Nomad by Trade

A travel blog for the kid at heart.

Tag: USA (Page 1 of 2)

Minelot Falls in Thacher State Park

Thacher State Park

If you’re a fan of waterfalls, Thacher State Park might be a perfect escape in the New York capital region. Located about half an hour west of Albany, it’s a great spot to visit if you find yourself in the area. It’s an easy drive, and at only $6/vehicle for a day pass, it’s an affordable place to explore.

I visited in the evening after work, so I didn’t have time to explore the whole park. Even though I only had a couple of hours before dark, playing in nature beats sitting in a hotel room watching bad tv reruns any day. Based on recommendations from some of the locals I was working with, I focused on the Indian Ladder trail. It’s a relatively easy hike that can be completed in less than an hour if you don’t spend too much time enjoying the scenery. From end to end, the trail is about half a mile.

Minelot Falls in Thacher State Park

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Mackinac Island from Fort Mackinac

Summer on Mackinac Island

It just so worked out that my birthday fell on a Saturday last summer, and as soon as I realized this, I decided to take a weekend trip somewhere. I picked Mackinac Island, one of my favorite places in my home state. I went there regularly with my family when I was growing up, but I had somehow managed to go eight whole years without visiting, and I was super excited to see it again. Summer on Mackinac Island is perfect and there’s something for all ages and interests.

Mackinac is a little island in Lake Huron between the Upper and Lower Peninsulas. No cars (except emergency vehicles) are allowed on the island, and it gives it a charming, old-fashioned atmosphere. Fun fact: it was the US’ second National Park, after Yellowstone, though it is no longer part of the National Park system. Bikes and horses are the preferred methods of transportation during the summer, so we borrowed my parents’ SUV and bike rack to haul our gear Up North (yes, that’s a proper noun in these parts) and hit the road for the weekend.

Hotels on the island and in the closest cities (Mackinaw City in the Lower Peninsula and St. Ignace in the Upper) are crazy expensive for summer weekends. The Holiday Inn Express in St. Ignace (I’ve found that the hotels on the UP side are slightly cheaper) was going for almost $500/night when I was trying to make reservations six months in advance. Instead, I opted to stay at Straits State Park, a gorgeous campground right at the base of the Mackinac Bridge and we took a ferry over first thing in the morning.

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View of the Strip in Las Vegas, Nevada

5 Things that Surprised Me in Las Vegas

Las Vegas never really seemed like my kind of place, but I’ve always been curious about it because it also kind of seems like somewhere everyone should try to see at least once in their lives. Due to a last-minute booking for a recent work trip, I ended up with a six-hour layover there, and since LAS is right next to the Strip (I’m not joking – it’s basically across the street from the Luxor and Mandalay Bay.), I decided that it was the perfect opportunity to get a taste of the town. Plus, I got to check off Nevada (hey, #45) on my list of states that I’ve visited. Here are five things that I learned in my four hours in Las Vegas.

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First Timer’s Guide to the Garden of the Gods

I’d somehow never heard of Garden of the Gods until I started planning a trip to Colorado Springs. As soon as I saw pictures of it, I knew I’d have to visit. It’s an incredible naturally formed area full of red rock formations that will dazzle you. I loved wandering through the enormous boulders and spires and marveling at the power of nature. Bring your camera and some hiking boots and be prepared to explore some awe-inspiring scenery. Best of all? It’s free!

What to Do

Perkins Central Gardens Trail

Kissing Camels formation in Garden of the Gods Colorado Springs

So cute!

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Hiking the Gem Lake Trail

Rocky Mountain National Park is full of gorgeous scenery and offers all kinds of hiking trails, from an easy stroll around Sprague Lake to a climb to the summit of Longs Peak. As Midwesterners (aka from low elevation) of average fitness level, we stuck to the easy/moderate rated trails. Mostly. Our last hike of the weekend challenged us a lot more than we expected, and left us so exhausted that we barely made it out for dinner that night.

Hiking the Gem Lake trail in Rocky Mountain National Park taught us a very important lesson: always be very clear about your level of fitness when inquiring about hiking trails in the mountains. We were pointed toward Gem Lake by a NPS volunteer at one of the visitor centers and eagerly headed off to check out the views he talked about. The problem: when we told the first park volunteer that we were looking for a moderately easy trail to fill up the rest of the afternoon, she called over this other guy and didn’t relay the message that we weren’t looking for something strenuous. Based on his enthusiastic recommendation, we set off to hike to Gem Lake, with stomachs full of elk and bison burgers, fries, and pop.

