Posted in Lights, Camera, Universal!

Twas The Night Before Grand Opening

Twas the night before grand opening

Of Volcano Bay

I took a few moments 

To go out and play.

My last night jobless is finally here

Small paychecks are something I wil no longer fear.

I had weeks of training 

And role-playing too

I have my uniform hung 

All shiny and new

 A career I was told I could never return 

Is now the reality that took guts to earn

My products of plenty greet me on screen

My sales pitch is memorized 

It’s no longer a dream.

The volcano has risen

The wave pool is full

The slides are a plenty 

For fellow islanders to rule

There’s scrumptious food

And ice cream to eat

My visitors will sure be in for a treat

Things will be their best on opening day

Despite all the obstacles along the way 

But with a few great friends and managers by my side

I believe all will turn out just fine

Well folks, we made it

Our time is near

The grand opening of Volcano Bay is finally here

Now the only thing that will be my foe

Is surviving the coaster of Krakatau.

Posted in Cast Member Chronicles, Lights, Camera, Universal!, Overcoming Adversity

One More Week…

The hardest part of my journey over the last few months has been to learn to cope with the fact that we all need a little help sometimes, and that often when we get in a comfortable position, we tend to take the stuff we love and need for granted.

Losing my job at Disney had to have been one of the worst things that’s ever happened to me. Never in my life would I have imagined the hell that would become of my life for almost a good year now. Living off super tiny paychecks and unemployment, as well as taking in RJ partially on nights he works in exchange for survival cash, was definitely not the life I wanted to live. I’m an independent woman, but I felt like I got tossed back into the darkness. 

Life played out like a nightmare I constantly have. In the nightmare, I am a successful business person or graduating college, only to be pulled aside at random and told that there was an error in my records, forcing me back into highschool and having to do the whole thing over again. Just as I was in my prime, everything I worked for was taken away.

I sit here today glancing over my pay stub for the week, yet another check that doesn’t exceed $100, mostly because I’ve been in training one day a week or so for the past month. 

Normally, I find myself in a deep depression over the fact that I can barely buy food let alone pay my bills. I pray every single day that I never have to deal with this again. I wish with all my might that this will be the last really bad paycheck for a while, and yet my wish never comes true. Although I’ve had some decent paychecks since making the move to the new park and picking up seasonal work, the results are often short lived. 

I look at this last paycheck and smile. 

Because after 8 months of suffering, trying to prove my worth to others, dealing with collection calls, and living off Dollar Store food, it’s all come to an end.

Next week, my park will officially be open. I will finally have regular work again for the first time in almost a year. I can finally gain the independence back that I craved for so long. I found a place where my career can grow, where for once, I truly feel accepted. 

Six months ago when I walked out of Disney for good, I thought my life was over.

Turns out my life is just beginning.

In this rather tough journey, I found out who my true friends are, to appreciate the small things in life, and most importantly, not to take life for granted. I’ve learned to take the struggles head on, knowing as bad as things can get, with a little help from the people you love, and sometimes the ones you least  expect, anything and everything is possible. 

Although I still have one really tough week ahead of me, I know, like everything I lived through, it’s only temporary.

In the meantime, I’ll have one more helping of ramen please.

Posted in Lights, Camera, Universal!, News and Opinions

Tapu into Accessibility, The Theme Park Wearable Review 

Author’s NoteThis is just my experience as a test subject for new technology coming into Volcano Bay. As always with new technology, it’s always changing and evolving, especially with it being part of a new theme park experience. This is just my first impression, as things might change within the coming weeks. There is only so much I can share due to confidentiality reasons, but the info on the wearable shared is common knowledge already covered in the media. This is my experience with it. Yours may differ unpon entering the actual park when it opens May 25.

As many of you know who have been following the development of Universal’s newest park Volcano Bay, you will come to find yourself staring at what appears to be a wrist watch that’s supposed to replace standing in line.

