 animals. In less than four hours time, the workers would have set the Big Top’s six center poles, 74 quarter poles, 122 sidewall polls, 550 stakes, 26,000 yards of canvas, three rings, four stages, a hippodrome track, and seats for 15,000 people. The 2 1/2 hour performance would feature 800 artists in 22 displays.

In season, the circus traveled up to 15000 miles and performed in 150 towns and cities; fewer than 20 of the venues were more than a single day.

The second floor of the Tibbals Learning Center presents the full history of the circus, and for the first time, you fully appreciate what the circus was.

Elements of circus – feats of skill and artistry – go back to 2000 BC; the word “circus” comes from “circle” of the Greek gymnasium.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, groups of traveling entertainers began to appear around Europe. Troubadours would bring dancing bears, dogs, acrobats, jugglers and perform on a stage made of wood. For many in the Middle Ages, the circus was only source of information of outside world. The circus tradition continued into Europe’s fairs in the 17th century.

The modern circus developed in the 1750-1840 era. In 1768, Philip Astley, called “master of the ring,” staged the first modern circus. It turns out that the remarkable feats of horsemanship was made possible by the centrifugal force of the ring. Comic characters were added in the 1778-1837 period, and Joseph Grimaldi, called the “King of Circus” is considered the father of modern day clowning.

The fabulous Gilded Age Venetian-style waterfront mansion, Ca D'Zan - House of John, but everyone refers to it as Mable's house © 2011 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

The first American circus was staged in 1793. President George Washington and his family actually attended a circus at 12th and Market Streets in Philadelphia. (Not without controversy, there were attempts at passing laws banning circuses.)

The Golden Age of the American Circus was 1870-1938, when P.T. Barnum, the “Prince of Humbug” and the “world’s greatest showman,” James A. Bailey, and the Ringling Brothers reigned supreme.

In 1888, Barnum combined his circus with James A. Bailey to form the Barnum & Bailey circus, and when James Bailey died in 1906, the Ringlings acquired the Barnum & Bailey circus for $410,000.

Barnum’s was first large circus to travel by rail and he would open his season at Madison Square Garden, something that John Ringling envied.

The exhibit is absolutely fascinating – there are artifacts, like famous clown Lou Jacobs’ birdcage which he used in 1952, and amazing vintage films including of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show in the 1889-1902 era.

Around the room are the Dunn circus model.

John Ringling's bar at his waterfront mansion, Ca D'Zan © 2011 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

You come to a mock-up of Howard Tibbals’ workroom where he carved the miniatures, and you can watch a PBS documentary about his work. (He was asked how many miniatures there are and he said he could only estimate 40,000 to 50,000, because he isn’t quite sure, but include 3000 circus workers, 55 train cars, 900 sets of silverware, food, balloons, and 7,000 folding chairs. They are precise scale – Tibbals says he checked them against photos. He is such a stickler that there are miniatures you can’t even see – like money inside the ticket taker’s box.

During our visit, we could see the work being done on an expansion to the Circus Museum, opening in 2012, which will contain exhibitions that celebrate circus performers “where visitors of all ages will experience the magic of the center ring.”

Circus Museum

A second building houses the Circus Museum. Surprisingly, one of the newest parts of the exhibit is the “Wisconsin”, the actual private Pullman railroad car that John and Mable Ringling used when they traveled with the circus. What is remarkable is that it only recently came back to the estate – it had been sold, used for different purposes, and only recently returned, where it is undergoing the most amazing restoration, virtually before your eyes.

You see the actual circus cage cars, and other devices – the real circus cars and scenes that Howard Tibbals may well have used for his models.

The most fantastic exhibit, though, is the Bruno Zacchini Super Repeating Cannon. That’s the silver truck from which the human cannonball would be shot to soar across the arena. This one dates from 1961, and interestingly, the operating mechanism was removed “and remains a guarded family secret how it operated.”

The private tour of Ca D'Zan gives you access to upper floors; here, the view of a grand room from the mezzanine © 2011 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com.jpg"

Apparently, a “death defying stunt” had been a tradition of circuses since 1880s and in this genre, the human cannonball was one of most thrilling. Its novelty faded, though but in 1890, was brought back by Ildebrando Zacchini (1868-1942), who got the idea from a Jules Verne novel. His trick was to use compressed air instead of explosives, to launch the human cannonball, and for a time, the Italian government thought of it for the military.

Here you will also see Emmett Kelly’s costume and his tattered hat and Lou Jacobs’ clown car.

There are docent tours of the exhibit (check the schedule).

I can’t even remember how many hours I spent in the Circus Museum – I couldn’t pull myself away – but however long it was, it wasn’t enough.

Historic Asola Theatre

Taking note of the time, I return to the Asolo Theatre to see a film about the life of John & Mable Ringling. This is not to be missed on so many levels, and a must-see before you go to the Ca’Zan mansion.

Plus, it affords an opportunity to see inside the Historic Asolo Theatre (and sit down and rest).

As I first sit down, I think it is an elaborate reproduction (that’s what you would come to expect from visits to Orlando’s themeparks), but it is actually the original 18th century theater.

A short film describes its history: An 18th-century treasure in a 21st-century venue, the Historic Asolo Theater is a work of art in its own right. The Italianate palace playhouse, with three balconies, was created in Asolo, Italy in 1798 to honor the 15th-century exiled Queen Catherine Cornaro of Cyprus. In the late 1940s, the theater was dismantled and brought to the Ringling Estate in Sarasota. From this important stage sprang much of the theater, the opera, and the music that distinguishes this Gulf Coast city as one of the nation’s leading cultural centers. In 2006, after years of painstaking restoration, America’s only 18th-century European theater was reset in the John M. McKay Visitors Pavilion just inside the historic Cà d’Zan Gatehouse on the Ringling Museum estate. And it is once again a performing arts venue, presenting a diverse roster of theater, music, dance, film, and lectures (check the schedule).

