Tag Archives: FL April 2014

The Old Forts of St. Augustine

4500 miles traveled so far.

After Cocoa Beach, we stopped in St. Augustine and learned a little about the history of that area.  It claims to be the oldest continually occupied city in the US, dating back about 500 years. I know the Indians that live on Acoma Pueblo in New Mexico dispute that claim since they have continually occupied their city for 1500 years. You can see my post about them here.

Anyway, we explored a couple of very old Spanish forts and had lots of fun meeting people and talking history.  You can see my pictures here.

On Good Friday, we spent the day in the car driving from St. Augustine to Asheville, North Carolina.  It’s a really neat city, I wish we had more time to explore it.  I was really looking forward to visiting the Biltmore Estate—the home of the Vanderbilts— but it’s supposed to pour rain tomorrow and the tickets are $69 a person!  I think that’s the first time an entrance fee has really made me stop and consider whether it was really worth it.  It seems comparable to the Hearst Mansion and they only charge $25.

In any case, stay tuned because we’re venturing into the Great Smokey Mountains National Park tomorrow and I hope to have some good stuff to share with you.  Just in case you’re wondering: no, we don’t plan to stop in Dollywood.  Sorry.  : )

St. Augustine–Photos of Old Forts :)


To get to Fort Matanzas (aka Fort Slaughter), you have to take a short boat ride. I took this from the boat as we approached. We saw several dolphins in the river, by the way.


I thought the corner bastion was quite decorative and interesting.


A view of the river from the gun deck. The fort protected the river that lead to St. Augustine and allowed the residents there to be re-supplied, even when the ocean port was baracaded.


Here we are! It was chilly, only in the low 60s.


A view of the bastion from the gun deck.


Inside the fort. It’s not a very big room. They think only about 10 men would have been posted here.



Bob is climbing the ladder from the bedroom to the roof.  It’s the same ladder that’s in the picture above him.


A view of the top of the bastion from the roof.


Here I am in the doorway of the bastion.


I like these trees in the parking lot.


They look like eyes, or maybe peacock feathers.


This is the Castillo de San Marcos, a much larger fort that protected St. Augustine. Here hundreds of men could have been stationed. It was built in the 1500s by the Spanish to protect Florida which was its colony. Florida wasn’t made a part of the US until the 1820s.



There were many re-creation actors at the Fort.

Below are some pictures from the top of the walls.





I was amazed at how intricate and decorated the cannons were. All of them are elaborately engraved.


A view of the fort from the top of the walls.


It has corner bastions like Fort Matanzas. Here’s Bob in one of them.




Kennedy Space Center

3900 miles traveled.

I didn’t know what to expect from Kennedy Space Center.  Since the Space Shuttle no longer flies, I thought it might be a gigantic museum, or a ghost town.  I was surprised to find many projects underway, many of them run by private industry.  It seems NASA is taking a backseat, focusing on research, and helping private industry where it can.  For that reason, it just leased one of the Space Shuttle launch pads to Space X which plans to use it for many commercial purposes, including taking tourists into space.  At least 4 other companies have contracts to begin using the Space Shuttle runway (where the SS landed when it returned to Earth) for all kinds of commercial purposes, again, including taking tourists to space.  One company plans to open next year and offer a “vomit comet” experience to paying customers.  They, and others, will expand into space tourism and expect to be up and running in the next 2-3 years.

Space X is already way ahead of the game.  It is the company that has already launched three rockets carrying supplies for the International Space Station.  So far, its the only one that has a pod that returns safely to Earth, instead of burning up in the atmosphere.  This is critical if the astronauts want to return experiments to earth, or themselves for that matter.  Up to now, the only other option was hopping a ride on a Soviet Soyuz.

I was surprised by how much the whole Kennedy Space Center experience reminded me of a theme park.  There were rides, games, movies, 3D experiences, and food outlets everywhere we turned.  But they were really well done.  One of the highlights for me was the blast-off simulator.  We strapped into seats and counted down to lift off.  The whole thing was designed by astronauts and they claimed it was very realistic.  I have a feeling it was only about 10% of what they actually experienced, but it was really cool, none the less.  The other highlight for me was the simulated Space Shuttle launch.  The experience was from the view of those watching the launch. That one ended with really cool views of the Space Shuttle in space, but what we were actually looking at was the REAL Space Shuttle Atlantis (which was stationary) but because of the way the movie played around it, it looked like it was flying.  Ingenious effects.  I have lots of pictures here.  I thought it was very interesting that they put Atlantis on display without any changes.  What you see is what she looked like when she landed after her last flight.  That includes dirt, re-entry burns, and missing ceramic tiles.

