At first, I was not too excited to visit Memphis. There’s no theme park there. Why would someone want to visit a place where there’s no theme park? What I found is that the history in Memphis is astonishing! Not only the history surrounding the shooting of Martin Luther King, but the music history surrounding the city with names such as Elvis Presley and BB King.
Our trip started with meeting our student group at the Rock and Soul Museum. We watched a very informative yet interesting 20 minute movie before entering the museum about the musical pioneers and legends of all racial and socio-economic backgrounds who overcame obstacles to create the musical sound that changed the world. After the movie, we were all handed audio equipment to use while browsing the museum. Throughout the museum we found juke boxes where we could put in a number and listen to some of the less-known music that was available. The students really loved listening to some of this music.
Then it was off to the Gibson Guitar Factory for a tour. Little did I know how much work and effort goes into making these musical instruments! I was very shocked to find out that every detail of the guitar is created by a person, not a machine. Sure they use machines to assist in the creation of the guitar, but just about everything that is done to the guitar is done by hand. Even the painting and finishing is done by hand. It was amazing to watch!
Following that tour, we went to visit the famous Sun Studios. I was a bit surprised at how small this studio was. However, thinking back to those times, this is all they really needed. Our guide told us stories of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and others. We listened to some unusual recording sessions. We even got to take photos with the actual microphone used by Elvis Presley himself!
The next morning we went to visit Graceland, the home of Elvis Presley. There we took an audio tour of the mansion just how it was when Elvis was alive. The décor of the home was stunning even know it is outdated today. During the audio tour we heard stories of Lisa Marie Presley remembering her father in certain parts of their home and in my mind I could picture the little girl running around, playing with her father. During the tour we also got to see the resting place of Elvis. Once you reach that point, you can feel the sadness around you. Elvis is buried next to his parents. I was surprised to learn that Elvis had a twin brother who was stillborn, Jesse Garon. His grave marker is also at this site.
Across the road, we entered the automobile museum and got a tour of two of Elvis’ airplanes. Developers are also building a “Heartbreak Hotel” just behind it. Time did not allow us to explore the hotel.
Next it was off to Stax Museum, located at the original site of Stax Records, I was wowed by the many artful, historic and cultural, interactive exhibits. We learned about the heritage of American soul music as it relates to the Memphis sound and its influences internationally. And for fun they feature a unique dress-up, instant photo booth that super-imposes guest images at several locations throughout the museum, including the Stax Museum's world famous marquee.
Now is where the tour struck my heartstrings. We went to visit the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorriane Hotel. The museum had recently re-opened after some major renovations. As you are walking through the museum, you will find mini-movies showing real clips of news stories from those days. The lifelike sculptures of the people as you are walking through are breathtaking. You can see the fear and determination on their faces. As you arrive at the actual bus that was burned while the Freedom Riders were on their quest for equality, and you watch the short movie clip about this experience, you can feel the sadness in the room. Finally you reach the room where Martin Luther King was staying when he was shot. The room was reconstructed to show exactly how the room looked that day. A large wreath is hung on the balcony where he was shot. Across the street, you can get a view of the room from where the shot was taken. I could have spent many more hours in this museum.
Some of the other areas we visited in Memphis were Beale Street, where you can find inlaid gold music notes on the sidewalk of many of the great musicians from Memphis. Also on Beale Street we visited BB Kings Restaurant, the Hard Rock Café, and Blues City Café. As you walk along the street, you can hear the local Jazz and Blues Bands trying to make a name for themselves playing in the park or in one of the venues. Many of which had CD’s available for you to purchase to help them succeed.
In conclusion, Memphis ended up to be one of my favorite places to visit. It was also the favorite for the majority of the students that took this trip with us. They were enthralled by the music history and civil rights history that this town had to offer. I would highly recommend this trip!
The Windy City. Chi-Town. The Jewel of the Midwest. City by the lake. No matter what you call it, Chicago is a city that offers an experience like no other. Few cities in the world offer as many world-class museums, restaurants, landmarks, parks, sports stadiums, shopping, concert halls and famous neighborhoods. Arguably, maybe only Manhattan offers a more spectacular skyline but the views from the tops of Chicago's tallest buildings are some of the finest anywhere.
Stretching all along the lakefront of the sea-sized Lake Michigan, Lakeshore Drive is one of the most scenic drives in America which offers awesome views of the city as it changes from day to night.
