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Finishing out a two-day two-park run at Universal, my fourth trip report segment covers Islands of Adventure!

 

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Out-of-sequence night shot!

Unlike SeaWorld and the original Universal Studios park, I'd legitimately never been to Islands of Adventure, so everything was new to me. I had higher expectations for this park, given some of the things I'd heard about it over the years, so I was wondering if it would meet those expectations. The final answer: maybe not quite, but close.

 

I visited on Wednesday, February 15. Scorecard for the day:

Forbidden Journey (x2)

Dragon Challenge (blue)

Dragon Challenge (red)

Kong

Hulk

-- Lunch --

Poseidon's Fury

Cat in the Hat

Spider Man

Dr Doom

Ollivander's

Hulk (x2)

 

I might be totally off base, but my biggest takeaway from Islands of Adventure is that there just doesn't seem to be that many attractions. I say that while acknowledging that I skipped all the water rides, with a late-day attempt to ride Jurassic Park River Adventure thwarted by a thunderstorm-induced shutdown. I'd hate to think I missed some stuff, but I usually prepare for park visits in detail, and I think I got on everything I really wanted to.

 

It's probably one of the biggest travesties of my Universal experience that I didn't ride Spider Man until after experiencing every other simulator (of varying quality) at the resort. Spider Man has sort of a legendary status, and in retrospect, I can see why it was such a game-changing combination of ride, media, and physical sets. At the time, though, it didn't have the effect on me that it should have. I'd seen all the tricks already, though probably not done as well. I kind of wished I'd have started with this one!

 

Oh, but IoA had one of my favorite rides of the whole Florida trip -- Forbidden Journey. Got on twice with no wait shortly after the park opened (not that there were lines for much of anything all day), and really thought it was spectacular. A fantastic example of how a media-based attraction can work seamlessly with physical sets and creative ride motions. Best of all? No 3-D! Forbidden Journey was so much better than the other rides at Universal that have come after it -- even Gringotts. I hope other park franchises eventually take advantage of this ride system, because it's a lot of fun.

 

Have to give some credit to Hulk -- that's about as fun a first-half as any B&M sit-down looper I've ever been on. It's big, it's actually reasonably intense, and it launches into a zero-G roll. I even thought the cobra roll was comfortable, and I usually hate those! Really good ride, and probably sneaks just above Rockit as my favorite coaster at Universal.

 

Otherwise, my reviews are mixed. Kong was the Transformers of IoA -- loud and incoherent. Cat in the Hat felt like it was trying to be Magic Kingdom's Pooh ride, and that ride isn't even all that great. Was very disappointed by Dragon Challenge, though I'd just been on Montu a week before, so that's kind of an unfair comparison. I remember thinking one of the sides was the worst B&M invert I'd ever been on, and one was about average, though I can't remember which was which. Poseidon's Fury was a little better than expected, actually -- some cool effects to make up for the cheese-filled storyline. The little show in Ollivander's Wand Shop was cute, and Dr. Doom's a decent tower ride.

 

So, after full days at each park, what's my final opinion of Universal? I like it, but I don't love it. It all goes back to something I said in the last post -- I don't care much for 3D-media, and I don't have any connection to the franchises represented at the parks. I could overlook those facts if the parks were filled with outstanding rides and attractions, but to me they were more hit-or-miss, and IoA seemed a little sparse on attractions in general. With that said, there are definitely a few outstanding rides at each park, and I loved the detail in the theming -- especially at IoA. If I was back in the Orlando area again, would I revisit Universal? Sure, but I'd be more likely to do one full day split between the two parks, knowing there are things I can skip over. If I'm planning my next week-long family vacation to Orlando, would I skim some time from Disney World to bring everyone north on I-Drive? Not as likely.

Edited by The Great Zo
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Pictures from Islands of Adventure (part 1)

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Started the day in the Wizarding World, hoping to beat the crowds. This picture might indicate otherwise, but I was largely successful!

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The snow-covered rooftops of Hogsmeade.

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Not the first theme park in Orlando to use forced perspective.

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I liked Diagon Alley, but I think I preferred the slightly more open feeling of Hogsmeade.

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More detail on the windows.

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Hogwarts Castle is large, imposing, and impressive.

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It's full of awesome detail, but most of it is a little far away to get good pictures of.

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There's a kiddie coaster, and it had the longest waits of any attraction in the park that I saw -- was up to 40 minutes just an hour after opening.

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Needless to say, I didn't try to ride.

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Hogsmeade has some sort of wizard show thing, and I'm really not describing this really well, so I'll stop now.

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Lots of detail around the area, though.

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I have yet to cast a spell, so consider the limits respected.

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Old-timey luggage for your train ride.

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Take a ride on the Hogwarts Express. If you pass Go, collect $200.

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A barrel filled with good-but-overpriced not-coke.

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Dragon Challenge -- a pair of formerly-dueling B&M inverts, which I'm sure I would have liked more if they were still dueling.

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I only rode each side once, mainly because it's about a ten mile walk to get to the coaster station!

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Also, because I didn't think either of them were good enough to warrant multiple rides. Also, because my locker was about to expire, and I didn't really feel like re-upping it.

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There were waits only for the front row, and I saw several half-full trains going out at various points during the day.

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Continuing a counter-clockwise rotation around the park, I came to the Jurassic Park River Adventure.

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There are several great spots for photography near the big splashdown finale.

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I guess what I'm saying is, prepare for a whole bunch of pictures of the same thing (or scroll down if you don't want to see them).

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This was the one water ride I had actually intended on riding, but I never did get on.

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I even put my stuff in the /pay/ locker at the ride's entrance, only to have every outdoor ride in the park shut down due to a nearby thunderstorm.

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At least I had plenty of pictures of /other/ people enjoying the ride.

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It did look like a lot of fun, though quite wet, especially in the front row.

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Kicking up some water.

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Kicking up some more water.

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Hidden in the mist.

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Perhaps a drenching splash.

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I'd heard that sitting in the back row in the middle seats might result in an acceptably-misty (rather than head-to-toe soaking) ride.