Overall, the experience made me want to read Deception Point by Dan Brown again.  It was a great book. (Warning: in this book he does to NASA what he did to the Catholic Church in the DaVinci Code.  Don’t take anything he says as fact . . . IT”S ALL FICTION.) It’s a thriller about the politics behind commercializing space.  In real life, it seems NASA has yielded the field and fully supports (and actively helps) private industries headed for space.

Kennedy Space Center–Photos


Kennedy Space Center. It was a cold day today—our first cold day in Florida. I wore my fleece all day.


The entrance. It felt more like a theme park than NASA. In fact, once inside, there were arcades, restaurants, and other assorted theme park-like things.


Angry Birds? Really? This was actually an arcade. What will NASA think of next?


The rocket garden. These things are huge, and quite impressive. The one on the far right is interesting because they took 6 of those, strapped them together, and that’s how they got the Apollo rockets into space.


Bob in a module the size of a VW beetle. Barely room for two.


Here you can see it a little better. Six of the rocket labbled UE were strapped together to form the Apollo rocket, which is the one lying on its side (because it is so much bigger than thee rockets).


I tried to get the whole thing in one shot, but it’s huge. It’s easily twice as long as the UE rocket, see the six of them in the left end?

We took a tram tour of the entire property (at least what they’d let the public see). Some of those pictures are next.


The view from the stands where the public is allowed to witness launches. The pads are where the clusters of towers are. I think those towers are actually lightning rods to protect the rockets when they’re in place. The buildings are where the rockets are built, etc. Parts of those buildings are now being leased to private industry.


This was built in the 1960s and it is still the biggest single story building in the world. Its tall enough to assemble the Space Shuttle and rolle it out through enormous doors and slowly move it to the launch pads which are about 3 miles away.


Close up view of the launch pad that was just leased by Space X for commercial purposes.


Here’s the road the rockets have to travel to get to the launch pad. It travels on a giant platform that is supported by two huge tracks, kind of like a tank’s. One track is on one side of the grassy middle, the other on the other side. You can see the launch pad in the distance. It was about 3 miles, and it took about 5 hours to move that far. Oh, and the platform only got 32 feet to the gallon.


Here’s the building where rockets and the Space Shuttles were built. To give you an idea of how big it is, the stars on the flag are 6 feet across and each stripe is 9 feet wife. The entire flag is the size of a basketball court.


Here’s another view. Remember, it is only one story. The entire inside of this building is hollow.


Here’s the control tower for the runway where the Space Shuttle landed. The runway is nearly 3 miles long and its as wide as a football field is long. NASCAR sometimes uses it to test new cars because it is so level, wide, and long.

At the end of the tour, they shuffled us into a large dark room and explained the history of the Atlantis Space Shuttle. Then the whole back wall opened and there it was! The actual Atlantis Space Shuttle, suspended in mid air, exactly like it was when it returned from its last mission.  It was really, really spectacular. Very well done!  Here’s more about Atlantis.


Here we are! As I said before, it was a cold day and really windy. It was a good day to be mostly inside.


This was mind-bogglingly huge. It’s the external fuel tank and solid fuel rockets that the Space Shuttle was attached to duirng lift-off. The white solid fuel rockets fell away pretty quicly and were recovered for cleaning and re-use. However, the orange fuel tank was detached after the Space Shuttle cleared the atmosphere so it burned up on re-entry. It was the only part of the SS not designed to be re-used.


Here’s an idea of how big this thing is. It’s something like 34 stories.


Here’s what the fuel tank and rockets looked like with the Space Shuttle attached.


The end of an Apollow rocket. The size is enormous.


That’s Bob in the blue jacked with the red stripe on the sleeve. The size of the engines compared to the people gives you an idea of how big the engines are.


And here’s Atlantis. I don’t know why, but this was an incredibly awesome exhibit. It was moving to be so close to it and to see how beat up it is after all those space flights.


They displayed Atalantis with its cargo bay door open and its arm extended, just like it would have been in space.


Another view so you can see the extended arm.


And another.


