Monday, January 9, 2017

The World As Your Oyster: A New Orleanian's Guide to Disney, Part 1 - Essentials and Logistics

I live in a magic kingdom. Sure we seem normal at times: we worship Saints on Sunday and manage to fry all things edible and sometimes inedible, but the truth is in New Orleans things are different. There are moments that transcend reality and down here they happen more often than you think. From the hours spent waiting for Endymion at the spot you've waited since you were in diapers to the palpable, visceral joy of dancing to your favorite artist at Jazzfest in a mud-caked thunderstorm New Orleanians have managed to make fantasy an almost everyday occurrence with the help of a mystical city, unique storytelling, and of course endless humidity. 

It is no secret that Walt Disney loved New Orleans. Disney was named an honorary citizen of the city by then-mayor Victor Schiro shortly before his death in 1966. The themed area of New Orleans Square in Disneyland, a stylized representation of the French Quarter; and the Port Orleans Resort in Disney World are two tributes to Walt's love for the mysticism and authenticity of a city we call home daily. 

This mindset makes planning trips for us a little different. The world is our oyster, but no oysters can compare to the ones we shuck down here. It would be different if we were from a place where culture is delivered out of box store, but our box stores ain't dere no more. So how can we quantify the collision of culture that is a Louisianian travelling to Disney World, a place that is the amalgam of every other culture on the planet and even appropriates a bit of our own? That is what this guide aims to reconcile so hopefully the next time you travel to Walt's Magic Kingdom you can understand the stories that tie Mardi Gras and the Mouse together. 

Part 1: Essentials and Logistics

Walt Disney World is divided into four theme parks, two water parks, and various resorts and entertainment areas. This article will focus on packing, planning, and preparing for a trip to Walt Disney World. 

The easiest way to approach a trip to Disney World is to pretend like it's Mardi Gras. For the people who have been it's all about the routine: where to go, who to see, what to pack. But if you're a first-timer there are some things you need to know: 

1. This isn't your ordinary vacation. Most trips can be planned on the spur of the moment with the help of a city guide and a review of a tourism or CVB website. A trip to Walt Disney World requires hours of pre-planning, preparation, and even fitness training! Without it a trip to WDW can be disastrous: mediocre food, long lines, and missed opportunities to see the best of each park. An ounce of preparation is worth a pound of cure. Be prepared (Tiana prepared, not Scar prepared). 

2. Pack a backpack or purse with essential items (water bottle, medicine, phone battery, change of clothes if going on water rides, sunscreen). You are allowed to bring a bag smaller than 24"x15"x18" into the parks and many people tend to do so. This will increase your time in the security line at each park you visit, but it will definitely be worth it if you are planning on spending an entire day in the parks and also is a convenient way to carry gifts and other trinkets you may purchase at WDW. My personal favorite is the Amazon Basics Daypack daypack ( 

It's a cheap, water resistant daypack that has a good amount of storage space and a front pocket that can hold electronics or smaller items that need to be accessed quickly. It is packable and can be stored easily in a suitcase or duffel for flights. It also has mesh pockets that can hold a water bottle, a necessity no matter what season you visit WDW (note: you can request a free cup of water at any quick service location in WDW. I usually do so and fill up my water bottle while I'm walking. Be sure to use a double walled tumbler to prevent condensation and leakage). 

3. Yes, you can bring food into Disney World. This is a lifesaver for anyone travelling to the World on a budget or convinced no one makes peanut butter and jelly sandwiches as well as they do. Coolers are also permitted, though I would not recommend bringing one unless a member of your party has dietary restrictions. Stick to food that can stay unrefrigerated and will not melt. The key to an enjoyable day in the Disney parks is to pack simply and bring only what you need. As the miles and temperature increase during the day the extra weight will definitely drag you down in more ways than one. 

4. Expect to walk about 8-10 miles a day, even if you plan to take a break from the parks during the day. I consider myself an active person and at the end of each day in the parks even I was completely spent. The combination of walking, waiting, and riding will wear you down sooner than you think. In the weeks leading up to your vacation, start a walking or couch to 5K plan. In addition to the fitness gained, the habit of having to walk long distances will get you into the right mindset for tackling a Disney vacation. If you'd like to have fun with your training, listen to Disney planning podcasts (my personal favorites are Be Our Guest and WDW Radio) or create a vacation playlist with sounds and songs from the Disney parks. This is an easy way to build your fitness level and count down the days together until your vacation. 

5. Take a break! I know I've spent a thousand words urging you to have plans, and plans for your plans; but the easiest way to ruin a WDW vacation is to push through a problem and let it blow up later on in the day whether it's a tantrum, serious case of hangry, or even a lingering injury. Everybody will reach a limit at Disney World. The combination of anxiety over missing attractions, walking long distances, and often brutal Florida weather is a cocktail ripe for disaster. So how do you prevent this? The easiest way is to plan a long break in the middle of the day. If you can return to your resort for a quick shower and nap. If you have to stay in the parks, take a long lunch while the crowds swell and find a place in the AC to regroup. Other options include a trip to Disney Springs, the monorail resorts, or even travelling to an off-property attraction or mall, which helps cut down on food costs while giving every a nice air-conditioned ride to cool off. If this break isn't enough, taking unplanned breaks to stop and have a drink or bite to eat as necessary will keep everyone happy and fed, instead of fed up. 