It is in this magnificent venue that you see a movie, “Life and Times of John & Mable Ringling.”

John Ringling, one of five Ringling brothers, came from modest means in Bugaboo, Wisconsin, to become one of the wealthiest men in the United States. But when he died, in 1936, he had just $311 in the bank.

The American Illustrator Willy Pogany painted himself into the ceiling of the Ringlings' Game room © 2011 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Mable grew up on a farm in Ohio, yearned for bigger things, and met John when she was working as a cashier in a Chicago restaurant.

Married in 1905, they shared a passion for art and music, and spent a lifetime educating themselves, collecting art in a deliberate way.

There were five Ringling Brothers, and in the 1860s, a life-changing event occurred when the circus boat unloaded. From then on, the Ringling brothers would put on their own shows, played musical instruments. They mimicked the circus, parading down Main Street, and putting on their first show in the backyard tent. In 1882, they took their show on the road. At 16, John was the comedian.

They steadily built up their circus show, bringing in contortionists and a trapeze. “Their fundamental idea was to please people,” the narrator says. In contrast to other circuses, they had a disciplined organization. “It was known as the ‘Sunday School’ circus.

In 1884, the Ringlings merged with Robinson circus, and put the circus on rails for the first time. John Ringling became the advance man, negotiating deals and managing routes.

Over the years, the Ringling Circus acquired the Barnum & Bailey circus, at a time when the circus was unmatched as popular entertainment.

John Ringling became one of the wealthiest men in the country adding to his circus business with investments in oil, railroads and real estate. He was heavily involved in the Florida land boom of the 1920s, and had a vision of turning Sarasota into a major tourist resort.

“It was the Roaring 20s. The motto was buy, buy, buy.”

The Ringlings wanted to build a waterfront palace in the Venetian style – Ca D’Zan was built in just two years, between 1924-1926, for the then-staggering sum of $1.5 million. At the same time, they were fulfilling their vision to build a Museum of Fine Arts to make their collection of European art available to the public.

Meanwhile, Ringling was building a Ritz Carlton Hotel on Longboat Key.

But then Florida’s land boom went bust in 1927; work stopped on the Ritz Carlton permanently, halting his dream of turning Sarasota into world class resort. The opening of his museum was delayed.

Then in 1929, Mable, just 54, died of Addison’s disease, and not long after, came Black Friday, when the stock market crashed, ushering in the Great Depression.

Ringling had taken out a multi-million loan to buy out smaller circuses.

“He lost control of the greatest show on earth.” Nonetheless, he struggled to keep art collection and finish the museum, which opened 1930. He suffered strokes in 1932, and in 1936, at the age of 70, this boy from Baraboo who came from such humble means to become one of the wealthiest men in the country, died with a mere $311 in the bank.

The American Illustrator Willy Pogany painted Mable & John Ringling into the fanciful Venetian-carnival scenes on the ceiling of the Ringlings' Game Room © 2011 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com.

“By his death, he saved the museum by willing it to the State of Florida. It was his final triumph. His vision of a unique American city, his legacy.”

Cà d’Zan, House of John is House that Mable Built

With this background, we are now ready to visit Cà d’Zan. Regular admission lets you tour most of the first floor on your own; for $5 more, you can join a docent tour which takes you to first floor and important rooms on the second (recommended).

And for $20, you can join “Private Places -Special Cà d’Zan Experience,” a private tour which goes to most of the other rooms, bathrooms (you should see the painted medicine cabinets), guest rooms, and most wonderfully, the third-floor game room, The Vault (a storeroom the size of a NYC studio apartment where you can see a whole room devoted to wines and spirits, up to the fourth floor to see the magnificent room where Will Rogers and New York City Mayor Jimmy Walker, and New York Governor Al Smith stayed, and finally (weather permitting), you get to climb up the exterior stairs to Belvedere Tower, with its spectacular view. (The Tower is too small for an actual wedding, but has been rented out for marriage proposals).

You actually should take all three tours (but not if you have children).

As I look around the stunning interiors, I am reminded that the visitor experience at the Ringling is vastly different today than it was up until 2006, especially Cà d’Zan.

The mansion underwent a restoration between 1996 and 2006, and the furnishings brought back, our docent Janet Schrock, explains. The house is now about 95 percent filled with its original furnishings – which provide such insight and connection to John and Mable Ringling, as well as to the Gilded Age.

It strikes you how tasteful, how studied and deliberate, it is, but a home that reflects the people and their lives and interests and even humor (as you can see from the painted ceilings by illustrator in the game room).

The name might mean “House of John,” but Cà d’Zan is really Mable’s house (even the docent refers to the house as “she”). Mable had such an eye for detail, even the servants’ entrance had iron decoration, and only from here can you see some of the detail in the ceilings.

The house is exquisite for its architecture and interior design, but also as a window to this couple, who rose from such humble background to the pinnacle of the Gilded Age.

The private tour is quite amazing because it is so personalized.

Visiting one of the bedrooms, we learn that Mable, who had no children of her own, raised three of her sister’s children (one of her sisters was deaf and mute).

Most exciting is walking into “The Vault” – literally behind a bank safe, but an actual room with a room within the room for wine and spirits (it was Prohibition, after all).

Belvedere Tower atop Ca D'Zan, which you visit on the private tour, provides a spectacular view © 2011 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

One of the most interesting rooms of all is the Game room with a ceiling painted by American illustrator Willy Pogany, who put his own portrait into one of the illustrations, all depicting a Venetian Carnival, and a “portrait” of John and Mable, that reflects their humor.

