My dreams

Tuesday, March 16, 2004

Cypress Gardens: New owner promises rejuvenation

WINTER HAVEN, Florida -- The new owner of Cypress Gardens, one of Florida's oldest tourist attractions, is promising to rejuvenate the park of botanical gardens and water ski shows with new thrill rides and a water park to appeal to younger visitors.

In late February, Kent Buescher, owner of Wild Adventures in Valdosta, Ga., closed on the 68-year-old property in a complex real estate arrangement involving a nonprofit conservation group and state and local lawmakers. Government officials came up with funding for part of the deal in response to a grassroots save-the-park movement involving thousands of letters, e-mails and visits to Tallahassee by Cypress Garden's trademark "Southern belles."

"Today we took another step forward to rejuvenate and reopen this beloved jewel of Florida history and Florida tourism," Buescher said.

The park's new name, Cypress Gardens Adventure Park, captured what will be Buescher's efforts to expand the park's demographic appeal beyond senior citizens to include families with children. Buescher said he plans to invest $35 million in a new water park and more than 30 rides, including several roller coasters.

But the park still will appeal to senior citizens, he said.

"We can't run off one single guest," Buescher said.

The park could reopen by Memorial Day.

Anticipating the reopening, Carolina Beleut, 29, already is making the hoop-skirt dresses worn by the Southern belles who populated the park. Beleut, who sometimes works as a Southern belle herself, can make a dress every two days. Most of the park's 150 dresses were sold after it closed last April due to declining attendance.

"Change is good," said Beleut, dressed in a blood-red hoop skirt for a news conference announcing the sale. "They need to bring in young people. They need to bring in families."

Beleut and a former co-worker, Angela Yauchler, described themselves as "devastated" after the park closed.

"We're such a close family," said Yauchler, who wore a pink hoop skirt. "It was like a funeral when it closed."

Both women hope to get their old jobs back. Buescher said he plans to hire 500 people and will give former workers top priority.

The park closed in April after struggling with declining attendance that only reached only 700,000 annually in its last years. Buescher said it needs to attract more than 1 million people a year to be profitable, but he added he didn't expect to break even for another 11/2 years.

To help bring back visitors, the park's adult admission price will be $26.95, or about $8 less than the previous price. Children's admission will be $22.95 and second day admission will be free.

Under the $20.5 million real estate arrangement orchestrated by the Trust for Public Land, a nonprofit land conservation group, Buescher paid $7 million for 120 acres of the park. The Polk County Commission paid $2.5 million for the park's 30-acre historic core, and the state of Florida purchased an $11 million conservation easement.

Cypress Gardens was opened in 1936 by Dick and Julie Pope, who were pioneers of Florida's tourism industry.

Civic leaders hope the new ownership not only injects new blood into the park but the surrounding community. Polk County, which for decades was dominated by the Old Florida heritage of the citrus and cattle industries, has struggled to find an identity as nearby Tampa and Orlando have exploded into tourism meccas.

"When Cypress Gardens closed, it shut the door on Old Polk County and opened the door to a new Polk County," said Jeff Potter, a city commissioner for Winter Haven, located about 35 miles southwest of Orlando.

With its planned water park, Cypress Gardens can attract year-round visitors from surrounding areas rather than relying on the elderly, snowbird tourists who were the park's bread and butter, Potter said.

"This area has been trying to find an identity for years," he said.

Wednesday, March 10, 2004

Travel recovery hopes in Hungary

BUDAPEST, Hungary (Reuters) -- The country's travel and tourism slump may be on the turn, with a five percentage point jump in hotel occupancy rates in January-February to 41 percent.

This confirms industry expectations for a recovery this year and helping the current account balance.

Data from the Central Statistics Office (KSH) on Monday showed the number of guest nights rose 20 percent year-on-year during the period, and gross revenue per room jumped 23 percent to 5,000 forints ($23.80).

"The data basically confirms what we started to see in the last quarter of 2003 -- that the economic cycle has begun a rise again and gives us decent hopes for the entire year," said Peter Wolff, head of the Hungarian Hotel Association.

