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Thursday, March 5, 2015

Relax and Enjoy the Scenery on a Winter Park Boat Tour

Winter Park Boat Tour
Photo courtesy of scenicboattours.com
If you've been to Orlando enough times, the whole theme park scene gets kind of old. Even if you've never been here before, sometimes you just need a day to kick back, relax and unwind - you're on vacation after all!

One thing you can do to turn your vacation into ... well ... a vacation, is head up to Winter Park for the Orlando area's most unique and casual shopping experience. Just a half hour North of the theme parks, there's really no better place to head if you want to pick up something totally different for that hard to shop for person (especially if that "someone" is you).

There's more to do in Winter Park than just shop, though. There are several excellent restaurants, a number of great museums and something that even few locals know about - the Winter Park Scenic Boat Tours. American Car Rental's Karen, who could spend days just strolling up and down Park Avenue, shopping, likes to give her feet a break now and then and take a relaxing boat ride through the tranquil waters of Winter Park before heading back to the shops, looking for the next "rare find."

Leaving from Lake Osceola, the hour long cruise navigates three of the seven lakes in the area's chain of lakes as well as two canals. At any given time, you may see a variety of cranes diving into the water after the large fish that populate the waters. Because the waters are so clear, you'll likely see some bird's next meal as you glide along. Don't be surprised if you see an alligator or two lazily basking in the sun, too!

A popular spot for boaters, you're bound to see plenty of people water skiing, jet skiing and don't be surprised if you see the Rollins College crew team working out in preparation for their next big race.

What people really enjoy about the cruise is the narrated tour. You'll pass by some of the most impressive mansions in the Orlando area and learn about some of the inhabitants of those palatial estates. The immaculate lawns and landscaping are beautiful and blend in perfectly with the yawning cypress trees, dense ferns, swaying palm trees and sub-tropical flowers that line the shores.

Less than five minutes from Park Avenue's sidewalk shopping and dining, Winter Park Scenic Boat Tours is located at the east end of Morse Blvd. where it meets Lake Osceola. Tours leave every hour, on the hour, beginning at 10:00 am. The last cruise departs at 4:00 pm. You can experience boat tours every day of the year except Christmas day.

Admission is only $12.00 for adults and $6.00 for children age 2-11 (under 2 is free). You can't find a whole lot to do in the Orlando area for less money than that!

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

It's Manatee Season in Florida - See Them at Blue Spring State Park

Manatees at Blue Spring State Park
One of the greatest things about visiting Florida is being able to see wildlife that you can't see at home. Whether it is a pod of dolphins swimming through the surf, a majestic hawk or egret soaring high above or a lizard hopping from leaf to leaf in a bush, there is almost always some new animal encounter to experience.

One of the most magical wildlife experiences - spotting a Manatee in the wild - only happens during the winter season. This is the only time of year when you can count on seeing manatees if you know where to go. If you're in the Orlando area, that place would be Blue Spring State Park. American Car Rental's Nariusky lists Blue Springs as one of her favorite places to see wildlife in Florida.

The springs, themselves, feed over 104 million gallons of water into the St. Johns river per day. An extensive underwater cave system exists which supplies a stream of warm, crystal clear water year round. It is this warm, pure water that attracts a growing number of West Indies manatees to the park every year.

Scuba divers, especially, like coming to Blue Spring State Park. Exploring the underwater cave system is always a big thrill and the year round 72° water temperature make it possible to dive during all seasons. In fact, Jacques Cousteau filmed his 1971 documentary, The Forgotten Mermaids, at Blue Spring State Park, which brought international focus to the plight of the endangered manatees.

Snorkelers, too, enjoy floating on top of the water and seeing much further down than they can typically see in other bodies of water. Even swimmers and people in canoes or kayaks enjoy the crystal clear waters and wildlife that abounds in the park.

Blue Spring State Park is home to at least 15 threatened or endangered plants and animals. In addition to manatees, it is home to black bears, the Florida scrub jay, gopher tortoises, alligators, a variety of hawks and wading birds as well as being one of only two known places where Okeechobee gourds live.

Because Blue Spring State Park is a designated manatee refuge, the spring and spring run are closed to all water activities including swimming, diving, boating and snorkeling from November 15 to March 15. This ensures that the manatees can exist in a safe, natural, undisturbed environment.

