Minggu, 22 Februari 2009

Katrina Disaster Tours Still Popular

"This is the last pretty thing you're going to see until we get to the lakefront," tour guide Rose Scott tells passengers gazing at the live oaks of City Park.

They're a bit more than an hour into a van tour of the destruction of Hurricane Katrina. Scott's employer, Isabelle Cossart of Tours by Isabelle, calls it 70 miles of destruction in 3 1/2 hours.

Nearly two years after Katrina turned the New Orleans area into a lake of misery, demand for tours of the devastation overwhelms that for visits to mainstay attractions such as cemeteries, plantations and swamps.

"Our survival depends on it. If I quit doing the post-Katrina city tour, I'm out of business," Cossart said.

Scott's van passes the convention center and Superdome, where thousands of refugees suffered after Katrina. "The convention center was never supposed to be a shelter. That's why they didn't have food there," she says.

She turns the van toward areas little known to outsiders before Katrina: Gentilly and Lakeview, where the view of Lake Pontchartrain provides respite on the way to the Lower 9th Ward. Scott drives on to St. Bernard, the hard-hit parish just east of New Orleans where she lived until the storm.

"It used to be, we did nothing but plantation tours," Cossart said. The $58-per-person Katrina tour now makes up three-quarters of her business, and she recently bought a third van.

Tourism officials have struggled with post-hurricane stress on the industry. Some downtown hotels - including the Hyatt and the Fairmont - remain closed. But the convention center and most tourist attractions are open. The bellwether French Quarter was almost untouched by hurricane.

Kelly Schulz, spokeswoman for the New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau, said the disaster tours help convince travel agents and convention bookers that devastated areas are distant from tourism venues.

Cossart said the tours began just over a month after Katrina, which struck Aug. 29, 2005. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers hired her as a guide for Japanese engineers who had worked in Kobe after the 1995 earthquake.

After visiting levee breaches, the wiped out Lower 9th Ward and Biloxi, Miss., Cossart said she asked how long they thought it would take to rebuild. Their answer, she said, was 10 years plus time for political maneuvering.

Scott, who is living an hour northeast of New Orleans in Carriere, Miss., has gutted her 3,100-square-foot house in Chalmette but hasn't yet decided whether to rebuild. She worries about environmental safety because more than water was released by the storm.

As she pulls into her old neighborhood, she tells passengers about the 1.3 million-gallon spill from the nearby Murphy Oil tank farm that complicated her cleanup and clouded her future.

For Scott, Katrina and its aftermath are very personal matters. Cossart asked her how she felt about disaster tours. Her response was quick to the point. "This is history. People need to see what happened here so they can fix it where it never happens again."


Southwest Tries New Ways of Boarding

Families with young children are usually invited to board their flights first, along with other special needs passengers.

But what if families with children weren't among the first to board? Might the process go more smoothly?

While it might sound counterintuitive, it's something Southwest Airlines has been experimenting with on flights from San Antonio.

"The major goal is to try to give a better customer experience for boarding," said Susie Boersma, manager for airport performance improvement.

The airline's effort to improve the boarding process comes at a time when the entire airline industry is struggling with increased delays, cancellations and passenger complaints about deterioriations in service. Several high-profile incidents in the past year have involved traveling families, most recently a woman who was escorted off a plane because her toddler kept saying "Bye-bye plane!"

Southwest, a Dallas-based discount carrier, is famous for its unassigned seating, which some have dubbed the "cattle call."

In each of the scenarios the airline has been trying, families were invited to board after the "A" group. Passengers in the "A" group are typically those who arrive early or who checked in online beforehand.

In one scenario, a few rows of seats were set aside on the plane for flight attendants to use if a family couldn't find seats together. In the other scenario, no seats were reserved.

In either case, families who had already obtained an "A" pass could sidestep the experiment of boarding later and board with the "A" group if they wanted to.

But some traveling families said they'd be happy to give up the privilege of boarding first, if it made the process easier.