TapuTapu Wearables

This little device is called TapuTapu, and like it’s very similar yet distant cousin the Disney MagicBand, it gives you the opportunity to reserve your place in line for rides so you don’t have to stand there all day. Disney’s MagicBand system works more like a free FastPass that you could only use if the ride is offering a time slot. The flaw in that system is that spaces become unavailable for a same-day visitor since certain guests are able to book months ahead of time. Universal’s TapuTapu system puts you in a virtual line so no matter what time you came in, you have a return time and don’t need to waste time standing around all day. This gives you the opportunity to go play in the lazy river or the wave pool, maybe even go grab a bite to eat. The TapuTapu will let you know via  vibration and a message on an LCD screen that your spot in line is ready for you to go up and enjoy, a perk that MagicBand doesn’t offer since you have to mentally keep track of your times or use a phone app.

As a recent test subject for TapuTapu, as well as being a former cast member at Disney who has used the MagicBand, each system has had it’s fair share of pros and cons when it comes to accessibility for those with disabilities. When working at Disney, I had several guests with sensory processing issues complain about wearing a wearable on their wrist. Just recently, Disney introduced The MagicBand 2, with the option to pop out the middle of the band with the guests’ tickets and FastPass information and securely place it into a keychain or a medallion that could be hung around the neck or held on a purse or belt buckle. 

Comparison in design between MagicBand and MagixBand 2

Unfortunately, there has yet to be an option for TapuTapu, other than a parent or caregiver carrying the wearable for them, which for older children and adults, can lead to a feeling of lost independence.

Same goes for my situation as someone legally blind. Although the wearable has tactile feedback in terms of vibration, the visuals on the wearable’s screen are a tad small. The only thing that was legible for me upon testing the wearable is the wait time, which is written in bold font. But the name of the ride is written so small, I fear that either I will forget what ride I tried to get on, or possibly wander so far to the park, I’ll get lost. 

From what I have heard, provisions have been put into place so that you are not rushed to get back into that line, unlike how it works with the MagicBands, where after about 15 minutes past your time, you’re pretty much out of luck and have to book another spot if it’s available. You also have the opportunity to change what ride you want to go on just by tapping the wearable to the totem kiosk at the entrance of the ride. No need to go to a centralized kiosk, like that other band.

Another issue I have come across is a minor one but could lead to issues with people who have learning disabilities. Given the park has a very thick Polynesian theme, the names of the rides are often hard to pronounce, and unless you have a really visual memory, navigating back to your original ride could prove difficult. Luckily, there are large maps throughout the park in case such a thing happens. But to those who are visually or cognitavilyy unable to read maps, this won’t be much help, unless the map has an interactive future similar to both Disney and Universal’s phone apps that give you step by step instructions or visual cues to where you want to go. Obviously, carrying your phone around most likely will be cumbersome in a park like this, given that it is a water park.

As a person with a disability, using wearables in theme parks have its fair share of issues, and although in a technical sense Universal has a more advanced wearable, it’s still isn’t as easily accessible in terms of the MagicBand 2, given their feature of comfort for those with sensitivity processing issues. And from visual impairment standpoint, the TapuTapu needs a lot of work, since that tiny little screen replaces the accessibility of a phone or a tablet when it comes to keeping track of your ride times. Making that screen text larger will make all the difference, as would the potential of making it audible for those who can’t read it at all for one reason or another. Even setting up special totem stations that will read the wearable aloud to you would be a great workaround on that, especially if going the route similar of a talking watch won’t do.

After testing, I was able to speak to a gentleman who works on the project. His reply was that ” Since day one of testing the prototypes, we have known accessibility was a bit of an issue. Although plans are in place for such situations, most likely they won’t be ready by grand opening day. But rest assured, they are coming.”
I have worked on both parks during the inception of their wearables and bands and change does come quick as technology advances. In the meantime, team members will be on hand to assist anybody who needs it. Although the workarounds might give a very independent disabled person the feeling of lost independence,  the same goes for any visitor who finds themselves at Volcano Bay. The park is one of its kind and quite possibly the first in the world to utilize such a system as a Virtual Line. With patience and some feedback, which I gave plenty during the testing, Universal will lead the way in making an enjoyable park experience for anybody and everybody.

Volcano Bay, the first theme park with a complete virtual line experience. Opening May 25
Posted in Lights, Camera, Universal!, Nerdy and Nifty, Out and About in Orlando

Let’s Hear It For Jimmy!