Gem Lake Trail in Rocky Mountain National Park

There will be a lot of stairs along the way.

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Niagara Falls State Park

After spending the weekend on the Canadian Side of Niagara Falls, I decided to pay a visit to Niagara Falls State Park, on the New York side. Not only does it offer the closest overlooks of the falls, but it’s the oldest state park in the country. Even better: it’s open 24/7, so you can experience the majesty of the falls any time of day.
American Falls lit up at night viewed from Niagara Falls State Park in New York

I went back at night a few weeks later to see the lights.

 

I lucked into some free street parking nearby and then headed into the park. There are some gorgeous overlooks of the American falls right from the start.

 

Niagara Falls State Park in Niagara Falls, New York

Exploring Goat Island

Walking or driving across a bridge will take you to Goat Island, which is what divides the Canadian falls from the American ones. You can explore the island, and get up close right at the brinks of all three waterfalls.

 

Niagara Falls State Park in Niagara Falls, New York

 

One of the coolest spots is on Luna Island, the tiny little bit of land that separates Bridal Veil falls from the rest of the American falls. Standing right between two waterfalls is a really neat experience. Looking straight down at the rocks below gives a pretty good idea of why those barrel-over-the-falls thrill-seekers back in the day picked the more intimidating Horseshoe falls for their stunts.
Bridal Veil Falls in Niagara Falls State Park in Niagara Falls, New York

Looking straight out over the top of Bridal Veil Falls

 

Walking around the island gives you a chance to enjoy every angle of the falls. I love taking pictures, so just wandering around with my camera was a great way to kill the afternoon.

 

Niagara Falls State Park in Niagara Falls, New York

 

On the south side of Goat Island, you can access bridges to the much-smaller Three Sisters Islands that take you out into the main river channel. You can see the water around you picking up speed as it rushes toward the upcoming drop. One couple nearby decided to climb the railings and take some selfies right along the river bank. I was pretty sure that I was going to see natural selection in action, but they made it back in one piece.
Niagara Falls State Park in Niagara Falls, New York

This is not a good idea.

Rainbow Bridge Crossing

International Boundary Line between the United States and Canada on the Rainbow Bridge in Niagara Falls

As I was leaving the park, I noticed the sign for the walking bridge to Canada. The closest crossing to the falls has a pedestrian lane so visitors can walk back and forth between the two sides. Since I still had my passport on me, I decided to go for it even though I was pretty well frozen by that point. I’ve crossed international borders by plane, train, and car before, but never on foot, so this experience was something new. The mist coming up from the water kind of obscured the view of the Canadian falls, but walking out on the bridge gave a unique view that I’d never seen before and was well worth it. Keep in mind that this is an international border, so once you set foot on the bridge, you’ll need a passport to get back into the US.

International Boundary Line between the United States and Canada on the Rainbow Bridge in Niagara Falls

Read about our time on the Canadian side of the falls here.

Have you ever visited Niagara Falls? Let me know in the comments.

Don't miss a chance to visit Niagara Falls State Park on the New York side of the river to get up close to the famous waterfalls.

An Ode to Wishes

The Magic Kingdom’s nighttime fireworks spectacular, Wishes, will soon be performing its final show. It has been inspiring guests to trust their heats and make wishes since it debuted in 2003. As a former Cast Member who spent several months working at the park, I’m particularly attached to Wishes and was devastated to hear of its upcoming finale. Wishes’ replacement, Happily Ever After, is slated to have its opening performance on May 12th. The clips of the new show that have been released look very good, but before we welcome that new show, it’s time to look back at what has made Wishes so magical for so many years.

From the iconic flares that kick the show off to the castle-framing fans of light to that evil face that I was always determined to see right-side up to the spectacular beauty of the finale, Wishes was not to be missed. No fireworks show will ever capture my heart quite the way Wishes did.

Wishes fireworks show at the Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World - Orlando, Florida

Who would think something as simple as a flare would be such a dramatic part of the show?

