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welcome-to-gatlinburg

It’s been a couple of months since I let you know that I would be visiting all of the Ripley’s attractions in Gatlinburg and reviewing them here.  That’s because there are EIGHT separate attractions, and we needed to pick a time that we could visit them all.  Originally we had intended to go up for the day (Gatlinburg is less than an hour away from us) but we ended up planning a weekend trip–just me, John, and the “little” kids (not really so little, but that’s what we call them here!).

We left Knoxville on Thursday evening and couldn’t even make it all the way to Gatlinburg without stopping to eat.  We picked Joe’s Crab Shack.

gburg 2 gburg 1We all love seafood, so this was a good decision.

We made it to the hotel with barely enough time to enjoy the pool for half an hour, but since the pool is the main point of staying at the Glenstone Lodge (a family favorite from when the big kids were small, but where the little ones had never been) we stayed until they turned off the lights!

gburg 59The next morning we got up early and headed to the Pancake Pantry, a Gatlinburg tradition.  Once we were fortified, we headed out for our Ripley’s adventure.

We started with the Aquarium, because that’s where we had to pick up our tickets. (I received free tickets for my family in exchange for my honest review of the attractions.)  Okay, you ask yourself, why is there an aquarium in Gatlinburg? There’s no ocean there.  Is this an aquarium highlighting things like salamanders and crawdads?

But that’s one of the things that’s really neat about Ripley’s–they always find a way to link their attractions to the locale, and I will be showing you several examples of that in this review.  Here’s how they frame Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies:

gburg 3I don’t know about you, but I thought that was pretty clever.

I have a lot of pictures to share with you.  The Aquarium is a good-sized attraction and took us a couple of hours to go through.

gburg 5 gburg 4Every exhibit is accompanied by an informative sign like the one above.  What was fun for me was having William announce what the creature was before reading the sign, and being right about 99% of the time.

gburg 25 gburg 6 gburg 8 gburg 7Y’all, I could not stop taking pictures of the jellyfish.  I think they are magical.

gburg 24 gburg 16 gburg 15It’s probably a good thing that Lorelei kept stealing my phone to make You Tube videos.  I couldn’t stop taking pictures.

In addition to all the interesting species, we also got to take a peek into the way the Aquarium operates:

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There are also interactive opportunities.  Below you will see Lorelei petting a horseshoe crab and William getting his dead skin eaten by some kind of fish (NOT piranhas, although they had those too!).

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gburg 27These things are scarier than piranhas to me though:

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Apparently they actually EAT spider crabs in Japan.  I know it would amount to a lot of meat, but those things seriously give me nightmares.

The Aquarium is very kid-friendly, with play activities, interactive opportunities like I’ve already shown you, and entertainment (like these mermaids):

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gburg 22At 14, William was not as interested in the kids’ activities, but he was fascinated by this prehistoric specimen, which he of course already knew EVERYTHING about:

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But the highlight of the Aquarium for all of us, and I think for pretty much anyone who visits, is Shark Lagoon.

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In addition to looking down on the sharks from above, visitors have the opportunity to get closer they ever though possible by going THROUGH the lagoon in a transparent tube, being moved along via conveyor belt.

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If it’s not obvious, we loved the Aquarium.  It’s expensive, but it’s worth it, and I recommend it to anyone who is visiting Gatlinburg.

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Now, that would have been enough fun for anyone, but remember we were still getting started at that point with seven attractions left to visit!  We made it out through the gift shop relatively unscathed and then started heading to our next destination, which we picked because according to the map we’d been given, it was the next one we would come to as we walked along the main road.  That was the Mirror Maze, which was pretty much exactly like the one in Baltimore, which I already told you about here.

Our next stop was the Guinness Book of World Records Museum, a place that has been in Gatlinburg for as long as I remember, and which I’m assuming Ripley’s acquired at some point as its most likely competitor!

Here again a lot of effort was expended to showcase records that would be of particular interest to local folks:

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gburg 33Aside from the local exhibits, I was most impressed with the Space area, which included a neat video about the moon landings.