We are the last to leave the Ringling Museum, and never made it to the Fine Arts Museum, a 21-gallery Florentine-style palace built to emulate the Uffizi Gallery, which houses the Ringlings’ collection of European paintings and art objects.

The Ringling is a unique attraction that makes Sarasota a unique experience, and any any-weather, any-time-of-year destination.

Open daily, 10 am-5 pm (grounds open from 9:30 am-6 pm); On, Thursdays, Art After 5, the Museum of Art and Circus Museum open until 8 p.m. On Mondays the Museum of Art, including special exhibitions, is open to the public free of charge. Adult/$25, Senior 65+/$20, Students 18+ w/ID/ and Child 6-17/$10. Saturdays features family-friendly tours and activities.

Ringling Museum, 5401 Bay Shore Road, Sarasota, Florida 34243, 941.359.5700; advanced ticketing, 941.358.3180, www.ringling.org. Plan your visit at www.ringling.org/Plan.asp

For visitor information, visit Sarasota Convention & Visitor Bureau, 701 N Tamiami Trail, Sarasota, FL 34236, 800-800-3906, 941- 957-1877, www.sarasotafl.orginfo@sarasotafl.org.

See also:

Sandpiper Inn on Longboat Key is Home-Away-From-Home for Exploring Sarasota

Experience ‘Real Florida’ at Myakka River State Park on Gulf Coast

Mote Aquarium

Tuesday, 22 February, 2011


© 2011 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visitwww.examiner.com(In National)www.examiner.com(Long Island). Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com

Sarasota Beach, Marine Attractions Hold Surprises on Florida’s Gulf Coast

by Karen Rubin and Neil Leiberman

Sharks are Mote Aquarium's forte © 2011 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Sarasota, on Florida’s Gulf Coast, was a sleepy fishing village when circus impresario John Ringling recognized its potential as a beach resort and made Sarasota the winter headquarters for the Ringling Bros. & Barnum & Bailey Circus. Decades later, visitors delight in a destination that is so much more than a typical beach resort.

Our first day in Sarasota was spent amidst pristine nature, at Myakka River State Fair; the second immersed in culture and heritage, at the Ringling Museum. Our third day is devoted to the beach and the marine world. Here, too, we are in for surprises.

Mote Aquarium offers Narrated Training Sessions © 2011 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

We don’t have to go far – just a few steps from the door at our “cottage” at Sandpiper Inn www.sandpiperinn.com) – but Sarasota offers many other ways to engage in the marine world. And so we head to the Mote Aquarium.

Mote Aquarium

The Mote offers a distinctly different experience from most aquariums. Sure it has displays of fish, coral, anemones, jelly fish. But what makes it special is that it turns out to be one of the foremost marine research laboratories in the country, particularly in the work being done on sharks, it has a dolphin research program (where you can peek in), offers a truly extraordinary interactive Immersion films where you participate via computer, and is the base for a program of eco-tours by boat that you can join. And just across the parking lot is a seabird rehabilitation center.

Visit the "patients" at the seabird rehabilitation center, Save Our Seabirds (SOS) © 2011 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Indeed, what started as a one-woman operation in 1955 by the now-famous shark researcher, Dr. Eugenie Clark, has evolved into seven research centers home to more than 230 staff members, including about 40 Ph.D. scientists. Mote, it turns out, is a bigger marine research laboratory than even the famous Woods Hole Laboratory on Cape Cod, and the Monterrey, California facility.

Dr. Eugenie Clark, known as “shark lady” who at the age of 89 still comes to the lab every week, was the first scientist to ever document that sharks were capable of learning such tasks. She began training sharks back in the 1950s and was able to demonstrate how adaptable sharks really are. Until Clark told the world about her efforts, sharks were thought of as mindless eating machines.

The work with sharks that scientists are doing here might actually make a breakthrough in the treatment of cancer in humans, a docent explains while we are waiting for one of the Immersion films to begin.

At Mote Aquarium, visit the Marine Mammal Research and Rehabilitation Center, and watch scientists working with dolphins © 2011 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Cancer in humans? A study conducted at Mote, accepted by Medical Society in last couple of months as accurate, he explains, is based on the fact that sharks are born with eight particular cancers in their systems. Humans also are born with cancers. But somehow, the shark is immune from cancers growing. Studying why that is can lead to a cure for cancer, “very possibly from marine biologist here at Mote.”

We are sitting in this auditorium waiting for the Mote’s unique attraction to begin: an interactive film experience where you have your own computer console and engage with what is happening in the film.

The technology was developed specifically for Mote and as far as anyone knows, the Mote is the only place to offer it.

Siesta Beach owes its powdery white sand to quartz which originated a million years ago in the Appalachians © 2011 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

There are two different Immersion experiences, and if you only have time for one be sure to see the Dolphin Rescue.

This interactive experience is based on real science, with much of the filming done right in the bay, but creates a fictional story (using renowned actors who play their parts as scientists and a local reporter,) in order to educate about the hazards facing marine mammals today. All of us become volunteers who engage in the search for a dolphin mother and her calf. It was actually as thrilling as it was interesting.

The second Immersion experience is Shark Predator which is structured as an 18-minute competition designed to give you a better appreciation for what it means to be part of the food chain, where plankton is at the bottom, and sharks are at the top (kids will like it better than adults).

A winter day on Siesta Beach, which otherwise would be crammed with people, enjoying the powdery white sand © 2011 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Within the aquarium, there is a large pool where you can see sharks and if you time it right, take advantage of a new program of Narrated Training Sessions with Sharks (at 11 am. Monday, Wednesday and Friday, free with admission).