Being an intern at Disney World meant working the closing shift, and while that had the downside of ending late at night most of the time, it also included the perk of daily Wishes viewing and/or listening. Within a few weeks, those of us who worked at night had seen and heard the show so many times that we could tell how far into the performance it was based on just the sound of the firework bursts. The soundtrack wasn’t played in the ride station, and even though it’s open air, you couldn’t see the fireworks in the station, but we quickly learned to judge how far along the show was by the sound of the explosions echoing through the park. The light, airy bursts from the love section, the crackling sizzle that accompanied the villains portion, and the thundering booms leading up to the finale were as distinct as the music that accompanied them. This wasn’t just fun – it was a valuable skill on nights when the park remained open after Wishes, because the end of the show would signal an upcoming rush of people wanting to board.

Wishes fireworks show at the Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World - Orlando, Florida

That silhouette still makes me smile.

If there weren’t many guests around to load and unload, we’d have our own sing-alongs providing an off-key, but spirited soundtrack to the invisible fireworks. And, let’s face it, sometimes the presence of guests didn’t even deter us from performing – hey, they call us Cast Members at Disney because we we’re all part of the show, right?

Wishes fireworks show at the Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World - Orlando, Florida

It’s even pretty when viewed from across the Seven Seas Lagoon!

By the end of our time working there, Wishes was so ingrained in my heart that it would bring a tear to my eye during the finale. That’s also when my favorite firework of all time explodes – the biggest, loudest shimmery gold one you can imagine. Wishes was an almost nightly ritual for several months, and I spent my last evening as a Cast Member standing on Main Street singing along. Just like certain songs can transport you back to a place and time that you remember fondly, this 12.5-minute long combination of lights, music, fireworks, and a flying fairy will always make me think of some of my happiest days.

Wishes fireworks show at the Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World - Orlando, Florida

This one! This is my favorite firework of all time.

I tried to make it back to Orlando to watch it one last time, but the whole full-time job thing made that impractical. I’ll have to console myself with listening to the soundtrack over and over again. As luck would have it, I’ve taken enough pictures over the years that I could probably reconstruct it if I arranged them all together. These are some of my favorites.

Wishes fireworks show at the Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World - Orlando, Florida

What would you wish for?

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“When you wish upon a star, makes no difference who you are.”

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“If your heart is in your dream, no request is too extreme.”

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This is perfection.

Wishes fireworks show at the Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World - Orlando, Florida

The genie has some wishes to grant!

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Uh oh, be careful what you wish for.

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Always let your conscience be your guide.

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Good news: the Blue Fairy is here to save the day.

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The Hercules music used in this section is perfect.

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“Wishes! Dream a dream. Wishes! Set it free.”

Wishes fireworks show at the Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World - Orlando, Florida

“Wishes! Trust your heart. Just believe!”

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And the grand finale.

I know Wishes isn’t the height of all entertainment, but it will always be near and dear to my heart. I have so many amazing memories associated with this show, and it’s the only way I want to end my evening at Disney World.

Check out this incredible video by OnlyHDVideos:

Do you have any fond memories of Disney shows or attractions?

Planning to go visit Disney World solo? Here are some tips to make the most of your trip.

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The Wishes firework spectacular is ending its 13-year run at the Magic Kingdom. Look back on some great memories and photographs with a former Cast Member.Pin - Wishes2The Wishes firework spectacular is ending its 13-year run at the Magic Kingdom. Look back on some great memories and photographs with a former Cast Member.

The Evening Tourist – The Pez Factory

I love crazy evening adventures. Especially ridiculous ones that are a little cheesy. They’re exactly the kind of thing needed to break up the monotony of hotel living and keep you sane on the road. And also I’m pretty much just an overgrown child.

 

While on a business trip to southern Connecticut, I discovered that we were only a few minutes down the road from the Pez factory in Orange, CT. Not only does the factory have a visitor center and museum, but it was also open until 6 pm, giving us exactly one hour between when we would finish working and when it would close. (Hours vary seasonally, and winter closings are a bit earlier.)
Giant Pez candies at the Pez Visitor Center in Orange, CT

I’d like to take these giant candies home, please.

I had convinced a co-worker to go with me, so at exactly 5:00 we shut our laptops down and headed to the car. It was a quick ride down the interstate and we found the factory easily. As part of your admission, you also get a store credit (it’s a great way to encourage you to spend even more money in the shop, and sadly worked quite well on both of us).

