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September 15, 2010

Pennsylvania 2010 Day 1: Santa Ana to Philadelphia

Wednesday September 15, 2010
Early morning rise as another trip begins! Daniel was up at 6:00, and by 7:30, I was ready to go. Daniel went to pick up Leslie but the traffic was backed up due to some untimely tree trimming, and he returned a bit late. We ended up leaving the house at 8:00, a bit behind schedule and I was worried we would be late to the airport. Thankfully, despite bad traffic to the airport, we arrived with minutes to spare. First delay was while I was checking my bag, the lady behind the counter inexplicably stopped helping me to handle a complex re-ticketing issue. Next up was at the TSA checkpoint. It became bogged down by some lady who tried to carry a snow globe on board the plane, a clear violation of safety rules. By the time we reached the gate, we were too late for Priority AAcess to the flight, but we managed to get on board and find our seats – Whew!
The flight to Dallas was pretty non-eventful. When we arrived, we came into deluxe Terminal D, and had to depart out of Terminal C and I realized we had two hours to kill. We grabbed a snack at Dunkin’ Donuts which turned out to be a bad idea since mine had a mystery filling and both of our donuts were stale. We decided to walk over the breezeway to Terminal C, and realizing that did not take that much time, we decided to ride the Skylink all the way around the airport. Finally at the gate, we kicked back until it was time to board. This time, we got to use my special Gold Status Priority AAcess, and board early. This proved crucial as it was an MD-80 and was very cramped. The stragglers all had to check their bags. This flight was also pretty non-eventful, and we all enjoyed my prepared lunches of sandwiches. Leslie ate her DFW-purchased Pizza Hut which from all looks was good.
Arriving in Philadelphia, I was pleasantly surprised to get my bag fairly quickly. After some confusion finding the rental car bus and observing some fun accents, we hopped on the bus. It took us some time once we arrived at the Hertz office. It seemed my Hotwire reservation was a bit amiss and he had to make some adjustments. We waited for our promised Honda Accord, only to have it swapped out for a Mazda Tribute Crossover. It was something of an upgrade, but it definitely looked like a New York car as indicated by its plates, since it was covered in dings and scratches.
Finally, we were on the road and taking the scenic route to our hotel we ended up doing a few loops around downtown. After a few passes, we arrived at the Ritz-Carlton Philadelphia, right across from City Hall. It was a super swanky place, and I think its going to be a great hotel. We tried to celebrate our swankiness by going to the Olive Garden across the street, but it was closed. After a block of walking, we settled on Wendy’s. My food was really good (probably because I was hungry), and after the meal, we called it a night. Tomorrow is full day exploring and driving!!
Pennsylvania 2010 Photos on Flickr

