Sailing With Disney – Our Expectations

Kicking off my Disney Dream cruise review, here’s a look at the expectations we went in to this sailing with!

Taking a short break from my Norway series (which I’m way behind on already), I wanted to get a few posts up on our experience sailing on the Disney Dream while it’s still fresh in my mind. I don’t consider a sailing on a Disney ship to be your average cruise experience, and as such I want to give it my complete attention for a few days. To that end, I’ll start by documenting our expectations going in to this sailing.

To start with, this was very much a last minute booking for us. Some agent rates opened up about 3 weeks before the sailing date, and the timing of it fit perfectly in our schedules, so we decided to jump on it. I’d have liked to have had more time to research things, but thankfully the Facebook group that already existed for our sailing provided us with a ton of useful information. We’ve joined sailing-specific Facebook groups before, but have never found them as active or helpful as this one. Generally we’d be looking at the Cruise Critic roll-call for whatever sailing we were on, but in this case, the group was incredibly active and I don’t even recall looking for a CC roll-call leading up to the trip as a result. For Disney sailings, I definitely recommend searching Facebook for a dedicated group related to your sail date.

Normally the first time we sail a new line we go in without any real expectations, but Disney’s a different beast, one with a land product we know pretty well. We’ve been to Disney World a number of times over the years, staying both on and off property. We’ve visited Disney Land a couple of times as well, including one last summer where we stayed at Disneyland Resort in an effort to compare the on-property experiences. In short, there is no comparison in my mind. Disney Land is fun, for sure, and offers a smaller park experience that has its benefits, but nothing compares to the fully immersive experience a stay on-property at Disney World offers. They’re exceptional at, among other things, making people forget there’s a world outside of the one they’ve created, a feeling we didn’t really get with the “on-property” stay at Disney Land. They’re also very good at customer service (something true for both sets of parks), and frankly, we went in expecting both to hold true aboard the Dream.

Past experience at the parks wasn’t all we were basing our expectations on, however. Additional things included our tour of the Dream back in December of last year, a couple of days prior to sailing on the Carnival Vista. Seeing the ship in person, we saw that Disney’s attention to detail wasn’t limited to their land properties. The decor was outstanding from bow to stern, and they were meticulous with upkeep. Heck, on the tour, all agents were asked to refrain from pictures in areas that hadn’t been cleaned yet or were in the process of being cleaned, because they only wanted the ship shown in the best condition possible. That’s the first time on any ship inspection that we’ve had that request. We were impressed throughout the tour, and having spent those 2-3 hours on board were really excited when the agent rates opened up for this ship.

We’ve also talked to people in the past who’ve sailed on Disney, as well as some of the normal contemporary lines, and have heard phrases used like:

  • It’ll ruin cruising on other lines for you
  • The food is some of the best we’ve had on any line
  • Their private island can’t be beat
  • You’ll need a vacation from your vacation

I’m sure there were others, but those were the ones that have stood out over the years. When you add it all up, we definitely went in to this with high expectations. We were definitely looking for that Disney magic they’re so good at in the parks.

Did the experience live up to the hype? Keep up with this blog to find out, as the next post begins my review of our time aboard the Disney Dream on the May 29th sailing!

 

iPhone Photography Gear Review

A few months back, I wrote up a post on the new photography gear I’d be using on our November and December cruises and trip to Disney World, and figured it was probably time to take a look back and see how it all performed. Before getting in to it, I should note that I added one piece to it between those two cruises. In early December, Moment finally finished up their phone case for the iPhone 6s Plus, so I was able to try that out on the second cruise and compare it to the rig I used on the first one.

Let’s take a look at the gear I used on each sailing.

November cruise aboard the Norwegian Escape, Disney World over Thanksgiving, and the Roar Before the 24 in January:

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December cruise aboard the MSC Divina:

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Here’s my take on the individual pieces of each of these kits:

ShoulderPod S1 Grip: I absolutely love this thing. Of all the gear I’m covering here, this was the best money spent. This allows me to get some odd-angle shots in a totally stable way without the feeling that I’m going to drop my phone. As an example, it allowed me to get a couple of my favorite shots using the reflection on the glass of our balcony by holding the phone way over the balcony. At no point was I concerned about this thing falling into the ocean, since I had the S1 to grip on to, and the strap around my wrist:

The S1 does an outstanding job of allowing you to take single-handed shots in awkward positions in a stable manner. Seriously, if you only buy one thing in your quest for better smartphone pics, this should be it.  I’ve had a lot of people on these trips approach me about it, all of whom really liked how it felt when they tried it. If you want to help the blog out, you can pick it up here on Amazon :).