Ever since I was little, I always wanted to attend a taping of a TV show first hand. A few years ago, I was able to do the TODAY Show, and this week, I was able to do the Tonight Show. Might as well complete the NBC talk show cycle, right?

My first day wasn’t all fun and games (okay, that’s kind of a lie.) It was actually kind of fun.I got to work the event as an extra hours event guide, since me working the parades somehow made me eligible for special events and some productions, despite not being fully trained. The good thing about this was that I was able to watch the production surrounding the new ride as it was happening, more specifically, this segment with Blake Shelton. Although my job was to keep people from taking pictures of the taping, it was pretty hard not to fan girl out. 

After work was over, I was able to take a quick shower and head off to the concert. Surprisingly, I was able to get pretty close up to the front, even though I was the last person in the holding pen. Not too shabby.

Despite my crappy budget phone, I was still able to get a decent picture of Blake in his hunky country glory. And the added bonus of Jimmy and Blake performing a mash up of random songs at the end made the night even more special. My phone died before then, but you can check out this video by YouTuber Amandahope1981. It was quite a treat to see these two have a little fun.

The next day was a day of rest, as I didn’t wander into the park until about 5:30pm. By then, Jimmy was in the middle of his monologue filming in the Blue Man Group theater (I wasn’t lucky enough to grab tickets) and he was nowhere in sight. But at least I was able to hang out with Hashtag the Panda for a bit. Here we are, channeling our inner Frankenstein. 

After playing with a panda for a bit, I found myself back in the pen for the next concert, Flo-Rida, 99 Percent, and The Roots. 

A few minutes before they opened up the pen, there was a Jimmy Fallon sighting, and the crowd went nuts. People in the pen ran out to chase Jimmy, just as they cleared out, we got released into the music plaza.

Hello, front row!

Never thought in a million years, I would be front row for anything. For a legally blind nerd like me, this is a dream come true. 

The spot I had for Flo’s performance of “Cake” made way for some great close ups of Fallon and the gang in action. 

Well, it’s the dawn of the third day of my Fallon Journey, and I found myself in the “nosebleeds” of grand opening day. Also known as general admission. There was a sweepstakes for the VIP access to the red carpet, and despite entering every single team member and random Facebook giveaway I could find, I was unsuccessful. 

But that still wasn’t necessary a bad thing.

The only saving grace was being able to spot Higgins and The Roots from atop a parade float. That sort of counts, right?

Listening to Jimmy give his speech prior to cutting the ribbon was nothing short of touching. You could almost hear him trying not to cry as he thanked his family and the team members who worked to make his dream a reality. The story behind the ride started off with rejection from the creative director for the parks, Mark Woodbury six years ago. After a few years passed and Jimmy got promoted to the Tonight Show, his idea for a ride that pays tribute to New York City was resurrected and Race Through New York was born. 

Proof that second chances do exist and that great ideas never die.

As I was leaving the area, something told me to go back.I don’t know why I chose to do this, since Jimmy and the gang were heading backstage and nothing special or exciting was happening.

And then I bumped into Tim Tracker, a well known YouTuber, and one of my favorites. 

Guess fate works in mysterious ways.

Needless to say, this week has been one of the best weeks of my life. As much as I wanted to leave Florida behind after the events that unfolded the last few months, I have come to the conclusion that I have indeed found my home. I am beyond thankful for all the amazing opprotunities I have had with Universal and can’t wait to see what my next adventure holds for me at Volcano Bay.

Posted in Lights, Camera, Universal!, Overcoming Adversity, Pondering about PTSD, The Billy Blogs

Mandy’s Inferno

“Remind me that the most fertile lands were built by the fires of volcanoes.”

-Andrea Gibson

I spent most of my writing and blogging career chronicling the trials and tribulations of me and Bill, star crossed lovers from age, disability, and location standpoints. I told our stories, both good and bad, in hopes that one day, we could of paved the way for other disabled folks to get married and live that fairy tale life. 

But as of last month, I feel like a fraud. 

I had a few really bad months under my belt due to job loss and financial hardship, having my friend RJ help me out in exchange for a place to stay on nights he would work late. Not a choice I wanted to make, but it was that or risk homelessness.