September 16, 2010

Pennsylvania 2010 Day 2: Philadelphia and New Jersey

Thursday September 16, 2010
We set off early today to walk down to Independence Hall from our hotel. It was about a 20-30 minute walk so we planned it so we would get there at opening. The hall gets crowded and requires tickets that you can purchase ahead of time, or free tickets you can get the day you arrive. We saw Independence Hall and took a photo, but realized we had to head to the visitor center to get our tickets. Luckily, since it was a Thursday and not busy, we scored tickets for the next tour. We headed back up to the hall and awaited our tour.
I had checked the web site and knew that the tower was going to be under construction, but luckily, you could still see the iconic structure through the scaffolding. I was worried it was just going to be a green tarp. Also, it was early enough in the restoration that they had not removed the clock faces or the wood beams around them, so it still looked normal. We headed into the East Wing to begin our tour. Seeing the ranger reminded me of my desire to be a park ranger. One of those things I have always wanted to do but never got a chance to do. The tour was nice and full of fun facts, but the crowning moment was going into the main part of the building where they actually met and worked on the Declaration of Independence as well as the Constitution of the United States. I wonder if the Founding Fathers thought that people would be visiting the room hundreds of years later.
Next up on the tour was viewing of actual copies of the Declaration and Constitution (these are the ones they would read to people in parks, not the ones actually signed – those are in the National Archives). I love the ambient low lighting in these types of places, the last of which I visited was the Crown Jewels at the Tower of London. We then finished with a tour of where Congress met for the first ten years. The House of Representatives was on the first floor and the Senate on the second floor. It was Daniel who pointed out that they sure didn’t need a lot of room since there were so few states at the time. I have to point out that the Ranger on this part of the tour was more interested in picking his nose and doing impressions of dead newsmen than being understood by his Guests.
It was then time to head over and see the Liberty Bell. It is currently housed in a nice building next to the hall with the Bell positioned for cool photos with the Hall in the background. I noticed that the building smelled all metal-y and bell-y and there was a nice compliment of history and exhibits to accompany it. Once our photos were complete, we headed back to the hotel and grabbed some lunch at this deli a basement of a shopping area. After lunch, we made one quick stop at Macy’s so Leslie could pay her bill and I talked to Susie on the phone to plan our meeting on Saturday. Back at the hotel, we had a brief panic as Leslie could not find her ID and she was pretty stressed out until we found it in the back of our rental car.
We then set off to New Jersey. Leslie suggested we head to Carlo’s Bakery in Hoboken – home to TLC’s Cake Boss. It was a long trek, but we decided what the heck. Google Maps was a bit of a let down since it sent us to some random road off the expressway. It took us a while to find a way back to the Turnpike, costing us some time. We finally made it onto the New Jersey Turnpike. After a couple of hours, we made it to Hoboken. After a few wrong turns here and there, we managed to find the bakery. This was the point where I turned to Daniel and said, “Just once on this trip, I want to get somewhere without having to go around in circles!” We managed to find a parking spot, but it required me to do some tricky parallel parking. It may have involved hopping the curb and a slight tap on a bumper, but we fit into the spot.
Carlo’s was just like it was on TV and quite busy, so we grabbed our number and drooled over the display cases until we were called. Leslie spotted a few of the stars like Buddy hovering in the back, but I was more focused on the food. I picked up some cupcakes, a mini chocolate cake, and a mug. We planned on enjoying our food down in Liberty Island State Park, so after a quick photo opportunity of the Manhattan skyline, we headed to Liberty Park. I was a bit disappointed that the ferries to Liberty Island were closed already, but the park was still open. We headed over to a site of a September 11 memorial and took photos of where the World Trade Center used to be. Then, things got crazy. We were walking over to where you could see Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty when thunder and lightning started to hit all over the city. It was a pretty fierce storm and some of the strikes were VERY close to where we were. Leslie and I started to scramble back towards the old rail station in the park – just to be closer to a building. Daniel was lagging behind until I mentioned that the titanium rod in his leg made him the perfect lightning rod.
We took refuge in the car as it started hailing and dumping rain. Daniel managed to get some good video of the storms. As we left, we could barely see the road in front of us! Finally, it started to ease up and we headed back on the Turnpike and then turned south towards Atlantic City via the Garden State Parkway. Of course, I missed the Turnpike exit and we ended up going through downtown Newark in rush hour traffic. Once the traffic cleared, we stopped at a service area off the Parkway and used the restroom and stocked up on water, and finally enjoyed our first delicious cupcake from Carlo’s. It was awesome! The rest of the trip to Atlantic City was full of lightning and downpours and occasional clearing. There was also lots of road construction and speed controls so it took almost 3 hours to get to Atlantic City.
Like an oasis rising from the shoreline, we finally pulled into Atlantic City around 8:45, and headed for the first casino we saw, Caesars. I am sure there were better ones to choose from, but we were hungry and since we didn’t have a lot of time, we wanted to be centrally located to the boardwalk. We ate at the Roma Cafe, which was OK, but the service left a lot to be desired. I think our server had a stroke at the beginning of service since it was all downhill from there. After eating, we walked down the boardwalk a bit, just to take some photos and see what it was like. I’m sure it is neat when its peak season and the boardwalk is bustling with activity. Since there were not a lot of people out (remember it had just dumped a ton of rain), we were easy targets for the guys wanting to push you in a cab and the people who just wanted money. After photos, we headed back into the casino where I explained Roulette to Leslie, and Daniel won some money on an I Love Lucy slot machine.
We finally hit the road back to Philadelphia around midnight. It was nice and uneventful back to the hotel, although I did learn that you can’t pump your own gas at a service station along the road in New Jersey. We also had a few brief deer sightings, but thankfully they stayed on the side of the road. It was well after 1am when we arrived back at the Ritz in Philadelphia. We promptly crashed in our beds and decided to sleep in tomorrow so as not to run ourselves into the ground. Tomorrow, we will attempt to run up the steps at the Philadelphia Museum of Art a la Rocky, and possibly hit Delaware before heading into Amish Country and on to Harrisburg.