Moment wide angle and telephoto lenses: I have a complicated relationship with these. I really like the wide angle, and keep going back and forth on the telephoto. On the first cruise, and again at Disney, I overused the wide angle lens. For the most part, I was treating it as a permanent attachment, and I know better. I’m in the camp that believes you don’t improve image quality by putting glass in front of glass, which is exactly what adding any lens to a smartphone does. I do, however, love that it allows the camera to see more of what’s in front of it without me having to re-position myself. I tried to make that work in close-up scenarios too often, however, only to see later that it added noticeable distortion to the image, giving it an almost fish-eye look. Not the fault of the lens, more my fault for being lazy and not just removing it and backing up.

I got better at determining when to go with a “naked” camera on cruise #2, so for me, there was definitely a learning curve. I did get a lot of excellent shots with it that would have been a pain otherwise, though. This is especially useful for us as travel agents, as I’m able to get more of a hotel room or cruise cabin in a single shot, reducing the number of overall pictures it takes to be able to show off the entire room. For example, here are two shots of the same hotel room, taken from the same point in the room. On the left, no lens. On the right, using the wide angle. Definitely an advantage to having a wider field of view sometimes.

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Moving on to the telephoto, I think my biggest issues were using it indoors. I used it a few times to shoot our general sessions in the main theater on the Escape, attempting to get close-up shots of speakers without having to use digital zoom, and in that setup, with challenging lighting, the shots were no sharper and clearer than those shot using just the built-in digital zoom. Outdoors in the right conditions, this does allow you to gain a closer perspective without the IQ loss that tends to occur when using the iPhone’s digital zoom. In the group of pictures at the end of this post, the shot of Atlantis was taken sitting at the back of the ship using the telephoto lens with no added zoom.

Moment Case:  As mentioned, I didn’t have this until the second cruise, and having it for that only happened because I agreed to give up the one I wanted due to supply shortage. I’d pre-ordered the black/black case on 11/24 with an estimated shipping date of 12/3, but when they finally started shipping on 12/8ish, my order status changed to Back Order. After contacting them, I learned that the system had accepted more orders for that color combination than they could fill, so I could either change to one of the other two options, or wait until some future date when they had more. Reluctantly, I chose to switch to the black/white case, as they didn’t know how long the wait would be.

Up to this point, I hadn’t used Moment’s camera app much, as I prefer Camera+ (and am learning PhotoToaster). Going in to the purchase of this case, I knew I’d have to change over if I wanted to make use of the dedicated shutter button, as it only works with their app. I tried to like it, I really did. I spent the first couple of days after getting the case trying to get used to the app, and even filed feedback on a couple of changes I’d like to see:

  • One thing I like about Camera+ is the ability to edit pics in the app as soon as you shoot. This is something Moment’s app doesn’t have, and the answer I was given was that focusing on the capture side was their priority, with no plans for any editing features since there are so many editing apps out there for people to use. I get it, but it still slows me down when I want to shoot and post stuff fast, so looks like I’ll be staying with Camera+ for now.
  • They currently have no HDR support in the app. Now, Camera+ doesn’t have this on the capture side either, but has the ClarityPro editing built in to allow me to quickly add a similar effect right after taking the shot. They did say this is coming at some point, so there’s that.

There are some general fit and finish things that could be done to make the app look better too, including:

  • A dark theme. Seriously. I hate the white theme. I get that opinions differ, but that’s what choice is for.
  • Connectivity between the case and app seems to drop sporadically, and when it happens, you may not realize the shutter button isn’t working until you’ve missed your shot. If I can’t rely on the hardware button, what’s the point of having it?
  • When the app detects the case, it’d be nice if it would automatically make the on-screen shutter/control buttons smaller (or make them disappear completely) to give the viewfinder more real-estate. Overall, the on-screen controls take up too much space.
  • Too many crashes. This may have been taken care of in some update over the last month or so, but when I was using it on the boat, it crashed on a number of occasions when shooting and reviewing shots in the app. If I can’t trust it, I’m not going to use it.
  • I’d love to see them open up the shutter button connection to other app developers so we’d have the option of using other camera apps with the case.