The underside of Atlantis. The darkest squares are missing ceramic tiles.


A reproduction of the cockpit. It was a favorite with the kids. Bob wanted to try, but the kids were so much faster! : )


This is what the interior looked like. The astronauts floated through them, but we had to crawl. Killed my knees, but totally worth it!


Here’s a look at the entry point. It was pretty small!


The best part was the glass tunnel we had to crawl through that was a couple stories up. Here’s Bob enjoying the heck out of it!


Sorry it’s blurry, but this gives you an idea of how small the tubes are.


A view of the glass tunnel from below. It was a kick! Don’t wear a skirt 🙂


All of our Space Shuttles.


There were tons of simulators that were supposedly similar to those the astronauts used for training.


More views of Atlantis. It really was an incredible sight.


This was the view from down below. Just above the United States is the open cargo door.  The pictures of the inside of the cargo hold are above.

More Universal Studios

3860 miles traveled

We actually started the day at Universal Studios again.  This time, instead of Islands of Adventure, we went to Universal Studios Florida.  It was good, but I still like Disney better.  Although, I have to say the entertainment at this park was much better than at Island of Adveneture. Probably the most interesting thing was the conversation I had with the guy checking everyone’s bags on the way into the park.  I asked him what was the weirdest thing he ever found in someone’s purse.  His answer?  A litter of puppies! She couldn’t understand why the puppies couldn’t play under the table while she ate at Bubba Gumps.  : )

Since it got stormy in early afternoon, we bailed and headed for Cape Canaveral.  I’m glad we did because quite a storm blew in and it rained buckets.  Luckily, we were safely in our new hotel in Cocoa Beach when the worst of it hit.

Universal Studios Photos


Even walking up to the entrance gates, the landscaping was beautiful.


Here are pictures of various things as we walked to the back of the park where Harry Potter World is.




Dr. Suess land was alot like Toon Town



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The Hogwarts Express. Later this summer, they’re opening Diagon Alley at the other theme park in Universal Studios and the Hogwarts Express will be a ride you can take between that park and this one.


Hogsmeade was really crowded.


A little performance in furtherance of magical cooperation




Hogsmeade at dusk.


We got soaked on the Jurassic Park ride. Soaked!


Hogsmeade looked beautiful this morning.


Another view of Hogwarts.



And a couple more views of Hogwarts.  It wasn’t to scale, but it was still very impressive. It’s the home of one of the rides, which was very well done. As you waited in line, it wound through classrooms, past the sorting hat, down corridors with talking portraits, and many other things. In some of the rooms were holograms of Harry, Ron and Hermione doing various things.


The sorting hat! Yes, it talked. In fact, it wouldn’t stop! Sorry I couldn’t get more pics from inside of Hogwarts, but lighting was bad. I took several videos, but they’re nearly black.


I tried to get him to buy it, but he wouldn’t. Maybe he’s secretly a Ravenclaw 🙂

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The want chooses the wizard . . . none seemed to want us. : )


This is one of the few stores in Hogsmeade that is actually a real store. Most are just dressing–you can see in the windows, but the doors aren’t real.


The dress shop wasn’t real–only window dressing.


Zonko’s! Unfortunately, not a real shop, either.


The bookstore had all of Gilderoy Lockhart’s books in the window, but it wasn’t a real store.


Bertie Botts Every Flavored Beans.


We found bottled pumpkin juice for sale.


Unless you’d rather have a butter beer? We tried it. It tasted a bit like a melted root beer float.


Chocolate Frogs!


The post office.


The owls in the post office.


The Hogs Head.  Disreputable place.


It was even dark on the inside. 🙂


Lunch in the Three Broomsticks.


Lunch at the Three Broomsticks.


Pumpkin juice!  We liked the non-fizzy kind better.


Universal Studios

More of Universal Studios today.  We got there as it opened and went the opposite direction of most of the crowd, so we were the first people on the Spider Man ride and the Jurrasic Park ride.  We planned to have lunch at the Three Broomsticks, but by the time we got there, it was only 9:20!  So, we rode the Harry Potter ride again.  It was a 75 minute wait, so we thought it would kill some time.  Then, the lady told us the single rider line was only 5 minutes, and we couldn’t pass it up.  We were in and out in 15 minutes.  It was still too early for lunch, so we did some shopping, looked around thoroughly, and took lots of pictures. You can see them here.  As I said before, its not a very big place.  Finally, around 10:00 they started serving lunch at the Three Broomsticks and we went in.

