Wednesday, March 31, 2010

City cracking down on unlicensed tour buses

With the peak tourist season just around the corner, the City of Philadelphia has begun to follow through on warnings issued last summer in the direction of unlicensed tour buses. It is estimated that between 15 and 25 illegally operated bus touring "companies" function on a daily basis from April through November.

Tourism--Philadelphia's staple is the the history kind--draws over 30 million visitors per year and generates nearly $25 million in economic impact for the metro area each day. Almost 90,000 jobs are indirectly or directly linked to tourism in the region.

Sites like the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall fall at the top of the list for these visitors and most would like to be shown the landmarks by a local tour guide, and even more, sit back and relax and take in the view by bus.

"I come to a new city and I just want to be shown the sites from a bus. You know, from afar," said Kyle Vernon, visiting from Atlanta, Ga. "I just want to kick back. You know what I mean?"

The Bureau of Tourism (BOT) realizes the popularity of tour buses and wants to assure patrons that the City's bus fleet is the safest that it can possibly be. This is why lawmakers stepped up a few decades ago.

The City requires that all bus sightseeing companies be registered with the BOT. This law, often called the Bus Franklin Law, was passed in 1976, when record numbers of tourists flooded Old City for the Bicentennial.

"During the spring of 1976, everyone and their mother attempted to claim some of the tourist money pouring into the city," said Valerie Stewart, a BOT official. "Old station wagons, pickup trucks, campers, large skateboards and you name it and they were giving tours of the city. In late May of '76 we passed the law and grabbed control of the situation."

The law was successful and virtually eliminated all underground touring, but as the City's popularity as a destination spot began to rise over the past several years, these unmarked buses have reemerged.

Licensed bus operators have been pushing the City for the last year to address the situation and enforce the 1976 law.

"We pay a large annual fee for the right to do business in Philadelphia," said Brian McMullen, a manager with Big Bus Tour Company. "It's not right that these renegade tour companies are avoiding fees and compromising the safety of tourists."

Some illegal buses have actually been altered, in an attempt to fool law enforcement, and are a hybrid of two or more vehicles. Several buses have been spotted with a passenger car attached to the front, and, as dangerous as it sounds, some have even attempted to venture into the water.

"Last September, I took a bus load of people into the water," explained Captain Terry, a Ride-the-Ducks tour guide and amphibious vehicle operator, "and I look to my left and there was an old school bus in the river, loaded with tourists, using plastic barrels to float. Is this safe?"

Many of the illegal bus operators deny any wrongdoing.

"I don't operate a tour bus," claimed Harry O'Brien, standing in front of his Fishtown row home. "Yes, I drive a bus around the city. Yes, I pick tourists up on the street. Yes, I charge them a fee. And, yes, I give them my thoughts on the city for one hour over an on-board intercom system. If that's a tour bus than arrest me."

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Mattel vehemently denying plans to turn SS United States into 500 million miniature SS United States

Philadelphia, PA--One of the world’s largest toy makers, California-based Mattel Inc., issued a public statement earlier this week addressing rumors that have been swirling around the Delaware Valley and the toy industry for almost a month.

“We have no current plans to turn the SS United States, a treasure to the City of Brotherly Love and to the ship-loving world, into millions of toy boats,” said Mark Gortez, Mattel's vice president, standing behind a podium at the Penns's Landing Marriott. “We also have no business ties to a scrap metal company based in Asia. The idea, quite frankly, is comical and so we would like groups calling for the preservation of the ship to remain at ease."

Makers of Matchbox cars and Hot Wheels, the company has a strong hold on the miniature metal toy market and, if the SS United States rumors prove to, one day, be true, would only further secure their dominance. Most of these toys are made overseas in China.

Early last week, a well-known Chinese scrap metal company was spotted in South Philadelphia examining the SS United States, which has been docked in the shadows of the Walt Whitman Bridge since 1996. Company representatives made no attempt to conceal their identity as they disembarked extended white vans wearing bright orange windbreakers with the company’s world-famous trademark—Scrappy-Doo (yes, Scooby-Doo's cousin) turning the pages of a scrapbook titled 'Things Forgotten.'