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The pictures sure make it look like everyone's getting in on it, though.

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There are several phases to the splash, and several phases to the reactions.

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Not sure it's possible to actually hold off the water, but good attempt.

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Applause from another happy boat.

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Soaking and smiling.

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Harry Potter can't save you.

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Even Megadeth guy liked it.

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Running out of captions before I run out of pictures.

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OK, next up...

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Everyone always looks so surprised.

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...Kong. Or, Skull Island. Which, at least, was better than the similarly-themed Immersion Tunnel things I went on in Europe.

 

Kong was my longest wait of the day -- about 20 minutes.

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Obviously didn't get on this thing, nor did I even try. Pteranadon Flyers is not for solo adult riders.

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Kinda looks like fun, but I doubt I'm missing too much.

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Ripsaw Falls is next on the loop, and provided another opportunity for some fun photography.

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Honestly, I had considered riding this as well, because I love well-themed log flumes. Splash Mountain (WDW) and Chiapas (Phantasialand) are among my favorite amusement rides of any type.

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Just didn't feel like getting totally soaked. Next time.

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This one does seem to be a soaker, too.

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The flume has two sides to the drop, but I only ever saw boats going down the left chute.

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Going down.

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Cresting the Chiapas-esque airtime hill (and yes, I know this one came first).

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Another splash on the way down.

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Was tough timing out a shot right as the splash was beginning.

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Managed to get a couple!

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Even if you were to somehow survive the drop, people are going to use the squirt guns to get you again.

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With no exceptions, every rider reacts like they never saw it coming.

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It's probably not as painful as it looks.

Edited by The Great Zo
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Pictures from Islands of Adventure (part 2)

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Still trying to decide if I liked the comic strip area or not. Not sure I've seen this kind of theming attempted anywhere else. Some of it comes off as kind of cheap. It /definitely/ feels like a bit of an artifact of a bygone time.

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Yet another water ride, but with less in the way of good photo ops -- the Bilge Rat Barges.

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It's a well-themed version of your standard spinning raft ride.

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There are rapids...

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...and big faucets guaranteed to get just about everyone wet...

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...but especially if you're on that side of the boat.

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Nearby is the Olive, a three-level boat.

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The second level has opportunities to spray water at the Bilge Rat Barge riders...

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The top level has the controls for the ship, but more importantly...

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...like this!

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...it's got one of the best views in the entire park!

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So, I figured I'd set up for a few minutes for some photography. Here's a nice view of Hulk's first segment.

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Spiraling out of the launch.

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Kicking up some water in the splash-down.

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Looping up a little higher.

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Cobra-rolling onward.

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The Dr. Seuss area is directly across the water.

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There's a little monorail that goes around this area. Probably should have gotten on that for some more views of the park, but I did not.

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The H-triple-R lift hill can also be seen pretty prominently from here.

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To the left, Mythos and Hogsmeade can be seen.

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I did not eat at Mythos, but perhaps I should have. Is it as good as their last-decade hype would indicate?

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There are some decent distant views of Dragon Challenge.

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The blue train heads down the first drop.

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The red train hits what has to be one of the only airtime hills on a B&M invert anywhere.

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A twisted turnaround.

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Another inversion in the distance.

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The Jurassic Park building in the foreground, with Hogwarts Castle behind it. A strange juxtaposition.

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It's dark and gothic -- Cinderella's Castle, this ain't.

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Because I can't get through a photo set without finding a bird.

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Poseidon's Fury! Actually kind of stupid-fun.

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I liked the water tunnel. Doesn't everyone like the water tunnel?

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Seuss Landing is an interesting place. I saw things I recognized from books I must have read 20 years ago.

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Story time with several Dr. Seuss characters.

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This guy's rather timely.

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One shot from the Cat in the Hat ride queue. I liked what they were going for, but the execution felt like something I'd expect out of a second-tier park.

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A sand castle!

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A tribute to Theodor Geisel.

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Back-tracking to Marvel Super Hero Island, also known as "pony up if you want these guys in your park, Bob."

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As I look back, I really think I should have appreciated Spider Man more than I did. I saw it through the lens of having a day and a half of other (mostly inferior) 3-D simulators beaten into my skull, whereas this was among the first and probably still remains one of the best.

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I did take the time to appreciate the fake awards in the queue, like this one for somebody who has apparently accomplished very little...

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...or this one for a photojournalist who would fit in with today's media just fine.

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Hulk is good. Hulk's queue entrance, courtesy of the old version of the ride, is also pretty awesome.

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The green track on blue sky looks nice!

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Even Hulk was running half-empty trains, though when I caught it for my first ride of the day, I had about a ten-minute wait. Probably about as long as it got all day.

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I'm really glad the Hulk trains have headlights. Foreshadowing, perhaps.

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Yet another big splash.

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Tall vertical loops are fun -- one of my favorite B&M elements.

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It's late afternoon and with thunderstorms in the vicinity, the park's outdoor attractions shut down. I appreciate a park that actually cares about taking proper safety measures!

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The storm clouds rolled onward, and operations resumed with about an hour to go in the operating day.

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The sun begins to set on Hogsmeade...

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...and the sky behind the castle just makes things even more dramatic.

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An orange glow behind the Seuss trolley.

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Distant thunderstorms behind Super Hero Island.

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One last day-time view as the sun sets. But not quite time to put the camera away. After a couple last rides on Hulk, I had a photo spot to get to after dark.

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A night-time view of Hulk and Super Hero Island.

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Remember the Hulk train headlights? Thanks to a 25-second exposure, you can see the train traverse the entire first half of the ride.

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A slightly closer view over the first Hulk segment.

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This shot of the cobra roll, unbeknownst to me, was the last Hulk train of the night! I had one chance to get this shot and got lucky.

 

(Well, actually, it wasn't the last train of the night -- I saw the ride cycling about 45 minutes after the park closed!)

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Leaving IoA after a mostly fun day.

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The adventure begins (and now it ends).

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Two days at Universal complete!