This doesn't mean that you can't enjoy them; though, there are viewing platforms that allow visitors to see plenty of  the "sea cows." Don't be surprised if you see mom and calf manatee pairs doing barrel rolls as they swim underneath you!

Thursby House at Blue Spring State Park
After spending a day viewing manatees or enjoying the water, you can check out the Thursby plantation, built in 1872, which is located within the park. Nearby, you can also enter the haunted Russ House if you dare. For an amusing experience, stop by Cassadega, a town known for its mediums, fortune tellers and psychics, on your way in or out of the park.

Blue Spring State Park is open every day of the year from 8:00 am to sunset on a first come, first served basis. When the park is full (which happens early during busy seasons), no more visitors will be allowed access to the park until others leave the park. A waiting line of vehicles is a frequent occurrence.

Admission fees to Blue Spring State Park are as follows:
  • Per vehicle: $6.00 (maximum of 8 people; $2.00 per extra passenger)
  • Single Occupant Vehicle: $4.00
  • Pedestrians & Bicyclists: $2.00

Thursday, December 4, 2014

ZOOm Air Adventure Park - A Bird's Eye View at the Central Florida Zoo

ZOOm Air Adventure Park - photos courtesy of zoomair.us
One of the most fun things to do at the zoo is watching the monkeys swing from tree to tree. "Why let the monkeys have all the fun?" says American Car Rental's Nariusky. Whenever she wants to let loose her wild, untamed side, she heads to ZOOm Air Adventure Park.

Located within the forest of the blackwater floodplain swamp at the Central Florida Zoo, ZOOm Air Adventure Park gives visitors an opportunity to test their strength, balance and resolve.

Treetop adventures of varying difficulty levels are available at ZOOm Air and are popular with individuals, families and companies who use the park for team building exercises. In addition to several zip lines, activities encountered during each adventure course may include swinging or rope bridges, tight wires, barrel crawls, T-bars, dancing logs and "spider web" crawls.

The Upland Course (54 inch minimum height requirement)

The Upland Course allows you to gradually accustom yourself to heights, eventually progressing to activities 35 feet above the ground. For folks who decide that is a bit too high, the course offers alternative routes that keep you closer to terra firma. With four different zip lines and 30 different activities, you're sure to use every muscle in your body to complete the course - often times with muscles you never knew you had!

At an estimated completion time of an hour and a half, the Upland Course certainly is a lengthy challenge. Fortunately, there is a zip line at the halfway point that takes you back to the ground, giving you a chance to visit the restroom or grab a drink of water before continuing on with the rest of the course.

The Rainforest Course (54 inch minimum height requirement)

Although "only" an hour in estimated duration, the Rainforest Course may be a shorter course than the Upland Course but it is is even more of a challenge. In fact, Zoom Air will not let you even attempt the course until you have established that you can cope with the upper heights and challenges of the Upland Course. You can only do the Rainforest Course the same day you have completed the Upland Course!

There are 30 different challenges within the Rainforest Course and a total of five zip lines, including two ultra long 500 foot ones at the beginning and end of the course. For folks who'd like to experience only the 500 foot zip lines after completing the Upland Course, a special Big Zips add-on can be purchased.

Kids' Course (ages 4 and up, 36-60 inches in height)

Really, two courses in one, ZOOm Air Adventure Park's Kids' Course allows children age 4 and above to participate in their own eco and fitness adventure. With their parent walking alongside them, below, children first progress through the kids' version of the Upland Course, challenging themselves with activities that are only four feet from the ground. The Kids' Upland Course finishes with a very low zip line.

After completing the Kids' Uplands course, they continue onto the Jungle portion of the course. There is a challenge waiting behind every tree on the Jungle Course, which features many ground games as well as tests that take place up to ten feet off the ground, finishing with a zip line swing.

All depending on a child's age, ability and determination, the entire Kids' Course takes from 45 minutes to an hour and a half to complete.


I should definitely point out that safety is a priority at ZOOm Air Adventure Park. Before being admitted to the course, all participants are given thorough instructions on how to safely proceed through each activity and use the equipment. At no time are individuals ever in any real danger; two slings are clipped to a "red life line" that ensure that you will never plummet to the earth in the event that you fall during your adventure.