Through an interpreter, the apparent leader of the assemblage attempted to explain the visit: “We are here in Philadelphia on vacation. We heard the SS United States was a hip and happening tourist attraction and that is why we are here. There is no other reason. If you think there is another reason, then you are false. Dead false.”

Interestingly, the ship is not open for tours now, nor has it been during its 14 years in the city, and so spotting the scrap company here has caused serious alarm among local residents wanting to save the ship.

When asked why the group was wearing company jackets, the man hurriedly corralled the other group members into the two waiting vans, slammed the side double doors, catching a colleague’s foot in the process, and then quickly drove away, stirring dust and leaving large tire marks in the mostly empty parking lot.

The company, Shanghai Scrap Metal & Things Inc., has worked closely with Mattel in the past to provide cheap metal for the company’s large line of miniature toys. Records show that in 1980, Shanghai purchased a beloved, historic cruise liner docked in Vancouver, Canada, towed the vessel to China, completed the scrapping process and sold the material to Mattel for well under market value. Mattel, who denies the connection, went on to make millions of toy BJ and the Bear Matchbox 18-wheelers (pictured at right) that were replicas of the rig from the popular television show of the time.

“We were given no warning that a scrap metal company was coming to view the ship,” said Gina Yothers, president of the SS United States Preservation Society. “Our goal is to preserve the history and integrity of the ship. The arrival of Shanghai can only spell doom. We need more time.”

Yothers was referring to more time for raising enough funds and awareness to help give a second life to the "gem." Possible plans for the ship include a casino, museum, shopping area, restaurants, set for new Love Boat television series and, ironically enough, a new headquarters for a Kensington scrap metal company. But, no savior has stepped forward as of yet, and time appears to be running short for the largest ship ever constructed in the United States.

Norwegian Cruise Lines currently owns the ship and, at one time, was considering retrofitting the Atlantic Ocean-crossing record holder and recommissioning it to its fleet. This idea was quelled by company executives sometime in the last year or two, who cited the alarming costs associated with such a restoration.

On Friday afternoon, several Norwegian Cruise Line vehicles were spotted at Mattel’s office complex in El Segundo. Mattel later said that several of the toy company’s executives were interested in “taking a cruise to Hawaii … and, not Shanghai.”

Gortez ended the Marriott press conference by saying, “Plus, even if this was our intention, wouldn’t it be a great way to pay tribute to the ship? Wouldn’t seeing millions of children worldwide, playing with really small versions of the ship, be a great way to memorialize it? Hypothetically speaking of course.”

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

NCAA tired of explaining to Coach Majerus that Selection Sunday has nothing to do with choosing ice cream

Indianapolis, IN--National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) officials are exasperated after dealing with Saint Louis University men's basketball head coach Rick Majerus, concerning Selection Sunday, for the 27th time.

"Every year around this time he shows up at the NCAA headquarters with a list of his favorite sundae toppings," said NCAA vice president, Daniel Rosenberg. "Mr Majerus, if you are listening, the NCAA Tournament selection day is Selection Sunday and not Selection Sundae. We will never choose 64 toppings ... instead of teams."

The coach acknowledges that he has a problem and that the second Sunday in March acts like a sort of trigger.

"I don't know ... I, ah ... I hear Selection Sunday and I just get light headed and all these images of gooey chocolate, m&m's smothered in Heath Bar pieces, peanut butter something-or-others spread on top, a dash of crumpled up Oreos, caramel doused in a caramel sauce, thousands of sprinkles, and some sort of Snicker-flavored butterscotch," said Majerus. "And the next thing I know I'm on a flight to Indianapolis. And the worst part is ... I don't even remember driving to the airport."

Monday, March 15, 2010

Stranded motorists harassed by rabid Center City jet ski gang

Above: A gang of jet skiers, known as the Rittenhouse Posse, harass a
stalled motorist on Delaware Ave on Saturday afternoon. Witnesses
could only watch as drivers were repeatedly splashed by racing jet skis.

Philadelphia, PA --Over five inches of heavy rain have fallen on the region since early Friday morning and forecasters are calling for more. Accompanying the weekend's nasty Nor'easter were hurricane-force winds and, with temperature highs hovering in the 50's, huge mounds of melting snow. The deadly combination has inundated the area's creeks, streams and rivers.

"There's just nowhere for all the water to go," explained Donna Higgins, a meteorologist from the State College, PA-based AccuWeather. "The ground is completely saturated. This is a meteorologists dream."