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The exhibit below reminded me of my grandmother and the many, many afghans she made for us:

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There were some fun interactive displays also, like these:

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And of course we all loved this:

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This is just a small sampling of what was available, much of which will be familiar to regular readers of the Guinness Book of World Records–tallest man, fattest man. et cetera.  I think we spent about an hour here.

Our last stop of the day was the Ripley’s Odditiorium.  I remember this when it was called the Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum.  Or I should say that’s what its predecessor–a much less impressive affair–was called, before it burned in a fire some years ago.  It’s a Gatlinburg attraction I remember from my childhood, although we never went there.

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I’m going to get my complaints out of the way at the beginning: it was crowded and hot, especially the first part, which is a balcony over an area that is open to the street and hence is not climate-controlled.  I much preferred the set up of the Baltimore Odditorium, but there were plenty of new curiosities to see here.

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gburg 48We were welcomed by a holographic version of Mr. Ripley himself, inviting us to come along with him on his adventures.  I thought that was pretty cool!

I learned in my last Odditorium experience that I could expect to see authentic artifacts and I was not disappointed.  This actual piece of the Berlin Wall was a thrill:

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There was a dark and creepy area that showcased instruments of torture and other creepy things:

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gburg 55There was a very interesting prison display, that managed to insert some local color:

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We met an old friend from our last Odditorium visit:

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And here are just a few more interesting sites.  I wish I had more pictures, but I had to fight with Lorelei for the camera all day, as she is an avid filmmaker and needed footage, ;-) and by this time my battery was running low as well!

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The above portrait of Eminem is made of M & M’s, by the way!

Luckily at this point we were right by the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company.  We’ve tried most restaurants in Gatlinburg by now, and frankly most of them aren’t very good now that all the ones I remember from 20 years ago have closed up shop.  But we hadn’t been to Bubba Gump, and we did enjoy it.  After that, exhausted by our long day and the searing heat, we trudged back to the hotel and spent the rest of the evening enjoying the pool and the air conditioning.

Day Two of our Gatlinburg-Ripley’s adventure began with a buffet breakfast at the hotel and one last quick swim before checking out.  We drove down to the main road and found a centrally-located garage and then made our way to our first destination:  Ripley’s Haunted Adventure.

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See that guy in the bottom picture? He leans out of there and heckles passersby! I had never been there–frankly, I’m not big on seeking out scares because life is frightening enough already–but I was a little bit excited about this.

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See Lorelei’s sweet little smile? It was about to get wiped right off her face.

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After we passed by that lovely sight, we headed for this cage-like elevator that you have to board to get up to the top of the attraction.  Along the walls we read the set up for the whole thing which I won’t explain except to say that it was another way of anchoring the attraction to the area.

We were in the elevator with two middle-school aged boys.  When we debarked, our guide gave us such a speech about how scary this was going to be and the need to decide RIGHT NOW if it was going to be too scary that the boys left!  He then told us to grab hold of the shirt of the person in front of us and no matter what happened not to let go and not to run.

You may notice the absence of pictures in this part of my story.  That’s because it was too dark to take pictures, nor did I have a free hand.  The first couple of rooms we were in were very well done.  This isn’t like a warehouse with people jumping out and screaming at you (not that there weren’t people jumping out and screaming too of course!).  It’s well-decorated, well-done, with a theme running through it.  But it wasn’t long at all until Lorelei was sobbing, and then we made a wrong turn and were in a completely pitch-black area, and when our guide asked us if we wanted to leave we were all thrilled to say YES!

Well, John wasn’t thrilled.  And although William was walking through with his eyes closed, he was hoping we would finish and that someone else would tell him what happened!  But Lorelei and I were VERY glad to be out of there.  I guess if a scary house scares you that much, it’s a good one, right?

Happily, this was right next door:

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They were showing the same two movies that we had already seen in Baltimore, and the motion makes both William and me sick, but it was just what was needed to calm Lorelei’s nerves.  So William and I sat on a bench outside and waited while John and Lorelei watched the movies.

The last two attractions were outdoors, and the weather was looking a bit foreboding:

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Still, we didn’t have anything else to do, and I wanted to be able to finish my review, so we retrieved our car and drove toward Pigeon Forge, stopping here:

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This is another place I’d never been.  For years there was another golf place here, Jolly Golf, with a dinosaur theme, and before that there was Mystery Hill, which is somewhere I did visit as a small child and have never forgotten.