In addition to the safety equipment provided, ZOOm Air staff on the ground are always monitoring the progress of each participant and are available to assist you in the event that you have any questions or concerns along the way. If at any point during their journey, an individual decides that they simply cannot go any further, specially trained ZOOm Air staff are at the ready to get that person safely to the ground.

Although by no means do you have to be an athlete to complete one of the courses, you do need to be in decent physical condition, free from injuries, have the use of both arms and legs and the ability to walk and balance reasonably well. You will need good vision and hearing and if you wear eyeglasses, you should definitely wear a strap that keeps them secured to your face.

Prices & Hours

ZOOm Air Adventure Park opens at 9:00 am every day except Thanksgiving and Christmas and their closing time varies by season, all depending when dusk is. Generally speaking, they stop admitting people about three hours before it gets dark so that everyone can complete both courses if they choose to.

Kid's Course: $18.25
     - second round on kids course: $11.95
Upland Course: $28.25
     - add Big Zips after Upland: $13.95
Upland & Rainforest Course: $48.25
Family Pack (Upland & Rainforest for 4 people): $149.95

Annual Pass: $175.00
Kids Course Annual Pass: $125.00

If you want additional information or would like to book a large group event, you can contact Zoom Air Adventure Park at 407-330-0767 or visit their website.

Florida Travel Sleuth Quote of the Day: "It is only in adventure that some people succeed in knowing themselves - in finding themselves." - Andre Gide

Monday, November 24, 2014

You Might Want to Think Twice About Declining The Collision Damage Waver When Driving in Florida!

head-on car crash
Florida car accidents happen far too frequently!
While driving through an unfamiliar city, some driver pulls out in front of you, or locks up his brakes for no apparent reason, or makes a sudden right turn from the left lane (not bothering to signal, of course), causing you to almost get into a car accident. "This city has the worst drivers on the entire planet!" you'll hear yourself screaming (perhaps, along with an expletive or two directed at the other driver).

I've lived and driven in plenty of places where I heard myself screaming a similar sentiment (although, admittedly, my outbursts may have been a little more colorful). Nowhere have I ever driven where I see as many death defying vehicular moves than in Florida, though. The reason is pretty simple - we have more people driving around this state that don't know where they are going than probably anywhere else in the world.

Basically, you have three types of drivers in Florida and those three different driver types combine to form a very deadly combination:
  • Senior citizens
  • Tourists
  • Regular everyday commuters
Senior Citizen Drivers

In case you haven't heard, the state of Florida is an excellent place to retire to. Every year, seniors flock to the warmer, no-hassle, low tax state and make it their new home (or they purchase a second home here to live during the winter months as "snowbirds"). Because of that, there are a TON of senior citizens driving cars in Florida.

Generally speaking, senior citizens tend to be overly cautious drivers (read that as "slow"). Maybe their reflexes aren't what they used to be or maybe their eyesight is poor. Needless to say, we've all been behind the slowly moving senior citizen driver roadblock.

Seniors are also known to pull into an intersection very slowly and accelerate very gradually - something that is annoying enough when making a turn from a traffic light but very dangerous when merging with traffic.

Worse, is the senior who suddenly makes a move with no apparent concern for any vehicle around them. Perhaps physical limitations keep them from being able to turn their heads to see if there is someone in their left or right blind spot. Maybe they have other things on their mind and simply forget to check.

Of the three driver types, senior citizens are probably the safest of the bunch, though. Because they do things slowly, other drivers have more time to react to their driving misdeeds. Nevertheless, they certainly contribute to the obstacles any driver has to be on the lookout for.

Tourist Drivers

Florida is the vacation capitol of the world for a very good reason. We have great weather year round, fantastic beaches and some of the most visited tourist attractions in the world. People come to Florida from all over the world to spend their vacations and holidays in "the Sunshine State."

Unfortunately, tourists often have no clue how to get to where they are driving and are looking more at the things around them than they are at the road. Whether reading a map or getting directions from a GPS navigation unit, the tourist has one eye on the road and another on how to get to where they want to go.

Of course, looking at maps or GPS devices isn't the only thing distracting the tourist driver. They are looking at all of the new sights, scoping out things to do, places to shop, restaurants to eat at. They miss speed limits signs while they are checking out gas prices, they miss exit signs while they are staring at theme park billboards, they miss stop signs and traffic lights while they are talking excitedly with their families.