Edited by The Great Zo
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As has been tradition for this post -- yet another "other stuff in Florida" addendum! This is the longest of these segments, but covers a bunch of stuff heading north from Orlando and up the Atlantic coast of the Sunshine State.

 

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See ya later, Orlando!

My first stop was at Blue Spring State Park, about 45 minutes north of Orlando. It's heralded as one of the best places in the state to see manatees in winter, and it delivered.

 

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The sign does not lie.

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This was another great spot to see lots of Florida wildlife, including manatees.

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Yup, all those dark spots in the water are manatees. The park said there were just over 100 on the day I visited.

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More manatees.

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Even more manatees.

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A short walk leads to Blue Spring at the source of the manatees' stream. It's like a giant blue hole in a lush forest. Maybe something out of a Roger Dean album cover.

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One lone manatee was exploring the source of the spring.

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Plenty of birds, too, such as this green heron...

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...and this red-bellied woodpecker.

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That lone manatee made its way down the stream, and I got to see it from about 10 feet away.

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Probably floating back to find its friends.

Next, I headed to Canaveral National Seashore on the Atlantic coast. It's a pretty quiet stretch of beach just north of Cape Canaveral.

 

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Here's Turtle Mound, an obviously-unnatural shell midden on the inlet side of a narrow barrier island. It's a prehistoric archaeological site built many, many centuries ago.

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The entire mound is made up of shells like this!

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There are boardwalks that lead to the top...

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...with views over the inlet (left) and ocean (right).

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Oh, and it's Florida, so the wildlife also includes things like the spiny orb weaver spider...

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...and its much, much, much larger cousin, the golden silk orb weaver "banana" "leg-span the size of a softball" "get this thing away from me" spider.

I took the road as far south as I could, but obviously they don't let you drive all the way into the Cape.

 

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The beach at the end of the road -- as far south as you can drive.

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It's a very quiet beach, which is good.

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Probably not quiet if a rocket's launching, though. The launch facilities at Kennedy Space Center are visible way in the distance!

Ponce Inlet (south of Daytona Beach) is home to the Ponce de Leon Inlet Light, a pretty awesome lighthouse and museum.

 

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Not the only lighthouse in this post, but it's the first.

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Palm tree shadows on a lighthouse = you're probably in Florida.

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Spiral up.

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A view over the Ponce de Leon Inlet.

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Looking north toward Daytona Beach.

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There's the built-up area near Daytona Beach, many miles in the distance.

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This lighthouse provides a great view of boats...

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...and blimps, apparently. The Goodyear blimp (which isn't actually a blimp) was in town for the Daytona 500.

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This lighthouse has wires above the railing, but they're easily wide enough for a camera lens, so it's no problem for photography.

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A look down from the top.

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The museum contains one of my favorite artifacts -- a first order fresnel lens. This one was originally used at the Cape Canaveral Lighthouse starting in 1868.

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This thing is 16 feet tall and weighs almost 13,000 pounds!

After visiting the lighthouse, I went down to the inlet.

 

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Here's the scene at Lighthouse Point Park on Ponce Inlet.

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I was not planning on doing either.

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A reflective ocean looking north.

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Looking back to the west at the lighthouse.

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Sunset over the inlet.

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A good time to fly.

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Almost iridescent.

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Waves crash on Ponce Inlet's north jetty.

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Birds on the water.

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Bikes on the beach.

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Sunset behind the guard shack.

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A farewell to Ponce Inlet.

I made a quick stop in Daytona Beach, curious as to if their little Pinfari was operating. It was not. I did not find Daytona Beach particularly pleasant, so I did not stay long.

 

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Yeah, this was not my favorite beach, and this one picture is about all I have to show for my visit.

I started my next day at two big attractions in St. Augustine, a city most noted as the oldest occupied settlement in the continental US.

 

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Next day, first stop -- Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine.

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This is the oldest masonry fort in the continental United States, built by the Spanish in the late 1600s.

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It's changed hands several times, as has Florida. It's now managed by the National Park Service.

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Most of the fort is made of Coquina -- rock made from fragmented shells.

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Crossing the moat into the fort.

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The inner courtyard, where demonstrations sometimes take place.

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Cannons on the top of the fort, looking out over Matanzas Bay.

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The collection of old cannons is pretty impressive.

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Oh, and the fort has a nice view of both downtown St. Augustine and...

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...the St. Augustine Light Station!

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It's about 10 feet shorter than the Ponce Inlet light (165 feet vs. 175 feet) but it's equally as impressive a structure.

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Unlike the Ponce Inlet light, this lighthouse has a half-spiral staircase with landings.

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A wide view toward St. Augustine from the top.

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Looking out over the water.

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This lighthouse is completely open at the top.

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The Castillo is clearly visible...

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...as is downtown.

Took a walk out on the St. Johns County Pier in nearby St. Augustine Beach.

 

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Walking out on the pier.

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This is a modestly-built-up beach area, nothing like Daytona, but not as secluded as some of the nearby state / national park beaches.

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Flattened perspective looking south.

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Also, a pelican.

Amelia Island is Florida's northernmost point of land on the Atlantic coast. It's home to another old military installation -- Fort Clinch.

 

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Fort Clinch, built in the mid-1800s, is much younger than the Castillo de San Marcos.

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It's primarily a masonry fort built with bricks and earthen rises along the edges.

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Fort Clinch was important during the Civil War. It was seized by the confederates, but abandoned and re-occupied by the union.

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Like the Castillo de San Marcos, Fort Clinch has cannons. These cannons sit on swivel rails so they can be aimed.

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A 35-star flag sets the year -- some time from 1863 to 1865.

Finally, closing this segment of the trip out with another night-time downtown visit.

 

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Jacksonville's Friendship Fountain and the very-blue Main Street Bridge.

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On less windy days, the fountain shoots water much higher in the air.

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Downtown Jacksonville looks nice just across the St. John's River.

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Not many bridges that photograph as well as this one.

With that, the Floridian segment of this trip is basically complete. However, there's one more trip report segment to go, and it's going to go in a very different direction. More to come!