Did you know that mini-golf was invented in the Southeast?  So that makes this the most appropriate attraction of our weekend, even though the connection between Davy Crockett and the decor of the course (at least the course we chose–there were two) escapes me!

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It certainly gave off plenty of that hillbilly vibe that visitors to East Tennessee seem to crave.

Anyway, we had fun.  Lorelei was the first to get a hole in one!

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William was a bit sulky at first, but as he proved surprisingly good he began to perk up a little bit.

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Toward the end of our game it–you guessed it!–began to pour down rain!  We intrepid golfers did not let that stop us from finishing, however!

We had one more attraction left to see at this point:  Ripley’s Old MacDonald’s Farm Mini-Golf.  But y’all, we were golfed-out, and hungry, and ready to stop having fun, honestly.  We went to a favorite restaurant in Pigeon Forge (Fusion Cafe), and then went home to collapse.

But the awesome thing is that our tickets are good for one year from the date of issue.  And our final destination is in Sevierville, not Gatlinburg–right next to Joe’s Crab Shack. :-)  And also by the Tanger Outlets, if that’s your idea of fun (it isn’t mine).  Anyway, we will head back out there in a few weeks and I will update you then.

So what are you waiting for?  You can go right here to read more about all the attractions.   My readers will save $3 off Adult and $2 off Child Admission to all of Ripley’s Attractions in Tennessee.  You’ll need to make your purchase online and enter the following promo code when you check out: USFAMILYGUIDE  Click here for more information about this offer and about U.S. Family Guide.

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My house is a mess, y’all.

I’ve never been the best housekeeper, but my home usually had at least a couple of neat and presentable rooms that were suitable for unexpected guests.  That all changed about five years ago, when I started working at home.  Something had to give, and housework was that thing.

When you have to quickly clean a very messy house, it’s easy to overlook details like dusting, especially hard-to-reach areas like ceiling fans, air vents, and baseboards.  So when the folks at e-cloth offered me the opportunity to review an item, I was excited to pick the Flexi-Edge Floor and Wall Duster:

Here’s what the e-cloth website has to say about this ultimate dust mop:

  • Removes dust, dirt, hair, cobwebs and allergens from floors, walls and ceilings
  • Better than Swiffer®* and other leading floor duster brands:
    • Outperforms – cleaner floors in less time
    • Multi-purpose – cleans floors, walls & ceilings
    • Stronger stick – does not bend during use
    • Re-usable head – 100 wash guarantee saves money over disposable cloths
    • Environmentally friendly – significantly less waste than disposable cloths
  • Flexi-edges clean into corners, baseboards and easily around legs to chairs, tables and any other furniture
  • Lightweight and highly maneuverable

I’m not going to share before and after pictures here, y’all.  Sorry, the before is so dusty it would be embarrassing.  But let me just say this thing works!  E-cloth claims that their fibers break up, lift, trap, hold and remove dust, dirt, oil, grease, grime and over 99% of bacteria from any hard surface, using just water (or in my case, since I was only dusting, without any water at all!).  You don’t need to use any chemicals, and all e-cloths are reusable–the company claims you can save about $200 per year by eliminating your need for chemicals and paper towels.  The head on the Flexi-Edge comes off and can be washed in your machine (or just rinsed off during use).  I don’t dust very much so that thing is going to last about forever around here.

What I like: I live in one of those houses with (I’m guessing) ten-foot high ceilings, and even worse some places because of the architectural features are much higher than that and out of my reach.  With its telescoping handle, the Flexi-Edge allowed me to extend my reach to those cobwebs in remote corners.  Its unique fibers trap dust rather than just dislodging it, so that the many layers of dust on my ceiling fan did NOT fall on my bed as I feared but instead stuck to the head of the flexi-edge.  As you can see in the picture above, the edges are flexible (hence the name!) which makes it ideal for cleaning baseboards.  The head also swivels around in all directions.

Which leads me to my only complaint–if there is a way to lock the head in one position, I couldn’t figure it out.  And so I sometimes found it a little too flexible when I was trying to reach things about my head and it would spin around to a less-helpful angle.  When using it on the floor this is not a problem.

