Thursday, October 13, 2016

Our VIP Universal Orlando weekend at Family Forward

As reported previously, we spent a few days at Disneyworld and Universal Orlando.  It was truly a magical, Last Hurrah type of vacation, and we now officially need a vacation after our vacation.  And now we are back home at the mundane muggle school, where they don't teach Potions, but Science.

It was our first time at Family Forward and Universal Orlando, and because of that, I'll write about/review Universal and Family Forward in this post, and I'll go back and talk about our Disney experience in another post.

DISCLOSURE:  As part of the Family Forward Conference Experience, I received discounted and free VIP experiences, food vouchers, and souvenirs from the conference and its sponsors as an enticement to write about them. My opinions and ideas about those experiences, and the decision to write about them remain my own.  I value my integrity, and you should too.

First things first-- this is the video when AA found out he was not going to his grandmother's but instead going to Universal.  Pretty awesome!  And talk about your #universalmoments!


The arcade at the corner of Stan Lee Blvd
and Yancy Street (where The Thing grew up)
The signage at Universal was in general excellent!

One of the best things about the Family Forward Conference was the VIP treatment we received.  As part of the conference, we had two private parties in the parks.

On Thursday night, to kick off the conference, we had a private after-hours dessert party on Marvel SuperHero Island, with free access to 4 or 5 different Marvel rides, including The Incredible Hulk Rollercoaster, Spiderman, Dr. Doom, and a couple of other attractions.

We were able to do a few rides before the threat of Tornados/Bad weather drove us inside the cafe where the party was.  Inside we had some fabulous desserts, and there was an attached arcade. where we played lots of video games while waiting for the weather to abate. (Strangely, the arcade had a KISS pinball game, not the Incredible Hulk or Spiderman or Xmen, which is what I would have expected.)

The pinball machine I expected to
see at Marvel Superhero Island

The Bear meets Cap at Universal Orlando

There were also photo opportunities with costumed characters, including Spidey, Rogue, Captain America, and Wolverine.  Those were all lots of fun to do.

All in all a great first foray into the world of Universal.  The only thing other than the weather that marred it a little is that I was dissuaded from riding the new Hulk Coaster by the sample seats on the outside of the ride.  I sat in one of them, and I couldn't buckle it.  So it seemed it would just be futile to go on it.  Fortunately all was not lost, because on Saturday, we took a VIP tour, and I learned that there were some modified seats on the inside.  I was able to fit in the modified seat no problem!  (And overall, there was only one ride that I was not able to go on.)

Here's me sad with the warning:

#toomuchbulkforthehulk I'm sad to say that it doesn't look like I'll be able to fit on the Hulk ride. I am the wrong shape for it. I'll try again when I get the VIP tour on Saturday And see if I can ( apparently a couple of the seats are actually larger than others ). On the plus side, I ate much healthier than I normally would have at the dessert party. #superherofamily #familyforward #thehulk

Me at the 1950's themed Continental resort.
The next day (Friday) we had a delicious Honey Bunches of Oats breakfast, along with some Minion characters that came for the ride.  We then did a Family Forward workshop in the morning (mostly geared around building family and community) and  then after that-- we had a pool party at the Universal Cabana Beach Bay Resort.  They have two pools and a lazy river with a great 1950's theme.  It was a little bit like stepping into a dream of 1950's style Las Vegas.  We had some fun family time in the lazy river, and on the water slides and the pools.

While there we got a special blogger preview about the still being built water park  that is coming to Universal Orlando, Volcano Bay.  It's going to be a doozy!

There are going to be two 108 foot straight down water drops  a giant wave pool, water slides, and lots more.
Here's a view of the Volcano being built along with the plan below.  It is expected to open Summer 2017!

And here's the promo video:

That night we spent having dinner with some new found friends at the Hard Rock Cafe. The Kitchen restaurant. The dinner was spectacular, as were a couple of the roaming magicians.  One in particular really knocked the socks off the kids.  He was great.