Okay, I will readily admit that the FastPass+ (FP) system took me longer than I am willing to acknowledge to understand. It's one of those things that become much easier to explain once you have actually used it and with the functionality on the My Disney Experience (MDE) app you will have no problem using FP once you are in the parks. Essentially, the FP system reserves a spot in line for you for one hour on your MagicBand or card at the attractions you select. When you arrive at your intended attraction you will enter the ride via a separate queue which will bring you to close to or at the front of the line. You get a minimum of three FPs a day and no maximum. Pretty awesome, right? Here is where it gets tricky. You have to pre-book the first three FPs and they must be book at one park. This is much easier to explain using an example:

I have a single-day Park Hopper ticket which entitles me to unlimited admission at all four WDW parks. 60 days before I arrive at WDW I decide I will start my day off in the Magic Kingdom then go to Epcot, Animal Kingdom, and Hollywood Studios in that order. I open the My Disney Experience on my phone and go to the FastPass+ tab. I select these three attractions and times for my first three FPs: Space Mountain (900-1000), Haunted Mansion (1000-1100), and PhilharMagic (1100-1200). The system will usually not allow you to select overlapping times. 

Upon arriving at MK at 900 I head straight to Space Mountain, scan my MagicBand, and ride. I do the same for the Haunted Mansion at 1000 but don't get to PhilharMagic until 1155 (too many churros, y'all). When I exit PhilharMagic I open the MDE app and go to the FP page to see that I'm eligible for another FP! I quickly selected a 1205 FP for Splash Mountain and ride it. After that I check the MDE app and I'm eligible again! I select a 105 FP for Mission:Space in Epcot to give myself enough time to get to the park and I'm off. After you use your initial FPs you are entitled to unlimited FPs until the parks close for the day. Like I said it's easier in practice than in theory and once you are on property you will get the hang of it fairly quickly. 

Annual Dining Reservations

Annual Dining Reservations, or ADRs, are an acronym you hear tossed around on Disney World podcasts like a football against the Saints secondary (sorry, too easy). While it's easy to eat at Disney, it's a little harder to eat well. The restaurants you always hear about at WDW like Be Our Guest, Chef Mickey's, and Kona Cafe are almost impossible to get into without a reservation. Luckily it's very easy to make dining reservations. All you need is the MDE app and a valid credit card to hold the reservation on. You have up until 24 hours before the reservation to cancel without incurring a charge, but if you do slip into the penalty window all you need to do is reschedule the reservation to the next available date and time and then cancel. It is important to find the restaurants you need to dine at and make ADRs ahead of everything else because your movement at mealtime will determine your movement for the rest of the day. For example if you need to have breakfast at Chef Mickey's in the Contemporary Resort but want to have lunch at Akershus in Epcot you will need to make sure you have enough time to travel to Epcot from the Contemporary, stand in the security line, and walk to the Norway pavilion by your reservation time. This may impact your time in the other parks or travel time from your hotel to the restaurant. WDW is full of eclectic and smart choices for dining so be sure to peruse each menu and not select a place based on reputation, unless you really need to meet a character or eat a signature dish. For example, I will never not miss out on the Breakfast Casserole at the Crystal Palace. Make reservations early and always have a backup!

Travelling on Disney Property

Disney transportation is wonderful. An extensive network of monorails and buses are able to transport you to all corners of the property for free. There is, however, one major caveat: time. Whether it's in a bottle or after itself Disney transportation tends to eat up a lot of it. The reason for this is logistics. It is much more efficient to wait for buses to load up and make multiple stops. Unfortunately at 100 AM when you are dead tired from a day in the and miss the bus logistics don't seem so logical. Nothing does at that point, except rage and sleep. So my advice for you is the same as Mardi Gras: find a place to park in the morning, take public transportation during the day, and plan to arrive back at your car so you can make an easy exit. I'm an annual passholder so parking is covered for me, but I do understand the price of parking (~20 dollars at each park) can be steep. In that case park for free at Disney Springs and take the park buses or park at a resort (allowed with dining reservations even if you're not staying there) and either walk to or take transpo to the parks. The majority of your transportation on the Disney system will be by bus, unless you are commuting between the Magic Kingdom and Epcot. I understand you've heard about how awesome the monorail is, but in actuality the monorail only operates between MK and Epcot. You can get to Epcot and Hollywood Studios via boat as well. I will cover each park's transportation option in detail later, but as a rule if you're using the buses be prepared to wait and give at least 45 minutes to get to where you're going. 

Don't Forget the Resorts!

The most unique places on Disney property may not even be the theme parks. There are a score of themed resorts that invite you into their own little world, from the Polynesian theming of the Polynesian to the New Orleans-themed...Port Orleans resort. Okay, so maybe the names and themes are easy to associate for a reason, but the secret among those who visit WDW often is that the best food and shopping can often be found at the resorts. Even if you can't afford to stay or dine at the Victorian-themed Grand Floridian, just walking into the expansive lobby and perusing the menu at Victoria and Albert's, the flagship five diamond restaurant of Disney World, will make you feel like Jay Gatsby. You know, before the unfortunate car ride and all. Likewise can be said for the Boardwalk Inn, which evokes the 1920s and features spectacular dining on Disney's own Boardwalk. I know you've paid a lot of money for park tickets but some of my best experiences have been at the resorts. Make sure you block out some time to experience your favorites. You won't be disappointed. 

These are but a small list of things to prepare for and consider when planning a Disney vacation. In short: make your ADR and FP reservations far in advance, start a couch to 5K program now, and figure out a walking and transportation plan that makes everybody happy. Stay tuned as I will be updating this post regularly with tips and tricks on how to maximize your Disney vacation!