The Flexi-Edge is a $24.99 value (which I did receive for free for my honest opinion herein).  What’s really cool is that you can buy extra heads for only $9.99, which might be nice to have on hand in case one is in the wash.

There is a lot more great information about how awesome e-cloth is (they have many other products)–including the fact that they’ve been picked by Real Simple magazine as Best Product in three cleaning categories–and I would encourage you to visit them to read more, especially if you want to clean in a way that is more environmentally friendly.

And now I hope I have done enough to convince you that this is a product you would like to have–because here is your change to win your very own Flexi-Edge!  There are multiple ways to enter this giveaway which you can access by clicking on the link below, and you can come back every day to enter again!

Flexi-Edge Giveaway by e-cloth

e-cloth Flexi-Edge DusterOpen to US residents over the age of 18 only.  Giveaway ends at midnight on 7/20/2015.  I was provided with the Flexi-Edge in return for my honest review; as always, my opinions are my own.

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tussaud 4

I’m sure you’ve heard of Madame Tussaud and her wax museum in London.  I know I had, without ever thinking very much about it.  Then, via my affiliation with U.S Family Guide, I got an opportunity to visit her Washington, D.C. branch.

Having attended college in D.C., and frequently visiting the area since because my husband is a Baltimore native, I am familiar with and fairly comfortable in the city.  And at one time or another my family and I have visited most of the major attractions.  So it was exciting to get to experience something new to us, particularly at no cost to ourselves.  Yes, I was given the tickets for the four of us in exchange for promoting the attraction on social media and giving my honest opinion on my blog.  My opinions are my own.

We were staying in Baltimore and were able to drive from there right into the city, getting off the expressway only a few blocks away from our destination.  It’s also readily accessible via Metro.  We parked one block away in the Ford’s Theatre garage (bonus tip: Visit Madame Tussauds in the morning and Ford’s Theatre in the afternoon, and see two quality attractions without moving your car.  You can eat lunch in between, like we did; there are many restaurants right nearby.).  This parking garage is safe, well-lighted, and not free.  So come prepared.

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Above are side and front views of the museum.  I love that they used existing structures instead of building something new, so the museum fits right in.

I really have only one critical comment to make about our experience, and it occurred right at the beginning of the visit.  Once you pay for admission you go downstairs where you are invited to sit down and watch a couple of movies, one about Madame Tussaud herself and the museum’s history, and another about the process of making the figures.  We like that kind of thing in our family, and I would recommend that everyone take about five minutes to watch the videos.

But a lot of people don’t like to watch these things, so they just walk on by, and the way they’ve set this up is that they have to walk between the viewers and the screen!  And if they walked quickly that might be okay, but the beginning of the exhibit is crowded so the line started blocking our view.  This is a really stupid design flaw.

After the movies it was straight to the exhibits.  There was a line and I was worried it was going to be crowded.  But once you get into the first of several rooms, people start to spread out and crowding is never an issue.  I was immediately impressed by the first exhibit:

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This figure is a Piscataway Indian, and what I thought was neat is that his tribe was native to the area.  I liked that the company took the time to do the necessary research to personalize the exhibit.  This gives me confidence that should I have the opportunity to visit other locations, I won’t be seeing all the same exhibits.

Next we plunged right into the meat of the museum: The Presidents’ Gallery.  This was so much better than I was expecting.  I had an image in my head of the presidents all in a row, on pedestals, with people two rows deep trying to get a glimpse.  That’s not how it is at all.

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First of all, many of the presidents are doing things, as General Washington is here.  And the visitor is invited to do more than just view–there are many more opportunities like the one above to really put yourself into the moment.  Picture-taking is encouraged, and there were no signs saying not to touch.

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Ten-year-old Lorelei was almost as tall as James Madison, the shortest president!  Which reminds me, this is a good place to point out another flaw in the museum:  the heights of some of the figures are not right.  How do I know that?  Because my husband is basically a genius on the topic of the presidents and knows their heights.  He’s 6’3”, and many presidents who should have been shorter than he were in fact taller.  Also, he found minor factual/spelling errors in some of the printed materials that accompanied the displays.