 

We also got bingo cards that had a bunch of specific Pez dispensers on it and to mark off each square, you had to locate that dispenser and write the year it was manufactured. You only needed to get a bingo to earn a free Pez dispenser, but we were determined to fill out our entire cards. Thanks to some excellent teamwork, we were able to find all but two of them. The ladies behind the counter spun the Wheel of Pez (A very catchy name I made up myself) and I earned a polar bear one that I regifted to my sister when I got home.
Giant Pez dispenser at the Pez Visitor Center in Orange, CT

That’s one tall Pez dispenser.

You’re greeted at the door by an enormous Pez dispenser that opens and closes with a motor. It would’ve been a lot easier to pose with it if I wasn’t so darn short.

 

The museum isn’t huge, but it was a fun way to kill a couple hours if you’re in the area. There is some history about the candy and dispensers along the wall. I had no idea that Pez started out as peppermints from Vienna. It does explain the name though, as pfefferminz is the German word for peppermint.

 

The main display is cases upon cases of old Pez dispensers. Looking at the oldest ones was interesting because some of them were pretty creepy.
Vintage Tinkerbell Pez dispensers at the Pez Visitor Center in Orange, CT

Tink is looking a little scary there.

I was also pretty jealous of a set of Canada-exclusive NHL ones that I would’ve loved to have had a chance to buy.
Zamboni Pez dispensers at the Pez Visitor Center in Orange, CT

I would totally shell out for a Red Wings one.

I quite liked these Pez dispenser guns and totally would’ve purchased one if they’d had them in the store.
Vintage Pez dispenser guns at the Pez Visitor Center in Orange, Connecticut

 

This display showing how different colors are molded together to make the figures on top was interesting too.
Anna from Frozen Pez dispenser at the Pez Visitor Center in Orange, Connecticut

 

You could peek into the factory through some windows at the back, but there wasn’t much to see. The area closest to the viewing spot had a couple workers mixing different shaped dispensers together for individual wrapping, followed by grouping into a variety pack.

Pez dispensers being packaged at the Pez factory in Orange, CT

 

My favorite part might’ve been the Pez dispenser head photo op. You can basically pose for a picture with your face on top of a Pez dispenser stick so it looks like you’re about to eject some little candy tablets. There were a variety of hats you could use as props, but I went with just plain, old me.
Pez dispenser photo op at the Pez Visitor Center in Orange, Connecticut

I guess I’m famous now that my head is on a Pez dispenser.

Nearby, there was an opportunity to make your own Pez dispenser. There were a bunch of different shaped bases that kids (or fun adults) could color to make their own designs. These cost money, but weren’t any more expensive than the other items in the store. I didn’t make one for myself because I’m pretty lacking in the creativity and drawing department, but in hindsight, I kind of wish I had given it a shot.
Detroit Tigers Pez dispensers displayed at the Pez Visitor Center in Orange, CT

After the obligatory pass through the Pez store (We had to spend the free credits that came with our tickets, after all), we headed out, with five whole minutes to spare before closing time. Not bad for an after-work adventure.

The Pez Visitor Center in Orange, Connecticut offers fun for families and adults.The Pez Visitor Center in Orange, Connecticut offers fun for families and adults.

How to Visit Disney Parks Solo

When you tell someone that you’re going on a trip to Disney World or Disneyland, one of their first questions is usually, “Who are you going with?” If your answer happens to be “no one,” frequent reactions include disbelief, confusion, or, worst of all, sympathy because poor little you couldn’t find someone to go to Disney World with you. Solo travel isn’t for everyone, but for those of us who like it (or have no other options), it can make for some of the best experiences you’ll ever have.

As a veteran of several solo Disney trips to both Walt Disney World and Disneyland, here is my best advice for making the most of your time alone…with thousands of other people.

Paradise Pier at California Adventure

Have the right attitude

The biggest, hugest, most important thing is to have the right attitude. If you go in expecting to have a blast, there’s a pretty good chance you will. If you go in expecting to be miserable the whole time, odds are you will. Part of it comes from knowing yourself. I’m fairly reserved and can spend whole weekends happily talking to no one but my dog, so taking a trip alone is absolutely fine by me. If you’re a chatterbug who prefers constant companionship, you may need to do a little mental preparation for being by yourself for a few days. I absolutely look forward to my solo trips – whether Disney or elsewhere – largely because of the next item on this list.

