Chicago Sun-Times
With Lori Rackl

January 2011 Archives

Dirtiest hotels in America

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Here are top 10 dirtiest hotels in America, according to traveler ratings for cleanliness on TripAdvisor:

1. Grand Resort Hotel & Convention Center - Pigeon Forge, Tennessee

2. Jack London Inn - Oakland, California

3. Desert Inn Resort - Daytona Beach, Florida

4. Hotel Carter - New York City, New York

5. Polynesian Beach & Golf Resort - Myrtle Beach, South Carolina

6. Atlantic Beach Hotel - Miami Beach, Florida

7. Rodeway Inn - Williamsville, New York

8. Super 8 Estes Park - Denver, Colorado

9. Palm Grove Hotel and Suites - Virginia Beach, Virginia

10. Econo Lodge Newark International Airport - Elizabeth, New Jersey

New York City's infamous Hotel Carter made its return to the dirtiest hotel list in 2011, and has appeared on the list five times in six years. What an honor....

This year, the tarnished title of America's dirtiest hotel goes to Grand Resort Hotel & Convention Center, in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. The southern belle hotel failed to charm TripAdvisor travelers; 87 percent of those who reviewed it recommended against staying there. The unpopular property elicited such hotel review titles as "Worst Hotel Stay of My Life," "Stay Anywhere Else But Here," and "Absolutely Horrible!"

Teenage fantasy

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One reader asked if teens will have fun on board.

Teens are notoriously tough to please on family vacations. Throw Disney in the mix, and it can be even tougher. Teens don't think it's exactly cool to be hugging Donald Duck. But Disney has created two separate lounge areas, one for tweens and one for teens. The teen one, called Vibe, is ridiculously cool. It's "hidden" in an unmarked passageway -- a la New York City clubs -- and teens have their own key card they swipe to get in. Very VIP. Inside is amazing. There's an outdoor deck with pingpong and foosball and sun loungers. Inside there's a huge screen with Wii and other games. They can watch movies, plug their iPods into their own private circular pods and play computer games. They can form a band and play rock star. They can have non-alcoholic drinks and snacks. Don't be surprised if your teen swipes his/her card, goes behind the door and doesn't emerge until disembarkation.

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Another reader wanted to know if her 9-year-old developmentally delayed daughter would be OK in the ship's Oceaneer Club, a child-friendly oasis supervised by youth counselors and open to children between the ages of 3-10.

I can virtually guarantee your child will have a blast here. The counselors I talked to said they've had a child with no verbal skills and confined to a wheelchair partake in the activities, making cupcakes, etc. They've had children with autism in the club, too. While they can't promise one-on-one attention, the counselors (many of whom have training with special needs kids) clearly target their attention to the kids who look like they need it most. The Oceaneer Club and adjoining Lab have a bunch of different rooms and activities, so kids end up gravitating to what they like most. I had a hard time getting my niece to leave.

The reader mentioned she's bringing her child's Certified Nursing Assistant with her, and wondered if the CNA would be allowed to stay with the child in the club. The answer: yes.

She's going to love it. I can almost guarantee it.

No one likes being stuck with the inside stateroom on a cruise ship. The only thing that's right about it is the price. But there's a reason you pay less for those cabins. No view.

Disney has tried to remedy that on the Dream by building "virtual portholes" in interior cabins. These porthole structures above the bed give realtime video of what's happening outside the ship, so it's like having a "virtual" window. But this is Disney, so there's a touch of added magic in the form of animated characters dropping by the porthole every now and then to say hi.
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A reader in Texas wanted to know the skinny on wave phones and whether they should bring walkie talkies, which a lot of cruise vets rely on to communicate with family members while on board.

Here's the answer:


Don't waste luggage space on walkier talkies. Disney assigns two wave phones per stateroom, and they're free to use while you're on the cruise. (Extra wave phones can be rented for $3.50 a day.) These gadgets work like cell phones, enabling you to text and call your cruise companions, which makes it easy to keep tabs on your teens or communicate your whereabouts with family members and friends. Even if you're traveling with a large group in several different cabins, you can communicate with one another using the wave phones. And the youth counselors can use them to call you if Jimmy's had enough play time and wants to go back to the room. In a nutshell, they're convenient and easy to use and no doubt give parents a lot of peace of mind. I wouldn't be surprised if every ship comes with these in the near future. But be warned: If you lose a wave phone, you're going to get hit with a $250 fine.

Riding the Aqua Duck

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One reader asked if there's an age/height/weight requirement to ride the Aqua Duck, the Disney Dream's "water coaster" that takes you on a one- or two-person raft through a series of enclosed tunnels -- some in transparent tubes -- like a roller coaster.

There are no age or weight requirements, but riders must be at least 48 inches tall. They measure kids at the start.