But I really don’t want to complain too much because we all had a fabulous time, even though by the face he is making below you may not be able to tell that William was having fun.

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We wanted pictures of both kids with all the presidents from Tennessee, but in the end I cropped William out because he was spoiling the pictures!  Lorelei is a much better model. :-)

Now, all these presidents were not in the same room.  There were a few in each room, which helped to spread out the crowd.  It also helped to provide context for what we were seeing.  Some of the presidents were presented in rooms with period furnishings.  Some were placed before murals illustrating events from their time in office.  Others were accompanied by other figures who were important during their presidencies.  As we walled through each room, we were immersed in the American story.

Below, Lorelei shares a moment with Frederick Douglass, as we learned about slavery and the abolitionist movement.

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Below, she was again invited to immerse herself in the scene, even being provided with a costume as she helped General Lee negotiate the terms of his surrender.

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Everyone wanted to take a turn at hanging out with President Lincoln in his box at Ford’s Theatre.  This was especially cool since we knew we soon would be visiting the actual theatre!

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Last time we brought the kids to D.C. we visited Theodore Roosevelt Island, site of a lesser-known monument that I highly recommend.

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Eisenhower is one of William’s favorite presidents.  He and Lorelei both immersed themselves in the WWII section.

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Despite an interrogation from J. Edgar Hoover, the kids threw themselves into the Civil Rights Era.

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Lorelei kindly helped President Nixon deliver his resignation speech.  Seriously, y’all, the speeches were actually there, so if you felt like declaiming them yourself you could.

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John enjoyed posing with his favorite president.

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I cannot praise the realism of these figures enough.  They look so real that Facebook asked me to tag them when I uploaded my pictures!  Standing right next to them and looking in their eyes makes you feel like you are really with the actual people, and you start to get a sense of who they really were.

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Every one of the presidents and many of the other exhibits are accompanied by placards that tell you a little something about them and include a some of their own words.

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After President George W. Bush, we found ourselves in a short line to view the piece de resistance, our current president and the British Royal Family.  Only one party is let into this part of the exhibit at a time, because they have a staff photographer there who wants to take your picture for you to buy at the end of the tour.  However, I was extremely impressed that not only were we allowed to photograph this part of the exhibit ourselves, but the photographer asked if we we would like her to take pictures of us with out own camera (i.e. my iPhone).  Because we are frugal, those are the pictures you see below.

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Before the next section of the museum there was an optional “wax hand making” station (also not free) which William and Lorelei begged to participate in.  I believe it was $8 per hand, and they had fun doing it.  While you wait for this to be done (there will be a line) you can look at some artifacts from the first Madame Tussauds, including heads of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI, which come from the originals Madame Tussaud made from their death masks.  Also there was the blade from the actual guillotine that killed them.  Did you know Madame Tussaud was forced to make wax replicas of decapitated heads for display on pikes?  It’s true, and it’s how she escaped the guillotine herself.

Here she is, by the way.  I love these pictures.  I love her delight in her own artistry, and I think it’s fabulous that her legacy lives on.  The company is still run by her descendants.

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Next came the entertainers room.  I’ll be honest, I was much more interested in the presidents.  Not that these weren’t good, because they are.  And very realistic, at least the woman who was kissing the one of Justin Bieber seemed to think so!

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Next was the sports room, which was really small and had only about four figures, none of whom were interesting to me, so I have no pictures.  Last was the media section.

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Then, predictably, came the gift shop (where we could have picked up the pictures they took of us and where we DID pick up our wrapped wax hands), and then out into the hot sunshine to find some lunch before heading over to Ford’s Theatre.

We had a great time, obviously, and I have no reservations about recommending this attraction to you.  Plus I can offer you a coupon:

KIDS GO FREE! Free Child (Ages 4-12) Ticket to Madame Tussauds Washington, D.C. with purchase of regular same day adult admission. Present this coupon at the Madame Tussauds box office to receive one free child admission with every purchase of a regular same day adult admission. Valid for up to 6 people. Not valid on online, advance or combo ticket purchase or with any other discounts. Restrictions apply. Promo Code: V373.

http://usfamilycoupons.com/coupon.php?regionid=75&bid=11233&dealid=1317

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If you are my age, you probably grew up reading the Ripley’s Believe It or Not cartoon in your daily paper.  I can remember being fascinated and excited by Ripley’s observations of the curiosities from all corners of the globe.