Friday, December 30, 2016

The World As Your Oyster: A New Orleanian's Guide to Disney, Part 2 -The Magic Kingdom

I live in a magic kingdom. Sure we seem normal at times: we worship Saints on Sunday and manage to fry all things edible and sometimes inedible, but the truth is in New Orleans things are different. There are moments that transcend reality and down here they happen more often than you think. From the hours spent waiting for Endymion at the spot you've waited since you were in diapers to the palpable, visceral joy of dancing to your favorite artist at Jazzfest in a mud-caked thunderstorm New Orleanians have managed to make fantasy an almost everyday occurrence with the help of a mystical city, unique storytelling, and of course endless humidity. 

It is no secret that Walt Disney loved New Orleans. Disney was named an honorary citizen of the city by then-mayor Victor Schiro shortly before his death in 1966. The themed area of New Orleans Square in Disneyland, a stylized representation of the French Quarter; and the Port Orleans Resort in Disney World are two tributes to Walt's love for the mysticism and authenticity of a city we call home daily. 

This mindset makes planning trips for us a little different. The world is our oyster, but no oysters can compare to the ones we shuck down here. It would be different if we were from a place where culture is delivered out of box store, but our box stores ain't dere no more. So how can we quantify the collision of culture that is a Louisianian travelling to Disney World, a place that is the amalgam of every other culture on the planet and even appropriates a bit of our own? That is what this guide aims to reconcile so hopefully the next time you travel to Walt's Magic Kingdom you can understand the stories that tie Mardi Gras and the Mouse together. 

Part 2: Magic Kingdom and Seven Seas Lagoon Resort Areas

Walt Disney World is divided into four theme parks, two water parks, and various resorts and entertainment areas. This article will focus on the flagship theme park, the Magic Kingdom, and its surrounding resorts. A map of the area is provided below:

As you can see this area is centered around the large man-made Seven Seas lagoon. Magic Kingdom (MK) is the only park that cannot be accessed directly by car. You must either board a monorail or boat at the Transportation and Ticket Center (the gray building located to the right of Disney's Polynesian Resort, also known as the TTC). There are three monorail lines: a resort line which will make stops at the Polynesian, Grand Floridian, and Contemporary Resorts; an express line that will stop only at the Magic Kingdom; and an Epcot line which will take you to the Epcot theme park. Travel times vary based on park hours and crowds but during MK opening and closing you can expect to spend 30-60 minutes waiting for a monorail while during the day the wait can vary from 0-15 minutes. Travel time on the monorail is about 5 minutes on the express line and 10 minutes on the resort line. There is also one large steamboat which will travel from the TTC to MK and takes about ten minutes from dock to dock. While the trip is pleasant, the wait for loading and unloading can add anywhere from 15-30 minutes and may not be the best use of your time. Use the express monorail if possible.

When you arrive at the gates of the Magic Kingdom you will have to pass through a security cordon where all bags will be searched and random guests will have to pass through a metal detector. I highly recommend bringing a small daypack or drawstring bag with essentials (water bottle, medicine, phone battery, change of clothes, sunscreen). This will lengthen your time at the cordon but will be very helpful, especially if you're spending the whole day in the parks. Guests without bags can use an express line. After passing through the security line you will be able to proceed to the turnstiles and enter the park using your MagicBand or card (see Part 1, Essentials). You're in the Magic Kingdom!

One of my favorite moments is walking into the MK and feeling the bustle of Main Street USA (MSUSA). Many guests rush to their favorite rides and treat Main Street as a conduit in and out of the park. For me it's probably my favorite park of the MK. Modeled on Walt's hometown of Marceline, Missouri, Main Street USA is meant to evoke the purest expression of the American Dream: a turn of the century Midwestern town. It's a slice of perfect Americana we don't get to experience much outside of the movies and the realest representation that things in our country are actually pretty okay. MSUSA also has everything you would find on a real main street, and here in the MK they all serve a purpose:

Town Hall (12) - located on the left side of the roundabout this is where you go for problems related to your tickets, FastPasses, logisitics, etc.
Shopping - the Emporium (13) is the largest gift store in MK and a popular stop for guests on their way out (shop early and they'll hold your packages at the Town Hall Chamber of Commerce!)
First Aid - located next door to the Crystal Palace (11), this is a free service for anyone who needs prompt medical attention

The only Starbucks in MK is also located on MSUSA in the Main Street Bakery (7). As it is one of the few places in MK to get your caffeine fix, prepare for a wait. As we walk down MSUSA and into the center of the park the obvious focal point is Cinderella's Castle (61/69). It's gorgeous, spectacular, and has a few tricks up its sleeve (more on that later). As you stand in the middle of the park and wonder what to do next, let me fill you in on the themed areas in MK:

Adventureland  - Themed after the fictional island of Tortuga, Adventureland is home to popular rides including Pirates of the Caribbean (19) and the Jungle Cruise (17). During peak times you can expect a 15-30 minute wait for these rides which is acceptable and absolutely worth it. An interesting New Orleans-related note about Adventureland lies in the Enchanted Tiki Room (18). The birds in this attraction were reverse engineered by Imagineers based on a model Walt found while strolling through the French Quarter one day. Food options in Adventureland are few and far between, but be sure to try the Cheeseburger Eggrolls at the food cart by the Swiss Family Treehouse (15), the eponymous Dole Whip (and alcoholic variants) at Aloha Isle (23), and the Jungle Navigation Co. Skipper Canteen (22) if you are in the mood for a sit down meal (ADR recommended).

