Spring Break Road Trip to Florida

After much deliberation on whether we should fly to Florida, Mark, Meng and I embarked on our road trip from Pittsburgh to Miami, Florida and back. The price of renting a car is about the same as flying per person, and if you fly there, you still need a car to get around. Hence we decided to drive, although I’m the only one who loves driving. I like the freedom of being on wheels, and it’s 16 hours to Orlando which is quite a feat.

Day 1

So we drove our Volkswagen Beetle for about 8 hours to Gatlinburg, TN on the first day, to the foot of the Great Smokies, the most visited national park in the states. Driving through Pigeon Forge is like through a mini vegas-like strip, there are so many bogus brightly lit tourist-trap-like attractions along the way, including a Titantic, a Christ in the smokies, magic shows, etc. It’s hilarious. We stayed at a red carpet inn, which is cheap and decent enough.

Day 2: Great Smokies

The next morning, we were surprised by the crowds in the town. It’s certainly a touristy place. There were so many people queuing for the pancake pantry! We decided to drive out back to Pigeon Forge where it is less crowded. For some reason, it is pancakes land and everywhere else is selling pancakes. And so, we ate pancakes, and southern biscuits with gravy. It’s like the biscuits from Popeye’s, but they have this tasteless porridge-like gravy which I think is weird. But I still like the biscuit! After breakfast, we went to the Roving Motor trail, which is a one way driving trail through the forest. The map says there’s a trail to the forest, so we parked where everyone parked and hiked the trail to the Rainbow Falls. Little did we know that the trail is 5.6 miles back and forth, and it will take us at least 3-4 hours to finish it. But since 2 of us liked hiking, we decided to go for it anyway. The trail was uphill beside a few streams and there some nice bridges and trees. But we were not that equipped for hiking since we are like wearing jeans and normal shoes (although I had my timberland). But compared with Mount Kinabalu, this is nothing. Haha. After much perseverance and meeting many people along the way, we reached the falls. The interest curve for the hike wasn’t spectacular, but there’s a small section with a view. The falls is not that magnificent as expected, I wasn’t expecting a Yosemite. Nevertheless, it was a good exercise.

After that, we finally drove up the mountain route 441 to Newfound Gap, which is the mountain pass, peaking at about 3000 ft. At the summit, we were rewarded with a nice view of the Smokies mountain range, and we can see the mountains fading away into the horizon. Now, that’s what I call beautiful. After that, we began our 4-5 hour drive to Altanta, GA, our next stop point. We lost data signal with T-mobile after the mountains, and have to rely on instincts till we got signal for the navigation to work.

Arriving into the wide freeways of Atlanta reminded us of LA because of the carpool express lanes, the heavy fast traffic, and the sound of the round that keeps repeating. Downtown Atlanta looks boring and empty as usual, with some parts looking shady. Typical American urban diaspora. We checked in and drove around, walked around the Centennial Olympic park (Atlanta hosted Olympics in 1996), saw the Coke museum and Aquarium.

Day 3: Atlanta

The next morning, we ate Krispy Kreme donuts and I dropped my friends off at the coke museum, and I went to…passion city church! It is about 15 minutes drive from downtown, and I didn’t know they are megachurch size now. It was typical: huge parking lot with traffic ushers and a warehouse-like building. What was atypical was this huge 5-storey statue of a hand promoting their human slavery freedom movement. When I stepped into the building, I was filled with awe. The design was minimalist, with clean lines and colours. The auditorium was huge, probably sits 4-5k and they have 2 services. Someone else led worship along with Christy Nickels, and it was really good. We sang a couple of new songs, I’m Not Ashamed, Revive me, Your Love Never Fails. And just nice, they releasing their new album, White Flag, that weekend, and I could buy it for just $5! Louie Giglio preached about John 14, and that the plan of God is not to give you the plan of God, but to give you Jesus. It was really really bleased to be there. The lighting was cool too, they used many LED lights to create colour wash.