My six year old niece, who was a little wigged out on Space Mountain, thought the Aqua Duck was a blast. It's actually pretty tame, so don't worry about freaking out your kids. They'll want to ride it again and again.DSC_1345.JPG

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Internet aboard is....slow

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I'm taking advantage of this window of connectivity to post as much as possible on my blog. As is often the case while cruising, the internet connections can be slow to non-existent. Think seriously before shelling out the extra cash for a wifi connection. I spent an hour last night trying to post on the blog to no avail.

Hint: the best connectivity is on Deck 11 by the Cove coffee shop.

Whoopi Goldberg: "Wow"

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Whoopi boarded the ship yesterday. I happened to be standing on the balcony and saw her walk through the gangway. She looked around, looked up at the massive chandelier, scanned the balconies and quietly said, "Wow."

I'm sure she'll be talking about it on "The View."DSC_1284.JPG

One reader emailed me asking what the Dream's workout facilities are like. My answer is below.

On another fitness note, I just got back from a 5K organized run on Castaway Cay, a chunk of the Bahamas that Disney has leased for 99 years. About 12 of us were led by a Disney cruise staffer on a path along the bike trail and airstrip.

Anyway, here's what the indoor fitness center is all about:
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There's plenty of exercise equipment packed into a sizeable space near the spa on Deck 11. It doesn't cost anything to work out in the fitness center -- and it's a good idea to take advantage of an opportunity to burn rather than to consume calories on a cruise, so use it!

The fitness center contains well over a dozen treadmills, with several facing floor to ceiling windows, which is nice. A couple of recumbent bikes, lots of elliptical trainers, weight machines and free weights. There are spinning bikes for spinning classes, which are free. Ditto for yoga and mat pilates classes. No extra fee, which is refreshing. They'll sometimes do yoga outdoors or on the beach. There's yoga for teens and a boot camp fitness class for teens, too. You can also pay for personal trainer services (a steep $84 an hour/$45 for a half hour).

The fitness center is open from 6 a.m. until 10 p.m.

Just finished dinner at Animators Palate, which is pretty cool if you're a kid. Pretty cool if you're an adult, too. I have to admit, I was impressed when the animated turtle on the screen asked a diner in a red shirt what his name was. I thought I was watching a cartoon, but then the turtle said, "You in the red, what's your name?" The guy said Mike. The turtle said, "Where are you from, Mike?" Mike's from Atlanta. The turtle made a joke about being from Atlanta. I've never seen a cartoon character do real time improv. Pretty impressive.

After dinner, my 6-year-old niece asked if we could go to the Oceaneer Club. By "we," she meant "me." I just dropped her off and she shot off like a light, abandoning me in her dust. Lesson: Parents need to feel zero guilt about dropping off their kids at the Oceaneer Club or It's a Small World Nursery. The kids would much rather be in there then hanging with you, no matter how charming you think you are.

I'm going to take advantage of this free babysitting time to head out in the ship and try to find some answers to your questions. If it takes a while for me to research, that's OK. The Oceaneer Club is open until midnight tonight.

More later....DSC_1378.JPG

Morning started with a christening that only Disney could pull off. A helicopter hoisted a big bottle of "champagne" and smashed it on the hull of Disney's newest ship, the Dream. It's the first ship Disney has launched in over a decade, and at first glance, it's pretty amazing.
At least Whoopi Goldberg thinks so. She just walked into the soaring lobby in a black Mickey Mouse sweatshirt, looked around and said, "Wow."

Wow is right. My niece and I have been wandering around the decks for a couple of hours before we set sail on the short inaugural cruise. Every corner we turn, there's something else that lures us in. I'll post more on that later. Getting ready to do the mandatory lifeboat drill in a few minutes.

Chicago's own Jennifer Hudson is the godmother of the ship. She sang a song at the morning christening ceremony. Hudson got her start singing on the Disney Wonder in 2003, one year before shooting to stardom on "American Idol."

Will be getting to every one of your questions at some point -- hopefully soon. Let me know if there's anything you want to know about the ship and I'll try my best to find out during my 48 hours aboard.

Bon voyage,
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Disney Cruise Line's much anticipated new ship, the Disney Dream, sets off on its maiden voyage Jan. 26. But I'll be on board (along with some other lucky travel writers and agents) Jan. 19-21 for a sneak peek.

Have any questions about the new ship, like where are the best cabins? What's the food at Remy like? Will my tweens have fun? Can my 5-year-old go on the water coaster?

Send them to me and I'll get them answered for you while I'm on board. And check back for the latest updates on Disney's newest creation...disney_dream_arrival_002_jpg_52072_orig.jpg

About this Archive

This page is an archive of entries from January 2011 listed from newest to oldest.

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February 2011 is the next archive.

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