"Most notably, data for three-and four-star hotels (which account for the bulk of revenues) are better than the average."

Wolff said early signs from tour operators and major hotels indicated a boost in conference tourism this year.

Hungary is one of 10 states due to join the European Union in May, and Budapest has beefed up its facilities to try and raise its profile as a central European conference centre.

"I wouldn't venture into a growth forecast for the year, but many in the industry expect full-year growth around eight to 10 percent," Wolff said.

One sector analyst said that kind of increase would be very good news for Hungary, both for foreign currency revenues and, more importantly, for the current account balance.

"An 8-10 percent rise in tourism revenues alone means a 220-280 million euro improvement in the current account balance," said Gyorgy Kovacs, analyst at DZ Bank.

"We probably can't expect such an improvement because Hungarians travelling abroad also influence the balance," he added. "But, overall, this is welcome news as tourism revenues last year were well below 2002 levels."

Kovacs said a 20 percent rise in January-February guest nights reflected a very low base figure, due to global travel fears early last year amid the SARS outbreak in Asia and the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

Tourism accommodation revenues edged up by two percent last year to 163.7 billion forints, while average 2003 inflation was 4.7 percent.

Hungary's current account ran a deficit of 4.2 billion euros in 2003 against 2.77 billion in 2002. The finance ministry expects a "significant improvement" this year.

Wednesday, March 03, 2004

'Raymond' to Return for Shortened Final Season

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - It's finally come down to the money part of the equation for the fate of CBS' "Everybody Loves Raymond."

Sources say that series creator Phil Rosenthal and star Ray Romano have agreed to keep at it for a ninth season, albeit at less than a full 22-episode order. The trick now is whether CBS can work out new salary deals at shortened-season rates for Romano, who currently ranks as primetime's highest-paid star at nearly $2 million per episode, and co-stars Patricia Heaton, Brad Garrett, Peter Boyle and Doris Roberts.

Speaking to reporters Tuesday about CBS' February sweep performance, CBS chief Leslie Moonves would only say that he's "very guardedly optimistic" that the network's top-rated sitcom will be back next season.

Thursday, February 26, 2004

Don't delay planning your summer vacation

NEW YORK (AP) -- It's the classic American vacation: Rent a house near the water in July or August. Lie in a hammock or beach chair while the kids splash or swim. Forget about the office, the bills, the busy schedules.

There's just one stressful aspect to that blissful scene. If you don't have your summer rental reserved by Easter, in some parts of the country, you can forget about it. In fact, realtors say top rentals for peak weeks like July Fourth are often gone by March.

Take heart, though. If you're flexible about dates and location, plenty of options remain. And if you use the Internet, finding a place is easier than ever.

The first step is deciding where to go. Do you prefer the ocean or lakes? Can you fly, or must you drive to transport bicycles, fishing gear and kayaks? Is there a place that fills you with happy memories of your own childhood summers, where you can bring your own kids?

Every region has its treasured summer places. New England offers woodsy lakes, Maine's rocky, evergreen-trimmed coast, and Massachusetts resorts so famous they are known simply as "the Cape" (as in Cod), and "the Vineyard" (as in Martha's).

Water-loving Midwesterners flock to the Brainerd Lakes region of Minnesota, which has nearly 500 lakes within a 30-minute drive. Many New Yorkers swear by the Jersey Shore, while the San Juan Islands in Washington pull visitors from Seattle and California. And on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, generations of family vacationers have climbed the dunes and reveled in the surf.

Once you've settled on a region, find that rental. Call the local chamber of commerce for help, contact the Vacation Rental Managers Association (VRMA), which represents properties around the country, or search the Internet.

New Yorker Julie Reiss used the Internet to locate summer rentals two years in a row on Mount Desert Island in Maine, where Bar Harbor and most of Acadia National Park are situated. But Reiss admits that renting a house, sight unseen, "was a leap of faith."

"It's always turned out OK, but you have to ask a lot of questions beforehand," she said. "And there's always this moment when you open the door and you say, 'Please don't let it be disgusting!"'