Much of the Mote takes place in separate laboratory buildings, most of which are closed to the general public, but you can visit the Marine Mammal Research and Rehabilitation Center, and watch scientists working with dolphins.

Take time to stroll across the parking lot to the seabird rehabilitation center, Save Our Seabirds (SOS). Most interesting is the Sandhilll crane project, where they fit injured birds with prosthetic legs.

An uncrowded winter day enables a bike ride on Siesta Beach © 2011 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

From the Mote Aquarium, you can join an Eco Boat Tour, interactive marine experiences on the water, offered by Sarasota Bay Explorers). In one of the programs, you go out on a 40-foot pontoon covered on top, with a marine biologist, to look for dolphin and manatee, visit rookery islands, and get a hands-on experience, touching various (safe) marine life that is drawn out with a net, like seahorse, batfish, chocolate chip sea cucumbers, and get off the boat to walk on an island with the naturalist. There is also a Nature Safari Cruise, a guided three-hour kayak tour into mangrove tunnels on Lido Key, and private charters. (www.sarasotabayexplorers.com).

At Mote Aquarium’s newest attraction, Fossil Creek, visitors get to play marine paleontologist – and take home natural buried treasures of the sea. You can buy a bucket of sand and sift out hidden fossils using a sieve in a mini waterway. You might find shark’s teeth and stingray tails smoothed with time, ancient gar scales or bony plates from pufferfish mouths. The fossils are real and are yours to keep, along with the bucket. Fossil Creek is located in the Mote Aquarium courtyard behind the Ray Tray ($5.99).

You will likely be here long enough to work up an appetite, and the Aquarium is fairly isolated – but there is a charming retro ’50s-style diner, Deep Sea Diner (www.mote.org/DeepSeaDiner).

Siesta Beach owes its powdery white sand to quartz which originated a million years ago in the Appalachians © 2011 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Plan to stay at least 3-4 hours. General admission includes access to Mote Aquarium, the Ann and Alfred E. Goldstein Marine Mammal Research and Rehabilitation Center and Immersion Cinema. (Adults/$17, Seniors/$16, Youth 4-12/$12.

Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium, 1600 Ken Thompson Parkway, Sarasota, FL 34236, 941-388-4441, www.mote.org.

Siesta Beach

From Mote Aquarium, we head to Siesta Beach, on Beach Road on Siesta Key, and we soon see for ourselves how it has earned the reputation of being one of the most beautiful beaches anywhere in the world – at the “Great International White Sand Beach Challenge” held in 1987, it was recognized as having the “whitest and finest sand in the world.”

Sarasota, on Florida's Gulf Coast, offers spectacular beaches like Siesta Beach, voted one the best in the world.

True enough, we find a broad expanse of powdery, fine white sand, with one of the most magnificent settings anywhere.

We learn from a lifeguard that the reason why the sand is so special is that, unlike most beaches that are formed mostly of coral, the sand at Siesta Beach and Crescent Beach on Siesta Key is 99% quartz. Formed over millions of years, it originated in the Appalachians and flowed down the rivers and was eventually deposited on the shores of Siesta Key.

Even on the hottest days, the sand is so reflective that it feels cool underfoot.

The Legacy Trail extends from Sarasota near Siesta Key, to Venice, where there is a historic railroad station © 2011 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Shallow water depth in the near shore area together with year round lifeguard protection, makes this one of the safest beaches in the County and great for small children, and has earned Siesta Beach accreditation as a Blue Wave beach.

The facilities are wonderful, and there is even entertainment scheduled at a pavilion area.

The beach’s amenities also include tennis courts, ball fields, beach volleyball, soccer field, 20-station fitness trail and playground equipment.

Sunset at Venice Beach © 2011 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

On this winter day, when there is still a cold snap and the water temperature is 56 degrees, there are just a few people out and about taking in rays and enjoying the crisp clear air. But Spring Break, people are everywhere; and the beach can get 15,000-20,000 people a weekend.

Although there are 800 parking spaces, you better get there early if you want one. If you’re staying on Siesta Key, there are plenty of public access points to the beach so it’s a short walk from most of the north end of the key. Unfortunately, beyond the fire station near the intersection of Midnight Pass and Beach Road, the next public beach access south is near Stickney Point Rd. When looking for accommodations, be sure to ask about beach access as many of the properties on the east side, (odd number addresses), of Midnight Pass Rd. do not have beach access (www.4sarasota.com/siestakey/beach.html).

Sunset at Venice Beach © 2011 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Biking Legacy Trail

From Siesta Beach, we head out to the Legacy Trail, a paved dedicated biking trail that stretches a dozen miles from just south of Sarasota (off Clark Road, at Rte 72), down to Venice, following the former CSX railroad corridor, where it ends at the historic Venice railroad station. (There are rest stops along the route, www.scgov.net/legacytrail/default.asp).

Because it is already late afternoon, though, we drive to Venice, intending to ride the trail north. Our plan is frustrated because it turns out they are still building the trail’s bridge over the busy Route 41, but we nonetheless have the most magnificent ride, just as the sun set, by the historic railway station, now a golden color, and along a canal, and then down to Venice beach in time to see the sky aflame with the sunset.

Then serendipity takes over, as often happens when you travel. We walk in to a chocolate shop to get a cup of coffee, and because it isn’t ready, wander down the street, come upon TJ Carney’s (231 W. Venice Avenue, 941-480-9244), where the Dixie Spirit Jazz Band plays Thursdays, from 6:30 pm.