September 17, 2010

Pennsylvania 2010 Day 3: Philadelphia to Harrisburg via Delaware

Friday September 17, 2010
Today we slept in until after 9am and it felt great after our long day. I didn’t get the best sleep possible, but I think that had more to do with the side of the bed where I fell asleep. We ambled downstairs and managed to be in the lobby just before Noon. I asked the concierge for some directional assistance to our destinations today and I got to see the Ritz approved iPad device on display. Nothing like a little temptation!
We headed on the road and hit our first stop – the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. These steps were made famous by Sylvester Stallone in the first Rocky movie as he ran up the steps to the inspirational hit, “Gonna Fly Now” aka the theme from Rocky. We parked and headed up the steps for some photos and Daniel video recorded me running up the steps. It felt so touristy, but sometimes you just gotta do it!
It was then time to hit the road to my 36th State – Delaware. It only took us about 30 minutes to get to the border, and I was a bit disappointed that they didn’t have a visitor center for convenient photos, but we managed to get a quick shot of the “Welcome to Delaware” sign and some random street signs. Lunch was at Burger King in Talleyville, DE and was OK other than the dead bug in the sign on the drink machine. Little did we know that just over the hill there were many different opportunities to eat that would have been much better.
Next up, we headed to Amish Country. We headed towards Intercourse, PA which is in the heart of Lancaster County. I was excited to visit this area since I had heard so much about it. We stopped at Kitchen Kettle Village to look at some of the arts and crafts from the area. It was very touristy, but we did manage to get some magnets. It was already 5pm by the time we were there so we did not have the chance to go to any of the house and crafts tours, so we spent time just driving through the back country and admiring things from afar. At the Kitchen Kettle Village, we saw a map of covered bridges and decided to go try and fine some.
The first bridge was closed to vehicle traffic, but we managed to get a photo of the side view. The second bridge turned out not to be a covered bridge at all and was actually a pedestrian bridge through a development site. I finally turned to the web to find the next closest one – Bitzer’s Mill Covered bridge. It was an adventure to get there, but we finally arrived. We were able to cross this one, but there were no good spots to get photos. We decided to try one more before hitting the road to Harrisburg. The next one up on the list was the Pool Forge Covered Bridge. This one had a little historical park next to it so once we found it, we were able to pull over and get some great photos. I talked to the people in one of the little houses near the bridge and they were having a historical festival the next day. I thanked them for their time and we set off for Harrisburg.
Daniel was wanting some of that home made root beer he saw advertised along the way, so we headed back towards Intercourse. We passed through Blue Ball and some other nice towns and found the house that was selling the root beer. There was a nice Amish Boy, maybe 10 or so selling Root Beer and other desserts. We opted for 3 small bottles (which were still good size!) and then headed down the road. Daniel enjoyed the root beer though he said it smelled more like real beer and those root beer barrel candies. As we made our way through the trees and small towns, the sun started to set directly in front of us. This led to some tense moments as I missed some signal lights as they were turning red and I almost missed the turnoff for Harrisburg.
We stopped briefly at a Cracker Barrel since Daniel and Leslie had never been there. It was then for the final 30 minutes to our hotel. Once again, I missed a turn (although I think I misinterpreted where Google was trying to tell me to go) and we took a scenic route back to the hotel. We got settled in the room without much hassle and immediately went out to Target to get some breakfast and snack items for the next few days. Daniel then decided to die his hair with some Kool Aid, and I went and fetched a pizza while they created their masterpiece with his hair. Initial results look promising but we won’t know until we can see it in the light. It was then wind down time with some TV and me getting caught up on my email and my Trip Diary. Tomorrow it is off to Hershey Park and meeting up with Susie!