The next day we had a special breakfast at Antojito's, followed by our VIP tour.  At Universal, you can purchase a VIP tour that basically lets you skip almost all of the lines.  It's expensive, it's an add-on of about $190 per person.  But for that, you get special behind the scenes access, almost no wait on rides (some of which can have an hour plus wait normally) and more.  Find out more about the VIP Experience

We had never been to Universal before, and I was blown away by the technology that they use for their rides.  A lot of them have 3D simulations that make Disney rides seem positively quaint.  And the speedy and adventurous rides are great, and much faster than either typical amusement park rides or Disney rides.  As mentioned above, for a bigger guy like me, I was always worried about getting into the seats.  There were really only two rides I couldn't go on despite wanting to.  But it was a downside, especially since one of them was the Harry Potter castle ride.  Hopefully next time we go, I'll have lost a little weight or they'll have modified the rides so that I can go on them.  My family reported they were amazing.

My son channeling The Boy Who Lived.
We absolutely loved the theming at many of the areas, but the Simpson's Springfield, the Dr. Seuss land, and Harry Potter's World (both London and Hogsmead) were spectacular.   I also really liked Comics World, where Dick Tracy, Betty Boop, and lots of other people from the Funny Pages were on display.

Being selected at Olivanders
My son is particularly into Harry Potter, and we spent a lot of time in both worlds.  They sell interactive wands that allow you to do magic at various windows, and that was something we both had a great time at.  Perhaps my favorite attraction of all was Olivander's Wand shop, where they do a 10 minute interactive presentation (using a variety of live actor's playing Olivander)  One lucky Wizard gets selected, and then gets to try out a wand, and gets "Fitted" for a wand by the man himself.  It's really an intimate moment for 10-15 people, and it felt really special.

It only took four tries (and 3 Olivanders) for my son to get selected.  It was truly a memorable moment.  Afterwards, you have to buy the wand (and anybody can always buy a wand)  They have over 50 styles of wands available!)

Blue Man Group
We spent the next two days exploring the parks, and hanging out with the Family Forward crew.  There were lots more great moments, including fine dining (The sushi and food at The CowFish was amazing!), a fantastic show experience at Blue Man Group, and meeting so many other great bloggers and their families.

They have tons of hotels onsite.  Our hotel was the Loews Royal Pacific, and it was so convenient to the parks, and to the dining.  There were free water taxis that you took you everywhere you wanted to go, or you could also walk.  Although we only used it the very last day, our hotel had a very nice pool as well!

 I highly recommend Universal as a family destination, and if you are a blogger,  I think that Family Forward is a great way to see it.

Let me know your favorite parts in the comments!

Universal Orlando and Family Forward gave us a  truly beautiful outlook.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

IN MEMORIAM: Irma Slavit & Joyce Silverman

Jewish gravestone 
Two of my older relatives passed away recently within one day of each other, and it has me bummed out.

Listen, I know it's the way that all things must go, and not to get morose, everyone will one day die. It's just making me feel my mortality all over again.  I'm 52.  How many years do I have left?  (I don't really want to know, and I hope it's a lot!)

And my two relatives lived pretty long lives.  My great aunt Irma lived to be 97, and her niece Joyce lived to be 83.  It seems easy to say "Well, they had pretty long lives."

Both Irma and Joyce were smart funny women, very involved in politics and activism.  My Aunt Irma was the past president of the League of Women Voters and an officer of a chapter of the ACLU.  She went to Pembroke College (Brown's sister school)

Joyce was also a past president of the League of Women Voters and was active in local politics.

Both Irma and Joyce were in the class of relatives that for the longest time I did not know how I was related to them.  We didn't see them that often in our everyday life, but whenever there was a family function (Bar Mitzvah, funeral, wedding, etc) they were always there.  You know, I was 10 or 13-- I knew who they were, but didn't know how they were connected.

Part of that comes from the fact that they are from my dad's fathers side, and my dad did not have a relationship with his dad, so that piece was missing.

Irma was my Great Aunt.  She was the younger sister of my Grandfather. 
Joyce was my Dad's first cousin.  She was the daughter of my Dad's Aunt Bess.  I'm not sure if that makes us first cousins once removed, or second cousins.

I had been meaning to go down to Tucson to see Irma for a couple of days just to say Hello and ask her questions about family stuff (she was the family historian)  But I procrastinated, and now it's too late.

Rest In Peace Irma and Joyce.

