A Caribbean Paradise: Turks & Caicos

24 03 2008

When I was thinking about what to write about my visit to the gorgeous Turks & Caicos Islands, I was seriously worried that I would come across like a commercial. How can you say anything bad about a chain of islands in the Caribbean with the most beautiful uncrowded beaches and the most turquoise blue waters you have ever seen?

Half Moon Bay

Beautiful Half Moon Bay is located on an uninhabited island and was created by a hurricane. It is reachable only by boat.

Turks & Caicos

You do not need to adjust the settings on your monitor. This is how blue the water really is in Turks & Caicos.

The Turks & Caicos Islands (TCI) are a chain of islands just southeast of the Bahamas and about 500 miles from Miami, Florida. A British Overseas Territory, Turks & Caicos is part of the British West Indies.  Automobiles are driven on the left here, but the U.S. dollar is the official currency.  Although it cannot be verified, many believe these islands represented the first landfall for Christopher Columbus on his famous sea voyage. These islands were also used by pirates, although they probably didn’t look like Johnny Depp.

Grace Bay

Grace Bay

Most of the resorts line the stretch of Grace Bay Beach on Providenciales (Provo), the island with the largest population. Only about half of the main 8 islands are inhabited and there are more than 20 other small islands in this chain. There are resorts from every price range on Grace Bay, but by and large the beaches are still relatively uncrowded compared to other Caribbean islands.

Dive for Conch

The home of the Queen Conch. You will literally trip over conch every 3 feet in these shallow warm waters off Provo.

Turks and Caicos’ natural resources include the spiny lobster, conch, and other shellfish. Although conch are considered an endangered species in many places around the world, these creatures are farmed on Turks & Caicos. This is one of the only places in the world that exports conch. You may bring up to 3 conch or conch derived products out of Turks & Caicos with a free permit from the department of the environment.

Conch Shell

Conch Shell

My freshly harvested conch. It must be larger than 7 inches across. We literally picked it out of the ocean.

Half Moon Bay

Our boat tour with Caicos Dream Tours consisted of snorkeling at the barrier reef, diving for conch, and having fresh conch salad prepared from the conch we caught while we explored the deserted beach of Half Moon Bay. Many boat operators in TCI do a version of this tour. It was a lovely morning in paradise.

Conch Salad
Conch salad (similar to ceviche) is a must-eat. This bowl is from da famous Da Conch Shack.

Turks & Caicos is well known among scuba divers. The barrier reef off TCI is the third largest in the world after Australia and Belize. There are a myriad of activities to do. Besides sitting on the gorgeous beaches, you can snorkel, snuba, sail, water ski, banana boat, explore sea caves, go on a pirate tour, or just worship the sun.

Grace Bay

I can really only find one downside for Turks & Caicos, and that is the expense of the food. Since everything needs to be imported onto this desert isle, groceries are expensive. The existence of several top notch gourmet restaurants also means dinners are expensive. Fortunately, since many resorts on TCI are actually condos, you can save a lot of money by using the kitchen provided for meals. While there is a great IGA supermarket on Provo, it is also expensive so we packed lots of snacks, which saved some money.

Grace Bay

We maximized our beach time on our visit to Grace Bay.

All in all, we found Turks & Caicos to have just the right mix of pristine beaches that are not too crowded (Grace Bay is comparable to Eagle Beach in Aruba), fun water activities, friendly locals, good seafood, solid tourist infrastructure, and good public safety.  In many respects, it’s similar to Aruba based on our experience.

We stayed at the Royal West Indies on Grace Bay, a condo resort that we recommend. Review to follow!


Epcot: A World Fair

22 03 2008

Epcot’s other major area is the World Showcase, which is comprised of 11 country-specific pavilions surrounding a lagoon. Each pavilion contains representative stores and restaurants from that specific country and is staffed by citizens from that country. The countries in the World Showcase include Mexico, Norway, China, Germany, Italy, the United States, Japan, Morocco, France, the United Kingdom, and Canada.

View of Japan Pavilion


There are just two rides in the World Showcase, the Three Caballeros ride through Mexico and the Viking ride in Norway. One other notable fact about Epcot is that, unlike the Magic Kingdom, Epcot serves representative alcohol from the different countries. Another coworker I know actually has a bar hopping night tradition with friends through Epcot every other year.

Epcot - Germany

The Germany pavilion has beer.

Food Stand at Epcot

Only at Epcot are the food stands so meticulously pretty.

There is also a crepe stand by the French pavilion area. Sorry I don’t have a picture.

What makes the World Showcase particularly interesting to me is its similarities to the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 (aka the World Columbian Exposition), one of Walt’s inspirations for Disney World. Walt’s father was a builder for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. While I’m no expert on the subject, I don’t think it’s a stretch to draw comparisons between Epcot and the Chicago’s World Fair of 1893.

