Orlando: The Fantasy City

So I have totally fell behind on my travel posts. I’ve normally been pretty good at writing them but the last two months has been a complete blur. In November alone I went to four countries so there’s a decent amount to write about.

But before I start writing about the more exotic places, I need to clear out my backlog of American cities that I visited as part of work trips. The last one I wanted to write about this year was my trip to Orlando, which was around late October.

I’ve been to Orlando with my family when I was younger but as usual, it’s always a different experience when you go as an adult. You get to do things at your own pace and you get to dictate the rules in terms of what you want to do and where to go.

Lake Eola
An empty lake in the middle of the city.

When people think of stuff to do in Orlando, probably the most common thing people think about is Disney World because well, it’s Disney World.

I didn’t go to Disney World this time but while I was planning my trip, I realized that there’s like nothing to do in Orlando except visit theme parks.

It’s pretty amazing because if you go to Tripadvisor and look up things to do in Orlando, you literally only just get theme parks until 14th place, which is International Drive, a street where a lot of the theme parks are located.

Icon Park during the Day
Icon Park during the day.

Wikipedia says that Orlando contains 5 out of 10 of the most visited theme parks in world, which is impressive in and of itself. So when I was thinking of a subtitle for this post, I really wanted to use “The Theme Park City” but I already used that for Singapore of all places.

I don’t regret using that for Singapore since I really thought that Singapore felt like a giant theme park. Orlando feels different though because it doesn’t feel like a theme park, it just has so many of them. It’s like they just decided that real life sucks and they wanted to build out all of these places where you can escape from reality.

Since this was a work trip, we didn’t have a lot of time to actually do much in the city but me and my coworker decided to stay an extra two days to go check out Harry Potter World at Universal Studios.

I’ve finally made it to Hogwarts.

First, this is #CAPITALISM at its finest because Harry Potter World is split up between two of Universal’s parks so if you wanted to see the entire thing, you had to buy entrance to both of them, which naturally costs more. But that’s how they get you because of course you’re going to do that.

That said, it was actually a really nice experience. I like Harry Potter but I’m definitely not a diehard fan or anything. But when we walked into Diagon Alley and I saw the dragon and buildings, it honestly felt really magical.

As a designer and developer, I love creating things that provide memorable experiences and it really goes to show that if you have all the money and resources, you can really create something special. Like, you could make the same experience in virtual experience and already be incredibly successful but they were like nah and just turned fantasy into reality.

Diagon Alley
A dragon in Diagon Alley.

The attention to detail was incredible and the quality of the environments was amazing as well. It really felt like you were in the movies. They had everything from special currency, themed food and drinks, gimmicky wand stuff, and of course all the callbacks to the books and movies.

It was nice and definitely worth the money.

Aside from the Harry Potter stuff, they had a bunch of other themed things like Transformers, Fast and the Furious, and much more. It’s interesting because at the end of the day, everything in these parks are just fancy skins that are designed to evoke some sort of nostalgic feeling or memory.

They do a great job at it too. It’s actually really cool to just walk around the park and take it all in.

Jurassic Park x Harry Potter
There might be magic dinosaurs beyond these fences.

Another park that we ended up going to was Gatorland, which is a very different type of theme park with the theme being well, alligators. Instead of focusing on fictional or fantastic elements, Gatorland is a wildlife sanctuary where they just collect a bunch of alligators.

Those that know me know that I have this weird phobia of lizards. I can’t stand them and one of the reasons why I hate Florida is because they have so many lizards just crawling around. Oddly enough, I have zero fear of alligators so I actually really wanted to go to Gatorland.

Not only was the place incredibly scenic, they had a lot of gators and a lot of fun shows and experiences. Me and my coworkers ended up doing the feeding which meant you had a chance to throw slabs of beef at alligators before taking a picture with them.

You’re literally just like a meter away from like a hundred gators, which as you can imagine is really cool.

Gator Photos
Yes, those are real alligators.

In my opinion, a place called Gatorland can only either be incredibly disappointing or surprisingly fun. In this case, it was definitely the latter. Gatorland was awesome.

Aside from theme parks, we also checked out a few things in the city, but oddly enough, everything we checked out was themed in some aspect. For example, we went to Icon Park which isn’t a theme park, but rather some sort of outdoor hangout area with a bunch of restaurants and a Ferris wheel.

The park was pretty chill and we had a good time just eating ice cream by the Ferris wheel. It was neat because we watched a dude propose to a girl which was the first time I’ve seen that happen in real life. The girl said yes and the group asked me to take a picture of them.

I hope the picture turned out ok.

Icon Park at Night
Icon Park at night.

Another place of note that we went to was a speakeasy downtown called Hanson’s Shoe Repair. I’ve been enjoying going to speakeasies lately since they’re interesting and in this case, fits with the whole themed theme.

The place was kinda neat, you needed to find their password online to get in and the place had this old timey shoe repair theme going on.

Overall, Orlando is an interesting place. I don’t think I’d ever go back for Orlando, but rather go back for one of the many parks they have there. They’re not the cheapest things to visit but they really are special. Worth checking out a few of them if you have the time and money.