SILVERMAN, Joyce Gorman Age 83, passed away peacefully on September 2, 2016, after a long struggle with Alzheimer's disease. She is survived by sons Mark Silverman (Sue Fields) of Conway, MA, and Peter Silverman (Suzanne Sullivan) of Barre, MA, and daughter Amy McFarland (Tom McFarland) of Stoughton, WI; by grandchildren Sarah Silverman, Jason Silverman, Eliza McFarland, Ricky Silverman, and Kyra McFarland; and great-granddaughter Kyla Benson. She was preceded in death by her parents; her sister Marilynn (Gorman) Siegel; and her dear companions Bill Dutzcak and Edmund Murphy. She was born in Providence, RI, the daughter of Bess (Gertsacov) and Adolph Gorman, on October 30, 1932. She attended Wellesley College, Class of 1954, and married the late Richard Silverman in 1952 (divorced 1980). She lived for over 40 years in Weston, MA, was president of the League of Women Voters and served on the Town Democratic Committee. She worked as legislative aide for ten years to State Senator Carol Amick, and in many other public service positions. She retired to a waterfront home in Wareham, MA in 1998, and was active in Democratic politics there. She was an avid gardener and music lover, was devoted to her family and to politics, and was a dedicated daily newspaper reader. 

SLAVIT, Irma Gertsacov, Age 97, passed away peacefully on September 1, 2016. She is survived by her son Dr. Michael Slavit and daughters Roberta Carichner (E. Norbert Carichner) and Betsy Slavit, grandchildren Michelle Slavit aka Jazmine Bridget Knight, Joanna Carichner (Ben Christensen) and David Carichner (Barbara Methot) and great grandchildren Logan Carichner and Sarah Carichner. She was preceded in death by her husband Leonard in 2007. Irma was born in Providence, RI, the daughter of Ethel (Reffkin) and Max Gertsacov on May 27, 1919. She attended Pembroke College and married the late Leonard Slavit in 1939. She lived for 87 years in Providence and Warwick, RI. , was president of the League of Women Voters and an officer of the R.I. chapter of the ACLU. She worked as Graduate Placement Director of Brown University, and as an employment counsellor and counsellor trainer for Blackstone Valley Community Action and Rhode Island Displaced Homemakers. She retired to her daughter Roberta's home in Tucson, AZ in 2006. She was an avid reader, was devoted to her family and to political action. She was celebrated by all who knew her as a positive presence in the world through her social, employment and volunteer activities.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Can You Keep a Secret? We Are Going to Universal Orlando!

For the last four months my wife and I have been keeping a pretty big secret from my son.
Do you promise you won't tell? Shhhh....

For his eighth birthday we are going to Universal Orlando!  (And he doesn't know!  So don't tell him!)

We are going as part of Family Forward Conference.  It's run by two friends of ours, (the guys who own MomItForward)  and basically it's a conference for social media influencers where the family of the influencer is specifically invited and encouraged to come.

It's held at Universal Orlando every year, (this is the fourth year)  and features VIP tours of the parks, social media topics, time at the pool, a trip to see Blue Man Group, discount hotel, and bonding with other families just like ours, and more importantly lots of vacation time!

Here's what they say:
Join 70 digital families for 4 nights and 5 days of hands-on activities the whole family can enjoy, theme-park entertainment, and fun in the sun by the pool.
 ​Family Forward gives families experiences, ideas, and skills to embrace bonding in the digital age through workshops centered on topics like charity, communication, creativity, team building, and trust. Our premise is that whether you are unplugged or are plugged in, you can maximize opportunities to create connections with your family.


A big part of any conference is sponsors (believe me, I ran a conference, I know!)  So I want to give an extra big shout out to the Sponsors of Family Forward.
You can find out more about each of these sponsors on the Family Forward Sponsor page.

So I can hear you asking:  But how did you keep such a big secret from your son? And more importantly, why?  (Go ahead, ask.  I'll wait!)

The why is the harder question to answer, and so I'll answer that first.  As a professional clown, it should come as no surprise to you that I am a bit of a joker. My family has a tradition of surprises (my wife surprised me with a 50th birthday party 6 weeks late!  I surprised my brother on his 40th birthday by flying to Bogota Colombia.  (and he had surprised me by appearing at my doorstep 3 days before I was scheduled to depart.  Great minds think alike!)  And I have a series of April Fools Pranks on my son that have so far have been quite good.

It's fun to give stuff to people, especially when they aren't expecting it.

The how is easier to explain-- we snuck in a grain of truth.  We were already planning to go to DisneyWorld (as you probably know, we are rabid fans, recently became owners of a Disney Time share, and we've gone there a bunch of times.)
My wife is a guru about when the park will be empty, and according to historical data, the last week of August is one of the slowest weeks for the parks.