Then, there is unfamiliarity with the roads. Far too often, you will see cars driving down the wrong side of the street in Florida or trying to enter a highway via the exit ramp. Some of this may have to do with so many international visitors who are used to driving on the opposite side of the road. In many cases, though, it is simply due to missing a sign that says "DO NOT ENTER" or "WRONG WAY."

And, let us not forget that many tourists are drivers from foreign countries who do not speak English as their native language (if at all). It's hard figuring out how to get somewhere and to obey traffic laws when you can't read the signs!

The tourist is definitely the most dangerous driver of them all. They are accidents waiting to happen and in heavy tourist areas (pick a Florida city), when you combine all of those distracted drivers navigating cars in an unfamiliar environment, you are bound to see a rise in traffic accidents and fatalities.

Regular Everyday Commuters

You would think that locals would be the safest drivers on the road. They know where they are going, after all. Unfortunately, when you live and work in a town, you have things to do, places to be, people to see. Driving is not a leisure activity; it is a means of getting from point A to point B in order to get the next thing on the list done.

Driving to and from work, dropping/picking the kids up from school or soccer practice, squeezing in an errand, stopping by the grocery store on the way home so that you can get dinner prepared quickly. There is always so much to do and there never seems to be enough time to everything.

We are always running late and need to make up that time somewhere. Unfortunately, those senior drivers and tourists are gumming up the works. They are in our way, we are scared of what frightful driving maneuver they might do next and naturally, we want to stay as far away from those people as possible.

Therefore, locals pull some of the dumbest driving moves of them all - shooting into small gaps between vehicles, zig-zagging through traffic, driving faster than the posted speed limits, failing to stop at traffic signals (not because we don't see them, but because they, too, are a hindrance). Not enough hours in the day combined with overconfidence make local drivers almost as scary as all of the tourists driving around town!

Does Florida Have the Worst Drivers?

Every city and state has probably had somebody exclaim at some point in time that it is the worst place in the world to drive. Unfortunately, there are very few actual, measurable statistics that can provide the definitive answer as to which city, state or country has the worst drivers.

A few months ago, Slate Magazine tried to sort through all of the data from insurance companies and various government statistical bureaus to come up with the definitive answer. Things like fatalities, drunk driving, pedestrian-involved accidents and the amount of miles driven per trip were factored in to arrive at their list of the most dangerous cities in which to drive. They published their findings in the article, "Which City has the Worst Drivers."

Although their article only lists the five worst cities, along with a brief description of what makes them so dangerous, they do include a downloadable file toward the end of the article that lists the 39 cities in the United States with the worst drivers. As you can see, Florida not only took the top spot (Miami has the worst drivers in the entire country), but Florida has the dubious honor of having 5 of the top 8 cities with the worst drivers:
  1. Miami, Florida
  2. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
  3. Hialeah, Florida
  4. Tampa, Florida
  5. Baltimore, Maryland
  6. New Orleans Louisiana
  7. Orlando, Florida
  8. Fort Lauderdale, Florida
  9. Houston, Texas
  10. Providence, Rhode Island
It's no shock at all to me; when you put those three driver types on the road together, it's no wonder you see traffic accidents almost everywhere you drive in Florida. We'd really all be better off in bumper cars here!

Far too often in the car rental industry, when we ask people if they would like to purchase a Collision Damage Waiver, we hear people say "I've never been in an accident before, so I don't need it" or "my insurance covers me."

Before quickly dismissing the extra protection, do yourself a favor and call your insurance company and/or credit card company and see if they cover "loss of use" - a charge that could have you paying for a car rental every day (at the daily rate) that car is out of commission due to an accident you were in - regardless of who is at fault. (Those days often stretch into weeks as your insurance company, the other car's insurance company and both vehicles' credit card companies bicker back and forth about who has to pay for damages, incidentally. All the while, the car sits, unrepaired, racking up loss of use charges.)

What you'll almost always discover is that they WILL NOT pay for loss of use or will put something in the fine print that says they will only cover loss of use if the car rental company provides a fleet utilization report showing all of their vehicles on rent - something that the courts have already ruled that car rental companies DO NOT have to provide to collect loss of use.

