Sunday, July 24, 2011


This used to be the entrance, they changed the building but left the Gator!

Gatorland was opened in 1949 and is still owned by the family of founder, Owen Godwin.  This park was a place to visit BEFORE Disney, Busch Gardens or the many other attractions in Orlando.   If you are old enough to have an AARP card you may have gone to Silver Springs, Weeki Wachee or Gatorland on your  vacations to Florida when you were younger!   Those parks are still in operation - and we chose to visit Gatorland on our recent trip.
Feeding small gators....and birds
Visiting Gatorland is a way to spend some time in Orlando and not break your budget.  The entrance price is $22.99 and there are coupons readily available for $3 off.  We bought the 'grunt' package which includes: admission to the park, a package of gator food (4 turkey dogs), rides on the train and a chance to sit on a live gator and take pictures.  The grunt package is $29.99 - the food is $3, train $2, sit on/hold the gator for pictures $10 if purchased separately.
Gators seem to like to use turtles as pillows

The park has thousands of alligators and crocodiles, a breeding marsh with boardwalk and observation tower, one-of-a-kind reptilian shows, aviary, petting zoo, swamp walk, educational programs, kids water play area (no gators there!) and a train ride.  You can easily spend 1/2 day here and even longer if your kids play in the water area.  There are concessions available and a couple of gift shops.

We saw all 3 of the shows available while we were there.  The first was an 'up close' show where handlers brought out snakes and tarantulas and had people from the audience help.  Lots of humor and information together made this a very enjoyable show.
Audience members help to hold a snake

The second show was the 'gator wrangler' where they pull a gator out of the water and show how they handle them along with giving information about alligators.  If you are a fan of the show Swamp People...this is for you!  At the end of this show they allow those people who want to get their photo op with a gator to come into the area.
The gator wrangler

Lizz holds the gator (her friend Emily does NOT like gators!)

The last show we watched was the 'gator jumparoo' where they feed the gators chicken and have them jump out of the water to get it.  Lots of hillbilly humor - but interesting and fun.
Gator Jumparoo

We walked through the white alligator building, saw the different snakes in their aquariums and  went into the bird aviary (food is $1 for a Popsicle stick with seed).  Be very patient with the birds and they will eventually come down and sit on your hand.
Rare white alligator
Bird aviary - Lizz tries to coax them down for food
The swamp walk is on an elevated boardwalk through the natural swamp area that is the headwaters of the Florida Everglades.  Interesting plants and a few turtles.  Informative signs and bench areas to rest and enjoy the scenery.
On the swamp boardwalk
There is a path around the breeding lagoon and also a boardwalk across part of it.  We suggest keeping your gator food for this area.  Lots of BIG gators here and not too many people.  The train goes around the back of the park and is a slow ride.  The lines were long midday and we ended up skipping it.  Maybe if you took the train early or later in the day the wait would be shorter?
Breeding lagoon boardwalk
I wonder if these birds ever get eaten?
We really enjoyed our time at Gatorland.  If you are in Orlando and looking for something to do, maybe you would like it too!

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The End of an Era

Our recent trip to Florida was planned to see the launch of the final space shuttle mission.  This was our third shuttle launch viewing...and we were lucky to get the tickets!  Before the end of the shuttle mission was announced, all you had to do was go online when there was going to be a launch and buy the type of tickets you wanted.  After NASA said the shuttle program was ending everyone wanted tickets.  NASA started a lottery program to get the chance to buy launch tickets.  We entered our name and so did our cousins in Florida.  Lizz  also entered.  Lizz's name was chosen and she won the opportunity to buy up to six tickets.  We didn't have a choice of what kind of tickets - viewing from the visitor complex, the causeway or the Astronaut Hall of Fame.  She went online and was able to get the ticket for the visitor complex! (The tickets we wanted.)

It was crowded, but you could still find room for your chair

The Kennedy Space Center is open year round with exhibits, shows, Imax movies, a bus tour of the facility and more.  You can learn everything about space travel and then some!  If you are really into this kind of activity you can have lunch with an astronaut for an additional charge.  The launch day tickets are the same price as the usual entry - $45.53, but the bus tours don't run on launch days.  The launch day tickets are also good for entry on one other day within a week so you can view what you may have missed.