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Please never stop taking photos. Awesome stuff as always. Your long exposure shots of Hulk are the stuff of legends. Also, bonus points for nabbing a tricolored heron in the park (wonder why it's not in breeding plumage?).

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Fantastic TR with some really excellent pictures!

 

I agree with your assessment of UO in general, but especially IOA. It was really phenomenal when it first opened, but I actually don't feel like it has aged very well (especially the original sections/rides). I agree with you on FJ though. I think it is a prime example of the proper mix of physical sets/effects, a unique ride system, thrills and media. I think Gringotts and others focus too heavily on the media portion.

 

As you said, really it's pretty easy to do both parks in one day depending on crowds, especially if you're by yourself as almost every ride has a single rider line. If the barks aren't busy and you avoid the water rides (as I do as well b/c they really do get you soaked) IOA almost becomes a half day park. The only downside to doing both in one day is IMO it really does give you media-based attraction burnout, hitting one after the other after the other.

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Great report as usual! I'm glad the new Hulk sounds as intense as the old one. I was afraid it would be tamed somewhat on the transitions during the track replacement.

 

It's too bad you didn't like Dragon Challenge. It's my favorite of the B&M inverts (both sides) after Banshee and that is even when they aren't dueling. I find the rides to maintain the intensity the whole way except Ice's ending. I especially love the zero-G roll and airtime hills on those coasters.

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^I'd say UO's between a rock and a hard place with Dragons, but given the metal detectors you'd think they'd be able to duel again. That queue though...thank god we got FJ and its queue to make up for it (JMO). What's there is still far better than yet another 3D dark ride. It'd be cool if they could finally get wing riders right.

 

Anyways, your pics are outstanding! I assume you'll be taking pictures of Pandora?

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Great photos and insight as always! I feel a lot like you do about IOA. Theming ranges from spectacular to Chinese-knockoff depending on the area and attractions are still a little sparse for a nearly twenty year old park. I usually take one day to hit the best of both parks. That's all you need once you've already visited unless you go on an overly busy day.

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Thank you for reading and for the comments!

 

It's too bad you didn't like Dragon Challenge. It's my favorite of the B&M inverts (both sides) after Banshee and that is even when they aren't dueling. I find the rides to maintain the intensity the whole way except Ice's ending. I especially love the zero-G roll and airtime hills on those coasters.

 

It's interesting that I've heard that opinion from a few other people too, but these just didn't excite me at all. Can't remember the last time I did a lap on a B&M invert and said "yeah, that was alright, moving on..." I'm sure if they were dueling, I'd have had more fun, and waited for the front row to get the full experience!

 

Please never stop taking photos. Awesome stuff as always. Your long exposure shots of Hulk are the stuff of legends. Also, bonus points for nabbing a tricolored heron in the park (wonder why it's not in breeding plumage?).

 

I am coming to you for all my bird identification questions in the future! I could not figure out what that one was -- initially thought little blue heron, but the eye color was clearly wrong. You nailed it!

 

As you said, really it's pretty easy to do both parks in one day depending on crowds, especially if you're by yourself as almost every ride has a single rider line. If the barks aren't busy and you avoid the water rides (as I do as well b/c they really do get you soaked) IOA almost becomes a half day park. The only downside to doing both in one day is IMO it really does give you media-based attraction burnout, hitting one after the other after the other.

 

Exactly why I think I'd skip several of them. My favorite of the simulators were Spider-Man, Minion Mayhem, and both Harry Potter rides (if they count). I guess I'll be adding in Fallon, Fast and the Furious, and whatever else they come up with on my next trip there (probably not any time soon) and that's plenty of simulators for one day.

 

Anyways, your pics are outstanding! I assume you'll be taking pictures of Pandora?

 

I will, some day! Probably won't be planning a WDW vacation for at least another year or two, most likely 2019 or 2020. Can't wait because Pandora looks great, and when the Studios refresh really gets going, it will definitely be worth the trip.

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  • 2 weeks later...

Alright, as promised, the fifth and final segment of this trip report is going in a different direction. In fact, it's a direction I've never gone before.

 

For years I've said that there's one common type of vacation that I had virtually zero interest in. For years I've told people, "no, for all the traveling I do, this just doesn't suit the way I like to do things."

 

Well then.

 

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Boat.

I went on a cruise.

 

So, obviously, there's a catch. Something different. Like...

 

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Why is there a stage on the pool deck?

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And what's this flag at the bow of the ship?

Welcome to Cruise to the Edge!

 

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Your mascot is a fish that can play guitar /and/ cowbell at the same time.

Themed cruises have become quite popular in the last 5-10 years, essentially serving as a floating convention for fans and enthusiasts of various hobbies and interests -- even very esoteric interests, in some cases. Concert cruises are a big part of this, with cruise events for just about any genre of music you can think of. Cruise to the Edge, which takes its name from the 1972 Yes album Close to the Edge, is a themed concert cruise for fans of progressive rock. This was CTTE's fourth sailing, and first time on Royal Caribbean's Brilliance of the Seas.

 

Many people here at TPR have probably been on cruises, but perhaps not on one like this, so I'll explain a little bit about how things worked. First off, this event is a full charter, which means that the entire ship has been bought out exclusively for CTTE. Most of the standard parts of the cruise experience are still the same -- the standard free buffet and main dining room, the more-expensive a la carte restaurants, the casino, the shops and bars, and one port stop (which I'll get to later). The big difference is that the ship is turned into a music festival, with multiple stages, and over two dozen bands/musicians on board. Across the four main days of the cruise, each band did four events -- two concerts, a Q&A session, and a meet and greet photo op. Most of the concerts were 60 minutes in length, but the headliners and a few other bands were given longer sets. A centralized merchandise stand sold CDs/DVDs and shirts for all of the bands on board. After midnight, a guest-led concert session closed things out, with people signing up in advance to rehearse and perform songs in front of the crowd. Progressive rock is a genre of music that attracts lots of highly-skilled amateur musicians, so it was nice to see them get a chance to cover some of their favorite songs. Finally, you never know what surprises you might find. One night, I ran into one of the cruise's more popular musicians (Neal Morse) sitting at a piano in a bar, leading sing-a-long Beatles covers. Totally not part of the schedule at all, but a fun little bonus.