After turning down a house where the owners planned to live in the garage while renting out their home, Reiss learned to ask a few key questions. Among them: What's the privacy factor? How far is the house from a main road? Are there other houses nearby? How many rooms are there? If the local weather has the potential to be chilly, as Maine can often be in late August, is there heat? (In warmer places, ask about air-conditioning.)

Priorities, timing

Michael Sarka, director of the Vacation Rental Managers Association, recommends setting your priorities before you start looking. For example, he said, "If money is more important than location, you won't be on the beach, but you'll save."

Timing is also crucial. The week of July Fourth is typically one of the busiest. In contrast, because schools in some areas start mid- or late August, there's often far less demand toward summer's end. "Santa Cruz, California, Labor Day week -- that's a really slow week," Sarka said. "You can get a much better deal then than in early July."

Sarka also noted that even last-minute vacationers may be able to get a summer rental, as long as they're flexible. "Easter is not a drop-dead date everywhere," he said. "The better properties do move the fastest, and I'm not appealing to people to procrastinate, but there are opportunities out there."

You'll also want to know who to call if problems arise. How far away do the owners live? If they're next door, you may be under a microscope. But if they're in another state when the 20-year-old refrigerator dies, that's a problem. If you're renting through an agency, ask about cancellation insurance; otherwise, be prepared to forfeit your money if you cancel due to an emergency.

Overall, Sarka said, the rental market looks brisk for the summer. A strong euro and continued concern about global security may contribute to strong demand for domestic vacations. But an uptick in the purchase of second homes has increased the availability of rentals in some areas, where owners are willing to rent their property. Sarka's members reported a 7 percent increase in the number of available properties last year over the year before, and they expect a similar increase this year.

As for price, about two-thirds of VRMA agents expect rates to increase 4 percent, while another third will keep rates the same.

But prices and availability vary tremendously. At Brainerd Lakes, rates for waterfront cottages range from an affordable $600 a week to several thousand, depending on the size and grandeur of the house. And with over 3,000 lodging units, "if your date is flexible, there are last-minute openings all summer long," said Lisa Paxton, CEO of the Brainerd Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce.

Making memories

Renters in the pristine San Juan Islands, where whale-watching and views of snow-capped mountains are part of the appeal, will pay $950 to $3,000 a week, according to WendyKay Gewiss, a real estate agent for the local Windermere office. Since none of her clients see the properties beforehand, Gewiss provides "spec sheets" specifying the age of the furniture, distance to local parks, whether there is a dishwasher, and many other details. Gewiss reported 30 percent of her summer rentals gone by mid-February.

Anthony Conselice, a realtor with the Arthur Rue agency in Seaside Park, New Jersey, says a nice house (three bedrooms, air-conditioning) that's a short walk from the beach at the Jersey shore typically runs $2,000 to $2,500 a week. Sharing can save money; if four couples rent a large house for $3,800, it's just $950 per couple.

Doug Azarian, a Falmouth, Massachusetts, realtor, says an average weekly rental on Cape Cod -- near, but not on the water -- is $1,500 to $2,000 a week, increasing to $3,000 or $4,000 weekly for a house with a view of the water.

The Cape's attractions include not just a pristine natural setting, but also easy access to amenities like good restaurants, video stores and kid-friendly activities. "You have the ocean, the beach and the boats, but the difference on the Cape is you're not that far away from what you're used to," he said, adding, "If you haven't made plans to rent a place by the end of April, it becomes slim pickings."

But regardless of when you go or how much you pay, the appeal of a house by the water is universal.

"It's about not having to worry about work and the rest of the world," said Paxton. "The kids can grab a fishing pole and sit on the edge of the dock while you read your favorite book. It's about making memories for families across the generations."

Conselice agreed, saying: "We get a lot of people who grew up here or vacationed here as little children. I get a lot of calls from brothers and sisters saying, 'Our family is going to have a big reunion.' They want to come back here because they summered here, and they want their children to be exposed to that."

Thursday, February 19, 2004

Kerry, Edwards both top Bush in poll

Democratic presidential hopefuls John Edwards and John Kerry both hold leads of 10 percentage points or more in hypothetical match-ups against President Bush, according to a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll released.