At TJ Carney's in Venice Beach the Dixie Spirit Jazz Band plays © 2011 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

For visitor information, visit Sarasota Convention & Visitor Bureau, 701 N Tamiami Trail, Sarasota, FL 34236, 800-800-3906, 941- 957-1877,www.sarasotafl.orginfo@sarasotafl.org.

See also:

Sandpiper Inn on Longboat Key is Home-Away-From-Home for Exploring Sarasota

Ringling Museum in Sarasota Does Circus Tradition Proud

Experience ‘Real Florida’ at Myakka River State Park on Gulf Coast

Monday, 28 February, 2011


© 2011 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visitwww.examiner.com(In National)www.examiner.com(Long Island). Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com

Experience ‘Real Florida’ at Myakka River State Park on Gulf Coast

Popular state park is highlight of visit to Sarasota

by Karen Rubin and Neil Leiberman

The world's largest airboat takes you onto the Upper Myakka Lake for close-up look at wildlife including alligators and water birds © 2011 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

You don’t have to travel far on Route 72 from the busy north-south roads near Florida’s Gulf Coast before you are in a comparative wilderness. Just north is Sarasota, best known for its connection to John Ringling and for being the “capital” of the American circus. To the south is Ft. Myers, best known as the summer residence of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford. But here, on both sides of the two-lane road are mainly fields and forest – terrain popularly referred to as “Old Florida” or “Real Florida.” What that means is that you get to the true character of this place.

There is no better place to experience “Real Florida” than the Myakka River State Park, which turns out to not only be the state’s most popular in terms of number of visits, but also one of its largest in sheer expanse (36,000 acres), and one of the most diverse in wildlife.

The ecosystem here is set up by the “Florida Wild and Scenic” Myakka River, which flows through 58 square miles of wetlands, prairies, hammocks and pinelands, feeding two shallow lakes that attract a myriad of wetland creatures, making birding, canoeing, fishing, hiking and wildlife observation popular activities.

A 7-mile scenic drive winds through shady oak-palm hammocks and along the shore of the Upper Myakka Lake. There are over 39 miles of hiking trails and many miles of dirt roads provide access to the remote interior. You can bike the road, or bike off road on 20 miles of paths; there are 12 miles of horseback riding. And there are camping areas, as well.

One of Florida’s oldest state parks, Myakka River was developed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1934 and many of the original, historic buildings are still in use today, including five log cabins that are available for rent.

On this particular morning, when we arrive, there is a heavy fog that adds to the atmosphere of the Spanish moss dripping from the trees that form a canopy over the road.

We immediately get a sense of how vast the park is: we drive about four miles before we get to our first stop, the Birdwalk, a 300-foot long boardwalk that puts you out above the marsh, where a volunteer bird interpreter is available (9 am-1 pm) to literally open your eyes to the skill and “sport” of birdwatching.

Owen Comora, a volunteer bird interpreter at Myakka River State Park, is on hand most mornings to share his expertise and inspire others to pursue the 'sport' and skill of birdwatching © 2011 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

We are so fortunate that Owen Comora is here today. He started the program 12 years ago, as well as its series of Nature Adventures. In his professional life, Comora worked for the television division of the massive advertising company, Y&R. He was there at the start of NASA’s first televised space launch and handled publicity for Ken Burns “Civil War” documentary series.

This area is rich for birdwatching. Even though the morning is overcast, in just the hour he was there before we arrive, he had already recorded sightings of 42 species – including wild turkeys, wood stork, a great egret.

He teaches us how to properly focus binoculars and had already set up a spotting scope.

It is amazing how fast he can hone in on a bird – either snatching a glimpse, or hearing its call, like that of the sandhill crane, which he says roost here at night by the dozens.

He spots a cattle egret which he says is not native American species; tells us how to distinguish between a bald eagle and vulture (the vulture’s wings form a “v”, while the eagle in flight has its wings “e”ven).

He adds something about the birds which make you appreciate all the more the diversity of life, but also what is involved for a serious birdwatcher. It doesn’t take long before you are impressed with the knowledge that bird watchers possess.

Biking in Myakka River State Park © 2011 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Owen makes a “pishing” noise to draw in the Savannah sparrow which winter here, and sure enough, one soon appears and comes closer.

“Pish-pish-pish.” The bird comes closer. I am surprised to learn, that’s not the sound of its own bird call, at all. “They come because they are curious,” he explains. It has dull brown colors, but when it breeds, has a crown and bright yellow stripes.

He identifies a greater yellowlegs by it sound, “toot, toot, toot.”

He can create or recognize bird call sounds, but shows us an I-phone application that actually makes the sound of a particular bird song – a practice which we learn is controversial among some diehard birders, especially in breeding season.

We spot white tailed deer along the shore on one side, and across from us, a black feral pig (which we learn is a real problem here). Soon after, we see an alligator near the same spot. One day, he says, he saw an alligator leap and snatch a pelican. “It’s a battle for life and death every day.”

A pair of sandhill cranes seen from the airboat on Upper Myakka Lake © 2011 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Owen became interested in birdwatching when he was 13 years old. He was fishing in North New Jersey, and a birdwatcher was there. He was hooked.

When I ask whether he has a “life list” – that tally of birds that birdwatchers keep, he says, “Only North America birds.” I sense that is because bird-watching can be obsessive since birdwatchers often travel the far reaches of the world to complete their list. He says he has reached 645 out of a possible 800 on his life list.

By now, a gaggle of people have gathered – apparently a group has come by bike from the nearby camping area.

This is Old Florida at its best.


Airboat on the Lake

We are off for an airboat ride, one of the most popular activities in the park, and I soon discover why.