After church, I visited the coke store and bought some souvenirs. We then ate at Cracker Barrel, a diner recommended by Josh. The eggs Benedict was super awesome! Finally I have the chance to eat them here. Then, we began our 7 hour drive to Orlando, FL. The portion near the borders was pretty boring, the interstate is super straight, not scenic, no buildings, not much nature. Fortunately it has 3 lanes for easier overtaking. The Floridian part was pretty dead too as we were not driving near the coast. Finally we arrived in civilisation as we saw theme park, outlet malls, and houses. We are Orlando! The place we stayed in Kissimmeee has actually many gated communities. It is a rich neighborhood.

Day 4: Universal

The next day, we went to collect our tickets from Undercovertourist at the local UPS store, and we went to Universal Studios Islands of Adventure. The parking lot queue was typical: long and expensive at $15. The citywalk area is quite familiar with shops and cinemas. The theme park was very crowded! It was a nice spring sunny day with temperatures at 20-25 degrees. I haven’t perspired in the sun for such a long time haha. The Islands of adventure isn’t as big as I expected. It’s probably just slightly larger than Singapore’s. In fact, it is designed the same manner, a loop with a lake in the middle and the different worlds around it. The only difference is that they have a separate park which is the production houses and hollywood-themed area.

The first world we visit is the Wizarding World Of Harry Potter. It was pretty cool, it looks like the Hogsmeade neighbourhood in the movies and Hogwarts castle! It was super crowded with many people queuing for butterbeer, and so we did. It tastes like root beer with lotsa cream on top. Pretty good. We had to queue for more than an hour for the castle ride, even though we went by the single rider, but it was pretty good. It combines real moving props, with omni movie screens and a semi roller coaster ride which bumps up and down like a quidditch broom. The next ride we went was the dragon rollercoaster. There were fractions and we chose the Chinese fireball one. Actually the design of it is very similar to the battlestar galactica in Singapore, with two roller coasters side by side ascending together and passing one another. The ride was quite thrilling with a couple of loops and twists. Fun! After that we walked around the Dr. Seuss world, before watching the simbad live show. It is somewhat like the waterworld show in LA and Singapore. We walked to Jurassic Park but we didn’t take the ride as I already took it before and we didn’t want to get wet. We queued for the Spiderman 3D ride for like 2 hours?! We strategised and 2 of us went to take Dr. Doom’s drop tower first which had a shorter queue. I always loved the adrenaline rush and the screaming at a drop tower. It is a stress relieving machine. Still the Spiderman queue took like forever to get into the Daily Bugle themed building. Apparently, the new transformers ride in Singapore is based on this rose’s technology: semi roller coaster with giant 3D screens that brings you into the worlds and see Spiderman fight the victims in the “Scoop” vehicle. The interest curve was not bad, and I like the immersive experience. I must say the instructions cartoon is quite lame and funny. The last ride which we wanted to take was the Incredible Hulk roller coaster. We tried the single rider lane but it actually took longer. When it was almost our turn, the ride broke down! Talk about right place right time: if we had went by the regular queue, I could have been in the roller coaster that was stuck on the incline. We could see the workers escorting the riders down the stairs. It looked a little scary. We decided to not wait anymore for the ride. Sad. 4 rides and 2 shows in 8 hours.

I ate dinner at the foot court, and the next highlight was the blue man show! We managed to get college student discount at only $34 instead of the usual $90+. It is the best musical/concert/comedy/circus/performance I watched, well worth the price! They are very creative and there was lots of audience interaction. I love the invisible silent emcee at the start: the LED ticker tape. It’s amazing how scrolling words can interact with an audience. Within minutes, we were waving hi to some guests, wishing a birthday girl and clapping and cheering to…a ticker. It was hilarious. I also loved the LED screens used in the background of all the performance. They were very dynamic and cool. The blue men would walk to the audience and pick up random people to do tasks, such as acting with them on stage, body painting, etc. I also liked their satire and parody of the Gipad (iPad), the rock concert movements generalisation, etc. There was one part where there were bouncing balls and everyone was asked to stand up and shake our butts and dance. Haha. The lighting and video effects were pretty well done too, there were some parts which filmed the audience as we interacted, and there was one part with a camera pointing to someone’s mouth and it cuts to a video of the camera going deep into the stomach. Amusingly seemingly real. On the whole, the interest curve kept peaking. I think it’s more interesting than a Broadway play.