The survey marks the first time Edwards, a U.S. senator from North Carolina, has topped Bush in a one-on-one poll of likely voters if the election were held today.

In a head-to-head contest, 55 percent said they would choose Kerry for president over Bush, who drew the support of 43 percent. Edwards led the president 54 percent to 44 percent.

The poll of 1,006 adults, including 568 likely voters, had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points. It was conducted Monday and Tuesday -- before the returns came in from the Wisconsin primary, where Edwards finished a strong second to Sen. Kerry of Massachusetts.

Kerry has argued that he is the only Democrat in the race who can beat Bush. That argument has helped him win 16 of the 18 presidential contests to date; Edwards won in his native South Carolina.

The chairman of Bush's re-election campaign said Wednesday he is not surprised by the new poll numbers.

"There's been a huge focus on the Democratic primary, a lot of media coverage of those events ... huge amounts of money spent attacking the president," said Marc Racicot, who left the helm of the Republican National Committee last June to chair the president's campaign. He spoke in an interview with CNN's Inside Politics.

"We predicted that we were probably going to be in a position where we would be trailing for a period of time, so I think that we've known all along that this is going to be a tough race," he said.

In his first interview since taking the helm of the campaign, Racicot also noted that former presidents Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan both trailed their re-election challengers, then came back to win strong victories in 1996 and 1984, respectively

"Our steadfast belief is that when the steady leadership of the president is characterized and also defined, that there will be a clear choice for Americans to make," he said.

The polls' use of likely voters appears to give Democrats an edge they have not enjoyed in previous surveys, finding that more rank-and-file Democrats are paying attention to the campaign.

Among registered voters, Kerry held a narrower edge over Bush, 51 percent to 46 percent. Edwards led Bush 49 percent to 48 percent in the same survey of registered voters.

Bush's approval rating dipped slightly in the most recent poll, down a point to 51 percent. Forty-six percent said they disapproved of the president's performance in office. The margin of error was plus or minus 3 percentage points.

More of those surveyed considered Bush a strong leader when matched against Kerry, 65 percent to 59 percent. But more said they considered Kerry honest and trustworthy, 61 percent to 55 percent.

But only 42 percent said either man had a clear plan for solving the country's problems today, and less than half of those surveyed -- 45 percent for Bush, 44 percent for Kerry -- said they believed the candidates would stand up to special interests while in office.

Critics, including Democratic Party chief Terry McAuliffe, have raised questions in recent weeks about whether Bush fulfilled his duties to the Air National Guard during the Vietnam era. But the poll suggests that neither those questions, nor Kerry's history as a decorated Vietnam veteran-turned-antiwar activist, are having much effect on voters' preferences.

Only 35 percent said they believed Bush did anything illegal or unethical during his time in the Guard, and 81 percent said his actions during that period would make no difference in their decision about whether to vote for him.

Seventy-nine percent said Kerry's combat experience also would make no difference to them in casting their ballot. And 69 percent said his antiwar activism made no difference in their decisions.

Those questions had margins of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Tuesday, January 27, 2004

India-Pakistan peace talks set.

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (CNN) -- Ending an 18-month lapse in formal discussions, delegations from India and Pakistan will meet in Islamabad next month for talks covering a broad range of issues, the Indian and Pakistani Foreign Ministries announced Tuesday.

According to Indian Foreign Ministry spokesman Navtej Sarna, the meetings will be held February 16-18. The nations' foreign secretaries will meet February 18.

Earlier this month, India and Pakistan announced in a joint statement that they had agreed to start a broad dialogue about a range of issues including Kashmir, following a ground-breaking meeting between Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee.

A year ago, relations between India and Pakistan were so bad the annual summit of South Asian nations was canceled.

Since February 1999, the nations have almost gone to war twice over Kashmir.

But Vajpayee has said he wants to make a final push for peace in his lifetime, and ties have gradually warmed over the past year.

India and Pakistan have resumed air, rail and bus links, restored top-level diplomatic relations and enforced a total cease-fire between forces lined up on each side of Kashmir.