September 18, 2010

Pennsylvania 2010 Day 4: Hershey Park

Saturday September 18, 2010
Today was the day that we were all waiting for – Hershey Park!! We set off about 9:30 for the park, and made a quick stop at the Giant Supermarket to get discount tickets for the park. It saved us a whopping $10, but well worth the detour. Breaking out rule of bad turns, we actually found the park easily and discovered that there was a huge RV show going on next to the park.
After parking, we stopped at Hershey World. We intended to sign up for the “Create Your own Chocolate Bar” tour for later in the day, but they ended up selling us a ticket for right away. We all had a great time learning how to make our own Chocolate Bars. Currently they only have milk chocolate, but they plan to expand to Dark and White Chocolate. You also get to create your own packaging. I was a little disappointed with mine, but mainly because I typed “Club Josh Candies” when I should have typed just “Club Josh”. Our candy bars looked delicious and I can’t wait to try them. My chocolate bar contains chocolate chips, cookie crumbs, and puffed rice. We then checked our candy bars into the bag check so we could head into the park.
Daniel had been to the park before when he was younger, and he also had downloaded the Hershey Park App for his iPhone. I was very impressed with what they had (they even have a WiFi Hot Spot where you can download it in the park) and Daniel had made a list of rides to go on. We went on the Super Duper Looper first, and then hit up several other coasters and attractions while we waited for Susie and Chuck to arrive. One of the scariest we went on was the Storm Rider, which launches you at 70MPH up a huge incline and then down and around some crazy twists and inversions. I thought my glasses were going to come off at any time. We finally met up with Susie and Chuck after the Monorail, and it was great to see her again after several years.
We spent the rest of the day gabbing and going on rides and visiting Zoo America, a small wildlife park that is included with your Hershey Park admission. My favorite ride at the park was Lightning Racer, a racing wooden coaster that Daniel ended up with a small kid next to him at a parent’s urging (since we were both parties of 3). Daniel’s favorite was the Super Duper Looper, a classic coaster. After a full day of fun, we headed back to Hershey World to do some shopping. I realized that there was no Hershey Park souvenirs there, so I headed back to the park and utilizing my Zoo America hand stamps, went to the shops. They told me that since it was the end of the season they did not have anymore Hershey Park sweatshirts so I had to settle for just refrigerator magnets. I caught up with everyone else and we decided to have a nightcap at the Olive Garden.
After dinner, we headed back to the hotel and made our plans for the AM. Tomorrow is Three Mile Island and Gettysburg and hopefully a trip to West Virginia!

September 19, 2010

Pennsylvania 2010 Day 5: Gettysburg and West Virginia

Sunday September 19, 2010
A late start today as I overslept when I silenced my alarm. We quickly got ready and met Susie just after 10am to hit the road. Our first task was to find a scenic overlook to the Three Mile Island Nuclear Power plant – site of the worst accident in Nuclear Power in the US in 1979. Along State Route 441, there is a great spot where we pulled over and took some photos. There is even a road sign commemorating the accident. After reflecting on the craziness, we headed down to Gettysburg.
It was nice that it was only about 45 minutes from Harrisburg to Gettysburg, and we arrived at the Gettysburg National Military Park’s new visitor center without any of our usual detours. Right off the bat, I was impressed with the Guest facilities! Chuck informed me that they had really upgraded the facilities back in 2008 complete with a restoration of the famous Battle of Gettysburg cyclorama. We started off with the Morgan Freeman narrated “A New Birth of Freedom” movie which was very well done. This moving movie tells the story of those three days in July 1863 when the battle was fought. After the movie, you head up the escalator to the Cyclorama. The Cyclorama is the Circlevision 360 of the 1800s. In the days before movies and widespread use of photos, this painted mural was one of the few ways the masses could see how events took place. The Gettysburg Cyclorama shows Pickett’s Charge and with a few strategic lights and sound effects really comes alive. You really could spend all day just looking at the painting. It also was interesting to see how the Cyclorama was shown previously.
We then did a quick once-over of the Gettysburg museum. A superb collection of artifacts and stories of the Civil War, the Battle of Gettysburg , the Gettysburg Address, and the legacy of the events of all three. We spent an hour just in there before we headed to the gift shop. Obligatory magnets were purchased before we headed out to lunch. Using the power of the iPhone, Yelp, and a drive by, we found Tommy’s Pizza. We split two pizzas between the 5 of us and relaxed a bit before hitting the battlefield.
First up was the Soldier’s Cemetery and the site where Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address. It was very moving not only to see the graves, but also to be in the place where he actually spoke those words that have reverberated throughout the ages. Like the History Channel, but live in 3D! We then walked down to the High Water Mark – the point where the Confederacy had advanced the furthest in the war. It was awe inspiring to be among all the various statues and monuments to all the people who died in that battle, and those who survived. It also was stunning to stand at the Corps of Trees, the spot where all the Confederate troops were heading during the battle. Quite a bit of history in one small grove of trees. After some photos, it was time to move on down the road. We made a B-line back to the Visitor Center to make one last visit of the restrooms before we departed. Susie and Chuck headed back to State College, and Daniel, Leslie and I headed over to West Virginia. I was sad to see Susie go, and I certainly miss having her close by. I hope to actually get up to State College to see Penn State and go exploring in that part of the state.
We hit the road and in no time at all, we were in Maryland heading towards West Virginia. Our Google Maps approved route sent us along State Highway 77, which led us past Catoctin National Park. A quick Gorn photo op and we were back on the road. Thankfully, West Virginia had a nice Welcome Center just inside the border where we stopped and took photos. Tired from all the fun and excitement, we headed back to Harrisburg. Along the way, Daniel and Leslie got some photos of the Meow-Mix Mobile that was traveling down I-81. By taking I-81, it took us just over an hour to get back to Harrisburg (after a couple quick stops to try and get better shots of the MMM as we passed it).
We had some dinner at Taco Bell, and Leslie had Olive Garden leftovers while we relaxed and watched some TV in the room. Winding down the trip, we do not know if we will hit anything tomorrow other than driving to the airport, it will just depend on how early we leave.