Even with the above issues, I continued to use the app on the first couple of days on the boat. By day 3, I was back to Camera+ and only using the case to securely mount the lenses. That brings up another point. When not using their case, you have to use mounting plates to attach the lenses to your phone. This really isn’t a big deal, even though a few reviewers have complained about having to stick the plate to the back of the phone. I’ve taken 3 off and have left no damage or residue. It’s really not hard to get that thing off if you take your time. Of the two options for attaching the lenses, it’s the least favorable option, however, as I’m finding that a given mounting plate only lasts for one week-ish long trip. No matter how careful you are mounting and removing lenses, the connection point on the mounting bracket loosens up and you start to worry the lens will come loose and fall out at some point. With the case, no such concern, as that mounting point is a lot more solid than the one on the plate. This means I need to keep at least one extra mounting plate with me on each trip, as I see myself using the first setup more often than using the Moment case. Because of the case’s shape, I can’t really use the ShoulderPod with it either (although I tried), and frankly, I find the S1 more functional than the Moment case.

One other piece of the Moment gear that’s bothering me, the lens caps. Buying them was a no-brainier (frankly, each lens should ship with one) , but it looks like they could stand to be slightly deeper or more rigid than they are, as I’ve had them rub the actual glass on the lens when putting the cap back on, causing smudging in the center of the lens, which in turn meant having to clean the lens quite a bit. I’m sure pressing the center of the lens cap as I put it back on is contributing, but if it were more rigid this wouldn’t be an issue.

The lenses are pretty good quality, imo, and none of the above issues will deter me from continuing to use them. While I’m still learning when to use each in specific scenarios based on what I’ve seen out of them so far, I’ve been able to get some great shots with them under the right conditions, and the wide angle allows me to get more things in the frame of a single shot without having to employ any sort of panoramic functionality. Here are a few samples of shots taken using the Moment lenses over the course of our trips:

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Hotel Review – Disney’s Coronado Springs

For our Thanksgiving trip to Disney World, we’d originally booked a room at Pop Century Resort, one we’ve stayed at in the past, but a few weeks out from this trip, we were able to move the reservation to Coronado Springs for a relatively small increase. Having never stayed there, we decided to give it a try.

Check in was pretty easy here. I’d actually checked in online the day before, and just before noon on our scheduled day of arrival, I got a text letting me know our room was ready for us. Upon arrival, we hit the registration counter, got our keys and some basic information. While the main building lookd fine, one thing that stood out were the lack of Christmas decorations. Jen and I ate dinner at Beaches and Cream that night, and seeing both Beach Club and Yacht Club pretty well saturated in Christmas, were a bit surprised that Coronado Springs had yet to get any love in this area, or maybe it was just so subtle we didn’t’ see them.

After checking in, we headed over to our room, located in the Cabanas section (building 9A, specifically). We’d requested a water view, and got just that, as we had a corner room overlooking the Cabanas village pool. Our room itself was pretty disappointing, especially for a hotel classified as a moderate. Disney really needs to gut these rooms and start over, as they feel like they haven’t been touched in 20 years. We never had an issue with it being clean, it just felt worn and dated. Additionally, one thing we really liked about French Quarter back in May was that there were two sinks, allowing us to get ready faster in the morning. Not so here, as shown in the room pics.

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The Cabanas section does have a little beach with a few hammocks hung, which was kinda cool:

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After getting settled, we spent some time walking the grounds. There are some cool views here, but if you’re out in one of the farther building groups, like Ranchos (property map), it could be a bit of a hike to get to the main building. Ours wasn’t too bad, but I’d say that we definitely didn’t fill our soda mugs up nearly as often due to the added distance from the main building (vs French Quarter). In addition to the main building, there’s also a large pool area in the middle of the property, referred to as the “Dig Site”. This is actually kinda cool, with a Mayan theme to it, and it’s complete with a pool, play area, sand volleyball court, and cantina.