Of course, Bill was never able financially to help me, only to be my cheerleader in my time of great crisis. His disabilities meant he wouldn’t be able to move down to Florida for me, and he encouraged me to move in with him.

As magical as it would of been to be with the one I love, I couldn’t do it. The idea of living off benefits and having the potential of being cared for by staff, although ideal, would of been the death of me. It was a life he knew all too well, and the only life he has known, but for me, it wasn’t enough unless it was a last resort before moving back in with mom and dad. 

I wrote about us constantly, and now without him, I feel lost. For every share of an old story, I feel like a liar. For the presenting I have done and will be doing, I feel like life with him was just a figment of my imagination, a folk tale as big as Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox.

Without him, life erupted, and everything I thought we had was destroyed.

I often wondered what he must be going through right now, how hurt he must be, or if he even misses me. Or am I just that annoying phone call in the middle of a Titanfall marathon? Who knows?

A friend from my Disney Days now works as a staff person for a house up north not too far from Bill, and she was able to update me on what’s going on.

Apparently to Bill, I “cheated on him with RJ,” a far cry from the truth since RJ knows I’m still head over heels for the guy and wants me to figure things out on my own. 

No matter what I do for Bill, whether it be an email, text, Skype, or voicemail, it just doesn’t seem like enough to convince him to forgive me, or at least give me the closure I need so I can focus on other things. 

It makes me look like the bad guy. It also makes me feel like one too.

As Mardi Gras season comes to a close tomorrow for me, the anxiety of going to a whole new park grows more and more each day. Watching that Volcano manifest from the side of the highway gives me both comfort and sadness, fear that I did this whole thing for my own gain and not his, and joy that I will finally be able to get my life back together again.

Volcano Bay from the highway.

If only Bill could give me that one chance to prove that this was all worth it and forgive me. If only he could be proud of me and not ashamed. If only he knew the amount of courage it takes to keep going amongst all the hardships I outnumbered the last few months. If only he could understand.

But the question remains, does he understand? Is he able to? Or are my pleas for his acceptance just falling into the lava? 

If only I could find that acceptance in myself as this new journey beckons instead of relying on him. I want to be excited for this new opportunity, but I feel already burned out.Not that the job is bad or anything of the sort, but for everything else going on in my life. 

I guess it’s me versus the Volcano. Let the battle for acceptance begin. 

Posted in Lights, Camera, Universal!, Nerdy and Nifty, Out and About in Orlando

Falling for Fallon, A Look at Universal’s Newest Experience 

For weeks now, I have walked past a very impressive mini 30 Rock rising from the dust that was once the home of Twister (a now denfunct interactive experience that made you feel you were on set of the famous Bill Paxton flick.)

Situated on mini 30 Rock is the new Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon.This new ride is one of the first experiences at the park that offers a virtual line, similar to Disney’s FastPass service that allows you to reserve a time to go in and enjoy the ride with minimal wait. Universal has been testing a virtual line experience on it’s offical app the last few weeks for Minion Mayhem, but Fallon has taken a step above the typical reserve a time process and made the line it’s own special experience. 

How is a line for a ride a special experience? We all know a typical theme park line is pure unadulterated hell, kids crying, tour groups chanting things in languages you don’t understand, people shoving past you with the excuse of their family is inside. You know the drill.

And then you get into Fallon and everything you thought about the line experence is thrown out the window.

Got my ticket to Fallon…sort of.

Right now, they are doing soft openings of the ride at random, it’s official opening day April 6th. The last two weeks, they had the normal line set up, but the day I went, they were testing the virtual line, where you go to a kiosk and get a ticket with a time stamp.

And now we wait.

When it was my time to go in, I was given a colored plastic card that would tell me when it was my time to ascend to the next room. Fallon is split amongst three rooms, the lobby, the lounge, and the actual ride itself. When it was my time to go to the next section, the famous NBC chime would ding and the room’s lights would change to that color. 

I happened to be blue that day. 

Waiting for my color.

The lobby is found on the other end of a hall of many NBC logos, great stop for taking selfies.