San Francisco: The City with Two Bridges

Last year when I went to San Diego, I took an extra couple days off afterwards and went to Santa Cruz. I wrote about those two cities in previous blogs but I actually also went to San Francisco as well.

I was there for literally only 24 hours though and I felt like it wasn’t really enough time to get a good enough feel to write about it, so I didn’t. I figured I’d go back eventually and I’d write about it after that.

So, in October I went to San Francisco for work and now I figure it’ll be a good time to write about.

View from Lombard Street
The view from Lombard Street, the “crookedest street in the world”.

As a dude in tech, San Francisco, and the Bay Area in general, constantly comes up in conversation. I feel like everyone I know has either worked and lived there, or know someone who has. It’s pretty fascinating.

With so many big companies and start ups in the area, the city itself feels pretty busy and dense. The density is definitely interesting because I’ve been to some pretty densely populated areas before but San Francisco just feels different.

Not really sure how to explain it, but I think it’s something to do with the uniformness of the place. In a lot of other densely populated places, you have a lot of skyscrapers and other buildings to help you navigate through the area.

Old SF Street Car
An old street car.

San Francisco on the other hand just seems like a very uniform jungle. All the buildings are like the same height and they’re all packed incredibly tightly next to each other. In that way it seems like when you’re in the downtown area every area just feels very enclosed.

It almost feels like the only thing that changes from street to street is the elevation. There are some damn steep streets in San Francisco. I don’t get how people manage to parallel park on those streets. It blows my mind.

When you’re within the city proper, there isn’t a lot of open space, but once you head out a bit more and into the periphery, the city opens up a bit more.

The Palace of Fine Arts
The Palace of Fine Arts is quite fine.

There’s a few big parks in San Francisco that were pretty great to walk through. One of them is Presidio, which contains the Palace of Fine Arts as well as leads to the Golden Gate Bridge. The Palace is actually really amazing.

It’s an amazing structure that looks like it should be a courtyard in some fancy European palace or something. Walking through there was pretty cool and I was actually pretty mesmerized at the sheer coolness of it.

On the other end of Presidio lies the Golden Gate Bridge, which in my opinion, is probably the most famous bridge in the world. If not number one it’s definitely up there. It’s a long and beautiful bridge that spans across the bay and it’s become the symbol of San Francisco.

SF from the Bridge
San Francisco from the Golden Gate Bridge.

The bridge itself is pretty nice and you can walk on it, but I think the best part of the bridge are the views. Not only can you get a decent view of the city from the bridge, but I really think that the bridge is just pretty cool to look at and it makes the views of the harbour that much nicer.

There’s another park called Golden Gate Park, which oddly enough does not contain the Golden Gate Bridge. That park is huge and it’s a nice place to get away from the hustle and the bustle of the city. There’s a lot of random things in the park as well and it really reminds me of Central Park in New York City.

There’s also Land’s End which is situated by the coast somewhere in between the two parks I just mentioned. I went there at night and I think that that park is the best of the three for sights. You get this wonderful view of the water, the cliff, and the bridge, and makes for a pretty nice stroll.

Golden Gate Bridge from Land's End
The Bridge from Land’s End.

I love cities that have stuff like this. Cities are great and all but sometimes you want to just take a break and disconnect a bit and go for a walk in nature. Cities that have large urban parks like these feel so necessary to help people recompose themselves.

In that sense, I think that San Francisco is amazing since it has both the big city stuff and so many nice parks. It’s especially nice that SF is by the ocean because as I’ve mentioned many times before, I love the ocean.

Being right on the water also means that the waterfront is another major sightseeing location in San Francisco. The city itself lies on a peninsula and a series of piers and wharves just line the entire northeast corner of it. Again, great place to just walk around and take in the sights and the sounds.

The Oakland Bridge
The lesser known bridge in SF, the Oakland Bridge.

For example, the Ferry Building area has a bunch of great restaurants and even better views of the Oakland Bridge, which I honestly didn’t really think about much before going there, but then realized that that was also a really great bridge. It was nice just sitting by the water and looking out into the harbour.

The Fisherman’s Wharf area is also pretty cool. There’s a lot of touristy things there so you’re paying a premium on a lot of the stuff you’re buying and eating, but it’s a fairly lively place and there’s a lot of random stuff to see there, like the sea lions.

There’s also Alcatraz which is right off of the coast. You can take tours to the island but I’ve yet to do it. I really want to do the sunset tour but I’ve missed it both times I’ve been to SF and so I have to go back and check it out sometime.

Sea Lions by the Wharf
A bunch of sea lions by the wharf. And one cheeky seagull.

I think in general, San Francisco is a nice city but it really depends on where you are. I’m not a huge fan of the downtown core area with the endless rows and rows of faceless buildings. Another part of that is also the homeless population. San Francisco is an incredibly rich city now but it wasn’t always the case.

As a result, the wealth disparity in the city is incredibly high and there’s a large homeless population. I’m not gonna lie, there are certain areas that feel incredibly sketchy just because there’s so many homeless people.

I remember I was taking an Uber to the airport and we drove by this area of the city that just had so many homeless people there. It kinda surprised me because of the sheer disparity and contrast. Certain areas of San Francisco which are so fancy and luxurious but then two streets down everyone is living in tents and shopping carts.