Do whatever you want

Enjoy your total freedom. I mean it. Do whatever you want whenever you want without having to have a group discussion about it. Want to ride Splash Mountain seven times in a row? Do it, because no one else in your group is going to complain about getting wet. Want to get to the Magic Kingdom before the park opens so you can see the entrance show and be there for rope drop? Do it, because no one else in your group is going to complain about having to get up too early on vacation. Want to have a Dole Whip, a Mickey bar, and a churro all in the same afternoon? Do it, because no one else in your group is going to judge you.

No matter how well you get along with your friends and family, there’s always going to be some level of compromise involved in your plan for the day, whether it’s which rides to Fastpass, where to grab dinner, and what pace you’re going to go during the day. When you’re by yourself, you never have to compromise, and it is not a terrible feeling. On my solo Disneyland trip, I spent one day at each park. It wasn’t until I got back to the hotel after spending the day at Disneyland that I realized I had only sat down for about 40 minutes the entire day (while I was eating lunch at Blue Bayou), aside from the rides I was on. I just never stopped going the ENTIRE day and I got so much more done than I ever would’ve with other people. When I’m traveling, I have this crazy extra gear that kicks in and almost no one can keep up with me. I don’t have to worry about slowing myself down when I’m traveling alone.

Gorilla at Disney's Animal Kingdom in Orlando, Florida

Go ahead and spend an hour taking pictures of gorillas if you want to.

Be prepared

If you’re traveling in a group and you forget to pack sunscreen, odds are someone else can let you use some of theirs. When you’re by yourself, you don’t have anyone else to rely on. It’s really important to make sure you bring everything you’ll need for your whole trip so you don’t end up wasting time and money buying overpriced essentials in the parks. I always start my packing lists about a month before my trip. I keep a basic list in a Word document on my laptop and then modify it as needed for specific trips. The advantage of starting it early is that over time, you think of other things you’ll need and can add them to the list. It sure beats having those “OMG, I forgot the toothpaste” epiphanies at the airport or in the car.

Plan ahead

Do a little research before you go. Find out which rides offer Fastpasses and which ones have single rider lines. Make your dining and Fastpass reservations as soon as possible. You’re not going to be able to book popular restaurants and rides if you wait until the week before to start looking for time slots. Get a general feel for how the parks are laid out. Make a list of your top 10 must-do attractions so you can make a rough plan for the day. You can always adjust your plans on the fly, but conquering the parks can definitely be overwhelming, especially if it’s your first trip.

Spaceship Earth in Epcot at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida

I could spend all day just taking pictures of this incredible structure.

Take your time and enjoy the scenery

Take tons of pictures. Wandering the parks on your own really opens up your eyes to the fantastic little details you can find in the parks. It’s easy to get absorbed in conversations when you’re there with a group, but walking around alone gives you a chance to spot great photo opportunities and notice things you’ve never seen before.

Mickey Mouse at Disneyland in Anaheim, California

Who needs travel buddies when you can hang out with Mickey Mouse himself?

Use PhotoPass

Take advantage of PhotoPass. Selfie sticks are banned in the Disney parks, so that’s not an option. PhotoPass is a great way to get beautiful shots. I’ve purchased Memory Maker at WDW, Disneyland, and Disneyland Paris. It’s well worth it at WDW and Disneyland, but was a waste of money in Paris. The American parks have Photopass photographers stationed seemingly everywhere so you can easily get hundreds of pictures on a trip that lasts for a few days. If Memory Maker isn’t in your budget, the photographers and/or character attendants will also take pictures with your own camera or phone if you ask. My favorite aspect of the PhotoPass pictures is the fact that they generally snap a whole bunch of pictures as you greet, hug, and pose with the character. They’ll usually only take one posed picture with yours. If candid shots are your thing, you’ll probably love the Memory Maker pictures. The other advantage is that you can download them very quickly on your phone so you can share them online and show people back home how much fun you’re having without them.