The site was crowded, but we thought not as much as during our previous launch visits.  There are bleachers to sit on or you can bring your own chairs or blankets.  There are a few places to get refreshments and of course places to buy your souvenirs.

We enjoyed the rocket garden, exhibits about the space program, a temporary Star Trek exhibit with the original sets, costumes and props, plus they had live programs with astronauts talking about the space program and answering questions from visitors.
Part of the rocket garden

Lizz and Dennis on the Enterprise bridge

One of the Star Trek costume

The launch went off on time (not always the case) and everyone enjoyed witnessing history!  If you are in Florida - this is a great place to spend a day.
Atlantis STS-135  Final shuttle mission

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Budweiser - in Jacksonville, Florida

This is the only horse here, you will need to go to the St Louis brewery to see them
or the breeding farm in Booneville, MO where they also have tours

Being from Missouri we had to make a stop at the Budweiser brewery in Jacksonville and compare it to the St Louis operation.  (OK, it was a good excuse for free beer too!)   The brewery is easy to find, great parking, open Mon.-Sat. 10-4 and tours are free.  We arrived about 10am and the greeter offered us tastes of their Ultra 55 while we waited for our guide.  The tour started with information about the types of beers that are brewed at this facility.
The different products Budweiser makes
Cooking vats
Fermenting tanks - this is where the beechwood aging comes in

You don't actually go into the factory on this tour (unlike St Louis), there are areas with viewing windows from above the work areas.  The process is explained very well and the differences in how lagers vs ales etc are made.  The guide answered many questions from our group and knew the history of the company also.  We watched a short video and then went on to see the bottling room - I LOVE factory tours, even watch them on TV!
Only 7 people run this operation at a time, everything is automated

We were then escorted to the hospitality tasting room and all the different products available to taste were explained.  Each adult is allowed 2 beers (or if they are not busy they will give you smaller 1/2 pours so you can taste 4).  There is self service soda and also packs of pretzels.  We chose different beers and shared them in order to taste several.  Shock Top has a summer cranberry/raspberry and also a blueberry.  The blueberry has a higher alcohol content 9%.  We also tried Beach Bum (summer ale) and Landshark.
The guide gave us great explanations of the different products

There is a gift shop with branded merchandise and you can also buy beer to take with you.  We chose to get a mix & match 6 pack to try a few more different varieties ($8.99).   If you are in the Jacksonville area this is a great way to get out of the heat and have a couple of beers for free!
The retail store

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Mmmm......campfire pies!

One of our 'regular' stops driving to or from Florida is the Lodge Factory Store in South Pittsburgh, Tennessee.  They don't offer factory tours, but if you enjoy cooking with cast iron it should be on your list too!

The store is a short drive off I 24 and offers a lot of the Lodge line at prices lower that retail stores.  There is a 'backroom' which has overstocks and blemished products at greatly reduced prices.  If you have never bought cast iron before the clerks are helpful and will give you pointers.  The main thing when buying seconds is that the pits or blemishes shouldn't be on the cooking surfaces - handle or outside is OK.  The frying pans we bought were around $12 each!  That is less than half the price at stores.
Picking out the frying pans

Part of the backroom overstock and seconds

Our goal of this trip was to replace some of the items that were stolen with the Boy Scout troop trailer.  The boys (and us too) love making campfire pies and needed to replace the irons - plus pick up frying pans and dutch ovens.  If you have never made campfire pies - they are easy and kids love to make them.  There are more things to make over a fire than s'mores and hot dogs!

Dennis picks out the dutch ovens
Lots of great items!

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Things to break the monotony of driving across South Dakota

Any long car trip can get boring quickly and we are always on the lookout for places to stop, get out of the car, stretch our legs, take a little walk, see something interesting and maybe get a snack.  South Dakota needed a few of these 'diversions'.   No need to take offense - we LOVED South Dakota....just the driving can be really boring. (so can Kansas, Nebraska, Texas, Oklahoma, Arizona, Utah...come to think of it every state has some areas that aren't that fun to drive through!)  Our trip back to Missouri on I 90 in South Dakota needed a few stops, so we found a few well known places to visit.