It definitely adds to the character of the city that’s for sure.

A Museum and a Church
A new museum and an old church.

Overall, I think San Francisco is a pretty decent city to go check out. The food is pretty decent and there’s a lot of stuff to check out and do from museums, naturey stuff, and city stuff. And of course, there’s a lot of job opportunities too.

That said, it’s an incredibly expensive city. I’d definitely go back but after going two years in a row, I think I’m good for now.

Niagara Falls: The Great Falls

So the last month has been pretty crazy for me. Not only has work been busy but I’ve also had two people from abroad come visit me. As a result, I feel like I’ve always been doing something or going somewhere.

I’ve noticed that when a lot of people from outside North America think of Canada, they think of two things: Quebec and Niagara Falls. So, when my friends came to visit Toronto, it was natural that they wanted to go check out Niagara Falls.

Considering how it’s only a two hour drive from my house, it’s not terribly far which meant that I ended up going twice in the last month.

Niagara Falls
The three falls of Niagara.

I’ve been to the falls a couple times growing up and to be completely honest, nothing much has changed. You wouldn’t expect it to change much anyways; they’re waterfalls.

Niagara Falls is comprised of three waterfalls. From the Canadian side, the first water fall you see is typically the American Falls. It’s large and the water crashes down on these large boulders. The Bridal Falls are immediately next to it, but it’s small and pretty much just a part of the American Falls.

The waterfall that people normally think of when they think of Niagara Falls is Horseshoe Falls. This is the giant crescent shaped one that’s right at the border between Canada and America and it’s by far the most impressive of the three.

Horseshoe Crest
The crest of the Horseshoe Falls.

I think the American Falls by themselves would still be notable, but it really does pale in comparison to the Horseshoe Falls. But, the fact that they’re all together in the same area is really what makes Niagara Falls so special.

My first of two trips took me to just the Canadian side: Niagara Falls, Ontario. We drove to the casino, ate lunch there, and then took a walk along the falls boardwalk and just took it all in.

Previously, when I’ve went to the falls, I’ve pretty much only just done the boardwalk. This time though, I figured it would be nice to try one of the many activities they have at the falls. After some deliberation we decided on doing the Journey Behind the Falls.

Inside the Horseshoe Falls
I really didn’t know what I expected to see when looking out of a waterfall.

That’s essentially a trip below the boardwalk and it gets you pretty close to the waterfall, so you get a pretty different view of the falls than if you stayed up top. You also have a chance to actually go behind the falls but there isn’t that much to see from the little openings since all you see is algae and water.

From the viewpoint next to the falls, you really get reminded of the sheer power nature has. It’s really something else to stand right there by the falls and get soaked by the mist, experience the constant downpour of water, and to also hear the roaring of the water cascading down.

And it’s seriously an incredible amount of water. We got absolutely soaked and it got to the point where I couldn’t tell if it was raining or not. There was just that much water sprayed into the air.

Journey Behind the Falls
2.5 million liters per second.

The Journey Behind the Falls ended up being a pretty cool experience. You didn’t really get to do anything super special or anything but it gives you a better idea of the scale of the falls and just how much water is flowing. Can recommend.

The second time I went back to the falls, I decided that I wanted to do something different since it didn’t really make sense to do the exact same things. As a result, me and my friend ended up spending a bit more time at the casino.

We tried Casino War which is essentially just War but.. at the casino I guess? That was fun but it was a stark reminder that casinos are really designed to make you make bad decisions. We didn’t lose that much money but we could’ve also easily made a bit of money if we just cashed out while we were ahead.

Lesson learned I guess.

Niagara from Niagara
A view of Niagara Falls, Ontario from Niagara Falls, New York.

Anyways, after that we decided to do a walk along the boardwalk on the Canadian side again. But then we doubled back afterwards and made our way to the Rainbow Bridge and walked across to America.

I’ve actually never done that before so it was also a pretty neat experience. It was only a dollar to cross the bridge but after a short walk on a bridge with a cool view of the water, you arrive at Niagara Falls, New York.

The American side is honestly a bit less developed than the Canadian side. Instead of a large boardwalk they have a park where you can walk around. There’s less people and you can get closer to the falls, which makes for a very different experience.

Above the Falls
The best part is how a part of the falls actually just straight up falls onto that walkway.

Honestly, it was kinda nice.

There’s a few smaller bridges that go over the water leading down to the falls and you get a much less obstructed view of the edge of the water from the American side, which at times seems a bit irresponsible but simultaneously awesome.

It was a pretty nice walk and I think it is a really good option if you want to avoid the crowds. But of course, if your passport allows, you should just go to both.

Rainbow Bridge Border
The Canadian-American border.

Essentially, the Canadian side has better panoramic views of the falls but the American side gets your a more intimate view. The Canadian side is also a bit more touristy and so will have everything you expect from a touristy place like restaurants, casinos, bars, etc, but you’ll also need to deal with more people.

Overall, Niagara Falls is great. I will definitely go again but after two trips within a few weeks of each other, I think I’m good for the near future.