Mirror Maze and Fountain Frolics

The youngest two Pictlings returned from their trip to Maine with their grandparents.  Then it was time for the oldest two to head off on their vacation with their grandparents.  They are visiting New Orleans and taking a cruise around the coasts of Mexico, Belize and Honduras.  Lucky ducks.  Mr Pict and I are, therefore, experiencing having only two children at home again.

We took a weekend trip into Philly to visit the Franklin Institute.  The older boys have become a bit lukewarm when it comes to return visits to the Franklin Institute so it made sense to grab the opportunity to just take the other two.  I have never seen the building so empty and quiet.  It was an absolute pleasure to wander around without the noise and the crowds, without having to wait for a turn on some piece of equipment.

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There is a special exhibition on at the moment that is all about numbers and patterns in nature.  The boys loved all of the interactive elements.  They were able to identify the same spirals, tessellations, and ratios in different photographic images, play with computer generated images of branching and the geometry in mountain ranges.  There was a metal casting of an ant nest that was beautiful and fascinating and a section of a beehive.  It was my kind of mathematics.

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The centrepiece of the exhibition was a mirror maze.  It was constructed from floor to ceiling mirror panels and LED light strips in the floor creating triangular shapes in the floor.  It was so much fun to wander around in it.  The maze had been cleverly crafted so that the different angles of the mirrors created optical illusions.  At one point, my youngest son was split in half on different sides of the corridor.  It was genuinely tricky to find our way around the maze too.  We hit many dead ends.  The dead ends, however, were also fun.  Pressure pads in the floor made screens appear in the mirror panels that informed us about patterns and repetitions in nature.  We went around the maze several times because it didn’t get boring at all.

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We then watched an IMAX movie about extreme weather.  The documentary was great and the IMAX screen made the photography even more immersive.  We could actually feel dwarfed by the glacier that was breaking into the sea and could feel the threat of the impending tornado.  After that, we asked the boys to select a few areas of the Franklin Institute that they were keen to visit on this trip.  The advantage of being members is that we don’t feel the pressure to do the whole museum from top to toe each time and can instead cherry pick.  We, therefore, visited the space section where they got to try on virtual reality headsets and touch another fragment of the meteor that came from Meteor Crater.  We also visited the Heart section where they enjoyed climbing around in the chambers of the heart and listen to the heartbeats of different creatures.  They also had fun in the electricity section, creating circuits by connecting hands and getting electrical shocks from a key.

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After the Franklin Institute we headed across the street to Logan Circle.  While I have walked and driven past it many times, this was our first visit to Logan Circle – also called Logan Square, confusingly enough.  It is basically a small park in the middle of a roundabout (traffic circle).  We read on a placard in the park that this was the site of the Great Sanitary Fair.  This was an 1864 event to raise funds for medicines for the Union troops.  Abraham Lincoln contributed by donating signed copies of the Emancipation Proclamation.  Apparently the public address he gave that day was the only one he delivered in Philadelphia.  At the centre of the circle is an impressive fountain, the Swann Memorial Fountain.  The Fountain was designed by Alexander Calder – the Philadelphia sculptor whose father designed City Hall and who was the father of Alexander Calder of the kinesthetic sculptures.  It features three massive figures each representing the rivers of the city – the Schuylkill, Wissahickon, and Delaware – and turtles, frogs, fish, and swans.  There are geysers spouting high up into the air.  It’s a pretty cool fountain.

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Of course, the kids didn’t give a stuff about all that history.  They were just interested in the water.  There were lots of people playing in the fountain, both wading and swimming, and my boys were keen to join in.  We were not sure if frolicking in the water was permitted.  There was no sign prohibiting entering the water, as is often the case with off-limits fountains, so we decided to let them get in.  It turns out that there was a brief ban on entering the fountain but it is now allowed so we were OK.  The boys loved wading around in the water and wandered all over the place.  I decided to join them, though I avoided getting as wet as they did.  They loved the spouting turtle and frog figures and had an absolute blast playing, splashing, and giggling.  Now I am keen to visit more of Philly’s fountains and public art.