Day 5: Disney

Today is Disney. We ate at Perkin’s for breakfast, but it isn’t as nice as Cracker Barrel. It is slightly more expensive as well.We didn’t go to magic kingdom but we decided to try DisneyQuest in downtown Disneyworld. Disneyworld is HUGE! It is like a self-contained town with multiple theme parks, lakes, hotels, buses and even a monorail. One good thing about the downtown place is that parking is free. Haha. We shopped a little before going into the indoor amusement park. The highlight is the Pirates of the Carribean thing designed by Jesse Schell, an ETC faculty. It is a ship simulator with 180 panorama view with 3 projector screens. There was a steering wheel and throttle, just like my BVW naive user round! Haha. Next was a river rafting simulator, and HMD Aladdin carpet, which was quite dizzy and disorientating. The best thing I think is the cyber spacemountain, in which you can design your own roller coaster, and then ride it on the simulator. So if there’s any upside downs, it really goes upside down! My friend designed a 4 out of 5 thrillometer one which was pretty crazy. The only thing lacking is the free fall feeling.

We only spent 4 hours at Disneyquest, cos the rest of it was mostly arcade games. Next, we drove to the town of Celebration, which is a Disney-designed real living town (thanks to www.mousesavers.com for the tip). The architecture is clean and theme-park-like, reminds you of the picture perfect streets in Desperate Housewives or Mayberry. The main street is pretty nice with some shops in front of the lake. It was a good hidden find as it wasn’t very crowded, and we ate at this pretty authentic Thai restaurant (which is quite out of place). I like this place.

When the sun set, we went to the Disney Boardwalk to take the free ferry to Epcot. We saw the fireworks at 9pm behind some very strategically placed trees. Haha. But it was still near enough and not too bad, although we couldn’t hear the music and sound effects. Next, we drove up to Contemporary Hotel to catch the Magic Kingdom Wishes fireworks. There were a bunch of people crowded around the 4th floor observation deck, as well as the stairwells above it. The good thing is that the music is piped to the speakers there. The bad thing is that the stupid monorail viaducts blocked some of the view, and the angle is slightly skewed so it is not directly behind the castle. Later we took the monorail to the Polynesian Resort where there is an artificial beach to view the fireworks as well. It is much further away from the castle as it is on the other side of the lake, but it is a clear unblocked view. I’m proud that I managed to find a back exit route out of Disneyworld to avoid the jams.

Day 6: Legoland

On our last day in Orlando, we went to Legoland! We ate BK breakfast, and they have sausage with biscuits too. Managed to save parking charges at Legoland by parking for free at the strip shopping mall across the road. I didn’t know Legoland was that kiddy until now. We were seriously overaged for it lol. Most of the people there were family with kids! Haha. And the rides are very kid-friendly as well, the most intense roller coaster was nothing compared to the Universal one: no upside downs and twists. The shows were also quite cheesy, the pirates one had some water skiing stunts with people dressed up as Lego figurines so it wasn’t that bad, but the city one have some lame firemen playing with water. We couldn’t sit any of the driving school rides as they were for kids. The Lego technic and coastersaurous roller coasters were not bad. The castle and Egyptian themed worlds were so-so. The main attraction was miniland, where they have mini replicas of landmarks around the states, all made with Lego! Pretty amazing to see very detailed models of New York city, San Francisco and other major cities. They even programed some cars and figurines to move in them. The 4D shows were also not bad, they had no dialogue conversations but they depicted the stories pretty well. The 3D effects were pretty well done.

At night, we tried to search for an A&W nearby but it no longer exists. Sad. So we found a Captain D, which is quite similar to Long John Silver’s but much greater selection and bigger portions. In fact, I think it is pretty decent good fast $8 seafood platter with fish, crab, shrimps, and “hush puppies” potatoes. After dinner, it was another long 4-hour boring drive to Miami. We had to drive a non-toll route as the Florida turnpike in Miami uses electronic devices like our ERPs. While driving inside greater Miami, there were so many police cars…I spotted at least 10!