RIPLEYSBIONBaltimore

So I was very excited to have been given the opportunity to take my family to the new Ripley’s Odditorium at the Baltimore Harbor when we visited there for my mother-in-law’s 80th birthday last month.  I was given the tickets (at 27.99 per person for the four of us, this was a big perk, I’ll admit!) in exchange for my honest review.  My opinions are my own.

It was a beautiful cool afternoon (amazing for May) when we approached the museum, which was not there the last time we visited the inner harbor.  We enjoyed the breeze and the beautiful sights.

Ripley's 1Ripley's 21The museum is located on Light Street, right in the heart of everything as you can see, with an easy walk to food, shopping, and the other attractions.  We also were able to find parking close by, but be prepared–it’s not cheap.

Ripley's 2Now, one of the things I was secretly thinking is that Ripley’s didn’t really belong in downtown Baltimore.  Visiting there instead of the Aquarium (for example) seemed akin to going to McDonald’s for supper instead of eating crabs.  But as you can see above Ripley’s has done their homework to make this Odditorium special and integral to the Harbor.

The sea monster is Chessie, rumored to be a resident of the Chesapeake Bay.  And this was one of several local touches we discovered.

We started by looking at the wax models and other displays in the lobby before heading up the staircase to discover more treasures.

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We saw another local touch almost immediately–this reprint of one of Ripley’s columns on the wallpaper!

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Chessie got a whole display to herself!

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Another local-themed display showcased the life and art of Johnny Eck, a Baltimore native who performed on the freak show circuit back in the day.  It was a sympathetic and nuanced portrait that made me want to learn more about Mr. Eck.

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The variety of exhibits at a Ripley’s Odditorium is astonishing.  You never know what you are going to find around the next corner.  There are many human oddities, like Mr. Eck and these photos below:

Ripley's 9 Ripley's 18There are examples of human ingenuity, like this giant penny made of pennies and this replica of Hogwarts Castle made of matchsticks:

Ripley's 7 Ripley's 15And there are genuine artifacts from all over the world, both rare and old, that Robert Ripley collected on his travels, like these items pictured below:

Ripley's 19 Ripley's 20 Ripley's 17Ripley’s also goes the extra mile to entertain, covering every inch of the space right down to the bathrooms:

Ripley's 11There are also many interactive exhibits, both old-fashioned and newfangled!

Ripley's 10 Ripley's 8We spent about an hour and a half going through the museum.  We (John and I) could have spent much longer–it’s 15,000 square feet, after all!  But the kids were always running ahead, all excited, and calling back to us to see what was around the next corner.

Our tickets also entitled us to a visit to the 4-D Moving Theatre and the Marvelous Mirror Maze.  The Maze was fun, and not too difficult to navigate although we did lose John at one point.  It didn’t take very long, though, and I expect you might be disappointed if you paid for just that experience and it was over so quickly.

I had no idea what to expect from the theatre.  It wasn’t my cup of tea (because that kind of thing makes me nauseated, frankly!) but I thought it was very well done.  It’s like an Imax theatre only the seats also move and there some other effects that I will leave out lest I spoil the surprise, but it was a very realistic experience, probably worth the price of admission.

We had a great time and I am happy to recommend the Baltimore Ripley’s Odditorium (in fact, I DID recommend it to John’s cousin later that afternoon!).

Ripley's 23 Ripley's 22But if you go, watch out for Chessie! BELIEVE IT . . . OR NOT!

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Greeley 2

It might seem a bit odd to review a book that was published almost 30 years ago and that I’ve read many times before.  But having recently re-read Patience of a Saint by Father Andrew Greeley, who died in 2013, I wanted to talk about him and his writing.

patience of a saint

In 1987 I wouldn’t have been able to understand or appreciate Father Greeley’s work.  I’d read about him, of course–what Catholic hasn’t been horrified at the idea of a priest writing “racy novels” with actual sex scenes? (Such very mild and tasteful scenes, by the way.)  I’m sure at the time, without having read any of his books, I disapproved.  I’m sure I thought that a priest ought to have better things to do than write sexy novels.  I’m sure I assumed it was notoriety the man was after.