Frontierland - A Wild West-themed area, Frontierland is home to two of the most popular rides in MK: Splash Mountain (26) and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad (28). Big Thunder is probably my favorite ride in MK but I would recommend using a FastPass on Splash Mountain as it will have the longest lines. Food is scarce in the Wild West, but the Golden Oak Outpost's (31) waffle fry poutine is incredible when it's open and OH MY GOD THERE IS A TURKEY LEG CART (34). Ahem, I'll try to stay more composed as we continue.

Liberty Square - Playing off the theme of MSUSA, Liberty Square is a colonial-themed walkthrough area connecting Frontierland to Fantasyland. The major attraction here is the Haunted Mansion (38), though this iteration of the Haunted Mansion is themed after New England to fit into Liberty Square instead of being New Orleans-themed like the ride at Disneyland in California. It is worth a FastPass but the line will hover between 20-45 minutes, making it wait-worthy. The Hall of Presidents (36) is also located in Liberty Square and given our current political climate, that is all I will say about that. Food is the major draw in Liberty Square. The waffles at Sleepy Hollow (41), lobster roll at Columbia Harbour House (43), and all-you-care-to-eat Thanksgiving buffet o'wonders at Liberty Tree Tavern (40) are worth your while (ADR recommended for Liberty Tree Tavern).

Fantasyland - Your childhood has come to life in Fantasyland. Built to resemble the town around Cinderella's castle Fantasyland is what we think of when we think Walt Disney World. The park's most iconic ride, It's A Small World (47), is located in Fantasyland along with what I think is the most underrated ride in MK, Peter Pan's Flight (46). There are so many attractions that draw in Fantasyland that it is usually one of the most heavily trafficked parts of the park. In order of FastPass importance these attractions include: Seven Dwarfs Mine Train (59, FastPass mandatory), Peter Pan (see above), Princess Fairytale Hall (60, if necessary), Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (58), Under The Sea - Journey of the Little Mermaid (49), Dumbo the Flying Elephant (55), and the Mad Tea Party (56). I would highly recommend using a FastPass on Seven Dwarfs and Peter Pan as those lines grow almost exponentially throughout the day. Of the attractions that do not require a FastPass, the one you cannot miss is Mickey's Philharmagic. A 10 minute theatre show, it is the perfect way to start your day at the MK as it hearkens back to the most iconic Disney movies of the 1990s in a special 4D presentation. Often overlooked by guests, it is too good not to skip.

Food in Fantasyland is also too good not to skip. The signature restaurant in MK is Cinderella's Royal Table (61). A buffet-style meal in Cinderella's castle with a castle-sized bill to boot (get it, boot? Hey I thought it was funny), Royal Table is worthy of special celebrations but it is not even the best or most popular castle-related meal in MK. That honor would belong to Be Our Guest (63), located in Belle's Castle at the back of Fantasyland. An ADR is required for Be Our Guest, and this is one you must book as soon as your window for ADRs open. I would recommend going for lunch as the ambiance remains the same but the prices are much lower. Also recommended in Fantasyland is a cup of LeFou's Brew (frozen apple juice and marshmallow) and a cinnamon roll from Gaston's Tavern (64), flatbread from Pinocchio Village Haus (62), TURKEY LEGS (sorry) from Prince Eric's Village Market (65), and the macaroni and cheese from The Friar's Nook (68).

Tomorrowland - Did you know that each land in MK is themed to reflect a resort in the MK area? Main Street USA resembles the Grand Floridian, Adventureland resembles the Grand Polynesian, and Tomorrowland is meant to evoke the (now faux) futuristic theming of Disney's Contemporary Resort. Modeled after a time when the year 2000 still meant flying cars and Moon bases (sigh...) Tomorrowland is also home to the other iconic ride at MK: Space Mountain (74). The only ride in Tomorrowland worth a FastPass, it is a ride I am intimately familiar with as I have ridden it enough times that I'm basically an astronaut, because that's how astronaut training works I'm fairly certain. Two other attractions in Tomorrowland that will draw long wait times and may be worth a FastPass are the Tomorrowland Speedway (73) and Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin (78). If you need a break from the heat, crowds, children, or all of the above there are three great rides that keep you stationary for a while: the Monsters, Inc. Laugh Floor (71), TTA PeopleMover (76), and the Carousel of Progress (77). The Carousel of Progress, while factually incorrect, is the purest look into Walt Disney's vision for the future and in my mind the most important attraction in MK. Food in Tomorrowland is to be avoided as apparently food in the "future" means chicken tenders and hamburgers. Still, if you have a picky child or tired spouse (I've dealt with both) the rotisserie chicken at Cosmic Ray's Starlight Cafe (79) is actually quite good.