Day 7: Miami Beach

In the morning, we drove to Miami Beach and parked at a garage which was strangely cheaper than the street parallel parking. Unfortunately, the clouds came and started to pour just after we were taking pictures at the beach. Walking along the touristy Lincoln mall with all the expensive shops was pretty boring. The rain came and left and came and left. Later we managed to walk along the beach again. It was quite quiet and peaceful, although not picturesque. After that, we drove to downtown to see the bayside marketplace. As expected, it was nothing much. We took the free metromover around, which is very similar to our LRT. Saw the arena which Hillsong United had their live recording. Other than that, nothing much. At night, we drove to little havannah to eat at an authentic Cuban restaurant called Versailles. It was huge and pretty awesome. I had grilled chicken which has very flavourful seasoning, and my friends had some imperial rice which is like fried rice. The food is slightly different from Mexican, slightly similar to Indian cos of the balsmanti rice. Now, this was the only worth-it thing in Miami! At night, we drove 3-4 hours northwards towards Titusville.

Day 8: Kennedy Space Center

Kennedy is Orlando’s “space coast”, where NASA headquarters is. (Thanks to penny for the tip.) The tour was very interesting, as the bus would bring you around the facilities and tell you where are the space shuttles launched from and how the launch pad works. Too bad the space shuttle program has ended. The coolest part was to visit the Apollo Saturn V facility, where the actual Saturn V rocket is on exhibit, the one which brought man to the moon. There were many video and multimedia presentations of how they launch the rockets, with some sadness about Apollo 1. We also watched an IMAX 3D movie of the Hubble space telescope. Looking at the stars makes you wonder about God’s creation as indescribable. Another cool thing was the space shuttle launch simulator, which is like a theme park ride thing. You sit in a capsule and it tilts upwards and rocks to simulate a shuttle rocket launch. They even have a FOD warning haha. Pretty awesome. The effects and lighting were well done, and the interest curve peaked well at the end. The space shop is quite cool, they have space foods and space blanket. We also visited the Hall of fame, which was more like a museum.

After NASA, we drove up to check out Daytona Beach. Wrong place wrong time again: it was bike week! There were hundreds of bikes everywhere and we couldn’t find a parking space. We had to park pretty far from the main pier, and we walked to the shore and take a look. The beach is definitely nicer with finer sad, and more happening than Miami. You can even drive on it. Later, we found the A&W nearby, which is strangely integrated with a Long John Silver’s. Sadly, there’s no curly fries. But root beer float and chilli cheese fries are good nevertheless. After dinner, we drove 3 hours north to Kingsland, GA where we stayed for the night.

Day 9: Savannah

We planned to see the St Patrick’s Day parade in Savannah which was 2 hours north. But it was super crowded and messy, all the parking garages were full, and the street parking were full too. I had a strange encounter with the policeman. He claimed that I almost knocked into him which I don’t think I did. He gave me a verbal warning, saying that if I don’t know how to drive, I shouldn’t. Thank God for favour in times of adversity. I was pretty nervous. In the end, we decided to get out of the place. Sad that we cannot see people in green doing crazy things.We drove to SC and had a brunch buffet at Shoney’s. It was a sumptuous one for only $7.99, with breakfast stuff like eggs, Bacon, biscuits, waffles, and lunch stuff like chicken, soups, salads and ice cream. The fried chicken was very juicy and tasty like KFC. Pretty worth it for lunch. We also saw a fireworks shop, which is an eye opener. In some states, you can set off your own fireworks! No need to wait for countdown on new year’s day. Hah. After that, we began our 11 hour chiong back to Pittsburgh and hence I have time to type this. The Virginian mountains were pretty scenic.

Another sad thing that happened was that the USB cigarette lighter charger broke down, and we couldn’t charge our phones for the GPS. Fortunately, we have 3 phones to take turns.

Pittsburgh is warming up for spring! It’s like 20 degrees now. Woohoo.

First half of CMU ETC “Boot Camp”

So seven weeks have passed and now finally it is spring break! It has been a tough and long first half of the semester, for we have been working for 7 days a week without much of a break, thanks to BVW.