 

For most people on board, the priority was to get to as many concerts as possible, which often led to a rather busy schedule. That meant that several of the standard cruise amenities -- the casino, the nicer restaurants, and even time at port -- were taken advantage of much less than on a normal cruise. Honestly, the host waiting outside the fancy steakhouse looked rather bored. But when people have come from all over the world for this event, they want to get their money's worth out of the music. Aside from simply getting to see the musicians in concert, being able to meet them and interact with them is a huge perk in the experience. The vast majority of the musicians expect and enjoy this interaction, and I had some nice conversations with several of them. I'm not big into getting pictures with people, but I did get a few autographs, including this full-band signed copy of the 2016 album Falling Satellites by the British band Frost*. Yep, Frost* bandleader Jem Godfrey drew a picture of a vintage Jupiter 8 keyboard on the cover!

 

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Andy!

With about 2000 people on board, and 24 bands, you're probably looking at 1/16th of the people on the ship being professional musicians. You really do run into them all over the place!

 

Before I get any further ahead, here's the full lineup of musicians on the cruise.

 

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The full list of musicians on CTTE, minus Scott Henderson, who was scheduled but didn't show up for some reason. Way to go, Scott Henderson.

There are probably only a few artists on this list that most people have heard of. Yes, Kansas, and Genesis' Steve Hackett are world-famous, and served as the headliners on the cruise. Drummer Mike Portnoy, formerly of Dream Theater, has his hands in just about everything in the progressive rock universe. Some of the bands on CTTE have been around since the 70s, while others formed during prog's renassaince in the 90s, and a few bands are even younger than that. One of the best things about this lineup is the diveristy -- both in musical style and in country of origin. The musicians covered a wide array of progressive styles -- jazz-rock, progressive metal, neo-prog, world music, folk-prog, in additional the classic progressive rock styles popularized in the 70s. I count 10 different countries represented by the musicians -- USA, UK, Sweden, Japan, Argentina, Switzerland, Mexico, the Netherlands, Austria, and Iceland. I might even be missing one or two. As for the guests, the clientele for CTTE definitely skewed older and calmer, probably with a remarkably low rate of alcohol consumption and debauchery compared to the average concert cruise. It's not that prog rock fans are teetotalers, rather it's simply because it'd be difficult to truly appreciate the majesty of a 9-minute long neoclassical-funk-metal instrumental breakdown in 9/8 if you're sloshed out of your gourd.

 

There were four main stages/venues on the ship. The first one is going to look pretty funny for anyone who's been on the Brilliance in its normal configuration.

 

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Pool stage!

This is the pool stage, the cruise's only outdoor venue, and one of the two biggest venues. The stage is set up on the starboard (right) side of the ship, with everything behind it on Deck 11 turned into a backstage area. The pool has been completely covered over to create the main standing-room area. Getting up front was my preference, but the views from the Deck 12 balcony (which completely encircle the stage) are also pretty great.

 

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Down in front.

Here's a closer look at the front of the pool stage area. The entire area within the wooden ledge is normally filled with water. I guess this is the "pit" -- though nobody really moshes at prog concerts. There was an attempt or two at crowd-surfing during the last show of the cruise!

 

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From behind the stage.

A few shows had chairs set up on the pool stage, mainly for bands who attracted an older demographic.

 

The other large venue was the ship's Pacifica Theater, which was used for the headliners and a few other shows.

 

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Front view of the Pacifica Theater.

Shows in the Pacifica Theater were the only concerts with assigned seating. Each cruise guest was given admission to one of the two shows for each headliner, and assigned the same seat for each show. I had an unobstructed balcony view from the right side of the stage, which I was quite happy with.

 

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The rest of the seating area in the Pacifica Theater, about 10-15 minutes before a concert.

The third venue was at the ground floor (Deck 4) of the ship's main atrium.

 

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Looking down at the atrium stage.

This wasn't an ideal setup for concerts, given the limited space near the stage (maybe room for 100-150 peope), but the balconies going all the way up through the atrium allowed plenty more room for people to watch.

 

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A performance on the atrium stage.

This may have been the most picturesque of the venues, with the impressive atrium stretching way above the stage.

 

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Try not to get vertigo.

The last of the four venues was the Colony Club, a bar/lounge on Deck 6 at the back of the ship.

 

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Watching a show in the Colony Club from about 4 or 5 rows back.

This venue had a small stage and some poor sightlines if you weren't right up front, but it honestly felt like watching the bands play in somebody's living room. A nice intimate atmosphere.

 

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Granted, that all gets shot if the /one/ metal band scheduled in the Colony Club decides to ask everyone to stand. But standing is more fun, anyway.

Actually, getting front row in the Colony Club was usually easy, since nobody wanted to sit on the floor at the foot of the stage. Getting one of the chairs at the side of the floor near the front? That was a tougher challenge.

 

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A view from the back of the Colony Club.

Finally, here's a sample schedule from the last day of the cruise.

 

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The CTTE schedule for Friday, February 10.

With lots of overlapping events, it was really important to plan out an agenda for the week well ahead of time, to ensure you could get to everything at the top of the priority list. I had to sacrifice a few Q&A sessions I wanted to attend in order to make sure I got to all the concerts I wanted to see.

 

So, how did I do with that? I saw 18 full concerts and 5 partial concerts, spanning 17 of the 24 artists on board. I saw 186 songs performed, and rounding only very slightly, I saw 24 hours of live music. Because this is a progressive rock cruise, yes, that does work out to an average of 7:45 per song.

 

This was a really spectacular experience -- one that might only appeal to certain people who are really into this type of music, but that definitely includes me. Would I go again? Yes, but it depends on the lineup. I'd been following along with these cruises since the first one, but the 2017 edition included too many of my favorite bands to ignore. I'll likely be skipping the 2018 edition, but I'm absolutely hoping to go again in the future.