So that's the Magic Kingdom in a nutshell! To review, here are some quick shortcuts that will help you make the most of your time in MK:

FastPass Priorities:
1. Seven Dwarfs Mine Train
2. Space Mountain
3a. Splash Mountain (Spring/Summer)
3b. Peter Pan's Flight (Fall/Winter)

Extra FastPasses
4. Big Thunder Mountain
5. Winnie The Pooh
6. Haunted Mansion

Recommended Touring Plan: MSUSA => Tomorrowland (FP at Space Mountain) => Fantasyland (FP at Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, lunch at Be Our Guest) => Liberty Square => Frontierland (FP at Splash Mountain) =>Adventureland => Extra FPs and Snacks

Non-attraction highlights of MK- This begins and ends with Wishes. There is nothing more magical than watching Cinderella's castle light up with fireworks while holding the most perfect approximation of happiness on earth, a churro. Or five, like I did during my last trip to WDW. I'm not ashamed of this. God's manna is a fried stick of dough rolled in cinnamon sugar. It's not really open to interpretation...where was I? Right, Wishes. It starts at 10 PM most nights so be sure to grab a spot on the bridge to Tomorrowland or in the garden in front of Crystal Palace with churros in hand by about 9:15. There will be congestion and there will be lots of traffic in front of the castle so this is a great time to take a seat, charge your phones, and relax until the show starts. Parts of the park are also cordoned off by Cast Members so if you are planning to make an ADR or FastPass at this time be sure to be near it before 9 PM rolls around. Otherwise take a seat and be prepared to cry, eat churros, cry into your churros, and smile when you know you can get a churro after the show. In case you didn't know I really like churros.

Can you do everything at MK in a day? Yes, yes you can. But it will be tough. Be prepared to walk about 10 miles and be completely spent by the time Wishes rolls around. If you are bent on completing this feat, I would recommend snacking or sharing food every few hours instead of having a large table service meal. Also, snacks and energy gels are allowed in your daypack so plan accordingly if you want to use Extra Magic Hours to your advantage.

Monday, August 29, 2016

The Rainbow Connection

"So we've been told
And some choose to believe it
I know they're wrong, wait and see
Some day we'll find it
The rainbow connection
The lovers, the dreamers, and me."

It is said that Noah saw a rainbow after the flood. A rainbow that was a promise that never again would a flood come to destroy all life. A reminder of a covenant between God and His people. 

In the midst of the devastating flooding that occurred in Louisiana a week ago something as ethereal as a promise rings hollow. Countless hours have already been dedicated to tearing down homes and throwing away memories and countless more will be spent searching for ways to rebuild and capture the normalcy which has evaded us in a time where normalcy is all we should have known. Fall is a time of familiarity, of regimented school schedules and creeping nostalgia; and for many the upcoming holidays will be spent in a hotel room or at a relative's house. Gone is the chance to prepare a house for family or welcome old friends to tailgates, stolen by a thousand-year event that seems all too familiar nowadays. And the questions this fall, usually centered around pumpkin spice and Tiger quarterbacks, will be more subdued. People asking where, why, how, and most importantly:

What do we do now? 

Except that question has already been answered by the people of Louisiana: we rebuild. No matter whether you are a native or transplant, the true test of being a Louisianan is whether or not you help your neighbor. Over three hundred years of fighting to survive disease, wars, and bureaucrats have encoded within our souls a first instinct to help one another. We found out very quickly we could not and would not be reliant on outsiders for help. And help us they did not. The French ceded this land to the Spanish who ceded it back to Frace and the two powers played a game of continental back and forth until the Americans bought us for a song. The Union and Confederacy did not do much better. More recently, the protesters came and went as far as their Twitter mentions would carry them. Our metrics don't inspire faith just as much as our climate does not inspire celebration. Yet somehow we are experts in both. Our strength is in our connection. Our Rainbow Connection. 

Kermit the Frog was not far off when he sang of a connection that he has yet to find. Something that exists within all of us and manifests itself when we choose to believe. It truly exists here in the citizenry of this state. It's a promise we have made to each other. A silent covenant that bonds us across lines of age, race, and economy. We are Louisiana. We help each other. And we will continue to do so. 

Look what it's done so far.  

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Growing Up

On the end of a street lived a little girl who loved to smile. Everywhere she went the world shone brighter and she was happy. But one day her parents, who were very serious adults, decided it was time she grew up. "No more smiling," they said. "Reasonable adults do not smile. They are serious individuals with serious matters to tend to." The little girl was heartbroken and she began to cry. As she cried, the skies opened up outside and a torrent of rain doused the end of the street. The little girl walked out on her porch and thought she would never be happy again.

The little girl cried for the longest time but as her sobs began to subside the clouds lifted. The sun peeked through the storm clouds and a little boy on a yellow bicycle pulled up to the curb. He walked up to the little girl and asked her what was wrong. She replied that her parents had told her she could never smile again, because adults are serious individuals with serious matters to tend to and they wanted so bad for her to become an adult. A wry smile crept over the boy's face and he asked her to walk to the edge of the street with her. 

"Adults understand nothing," he began to say. "The serious matters they speak of are matters of money and circumstance, things which are inconsequential to a smile. A smile is the simplest form of currency. It cannot be bought or sold, but it can be exchanged for the two most valuable things in the world: love and happiness." He then motioned for the little girl to turn around.

As the little girl turned around, she saw the dour garden which had framed her house had been transformed into a beautiful oasis of color. "While you were crying, the sun which surrounded your world grew dim and gave way to the rain. But, as with everything worth having, the most beautiful things in life will always require a little bit of joy and a little bit of suffering. It is only then that you can truly appreciate the gifts which we are given and the responsibilities which are required of us."

Then the little girl understood. A true adult knows how to be serious, for being serious requires the sacrifice of childhood. But that sacrifice is done in the hopes that the next day brings childlike joy for others, and a smile. It is in this balance we find what makes us happy. Growing up is never a sentence to be serious, but a chance to remember the joy of a child and bring it further into the world.

The End. 

Sunday, November 1, 2015

After all my questions, I'm gonna call it home...

