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Highway rest stops are revving up services, quality PDF Print E-mail

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The newly renovated Maryland House Travel Plaza north of Baltimore.(Photo: Handout)

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The weary highway traveler in Ohio can pull off at a rest stop and find such delicacies as locally produced cheeses, smoked meats and chocolates. In Maryland, that same traveler could feast on Eastern Shore classics such as crab cakes at Phillips Seafood while using the free Wi-fi to check e-mail. In Pennsylvania, the offerings include a seasonal farmers market and a charging station for electric vehicles.

These are not your grandfather's rest stops.

In fact, they're not rest stops at all, not in the sense of a traditional interstate highway rest stop, where one can find a restroom and vending machines and not much else.

These are the expansive travel plazas or service plazas found only alongside toll roads, and states that have them are expanding to accommodate much higher vehicle counts than were on the roads when most first opened decades ago. They are modernizing to provide the sort of amenities that today's motorist has come to expect, such as Wi-Fi.

The upgrades are usually done in public-private partnerships with vendors who lease the plazas.

States are trying to outdo one another with the level of services they provide, creating yet another front in the never-ending battle of economic competition between them.

"I would say it's a healthy competition," says Bruce Gartner, executive director of the Maryland Transportation Authority, which owns two service plazas on Interstate 95. "We learn and improve upon each other's concepts."

The plazas are set up in the median of the highway or alongside it, and they're often more evocative of a mall than a rest stop. That's not by accident.

"We're set up very much like a mall," says Andrew Herberger, service plaza operations manager for the Ohio Turnpike, which owns seven sets of service plazas along the 241-mile highway. "Our service plazas are basically mini-malls."

Last year, Ohio began renovating its service plazas at a cost of about $1.5 million per set. Two of the service plazas, at Middle Ridge and Vermilion Valley, offer Ohio-grown, fresh farm products — cheeses, meats, chocolates, grape juice and fruit.

A gift shop inside an Ohio Turnpike travel plaza.(Photo: Handout)

To many Americans, that probably seems like pretty highbrow fare for a highway rest stop. In most of the nation, it is.

ADVANTAGES OF TOLL ROADS

The federal government has prohibited the commercialization of the right-of-way, including rest stops and recreation areas, along the Interstate System since 1956, according to the Federal Highway Administration. A year later, in 1957, 2,102 miles of toll roads in 15 states were added and were exempted from those restrictions. In 1982, the commercial restriction was modified to allow vending machines in rest and recreation areas located on the interstates' right-of-way.

Today, the 46,730-mile Interstate System includes about 2,900 miles of turnpikes, according to the highway administration.

That situation gives states with service plazas a competitive advantage against those without them, says Emily Goff, a policy analyst in transportation at the Washington, D.C.-based Heritage Foundation.

"A state (that has interstate service plazas) actually brings in revenue from fuel sales and other taxes, whereas a state like Virginia doesn't make any money and has … shut down rest areas to save money. That means motorists have fewer places to stop."

Virginia was one of several states that closed some of its rest stops in a cost-cutting move in 2009. The state reopened the facilities in 2010.

Goff says the anti-commercialization law originated to protect existing businesses along interstate routes from new establishments that might be built closer to the road, giving them a competitive edge. "This federal law … is definitely outdated," she says. "Now, you have (national) chains (at interstate plazas) that are being protected." Goff says that when Congress passes a federal highway reauthorization bill, it should allow states to make exemptions to the prohibition or end it altogether.

It's not that simple, says Lisa Mullings, president and CEO of the National Association of Truck Stop Operators, an Alexandria, Va.-based group of about 1,300 travel centers in the USA and Canada that has resisted repeated efforts in Congress to repeal the prohibition. The group doesn't want other states to be able to add service plazas in the interstate median.

She says the service plazas "are virtually a monopoly," because they are in the interstate median, and pull business and jobs away from stores and restaurants just off the highway. "A lot of service plazas, you think there are multiple choices. But in fact, it operates as a franchise. I'm not aware of any rest areas that are operated by some Mom and Pop. It's usually a large corporation that is not even located within the state."

Mullings says studies at the University of Maryland and Virginia Tech Transportation Institute have shown that highways with service plazas have about one-third fewer businesses than highways without them.