"I'd be willing to go after the 'A' group," said Christine Smith, 34, who traveled on a test flight from San Antonio to Dallas last week with her 6-year-old son, Tanner.

Aimee Flanagan, 34, who was on Smith's flight with her husband and three children, said she wouldn't mind boarding after the "A" group, because it might reduce the pressure to get settled while a long and impatient line of people wait behind her.

When families board first, "there's no time to get situated. You have to be in the aisles," she said. "And the kids are over here and you still haven't figured out where to sit."

The day after her test flight, Flanagan said that boarding after the "A" group worked out just fine. Fewer seats were available, but her family was still able to sit together. She still felt the pressure to get seated quickly, though, as others boarded after her.

Southwest officials stress that they are not trying to separate business travelers from families. But some passengers say that's exactly what they'd like to see.

"If you have X amount of families, however many people who are in families, have X seats sectioned off," said Flanagan. She said doing that would keep everyone happy, including all the annoyed travelers she's seen giving families dirty looks.

It's also possible that Southwest may not change anything and continue to pre-board as usual, the company said.

Dallas-area architects Dan Henke and Fred Cawyer, who travel Southwest once or twice a month, are happy to have family pre-boarding continue as usual, even if that means a longer wait and fewer available seats. "I think I like letting them board first," Henke said. "Then I don't have to sit next to them."

They'd also support separate sections for business and family passengers.

"These flights are so short, I can tolerate it," Cawyer said of sitting next to a crying child for the less-than-one-hour hop from San Antonio to Dallas. "If it's going to Pittsburgh, shoot me."

In addition to the "Bye-bye plane!" case, other incidents involving families in the past year include a family taken off a flight when their child threw a tantrum and refused to wear a seat belt, and protests held nationwide in support of a nursing mother who was ordered off a plane because she wouldn't cover up.


Start with West Attractions

Tip 5: Start with Attractions

If your crew -- be they children or children-at-heart -- are over the whole Fantasyland thing, I highly recommend starting with Attractions West (as the vets call them -- that’s code for "the attractions on the west side of the park"). This means you'll want to hit Adventureland, New Orleans’ Square, Critter Country and Frontierland. Why? Because if you're swift about it, you can knock all of their rides out well before lunch, and save the rest of the day for standing in lines. But there’s a science to it, which brings me to my next tip …

Tip 6: Load Your Fastpasses

Fastpasses are either God’s gift to Disneyland, or the devil’s blight on Walt’s park -- it depends on who you ask. The whole concept is to “save your spot in line” so that you can go do other things (i.e., eat, shop and do other things that cause you to spend money) instead of waiting in an endless line. But if you learn to use the system to your advantage, you’ll maximize your amusement time.

For example, let’s say we’re starting our day in Attractions West. Get a Fastpass for Indiana Jones -- known back in the day as “Temple of the Long Line” -- and then go directly to Pirates of the Caribbean. Once you’re done on that ride, go directly to Haunted Mansion. By the time you’re out of the mansion, you should be able to get a new Fastpass. If not, skip over to Critter Country for The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, and by the time you get off that ride, you should be good to go for Indy. But wait -- before you get on Indy, make a stop at the Fastpass distribution for Splash Mountain. Do Indy, maybe squeeze in a whirl on Big Thunder Mountain Railroad (or some target practice at Frontierland’s Shootin’ Exposition), then you’re set to go on Splash Mountain. But before you do that, stop off and get a Fastpass for Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin …

See where I’m going with this? It always helps to have a plan. The thing is, others are going to have the exact same plan, so don’t fret if Fastpasses run out for the day. Just use your time in line as quality time. (Easier said than done when you’re all bouncing around like crazies, right?)