Ask other guests for help

Don’t be afraid to ask other people to take pictures for you. This is kind of going out of style with selfies taking over and talking to strangers not being a thing anymore, but every single group shot I have from the family vacations I went on as a kid was a result of my parents asking another tourist to snap a picture of us with our camera. They’re not always great, but in the age of digital photography, you can always just delete blurry pictures. It can definitely be awkward when you first give it a shot, especially if you’re fairly shy like me, but I’ve never had anyone say no or steal my camera. If you don’t want to start out by immediately asking someone for a favor, try looking around for people taking selfies or a parent taking a picture of their spouse and kids and ask them if they’d like a picture of all of them together. If they agree, take their picture for them (They’ll probably be thrilled to get a nice group shot. Great job adding to the Disney magic without even being a Cast Member.) and then ask them if they’d mind doing one for you afterward. Only a truly terrible person is going to turn you down at that point.

Monorail at Disneyland in Anaheim, California

I found myself alone in the Disneyland monorail, so I found a place to set my camera and take some pictures.

Use your self-timer

If asking other people to take pictures for you isn’t your thing, try playing around with the self timer on your camera. I’ve gotten some really good shots using the 10 second timer and setting my camera on an available surface. You could also try using a mini tripod. This strategy works better in quieter areas of the parks where other guests aren’t likely to accidentally wander into your picture as you’re waiting for it to snap.

Breakfast at California Adventure

Being alone isn’t going to stop me from having some Disney waffles for breakfast.

Book a table for one

Don’t be afraid to dine alone. This used to be the most awkward thing for me to do by myself. I was sure that people all over were snickering at me sitting in a restaurant all by my lonesome if I didn’t have someone with me. Then I started traveling for work constantly and I had no choice but to get used to it. It really doesn’t bother me at all anymore. Sure, I may have felt a teeny bit silly checking in for a reservation for one at the Blue Bayou, but I thoroughly enjoyed my meal and would’ve been really disappointed if I had skipped out on the chance to eat at one of the most famous Disney restaurants just because I was in California by myself. In all reality, other diners are much more focused on their own meals than looking around to mock other guests.

Take advantage of the single rider lines

Use the Single Rider lines. They’re not always super fast (I’ve seen Test Track’s showing upwards of an hour on the wait time sign before), but in many cases using Single Rider can be almost like having a free Fastpass. I use them even when I’m traveling with my family because it’s often worth it to get on the ride faster. If you’re traveling solo, you’re not going to be sitting with a group anyway, so why wait in the regular line?

Skip ahead in regular queues too

Don’t be shy about being a party of one in ride queues. Pay attention to Cast Members as you’re approaching a load area. A lot of times they’re looking for a party of one or two to fill an empty seat or row in a ride vehicle they’re loading. If you hear them calling for certain sized parties, raise your hand and you may get to skip a bunch of people. I’ve gotten pulled to fill the last seat of a Space Mountain train from way back in the line, skipping at least ten trains’ worth of people in line in front of me. It’s not a huge difference, but it can get you in and out a little quicker, and it’s good for CMs (they get to keep their ride throughput high) and other guests in line behind you (filling in those empty seats as efficiently as possible speeds up the line for everyone).

Cinderella Castle in the Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World, Florida

Take your time and just gaze at the castle

Enjoy the atmosphere

Resist the temptation to pop in some headphones and listen to your own music all day. Being alone with no one to talk to makes this seem like a great way to pass the time in lines, but Disney is the one place I will not carry my headphones. There is so much great area background music and millions of uniquely Disney sights and sounds that you’ll be missing out on a lot by retreating into your headphones.

Find a way to entertain yourself

Figure out how you’re going to pass the time in line by yourself. Unless you meet some friendly strangers, you’re not going to have anyone to talk to. Some of the queues have fun interactive areas to distract you, but the majority of them still have plain old railings and ropes. I’m a reader, so I’ll sometimes toss a small paperback in my backpack to kill some time in line. If you’re going to spend the day playing on your phone, invest in a portable battery pack. You can buy them in the parks, but they’re expensive. I’ve used a Mimo PowerTube on a couple trips with great success. It gave me the freedom to not have to ration my battery life in order to get through the day.

Most importantly: just have fun! If you’re on the fence about taking a solo trip, just go for it. Even if you don’t have the time of your life, it’ll still be worth it. You can always find a travel buddy for your next trip if you don’t like traveling solo.

Have you ever visited Disney parks solo? Do you have any tips for my next visit? Let me know in the comments.