Dreams do come true in New Orleans. Dr. Reams, thank you for being my trusted mentor and committee chair in the midst of my doubt. Your confidence in my abilities ignited a sincere passion in me I had not felt since elementary school. I am here because of the countless hours you, Dr. Dismukes, Dr. Lam, and Dr. Keim invested into my studies, my thesis, and most importantly, myself. I am forever in debt because you took a chance on a student with a questionable GPA and an eagerness to prove himself. I would also like to than Lauren DeFrank for providing me with invaluable insight into her thesis which was a foundation for my writing and research. I would also like to thank the National Science Foundation and LSU Center for Energy Studies for funding that allowed me to conduct my research for this thesis.

Mom, I did it! You are my rock and strength in the quiet times when I needed reassurance in my faith and mission. I love you more than I’ll ever be able to express. Dad, you’ve always been there for me. I never had a question you didn’t have an answer to, and the right one to boot. You believed in me and trusted me to this end. I can only hope to be a fraction of the father and hero you are to me someday.

Michael, you and I share a special bond. You don’t even need to read this to know what I’m about to say. We cried as babies, we fought as children, we competed as teenagers, and we are inseparable as adults. You’re the best brother in the world and no matter where our lives take us, you will always be the person I turn to for everything first.

My family is amazing. Without them I wouldn’t have this opportunity to succeed beyond my highest expectations. My cousins deserve a special mention: Rookie, Nick, Shanti, and Tiffany. Thanks for being there every step of the way!

I can’t begin to thank all of the families who have welcomed me into their homes and made me an adopted son in my time in Baton Rouge. Jeannie, Mike, Christian, and Katie; there’s a reason luck is part of your last name. I am so lucky and blessed to know you! Cheryl, Chad, Logan, Lance, and Leah; thank you so much for being there for me from the very start and helping me every step of the way. All of the awesome advice in life and in Christ I received from one member of my “families” or another is the most invaluable resource I will have from my time in Baton Rouge. To Bonnie, John, Jackie, Meg, and Matt Begue; words cannot express how lucky I am to have you all as a sounding board to laugh, think, and celebrate. Same for the Brodnaxes, Catos, Noels, Sieberths, Struppecks…the list goes on forever. Thank you for all of your support and prayer. You all mean the world to me.

First Presbyterian, you have my heart. Every Sunday I would be greeted with handshakes and hugs whether I had the greatest or worst week ever. The lessons I learned from the kids in Children’s Ministry will ring truer than any lesson given in a collegiate classroom. As I prepare to move further into the world, I can say with conviction my bond with Christ is so much deeper because of you. From Pastor Gerrit’s sermons to the indescribable fun I’ve had in Kingdom Kids and Quest and VBS, I hope I’ve made as huge an impact on the life of my church as you have on me.

All of my Teen Titans deserve a shoutout. You guys dealt with me at Blast From The Past and VBS, rolled your sleeves up to work, and got to prank me way too many times. The most fun I’ve had on this journey was with you. Jackie, you are my best friend and little sister I never had. I can’t wait to see you write your own amazing story. Anna, David, Jonathan, Sloane, Anna Catherine, Savannah, Elizabeth, Claire, and Alaina; you guys are all superheroes. If you learn anything from me, wear the socks and bring the chaos.

Every actor needs a supporting cast to be great, but my best friends are much more than that. They deserve the spotlight as well. Gus, without your caffeine and friendship I would never have gotten this far. Tiffany, your candor for GCCS led me to this moment and I hope you will be inspired by mine as well. Celeste, your kindness and compassion have done more than wear off on me, not to mention your perseverance and brilliance! Brittany, your future is so bright I needed sunglasses to write this sentence. I am so lucky to have every one of you in my life.

New Orleans, you were my first love. You raised a native son who will carry in him a black and gold soul forever. This is for you, not to grieve over Katrina, but to remember those days as a reminder that out of the most terrible of tragedies a hope can arise that sings to all corners of the world a song of salvation, love, redemption, and rebirth. As Chris Rose said, “to be engaged in some small way in the revival of one of the great cities of the world is to live a meaningful existence by default.”

My final acknowledgement is for my mentor, Mr. Nathan Woods. You passed far before this dream was realized, but you imbued me with a talent for service. You led me to the Gardere Community Christian School and gave me the heart for all of these kids and this neighborhood through the Red Ball Express. This is my novella writ because of you. 

I know I’m not home, but I’m on my way. But in the meantime, I’m tired of the things that are. This is but a stepping stone to a new story, a fairy tale I will read openly. Most will agree that a man should not read fairy tales, but “when I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.” All grown-ups were once children, but only few of them remember it. 

Here’s to happily ever after. 

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Being Leslie Knope: Part 1

Parks and Recreation was one of the best shows in recent memory to grace our television screens. It was funny, poignant, and an inside peek into the far-from-glamorous world of municipal bureaucracy, albeit comedically exaggerated. Which was alright with me. A veteran of state government internships and survivor of multiple red tape mummifications, the true value of Parks and Rec was not the writing, acting, or receiving; but the moments when policies driven feverishly by the incomparable Leslie Knope won. It gave all of us who work in public policy hope that one day we too would become Knopes in our own department, rather than nopes who saw far too many of their good ideas skewered and left to bleed out on a conference room floor. Of course the comedy in P&R came when those glorious policies failed, either at the hand of a public forum or in implementation as everything backfired. We've all been there Knope.

This is the first installation in a series of posts I am doing to help me with preparing for my weekly MPA class in program evaluation. You will get a policy-backed explanation of the Parks Department's best and worst ideas from someone with two degrees in environmental policy and I will get to binge watch my favorite show of all time and call it studying? Win. Win. Win. And off we go.