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Road Trip 2017 #20 – Uncanny Valley in Vegas

The eleventh day of our vacation started with an epiphany: we could park for free on the strip.  As epiphanies go, it’s hardly dramatic or captivating.  However, as a group of people who had hoofed several blocks in gross heat the night before and then taken a taxi for the return journey, this was significant news.  So used to paying hefty charges to park in city centres, it had not even crossed our minds that parking on the strip would be affordable.  We had not even thought to google it.  More fool us.  Turns out that most of the big casino hotels offer free parking.  We wished we had known that the night before but were definitely going to use free parking on our second day in Las Vegas.

We decided to let the kids determine what we did for our only full day in the city.  It probably won’t surprise you that I am an over-planner when it comes to our vacations.  I create a spreadsheet full of all the possible things we might do in all of the areas we are visiting, with the practical details and a precis of each.  The boys, therefore, had a flick through my spreadsheet, had a discussion between themselves, and informed us that they wanted to go to the Madame Tussaud’s exhibit inside the Venetian resort.  Our kids have never been to a waxworks place and I have fond memories of visiting wax museums as a kid so we agreed that was the plan.  We had, after all, done lots of National Parks so why not do something a bit wacky?

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The thing about wax models is that sometimes they can be uncannily accurate, sometimes they can be almost right but there is something awry, and sometimes they are just pure dreadful.  Half the fun of visiting a waxworks place is judging the quality of the look-a-like-ness of each model.  We had fun judging.  The Marilyn Monroe and Leonardo DiCaprio were definitely the worst.  When I was a kid, the wax models were treated like museum exhibits – look but do not touch.  I was happy, therefore, to discover that interacting with the wax models was actively encouraged at this Madame Tussaud’s.  I would not have to tell my kids to “look with your eyes and not with your hands” at all.  Yay!

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The kids had an absolute whale of a time adopting poses next to the various celebrity models.  In some cases props were provided so they could set up little vignettes and pose for photographs.  The place was organised in themed sections.  The first section was all about movie stars.  I noted that Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie were standing in different areas of the room, presumably having originally been together.  The next section was about sports stars.  Most, I confess, we did not recognise.  I am not someone who follows sports.  However, there were lots of props and sets in this section so the kids were able to set up scenarios like boxing Muhammad Ali.

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The music section was fun too.  We even got to have a go at karaoke.  We had a total giggle singing along to ‘Suspicious Minds’, though I am not sure our fellow visitors appreciated our singing as much as we were enjoying it.  My little Hendrix fan – who happened to be wearing a Hendrix t-shirt – was super excited to stand beside Waxy Jimi as if they were jamming together.  There was a large section devoted to celebrities associated with Las Vegas.  I got to pretend I was performing with the Rat Pack and the kids got to hang out with not one but two Elvises (Elvii?).

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The section my younger boys were most excited about, however, was the one devoted to Marvel characters.  There were a few wax models and then there was a 4D show that was fun and really well done.  My little Marvel nuts thought it was brilliant.  The whole Madame Tussaud’s experience was a bit too brief and skimpy for my liking but the kids had fun so it was worth it.

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We decided to have a wander around Caesar’s Palace.  We looked around lots of the crazy shops full of expensively flashy whatnots and blingy trifles, the kids sat inside chairs shaped like Emperor heads, we went up and down curving escalators – which I was way more excited about than a woman in her 40s should be – and the kids ate expensive but divine gelato.  We also took in another free show, this one about the Fall of Atlantis.  At the appointed time, a fountain transformed into a show about warring animatronic gods.  It was utterly silly but fun and, just behind the fountain, there was a bonus fish tank that was huge and filled with exotic fish and happy looking rays.