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Tips and tricks for making the most of a solo trip to Disney parksTips and tricks for making the most of a solo trip to Disney parksPin - Disney Solo3Tips and tricks for making the most of a solo trip to Disney parks

One Evening in San Francisco

I was recently sent to the Sacramento area for work, and as I had to fly in Sunday to be at the office first thing Monday, I hopped an early flight that landed around 12:30. It was almost two hours to San Francisco, but I’d never been there before and had always wanted to see the Golden Gate Bridge so I went for it even though I wasn’t feeling great when I got off the plane.

Golden Gate National Recreation Area

I began my visit in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, the large park north of the bridge. I could easily have spent two days there because there’s so much to do. I had an hour.

I started out winding up the scenic road with overlooks offering great views of the bridge, but forced myself to keep going deeper into the Marin Headlands. I wanted to stop at the visitor center there to grab a National Parks passport stamp and some maps.

After considering my options for such a quick visit, I decided to see a couple things nearby and then head back to the bridge overlooks so I could enjoy that view before it got dark. There is an old Nike missile launch site in the park and I tried to visit that, but discovered that it’s only open for tours for a few hours on Saturdays.

South Rodeo Beach in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area
Instead I continued on to the Rodeo Beach parking lot. There were two trails available, and I picked the shorter one that took me to South Rodeo Beach. It was only a couple minutes of reasonably easy walking and opened up to some great views of the Pacific Ocean crashing against rocks along the shore. It wasn’t until later that I realized that I’ve seen dozens of pictures of sunsets behind the rocks off of the northern part of Rodeo Beach online, and I sort of regret not venturing further up. Unfortunately, it started raining that point, and I had to hustle back to the rental car to avoid getting soaked. The hike seemed a lot easier when I was casually walking downhill than it did when I was half-jogging back up.

Rodeo Beach in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area
I continued up the road to the Point Bonita Lighthouse parking area, but I decided to just snap some pictures of the bridge from the overlook there instead of making the walk out to see it. My queendom for more daylight.

Though there were some other tempting places on the map of the park, I decided it was time to head back to see the Golden Gate Bridge up close. I stopped at a couple of the overlooks with parking areas along the way and took some pictures. The two that were closest to the bridge looked like they’d had parking or at least a pull-off area at one point, but those were blocked off with barricades and accessible only to pedestrians walking on the sidewalk. (Recurring theme here) I wished I’d had time to park and really explore the area.

I parked in the lot at the north base of the bridge and found a stairway that led to a path underneath it, and without having any idea where it led, I followed along, listening to the cars rumbling above me as I passed under the lanes of traffic.

After climbing up the stairs on the other side, I emerged into a much busier viewing area that had a better angle to see it from. It was cool to see the bridge straight-on from the end with traffic flowing in both directions. I also got my first view of Alcatraz. I had considered doing a sunset cruise to see “The Rock,” but time would’ve been tight and I would’ve had to pre-purchase my ticket because that departure was almost sold out, so I decided to pass on it for this trip. There was also an entire family posing for a picture while standing on top of the rock wall keeping people away from a pretty significant drop, which reminded me of the old proverb, “The family that tempts natural selection together stays together.” Or is that not a thing?

Golden Gate Bridge

Golden Gate Bridge

After that, I crossed back under the bridge and hopped in my car for the drive into San Francisco. As you approach from the north, there are electronic signs regarding the cashless toll. Several of them said that the Fast Track pass is required, which concerned me a little as I didn’t have an account. I had checked with a park ranger when I stopped in the visitor center to find out if that meant that I actually had to open an account or if it would just be billed to my license plate if I didn’t have one. I was concerned that I’d get a ticket later on in addition to the toll and rental car company’s service fees if I didn’t have the Fast Track, but she assured me that it worked just like other cashless tolls that I’ve been to in other areas. She also cautioned me to NOT STOP at all because tourists occasionally get rear-ended when they try to stop at the old toll booth that still spans the southbound lanes.

I later found out that I could pay my toll online within 48 hours and avoid the rental car fees. After my first cashless toll experience (I hate toll roads with a passion) on a business trip, I was surprised by a $30 bill from the rental car company three months later that covered about $7 in tolls and $23 in fees. I was thrilled to be able to avoid this on the Golden Gate. The system they use there is fantastic for rental cars because you enter your plate number and the dates and times you’ll have the car there and any crossings that occur during that time are billed to your credit card. It’s great because you can be very specific with the times you enter to avoid paying another customer’s toll if the car you’re driving happens to get rented out again the same day, and you don’t have to worry about the rental company charging you a bunch of fees later on.