There are so many "must-sees" in Chicago that a typical 4 day/3 night itinerary won't cover them all. So where to start? You could say it's all downtown (even though that's not totally accurate) but downtown is certainly the place for the lion's share of Chicago sightseeing. Why not start off with a city tour? There are many from which to choose offering just about any theme for a variety of tastes and interests; architecture, history, "gangster" history, food, fun, sports and the arts.
Chicago's architecture is a broad scope of over 100 years of different styles all in one place. From sleek, modern skyscrapers to some of the finest art deco and old world European, Chicago has it all. Like any American city its size, Chicago is very rich in history. From the great Chicago fire to Al Capone and the "untouchables", Chicago has certainly seen its share of major events. Few cities in America (or the world for that matter) offer as many different types of food and restaurants. Chicago is the birthplace of deep dish pizza, the Chicago hot dog, famous steaks and the list just goes on and on. Chicago is also home to many well-known sports teams from the Bears to the Bulls to the White Sox. Even if you aren’t able to catch a game in person, no trip is complete without a tour of the world famous home to the Chicago Cubs, Wrigley Field. The arts are also a very vital part of a trip to the city by the lake. The Chicago Symphony provides an extraordinary musical experience in a concert hall that rivals any of the famous halls in New York or London and Chicago is also home to numerous Broadway shows. And considered to be second only to the Louvre in Paris, The Arts Institute of Chicago boasts over 300,000 pieces of art including American treasures "American Gothic" and "Nighthawks".
The Arts Institute is just one of many outstanding museums in Chicago. The famous Museum campus is home to three stops on our must-see list; The Field Museum, home to some of the greatest natural history exhibits anywhere....and right next door sits the Shedd Aquarium, where visitors can experience the largest indoor aquarium in the world. At the end of the block is Adler Planetarium, America's first planetarium. From the front steps of this historic building, the views of the city skyline may be the best of all. Not to be outdone, just down the street is the Museum of Science and Industry, a museum which really does have everything!
After a day of enjoying exhibits and seeing spectacular displays, a great place to end the day and unwind is Navy Pier. Great restaurants, shops and attractions, it's another fantastic place to soak in all the glory of that downtown skyline.
Chicago is also home to many great parks from the enormous Lincoln Park (home of the famous zoo) to Grant Park (home of the enormous Buckingham Fountain) to the newest kid on the block, Millennium Park and its unusual art. The "Cloud Gate" sculpture (nicknamed the "Bean") is the highlight of this park and has now become one of the city's most famous landmarks. From the Willis Tower SkyDeck, you can spot all of these favorite sites from 103 stories up in the sky. And while you're still downtown, make sure you save some time for shopping the Magnificent Mile!
The suburbs also offer a wide variety of activities from parks and recreation to museums and education. And some of the best hotel accommodations can be found in the burbs, as well as Woodfield Mall, the world's first major indoor shopping mall and still one of the largest. Six Flags Great America is located in Gurnee and considered one of the best parks in Six Flags' prestigious chain.
Chicago is a city with many personalities, nicknames, history and….that skyline. It is always a pleasure to watch someone's reaction the first time they see it and even though it’s not just a skyline, no matter your interests, Chicago has something to offer everyone in your group. But it's so much more than just a fantastic skyline. It's not until you go inside that skyline that you see how incredible a trip to Chicago can be.
Orlando is obviously one of the most popular destinations for groups and for good reason. The theme parks are musts and for performing or competing groups, there aren't many places in the world that offer more of a variety. No trip to Orlando would be complete without a visit to the theme parks but did you know there are plenty of other attractions and sights to see that are off the beaten path? And rather than take away from one of your "theme park days", these attractions can complement and give your group a much needed break from the high octane pace of visiting the parks and waiting in those long lines.
One of the most popular non theme park days for our groups is a day at the beach. This is especially exciting for groups who live far away from the coast. For some, the beach days are often the highlight of the trip and there are even extras to add to the day to make it even more enjoyable. We typically begin with a shopping stop at the world famous Ron Jon Surf Shop. After shopping, we are off to an awesome barbecue on the beach! After lunch, it's all fun and games with volleyball, boogie boards, beach balls and just frolicking in the beautiful Florida surf. A popular upgrade to your beach experience are surf lessons. That's right, you get to spend the afternoon learning how to surf by a real surfing professional! Imagine your group riding the waves of Florida! Setting aside a day for the beach is truly a real Florida experience and one your group will always remember. The beach day can also be combined with a visit to the nearby Kennedy Space Center, which is also a world famous attraction and a nice slower paced visit for the group.