In the lobby was a museum of different Tonight Show memorabilia, chronicling each era of hosts from Steve Allen, Johnny Carson, Jay Leno, and everyone in between. Even Conan got his time in the spotlight as well. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get any good photos since it was my time to wander up to the lounge.

It’s Hashtag!

The lounge was a great little area with cushy chairs with phone charging stations, touchscreen games, meet and greets with Hashtag the Panda, and an actual performance by the Ragtime Gals barbershop quintet. Who knew waiting in line could be so much fun?

All in all, Race Through New York was a fresh take on the virtual stimulator rides of yore. It wasn’t super cutting edge and some of the jokes would go over non-Fallon fans’ heads, but it was a silly ride with a playdul vibe. You have to see it to believe it and take it for it’s silly attitude. 

The whole experience itself was different in the sense that your time spent wasn’t wasted fighting with line cutters or staring at the same wall for two hours herded like cattle.This was an experience unlike any other. You felt like you were at 30 Rock, as a matter of fact, people who have been to the tapings have posted that this is almost an exact clone, every detail made down to the chairs, the decor, even the loading area for the theater. The performances from the Ragtime Gals and Hashtag were fun and playful, making them more of an attraction than the actual ride. I almost didn’t want to go in because I was having so much fun. 

All in all, once this ride opens, it will not disappoint. Take it for it’s fun and whimsy nature rather than the next big badass ride. It’s clever, fun, and a great ride for all to enjoy.

Well, mostly all. Here is a video clip of the preloading instructions.

Posted in Cast Member Chronicles, Lights, Camera, Universal!, Overcoming Adversity, The Billy Blogs

Why I Didn’t Give In To The System…or Him

My biggest critic turned out to be the person I devoted my whole life to. And because of a tough choice I made in finding a stable career, I lost him.

After about a decade of trying to make things work between us, me and Bill decided to part ways. There was more involved than what I want to share, but the gist is that I decided to fight the odds against me and work hard to make my life one where I don’t have to settle for less.

Back in August, I lost my job with Disney, and with my fate being undetermined with Universal for the longest time with me not finding anything beyond seasonal or temp work, all signs pointed to me moving in to Bill’s supportive living community in a last ditch effort to not resort to moving back in with my parents, a fate many of my friends with disabilities, and some without, have faced.

To Bill, this meant we could live out our lives where he would be taken care of and have me at the same time. And as magical as it would of been to be with the person I loved, it would of torn me apart inside.

Although being born with the challenges I have faced, my family made every single attempt to raise me as if I were a normal child. My dad, being the conservative kind of guy he is, always told me to work for my goals and not ask for a handout. Even my mother worked every single job she could find so we could move out of living in poverty and be happy, ever since I could remember. I wanted to be like my parents and fight for what I wanted even if the odds are stacked against me. I saw them grow from minimum wage retail workers to being a corrections officer and a teaching assistant. If they could do it, so can I.

Bill, on the other hand, had different plans for me, and although they seemed wonderful, they weren’t for me. His idea of a perfect life involved having me and him move in together, live off the system and food stamps, and essentially have no control over my money while his staff take care of our bills, our meals, everything.

As cushy as that sounds, I didn’t buy into it.

Now I’m not trashing that lifestyle by any means, but what he was used to given his disability and what I was used to as a person who got denied for most government benefits just never added up to me. Where would I have fit in in all of this? What purpose would I have aside from being a live-in girlfriend? So many questions, not enough answers.

A few weeks ago I got the news that I was able to transfer into Universal’s newest theme park, going back to my roots as a vacation planner and finally having stable employment. Bill judged me for making the choice of career over him, and who can’t blame him?

I worked hard for last eight months to prove myself worthy of getting back in the workforce, and sadly, it came at a price of losing the person I love the most.

Whether I lost him for good or not remains uncertain, but my love for him will never die even though things didn’t work out the way he planned. I can only hope one day he will forgive me for making the hardest choice I’ve ever had to make.

Nevertheless, I persisted. Having the disabilities I have will never stop me from living my dreams. 

If only he could see that this decision is worthwhile.

Here goes nothing.

Me in one of my many uniforms, this is my resting Market Research face for the NBC Media Center