 

What follows is a photo-heavy trip report from Cruise to the Edge 2017 -- February 7-11 on the Brilliance of the Seas.

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Day 1 -- February 7, 2017 -- Departure

 

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First, here's where my room was located on Deck 8. I came into this as a cruise novice, but quickly learned the advantages of booking a room on the hump (which I specifically requested). Our room was directly adjacent to the main atrium, and a 10-second walk to the main stairwell, with easy access to the pool stage.

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Plus, we had a nice view of Tampa before leaving!

The first big event was the sail-away concert, scheduled to begin shortly after the conclusion of the muster (lifeboat and safety) drill. As soon as that ended, it was a mad dash to get to the pool deck for a good spot for the show. I beat the crowd and made it to the front row!

 

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The sail-away show was one of the best attended concerts of the cruise, for obvious reasons -- it's the first concert!

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Mike Portnoy (pictured here) was celebrating his 50th birthday, and was given the cruise's opening and closing slots, which he filled with selections from the myriad bands he's a member of. First up was Flying Colors.

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Portnoy tosses a drumstick to a lucky fan.

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Flying Colors includes Steve Morse (Deep Purple / Dixie Dregs) and Casey McPherson...

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...Dave LaRue...

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...and Neal Morse, who (along with Portnoy) is also in the second band to take the stage: Transatlantic.

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Also including Pete Trewavas (Marillion)...

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...and guest appearances by Daniel Gildenlow and Ted Leonard.

There was one thing I was worried I'd miss during the opening concert -- the passage under the Sunshine Skyway bridge at the mouth of Tampa Bay. Thankfully, the timing worked out. As soon as the concert ended, I rushed up to the front of the boat, and was immediately treated with this view.

 

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That'll do.

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The Sunshine Skyway is one of my favorite bridges, but I never in a million years thought I'd get this sort of photo angle, let alone at sunset.

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It's essentially an impossible shot to get unless you're on a cruise ship exiting at the right time.

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A wider shot including the front of the boat.

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Sunset over the Gulf...

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...and under the Skyway.

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The illusion of "we're gonna hit this, aren't we?" is fairly convincing.

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A look back at the bridge as we headed out to sea.

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A view back at the bridge from Deck 12. With that done, it was time for more concerts!

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Focus journeyed from the Netherlands for the cruise.

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Their lead guy (Thijs Van Leer) plays flute, organ, and yodels.

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Haken, a quickly-rising progressive metal band, makes their first of several appearances.

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An ode to 1985.

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When you're playing prog with an 80s influence, key-tars is back in style.

 

Day 2 -- February 8, 2017 -- Southbound at Sea

 

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There weren't many breaks in the schedule, but I found a few minutes to head out to the helipad at the bow of the ship.

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Translation: quit it, Kate and Leo.

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The view straight ahead.

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Here's District 97, a jazzy prog-metal band from Chicago.

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Vintage keyboards are an important part of prog.

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District 97's vocalist is Leslie Hunt, who was a contestant on Season 6 of American Idol.

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Went for the "behind the stage" view for The Neal Morse Band.

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Neal's most recent album is a 2-hour concept album, so the storytelling aspect even involved a few costume changes. The band split the album up in halves between their two concerts.

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Bassist Randy George.

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Guitarist Eric Gillette.

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Playing in the atrium: Electric Asturias, an all-instrumental band from Japan.

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For all the Japan lovers here at TPR, know this: of the bands I was unfamiliar with coming into the Cruise, these guys were my favorites, and I came away as a fan. Not only that, but they were very nice people and having a blast on the cruise. They even brought their own fans -- friends and family from Japan who made the trip with them.

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Yes is a band famed for many reasons -- as prog trailblazers in the 70s, for a short string of radio hits in the 80s, and for having more lineup changes and internal conflict than just about any band I can think of.

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The legendary Steve Howe.

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Geoff Downes, who was in The Buggles. Yes, those Buggles.

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Singer Jon Davison, who is very very very happy to see you.

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A bit of a sad note. Singer/bassist John Wetton was scheduled to be on board, but he lost a battle with cancer just a week before the cruise. Wetton was a famous figure in the prog community -- he'd played with just about everyone, but was best known as the lead singer of Asia. A close friend and associate of many Yes members and alumni, the band paid him tribute during the encore of their set.

Edited by The Great Zo
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Day 3 pt1 -- February 9, 2017 -- Cozumel

 

I've heard from many people that Cozumel isn't a very exciting port, but I was determined to make an adventure out of it. There was just one problem -- one of my favorite bands was scheduled to play at 2 PM, so I only had about five hours to spend, and I wanted to take a tour around the island. To make the most of my time, I opted to hire a private driver. It wasn't the cheapest solution, but it got the job done, and I saw just about everything on Cozumel that I wanted to see.

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A wake-up view over Cozumel from the balcony of my room.

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Exiting the Brilliance (right) with the Rhapsody parked on the other side. From here, I met up with my driver, and we started a whirlwind tour around the island.

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The first stop was a small cenote (El Aerolito) -- a natural spring found in the limestone.

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We headed to the south end of the Island to visit Punta Sur, whose translation is unnecessary.

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Punta Sur is a government-managed ecological park, sort of like a municipal park or state park would be in the US.

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The main attraction is the Faro Celarain lighthouse -- my #1 thing to visit on Cozumel.

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But first, I also visited a tower built over the lagoon on the inland side of the southern tip of the island.

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Since this is an ecological park, I was hoping to see some of the local wildlife.

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Also got a view over the waters of the lagoon.

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Looking north toward the rest of the island.

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Looking south over the small boardwalk near the tower.

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Looking east at the dusty, bumpy road along the beach.

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The lagoon was an interesting mix of mangroves and stunted tree growth.

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I found some birds, too. I have no clue what they are. Card, I'm going to need your help here!

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Most of them never came near the tower, so it was hard to see the details.

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I did get a shot of this one in flight.