The Badlands - this is an easy loop drive off of I 90.  This is a National Park and charges a fee that allows you access for 7 days (we once again used our Park Pass).  There are sweeping views of the formations, scenic overlooks, a few hiking trails, campground, lodge, visitor center, gift shop and ranger led programs.  Wildlife include bison, black footed ferrets, fox, bighorn sheep, prairie dogs, rattle snakes, bobcat, porcupines, coyotes and more.  Some wonderful fossils beds have been discovered here.  Be sure to stop by the visitor center and learn about the digs.

The Corn Palace - Mitchell, South Dakota.  This interesting building is actually a multi-use building for the community.  It hosts shows and sporting events in the arena and has a few 'flea market' type booths open year round.  Many people leave the interstate to see the outside of this well known attraction.

The original Corn Palace, called "The Corn Belt Exposition" was established in 1892. Early settlers displayed the fruits of their harvest on the building exterior in order to prove the fertility of South Dakota soil.
American Pride is the theme this year - baseball, apple pie, flags and more!

The exterior decorations are completely stripped down and new murals are created each year. The theme is selected by the Corn Palace Festival Committee and murals are designed by a local artist.  We were passing through the area at around 10 pm so we only got to walk around the see the outside of the building.  It is very impressive!  Reminded us of the Rose Bowl floats that are all decorated with living plant materials.

Wall Drugs - Wall, South Dakota  'Free Ice Water' was the gimmick that started Wall Drugs on the road to the huge and interesting operation that it is today.  In 1931 the Hustead family was having a hard time making a living in this little own when they placed signs on the highway offering 'free ice water'.  Remember - this was before air-conditioning and McDonalds.  People who were hot and tired from driving across the state (usually on their way to visit Yellowstone) enjoyed the water...and bought ice cream and other supplies, keeping the Husteads in business.  The next year they had to hire more help and the business has been growing since then! 
Lots of little shops and interesting things to see
The elusive 'Jackalope'
A bison you CAN pet!

There are small stores that are connected in an interior mall space, a cafe that seats 530, one of the largest private collections of western art, 10 cent coffee, a fun area for kids to run, climb and play, and of course the free ice water!  You never know what you will find or see here - well worth a visit!

Jurassic park?
Lots of photo ops

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Custer State Park - South Dakota

View from our campsite

We camped for a couple of nights in this wonderful state park.  If you ever plan on heading out west, this is definitely worth a visit.  The park is what we consider a 'resort type' with campgrounds, lodges, cabins, restaurants, stores, boating, fishing, hiking, visitor centers, scenic drives, ranger programs, chuck wagon BBQ, theater and more!  If this park were closer to Missouri it would definitely become a favorite place for us to visit.

Entry fees are $14 per car for one week.  Camping fees MUST be paid online or by phone and ALL reservations are made that way.  We spent some time driving around before finally finding a campground host that told us we need to call the toll-free number!  Interesting to call while standing in the campground, but they were helpful and we quickly registered and picked out our space.   Each camping area has it's own 'specialty' depending on your likes.  We camped in the State Game Lodge area.  The Lodge was the summer White House for president Calvin Coolidge. 
You WILL be close to the wildlife!
One of the tunnels
Part of the Needles formations
Rock climbing is popular here

We drove the 18 mile wildlife loop and saw lots of bison, pronghorn, big horn sheep, mules and more.  The scenic drives on the Needles Highway (14 miles) and Iron Mountain Road offer great views of the granite rock formations, tunnels (not for large vehicles- check park guide before driving) and nice picnic areas.
Bison with calf (known as a 'red dog')


There are lakes within the park for boating, swimming, fishing and you can rent paddle boats, kayaks and such too. 
Great view!

Check out this park online before visiting to get the most from your trip.  Junior ranger programs, wildlife tours, ranger led hikes and programs are offered in the summer.
Bighorn Sheep