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Back on the Christmas decorations, we did notice a tree and some wreaths in the lobby on one of our last nights there, so either we just didn’t see them initially, or they didn’t decorate the place until after the higher-end hotels were done. We’d visited a couple more properties as part of our Disney Dining plan dinners, and all of those were pretty heavily decorated, so it kinda felt like Coronado Springs was an afterthought in this regard. Frankly, it seemed like a number of areas of this resort were worn and needed attention. Case in point, there are automatic gates on the road that surrounds the property. As you turn in to Coronado Springs, you can turn left or right to get to guest areas before you get to the main gate. Our building was to the right, with one of the automatic gates right there. In our case, the gate in was never working while we were there, it was stuck in the up position. Fear not, however, the “out” gate was working fine, just to be sure that no riff-raff were able to escape the property without a short delay to wait for the arm to raise. We did see someone working on the gate on day 2 or 3, but he wasn’t able to fix it, as the “in” gate remained up the rest of our stay.

Overall, if we were presented with the same choice in the future, I’d probably opt to save my money and keep the Pop Century reservation. The added cost for this being a moderate just didn’t feel warranted in my opinion. Disney knows they’re going to get guests staying here since it’s got a convention center, and as such, may not be concerned about renovating it. Maybe I’m wrong, but this just didn’t live up to ‘moderate’ standards for me.

Here’s a quick rundown of the good/bad, along with a few more pictures of the property:

(Note – I can’t speak to any of the restaurants here, as we didn’t try any)

Pros

  • Easy and quick check-in, room was ready 3 hours ahead of time
  • Some great views around the property
  • Our housekeeper took good care of our room
  • The Dig Site’s a great place for families to hang out when not at parks
  • Queen sized beds, a “moderate standard” (also mentioned in the cons list)
  • Had close-able doors between the beds and bathroom area so people could get ready without bothering those still sleeping
  • Bus transportation was pretty good, and the hotel is pretty close to all parks
  • Pretty good gift shop in the main building
  • Landscaping well done and kept up nicely

Cons

  • The rooms need a lot of TLC. They look like they haven’t been renovated in a looooong time.
  • The beds weren’t comfortable at all to me. Felt like someone grabbed a bunch of random worn-out padding and jammed it in a queen bed shell.
  • Some of the other buildings could make guests feel disconnected from the rest of the resort due to distance from the main building, but that holds true at other hotels on property, too.
  • I can see where it could get really busy when the convention center is full utilized

And of course, a few more pics:

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Animal Kingdom: Wild Africa Trek

This adventure was part of our Thanksgiving trip to Disney World, and I can honestly say it’s one of the coolest things I’ve ever done at any theme park. We were on the 8am tour on Thanksgiving day, which meant meeting at the entrance to Animal Kingdom before the park opened. Being that it was my birthday present, Jen did an outstanding job of keeping it a secret, even from Bayley. As we arrived at the park, all we knew was that whatever my present was, it was happening that morning, and it would mean getting in to the park prior to the actual opening time. It wasn’t until we walked into the Wild Africa Trek area that either of us began to figure out what we were about to do.

On arrival to the park, we were instructed to wait off to the side until our guides arrived. Once they did, we were led through the park just prior to opening, so just like our Magic Kingdom breakfast at Be Our Guest the day before, we got to enjoy an empty park as we walked to the staging area for the trek.

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Once you arrive at the starting point to the trek (right next to the Kilimanjaro Safari entrance), you go through some instruction from your guides, and get suited up for the trek. Things to note here:

  • No sandals.  Closed-toed shoes only.
  • The tour cost does not include park admission, you still must have a ticket for Animal Kingdom.
  • Kids must be at least 8 years old, and 48″ tall. No unaccompanied minors, either.
  • If your health doesn’t allow for long periods of walking over some potentially rough terrain, don’t go.
  • No loose cameras, including phones. If your camera or phone can’t be strapped to the gear you’ll be wearing, you have to put it in your locker.

Those are the basics, but be sure to check the “know before you go” section of their site for all requirements. That last one is a big one that several people in our group, including us, didn’t know going in. I’m pretty sure I was the only one allowed to take my phone, because I had two straps on it that I could use to strap to my gear. If you don’t get to take your camera, it’s not the end of the world, as they take a lot of pictures along the way, all of which are included in the cost. They give you a web site address you can download all pictures from a day or so later.