In March, the two countries are set to resume cricket competitions against each other for the first time in 14 years.

Prior to the cease-fire, Indian and Pakistani forces routinely traded salvos across the U.N.-drawn Line of Control that separates Kashmir.

More than a dozen guerrilla groups have been battling Indian rule in Kashmir almost since independence from Britain and the creation of Pakistan in 1947.

Indian officials estimate 38,000 people have been killed during the 11-year military insurgency and blame Pakistan for stoking the conflict, a charge Islamabad has denied.

India has said Pakistan trains, arms and funds the militants and orders them to attack Indian military and civilian targets.

Pakistan has said it only extends moral support to groups campaigning for the Kashmiri people's right to self-determination.
Peacekeeper killed in Afghanistan blast.

A Canadian peacekeeper has been killed and three others injured when explosives were detonated near their patrol.

An International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) convoy of soldiers was patrolling the Afghan capital, Kabul, on Tuesday when a bomber approached them and detonated explosives, said Afghan interior ministry official Aroun Assefi.

At least nine Afghan civilians were also injured in the attack. Kabul's deputy police chief Khalil Aminzada said the Afghans hurt were pedestrians. The bomber was killed in the attack which took place near a Canadian base on the southern outskirts of the city.

Canada has about 2000 soldiers in the 5700-strong multinational force, making it the largest contingent.

The ISAF troops from 18 different countries were deployed after the US-led 2001 campaign to topple the ruling Taliban.

Tuesday's was the second attack on foreign peacekeepers in Kabul since their deployment.

Last June, four German peacekeepers were killed and 31wounded in a car bombing in Kabul.

In the most recent attack in the city, five Afghan security officials were killed when a man they had detained blew himself up near the city's airport.

Monday, January 26, 2004

'Return of the King' dominates Golden Globes.

(CNN) -- Hollywood's A-list turned out Sunday for the Golden Globes -- the ceremony often seen as a precursor to Oscar success -- and "The Return of the King" walked off with four awards.

The epic fantasy won in every category in which it had been nominated. Its haul included best dramatic film and best director. "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" also won for best original score in a motion picture and best original song.

Director Peter Jackson, accepting the best director trophy, said he was "honored" to be in the company of Sofia Coppola, Clint Eastwood, Anthony Minghella and Peter Weir, who were competing in the same category.

Charlize Theron won the trophy for best actress in a drama for her role in "Monster," in which she portrayed prostitute-turned-serial killer Aileen Wuornos.

Sean Penn won the best actor-drama award for his role as a grieving, vengeful father in "Mystic River."

It was also a winning night for Sofia Coppola, whose "Lost in Translation" earned three globes. It took home best musical or comedy film, as well as best screenplay, which went to Coppola, and best actor in a musical or comedy, for Bill Murray.

Coppola, daughter of "The Godfather" director Francis Ford Coppola, thanked her family and her father, whom she described as "a great screenwriting teacher."

"There are so many people taking credit for this that I don't know where to begin," Murray said. He also thanked director Sofia Coppola "for writing a film that was so good that everybody in this room says, 'That lucky son of a bitch: It could have been me.' "

Diane Keaton was named best actress in a comedy or musical for "Something's Gotta Give."

The Golden Globes, which are given out by the 90 members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, is one of the most-watched awards shows in entertainment, and winners often go on to earn Oscars, the U.S. film industry's top honors, handed out by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences on February 29.

Tim Robbins won the first globe of the night for his supporting role in the drama "Mystic River."

"Every day has been a joy on this movie," Robbins said in accepting the honor.

"Cold Mountain" had a leading eight nominations, including best drama. Its only globe went to Renee Zellweger, who won best supporting actress.

"Sex and the City" star Sarah Jessica Parker took the prize for best actress in a television drama series.

"My God, it's happening, thank you, thank you very much," she said.

One of the big surprises of the night was a British victory in the competitive American TV field.

Ricky Gervais was honored for his role as a smug, annoying boss in "The Office," a BBC America series that has attracted a cult following.
Gervais, mimicking the role for which he got the prize, said during his acceptance, "I'm from a little place called England ... We used to run the world before you."

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