Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Review: Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan

Until Google gets around to inventing a time machine, a visit to Greenfield Village may be the best way to send yourself back through American history.

The 90-acre Greenfield Village, in Dearborn, Michigan, doesn't just teach visitors history, it helps them experience it.

Greenfield Village is tough to classify. Is it a museum? A theme park? A theatrical show?  It's a little of each, and the combination works well, as my family discovered when we visited in June 2014.

The lure of Greenfield Village begins with its collection of significant historical buildings that have been brought the site, sometimes from many states away. We visited Thomas Edison's actual laboratory, Henry Ford's home and school house, the Wright Brothers' home and bicycle shop, and a courthouse where Abraham Lincoln practiced law.

We also stopped in at a post office, a railroad roundhouse and a boarding house, each brought to Greenfield Village from elsewhere and decorated to fit the correct historical period. We particularly enjoyed our stop at the general store, which sold necessities like buggy whips and housed "the only phone in town." (To be clear, all these buildings have undergone various levels of restoration and maintenance, so nitpickers may point out that they're not 100% original.)

While the historical buildings are an excellent start, the village would be a staid place were it not for the costumed characters who travel around the grounds and perform for visitors.  A smiling man and woman circled the grounds on antique bicycles, while others in period costumes introduced visitors to old-time games on the village green. We found all the workers, both the re-enactors and the building guides, to be very friendly.

My family particularly enjoyed the short shows that are put on throughout the day. We liked "Back from Kitty Hawk" (about the Wright Brothers), a talk by "Thomas Edison," and a show called "The Disagreeable Customer" about the life of a general store operator.  Disappointingly, we found a show about a one-room school had been canceled when we got there, and a demonstration of a railroad coaling tower mysteriously didn't take place at the scheduled time.

Greenfield Village tickets are $24 for adults and $17.50 for ages 5-12. They don't offer a AAA discount, but if you buy tickets for the village you can get half-price admission to one of other attractions the Henry Ford Museum, the Ford Rouge Factor Tour, or the IMAX movies. Note, also, that they will charge you $5 for parking when you buy your tickets if you didn't park there, be sure to tell them. (Or, if you have two parties in your car who buy tickets separately, don't let them charge you both for parking). If you buy tickets for two or more days at once, you will only get charged once for parking.

There are various modes of old transportation you can ride for an extra cost a train that circles the grounds, a Ford Model T, a horse-drawn wagon, a 1931 bus and a 1913 carousel. These cost $5 per ride or $14 for unlimited rides on all. We got the unlimited ride pass and were glad we did since our kids rode the carousel seven times.

One of our few complaints involved the park's new children's play area. The area features a cool mix of play structures, including a 20-foot long tunnel made from a boiler tower, a 1931 Model AA truck, a moderate-sized steam shovel, ramps, and climbing walls. It looked great, so you can imagine the disappointment of my kids, ages 11 and 13, when they were told they couldn't go in because it is only for 10 and under. Heck, I even wanted to go in and play.

  • There are several dining options on the property but none are cheap.  We ate at the Taste of History, the large (and neatly decorated) cafeteria. It cost us about $38 for the four of us and we weren't extravagant in our choices. A one-serving container of milk cost $3. You can bring your own food in, if you're willing to carry it, and you can even go out and get food and bring it back in, though I think that would dampen the "immersion" experience.
  • Mix it up. One of Greenfield Village's greatest strength's is the variety of ways to experience history. You can walk around a bit, stop in at historical sites that interest you, see some shows, ride on old time transportation, or spin in circles on the carousel. We found it fun to do a little of everything.
  • Avoid visiting Greenfield Village on a hot or humid day. You'll be outside most of the time, and doing a fair amount of walking. If you're in the area more than one day, check the weather report and find a cool or mild day to visit the village. If you are here on a hot or humid day, come early and do your walking around before the heat sets in. 
  • I liked Greenfield Village more than the adjacent Henry Ford Museum not that the the Museum is bad, it's just that the Village has wider variety of ways to experience history. But if it's a hot, humid day, the air-conditioned museum may be a better choice. 
  • We visited on a Thursday in mid-June and the village was not crowded. The one place where we encountered some, albeit minor, crowding was at the line for the Model T rides, where we waited about 10 minutes at 3:30 p.m. Consider going earlier or later for this attraction.
  • If you get there early the village opens at 9 a.m. you can have the place almost to yourself and since the few other people around will be historical re-enactors, you can almost feel like you've been transported in time.

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Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Where art thou, Oliver? A Craigslist deal comes back to bite

When my family travels, friends often give us a ride to the airport (we reciprocate, of course). But as a recent trip neared, our friends were otherwise occupied on the day of departure, so we had to look for other options.

I considered Supershuttle, the van service, but the $53 cost to take three of us  from Long Beach to Orange County's John Wayne Airport seemed high. Another negative: The van might make one or two other stops along the way.

Looking around online, I came upon an ad on Craiglist from someone offering rides to and from the airport in his Prius, and offering prices in the $20 to $25 range.

Yes, this was an offer that screamed "Too good to be true," but I called the number and reached Oliver Quenneville, the author of the ad. He sounded sincere and eager, and said he could take us to the airport with no stops for $20. I decided to take the chance.

I still thought there was a fair chance he wouldn't show up, but on the morning of our departure, Oliver was at our curb right on time. The drive to the airport was flawless. Take that, "Too good to be true" gremlins! I was so pleased I gave him an extra $5.

But the gremlins soon got their revenge. A week later, Oliver agreed to give us a ride home from the airport. But when the time came, he didn't show. I texted him five times and left three voice mail messages, but he never responded.

We took a van service home, sadder but wiser.

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