Of course, Father Greeley, a sociologist as well as a priest, was doing other things too.  In addition to his priestly duties, he was cranking out scores of non-fiction books in his field.  But he considered his novels a ministry too, something that is obvious to me when I read them now.  In his own words: “I wouldn’t say the world is my parish, but my readers are my parish. And especially the readers that write to me. They’re my parish.”

Anyone who reads Father Greeley will see that he loves Chicago, the Irish, and the Church.  That doesn’t mean he won’t point out what he thinks their flaws are!  And I don’t always agree with his perception of the Church’s flaws–I’m no authority on Chicago or the Irish!  But always the love is there, and his conviction of the truth of the Church and of the power of the love of God to transform people’s lives.

Red Kane, a somewhat dissipated Chicago journalist, is a perfunctory Catholic when Patience of a Saint begins.  A conversion experience comparable to St. Paul’s on the Road to Damascus propels him reluctantly into a reformation of his life which simultaneously delights and threatens his friends and family.  He comes to realize that “if one party in a relationship undergoes a transformation, then the other party in that relationship must be transformed too,” and that this is scary for those around him who have grown comfortable with the roles they were used to playing.

In a climax that is foreshadowed throughout the novel, Red’s family decides he has had a nervous breakdown and they send for the men in the white coats.  In the end, in what to me was a particularly moving passage, Red asks himself where he can go for help.  “The answer was still obvious.  The only institution in the world that could help him now was the Roman Catholic Church–the real Catholic Church.  Send in the first team.”

I’ve read many–not all, by a long shot–of Father Greeley’s novels.  He’s a good writer, not a great one.  He does have what to me is crucial–the ability to anchor his novels firmly in a particular place and time.   Chicago and its environs are intrinsic to his books.  His characterization is terrific, his dialogue not so much, although to me in Patience of a Saint it rings most true.  But most important is that his books are deeply Catholic, even the “sexy parts.”  It’s a misunderstanding of and a disservice to Church teaching to claim that Catholicism believes sex is bad, or base, or dirty.  Greeley’s novels elevate sexual love within marriage almost to a sacramental level–the ultimate act of self-giving that reflects God’s love for us.

Greeley 1

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Off The Shelf-V3

It’s been awhile since I’ve done an Off the Shelf book review for Beacon Hill Press.  Today I am happy to be sharing The Relationship Project by Bill Strom with you.  As always, my views are my own, and the only compensation I received was the book itself!

When this book arrived, I was intrigued right away.  I love the subtitle: Moving from “You and Me” to We.  I enjoy books that offer insights on marriage, especially from a Christian worldview.  And I like books that are interactive, which including “project” in the title seemed to imply.

I was imagining that this would be a book to read with my husband, something we could work on together.  We both agree that a good relationship takes work and we are committed to working on ours!  But here’s where the book was different from what I was expecting.  And I learned that pretty quickly, in the preface in fact:  ” . . . if you picked up this book to figure out how you can save your relationship, or fix a friend, put it down . . . the more important goal is to understand that we have our own heart work to do, our own self project.”    That’s not to say that you couldn’t read this in tandem with a spouse, but the point–and it’s a good point in general, is it not?–is that you are to work on yourself,  not on your partner!

That’s just the start of how this book is different from other relationship books you may have read, particularly if you’ve been reading mainly secular books.  In those books, you’ll learn about contracts and commitments–and those are discussed in this book too–but the focus here is on covenant relationships, which are “motivated by unconditional love and grace . . . not driven by the pursuit of personal happiness.”  It’s vocabulary I’d heard before, but here it is explained well and illustrated by clear examples.

The author shares from his own marriage, and the tone of the book is informal, making reading it a bit like listening to the good advice of a friend.  The Relationship Project is full of examples–stories of real people, their relationships and struggles.  There are illustrative quotations–and relationship stories–from Scripture as well.  There are several self-assessments along the way–I love those!  And there are questions for reflection.  In short, this is a book that asks you not just to read it, but to engage with it.