The first policy I will be tackling is the Pawnee River cleanup. Program evaluation is a five-step cycle which includes program evaluation, problem definition, policy formulation, policy adoption, and policy implementation. I'll bullet these steps to make the identification easier. 

Problem definition: the Pawnee River needs to be cleaned up
Policy formulation: workers will be hired using grant funding to clean up the river
Policy adoption: once we get the grant money, a bill will be written to begin cleanup
Policy implementation: the cleanup of the river will begin
Program evaluation: temporal analysis of river cleanliness

That's it in a nutshell. Unfortunately I have five more pages of notes so we're about to do some digging, Pawnee-style. 

There are common components in the evaluation process that loosely determine the impact and validity of a program. They are listed below in the scope of the river cleanup:

Theoretical foundation: the theoretical underpinning is the river is dirty and we need to clean it up
Operationalization: the main indicator of this program's impact is the cleanliness of the river
Measurement: sample data will be collected to gauge water quality and aesthetic value will be measured by sporadic sweeps of the river bank
Impact analysis: public feedback, recreational use, and wildlife vitality will be the principle measures of impact
Policy judgement: If the indicators reach a certain level then the program is worth maintaining

Evaluation is considered the “systematic assessment of the operation and/or the outcomes of a program or policy, compared to a set of explicit or implicit standards, as a means of contributing to the improvement of the program or policy.” With this, there are key elements that help to define policies and programs: systematic assessment, focuses on processes and outcomes, standards for comparison, and the practical purpose of a program. 

For the river cleanup these elements are easy to define. A systematic assessment would be both quantitative (water quality data) and qualitative (aesthetic appeal). The focus on the process and outcomes would be related to how the river was cleaned up and the end result based on data. A standard for comparison would be an equally polluted river funded by federal grant money and the purpose would be obvious.

Focusing on these evaluation efforts, we can begin to discuss the outcomes of the river cleanup based on cause-and-effect questions, descriptive questions, process question, and normative questions, or the questions based on an ideal level of river pollution. 

Evaluation is different than basic research. For instance, a basic research question would seek to understand the level of pollution in the river before and after. A policy evaluation must measure many more things, including utility, program-derived questions, judgmental quality, action settings after the program is complete, role conflicts, publication intent, and allegiance. 

There are also boilerplate questions to consider when implementing a program. Before she hatched the plan to cleanup Pawnee River, these may have been the questions floating around in Leslie Knope's mind:

What are the stakes of the program? A healthier river for all and a quality of life improvement for the citizens of Pawnee.
Does the program impact a large number of people? It will, seeing as the river comprises a large area in Pawnee.
Is the program innovative? Not necessarily, but the river has been neglected and is thus polluted.
Can the program be replicated in other settings? Absolutely.
Has the program been evaluated before? Most likely, but given the town's history not in Pawnee.
Can the results of the program evaluation be used to inform the policy process? Yes.
Is the program strategically relevant? Yes.

So here is the crux of the program evaluation process: the logic model. A logic model is a description of how a program will achieve its intended result. This step is critical in visualizing the ideal outcome for a program and any pitfalls which may await it. The logic model is a three-step process:

1. Implementation - What are the inputs, outputs, and activities in the program? The input into the program will be a federal riverbed preservation grant which will help volunteers and staff clean up the Pawnee River. The major output of the program will be lower levels of pollution in the river and an increased sense of civic pride. Activities will be related to the grant writing and cleaning processes.
2. Results - What are the outcomes and final outcomes of the program? A cleaner Pawnee River and the precedent to keep it that way.
3. Assumptions and Risks - The major assumption Leslie had was the receipt of federal funds to help her clean the river up. She also took the risk that, in the middle of her turbulent tenure as city councilor, her constituency would supper her cleanup efforts.

I'll spare you the actual logic model, but you can see how it works.

After developing a logic model, the next step a trained civil servant like Leslie would have done would be to have developed hypotheses (if-then statements) about the model. Questions like "if we receive federal funding, the cleanup will be finished six months ahead of schedule" and "if we use activated charcoal, then the amount of x pollutant will be reduced." Things like that. The main thing we are looking for in a program is causal inference, or the impact that a program (P), has on an interest (Y). Essentially, if P can be shown to have a positive relation to Y then the program was worth implementing (O = (Y|P = 1) - (Y|P = 0)). This is shown hilariously in such cases as Leslie's bailout of the Pawnee Video Dome (funding (P) brought the Video Dome (Y) out of bankruptcy (positive relationship) but led it to become an adult video store and backlash from Ron and some citizens) and the implementation of a soda tax in Pawnee (the tax (P) led to lower levels of obesity and diabetes (Y) but (unintended consequence alert!) led to public backlash and her eventual recall). Policymakers like Leslie must weigh the hope for a positive causal inference against counterfactual evidence, or what would have happened if a program was never implemented. In the case of the Video Dome, the store would have gone bankrupt, an easy counterfactual. But in the case of the soda tax, would levels of obesity and diabetes have gone down without the tax? It seems obvious, but policymakers can never take outcomes for granted or assume based on past data.

So now we arrive at the end of our first lesson on how to Leslie Knope program evaluations: measuring the impact of a program. There are 5 measures that can be used when evaluating a program: program outcomes, unintended consequences, interim measures of progress, program processes, and program inputs. As a program, cleaning up the Pawnee River is an easy measure. The inputs and processes are defined and interim measures can be analyzed very easily as well.