September 20, 2010

Pennsylvania 2010 Day 6: Harrisburg to Santa Ana via Valley Forge

Monday September 20, 2010
We woke up this morning with no real plans other than I knew I wanted to have us at the airport at no later than 2:30 pm to allow us extra time with Hertz. We got up and were out the door of the Hilton Garden Inn one last time around 11am – plenty of time to make it to Philadelphia. As we headed towards the turnpike, I realized I did not have any cash left, and I wanted to make sure I had some for the tolls. At the last minute we veered off the freeway back on one of the smaller freeways that took us a bit out of the way from where I had intended. You never need a bank when you want one, and this proved no different. I realized we were on the same road we took when we came to Harrisburg from Lancaster County a couple of days ago, and I knew that we were heading more south than east. Luckily, Daniel found me a bank that was not too far off the freeway. He then was able to plot a course to get us back to the Pennsylvania Turnpike and the more direct route back to Philadelphia.
It was just about 1pm when we arrived at Valley Forge and we decided we should stop at the National Historic Park and take a brief tour of the area. The visitor center was straight out of 1970’s NPS aesthetic, a stark contrast to the 2008 Gettysburg Visitor Center. Those of you who have forgotten basic American History, Valley Forge is where the Continental Army was holed up for the winter of 1777-1778 in miserable conditions. Read more about it.
We read the timeline of that harsh winter, and then after a little souvenir shopping, we headed out on the Encampment Route to see some of the sights. Pressed for time, we headed to the National Memorial Arch for some photos and then continued our car tour around until we arrived at Washington’s Headquarters. This area of the park had been refurbished in 2009 and looked fantastic. The old train station was now an info center and the colonial house he occupied for his office look great. I also liked how they showed what was around the Headquarters over the years and it is nice that it has been restored to more of what it looked like back in the 1700s.
Time waits for no one, so we now had to head to the airport and catch our flight home. It was only about 30 minutes to the airport area, but unfortunately, there were no gas stations immediately around the airport. This led to a 20-minute detour to try and find a gas station through some interesting parts of South Philly. Finally, we located one and then made a mad dash back to the airport. By the time we were at the Hertz place waiting for the shuttle bus, we had about an hour until our plane departed. This is cutting it close for me! After what seemed like an eternity, we made it to the terminal, and luckily there were not that many people checking bags. Bag dropped, we made it through security and to the gate with 20 minutes to spare before boarding. Whew! Daniel and I grabbed some pizza, which we ate right away, while Leslie opted for a sandwich, part to eat now and part to save for the flight.
Finally, we made it onto the plane. We were almost an hour late leaving due to ramp traffic. Apparently if you are not US Airways at PHL, you get to wait while all their planes leave. On the taxiway, I noticed 9 US Airways planes in front of us for takeoff. Somehow, our pilot made it into Dallas/Ft. Worth airport on time. I’m sure the AA Scheduling folks have factored in ramp delays when doing their schedules. We had another 2 hour wait at DFW before our flight to Orange County, so we spent time eating and recharging our phones before using our Priority AAcess one last time. The flight into Orange County was nice and non eventful. It went by quickly for me as I watched three Doctor Who episodes on my iPhone while Leslie got caught up on the Star and Daniel played some Professor Layton on his DSi.
Our ride was waiting for us at the airport right as we came out and before we knew it, we were back at home. I took Leslie home and then Daniel and I watched some TV before conking out. It was a great trip and I am glad that I was able to see where so much history had been made as well as get to see Susie and Chuck again – and don’t for get Hershey Park and all that chocolaty goodness! Which reminds me, I need to stop typing and go eat my custom chocolate bar..