Because the courts have already decided those utilization reports are not necessary, no car rental company will provide them. In other words, your insurance company/credit card company almost never covers you for loss of use and you will be paying out of your own pocket for charges that are always in the hundreds and sometimes in the thousands of dollars, depending on the vehicle and how long it is out of commission.

The next time you are renting a car in Florida (or anywhere), ask yourself if it is really worth saving a few bucks a day as you head out into the mayhem known as "Florida driving." If I'm renting a car in a town that I am unfamiliar with, I always take the collision damage waiver. The added peace of mind costs very little when I compare it to all of the other money I spend on a vacation!

DISCLAIMER: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author only and do not necessarily reflect those of American Car Rental. As is the case with all generalities, nothing in this article is meant to suggest that ALL tourists, or ALL seniors, or ALL locals drive in the manner suggested, above. Generalities exist for a reason; though, if they didn't, insurance companies wouldn't use them as the basis for determining insurance rates.

Florida Travel Sleuth Quote of the Day: "Insurance: it's something you hope you never have to use but you are glad you have it when you need it." - Unknown 

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Video of World's Tallest Roller Coaster - The Skyscraper, coming to Orlando in 2016

Artist's rendering of Skyplex Skyscraper Roller Coaster
When it comes to roller coasters, there are few people that are bigger fans than I am. I remember the first ones I ever saw - at Kennywood Park in Pennsylvania when I was 6 years old. No matter how much I stretched my neck, they wouldn't let me on any of the coasters there because I was just a few inches shorter than the finger that stuck out from the wooden cutout of a freckled face boy that depicted the minimum height requirements.

Those Kennywood Park roller coasters were not without incident in those days, either. Dozens of people died on those wooden coasters when they derailed - something that made them all the more enticing for me back in the day.

Nowadays, the smooth rolling all-metal roller coasters have wrap-around wheels that make roller coaster accidents a thing of the past. Really, the only way a coaster can come off the tracks now is if the track, itself, fails. So, as terrifying as they may seem, few amusement park rides are as safe as a roller coaster.

I've ridden a lot of roller coasters through the years at parks like Magic Mountain, Six Flags, Hershey Park, Busch Gardens Williamsburg and Tampa, and, of course, all of the coasters at the Orlando Disney, Universal and Sea World parks. It's tough to pick a favorite, but I'd say that The Incredible Hulk and Rockin' Roller Coaster are near the top of the list, for different reasons.

There's a new roller coaster coming to town, though, and for the first time ever, it looks like something that I might be a little fearful of riding. The Skyscraper, set to debut in the hub of the tourist district in Orlando in the new I-Drive Skyplex complex, is pretty intimidating for a number of reasons.

First, it's  R E A L L Y  tall! At 570 feet tall, the Skyscraper will be the world's tallest roller coaster by a long shot. Currently, the tallest roller coaster in the world is Colossos at Heide Park in Germany and it is only 197 feet tall. Folks who are too chicken to ride this beast will have the opportunity to take the 55 story glass elevator to the top observation deck and look down on Orlando in all her glory. At night, I'm sure you'll be able to see fireworks exploding all around as the various theme parks put on their end of the day spectaculars.

Then, there is the length of the ride. At three minutes, there are certainly longer duration coasters in other parts of the world - especially wooden ones - but a ride on the Skyplex Skyscraper will be more than a half minute longer than any roller coaster in the Orlando area.

What my nerves are having a little problem dealing with is this roller coaster's speed. It's not the 65 MPH top speed that has me grimacing; there are plenty of coasters doing that or something near that speed and I drive at least that fast on my way to work. The problem I am having is the very slow speed that the roller coaster is moving when it turns riders sideways and upside down as it circles around the towering structure. My mind tells me that centrifugal force cannot possibly hold riders in place before gravity takes over!

See for yourself the animated video that depicts the Skyscraper ride and maybe you'll agree with me!

Florida Travel Sleuth Quote of the Day: "Worry is like a roller coaster ride that you think will take you somewhere, but it never does." - Shannon L. Alder

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Mojitos Ultra Lounge - Dancing to the Latino Beat in Orlando

Dance the night away at Mojitos Ultra Lounge
Miami isn't the only town in Florida where you can dance the night away. Mojitos Ultra Lounge is one of Orlando's best nightclubs where you can groove to a Latino beat. American Car Rental's Stephanie says it is one of her favorite clubs in the area!