In public policy today there is a push toward a results- and/or outcomes-based accountability for policymakers who are feeling the heat from their constituency, a 24-hour media cycle, and budget constraints. If you have ever witnessed a public forum in an episode of Parks and Rec, it is simply easier to articulate concrete outcomes to a frothing mass than to micromanage small deadlines and have to explain each and every one. Policymakers must be able to be transparent, sound honest, and reach a mutually-agreed upon bottom line within the collective attention span of militant action groups, overly concerned citizens, and people who showed up just to pick a fight. Rarely if ever does a policymaker accomplish this, but just as Leslie is the definition of the uber-bureaucrat we strive to be, the ideal forum is out there.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of Being Leslie Knope: Policymaking From Pawnee to Program Evaluation 1001.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

I Know What It Means: Katrina Plus Ten

Dear New Orleans,

I never wrote a eulogy.

Even as reports of flooding broadcast over the airwaves, I never stopped believing. Even as the stories from refugees arriving to Nicholls from the Superdome filled my eyes with tears and my heart with sadness, not once. I was a New Orleanian. I was gonna stay a New Orleanian, even as the hell and high water settled into my hometown.

We didn't know the why, who, what, or when; but we knew the where. New Orleans.

And we doesn't refer to pre-Katrina. It refers to pre-everything. It takes a crazy person to build a city on so tenuous a strip of land, between two mighty bodies of water which hearken life and death, promise and poverty. So we live out Bienville's memory in the best way we can: party until the laws of man or nature stop us. New Orleans has always been a capital: capital of trade, capital of sugar, capital of sin, and capital pain in the ass to everyone who has ever flown a flag above it. Hell, we were even the capital of Louisiana for a stretch until they took that away from us and gave it to a sibling city up north. These days we'd like to be remembered as one more capital: the capital of rebirth. And through sallow, swollen eyes we tell you this.

Rebuilding wasn't always a walk in Audubon Park like the news outlets will tell you this week. A populous christened for celebration was faced with the most daunting urban recovery project since 9/11. Where many thought we would fail we didn't. Where many thought we would quit we ascended. And that was just in the Superdome. When you love something enough to call it home, no challenge is too big to succeed. Rhythmic sledgehammers knocking away moldy drywall turned to staccato hammers building new houses, the spirit of which became a second line on Mardi Gras Day. The journey of rebirth became a celebration in and of itself, a local knowledge passed down a sacred bloodline shared by all New Orleanians from the time of Bienville. We just had to experience it anew, alas in the most dire of conditions.

And even in the midst of the celebration, there are those we left behind. Those still struggling with the reality of a storm which severed an already gossamer existence, ethereal even more so than the dead whose monuments they must live near in a cruel juxtaposition of circumstance. Those which the politicians and revelers only see as a number, a metric on a dreary report. These are the ones we must remember. These are the ones we must not forget.

We are a new city. When Katrina went right, many went left: to Baton Rouge, Houston, Atlanta, and many other places where Katrina means a Fleur-de-Lis on the porch and a walk to the local sports bar to see the Saints. To those places, we say thank you. Perhaps the biggest outpouring of charity was not from those who came to New Orleans in the aftermath of the storm but those who cared for the broken hearts who had nowhere else to go. You selflessly opened your homes to us when we did not know where Home really was anymore. When we returned Home we returned with hearts mended by colors of all hue; and in true New Orleanian fashion we worked feverishly in our rebuilding with one eye toward personally inviting you onto our porch one day and returning the favor of unexpected charity with a bowl of gumbo and long conversation as excerpts from Louis Armstrong swirled the summer air into something magical.

We are a strong city. We even surprised ourselves. Well, not more than Drew Brees and the rest of the 2009 Saints. When we had no legs to stand on, they lifted us up. Out of our seats. Out of the Superdome. All the way to Miami. There is no hyperbole when I say I cried tears of joy until I was physically sick after Garrett Hartley sent us to the Super Bowl. Laughing and crying and heaving until I was on the floor. It was the best moment of my life. Sport is inconsequential in the grand scheme of life until it becomes a catalyst for civic change. In those rare moments when it transcends competition, sport has the ability to make anything possible and one night in February when I danced on the roof of a car high-fiving strangers is proof of that. A city scorned and left for dead in 2005 ruled the world for one night in 2010, and we've never been the same since.

We are a reverent city. Even beyond the cathedral, we respect our culture and the mores which made it so. Comus doesn't parade anymore (for all the wrong reasons), but still participate in the biggest tradition of Mardi Gras. Disney made a movie about us which turned into people asking me if singing alligators exist where I live. They do, sometimes. The dreaded g-word is tearing apart the fabric of our dear city. It seems as if the real threat of Katrina was not the water, but the attention. New Orleans finds herself a commodity. Authenticity can be bartered for, experiences paid. But the real locals, from the ones born and bred here to the transplants who fell in love and stayed, know that the authenticity of the real New Orleans experience takes no effort. If you're trying too hard, you might just want to try not trying at all.

Which isn't to say we don't try. Lord knows the last ten years has been a trying time. We have our problems and we have our flaws, but when the music is right and the food is good, you just can't help yourself. Maybe that's our ultimate hamartia: we'll never advance past a hot trumpet and a plate of red beans. But why would you want to? The world needs a place to relax. And when we empty the pot and the trumpet cools, we'll get back to work. Just like we have for the last three hundred years. And just like we will for the next three hundred.

Thank you for raising me a New Orleanian. Thank you for feeding me like a New Orleanian. And thank you for blessing my life with the most beautiful gift of all: your soul.