KEEPING UP WITH VEHICLE VOLUME

Maryland's two service plazas, Maryland House in Harford County and Chesapeake House in Cecil County, were built in the 1960s. They are undergoing a $56 million face-lift.

"They were functionally obsolete," Gartner says. "They were made for a dining experience back in the '60s, when you only had about 6 million vehicles on that road. Today, with all the food courts and very open, spacious, high-ceilinged dining options, and 30 million vehicles on the road, these facilities were just outdated."

Since September 2012, Maryland's service plazas have been operated in a public-private partnership by Areas USA, a Miami-based company that provides food, beverage and retail services at 10 airports and at service plazas on the Florida Turnpike.

Maryland House reopened in January with $30 million in improvements, having expanded from 33,000 to 42,000 square feet. It features such local-flavored dining choices as Phillips Seafood and Jerry's Subs & Pizza, along with brands such as Wendy's, Dunkin' Donuts and Nathan's Famous.

Pennsylvania is renovating all 17 service plazas along the Pennsylvania Turnpike, says Carl DeFebo, a turnpike spokesman. "We had these service plazas that were built in 1937, 1938, 1939," he says. "They were constructed to accommodate a certain level of vehicle volume. The planners didn't anticipate the level of usage on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, which was much higher than they expected."

In addition to a variety of food and fuel options, all turnpike service plazas offer free Wi-Fi. Two of them have electric-vehicle charging stations, with plans to add more. Three other plazas have seasonal farmers markets, where visitors can buy fruits, vegetables and other products.

Even with all the fancy amenities, though, service plazas on toll roads do share one trait with their lower-tiered counterparts on the free interstates.

"The No. 1 reason people stop is to use the restroom," Herberger says. "This gets down to the basics. So we're very focused on providing clean facilities."

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10 must-do activities onboard the Regal Princess PDF Print E-mail

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Princess Cruises' newest ship, the 3,560-passenger Regal Princess, modernizes the traditional Princess Cruises experience in beautiful surrounds.

As on year-old sister ship Royal Princess, the most stunning feature of the Regal Princess is the The Piazza. The elegant, three-deck-high space serves as the ship's lively hub, a venue for eating, imbibing and near constant entertainment. Further additions on the Regal Princess include a small Terrace Pool, hidden away in a quiet aft space – something past passengers requested.

Design aside, what really impresses is what a good time you can have on this ship. After a season in the Mediterranean, Regal Princess will do eastern Caribbean cruises from Fort Lauderdale beginning in November.

Here are 10 must-do things to experience on Regal Princess.

Eat pizza: Princess Cruises likes to brag it serves the best pizza at sea. It's hard to argue when you dig into a gooey, hot-out-of-the-oven pie at Alfredo's in The Piazza. The signature pie, Pizza Regal Princess, is topped with Parma ham, buffalo mozzarella, cherry tomatoes and shaved Parmesan. There's Hawaiian on the menu too. Afterwards, splurge on a treat at the ship's Gelato shop.

(Photo: Fran Golden)

Practice your home-run swing: On select days, a batting cage is set up on the basketball court. A member of the crew feeds balls into a pitching machine and you can pretend you're "Big Papi" (or another baseball hero). Elsewhere, on a patch of fake grass, you can also practice your golf swing.

Watch movies outdoors: It's an odd kick to watch Sandra Bullock float in space in "Gravity" on a giant Movies Under the Stars screen, while you're cruising under a star-filled night sky past the Greek Isles. Concert videos during the day feature Stevie Wonder, U2, Pavarotti and more.

See the light (and water): The main pool has fountains that are capable of shooting water 33 feet in the air. At night, they are choreographed with lights, videos and music in thrilling deck shows – including a "Tribute to Michael Jackson." It's like a little slice of Vegas on the high seas.

Check out what's on in Princess Live! This small theater/TV studio hosts everything from lectures and classic audience-participation game shows, such as The Liars Club and Marriage Match, to a murder mystery evening – during which you can figure out who killed Danny Dangerous. If you're feeling brave, you can show off your singing skills in the Princess Pop Star contest. Windows looking into the studio let you observe what's going on inside the space before you make the leap.

