Tahlequah Daily Press

April 30, 2008

Travel tips for heading east or north


TAHLEQUAH DAILY PRESS — With gasoline prices at incomprehensibly high levels, area residents are scouring the Internet, looking for economical ways to take family trips this summer.

It’s not going to be easy, but it can be done. The tourism industry is hurting as bad as the rest of us, and many sectors are offering deep discounts to compensate for the sticker shock brought on at the pump.

Heading East

As I’ve said before, a trip to Walt Disney World in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (Orlando, for all intents and purposes) is not what anyone would call cheap, but with its Magical Express shuttling visitors to and from the airport, it does offer a way to lodge a protest against gas prices – by simply refusing to pay them outright. Never mind that the cost of someone’s fuel is probably built into other fees and charges; it’s worth it to know you won’t have to get behind the wheel.

But if you insist upon at least renting a car during a trip to Central Florida, there are a number of other family destinations you shouldn’t miss. There are plenty of great amusement parks, and these will be among the best deals this summer.

Right now, Universal Orlando (www.universalorlando.com) is offering a two-park unlimited admission ticket for only $81, which will get you seven days of fun at both Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure. We spent one day there recently, and that’s hardly enough to enjoy all the attractions.

The Universal parks compare to Disney in their elaborate theming, and by that I mean that standing in line is part of the attraction. Film clips, scenery, sounds and other trappings tell part of the story of what’s to come. But the parks are still comparatively small, well-laid-out, and not at all intimidating, even for folks who tend to get lost or confused in such environments. I’ve said before that Islands of Adventure is one of my favorite parks if only for its ambiance, but it has two of the best roller coasters in the country: The Hulk, and Dueling Dragons. It also has the multidimensional Spiderman ride and several other surprises for guests of all ages. (One thing you can get at most theme parks: Adults can find refuge in one of several bars while the kids continue exhausting themselves on the ride.)

Next door, at Universal Studios, there are a number of terrific shows, as well as some don’t-miss rides. The shoot-’em-up Men in Black (and it’s just like the movie) is one my husband and son make a beeline for, and the new “Mummy the Movie” indoor roller coaster is like no other I’ve ever experienced, with truly frightening special effects including animatrons and a flaming ceiling. Unfortunately, the newest ride, based on “The Simpsons” animated series, wasn’t open when we were there, but apparently it’s designed to replicate some sort of cheesy outfit called “Krustyland.” No doubt Simpsons fan will understand what this means, but a look at www.simpsonsride.com may answer some questions. (Note to Harry Potter fans: A new section of Islands is still supposed to open in 2009, supposedly with a ride based on Ron Weasley’s crazy car as the centerpiece.)

I always recommend staying in theme park resorts, and this is no exception. Universal has three good ones, but book early – all three, but especially Hard Rock, book fast. They do honor American Automobile Association discounts if you call early enough, and you can find online discounts for many of the restaurants at the resorts, as well as the adjacent City Walk. (At a seafood buffet at the Royal Pacific Resort, my husband must have consumed three dozen oysters on the half-shell.)

Heading North

If you’re thinking of heading north instead of east, Chicago is always my first choice, and several other local folks – including Tahlequah Public Schools Superintendent Paul Hurst – also list it as their favorite city. There’s always something to do in Chicago, and you don’t need a car to get around, because the Chicago Transit Authority can take you almost anywhere you’d want to go. I recommend finding a cheap flight there (watch for sales), or taking the long way around via train. Then get a five-day CTA pass, which covers both buses and trains; it’s only $18, and you can order them online.

Where to stay? Most folks know we recommend the Monaco, hands down, but whatever you do, stay as close to the Loop as you can, or in the “Magnificent Mile,” since that’s where all the action is.

The best time to go, in our opinion, is during the Taste of Chicago celebration, downtown in Grant Park, which this year is slated for June 27-July 6. The original event of its kind, Taste features booths from 80 or so restaurants, plus lots of live entertainment, fireworks, and other cool events. Admission is free (including the concerts), but to sample the cuisine (and believe me, you’ll want to), you have to buy tickets, eight for $12. You won’t believe the variety of food! I noticed that Stevie Wonder is one of the featured entertainers this year, as is Bonnie Raitt.