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We decided we should eat a a buffet in Las Vegas, since the city is all about excess and gluttony of one kind or another.  We also love a good buffet since it means the kids are more open to experimentation with food.  We were told the buffet at the Aria was amazing.  They weren’t wrong.  The price almost made me choke but the food was completely and utterly amazing.  It was arranged by food culture and each thing I sampled was delectable.  I was especially smitten with the curries and the naan breads.  My 11 year old particularly adored all of the sushi and the crab.  We were all stuffed but decided we had enough space in the Dessert Annex space of our stomachs for sampling desserts.  Those sweet treats were gorgeous and were beautifully constructed miniature confections.  I ended up feeling grotesquely sick but I have no regrets.  I did regret it that evening and the next day because I felt intensely queasy.  I also regret it because my youngest son was sick during the night and we had to clean him and strip the bed.  But no long term regrets.

Road Trip 2017 #19 – Evening in Las Vegas

After spending all day in the searing heat, I had never been so glad to flop onto a bed in an air conditioned room as I was when I entered our hotel room in Las Vegas.  You may have noticed, however, that we don’t do relaxation on our road trips.  Nope, it is all about cramming as many experiences into our time as possible.  We, therefore, had a quick refresh and then we headed back out for the evening.  Partly this was because we were hungry and had to go in search of food, since we had no kitchen or dining facilities in our hotel accommodation, and mostly it was because we felt the kids should see the lights of Vegas in the darkness.

We were staying in a hotel a good few blocks away from the strip so we travelled by Shank’s Pony towards Las Vegas Boulevard.  For various ridiculous and unplanned reasons, we ended up eating in the Hard Rock Casino.  We are not gambling people so were fairly clueless when it came to the rules about where the children could and could not be inside the casino, something we had to navigate since there was no completely clear border between the casino floor and the areas designated for dining.  We asked a member of staff who explained that the children could actually cross the gambling area of the casino (the area was machines rather than the gaming tables) in order to do things like access the restrooms but the rule was that they could not stand still.  I suppose the rationale is that the children could be protected from gambling so long as they were only observing it at a passing glance rather than spectating.  In any case, my youngest son took this to mean that he could not stand still at all ever when inside a casino so he spent all his time acting like he had medieval dancing mania.  The ridiculous thing was that the children could sit still in the eating area and completely observe the folks who were attached to the gambling machines, firing in money on repeat, and pressing buttons.  It certainly held little interest on no appeal to my kids.  Anyway, the food we ate at the Hard Rock Casino was surprisingly good and the service was efficient so we were fed, happy, and back out walking in no time at all.

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Full disclosure: I am not a fan of Las Vegas.  I don’t gamble, I despise crowds, I hate feeling hassled, I dislike loud noise, I am not into lavish excess, all the things that the city is famous for.  However, I do think that Las Vegas looks at its best at night time when all those lights and neon prettify the place.  The first place we headed to was the Bellagio – or rather the exterior of the Bellagio.  We wanted to see the fountain display.  We dodged and ducked through the crowds and darted across the wide roads and made it in time for the show and even managed to get a decent viewing spot.  The fountain display takes place on a lake in front of the casino.  It’s basically just some dancing water synchronised to music and it is pretty brief but it is well done and it’s free.  Free is one of my favourite words when travelling so, from the Bellagio, we walked further along the Boulevard in order to find a spot near the Mirage.  Despite the throng, we lucked out and found a great viewing spot for their volcano show.  Both Mr Pict and I thought it had improved since we saw it.  It was a pretty impressive display of lights and flames.

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After witnessing two outdoor shows, between the temperatures (it was still almost 100 degrees despite being late at night) and the crowds, we were all feeling really hot and bothered.  We, therefore, headed into the Venetian because I remembered being impressed by it when I was last in Vegas and – more critically – it was nearby and had air conditioning.  The kids, however, were not feeling it.  They perked up a bit when they thought they might go on a gondola ride but I burst their bubbles and that made them even more mopey.  In fairness, we had been to Zion National Park, Lake Mead, the Hoover Dam, and Las Vegas all in one day.  It was time to call it quits and head back to our hotel.  We all contemplated the long walk home in the sticky heat.  We decided to treat ourselves to a cab ride.  It was a good investment.  The hotel pool was open 24 hours a day so – although it was after 10pm – they decided to go have a swim and play in the pool.  Vegas is the party city after all!

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