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Virginia and Surroundings
August 2018 -
Virginia Travelogue 2
August 10th - 12th (Friday - Saturday): Otakon 2018

This was Otakon's second year in Washington DC after moving from its long time home in Baltimore. While they handled the move pretty well last year, they smoothed out a few kinks this time around (faster bag check, for instance) for an all around solid experience. As usual, there were lots of panels and videos. Though Connie and I didn't get go to much in that regard. Last year, Zack wasn't doing much besides eating and sleeping. This year, he's down to one nap a day and doesn't like to sit still for too long, which limited our options a bit (that should change in a year or two). He did like looking at the cosplayers and playing with the escalators. Of course, we also spent some time in the dealers' hall and artist alley. So we were able to have some fun with him.
The video game hall was pretty great this year, with a lot of cool Japanese import arcade games. I went by myself Saturday night, so I had time to play around a bit and watch some AMVs.
The big highlight of this year though, was the concerts. I've been wanting to see an official Final Fantasy concert ever since I knew they existed (probably around 10 years or so), but I never managed to be in the right place at the right time. So I was thrilled to hear that Distant Worlds was coming to Otakon this year. And not just with one concert, but two. I would have been willing to spend half the day waiting in line, but fortunately they offered a limited number of VIP tickets a while back which, for a reasonable price, guaranteed a seat. They sold out in less than a day, but I grabbed mine the moment they went on sale so I was good. Connie isn't as into Final Fantasy as I am, and we weren't too sure Zack would sit through a concert, so she graciously offered to do other stuff with him when I went.
Friday's concert was the normal Distant Worlds show, which featured a full orchestra playing a diverse collection of music from Final Fantasy I - XV, along with full video accompaniment. It was amazing with a great set list. It didn't have all my favorites, of course, but I really don't have any complaints about the music selection or arrangements. It helps that Nobuo Uematsu is fairly heavily involved. In fact, here was there! He mainly just popped onto the stage a couple times to say hi, rather than playing any instruments himself, though he did join the orchestra at the end for One Winded Angel. Really, my only complaint about the concert was that, at one hour and fifteen minutes, I wish it were longer. It was awesome and very much worth it for any Final Fantasy fan, or anyone who enjoys good music for that matter.
Sunday's concert was titled A New World. Billed as a more intimate experience, it had only a handful of musicians, no video, and a smaller audience. It also had a mostly different set list (including a Tactics song). As such, it was a much different experience, but still excellent. The string quartet arrangements, for example, really stood out. While not quite as epic as Distant Worlds, I enjoyed it just as much and highly recommend it as well.
The VIP tickets actually offered more perks than a good seat and avoiding hours in line. After each concert, VIP ticket holders got a meet and great with Uematsu and the conductor (Arnie Roth for Distant Worlds and his son Eric for A New World). Basically, we got to say hi, get a photo, and an autograph. So that was pretty awesome as well. Now I've got my copy of Final Fantasy VII signed by both him and Sakaguchi, and I've got an art book signed by Amano. If I could just get Nomura's signature...
Anyway, while Zack kept Connie and I from getting quite as much out of Otakon as before, it was still fun and the concerts were fantastic. As always, I'm looking forward to next year.

August 23rd (Thursday): Cherry Crest Farm's Amazing Maize Maze
Connie and I continued our annual tradition of going to Cherry Crest Farm's Amazing Maize Maze. This year, however, we needed to keep Zack entertained. Fortunately, the farm has a lot of activities besides the maze, many of which are well suited for kids of all ages. I never took a really close look at them before, but there was everything from playground equipment, to giant slides, to a play town, just to name a few. There was even a giant sandbox type thing filled with dried corn. Zack's favorite part though, was the goats. He hadn't really interacted with animals much in the past, aside from chasing pigeons in Italy, but he was moderately interested in watching the goats in the petting zoo area. We thought that would be it, but he saw some other kids feeding them and, unprompted, actually went and picked up some food and started feeding the goats himself. He loved it and we spent a while there. He tried to feed a pig too, but it was a little too eager and ended up licking him in the face.
After letting Zack play around for a couple of hours, we finally headed into the maze. This year's theme was board games and, to better fit, they swapped the usual crossword puzzle with some mini-games (dice, spinners, etc.), which made for an interesting twist. As usual, I made a point of fully clearing the maze and finding all the hidden map pieces. It was a pretty good design and a lot of fun to navigate. It took us around 1 hour and 45 minutes to finish, though we had a pretty good run in terms of choosing the correct paths and such so I probably could have knocked 20 - 30 minutes off that time on my own.
We finished a little before the park was slated to close for the day so we drove over to Hershey Farm to let Zack play around a little more and then hit up the buffet, like we've done the past couple of years.
Cherry Crest Farm is always a fun outting and I'm looking forward to next year's maze.