 

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IfOnly_BlogTourBanner

Hi, y’all, and welcome to the final day (saving the best for last and all that!) if the If Only Blog Tour.  In my capacity as an Off The Shelf Blogger for Beacon Hill Press, I’ve been given the opportunity to read If Only: Letting Go of Regret by Michelle Van Loon.  (My advance copy was my only compensation, and, as always, my opinion is my own.)  This time, instead of reviewing the book, I was asked to write a personal reflection on regret.

Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these, “It might have been.”

~ John Greenleaf Whittier

In Madeleine L’Engle’s A Swiftly Tilting Planet, Charles Wallace Murry is given the responsibility, with the help of  a time traveling unicorn, of saving the world from imminent nuclear destruction by finding and changing the right “Might Have Been” in the past.  Charles succeeds, and the world is saved.  The rest of us aren’t so lucky.

Because all of our lives are littered with “might have beens.”  Whether for good or ill, every choice made excludes all the other possible choices.  Everything we do–or leave undone–has repercussions.  In If Only, Michelle Van Loon writes of how regrets can divide our hearts, trap us in the past, and damage our relationships with God and with one another.

Regrets, I’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention . . . That’s the first thing that comes into my mind when I try to reflect on my personal experience with regret, but I’m not sure whether it’s true or just a comforting story I’m telling myself.  Van Loon writes of people who have submerged their regrets so deeply that they don’t even realize the damage these unresolved feelings are causing in their current lives.

Most of the time I tell myself that there is no point in regret, because I can’t really know what would have happened if I had done things differently.  Like those well-meaning time travelers in just about every book or movie you’ve ever seen on the topic, what if I had made things worse by doing (or not doing) whatever it was?  Is wishing I could go back and change things not a rejection of everything good that has happened since?

I think about our house burning down.  If only I had insisted on having a professional deal with the electrical box situation instead of the handyman employed by our landlord (not that it ever occurred to me at the time).  Then the box wouldn’t have exploded and the house wouldn’t have burned down and I would still have all my things.  But what about the lessons and the love and the new home and new friends we have now?  And who’s to say that if we had stayed in that house, we might not have died in a car crash on the way home one night?  This is why it’s a good thing that we are not God and that time travel remains the stuff of science fiction.

If only I hadn’t wasted so much time and energy on sorting and storing all the things that I had.  If only I hadn’t gotten so upset over various things getting broken or ruined by floods in the basement or careless children.  But I couldn’t have known what was going to happen–all I can do is try to be better going forward.  Which is definitely one of Van Loon’s points–that our regrets can be a tool for us now if we acknowledge them and own them instead of burying them.  And her book supplies tools to do that, with discussion/reflection questions, scripture, and prayer.

Where she really got me was when she started talking about her experience as a parent of grown children: “My empty nest echoed with the sound of regret.”  My nest is still quite full (will any of them EVER leave?), but three of my babies are legal adults.  Without implying that there is anything seriously wrong with any of them–don’t get me wrong!–of course they have their struggles and I cannot help but think there were things I should have done differently.  I can’t help but remember how far short I have fallen–and continue to fall–of the perfect mother I just knew I was going to be.  I regret deeply–I can’t tell you how much–that I didn’t enjoy them enough when they were little.  I never heard that saying “The days are long but the years are short” until my kids were already big.  I wish I had.  It won’t do any good for me to tell those of you who still have little kids that they will be grown up before you know it but it is true.

So I guess that is a pretty typical regret to have with kids who are almost but not quite launched, but it’s the one I am really struggling with right now, and I hope that going through some of the reflections in If Only will help me.

Would you like to have a copy of If Only for your own?  Leave a comment below, and one week from now (July 10) I will choose one of you randomly as the lucky winner!  I know there are all kinds of fancy technical ways to do giveaways but I am going to write all your names on pieces of paper and pick one at random and you will just have to trust me on that.

If_Only

Would you like to know more about Michelle Van Loon?  Her website is here.

Michelle

For more on If Only, please visit the other stops on the Blog Tour: Day 1 Day 2 Day 3 Day 4  Day 5 Day 6 Day 7 Day 8 Day 9 Day 10 Day 11 Day 12 Day 13 Day 14 Day 15  

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