We drive to the Outpost, where you can rent canoes, kayaks or bikes, go to a small convenience store, or the cafe and gift shop.

Now normally, you think of airboats nimbly speeding over the surface of the Everglades, giving a thrilling ride. That’s not this.

In fact, the “Myakka Maiden” and the “GatorGal” are the largest airboats in North America – 70-passenger boats with an enclosed cabin powered by an airboat engine. They are made to glide quietly – and slowly – in order to bring us across this vast lake that can be very shallow, without disturbing the wildlife.

A great blue heron © 2011 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Most of the seating is on benches inside the cabin, but there are three seats outside, in front of the cabin and the captain, that you should grab if you want to get the best photos (use an SLR if you want to capture birds in flight).

As we are about to pull out from the small channel, we see Big Fred, a 13-foot alligator, who chases off another alligator that has tried to invade his territory. We are soon behind him as he makes his getaway (I am practically on top of the alligator, where I sit).

This is a narrated tour and it is really well done – with humor, but also interesting anecdotes, especially about the alligators which everyone seems most curious about. Overall, you get a better appreciation for the interconnections that make for an “ecosystem.”

So as we head out, we learn that the Upper Myakka Lake is one mile by 2 1/2 miles – all natural, filled from rainwater which feeds underground streams.

After one particularly dry summer, the depth went down to just 18 inches, it nearly dried up and the airboat operation had to shut down for two weeks; the year before, it was shut down 2 months.

But 8 years ago, a10-foot flood filled the Lake to a depth of 15 feet. “You could see alligators on top of picnic tables.”

An egret seems perilously close to an alligator, but the airboat guide says there is little to fear because alligators only eat at night © 2011 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

We pull out of lily pads, which he said are new, but getting smaller – an indication of how changeable and fragile the ecosystem is.

This year and last, the area has had to contend with uncharacteristic cold snap, which killed many of the fish, particularly the tilapia, drawing some 3000 vultures, twice the normal number. At one point, he says, “The vultures stopped moving. You could pick them up. They were so stuffed from 10 days straight of eating, they couldn’t fly, couldn’t even walk. But they sure cleaned up the shore line!”

We pass the weir – a small dam. “It was a mistake to build because it changed the ecosystem by changing the water table.” Once the impact was recognized, they cut holes into the dam and allowed it to deteriorate.

We glide by a pair of sandhill cranes, which he says are not typically so far into the lake.

Where we are headed, across the lake, is where alligators are out in fantastic numbers. As we glide over, we see some of them in the water – we are on their tail, and because the water is so shallow, we can see them very clearly.

An alligator can hold its breath underwater for 2-3 hours; it has a third eyelid that acts like goggles so it can see underwater; it takes its tongue to the back of its throat to stop water from going into its lungs. This is how it has adapted so well to its environment.

There are about 700 alligators in Myakka River State Park - so many you are virtually guaranteed seeing some, even close by © 2011 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

We see a 15-foot, 500-pound alligator lounging on the bank. Alligators are cold blooded, he tells us. They need to get their body heat to 80-85 degrees in order to eat, so they come out of the water and lay in sun. Even on a cold day, an alligator can draw in the sun’s heat through the scales on its back.

We see birds – egret, heron – practically on top of the alligators, unconcerned. He tells us, “That’s because alligators only eat at night, and have to get their temp up to 85 to eat.” That’s also why locals are completely unconcerned about kayaking or canoeing or even flipping over in the water. (You can’t convince me, though, because I’ve seen alligators eating during the day, chomping on a turtle).

The alligators move quietly – they can go as fast as 10-15 mph in water and 18 mph for 30-40 feet on land.

He describes an “alligator nursery” – the alligator builds a nest 4 feet high, and between May and June may lay 40-50 eggs. Temperature determines if the egg turns out male or female. At some point, the mother knocks down the nest – if the egg doesn’t hatch, she will eat it, after all, it is an excellent source of protein. But other creatures – birds, turtles and large pigs – appreciate that as well. Typically, 18 alligators make it, but by the second or third year, only 3% survive.

The first three years are difficult, because the alligators are small enough to be prey; they grow one foot a year for the first six years, but by the age of three, are already 3 1/2 feet, big enough to ward off most of the predators.

“If they can make it past the third year, they can live 35-40 years.”

He points out other animals that inhabit the area: White tail deer, fox, armadillo, and feral pigs. The pigs have caused a tremendous problem, digging up areas; their population has grown to thousands, and are such a nuisance that the state hired a trapper to keep the population down. He doesn’t get paid, just gets to sell the pigs, which average 400 pounds apiece, for meat.

The airboat ride on Upper Myakka Lake provides a close-up view of an anhinga flying by © 2011 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Florida is the capital of alligators, with about 1-2 million. The Upper Myakka has 600-700 alligators and it isn’t unusual for alligators born here to spend their entire life here in this lake, he says. Some may go to Lower Myakka Lake, five miles down from the weir, but there is less food there.

As we pull in, he reminds us the airboat has no brakes, so to stop, he smacks into a post. He wasn’t kidding – we gently bump into the post.

The airboat ticket gets you a discount ticket for half off the company’s safari ride (a tram through the woods), or a discount on return trip within a year.

The Airboat trip is really wonderful, way more than I expected it to be, and the trip just long enough ($12/A, $6/child, 6-12).

The Outpost also has a café where you can get alligator bites and gator stew as well as burgers and ice cream, and an excellent gift shop where I eye beautifully done leaded glass lamps like a heron, komodo dragon.

Canopy Tower

One of the best ways to experience the park is to bike. You can peddle seven miles of paved drive or over 20 miles of dirt roads.