Tip 7: Nail Your Characters Early

If your little ones are dead set on having their pictures taken with princesses and mice and bears, best to do it sooner than later, as the lines get longer as the day goes on. The princesses take up court in the Fantasyland Theatre, Buzz Lightyear hangs out in Tomorrowland, Pooh and the gang take over Critter Country, Mickey and Minnie are easily found in Toontown, Ariel has a clamshell in the fountains near Tomorrowland, and Aladdin takes up shop in Adventureland, while a mix of characters sometimes take over the Small World area. Sometimes the villains come out to play around Fantasyland, and old-timers -- like Brer Bear -- chill near Adventureland. Sometimes it’s set, other times it’s luck of the draw, but if you miss someone during the day, sometimes they make a post-parade appearance on Main Street near the Mad Hatter.

Tip 8: Eat Early, Eat Often

Restaurants get busy at predictable times -- especially during high season in the summer and around Christmas. To combat it best, do mini-meals at the concession stands all around the park. Grab a turkey leg here, a container of crudités there, and you won’t feel the sting of hunger at all. And if you do, at least it’ll tide you over until the rush subsides and you don’t have to fight nearly as much for a table somewhere.

As a breakfast tip, on days without Early Entry, try going to the park a half-hour before opening to have breakfast at the Carnation Café, sandwiched in between the watchmaker and the ice cream parlor on Main Street. The wait staff is expert at delivering your food and check in perfect timing to make rope drop, all with a smile. If you want to make lunch or dinner something special, make your first stop of the day the reservations desk at the Blue Bayou, the restaurant that puts you right in the Pirates of the Caribbean ride. Great food and a great atmosphere ensure your dining experience will be unforgettable. Of course, your other options for lunch are to eat in Downtown Disney, or try some of the dining options at the hotels. But why would you want to leave the park once you’re in? (The answer? You wouldn’t.)

Tip 9: Switch Parks Midday

Right around the time lunch starts to get nuts and you’ve successfully nailed all the rides in Attractions West, that’s the right time to make your way across the esplanade to Disney’s California Adventure. As the park is smaller and doesn’t hold as many people as Disneyland, it’s a great way to get a little breathing room and still hit some great rides before dusk. Don’t miss Soaring Over California (the hangliding ride), Tower of Terror (the elevator drop ride) and California Screamin’ (the roller-coaster), all of which have Fastpass -- and great views.


Skip the Parades, Shows and Fireworks

Tip 10: Skip the Parades, Shows and Fireworks

You don’t want to waste time watching rubberheads in choreographed dance and colorful explosions over the Matterhorn, do you? Of course not -- you want to ride the Matterhorn, and parades followed by fireworks are a great time to get a lot of riding done. As the shows swallow up a lot of the crowds, the lines tend to get leaner, which means you have that much more opportunity to maximize your ride count. That said …

Tip 11: Don't Skip Parades, Shows and Fireworks

Really -– don’t. I can condone skipping the parade if you’re either above a certain age or below a certain tolerance level, but you have to see the fireworks at least once. They really are an incredible masterpiece of timing and choreography, best seen from directly in front of Sleeping Beauty’s castle, but enjoyed no matter what location you see them from. Plus, the magic and entertainment of Fantasmic is unparalleled (though I recommend seeing the less crowded late show, if your little ones have had a nap).

Tip 12: Do Open to Close

Maybe I come off as a bit fanatic, but there’s something so magically all-encompassing about being there right when the gates open to riding every last ride until they kick you out. It gives one a sense of accomplishment … or obsession, take your pick. Regardless, it does make your trip memorable, and gives you plenty of time to see, do, re-see and re-do all the things that you want to, whether you’ve planned to stay for a day or a week. Plus …

Tip 13: Shop Late

Don’t waste your valuable ride and character-visiting time shopping for -- and carrying -- souvenirs. All the shops on Main Street are open an hour after park closing, and Downtown Disney shops are sometimes open for two hours after park closing, depending on the day and season. But if you really must, must, must spend money right that second, make arrangements for them to deliver your bags to your room (another benefit only allotted to on-site hotel guests).