September 3rd (Monday): The Maryland Renaissance Festival
I heard about the Maryland Renaissance Festival last year, but Connie and I never made it over. This year though, she reminded me about it and we decided to make a point of visiting. Why Maryland? Well, there's a Pennsylvania one, but it's around three hours away. And Virginia? I would assume there's at least one in Virginia, but I don't know when or where (I should probably Google that sometime). Maryland, on the other hand, is only an hour away so it's not a bad drive.
Anyway, we ended up going on Labor Day, pretty early on (the Festival started late August and goes through mid October). The most impressive Renaissance Festival I've been to in the past is the one in Phoenix. A big advantage the Phoenix Festival has over many others is that is has a large dedicated space, meaning that there's not only plenty of room, but that they can build permanent buildings, rather than having to put up tents and booths every year. Turns out that Maryland has a similar setup. It's also in a forest, which not only offers some shade, but also enhances the whole medieval fantasy feel a bit. It's probably not quite as big as Phoenix, but it's still the size of a small theme park and certainly has enough stuff to keep you busy for a few hours to a full day.
Since Connie and I had Zack with us, we didn't spend a lot of time watching shows (though it looked like they had a good variety, including a joust), but we did really appreciate that they had a playground in the back. There was also the usual selection of neat handmade crafts and medieval stuff, along with turkey legs, steaks on a stake, soup in a bread bowl, and a few more "exotic" foods as well (like Japanese). While I wish we could have stayed a bit longer, and watched a few more shows, we still had a fun several hours and Zack really enjoyed the playground and the bubble wand booth. I wasn't expecting to find a Renaissance Festival that could give Phoenix a run for its money, but I'm pretty happy to have one nearby and we'll certainly be going back next year.

September 7th (Sunday): Museum Day
With Connie and Zack visiting family, I've mostly been using the extra free time to get caught up on work and various projects around the house. But I wanted to take a day or two to have fun as well. I had a few different options, but on the first Sunday of every month, Bank of America gives people with one of their credit cards free admission to a bunch of different museums around the country. Only one of those museums in near here, but I've been meaning to check it out for a long time so I figured I should finally take advantage of the discount.
Most of the Museums in DC are part of the Smithsonian and, as such, always free. But DC has its share of private museums as well and one of the most popular is the Newseum. In case the name didn't clue you in, it's about the news. Specifically, the history of the news and some especially newsworthy events throughout history. Following the recommended route I started in the basement, watched an intro video, and then took a look at an exhibit about the Berlin Wall, complete with an actual section of the wall. I remember studying about it in history class, of course, but I had forgotten that it really didn't fall all that long ago. Next up was a really interesting exhibit about the FBI, including details about some of their most famous cases and the ways they're adapting to deal with terrorism, cyber attacks, and other modern threats. There was also a small exhibit about newspaper comics. I ended up right near the cafeteria and I hadn't eaten much, so I decided to grab an early lunch before continuing on. Not bad, though there are certainly better places to eat in the area. Anyway, from there I took an elevator to the top floor which featured a nice view of Pennsylvania Avenue, a collection of award winning photos, and a set of current front pages from newspapers from all 50 states and a few different countries. It was kinda of interesting to see how the tone varied between them, even when reporting on the same stories. The next floor was focused on the history of news reporting in the US, from the early days of the country up through modern times, along with a collection of newspapers and the like from the entire period. One thing I appreciated was how balanced it was, pointing out some of the news media's greatest triumphs and biggest mistakes. That applied to the rest of the museum as well...mostly. All the info in the exhibits was very fair and balanced...up until you got to things from the last five or ten years (and especially the last two) and which point the information presented all had a very clear political slant to it. That was annoying, but at least it was only a very small part of the museum. Anyway, other notable exhibits included one on the history of different media used to report the news (radio, TV, and the internet), a section on journalistic freedom around the world, and a section where you could do a faux news report on a greenscreen, to name a few. In the end, it took me about four hours to do a pretty thorough tour of the museum (though I didn't watch all the videos). I can see why the Newseum is popular. It has a number of fascinating (and mostly fair and balanced) exhibits. It's not really good for kids, or anyone who doesn't want to read a lot (though there are a bunch of photos and videos as well), but if you don't mind spending some money to go to a museum in DC, it's certainly worth a look.
I left the museum around 3 and figured that, as long as I was in the area, I might as well go somewhere else for a couple of hours until things started to close. While I was thinking about what museum to visit next, I noticed a building next to the National Gallery that I didn't recognize. Turns out, the Gallery, which I thought Connie and I had explored pretty thoroughly before, has an entire Eastern building that we totally missed so I went in there. If you read my travelogue entry about the National Gallery, you might remember that I really appreciated the fact that it was focused entirely on old classics, without any modern art. Well, turns out that all the modern art is in the East Building. So yeah, looks like Connie and I didn't miss much of anything after all. Anyway, it didn't do anything to change my opinion of modern art. I mean, the giant blue chicken was kind of cool, as were the plaster casts of things you really shouldn't be able to make plaster casts of. And there were works by guys like Picasso where I can appreciate the work involved, even if it isn't my style. Most of the artwork though wasn't just bad, it felt to me like it was both lazy and lacking in creativity. For example, blank canvases with a border, a fiberglass board, and what looked like some props from a toy store. Many of the pieces didn't even have titles, which felt to me like the artist not only couldn't be bothered to put any effort or creativity into their "art", but they didn't even feel like putting in the effort to come up with a name. It was close competition, but I think this one was the worst. It's literally an empty room with a piece of string stretched from one corner to the other. Sometimes I wonder if some of these artists like to get together and laugh about how people spend massive amounts of money on these things, not to mention hours upon hours contemplating them and writing about them. Anyway, the best part of the East Building was the underground passage to the Main (West) Gallery. Not only is it cool and sparkly, but it takes you to where all the good art is. There's a nice cafe down there too.
It didn't take me too long to finish up there, but I wasn't sure if there was really enough time left before closing to go anywhere else. That said, I didn't want to go home yet so I started walking around the National Mall and noticed that I still had a bit over an hour before the Museum of the Native American closed, so I decided to go in and see the exhibits I didn't get to last time such as the exhibits on Pocahontas, the Trail of Tears, and American Indians in pop-culture.
By the time I finished, the museums were all closing and I didn't really feel like staying until supper so I headed home. It was a fun and interesting day, though it reminded me just how many museums and other attractions in DC I still haven't seen yet. But hey, that just means I've got more to look forward to.