As a Chicagoan and University of Chicago alumna, I have always had a fascination with the Chicago’s World Fair of 1893. This event had such a significant impact on Chicago and the United States that its effects can still be felt today. Not only did this fair introduce the world to the Ferris Wheel, but it also marked the beginning of several household names and ideas, including Aunt Jemina pancake mix, Cracker Jack, Cream of Wheat, Quaker Oats, Elongated Coins, Juicy Fruit gum, and Shredded Wheat. Today, the Museum of Science and Industry is the only physical reminder of the famous “White City” on the Midway.

The website for the World Columbian Exposition Project has a nice overview of the event with photos and context.

Chicago World's Fair

Chicago World's Fair

Note: All photographs of the Chicago’s World Fair of 1893 from Shepp’s World’s Fair Photographed, Chicago and Philadelphia, 1893, Glimpses of the World’s Fair Through a Camera, Chicago, 1893 and Google Images. Source: http://www.bc.edu/bc_org/avp/cas/fnart/fa267/1893fair.html and Wikipedia Images.

Side by Side Comparisons of Epcot versus the Chicago World’s Fair:


Chicago World's Fair - Japan

Above: The Japanese pavilion at Jackson Park, Chicago World’s Fair in 1893.

Epcot - Japan

Above: Japan pavilion from Epcot theme park in 2008.


Chicago World's Fair - UK

Above: The Great Britain pavilion at Chicago World’s Fair in 1893.

Epcot - UK

Above: United Kingdom pavilion from Epcot theme park in 2008.

Epcot - Mary Poppins

Above: An English garden at Epcot. It’s not Disney without your favorite characters Poppin’ up!


Chicago World's Fair - Aztec

Above: Aztec Temple in the Ethnography section of the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893.

Epcot - Mexico

Above: The Aztec temple at the Mexico pavilion in Epcot’s World Showcase. Photo by Benjamin D. Esham. Image is released under the Creative Commons cc-by-sa-3.0 license.


Chicago World's Fair - Midway Plaisance

Above: The Moorish Palace on the Midway Plaisance at Chicago World’s Fair 1893.

Epcot - Morocco

Above: The Morocco pavilion at Epcot in 2008.

Although there are obvious differences between Epcot and the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, I like to think that this is the closest you can get to experiencing the concept of the 1893 World’s Fair in today’s world.

EPCOT: Future World

22 03 2008

Of all of Disney’s different parks, the one I find most interesting as an adult is Epcot. The Epcot theme park is actually made up of two distinct areas, Future World and the World Showcase. Both of these concepts are worthy of study. Future World is comprised of several rides that demonstrate current and future technology, including Spaceship Earth, the symbolic structure of Epcot (the big silver ball).


EPCOT was originally an acronym for the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, Walt Disney’s vision of a futuristic model planned community. The 20,000 resident community was to be laid out in a circle, with a central business and commercial area surrounded by community buildings, recreational centers, and schools. This core, in turn, would be circled by the residential neighborhoods on the outside perimeter. A monorail/people mover would serve as transportation for residents, while cars were relegated underground so that the above ground streets would be pedestrian only.

original concept of EPCOT

Image copyrighted by Disney. The use of this image is for informational purposes only and qualifies as fair use. The inclusion of this photo in this post adds significantly to the post because it shows the subject and the creator of the subject. Source: Google Images.

Mike Lee wrote a very comprehensive and informative article describing Walt Disney’s grand plan with photos here. There is also another website called Waltopia that is dedicated to Walt’s original plans for EPCOT. I encourage you to check them out. In addition, you can check out Walt’s original presentation of the concept of Disney World and EPCOT that was made shortly before his death.


Although the corporation decided not to continue with the residential plan after Walt’s death (Celebration does not count), it did go ahead with the concept of a self sufficient community interconnected with a monorail system that became the Walt Disney World Resorts area, which incorporated many of the ideals of Walt’s original EPCOT.

The actual Future World area within Epcot theme park comprises of a series of pavilions, most sponsored by corporations, that feature rides showcasing scientific concepts and themes such as energy, speed, space, land, and water. Notable attractions include Spaceship Earth, Mission: SPACE, Imagination!, Soarin’, and Test Track. I won’t rehash these rides since you can easily find this information anywhere on the Internet.


The entrance to Mission:SPACE. Photo by DearCatastropheWaitress and used under GNU Free Documentation License.

My favorite ride at Epcot is probably Spaceship Earth, a ride housed in the iconic silver ball that takes you through an animatronic timeline of human discoveries such as paper, Arabic numerals, and the printing press before ending with a personalized vision of your future via a flatscreen monitor in your car. Although I understand Disney had to update the end of this ride, I have to say that I miss the old ending where the “future” is represented by the home computer and space station. In particular, I miss the old scene where two people communicate via teleconference while one guy is fixing his car. I guess they had to change it because we have already reached that future.

