Roadtrippers: Use Florida SunPass to pay tolls in North Carolina

Here's good news for roadtrippers in Florida and North Carolina: Starting in July, the transponder you use to automatically pay tolls in your home state will also work in the other state. That means that when I make my annual fall road trip to Asheville, N.C., I can pay North Carolina tolls with my SunPass. More information here.


Taking the train to Orlando

When I made a day trip to Orlando last week to check out the new attractions at Magic Kingdom, I took the train up and flew back on Spirit. Any time I can trade the stress of flying for a leisurely train ride, I’ll do it. Roomy seats, no security lines, a lounge car, no charge for two checked bags, and no need to arrive more than 15 minutes early – there’s really no debate.

Cost: $38. Ride time: 9 a.m. to about 1:30 p.m. I didn’t need a full day at the park, so the arrival time worked fine. I had a late flight back, departing at 9:40 p.m. Parking at the Fort Lauderdale Amtrak station is free, but I had to pay for a taxi from the airport back to the station.

After taking this ride a few times, I have some advice to pass on:

* If you’re going to Disney and don’t need to get a rental car, get off at Kissimmee, which is the stop before Orlando. It’s closer.

* Amtrak doesn’t issue e-tickets. You’ll need to print out your ticket at the station. I try to get to a station — it doesn’t have to be the one you’re leaving from — a day or two in advance. It takes only a minute, and parking is free.

* If you’re going to leave your car at the train station, you’ll need a free parking pass from a station agent. Get there 10 or 15 minutes earlier so you have time to stand in line for the pass, then walk it back to your car.

* The cashier in the lounge car takes a long break shortly after the train departs West Palm Beach. If you need coffee, get it by 10 a.m.

* Make sure your schedule has some flexibility. Amtrak has a lower priority than freight trains, and is frequently late. Towards the end of my trip, the train crept along behind two slow-moving freight trains and arrived about 20 minutes late. 


A tour of Fantasyland and a detour to Epcot

I’m just back from a tour of what’s new at Disney World’s expansion of Fantasyland and my favorite part is …. the newly revamped Test Track ride at Epcot. OK, OK, the additions to Fantasyland are fun too, but they’re aimed at the little ones and a non-parent adult isn’t likely to ride them over and over or keep going back to meet Belle. Test Track, on the other hand, is great fun for those of us who just have a childish streak. The basic ride remains the same – the car still hits 65 mph, the fastest of any Disney ride anywhere – but all the visuals have changed. Plus, the Imagineers have added a pre-show and an after-show. Before you ride, you design your own car. Although you ride in the same standard car as everybody else, the computer tests your design and tells you how well it would fare on that ride. Then afterwards, you can put your digital car on a digital track and watch it compete against others. It’s really two attractions in one. If I caught a day when the lines were shorter, I’d go back and modify my design to make my car faster. Even the grown-up kids seemed to be enthralled by the attraction, which reopened just last week. Vroom, vroom!

Designing your own car at Test Track. Photo: Ali Nasser/Walt Disney Resorts

Holiday road trips

Who’s hitting the road for the holidays? Just about everybody, apparently. AAA predicts that a record 84.4 million people will take a driving trip of at least 50 miles between Dec. 22 and Jan. 1. Read the full story here.


5 million Butterbeers

Universal Orlando Resort on Wednesday served its five millionth Butterbeer, the sweet, non-alcoholic drink it created about 2 ½ years ago to serve in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Islands of Adventure. Universal isn’t giving out its secret recipe, which was approved by J.K. Rowling, the Harry Potter author, but here’s a version based on cream soda that can be made at home.

Universal Orlando Celebrates Five Millionth Butterbeer
Photo: Celebrating 5 million Butterbeers/Universal Orlando

Looking after your car -- or a rental car

If you're prepping for a road trip, the Living On The Cheap website has tips on how to get your car ready. Check it out here. If you're flying to your destination, then renting a car, here's advice on whether to buy insurance from the rental car agency.



Naming ceremony for the Carnival Breeze

If it seems that I’ve been blogging a lot about cruise ships lately – especially for someone whose first (travel) love is roadtripping – I am. This is the season when ships that have spent the summer in Europe return to South Florida and when new ships that were built in Europe’s shipyards arrive in Miami or Fort Lauderdale.

Which explains why I’ve attended two ship-naming ceremonies in the last eight days: Celebrity Reflection last weekend and Carnival Breeze on Saturday. Those two, along with Oceania’s Riviera – which had its ship-naming in Europe – are the new ships of 2012, all of which have arrived in Miami in the last few weeks.

Ship-naming ceremonies have several traditions associated with them, including the selection of a godmother and the breaking of a bottle of champagne on the hull of the ship. Other traditions, such as the sacrifice of sheep or even humans, thankfully have been discontinued. The original purpose of the ceremony was to introduce the new ship to the god of the sea – Neptune, Poseidon, whoever. The ancient Greeks drank wine to honor the gods and poured water on the new vessel as a symbol of blessing, but those two rituals eventually merged into one, and the liquid of choice in recent times has been champagne.