After they get everyone into their harnesses, go through some basic safety instructions, test out the wireless headsets your guides talk to you on, they give you a short description of what’s going to happen, and you’re off! The tour starts with a walk down the same Pangani Trail all the other guests can access, and you’ll end up getting some funny looks from other guests along the way who have no idea why you have all that gear on. Along the way, one guide is giving you information on the animals you see as you walk, while the other one is shooting pictures of the group. They switch off roles a couple of times along the tour too, so you get to hear from both guides assigned to your trek. Once you get close to the end of the Pangani Trail, you take a little side exit that dumps you off on a closed trail. You then hike along this trail for a while, with your guide talking to you about the area and animals, until you arrive at the hippopotamus pool.

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Once here, they strap your harness into a support railing so you can safely walk along a ledge overlooking the pool. While here, you’re given a talk by their resident hippo expert while enjoying the view, and while having your picture taken by the guide with the camera.

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Once complete, you trek a little farther to the start of the ropes course. This is one of the highlights of the trip, as you get to walk over two rope bridges. If you’ve experienced the Kilimanjaro Safari ride before, you’ve driven under the first of the two bridges, and like us, may never have even noticed it. When you get to the first bridge, you’re strapped in one by one, and cross over to the platform between the two bridges. The guide currently shooting pictures actually crosses first, so he/she can get pictures of each person as they cross. The shots of us on the bridge face-first were shot by our guide, and the others were taken by me.

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Once you’re across to the first platform, they stop each group for a quick photo:

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After that, you make your way across the second bridge one by one, and pass over the crocodiles. The bridges are pretty easy to walk across in my opinion, but they can get a little bouncy when more than one person is on. They also don’t mind if you make a quick stop while walking to take a pic or two if you have your camera on you, just don’t stop for long periods and hold everyone else up.

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Disney’s attention to detail is quite evident on the bridges, too. Even though the bridges are perfectly secure, and there’s no danger of falling, they make the planks along the way look worn and brittle. Nice touch 🙂

Once across, you walk to a ledge overlooking the crocodile pit and strap in to another support railing while listening to the croc expert and having your picture taken with them.

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After you finish up here, you shed your harness, as you no longer need it, and hop into a safari truck for the next part of the expedition. Your truck joins the same path the regular Kilimanjaro Safari trucks are on, with the occasional deviation on to side paths the regular trucks don’t take. These side paths allow your group additional time to see some of the animals, and in some cases, allow you to get closer to animals than the regular path does, depending on where the animals are that day. When the trucks stop for these closer views, you can also stand up to get better shots. We got lucky with the giraffes, with several of them congregating right next to one of these side paths. Our truck pulled up next to them, and while our guides gave us good information on them and answered questions, we got to be pretty close and get some great shots.

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Once we finished up there, the truck headed up to a building sitting on the savannah. We’d seen this on past safari trips, but until now had no idea what the purpose was. For the trek, it actually gets used as a 30 minute rest stop, giving you time to relax and enjoy some food specially prepared by the chefs at Tusker House. All this as you enjoy some spectacular views, complete with binoculars to use. While there, the guides will also take pictures of you in various poses, and you obviously have the opportunity to take some of your own pictures.

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There were also a coupe of short rain showers during our stop, which caused some of the animals to run for cover. I can’t say I’ve ever seen giraffes running so fast!

Once your time at the camp is up, you load back in to the truck for the ride back to the drop off point, which is the same platform the regular Kilimanjaro Safari trucks drop off at. You then follow your guide back to the Wild Africa Trek entrance where you pick up whatever you placed in the lockers before heading out into the park to enjoy the rest of your day.

The whole trek is about 3 hours, and it’s worth the time and money in my opinion. Getting to see things from a more behind-the-scenes perspective in a small group setting, while getting a ton of useful information was a blast. The rope bridges and brunch at the private safari camp are icing on the cake, and totally justify the cost, in my opinion. Our guides were great, too, we can’t thank them enough for an outstanding morning!

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Enjoy a few more pictures from our trek, and when at Animal Kingdom, consider giving this a try!

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Travel Photography – What’s In My Bag?