Experience Bar Flair: The main attraction at the SeaView Bar may be the glass floor, which cantilevers off of the ship so you can see the sea 128 feet below. But at scheduled times all eyes are on the bartenders. Music pulsating they dance, toss and perform amazing balancing feats while gaining well-deserved gasps of delight from onlookers. They make tasty drinks too.

(Photo: Fran Golden)

Try Zumba: It's fun. It's free. Plus you'll work off the calories from the pizza at Alfredo's while dancing to international beats. The complimentary group class happens late afternoon and sometimes in the morning as well up on the sports court.

Watch TV selections: With an On Demand system developed in-house, Princess Cruises has programmed your cabin TV with more than 100 free movies and TV shows. Be sure to also check out the other selections – including some really good destination videos and a live feed of happenings in Princess Live!

Do a pub lunch: Head to the Wheelhouse Bar for a traditional lunch of fish & chips or bangers & mash washed down with a pint. The food is complimentary; the beer is not.

SEE MORE: Check out the 10 best restaurants at sea

See a show: A new show production lineup is shaking things up for Princess Cruises. Debuting on Regal Princess is "Bravo," with a featured soprano, a cast of singers and dancers and 13-piece orchestra. Another new show, "Fiera!" is set in a fairground, has a love story line, and livens things up with hits by Lady Gaga and Guns N' Roses, among others.

For more Princess ships, compare the Regal Princess with her sister ship, Royal Princess, by clicking through the carousel below:

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Diagon Alley: Are these the 'Fantastic Beasts' designs? PDF Print E-mail

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The original Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando's Islands of Adventure, which opened in 2010, brought J. K. Rowling's books and the films they inspired to life with an impressive level of detail and has delighted hordes of muggles. Incredibly, the team that designed the park, including creative forces from both Universal and the Warner Bros. film crew who worked on the Potter series, has outdone itself with Diagon Alley, a second installation of an expanded Wizarding World at the adjacent Universal Studios Florida.

The new experience depicts the London side of the Potter mythology, with the original Wizarding World showcasing Hogsmeade, the Scottish village that is the home of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Jam-packed with a treasure trove of references to the lore of Harry and his exploits, Diagon Alley ups the ante in theme park storytelling. "Everything that is here is here for a reason," says Alan Gilmore, the art director for the Wizarding World park projects and several Harry Potter films. "We'd like visitors to explore the origins of all these strange details."

Some of the features, such as the gargantuan dragon that sits atop Gringotts Bank, are obvious. But many details are more hidden and waiting to be uncovered by avid fans. Gilmore graciously took me on a tour of Diagon Alley to point out a few of the wizardly tidbits he and his cohorts have embedded in the enchanted land.

SNEAK PEEK: First look at Universal's Diagon Alley

Phone boxes: Our tour began in the London embankment area, dotted with a couple of innocent-looking red telephone booths, the kind that are prevalent throughout the UK. In fact, they are actual London phone boxes that were shipped over to the park. Guests who step inside and dial (using a vintage rotary dial!) the alphanumeric equivalent of "M-A-G-I-C," or 62442, will be able to hear a special message from the Ministry of Magic. It's one of those fanciful touches that isn't announced, but is begging to be found. Now that you know, you can discover it.

Cabmen's Shelter: This is less about Harry and the gang and more about bringing a slice of London to the Florida park. The green snack stand in the embankment would be recognizable to Brits as a cabmen's shelter. First built in the late 1800s as way stations for inebriated cabbies to sober up and get some tea and food, shelters used to number in the hundreds throughout the city. There are only a handful of them left today. Brits will also recognize Eros Fountain, a facsimile of the landmarks in Piccadilly Circus and Liverpool, which sits in front of the shelter.

Catch a glimpse of Kreacher: On the other side of Eros Fountain is Grimmauld Place, a residential street. Head to flat number 12, the home of the Black family. Look up at the window above the door, and every now and again you will see Kreacher, the house-elf of Harry's uncle, Sirius Black, parting the curtains and peering out.

Actual quidditch outfit: Heading into the secreted Diagon Alley, guests who enter the first shop on the right, Quality Quidditch Supplies, can go to the back of the store and view actual artifacts from the films. A glass cabinet displays a quidditch outfit and broom used by actors in the series. There's no placard or any explanation, and the display looks like it simply belongs in the store. But Gilmore assured me that it's the genuine deal on loan from Warner Bros.