So we told him we were going to Disney for 5 days, and as a special treat, we organized with our friends in New York  the McGills (note: not their real name) for Aaron and his best New York friend to meet at Disney.  (You can read about some more of our adventures with the McGills here.)

We are actually taking all the kids to Disney, while the parent McGills have an adults only vacation, because the parent McGills can't stand amusement parks, and we want their kids to grow up relatively normal. (And because the Bear would love it!  We're basically renting siblings for him!)  We are spending 5 days at Disney with the McGill kids, and then my son thinks we are going to visit Grandma who also lives in Florida.  But in reality Grandma is coming to visit us!

Click the image (or this link) to get a Gryffindor robe of your own.

To prepare for this event, I did have to do some devilish preparation, including having my son read all of the Harry Potter books, see most of the Harry Potter Films (we have finished 6, we have both Deathly Hallows movies to watch, which hopefully will happen tomorrow or Friday (we leave on Saturday!))  And we have had to studiously avoid him noticing all of the preparations, including buying him Harry Potter robes, not letting him look at all the emails we've been getting from Family Forward, etc.  It's been hard, but it's been manageable

In the end it will all be worth it. My son gets the best birthday present ever, (two parks, hanging out with his friend, seeing his grandma) we get to hang out with the McGill's (who will spend a day on either end with us at a water park and a dinner before going off to have a lovely adults only vacation).

We are big fans of Disney, but have never been to Universal, so this is the perfect time.  My son is not much of a roller coaster kid, but he loves Harry Potter, he loves having fun, and he loves to swim.

Personally, I'm excited about The Wizarding World of Harry Potter and all the rides (which are supposed to be awesome!) but I'm perhaps most excited about Blue Man Group-- amazingly, I've never seen their show live, and it seems like such a natural for me.  When I lived in NY (and now in Chicago) I have just never gotten around to it!

Here's a video/ad of Blue Man Group:

And they lived Happily Ever After.  (at least until the credit card bill comes in.)

Thursday, August 18, 2016

The Hot concert of the week: Justin Roberts at Ravinia

Just found out about this, and we are super excited to go check it out-- Justin Roberts, local Chicago guy who is one of the kingpins of kindie music, is playing at Ravinia this weekend. And we are going!

For the last 20 years, Justin Roberts and his band The Not Ready for Naptime Players have traveled the globe, from Hong Kong to New York, and Miami to Seattle. Justin has performed in front of millions of people on The Today Show, he's been featured on Nick Jr. TV, and his song "Get Me Some Glasses" was on a World Series broadcast. He’s received two GRAMMY nominations, for Jungle Gym in 2010 and Recess in 2013. Recent appearances include performances at NYC's New Victory Theater, DC's National Geographic Live, LA's Getty Museum, Seattle's Moore Theater, Lollapalooza, Austin City Limits, and much much more.

We saw Justin a couple of years ago in a bar setting, and I think Ravinia will be much more conducive to the family-friendly atmosphere that Justin excels in (and he was great at the bar.)

Looking at the literature, he's also getting ready to release his 13nth album for kids and their families  Entitled  Lemonade, it is Justin's 13th album for families, and it contains 12 new original songs.   Sounds like a lot of fun! PRE-ORDER LEMONADE ON AMAZON NOW

Here's how to buy tickets for the Ravinia show:

Find out more about Justin Roberts:

And here are some of Justin's albums on Amazon!

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Shylock's Beard by Cary Mazer

I had the opportunity to do something I haven't done in a long time-- I spent the evening with my old Penn Theatre professor Cary Mazer.  To be honest, I don't think I ever took a class with him.  But he was the department head of the Theater Dept. where I had a minor in Theater Arts, and I had met with him several times as I wrestled about what to do.

He was in Chicago because his play Shylock's Beard, won the ATHE award which comes with a script-in-hand production at the conference, which was held in Chicago this year.  I saw the play, and then afterwards Cary and I (and another former student Nora) went for a quick dinner that ended up lasting almost 2 and a half hours! (and by the way, that is Cary's beard to the left)

The play was quite good, and very clever.  It involves a Shakespearian professor who hates the play the Merchant of Venice, but agrees to dramaturg a production of it because the theatre needs somebody Jewish to be involved-- to be the "beard" to give them the moral ability to do the play without seeming anti-semitic. The play follows his travails as Shylock the character (and the archetype) becomes his obsession, and these ideas take over his real life as well as his imaginary life.