If you have time while you’re in Chicago, go to www.citypass.com and order tickets for massive discounts to some of the city’s best attractions: The Shedd Aquarium (which has in residence a Komodo dragon named Faust), The Field Museum, Adler Planetarium, the Museum of Science and Industry, and either the Hancock Observatory or the Sears Tower Skydeck. About the only thing missing is the Art Institute, but here’s a tip: Admission to this museum is free Thursday and Friday nights this summer.

A couple of other Chicagoland attractions you need to try are worth touching on here: the Chicago Botanic Garden (www.chicagobotanic.org) and the summer-long Ravinia Festival (www.ravinia.org). For both of these destinations, you’ll need to take another type of train (www.metrarail.com), but the fares are low and it’s easy to navigate.

The botanic garden will require a day of your time for a leisurely stroll about the grounds. It’s a wonderful experience that can be coupled with meals on the grounds, and sometimes a concert at the pavilion. A train ride on the Metra, and then a quick trolley ride will get you to the gardens, and it’s well worth the trip. (Check the Web site to find out what’s blooming.)

The Ravinia Music Festival is a summer-long event at a beautiful park area just north of Chicago, and there’s something going on just about every night – from Chicago Symphony Orchestra concerts, to slapstick comedy, to live radio shows like Garrison Keillor’s “Prairie Home Companion.” There’s a 3,200-seat covered pavilion in front of the stage, or you can do like thousands of folks do – picnic on the lawn, and take in the stage from your blanket or lawn chairs. New this year is terrace seating at the Park View Restaurant, where you can enjoy your meal and watch the performance at the same time.

We’ve been to Ravinia twice for symphonic productions, and on both occasions we had a fabulous time. The food is superb, whether you eat it at one of the on-site restaurants, or buy a picnic-to-go, like we did. We had flat-iron steak sandwiches, which were outstanding. Pair your picnic with a bottle of wine and you’ll have the perfect setup. (You can bring your picnic with you on the train if you prefer.)

Look what this summer’s Ravinia lineup has to offer in the pop arena: James Taylor, June 6-7; Isaac Hayes and Roberta Flack, June 13; Kenny Loggins, June 15; Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, June 18; Willie Nelson, June 20; Boz Scaggs, July 27; The Temptations and the Four Tops, June 28; A Prairie Home Companion, July 5; Lyle Lovett, July 12; Sheryl Crow, Aug. 10; Tony Bennett, Aug. 22; Backstreet Boys, Aug. 24; and Donna Summer, Aug. 30.

Then there are the many performances by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, such as Rachmaninoff’s 3rd Piano Concerto, July 10; Mahler selections, July 16, 23 and 26; Rhapsody in Blue and Rachmaninoff, July 20; An Evening of Beethoven, July 30; Beethoven’s Fifth, Aug. 6; An Evening of Brahms, Aug. 7; and back-to-back Mozarts, Aug. 14-17. Or if your taste runs more into jazz, comedy, string quartets, or individual instrumentalists, there’s plenty of that on tap.

My husband is a huge “Prairie Home Companion” fan, so that’s my birthday present to him this year. I’ll let you know how that turns out!

If you’re in Chicago and you’re an amusement park fan, one of the best in the country is five hours away in Sandusky, Ohio. You can rent a car at a fairly low rate in Chicago, or take a hop-flight on Southwest to Cleveland (as low as $150 round-trip), rent a car and drive an hour back to Sandusky. There, you’ll go to Cedar Point (www.cedar point.com), where you’ll find some of the most outstanding roller coasters in the world – 17 of them! Or better yet, take the train (www.amtrak.com), which will drop you right off at Sandusky.

We like staying at The Breakers, right on the Lake Erie shore and just a hop, skip and jump from the park. Some of the premier coasters are right at that particular entrance – the sentimental favorite, Magnum XL-200, and one of the real screamers, the Top Thrill Dragster. Magnum, a traditional “out and back,” is a steel coaster that hits a top speed of 72 mph, with a 205-foot drop. But Top Thrill Dragster almost dwarfs it, rising to 420 feet, with a nearly straight-up, straight-down track onto which the train blasts at 120 mph. Elsewhere in the park, you’ll find our personal favorite, Millennium Force, with its 310-foot drop that takes you to a speed of 93, and all as smooth as glass. There’s so much more, and for a ticket price of only $43 per day.

Would you rather head south or west? I’ve run out of space, but next week, I’ll give you some ideas – a couple of which I’ve never mentioned before.