Gringotts coins and gold bars: There are real props from the movies strewn throughout the land. Other examples include the stacks of gold coins sitting on the desks of the teller goblins (which are extraordinary animated characters) in the lobby of Gringotts Bank. As they make their way to the Escape from Gringotts ride, guests are allowed to get remarkably close to scrutinize the figures and props, although "security guards" keep a close eye on the proceedings. The cartful of gold ingots in the bank also made their way to the park via Potter's London soundstages.

"Potterized" architectural flourishes: By taking a right at the end of Diagon Alley, guests enter Carkitt Market, an outdoor shopping area. Based on old British markets, the open space has an overhead roof that enables traders to sell their wares during London's (frequently) inclement weather. Guests who look up at the columns supporting the roof will notice unique architectural ornaments: Gold dragonheads adorn the column ends. "Dragons are important in the myth of Harry Potter," says Gilmore. "We coined a term, 'Potterize,' to describe whimsical details like these that we've layered around the area."

Enter a gin palace: You can order a non-alcoholic butterbeer or some real brews (including two created especially for The Wizarding World) at The Fountain of Fear Fortune, but you can't ask the bartender for any hard liquor. According to Gilmore however, the pub is modeled after 19th-century gin palaces. "It's where the shadier characters used to drink, and it's where many deals were made," he says. Large, ornate mirrors dominate the wall behind the bar. Gilmore explains that the mirrors in the original temperance-era pubs reflected out the windows and alerted customers to scram when bobbies were headed their way to crack down on illegal drinking.

Get a sneak peek at Fantastic Beasts: Fans know that the world of Harry Potter will return to the screen when J. K. Rowling adapts her book, "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them," as a movie. If you are wondering what the mythical creatures might look like, head to the Magical Menagerie shop in Diagon Alley and peer up at the overhead shelves. Gilmore says that some of the strange looking animals represent the first time that the beasts have been visualized. "It will give visitors a peek at the next wave of Harry Potter."

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The Magnolia State: The beauty of Mississippi PDF Print E-mail

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Offering much more than the namesake river that forms its western border, Mississippi is a must-visit for anyone interested in sampling a unique slice of Southern life. The "Magnolia State's" myriad museums, historical plantation homes, and Civil War landmarks offer a peek into the region's past. Nature lovers encounter an exceptionally green state, save for the Mississippi Delta area, which was cleared for cotton cultivation in the 19th century. Beyond its title as the catfish capital of America, Mississippi proudly holds on to its role as one of the spiritual homes of the Blues, and music lovers can find plenty to sink their teeth into across the state.

Explore by interest:

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Video captures near-miss of widebody jets in Spain PDF Print E-mail

This screenshot from YouTube shows what appears to be a near-miss in Barcelona. The footage was captured by an amateur aviation enthusiast.(Photo: YouTube.com)

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An apparent near-miss at Barcelona's El Prat airport is going viral after the incident was captured on video by an amateur enthusiast.

The footage shows a widebody jet taxiing across a runway just as another is about to land. The incident forced the latter aircraft to abort its landing and make a steep climb to avoid a possible collision, according to The Associated Press.

The amateur video footage -- filmed Saturday -- shows the Aerolineas Argentinas Airbus 340 crossing the runway just as a Boeing 767 widebody flying for Russian airline Utair was making its final approach on a flight from Moscow.

Spanish airport authority AENA confirmed to the AP on Monday that the Russian plane circled back and landed safely. No one was hurt in the incident.

Despite the video, NBC News writes that "an official at Spain's airport authority, AENA, told Spain's El Mundo newspaper that there had been enough space for the Russian plane to make a safe landing and that neither airline involved had filed a safety complaint."

Regardless, AENA says it has launched an investigation to determine what led to the incident. The agency adds that it does not have details on how close the planes came during the apparent near-miss, according to AP.

Russia-centric news site RT.com reports aviation enthusiast Miguel Angel recorded the footage. Witnessing the event is "one of the worst experiences I have ever had," he's quoted as saying by RT.com

Angel's video has gone viral since he uploaded it to YouTube on Sunday. It has since received nearly 5 million views.

TWITTER: You can follow me at twitter.com/TodayInTheSky

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