There is no better place to experience "Real Florida" than the Myakka River State Park. Enjoy birdwatching, biking, hiking, and explore Upper Myakka Lake by airboat © 2011 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

We get just a taste of that, biking on the road about 1 1/2 miles from the outpost to a nature trail that leads to the Canopy Tower. This proves a real novelty: you climb the first tower, 25 feet high, then cross a 100-foot suspension bridge that sways, to another tower, to 70 feet high. From there, you are above the canopy and can gaze out over the tree tops.

Built by volunteers and completed in 2000, this structure is reportedly the first public treetop trail in North America. The walkway is suspended 25 feet above the ground and extends 100 feet through the hammock canopy. A second tower lets you climb 74 feet where you have expansive view of tops of live oaks and palm trees, wetlands, and the prairie/hammock interface. If you are lucky, you may well find yourself with the unusual perspective of looking down on eagles, hawks, vultures.

The Myakka walkway was the inspiration of canopy scientist Dr. Margaret D. Lowman, Executive Director of the TREE Foundation. More than just a sightseeing, they are part of science research, coordinated by the Tree Foundation; people are invited to submit their observations.

In fact, the walkway proved its practical value with an alarming discovery several months after it opened of an exotic weevil from Central America, accidentally released in Ft. Lauderdale about 1990, that had arrived in southwest Florida.

“Until recently, we did not know much about life in the treetops of the world’s forests because their canopies were difficult to reach. Now scientists can climb safely into the “high frontier” to discover some of its wonders,” the foundation notes (www.TreeFoundation.org).

The suspension bridge between two towers that take you above the tree canopy at Myakka River State Park © 2011 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

There is also a Visitor Center which features exhibits and “Myakka Movies” near the SR 72 park entrance. After an enchanting visit, it is easy to see why this is one of the most visited of Florida’s state parks, with more than one million a year.

Myakka River State Park is located 9 miles E of I-75 at 13208 State Road 72, Sarasota, FL USA 34241, (941) 361-6511, www.MyakkaRiver.org orwww.FloridaStateParks.org/MyakkaRiver (open 8 a.m.-sunset daily, $6/car fee); for camping reservations, Reserve America, 800-326 3521 or visit,www.reserveamerica.com.

From Myakka State Park, we change our pace, going into downtown Sarasota to Marina Jack (www.marinajacks.com), a marina and city recreation area, where boats are available for daily sightseeing, fishing and sunset cruises. The best parts of this city are actually walkable – the historic district which has been revitalized and is absolutely charming – down to the marina, which is really an encompassing recreation center.

With our first day devoted to nature, our next day is devoted to culture – and it is all contained in one amazing campus: The Ringling Museum.

For visitor information, visit Sarasota Convention & Visitor Bureau, 701 N Tamiami Trail Sarasota, FL 34236, 800-800-3906, 941- 957-1877,www.sarasotafl.orginfo@sarasotafl.org.



See also:

Sandpiper Inn on Longboat Key is Home-Away-From-Home for Exploring Sarasota

Sarasota Beach, Marine Attractions Hold Surprises on Florida’s Gulf coast

Ringling Museum in Sarasota Does Circus Tradition Proud

Monday, 28 February, 2011


© 2011 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visitwww.examiner.com(In National)www.examiner.com(Long Island). Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com

SPIDER-MAN: Turn Off the Dark is Spectacle to See on Broadway

by Eric Leiberman

Spider-Man makes his New York debut. © Jacob Cohl

The reason that Broadway theater has such appeal is that it is live, immediate, and anything can happen. In contrast, movies are all illusion.

SPIDER-MAN Turn Off the Dark which opened June 14 at the Foxwoods Theater (finally and for real after months of previews and a “re-imagining”) brings the best of both experiences together: it is like sitting inside a 3-D movie – and with all the thrill and excitement of the immediacy of a live performance. The fact of the matter is that this show is not traditional Broadway. It feels more like Cirque du Soleil.

Beyond theater, it is spectacle such as Broadway has never seen before, and probably never will again for its complexity and cost, which at something like $65 million is twice the previously most expensive musical to produce (“Shrek-The Musical”), and more on par with a blockbuster movie than a musical that has to be seen live, 8 times a week, to recoup its investment and $1 million/week operating cost. It is, in fact, a new category of “mega-musical.”

The uniqueness in the annals of Broadway musicals is significant enough to bring people to see it, but what people are really coming for is the risk: the risk as a Broadway business venture in this economy, and also because of the daring stunts on stage.

Because of accidents that took place in the first incarnation of SPIDER-MAN (prompting jokes that people were coming to the musical like watching a car wreck to happen), the stunts have been curtailed, but we still found this aspect of the show absolutely thrilling.

Reeve Carney and Jennifer Damiano in a scene from "SPIDER-MAN Turn Off The Dark" © Jacob Cohl.

The flying sequences are what make SPIDER-MAN so original (and expensive). Men in bright-colored costumes fly what feels like a mere five-feet above my head. My girlfriend tossed and turned in her seat, throwing her hands over her head because she was actually afraid that one of these guys could fall on her. Sweat from the villain of the story drips down on the audience as he swings overhead chasing SPIDER-MAN. This is exciting because it is real. It doesn’t matter that you see the wires. It doesn’t at all take away from the amazement of it all. And the props and sets are an obvious mesh of reality and comic book.

SPIDER-MAN Turn Off The Dark finds a fresh way to tell a story inspired by over 40 years of Marvel comic books. The musical follows the story of teenager Peter Parker, whose unremarkable life is turned upside-down, literally, when he’s bitten by a genetically altered spider and wakes up the next morning clinging to his bedroom ceiling. This bullied science-geek suddenly endowed with astonishing powers soon learns, however, that with great power comes great responsibility as villains test not only his physical strength but also his strength of character. That’s the story, but the challenge is bringing this to the Broadway stage.