It’s considered bad luck if the godmother smashes the bottle against the hull and it doesn’t break -- Judi Dench swung a bottle of champagne against the Carnival Legend three times before it broke – so now, the bottles often are scored with a glasscutter first. It’s probably also considered bad luck if guests are cut by flying shards of glass, so the ceremony isn’t necessarily held near the hull. Both the Carnival and Celebrity ceremonies were held in the respective ship’s theater. The godmothers stood on the stage and cut or pulled a ribbon, and by some remote mechanism, the bottle was swung against the hull and smashed, which we saw on a huge video screen. Seems like a waste of good champagne to me, but who am I to say no to Poseidon?

Tracy Wilson Mourning is the godmother of the Carnival Breeze, and the ceremony was both touching as she talked about the Honey Shine mentoring program for young girls, a program she founded, and funny, as master of ceremonies John Heald pranced like a hefty supermodel on the catwalk and threatened to sing Barry Manilow songs. (Carnival’s frequent cruisers all know Heald – he is senior cruise director for Carnival and writes a funny, slightly risqué and usually helpful blog here.)

Watch next Sunday’s Travel section, when I’ll tell you about the new ships.

My photos of the ceremony, by the way, were pretty awful, so I pestered Andy Newman, who has photographed many of Carnival's ships, on Sunday morning for these. Top, Carnival Breeze's godmother, Tracy Mourning, and Capt. Vincenzo Alcaras with a stand-in bottle of champagne (the real one was swung against the hull). Below,Tracy with husband Alonzo (yeah, I know who he is but this is HER show) and the captain on the bridge.



A touch of Miami on Norwegian Cruise Line's next ship

Norwegian Getaway Hull Art
For the Norwegian Breakaway, a new ship that will home port in New York City, Norwegian Cruise Line commissioned Peter Max to paint its hull with images of the New York skyline, named the Rockettes as godmothers, designed a promenade inspired by the Coney Island Boardwalk, and added New York-style hot dog carts.

On Monday, Norwegian announced the first of the Miami features that will grace Breakaway’s twin,  the Getaway, which will home port here: a hull painted by David “LEBO” Le Batard, a Cuban-born Miami artist known for his murals. The hull will feature a mermaid, a lighthouse, pelicans and other whimsical sea features.

“We wanted somebody who embodied the unique culture of Miami,” said Kevin Sheehan, Norwegian’s CEO, who cited Le Batard’s  “bright, colorful, fun … stunning” works  in making the announcement at the artist’s studio in Wynwood.

Sheehan declined to say what other Miami details might be associated with the ship: An arepa stand? A promenade that looks like Ocean Drive? “Cuban coffee,” he volunteered. Well, of course! But what could be more Miami than to announce a work of art on a ship to kick off Art Basel week?

The Breakaway and the Getaway are 4,000-passenger ships under construction in Germany. The Breakaway will arrive in New York in May and sail cruises first to Bermuda and later to the Caribbean and Florida. The Getaway will arrive in Miami in January 2014 and will sail to the eastern Caribbean year-round.   


Renderings of the Getaway (top) and Breakaway (above) courtesy of Norwegian Cruise Line.


Celebrity Reflection: A shower that is bending cruise ship design rules

If you spotted a Celebrity Cruises ship sailing along the South Florida coast on Sunday, it probably was Celebrity Reflection, the line’s newest ship. And if you noticed an odd addition to one of the top decks, what you were seeing was an example of a trend in cruise ship design: a cantilevered space.

Cr-bathroom1.jpgThe feature that’s getting all the oohs and aahs on the Celebrity Reflection, which took travel agents, writers and VIPs on a short cruise-to-nowhere over the weekend, is a glassed-in shower in the ship’s biggest suite that extends out over the edge of the ship.

As people toured the 1,636-square-foot suite and the shower on Sunday, it was hard to tell which characteristic they found most provocative – the glass enclosure or the fact that only a thick pane of what looked like frosted glass came between their feet and the ocean 14 decks below.

“This is kind of scary,” said a travel agent, as she stepped into the shower.

“Are you sure that people can’t see in?” asked another.

The shower is enclosed with a special reflective glass that is supposed to guard the occupant’s privacy, but as a back-up, the flick of a switch will turn the glass from transparent to translucent.

The shower is in the “Reflection Suite,” a one-of-a-kind stateroom that also boasts a bathtub and rain shower on its private veranda.

On Sunday, a line of people waiting to see the shower wound up one side of the living room, down the other, and through a bedroom.  Cr-line1.jpg
Some people stepped into the shower, others regarded it from a secure distance.

It’s not the first cantilevered space on a cruise ship. Some ships have jacuzzis that extend out over the side. Two Disney ships have a flume ride in a clear tube that loops out over the water. The new Royal Princess ship, which will arrive in Port Everglades late next year, will have SeaWalk – a glass-bottomed walkway that will be cantilevered 28 feet beyond the starboard side of the ship.

Royal Princess Interior of Sea Walk
Rendering of SeaWalk by Princess Cruises


Statue of Liberty closed indefinitely due to storm damage

If you're planning a trip to New York that includes Ellis Island or the Statue of Liberty, you may want to hold off on the trip. The National Park Service took journalists on a tour of Liberty Island Friday and pointed out extensive damage done by Superstorm Sandy. Most of the island was under water, some parts as much as much as 8 feet deep. The statue itself wasn't damaged -- nor were artifacts on neighboring Ellis Island -- but clean-up of the grounds is going to require so much work that the National Park Service won't estimate when the sites will reopen. Read the full story here