Other real Florida attractions your group may want to explore are airboat rides where your can see alligators in their natural habitat, or zipline through the trees and take a jeep safari in a real Florida nature preserve. You can also enjoy Central Florida from the air in everything from a warbird airplane to a helicopter or on a breathtaking hot air balloon ride. Or how about enriching your groups' experience by volunteering and/or performing at the wonderful and heartwarming Give Kids the World village?
Whereas the Big 3 Theme Parks in the Orlando area offer the most famous and desired attractions, don't forget that there are many other interesting lesser known attractions in the area. Groups can have a blast exploring all of the wonders of Wonderworks, perhaps one of the most photographed buildings in all of Central Florida, and then move on to Ripley's Believe It Or Not. For history buffs, there is Titanic, an outstanding guided tour of the world's most famous ocean liner. Remember 2012 marks the 100th anniversary of her maiden and only voyage and a visit to Titanic is a great way to start off the day before heading to the parks. Then there's all the action at the two Fun Spot parks, loaded with some of the most intense go-karts to be found anywhere. Old Town in Kissimmee offers rides, shopping and fun dining choices. And of course for nighttime fun, Orlando is home to some really amazing dinner shows; Arabian Nights, Medieval Times, Outta Control Dinner Show (at Wonderworks), Pirate's Dinner Adventure, Sleuth's and the new Treasure Tavern.
Orlando also features many of the world's greatest water parks, each unique in their own way. Since many of the theme park multi day tickets include a water park option, a visit should certainly be up for discussion during your visit to Orlando. Water parks are a great way to beat the heat!
So yes, your Orlando trip wouldn't be complete without screaming all the way down Splash Mountain at Magic Kingdom or diving head first on Manta at Sea World or becoming a wizard at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Islands of Adventure...but save some room and some time for something truly Orlando, truly Florida and make your Orlando trip a truly unforgettable Florida experience.
As I began the daunting adventure of writing this blog, I first thought of what are some of the challenges groups have while planning a trip. It occurred to me that the best way to help is to start at the beginning. No trip can begin without knowing WHERE to go. And more often than not, with multiple personalities involved with the planning and choosing, there are disagreements. If you are the group leader, you are probably being given opinions, whether you want them or not. Now anyone can go online and find the top "things to do" in any given city. So, I think I'd like to offer advice based on our experiences. The number one U.S. destination for group travel is New York City. So let's start there.
NEW YORK CITY
There are alot of things to do in New York City. Visiting the Empire State Building is one such thing. But have you ever seen the line to get to the top? It can be a 2-3 hour wait, even at night. An alternative is to visit Top of the Rock. Although it is slightly more expensive, the views are amazing, and the wait is much shorter. There is more room to walk around and view the different angles of the city. And it saves time the group can use to see other sights.
Keeping your group together during your visit can be a real challenge. There are hundreds of thousands of people on the streets at any time. Breaking the group up into smaller groups, and assigning a leader of each smaller group is wise. Especially if you are a student group. Having a chaperone keep track of a few kids each helps. Having a guide that knows the city is also vital. If you are taking a motorcoach, making sure you have a driver that knows the city will save you alot of wasted time trying to figure out the city streets. I have seen inexperienced drivers get lost and frustrated, making the trip a stressful one.
Staying outside the city, in New Jersey for example, can save you lots of money. It is often $75-100 less per night. If it is worth the 20-30 minute drive in each day, it's a great alternative. Hotel room rates will be increasing in 2011 in New York. So this will be a viable option for alot of groups now.You do want to make sure you are staying in a safe area. The hotels will often tell you it is safe to get your business, even when it's not. This is where a good tour operator comes in handy.
More often than not, you would have an itinerary for the group before you go. We have found that you need alot of flexibility in your plans. Leaving one day open to a loose schedule has been an option alot of groups have enjoyed. This could be someone's first and only visit to the city. There are things they will want to see and do. Using those smaller groups I mentioned before, you can make a meeting place and time (i.e. Time Square Broadway ticket booth at 4pm), and let the groups vote on what they want to do. Let them explore and meet up later, and make sure everyone has a map (given away free at any subway station) and phone numbers. More often than not, it was the favorite day of most of our groups.
With careful planning and a good tour guide, New York can be an amazing experience. There have been dramatic improvements in safety and the city is much cleaner than it was in decades past. For suggestions on things to do while here, view the destinations tab on our website, and click on New York. Next stop.......Orlando!