October 28th (Sunday): Air and Space
The Air and Space Museum in DC is one of the more famous and popular parts of the Smithsonian. However, turns out that the building there doesn't have enough room to house their entire collection. So they built a second location out near the Dulles airport. Looking at it, I'm betting they converted an old airfield. Connie heard it was good for kids, so we took Zack and her parents over there for a morning. Anyway, the museum itself is mostly made up of a massive hanger where they keep all sorts of planes, copters, and other flying vehicles. Quite a lot of them are actually experimental prototypes and such which I actually found a bit more interesting than the more ordinary ones they have at the main museum. A side section was dedicated to space craft, including a complete shuttle. There was also an IMax theater, a pretty high end looking flight simulator, and a shuttle bus to something Mars related. But we had Zack with us so I didn't really get to check any of those out. For that matter, I didn't get to look at all the aircraft on display either. I'll have to go back another time to see the rest. So what did Zack enjoy the most? While he did start to get interested in the planes eventually, his favorite part of the museum...was the call button for the elevator. Had to drag him away from it in the end. Oh well, at least he had fun.

December 2nd (Sunday): Zoolights
Most of our recent outings have involved taking Zack and Connie's parents to places I've already visited and written a lot about, so I didn't feel the need for new travelogue entries. There was also Thanksgiving, which saw a lot of family visiting and trips to the zoo and a new escape room place near our house (where we not only cleared our room but got the fourth best time).
Today though, we went to a familiar place but for something new. Zoolights is an annual event held at the National Zoo in D.C. where, for a month or so, they keep the zoo open late and fill it with lights and light art. I wanted to go in the past, but the timing never worked out. This year, we decided to finally go and meet up with some friends there. Unfortunately, the only day that worked for everyone was a Sunday, which meant extra crowds. The main issue being the traffic and parking situation around the zoo. If I go again next year, I'd ideally want to go earlier in the day (before all the parking lots fill up), spend some time in the zoo when it's light, and just stay there when the lights switch on. Unfortunately, that's not what we did. We got to the zoo area easily enough but by the time we arrived they had closed off all the official lots and trying to find other parking within walking distance was tough, especially with so many other people trying to do the same thing, slowing traffic on the nearby roads to a crawl. Poor signage didn't help. We did eventually find parking and make it to the zoo. The majority of the lights run along the main path through the zoo, though there are some side paths to special areas (such as the gingerbread village). There's also some food and souvenir stands and, on certain days, live music. The one thing you won't see is animals, since most of the zoo is closed off so as not to disturb their sleep patterns. Besides, it'd be pretty tough to see most of them in the dark anyway. Since we got there so late due to the traffic and parking, we didn't end up seeing all of Zoolights but the part we did was nice and it made for a fun after dark stroll. Definitely need to plan better next time though.

Virginia Travelogue 2

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