It’s wonderfully decorated on the inside, and quite believable.  We tried pumpkin juice with our lunches, Bob got regular and I got the fizzy version.  (We both liked the regular version better).  They will tell you it tastes like a slice of pumpkin pie, but I think it tastes more like what a pumpkin pie candle smells like, if you know what I mean.  It kinda grows on you.

After lunch, we backtracked to the movie theater on City Walk and saw the new Captain America.  We really enjoyed it and it was the perfect break from all the walking.

We did some more stuff in the park after that, but its not worth mentioning.  Can I just say that Disney does most things better?  Especially in the food and entertainment areas.  The shows at Universal were pretty crummy.

Edison and Ford Winter Estates

3800 miles traveled so far.

We spent several hours exploring the winter homes of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford.  Did you know they were good friends and next door neighbors?  They often collaborated with their other friend Harvey Firestone (yes, the tires) on projects.  In fact, Edison spent so much time in Florida that he had an entire laboratory there and it was the primary location for all his efforts to develop a domestic source of rubber so the US wouldn’t be dependent on foreign imports.

But, I’m getting ahead of myself.  In 1885, Edison sailed down the river and saw a plant on the banks that he thought would be the answer to his search for a long lasting light bulb filament.  He bought the property that day and had a house built there within the year. It was quite a feat since it was wilderness at the time and everything had to arrive by boat.  There wasn’t even a road.  And it wasn’t just a simple house.  It was two stories with a couple sections and servants quarters and it was surrounded by a wide covered deck.  Then, he had a mirror image of the whole house built right beside the original as a guest house.  It’s very impressive, even by today’s standards.

It turned out Edison was right and the bamboo he saw growing on the banks of the river which did prove to be the perfect filament for his light bulb.  Years later, WWI inspired Edison to find a domestic source of rubber.  If our imports were cut off in another war, the US and its industries would be seriously hampered without a reliable source of rubber.  Of course, this project was very interesting to Ford and Firestone, for obvious reasons.

Toward that end, Edison imported plants from all over the world and planted them on the grounds of his home in Florida.  Many of these still exist and they make the grounds an incredibly beautiful garden.  We really enjoyed walking around because it was so peaceful and colorful.  My favorite was the Banyon Tree that Edison planted in 1927.  It was about 4 feet tall.  Today, the tree is enormous and because of the way it grows, it covers a little more than an acre of ground.  Another favorite is the bougainvillea his wife planted in the 19teens.  It’s now about 30 feet tall.  Pictures of everything are here.

Perhaps the most interesting thing is Edison’s forward thinking.  He wanted to develop a battery operated car (way ahead of his time!) and he was concerned about humanity using up its oil resources.  He thought our future was in the power of the sun.

After lunch, we drove to Orlando.  We wanted to do something interesting for dinner, so we walked over to City Walk, which is sort of the Universal Studios equivalent of Downtown Disney.  We ended up with ice-cream instead of dinner, but what are vacations for?

We also ended up at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.  What a kick!  It’s an incredible place, I just wish it was bigger and there was more to explore.  We decided to try the main ride, which is a trip through Hogwarts.  We saw classrooms, the Great Hall, Dumbledore’s Study, the Room of Requirements, the sorting hat, the house points tally machines (I forget what they’re called), the greenhouses, and even the talking paintings, including the Fat Lady.  There was even an interesting discussion between the portraits of the four founders about letting in muggle-born students.  It’s all very well done.  The ride itself was fabulous and lots of fun.  Hermione casts a spell so you can fly and then you fly everywhere.  It was very well done.  More on all this tomorow!

The Everglades

3600 miles traveled.

Today we explored a little bit of the Everglades.  We drove some of it, we walked lots of it, and we took a 15 mile tram tour.  What surprised me most is the fact that the Everglades is NOT a swamp.  It’s actually a 50 mile wide, slow-moving, shallow river.  It’s so shallow that grasses grow in it and it looks like a sea of grass.  The water is slowly moving down the peninsula at the rate of ¼ mile a day.  As a result, it is all fresh water, there is nothing stale or stagnant about it.  In fact, the water is so fresh, it is used for drinking water in many Florida cities.