Tip 14: Ditch the Kids

Yes, you love them -- but you also just let them drag you around miles and miles of amusement parks for hours on end. Isn’t it time for a little grown-up get-together? Don’t worry about the kids -- the Grand Californian has babysitting options, that give kids the chance to watch movies, make crafts, and even get rooftop seats for the fireworks with skilled caregivers that will keep an eye on them until you’re finished doing whatever it is you want to do. After all, the Disneyland Resort isn’t just fun for kids.

Some adult recommendations? How about spa treatments at the Mandara Spa followed by an incredible dinner at the Napa Rose? You could go for the wine country duck confit with spring vegetable fricassee and porcini mushroom foam appetizer followed by a main of white truffle honey glazed pacific salmon with white asparagus, coastal mushrooms, baby “red lace” mustard greens, green lentil puree and minneola essence. Or, go big and sign up for the Vinter’s Table, a chef’s tasting menu designed to be paired with the best wines from wine country. Just make sure you save room for dessert! The kids might be miffed, but you can pay them off the next morning with breakfast at the Storyteller’s Café. With grown-up breakfast options for mom and dad, a delicious buffet for all ages and wandering characters to spice up the dining experience, all will be forgotten … and you’ll be more than ready to tackle another day of rides, or use it as your last hurrah before you catch your flight home.


BART San Francisco Map

Unique in and of itself, San Francisco’s subway system isn’t your average transportation. San Francisco is a peninsula surrounded by water on three sides, thus creating a challenging engineering feat to connect the cities across the Bay. Because the MUNI bus system in San Francisco is very well organized, and digging subway tunnels under the city is not always an option, BART is geared toward local commuters first, tourists second. That doesn’t mean you can’t download a BART San Francisco map and hit the sights, just be prepared to use a combo of above ground MUNI busses and underground BART trains to get where you need to go.

Locals have a love-hate relationship with BART, which has found its way to the blogosphere among San Francisco intellectuals. Standing for “Bay Area Rapid Transit”, BART offers 104 miles of track, 43 stations serving upwards of 330,000 people a day. And despite paling in comparison to other subway systems in terms of size and usage, BART holds its own with five lines that delve deep into the greater Bay Area cities. Tourists benefit from this simplistic setup in that day trips to UC Berkeley, downtown San Francisco, and both Oakland and San Francisco International airports is possible. Plans are in the works to take BART deep into Silicon Valley connecting San Jose as well.

Those planning a trip to San Francisco can get the most out of a BART San Francisco map. This allows visitors to effectively plan a Raiders game in Oakland, a tour of Scharffen Berger Chocolate in Berkeley then end up having sushi in Union Square all in one day. BART subway tickets are can be loaded up with money similar to a debit card. Keep in mind that the tickets you purchase for BART are only good on BART trains, unless you purchase a BART Plus ticket, which can be used as local fare on multiple Bay Area bus lines in half month increments. This is the best option for tourists. Snag a BART plus ticket, download a BART San Francisco map and you’re good to go.


London Tube Map

Few cities are as entwined with their subway as London. Officially opening its doors in 1863, and serving over 3 million riders a day, the London Tube is one of the oldest and most prevalent rapid transit systems in the world. And the local love affair with the London Underground is stuff of legend; from the pop culture phenomena “Mind the Gap” campaign to keep riders from tripping on the gap between train and platform, to the tragic terrorist attack that took place in 2005. The London Tube has survived just about everything critics and fans can throw at it, and keeps on growing.

Known as the “London Underground” or by locals as “The Tube”, this advanced subway system boasts 275 stations spanning over 253 miles in and around the greater London metropolitan area. Travelers to London find the Tube map to be somewhat confusing, as the twelve subway lines intersect to form a colorful octopus. Many critics of the London Tube map agree that actual distances between stations are not accurately portrayed, in an effort to make more money off unsuspecting riders. Regardless of drawbacks, for many travelers, the London Tube map is the only way to see the city.