P’s favorite ride was Soarin’, a ride that simulates flying over California. You actually sit in seats that rise up some 10-30 feet while you watch an Omnimax movie screen and feel wind on your face. It’s a very exciting but not scary ride. I did feel some queasiness but I attribute to having only arrived in Orlando the day before.

I’ll end with one other note. There is a reason the motion simulator thrill ride that is Mission:SPACE has two versions: the green team and the orange team. The orange team is the full ride that includes actually experiencing the force of 2.4 G via centrifuge while the green team is the half ride version that does not include the centrifuge. P and I rode on the orange team and while P loved it, I was completely nauseated by this 4 minute ride. I love the concept, but just be forewarned (and the ride does warn you several times before you are “committed”). I am a pretty fit 27 year old but I guess my center of gravity is off because it took me about 2 hours to completely get over this ride.

Despite my experience with Mission: SPACE, one of the reasons I love Epcot is that they have such interesting and innovative rides. While research and development is not usually a forte for amusement parks, at Epcot it is a centerpiece. Sure new rides only come out every few years, but I don’t see any theme parks with the scale, scope, cleanliness, and attention to detail of Disney World.

Next: Epcot: World Showcase

Venice versus Venice

21 03 2008

Who is more fake? The Venetian Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas or the Venice Pavilion in the World Showcase at EPCOT Center at Disney World?

The Venetian Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada:

The Venetian

The Venetian

Venice Pavilion, part of the World Showcase at EPCOT Center:

Venice at Epcot

And for comparison purposes, courtesy of my sister…

The Real Venice, Italy:

Belltower at St. Mark's Square

Above: Belltower at St. Mark’s Square

Doges Palace

Doges Palace

Above: Doges Palace

Rialto Bridge

Above: Rialto Bridge

I have to say, both Epcot and The Venetian did very faithful (albeit unrealistically clean) reproductions of Venetian landmarks.  I think The Venetian in Las Vegas did a slightly better job, though. Regardless, the similarity between the two reproductions is one of the reasons that many people characterize Las Vegas as the adult version of Disney World.

A Visit to Walt’s Creation: Disney World

21 03 2008

While in Orlando, Florida for a work conference, my friend/coworker P and I took the opportunity to spend two fun days at Walt Disney World before the start of the conference. Disney World is known primarily as a family destination, but it is also a tourist destination in its own right. Yes, it’s artificial and at times cheesy, but it is also undeniably the most visited theme park in the world, and one of the U.S.’s most popular destinations.

Magic Kingdom

Although eschewed by many more worldly travelers, there is still much to be appreciated about Disney World. Yes, it is part of a huge global for-profit corporation but Disney World was also the creation of a visionary who pioneered animation and theme park design. When Walt Disney first came up with the idea for Disneyland in Anaheim, California, which predated Disney World, there was nothing else out there even close to Walt’s vision. The idea for a theme park rose out of numerous requests by fans to visit Disney’s studios and and meet some of their favorite characters. Inspired by by the 1893 Chicago World’ Fair, European pleasure gardens, and amusement parks around the world, Walt sought to create a destination for tourists and Disney fans to visit.

Cinderella's stepfamily

Although I have visited Disney World several times in my life, most were when I was a kid. Even today, nothing captures the imagination of little kids around the world more than Disney World. I last visited The Magic Kingdom in 2002, but have not seen Epcot since circa 1993. For me, this visit was one part fun and one part nostalgia.

It's a Small World

The it’s a small world ride has not changed one bit since I first climbed onto this boat ride when I was 4 years old. Well, there may have been an update here and there but the same familiar yet cloying music lives on.

Geppeto's Workshop

One of the best parts of Disney World is its attention to detail. While everything is fabricated, they truly are bringing stories to life. Walt’s insistence that Disney employees stay “in character” at all times when in contact with visitors is one of the many details that sets Disney World apart from other theme parks. The organization and cleanliness of the parks are also worth noting. My friend and I were amazed at the efficiency of the parking lot and the system of lines for the rides. Fastpass was a great timesaver.

Pirates of the Caribbean

These visitors got sick of waiting in line.

One of my favorite rides is Pirates of the Caribbean. Even though it’s old technology by now, I am still amazed by Disney’s use of animatronics. It’s not just the fact that they are robots, but also the imaginative way Disney has used them in conjunction with theatrical audio, music, and dramatic lighting and costumes.


Disney updated its Pirates ride with less debauchery and more Jack Sparrow.

Note: The photo of Jack Sparrow is a Disney publicity shot.  Image copyrighted by Disney.  The use of this image is for informational purposes only and qualifies as fair use.  The inclusion of this photo in this post adds significantly to the post because it demonstrates the deft use of animatronics technology.  Source: Google Images.

Cinderella's Castle at Night

Too bad we weren’t invited to the Pirates and Princess Party that night!

Next: Epcot Center

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