Disney World vacation recap

Now that we've returned from Disney, several people have asked us how the vacation was, and what did we think of Walt Disney World. Overall the trip was fantastic, and it was really nice to be able to turn my brain off for hours at a time. (Those that are self-employed know what I mean.) My best memory of the trip isn't so much of Disney itself, but rather the expressions of wonderment on the faces of Greta and Dirk. You can see some genuine smiles in the photo gallery. They were loving it! And, as a parent of young children, when your kids are happy, you are generally happy.

The fun started at the new Indy airport. Both Greta and Dirk have flown before, but Greta was glued to the window this time. And Dirk was fascinated by going "super-fast". We spent 7 days/6 nights at WDW and I couldn't help but be impressed by the well-oiled machine it is. Everything is designed to make you forget that there is a real world just outside of the property. And logistically, the U.S. Army has met it's match. Once we'd checked our luggage in Indy, we didn't see it again until it arrived magically in our room at the Wilderness Lodge. The resort resembles a Lincoln Log fortress, complete with a mountain stream, scenic waterfalls, and a hot springs geyser. We opted for the meal plan, which I would recommend if it's in your budget.

The parks themselves are like Las Vegas for children. An abundance of color, sound, and smell all compete for your attention. In most cases this formula works -- there are ample distractions while you're standing in line or waiting for a show to start. In my opinion, the shows and parades are worth the price of admission. The best ones are comparable to good Broadway plays shrink-wrapped into 20 minutes. The shows for Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King should not be missed. Many of the 3D attractions are also top notch and were a lot of fun for the kids. Greta's first roller-coaster experience was the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, which is also one of my childhood memories of Magic Kingdom.

Epcot was our favorite theme park. They have a section of the park dedicated to many countries of the world. Our German heritage wouldn't let us pass up an opportunity to eat at the Biergarten Restaurant where Oktoberfest is recreated Disney-style. Our family enjoyed polka dancing, and we returned home with an authentic Bavarian hand-made cuckoo clock. I'm not sure I'm ready to return anytime soon, but I'm glad we went!

Swing thoughts for better photos

Visitors to our site are usually very complimentary of the photographs. I'm often asked if I went to school for photography or if I have a really great camera. Sometimes people will say, "I could never take pictures like that." The truth is that you can. I didn't go to photography school and I don't have a great camera, but my design background gives me an eye for this sort of thing. Here are some simple swing thoughts — pardon the golf analogy — that you can use next time you find yourself pushing the shutter release.

  1. Frame your subject.
    If you do nothing else, do this. Look at the area around your subject. Are you cutting off the feet, but leaving an abundance of sky? Or, are you chopping off an elbow on the left while leaving enough room for a small mammal on the right? Software makes it easy to fix these problems using a crop tool, but you should give yourself a head-start. You'll end up with higher-quality photos because your camera will be more successful auto-focusing on your subject.
  2. Change your perspective.
    The human brain wants to filter out sameness. Make your photos stand out by changing the angle at which you shoot your subjects. It seems like the majority of photos I see of kids are shot from above. That makes sense... an adult who is over 5 feet tall is looking down at a child who is 3 feet tall. Change it up a bit. Squat down and shoot from a lower perspective. Your photo will stand-out because it's not the same.
  3. See the background separately.
    Before you push the shutter release, study the background. Are there trees growing out of the heads of your subjects. How about unsightly power lines? Move left or right a couple of paces to give your photos a more professional appearance.

Give it a try. You'll be shooting like a pro in no time.

A new blog for a brave new world

Astute observers might notice something different. No, it's not that we have a new President-elect. Give up? It's a new blog with 21st century features such as commenting and RSS feeds. I know a lot of our readers aren't technophiles, so I'll keep it simple. If you read or see something you like, you can leave us a message directly on the web site. And, if you use a news aggregator such as Google Reader, you can add our RSS feed. Don't worry, the photographs are still the main focus, and I'll continue to update them frequently.

So what's the big deal about these new features? The old blog was a one-page static web site that I cobbled together over a weekend several years ago. It was cumbersome to update, didn't encourage feedback, and wasn't very user- or internet-friendly. Our development team at Rare Bird is evaluating a new programming framework, so I thought reworking the family blog would be a great opportunity for me to kick the tires of the new software as well as reap some benefit for doing so. I plan to use my corner of the site to blog about the experience from a technical standpoint without adding cruft to the family posts.

Pippen the kitten

After a couple months of searching, Mel found us an orange tabby kitten to adopt. She e-mailed the adoption agency at 11 p.m. last night and got a reply back letting us know that he'd be available at a local pet store in the morning. So far, Pippen has been very interactive with the kids. I hope he stays that way – Oliver and Kitty were very aloof around them.

We recently took a weekend road trip to Southeastern Iowa to see Ben's Mom. She helps maintain a farm run by her brother and his wife (Ben's Aunt and Uncle). We visited during the peak of lambing season (see slideshow for pics). The hillsides were littered with hundreds of ewes and baby lambs — some lambs were only hours old!

On our return, we detoured through Chicago to visit Mel's sister's family for a short visit. We left Chicago at sunset and had a great view of the skyline as we drove back home. For an hour, we tried to make Greta understand how tall the Sears Tower was. It can be hard explaining abstract concepts to kids.

Valentine's Day get-a-way

Winter at our house has been a dreary, soupy mess. It seems like Indianapolis has had it's fair share of snow this year, only to be followed by freezing rain, frigid wind-chills, torrential downpours, and/or unseasonably warm weather. As a result, we've been cooped-up inside for most of the winter. So imagine our excitement at today's forecast: Sunny, an afternoon temperature of 35° with no wind to speak of. Combine that with a visit from Mel's younger brother Michael and his wife Julie. Even better! Dirk still isn't too sure about the snow, but Greta certainly feels right at home.

For Mel's birthday, we were able to sneak away to Brown County for the weekend. We spent the weekend at the historic Story Inn, a converted general store from the late 1800's. No phones. No television. Only peace and quiet. Thanks for watching the kids, Grandpa and Grandma!