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This is what I really came to see -- Cozumel has crocodiles! I only saw one, but I'd read that there are lots of them in the lagoon.

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Next, it was time to climb the lighthouse, Faro Celarain.

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This was a bit of a different experience than the typical lighthouse in the US.

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To start, the inside is completely concrete and not hollow.

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Next, to get outside at the top, you have to crawl through this tiny two-foot-tall opening. I don't think this would fly in the US.

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Most US lighthouses have the lens room set above the viewing platform, but it's on the same level here.

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Finally, the railing here is not among the higher lighthouse railings I've seen.

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The view? Spectacular. Should probably also mention this was my first time ever seeing the Caribbean Sea, which was as aqua/blue/teal/whatever as advertised.

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Looking over the lagoon.

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A view southwest toward the blue waters.

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Easy access to the beach. There's another difference -- this lighthouse is /very/ close to water level, while most US full-size tower lighthouses are built a little further back.

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Waves on the open sea.

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A small Mayan ruin. Not much, but it's something.

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The distance to wherever.

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Hey, there's the lagoon tower I was just at the top of.

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Punta Sur does have some beachfront area for those who just want to lounge around, like that place a ways in the distance.

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Way, way in the distance -- almost 15 miles away -- the cruise ships docked on the west side of Cozumel. One of those is mine!

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At the base of the lighthouse, there's also a museum. It's small, but does a good job explaining the history of Cozumel and its lighthouses.

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Back at ground level and making the short walk to the water.

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Cozumel's coast is intermittently rocky, and it was fun to watch the waves crash in.

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It might be dangerous to get much closer.

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Nonetheless, it was fun to watch.

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Cozumel is also known for snorkeling, but that's an activity I'd never tried before.

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A look up the north side of the beach, with the lagoon tower off in the distance.

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More local wildlife!

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Iguanas are very common on Cozumel, and I saw 3 or 4 of them.

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They seem pretty docile.

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Another species native to Cozumel, and all of Mexico. As I learned in 2015, the slug bug / punch buggy game is a guaranteed bruised arm in this country.

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From Punta Sur, we made a drive up the road that traverses the east side of Cozumel. A lot of tourists probably never make it to this side of the island, but it was a really beautiful trip -- essentially following the beach the whole way. This side of the island has no electricity -- after Hurricane Gilbert in 1988, the infrastructure was never rebuilt.

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My next stop was El Mirador, an area with some very interesting rock formations out into the sea.

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One of which has a flag planted on the top of it, which is always a good landmark for photography.

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Essentially, this is a spot on the beach where elongated rocks jut out from the beach about 100-200 feet into the water...

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...which makes for some more good "crashing waves" photos.

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Some of the rocks even form complete archways over the water.

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Walking around on top of the rocks is not easy -- they are jagged and full of holes. An easy way to twist an ankle, or worse.

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More scenes from El Mirador.

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Another big wave crashes in.

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Blue-green waters.

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North along the Caribbean coast.

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Can't complain about the weather, either. Actually, in my entire 21-day vacation, I only experienced rain for about an elapsed 20 minutes.

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Water pours off the rocks.

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Sea spray high into the air.

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Water and rocks and stuff.

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I should also mention that El Mirador, like several spots on the east side of the island, does have a few tacky tourist facilities surrounding it. It's easy to ignore them and simply head out to the water.

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Another big splash.

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Neat place, good for a quick visit.

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Next, we made our way into San Miguel, Cozumel's municipal seat and largest city by far. This was an interesting sight -- an airplane turned into a library / computer lab!

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Very resourceful, I think.

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We headed to downtown San Miguel and stopped to eat at La Choza. I'll be honest here: if I had more time to research this trip, I would have loved to find a real out-of-the-way locals place for lunch. That's a little more my style. That's not to knock this place, though, which was still quite good.

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I'd describe La Choza as a local restaurant that caters to tourists. It's a big step above all the tacky "margaritas the size of a bathtub" places along the main strip -- La Choza is a couple blocks off the water. Definitely a bit more authentic a menu, but a lot of "we just got off a cruise ship" people sitting at the tables!

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Though heavily infested by tourists and stores/restaurants I had no interest in, I did want to take a walk through downtown and the waterfront. Here's a statue of Benito Juarez.

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A tower in Cozumel's main square (Parque Benito Juárez).

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A dancing fountain at the center of the square.

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A commemorative

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At the middle, Cozumel's Punto Cero -- the island's "zero point" for surveying/measurement purposes. Actually, the real zero point is at a nearby intersection, but they decided this was close enough for commemorative purposes!

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A street scene along Av. Rafael E Melgar in Cozumel.

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A monument to Cozumel's coral reefs.

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Some neat detail on this art.

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Fish and coral!

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Also, a nice place for a view along the waterfront.

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Looking distantly to the northwest tip of Cozumel.

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Looking south at Cozumel's main ferry dock...

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...with boats heading over to mainland Mexico.

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Also, a pirate ship. Why not.

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Time was getting short, so I made my way back to the boat. I saw almost everything I wanted to see on Cozumel. One exception is the San Gervais ruins just east of San Miguel, which are the largest Mayan ruins on the island. I wouldn't have minded taking a little more time to see the other neighborhoods in the city, either. From everything I've read, Cozumel is actually a pretty safe place -- which is not necessarily true of the port cities across the water on the mainland.

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I guess this is how they hold these large boats in place.

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I did not cross the red line. I may have stuck a foot on the red line.

Edited by The Great Zo
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Day 3 pt2 -- February 9, 2017 -- Leaving Mexico

 

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Arriving back on the boat just after 130PM, I still made it to the pool deck just in time to get a front row spot.

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This is Spock's Beard -- named from the Star Trek episode where an alternate-universe Spock had a beard. They owned the distinction of being my #1 favorite band that I'd never before seen live. Check that off the list!

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Guitarist Alan Morse (brother of Neal Morse from earlier photos) plays his guitar without a pick.

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Bassist Dave Meros.

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Ryo Okumoto and Ted Leonard.

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This band is known for hamming it up on stage.

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That's especially true of Al...