Savvy travelers to London always research and secure a Tube Map before they go. Combined with a trusty London travel guide, the Tube map allows visitors to plan their visit and ultimately reduce stress. Take the time to familiarize yourself with the varying subway lines, where they do and don’t go, as well as keep tabs on station closings and outages. The Transport for London website offers email alerts to keep you posted of important Tube delays while in London. Also available are London Tube maps with the fare zones distinctly mapped out, so travelers can get a good idea how much they’ll be spending on tickets for the Tube. This allows you to decide to pay fares on a one-off basis, or invest in multi-day tickets or an Oyster card pay-as-you-go-credit card.

A must-see for travelers, many London Tube stations have transformed into transit art galleries. These stations are decorated and adorned with works from local artists, courtesy of Platform for Art and Poems on the Underground initiatives. Developed to enhance rider experience, these art projects have given elegance to the London Tube rarely found outside of the UK.


Upscale Vegas Hotels Lure Big Spenders

In the rarified world of luxury hotels, it's not only the thread count of the sheets or the sheen of the marble but the sincerity of the staff that separates the best from the rest.

Casino developer Steve Wynn recalls getting the bad news that his Bellagio resort would be getting four stars instead of five from Mobil inspectors more than a year after its opening in 1998.

"It was an unfortunate exchange at the front desk with the anonymous shopper," said Wynn of the property now owned by MGM Mirage Inc. "And room service trays, after people had eaten breakfast, were left outside the door in the hallway."

While such minor annoyances might have been acceptable in the land of free drinks, bargain buffets and sequined showgirls, such service no longer passes muster in upscale Sin City.

As budget options like the Stardust and New Frontier have been imploded to make way for more expensive, classier resorts, a battle is being waged for the tourist dollars of the upper crust.

Details such as pronouncing a hotel guest's name correctly and delivering room service within five minutes of the appointed time are crucial to attaining the top ranks from such agencies as Mobil, AAA and Michelin.

Higher rankings mean higher room rates for operators. Likewise, restaurateurs covet the rankings, which bring headlines and crowds of big-spending customers.

In the case of The Venetian, owner Las Vegas Sands Corp. was able to raise the average daily room rate in the first three quarters of 2007 by $22 from a year earlier -- to $259 -- after spending $100 million on renovations to achieve five-diamond status from AAA.

For the 4,000-room hotel, which opened in 1999, that means millions of dollars more to the bottom line, said senior vice president Paul Pusateri, who spearheaded the drive to improve its four-star rating.

The property doubled the number of pillows on each bed to four, increased the thread count to 260 on its sheets in standard rooms and installed flat panel TVs and automatic drapes.

It also began running secret shoppers through its property at least every two weeks, testing employees on hundreds of AAA and Mobil rating criteria, such as making eye contact, dealing with communication breakdowns and responding to requests quickly.

When service slips, employees are notified immediately.

"It is as simple as one team member not being able to pronounce the name of the shopper and therefore not using it, for example," hotel operations vice president Kirsten Dimond said.

At the Wynn Las Vegas, whose Tower Suites hotel-within-a-hotel was awarded Las Vegas' only Mobil five star resort rating last year, average room rates were a market-leading $282.

"Rich people know what the best hotel is in every city of the world," Wynn said. "Mobil is a confirmation of that."

Celebrated chef Joel Robuchon, whose namesake restaurant at MGM Grand received Michelin's only top three-star rating in Nevada last month, said the key is guest satisfaction.

"I'm very happy about it, but the stars are not my main focus," Robuchon said by telephone from his restaurant in Macau. "For me, the best thing that can happen is when guests make their next reservation even as they are leaving."

The Las Vegas area boasts five resorts and four restaurants with five diamonds and more than a dozen of each with four. Elsewhere in Nevada, there are five AAA four-diamond properties, including the Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe Resort, Spa & Casino; Harrah's Lake Tahoe; and Cactus Petes Resort Casino in Jackpot.

Reno's best properties, such as the Grand Sierra Resort & Casino; Eldorado Resort Casino Reno; and Siena Hotel Spa Casino, received three stars and diamonds from Mobil and AAA.




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