The play was very good, and I can imagine theatre companies picking this play up.  The three things I really liked about it:

1) Parallelism.  The parallels between the play and what happens in the main character's life are really well done.  They are not so overt, but they follow the play well. And the moments when they are highlighted are quite funny.

2) The Erasing of stories.  There's a really interesting development toward the end of the play where the character has the idea to write a play about his situation, and we the audience are made aware that it is this play.  But several of the characters ask not to be in the play, and suddenly some of the gaps in the play (especially between the main character and his wife) become quite clear.  The story we are hearing is the protagonist's story.  The other people's stories are delightfully out of focus.

3) Insider Baseball.  The play takes us inside two interesting environments: Rehearsing a play and academia.  Seeing the inside workings (a little bit of how the sausage is made) in both of those is always interesting

After the play, Cary and I and another student went out for a dinner, where we talked about a variety of things, including former teachers at Penn (Ilona Gerbner), teaching philosophies, personal stories, and much much more.  It was a wide ranging conversation, which only ended when they started turning on and off the lights.  It was a great time!

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Giant Word Winder at the Edgewater Public Library with David Hoyt

We met David Hoyt at last year's CHITAG , and he's a great guy.  And the game is fun AND educational.

This looks like a great event. And it's right in the neighborhood!  (We won't be there, because we are in camp that week, but you should definitely check it out.  It will be fun.)

GIANT Word Winder with David L. Hoyt

GIANT Word Winder with David L. Hoyt

Tuesday, August 9, 2016 (2:00PM – 3:00PM)


Meet toy and game inventor David L. Hoyt, creator of daily Jumble puzzles found in newspapers across the world as well as puzzles in the Summer Learning Challenge Explorer's Guide. Learn about how he became an inventor and why he believes in the power of words, then learn to play one of David's inventions: GIANT Word Winder where you'll travel across a GIANT game board by building words.
This program is for children ages 10 - 12 years old.
Registration is required. Space is limited.
To register call the library.
Address: 6000 North Broadway, Chicago, IL 60660
Phone: (312) 742-1945


Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Win Opening Night Tickets to see Cirque Du Soleil's Toruk: The First Flight (Chicago!)

Photo of performer from Toruk

The new Cirque du Soleil touring show TORUK – The First Flight will be at the United Center in Chicago August 3-7, 2016.

YOU CAN WIN TICKETS TO SEE THE OPENING NIGHT!  Keep on reading to find out how!

 Inspired by James Cameron’s record-breaking movie AVATAR, TORUK – The First Flight transports the audience to a far away place (Pandora) using a combination of music, acrobatics, cutting-edge visuals, and puppetry to make the story come to life.

 As you can see from this promo video, the puppetry, costumes, and props are sensational.

And here's one of the first 30 second spots/ads from TV:


toruk_1When a natural catastrophe threatens to destroy the sacred Tree of Souls, two boys on the brink of adulthood decide to take matters into their own hands. They and their newfound friend Tsyal, search for a flying predator (Toruk) that can help them in their quest. A prophecy is fulfilled when a pure soul rises among the clans to ride Toruk for the first time and save the Na’vi from a terrible fate. 

As is true in many Cirque shows, I expect that the story will get lost somewhere in the second act, but considering the amazing spectacle that will unfold, including puppetry projections, performances, and everything else (and in an arena, not a circus tent) I expect to not care too much.

 (I've read that there are 40 video projectors in use during the show. The total projection space is over 20,000 square feet of area, 5 times as much projection space as an IMAX film.) 

The puppetry also looks amazing!  Cruising around the Toruk website, I found these images/sketches of how they made some of the puppets.

  cirque_austrapede cirque_direhorse cirque_turtlepuppet cirque_viperwolf

Ticket information

TORUK – The First Flight will be presented at the United Center on August 3-7, 2016. Tickets can be purchased at

But you can win tickets by entering our Dadapalooza Raffle.  Cirque has generously offered a 4 pack for this giveaway.  Click  Dadapalooza Cirque giveaway to enter!  The winner will be drawn by random using Rafflecopter software.  Entry closes on July 31.  Winners notified August 1.

PLEASE NOTE: The Raffle has ended, but you can use this link to get 15% off of tickets.

Hope you enjoy the show!