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...and Ryo, who sometimes plays his keyboards like this.

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I should also mention that the pool stage was by far my favorite place for photography, because the natural sunlight made things much easier for a photographer with lower-end equipment! At night, the pool stage probably had the best stage lighting, also.

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It was great to be able to actually take pictures of concerts, and not worry about getting TSA-style strip searched before scanning your ticket.

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A quick look at two other parts of the ship I was excited for. First, the rock wall -- which was never open.

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Second, the 9-hole mini-golf course, which was completely self-serve!

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Not an awful course, but I mean, I'd just played a bunch of Congo River and Smuggler's Cove courses, so that's an unfair comparison.

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A look down at the port area where we docked -- which I walked in and out of as quickly as I could.

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Very, very busy security.

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I just have to say -- if you're cruising to a new place, and you get off the boat and go to Senor Frogs or Margaritaville, you're doing it wrong. Seriously, there's a whole world out there. Go see it. Even if you just do a cruise-organized excursion, get out and do something!

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A view north along the western Cozumel coastline.

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San Miguel is kind of hidden in this view thanks to the curvature of the coastline.

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Looking south, which is less densely populated, but has several all-inclusive resorts.

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Next up was the second Neal Morse Band show, again featuring Mike Portnoy on drums.

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Is he looking right into the camera?

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Mike was the busiest musician on the boat, playing about five hours of music in four days!

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The sun starts going down as we leave port.

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The moon rises over the clouds as we head north.

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Next up was Kansas, who haven't been through as many lineup changes as Yes, though it's getting close.

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Everyone knows Kansas for their handful of gigantic smash hits, but they've always been a progressive rock band at heart.

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What makes them unique is their incorporation of violin to their blend of heartland rock and progressive influence.

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My right-side balcony seat proved advantageous when lead singer Ronnie Platt came up for a verse!

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Kansas actually released a new album last year, and it's quite good. After some lineup changes in 2015 and 2016, they're in better musical shape than they've been for decades.

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Here's a second appearance for Haken, on an extremely windy pool stage.

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Also, some experiments with photography in the night-time stage lighting.

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Vocalist Ross Jennings lit up in blue.

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Drummer Ray Hearne under the lights.

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Keyboardist Diego Tejeida, usually smiling.

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Bassist Conner Green.

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Guitarist Charlie Griffiths.

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Guitarist Richard Henshall.

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His .strandberg* guitar is one of the strangest I've ever seen -- the frets are intentionally jagged (called True Temperament) which hurts my head just trying to think about playing it.

 

Day 4 -- February 10, 2017 -- Northbound at Sea

 

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The last day of concerts starts with another show by Spock's Beard.

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Dave Meros on bass.

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Alan Morse still hamming it up on guitar.

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Reflections on Ted Leonard's guitar.

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Ryo Okumoto is always having too much fun.

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Ryo and Al share a riff.

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Ryo plays to the crowd.

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Next up was Steve Hackett, legendary guitarist from Genesis -- you know, before all their radio hits in the 80s. His show consisted of both solo material and Genesis classics from the 70s.

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One of Steve Hackett's bandmates is Nick Beggs, who wears a kilt, and was in Kajagoogoo, thus making him automatically one of the most awesome people on the ship.

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Perhaps the most fun show of the cruise was Frost* -- yes, the asterisk is part of the band name.

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Bandleader and keyboardist Jem Godfrey is a pop music producer from the UK. That gives Frost* its defining key -- they blend modern pop production and styles with progressive rock tradition. The guy on the right is Nathan King, also a member of 80s funk/jazz band Level 42, and brother of their virtuoso bassist Mark King.

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Frost* is also one of the few bands to play nearly-completely different sets in both of their shows, and I was glad I got to see both of them.

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But what happens when there's a glitch and the keyboard has to be rebooted?

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You take a nap.

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You lay down on the job.

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You're on a cruise, so why not?

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If you're the drummer, you pretend to pack up and leave! These guys made some of the best music of the cruise, but their take-nothing-too-seriously attitude was a memorable factor.

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Finally, we get back to Mike Portnoy for the final concert of the cruise. In fact, Mike liked this picture so much, he took it from my Twitter account and used it himself without attribution! Fantastic!

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First up was a another one of Mike's older projects called Liquid Tension Experiment...

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...featuring King Crimson / Peter Gabriel bassist Tony Levin on bass...

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...and also on Chapman Stick.

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The band's original guitarist and keyboardist were not on board, so Eric Gillette (Neal Morse Band) filled in...

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...along with Diego Tejeida (Haken) on keys.

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The last segment of the show was the first ever complete performance of the 12 Step Suite, a five-song hour-long work that Mike penned for Dream Theater regarding his battle against alcoholism. This concert featured three vocalists, including Daniel Gildenlow...

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...Ross Jennings...

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...and Ted Leonard.

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Eric Gillette was back, as was Richard Henshall and all of Haken minus the drummer.

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That includes Conner Green...

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...and Charlie Griffiths, along with the previously pictured Diego Tejeida.

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A fantastic show -- and a very metal way to end the cruise.

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The last note had been played, the last band took a bow, and Cruise to the Edge was complete!

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On the morning of arrival in Tampa, this was the first scene out the window when I woke up on February 11. Not bad.

 

My trip did not end here, as this was before I made my way to Orlando, but my trip report will end here. It's fitting that a vacation with some time in Mexico will be my segue, as I will soon get back to work on a report from the 2015 TPR Mexico trip. My apologies for the lack of roller coasters in this segment of the TR, but hey, it was actually Robb who convinced me to post it so I guess I've got my excuse!

 

Thank you for reading. Seriously. These aren't quick hits, and I'm sure not everyone has the time to go through the whole thing, but I appreciate those of you who do. Until next time!

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These specialty concert cruises have been popping up a lot lately, seems like every other week or so I get an ad for a new one on social media. Seems like a lot of fun if you're really into the bands playing.

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Always a treat to read your Photo TR's Andy, especially when there's bonus hockey photos. Keep taking pictures and sharing.

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