SPIDER-MAN Turn Off The Dark hurtles the audience through a thrilling experience in ways never-before-dreamed-possible in live theater.

A scene from "SPIDER-MAN Turn Off The Dark" © Jacob Cohl

But after a record-breaking 180 preview performances, when reviewers derided the show, SPIDER-MAN was reimagined by a new team, Philip William McKinley – a director whose credits include several versions of Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey’s “Greatest Show on Earth” as well as The Boy From Oz and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, a writer of both plays and comic books (Fantastic Four and Spider-Man comics, “Big Love”).

Besides the daring-do of the aerial spectacles, and sets that seem to have popped out of a comic book, SPIDER-MAN is also notable for featuring music and lyrics by 22-time Grammy Award-winners Bono and The Edge of U-2, who had never written for musical theater before, and that in itself adds to the intrigue of seeing the show. Much of the music sounds like some of the classic rifts and Bono voice that made U2 an international sensation. In fact, in a lot of the songs, you can almost hear Bono singing and not Reeve Carney. I don’t think that Bono and the Edge were meant to write Broadway music. But some of the tunes are catchy and some of the duets are very beautiful. And the messages of the music and show are accessible and even valuable for younger viewers.

The original direction was by Tony® Award-winner Julie Taymor, who was Broadway’s darling in the way she brought “The Lion King” to life (as well as Across The Universe, Frida). She also co-wrote the book with Glen Berger.

But the real stars of SPIDER-MAN are the creative team who manage to bring a two-dimensional cartoon to life: Daniel Ezralow (Choreography and Aerial Choreography), Chase Brock (Additional Choreography), George Tsypin (Scenic Design), Academy Award®-winner Eiko Ishioka (Costume Design), Tony® Award-winner Donald Holder (Lighting Design), Jonathan Deans (Sound Design), Kyle Cooper (Projection Design), Julie Taymor (Mask Design), Campbell Young Associates/Luc Verschueren (Hair Design), Judy Chin (Makeup Design), Scott Rogers (Aerial Design), Jaque Paquin (Aerial Rigging Design), Howard Werner (Media Design), Louie Zakarian (Prosthetics Design), David Campbell (Arrangements and Orchestrations), Teese Gohl (Music Supervision and Vocal Arrangements), Paul Bogaev (Music Producer), and Kimberly Grigsby (Music Direction and Vocal Arrangements.

Patrick Page steals the show as the villain, Norman Osborn/Green Goblin in "SPIDER-MAN Turn Off The Dark" © Jacob Cohl

The complete cast includes Reeve Carney asPeter Parker/Spider-Man, Tony® Award nominee Jennifer Damiano as Mary Jane Watson T.V. Carpio as Arachne, Patrick Page as Norman Osborn/Green Goblin, Michael Mulheren, Ken Marks, Isabel Keating, Jeb Brown, Matthew James Thomas, Laura Beth Wells, Matt Caplan, Dwayne Clark, Luther Creek, Kevin Aubin, Gerald Avery, Collin Baja, Marcus Bellamy, Emmanuel Brown, Jessica Leigh Brown, Daniel Curry, Erin Elliott, Craig Henningsen, Dana Marie Ingraham, Ayo Jackson, Joshua Kobak, Megan Lewis, Ari Loeb, Natalie Lomonte, Kevin Loomis, Kristin Martin, Jodi McFadden, Bethany Moore, Kristen Faith Oei, Jennifer Christine Perry, Kyle Post, Brandon Rubendall, Sean Samuels, Dollar Tan, Joey Taranto, and Christopher W. Tierney.

SPIDER-MAN will appeal to the most avid theater-goers who will appreciate it for its historic nature, but especially the not-your-average theatergoer. And I can guarantee that kids everywhere will be begging their parents to take them. The show is surely a bit gimmicky. But there are flashes of emotion in the powerful performances of the leads (particularly Jennifer Damiano, who was nominated for a Tony for her performance as Mary-Jane and Patrick Page as Norman Osborn/Green Goblin .

The show will likely neither make or break your heart, but it may be the most fun you’ll have on Broadway this year.

Reeve Carney and Jennifer Damiano in a scene from "SPIDER-MAN Turn Off The Dark" © Jacob Cohl

Music from SPIDER-MAN Turn Off The Dark has just been released by Interscope Records. With 14 original songs co-written by Bono and The Edge for the Broadway production, SPIDER-MAN Turn Off The Dark, the album is produced by Steve Lillywhite. Songs are performed by members of the cast including Reeve Carney, Jennifer Damiano, T.V. Carpio and Patrick Page, with contributions from Bono and The Edge and music performed by the production’s orchestra. The lead single, “Rise Above 1″ performed by Reeve Carney featuring Bono and The Edge, and produced by Alex Da Kid, is available for purchase now on iTunes and Amazon.

SPIDER-MAN Turn Off The Dark is playing at the Foxwoods Theatre (213 West 42nd Street), Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday at 1:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m.

Tickets are now on sale through October 2, 2011, with group tickets on sale through January 8, 2012. Tickets are priced from $67.50 – $135 for weekday performances and $67.50 – $140 for weekend performances and can be purchased at Ticketmaster.com or by calling (877) 250-2929. Tickets are also available at the Foxwoods Theatre box office, which is open Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. – 8 p.m. and Sunday, noon – 6 p.m. See the website, spidermanonbroadway.marvel.com.

Wednesday, 6 July, 2011

© 2011 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visitwww.examiner.com(In National)www.examiner.com(Long Island). Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com