With travel season approaching, I’ve been working on changes to the photo and video gear I carry with me. There was a time when I would carry my Nikon DSLR and all of my lenses with me on vacation, but over the past few years I’ve gotten to the point where I wanted to go as light as possible and not have to carry a full camera bag around with me. It started with our Thanksgiving cruise in 2012, where I found myself shooting around 60% of our pictures with my Nokia Lumia 920 vs 40% with my Nikon, slowly edging up to the point where I was shooting 90% of our vacation shots with my Lumia 1020.

There are exceptions, as I enjoy shooting auto racing when I get the chance, and I have yet to see anything below a DSLR and a set of good lenses that can handle the speed and low-light requirements, but for everything else, the lighter I can go, the happier I am. So with a cruise on tap in a week aboard the Norwegian Escape, followed by Thanksgiving at Disney World, I figured I’d post a quick walk-through of the gear I’ve settled on.

Photo Gear

For the first time in a long time, I’m not taking a DSLR with me, even as a backup. I will have two alternate devices with me, however:

  • My Lumia 1020 with camera grip: This may be a bit long in the tooth, and might be a little slow on a per-shot basis, but nothing in the phone space beats the PureView imaging system. This thing has been a favorite of mine for shooting since the day I bought it, and that’s why this is going to be my main back-up camera.
  • Sony DSC-WX350: I picked this up on the cheap as an open box item at Best Buy a few months ago to use as a business camera  for things like ship/resort tours, so we’d have something either of us could just pick up and shoot with at the drop of a hat. The results are pretty good for a P&S, in my opinion.

I really don’t expect to have to use either unless something happens to my primary. So what is my primary? Well, it’s my iPhone 6s Plus, equipped with a few extras. A quick shot of my gear (including the backups and tripod):

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Of the main gear in the left hand shot, the case is a CamKix medium GoPro case with the CamKix customizable magic foam. What am I carrying inside the case? Well, a few things:

  • Shoulderpod S1 Professional Smartphone Grip: I needed a way to mount the iPhone to my Gorillapod if the situation arose. After a little searching, I knew I had to have this. The reviews aren’t wrong, the handle’s solid and really helps stabilize both still and video scenarios.
  • Moment wide angle and telephoto lenses: I spent a lot of time comparing specs, reviews and sample shots of the various iPhone lenses. I’ve used cheap lenses from other companies before, and this is definitely a category where you get what you pay for. I wanted high quality glass, and I definitely feel I got it with the Moment lenses!
  • Spigen Neo Hybrid Carbon case: Normally I keep the Spigen Slim Armor Volt on my phone (wireless charging FTW!), but it’s too thick to allow mounting of my lenses, so for the duration of the trip I’ll be using this case.

I’m looking forward to putting this gear through its paces over the next 2-3 weeks. Feel free to follow us on Facebook and/or Instagram to see how the lenses perform on our trips!

Video Gear

For land trips, I generally just use my phone for any video I take, but when we go on cruises I also bring along a GoPro to handle any situations where the camera may get dirty, wet, or may need to be mounted to me in some way. This trip will be no exception, as I want to be sure I get plenty of video from the excursion we’re doing on my birthday in St Thomas, the BOSS Underwater Adventure.  I’ll likely end up doing some snorkeling at the other two ports, Tortola and Nassau, so it’ll get plenty of use this trip. Here’s my video setup:

Video gear

The case is a Shineda Water Resistant Large GoPro Case, which fits just about all of my GoPro gear. The main items in the case that I plan to use this trip:

  • GoPro Hero4 Silver plus extra battery: I bought this a while back as a replacement for my Hero2, which I gave to my daughter to use while at college. I’m looking forward to having the LCD to frame my shots vs hoping I’m getting what I think I’m aiming at :).
  • GoPole Bobber Floating Handgrip: This is my first trip with it, so I’ll be interested to see how I like it versus the regular wrist strap I’ve used for snorkeling in the past.
  • Head strap: This isn’t the official GoPro one, my daughter took that one with her when I gave her my Hero2. This is a knockoff my wife ran across at Five Below for $5, and frankly I can’t tell the difference.
  • Random mounts: Not sure I’ll use any of them, but since the case can hold them all, I figured I’d throw them in.

Okay, so maybe I’ve failed the whole “carry less gear” goal, but at least it’ll be lighter. Regardless, I’m very much looking forward to putting the new stuff to work! After we get back, I’ll post my impressions of how the Moment lenses performed in real-world use.

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