I thought it was neat to drive across the bridge, but it’s not worth renting a car or paying the tolls ($7.50 for people who don’t have an account, but you can save a dollar if you register beforehand) if you don’t have any other reason to cross. Still, it’s cool to say that you drove across the Golden Gate Bridge. As an admittedly biased Michigan native, I actually found the drive less spectacular than the Mackinac Bridge (ours is longer, just saying), and even though the Golden Gate is taller, the gratings in the Mighty Mac definitely make it a more intimidating drive.

Golden Gate Bridge
The visitor center on the south side of the bridge has a much bigger parking area, a large gift shop, and even some cafes. I discovered that it’s apparently the vantage point of most of the iconic bridge pictures that I’ve seen online before. Unfortunately, my visit was hampered by pretty steady rain while I was walking around the area so I didn’t stay as long as I had planned. The gross weather did give me a chance to see a little bit of the famous San Francisco fog though.

Golden Gate Bridge

The cables are actually made up of thousands of tiny ones.

There was a neat exhibit showing how the bridge towers were engineered to provide the least amount of tension when holding the roadway up. By pulling on the chains for the three miniature bridges, you could feel that the mid-range one took the least amount of strength to hold it up. The two options with tall and short towers required much more effort to support the bridge.

Golden Gate Bridge

I was pretty soaked at this point, so I tore myself away from the view to go find dinner.

Fisherman’s Wharf

After picking up a gorgeous puzzle (addict here) in the gift shop, I headed off in search of Fisherman’s Wharf for a much-needed dinner. The drive didn’t take too long, and on this rainy, miserable Superbowl Sunday, finding parking in the area was fairly easy, though decidedly not cheap at $6/hour for a meter. Luckily they take credit cards because I don’t think I’ve ever had $6 worth of quarters in my possession at any point in my life.

Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco, California
I had no idea where I wanted to eat, so I grabbed an umbrella and wandered around for a while. I was almost roped in by a food truck selling custom made ice cream sandwiches, but decided that I wanted somewhere warm, indoors, and serving actual food since even though it was only around 5 local time, my stomach was still on an Eastern time zone eating schedule and my weird travel day hadn’t given me much opportunity to eat anything but junk so far.

During my wanderings, I was excited to catch a glimpse of some of the famous street cars. I was strongly tempted to hop on one for a ride, but I didn’t actually have anywhere to go, and I wasn’t sure how the fares worked.

Streetcar in San Francisco, California

I eventually found my way to a place called Tugboat Sally’s and ordered some fish and chips and beignets. They had a fairly small menu, but it was exactly what I was looking for. It was fast and cheap, and had a fun, quirky interior. They appeared to have some sort of outdoor seating (by the water?) because an employee was hauling in and stacking chairs while I ate, but I didn’t venture around outside. I should’ve, but I was exhausted by that point and really just wanted to get started on my 1.5 hour drive to the hotel I was staying at.

Fish and Chips at Tugboat Sally's in San Francisco, California
I wandered through some of the cheesy tourist stores for a little while because I was determined to use up most of the expensive parking I’d paid for and then hit the road. There’s so much to do in this area, from museums to Pier 39 that you could easily spend a whole day down there, but sadly a lot of the cool stuff was closed by the time I made it over.

I made one more regrettable choice along the way – I didn’t stop on Treasure Island on the way across the Bay Bridge. I saw the signs for it, but had no idea what it entailed, or what kind of area it was, so I passed right by. I did some googling later on, and was pretty disappointed in myself. It had mostly stopped raining by that point, so I suspect that I missed some good views, but I’m going to have to visit the city for real someday, so I’ll just add that to the list of things I missed.

There’s only so much you can do in three hours, but I felt like I got a pretty good taste of the city. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I left my heart in San Francisco, but I’ve wanted to see it for as long as I can remember and was thrilled to have even a rushed visit. Because the San Francisco airport is so far outside of the city (Google Maps clocks the trip to Fisherman’s Wharf at 30+ minutes by car or an hour on public transit), you might not be able to do a visit like this on a layover, but if you had an overnight stopover, it’s pretty doable.

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How to see the best of San Francisco in one evening

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