Remember Sesame Place in Irving?

I do. I went there once or twice, probably when visiting my grandmother in Dallas.

Google searches reveal:

  • It was in Irving near TX-183 and Esters Rd.
  • It was only open 1982-1984.
  • Where it used to be, now there’s a Wal Mart and cinema:

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Here’s a video by the Oak Ridge Boys, “Thank God for Kids”, that was filmed there. I don’t remember much except the clear things at the beginning, the plastic ball play areas, and that it was mostly indoors.

TripAdvisor’s inaccuracy and Estes Park’s sucky Mountain Home Cafe

Estes Park is a key Colorado tourist destination. It has many culinary delights.

Mountain Home Cafe is undistinguished and served my family low quality food. Why does TripAdvisor rank it as Estes Park’s 2nd best restaurant?

TripAdvisor apparently allows liar ratings. For example, look at my August 3 rating, and pay attention to the highlight:

I don’t understand this restaurant’s very high rating. The food quality was the pits. I had the breakfast chicken fried steak meal. Um, chicken fried steak is supposed to be a solid piece of cheap steak breaded and fried. This restaurant served me some kind of sausage-y junk that was ground up and reformed to look like a steak, the same quality and texture of frozen meat patties that really are full of beef hearts. Another person at the table had the chicken fingers. Texture and taste was like what you buy in the frozen foods section of your supermarket. Mashed potatoes tasted mostly like a mix, little depth to the flavor.

Sorry, $9.50 and $10 (rounded) for meals that taste and feel mostly like frozen foods and mixes? I don’t think so, even in Estes Park.

Now look at the next newest rating, from August 8, by a reviewer for whom this is his only review:

I have lived in Estes Park for 18 years and have sampled many of the local restaurants. Mountain Home Cafe is definitely one of my favorites. The food and service are excellent. My favorite dish is the chicken fried steak and eggs combination. While growing up in the South I was able to sample chicken fried steak from many restaurants and households. Mountain Home’s chicken fried steak ranks high for taste and texture. Mountain Home’s white gravy is the perfect compliment. Mountain Home is the only restaurant in Estes Park that serves high quality American and Mexican food. Enjoy.

Um, OK, this person has lived in Estes Park long enough to know its culinary delights. Despite this, I am supposed to believe that this person:

  1. Has a “favorite dish” of sausage-like, too-perfectly-shaped-to-not-be-preformed-and-frozen chicken fried steak and flat, salty, might-as-well-be-from-a-mix gravy.
  2. Thinks this is the “only” Estes Park restaurant that serves “high quality” American and Mexican food?
  3. Has only left one review ever, and it’s about Mountain Home Cafe?

Yeah, right. Oceanfront property in Arizona…

Compare that to Rock Inn Mountain Tavern’s review, also in Estes Park. Much fewer “1 contribution” reviewers, and the whole experience was excellent.

The ratings for Colorado Springs’s Travelodge are more obviously stacked. The excellent ratings almost uniformly come from “1 contribution” accounts, and thanks to this apparent manipulation, Tripadvisor ranked it as the 3rd best hotel in Colorado Springs, above high quality chains. Poke into the other ratings, such as its poor and terrible ratings, and you start to find reviewers with more than 1 contribution.

Two lessons:

  1. Stay away from Estes Park’s Mountain Home Cafe. It doesn’t deserve its rating.
  2. Don’t trust TripAdvisor at its word. It isn’t preventing obvious abuse.

2010 Colorado vacation top 5 lists

Cambres at Pikes PeakLast night, we returned from our 2010 Colorado vacation.

I won’t bore you with all the details, and if you want the photos, go to my Facebook profile and look at my photo albums.

Here’s some top 5 lists:

Top 5 favorite things

  1. YMCA of the Rockies–the experience, the opportunities, the proximity to Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park
  2. Cumbres and Toltec Railroad
  3. Mt. Evans
  4. Seeing relatives in Denver
  5. Every day, we were in the 70s and 80s (occasional low 90s in the cities) while Dallas was baking at over 100

Top 5 lessons learned

  1. Long drives are worse than flying, but they aren’t that bad with occasional stops, technology (DVD player, laptops, etc.), and family fun.
  2. Clayton, NM is a good stopping point between Dallas and much of Colorado, and the Holiday Motel in Clayton, NM is an excellent, low cost, family-owned motel.
  3. My 1½ year old tolerated the trip very well.
  4. Rocky Mountain National Park west of the Alpine Visitor Center isn’t that great. I took that route to get to Denver mainly so I could see the west side. About the only great thing between there and Denver is Berthoud Pass on US 40.
  5. YMCA of the Rockies has super fast internet.