We had 4 rounds of BVW so far. In the first round, my group had to use the kinect to create a world to guide a character to achieve his goal. Our first interim build was badly criticised, but we worked hard in changing our kinect mechanics from just gestures to full body mapping, and managed to pull it off in the final round with some praise. In the second round, which is probably my best so far as I had a pretty good team to work with. Everyone is skilled at what they were doing, and it was quite easy to come to an agreement during our meetings. It was a naive guest round, and my team decided to make use of the commonly understood mechanism of a steering wheel and throttle to control a steampunk style airship. With the use of cloudstoy, L3DT and contrast enhancement in unity, we managed to create a beautiful world which allows the guest to drive through floating islands to collect gold. My teammates also made additions to the pirate ship wheel prop we had, creating a throttle which can store a Wiimote. Our naive guest successfully finished the map without any troubles, praise God! Anthony Daniels (the voice and actor behind C3PO) was present, and he tested our builds and said that it was absolutely wonderful. In our third lightning round, we had to build a multiplayer game on the jamodrum within one week, and my team decided to use the wheels of the drum to control the turntable of – my favourite – trains! There are four drums and hence four turntables, and the coloured trains will spawn randomly, and they have to be guided to the correct coloured tunnel. We had a lot of favour with the professors as they liked the mechanism, as we are controlling something other than the moving object. They felt that it had potential to be expanded to a bigger game. And our fourth round, which is a second lighting round, we had to develop another game in one week, this time my group chose the playstation move. We decided to do a multiplayer rock climbing game, controlling only the 2 hands of a ragdoll, similar to GIRP. We made it comical and added powerups to the holds, so that you can climb faster or throw eggs at the other player. Haha. Our professors liked the idea although one of them didn’t get the eggs thing. Haha. The class was laughing a lot as the ragdoll was very funny as it maneuvered up the rocks.

The other time consuming but enjoyable module was Visual Story, which is about filmmaking. Our first assignment was creating a promotional video of our team: loose screws factory. We had a reverse asylum idea and we filmed what we were crazy about. As for me, it was maps! Haha. Our second assignment was retrofit, which is to readapt a movie scene and recreate it in (almost) exactly the same manner. And so we chose Stranger Than Fiction. Initially we wanted to ask Don, our professor, to act for us. But he was too busy. So we had to use our backup plan: act in a penguin suit! One of my teammates gladly volunteered for it, and it turned out to be pretty good and funny! We also managed to get Anthony Daniels to be the narrator! It was very amazing to see him do what he does best: voice narration in the sound booth. I also managed to get his autograph and see him speak on C3PO voice animatedly. He is hilarious and I think I’ll miss him.

As for fundamentals, we had an adventure module (see other post). So far, Don has been a funny lecturer, teaching us the fundamentals of theatre and plot. The last class is improvisational acting, in which we learn what people do in whose line is it anyway. Each class, we learnt how to make one another look good, and how to help to progress the story and assume everything that is said is true.

Another small interesting thing that happened was that we had to create resumes as part of our class, and apparently my resume format was recognised as one of the best, and the staff kept telling everyone to follow my resume, and in the end, everyone sort of saw and followed my resume format and ended up looking like mine. Haha.

After coming into ETC, I realised that the headfake, as Randy would say, is not creating video games, but to teach you how to work in teams with different kinds of people. There’s not much teaching or learning of technical skills here, you are expected to be already good at what you are doing, and then work in teams to create things which you cannot do alone. The things we learn are just additional “surface pleasures” that make our games and interactive experiences better. I’m still not sure if that is good or bad for me, I would just see where God leads me to. I’m sure there’s a reason for me to be here. It is tiring to work 7 days a week without a sabbath now, and I’m not really liking it. There are also not many film projects, but only one or two special effects one approved each semester. The only hopeful stuff is that there are future film-related projects which are to be tied up with some local studios in Pittsburgh and New York, which seem pretty promising. I can’t wait to get out of cold and boring Pittsburgh! It’s trying too hard to be the most liveable city yet it doesn’t have all the happenings of a city and doesn’t have all the charms of a suburban town. The most happening event I went is the free cultural district gallery open house and the Distant Worlds concert. Other than that, the downtown is pretty dead on weekends.

One of the other ironies is that in NUS, we tend to not interact with people from other nationalities unless absolutely necessary, but now in ETC, we are forced to interact with them and some of them have become my best friends. Being able to speak another common language, like Chinese, helps too. It is fun to share our cultures, to tell the Indians that I love Indian food, share steamboats with the Chinese, and also makes me proud to be a Singaporean at times.