Like most rivers, it has cycles.  In the winter (now), it’s the dry season so much of the water is dried up and the animals congregate around watering holes.  It reminded me a lot of what happens in African savannas.  In the wet season (summer) the entire place fills with water, usually 3-4 feet deep.  In the past, much of the water has been controlled with dams, culverts, irrigation ditches, things like that.  But in 2000, Congress passed a law to reverse much of the man-made intervention.  They hope to restore 85% of the Everglades to its natural state, including the seasonal flooding.

There is an incredible abundance of life here.  There are alligators, of course, but there are also snakes, billions of birds, many mammals (including panthers), tons of fish, and even crocodiles.  One species that’s only been around since the 1990s is the Burmese python.  From a hundred pet snakes released by people who could no longer care for them (they start out tiny and cute, but they grow alarmingly fast, up to 23 feet—EEEK!) there are now about 5000 Burmese pythons in the Everglades.  As a result, the deer population in the park has dropped by 94% and the panther population has dropped 90%.  The rangers hold yearly hunts for the pythons and they capture all the ones they come across, but the snakes reproduce so quickly, it’s an uphill battle.

My favorite spot is where Exxon drilled for oil way back when (I can’t remember when, the 1930s? 40s?) Anyway, they found oil, but it was contaminated with sulphur and not usable.  So, Exxon (then Humble Oil Company) donated the land to the National Park Service. That’s how we got the Everglades National Park.  The oil rig was converted into a fire lookout and today its just an interesting tourist spot.  I have pictures of everything here.  As with the Dry Tortugas, most of the details of what we saw are in the captions of the photos.  Enjoy!

Everglades Photos


Bunches of gators! They were all just laying there. None of them moved, they just soaked up the sun. It was hard to count them since they were in such a pile.


They seem to just flop in mid-walk. It’s like they just couldn’t make it one more inch.


In this area, Bob and I counted 22 alligators, all lazing around and soaking up the sun. Don’t try to count them yourself, I couldn’t get them all in one shot.



There are two alligators in this picture. See them? They’re just swimming along.


Many of the bird species were quite large. Here, these birds are probably a foot tall, maybe a little more.




It was very pretty. This is not a natural area for the Everglades. There are no natural deep water spots. However, they were created in the past when humans dug holes to get materials to build roads with. Now, these deeper spots are natural refuges for the animals during the dry months because there’s always water here.


More huge birds.





See the alligator?


How about now?


This leatherback turtle was laying eggs and the vultures (yes, vultures, both figuratively and literally) were horrible to her. They were pecking her shell and taking bites out of her feet, which were bleeding. As soon as she was done, they devoured all the eggs. I couldn’t stay to watch, it was awful.



These birds dive for fish, etc., so they get saturated with water. It helps them sink. But, when they want to fly, they have to dry out first. This guy was just holding his wings open, waiting patiently until he was dry.



We wondered why peope choose to cover their cars with tarps. Keep the sun out? Kinda weird. Then we saw the box of tarps and it all became clear. Apparently, the vultures like plastic car parts and the weather stripping that runs around all car windows. They’ll tear your car apart, if they’re in the mood.  Luckily, they weren’t the day we visited.


This guy was at least 3 ½ feet tall.


Look! A real, live stork!


Grassland or river? Here, it’s a shallow river with grass growing in it. The trees grow on literal islands in the river that are a foot or two higher in elevation than the land around it.


Mama Gator with two babies. You can only see one hitching a ride in this picture. The baby is probably about a year old. Mamas attend to their young for 2-3 years.


Pretty cool what you can do with an old oil rig, isn’t it? Humble Oil drilled for oil in the Everglades, found it, but determined it wasn’t usable because of the sulphur content. Today there’s talk about driling for oil in the Everglades again.



It was hot and humid, but here we are on top of the observation tower (aka, old oil rig). Did I mention that the wind was blowing pretty hard?


View from on top of the oberservation platform



This “borrow pit” (aka a place where humans dug out fill material and made a deep pond) is filled with alligators. They’re hard to see among the lily pads, but they’re there.


This guy was hot, so he opened his wings to cool down. He also opened his mouth and was panting, kind of like a dog.


A family of some kind of bird I can’t remenber the name of now. Sorry!


Really, there are black panthers in the Everglades. No, we didn’t see one.


Another stamp for my passport. 🙂


Someone has a sense of humor.


Bob in his new Dry Tortugas hat.


We found rainbows in the sprinklers.