Top 5 things I would do differently in the future

  1. Less time in Colorado Springs and Denver, more time at YMCA camp and non-urban settings.
  2. Made my kids a bit older so either A. we could have dumped them in the YMCA camps and did some things on our own or B. they would want to come along with us on some more adventurous stuff. But not to worry, they will get older some day!
  3. Pay someone to water my grass while I was gone. A generous neighbor helped with the front yard, but the (locked) back yard looked like hay when I returned.
  4. Find more non-chain, family-owned lodging (not including YMCA, which was great). The places we stayed weren’t bad, but good, non-chain places have a “soul” that the chains lack.
  5. Take a picture of the front entrance of everything we visited. That would have been an excellent record of where we went.

TCEQ begins to relax rules on DFW’s stupid environmental speed limits

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) is finally relaxing rules on the Dallas/Ft. Worth (DFW) area’s stupid environmental speed limits (ESLs).

Yes, I meant “stupid”.

Background: the TCEQ must improve air quality in parts of Texas that don’t comply with Clean Air Act standards. In 2001 and 2002, in 17 Texas counties around Houston and Dallas/Ft. Worth, all 70 and 65 mph speed limits were reduced by 5 mph. The TCEQ guessed this would cause a 5.5 mph speed reduction (they assumed average speeds are 10% over the limit) and a modest emissions reduction.

In fact, ESLs don’t clean the air. Arbitrary speed limit changes have little, if any, effect on actual speeds. Further, the TCEQ wildly overestimated ESLs’ emissions benefit. Compared to total emissions reduction needs, ESLs’ true air cleaning-contribution is between imaginary and a rounding error.

Here’s what arbitrarily low limits really do: turn safe motorists into lawbreakers, undermine respect for the law and police, and make roads less safe due to more speed variance.

The cost/benefit ratio is out of whack!

If that’s not bad enough, almost all ESL benefits come from heavy trucks, not passenger vehicles! This means the vast majority of hassled motorists are barely even contributing to this imaginary emissions benefit.

The Texas Legislature saw the stupidity of ESLs and prospectively banned them as of September 1, 2003. “Prospective”, however, means already-enacted ESLs can remain but new ones cannot be imposed. They had to do this because repealing all ESLs would cause Texas to lose federal highway dollars.

Now the TCEQ is the relaxing ESL rules for DFW: ESLs are now a “transportation control measure”. This means that, instead of explicitly requiring ESLs, DFW’s Clean Air Act implementation plan will only require their (imaginary) emissions reduction. Therefore, ESLs can be eliminated if their (imaginary) emissions reduction is made up by some new emissions reduction. Before this change, any ESL change required a thorough analysis and an EPA rubber stamp if Texas is to retain federal highway dollars.

What prompted this? Recently, the North Texas Tollway Authority (NTTA) raised many of its speed limits. A portion of its roadways were subject to ESLs–the Dallas North Tollway between Frankford Rd. and TX-121 and the parts of the George Bush Turnpike that were open before 9-1-2003. The NTTA justified disregarding ESLs because their (imaginary) emissions reductions were offset by the ongoing conversion to all-electronic tolling (elimination of toll booths).

Now what does this mean for other roads? Probably little. If the TCEQ and EPA wanted to practice intellectual integrity, they would have ditched ESLs long ago and done something else. But in the fantasy world of their bureaucrats, ESLs’ imaginary benefit is real, so they cannot be dropped outright without jeopardizing highway funds.

The only way I see additional DFW highway speed limits increasing is one of these scenarios:

  1. Some road improvement causes an emissions reduction and this improvement is A. is not already part of the DFW Clean Air Act implementation plan and B. affects a road that existed as of 2000, when the emissions plan went into effect.
  2. Overall DFW emissions reduction needs are lowered, which I think is unlikely given that we’re looking down the barrel of even more stringent standards.
  3. ESLs are technically defined as a 5 mph speed limit reduction from a 70 or 65 mph limit. Roads that have a 60 mph limit today, but used to have a 65 limit before 2001 (when the ESLs went into effect), could be rezoned for 70 mph and then have an 65 mph ESL.
  4. Roads never subjected to ESLs in the first place could get increases. These include any roads with a 60 mph or lower limit before 2001 or any road that didn’t exist before 2003.