Featuring both indoor and outdoor bars, different music is played in different spots at this popular nightclub in the Hunter's Creek area. Salsa, bachata, merengue - even electronic, top 40, hip hop and reggae ton pulse through the sound systems at various times. With at least three DJs (sometimes four), if you don't like what's playing in one area of the club, move to another and you'll surely find something you dance to.

Drinks are a little on the pricey side but not outrageous and there is a $10.00 cover charge to enter. The mojitos drinks are made with fresh fruit and are quite tasty, packing a little more punch than you may initially think!

Located at 13526 Village Park Drive (on the corner of John Young Parkway), Mojitos Ultra Lounge is open until 2:00 AM every day except for Sunday and Tuesday when it it closed. If you go on the weekend, expect the place to get pretty crowded after 11:00 PM.

If Stephanie's recommendation isn't enough for you. Check out the video, below. These people sure seem to be having a great time!

Florida Travel Sleuth Quote of the Day: "The one thing that can solve most of our problems is dancing." - James Brown

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Shopping, Restaurants, Art - Winter Park's Park Avenue Has It All!

Park Avenue in Winter Park (photo courtesy experienceparkavenue.com)
As hard as it may be to believe, many folks come to Orlando and spend half their time shopping instead of going to theme parks. Understandably, things are much less expensive for international visitors in Orlando than they are in most parts of the world. And, of course, the many factory outlet malls in Orlando offer bargains, regardless of where you are from.

Still, you aren't going to find much in the way of truly unique items or, as American Car Rental's Karen calls them, "rare finds." She says that if you really want to find that special something that nobody else has or the perfect gift for that hard to shop for person in your life, you HAVE TO head to Park Avenue in Winter Park.

Just a few miles North of Orlando, Park Avenue has some of the most unique stores and boutiques in all of Central Florida. Jewelry, art, antiques, knickknacks, porcelain vases, bowls & figurines, specialty kitchenware, gourmet food & spices - pretty much anything that is not everywhere else can be found here. Host to one of the most exclusive and highest rated art festivals in the country, Winter Park naturally has become the permanent home for many artists whose goods can be seen in many of the shops that line several blocks of Park Avenue. You might be surprised by some of the incredible bargains you can find if you have a keen eye.

Not just for shopping, Park Avenue has some excellent places to eat, too. More than 40 restaurants line the street where you can pop in for a casual yogurt, ice cream or bagel at a mom and pop shop or sit down to lavish meal at one of several award winning fine dining restaurants. Italian, Mexican, French, Tai, American, Turkish and everything in between await your palate.

Adjacent to a beautiful park that is host to various festivals throughout the year, the restaurants and shop-lined cobblestone streets of Park Avenue are just the beginning. Take a scenic boat tour and learn about the history of the area, explore nature and cruise by some of the most affluent homes in the Orlando area. Visit the Morse Museum and see one of the most extensive Tiffany collections in the world as well as classic American pottery and late 19th - early 20th century American paintings, graphics and other decorative art objects.

Nearby, you can visit the Albin Polasek Museum and Sculpture Garden, which features more than 200 American representational sculptures, the Cornell Fine Arts museum, home to a collection of more than 5,000 fine art pieces and the Winter Park History Museum, which is not only chock full of history, but is home to the weekly Saturday farmers market as well as many social balls and parties. Also nearby, you can treat yourself to the beautiful Mead Botanical Garden or the Kraft Azalea Garden as well as the Orlando Science Center, which features four floors of interactive exhibits.

For more active folks, tee it up at Central Florida's second oldest golf course, the Winter Park Country Club (one of the few golf courses you can still walk instead of riding in a golf cart), or visit Dinky Dock on beautiful Lake Virginia and go on a Venetian Paddleboard Canal Tour. Extreme action junkies will definitely want to check out Flyboard Rentals - also on Lake Virginia - and strap on an Iron Man-like jet pack and fly above the water or jump through waves headfirst like a dolphin.

It's no wonder that people say that it would take you more than a month to see and do everything in Orlando. Just the Park Avenue area has more than a week's worth of fun activities!