As a result, the region has experienced widespread flooding over the last several days, with some waterways still rising. Many roads were impassible after becoming extensions of nearby rivers and creeks. This puddling of water on the city's roadways has created an entirely new problem for motorists ... and police.

A gang, known locally as The Rittenhouse Posse, has been intimidating those most inconvenienced by the large amount of rainfall: stalled vehicles in the middle of flooded streets. This gang, however, uses a very unorthodox form of transportation, which has the Philadelphia Police Department at a complete loss at how to handle the situation. The getaway (and arrival) vehicle is a jet ski.

"We are somewhat familiar with this bad news crew," said Police Chief, Daniel Courtshire. "But, they usually keep to the City's two major rivers--the Schuylkill and the Delaware. But all this rain has given them access to the city street grid. We've got a real problem on our hands."

The gang will often ride close to large oil tankers coming up the Delaware River to dock at the Port of Philadelphia. Police have had difficulty apprehending the gang, but, admittedly, have shifted focus away from the renegade jet skiers because the "trouble" had been targeted at large cargo ships.

"I guess we kind of let them do their thing because we didn't feel like they were really hurting anyone. I mean, what could they do to a ship 800 times it's size?" said Courtshire. "Now, with the unprovoked harassment of City residents, we've got to put a stop to this."

With few leads, Police only know that the gang makes its home somewhere in the City's Rittenhouse neighborhood, as the group's name suggests. Where they dock the personal watercraft, on the other hand, is unknown. At the news conference, Chief Courtshire displayed the gang's sign--a twisting of the right hand that represents the motion of giving a jet ski more gas, followed by seventeen claps of the hands--to help the public identify the criminals.

The jet skiers will usually circle a stranded motorist in high water several times before beginning to spray the vehicle, often aiming at the driver, with their large wakes.

Police are asking motorists to stay in their vehicles if approached by a group of random jet skiers. There have been no reports of physical harm to drivers or passengers, however, a small number valuables have been carried away in a small dingy, trailing, what Police believe, to be the gang's leader.

"These flood waters can't recede fast enough," said a visibly frustrated Mayor Michael Nutter. "Please, if you get stranded, and a group of jet skiers comes out of nowhere and begins to circle your vehicle, stay inside and lock the door. They may not be friendly jet skiers."

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Chile quake causes minimal damage to new Machu Picchu coaster

Visitors to Machu Picchu overlook construction of the new Pizarro's Bizarro Express roller coaster. The coaster sustained only minimal damage during the Chilean earthquake on Feb. 27.

Aguas Calientes, Peru--On February 27, Chile was rocked by an 8.8 magnitude earthquake that left unimaginable destruction once the shaking subsided. Seismologists have called the quake one of the largest ever recorded.

Chile's neighbor to the north, Peru, was mostly spared of any major damage. Immediately following the quake, however, the Peruvian government sent a team of historians and preservationists to assess the state of one of the country's--and the planet's--most irreplaceable treasures: Machu Pacchu.

The ancient Inca city that is nestled deep in the Andes Mountains is extremely fragile. Scientists familiar with the site have concluded that the city is slowly (centimeters per year) sliding down the side of the mountain. Obviously, an earthquake would not help Machu Picchu's situation, which is why experts keep such a close eye on the relic.

But, even more of a concern for these historians, is the condition of the new thrill ride being constructed directly on top of the city--a roller coaster that is expected to raise millions of dollars for the endangered city.

"A few of the wooden cross braces were dislodged," said historian, Edgar San Gutierrez, when asked if the new coaster's integrity was compromised by the ground movement. "It's nothing that a few nails and screws can't fix."

Special rubber, vibration-absorbing foundation soles were placed deep at the base of each coaster footing to limit the amount of damage caused by a large earthquake.

"We used the most advanced anti-vibration devices that technology has to offer," Gutierrez explained.

When asked if any of the ancient stone structures were affected Gutierrez explained that his team of historians would launch a thorough inspection "just as soon as we finish with the coaster."

The roller coaster, Pizarro's Bizarro Exress, named after Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro, is expected to open in early May in time for the peak tourist season. The minor damage caused by the quake, officials say, will not delay the planned opening of the ride.

"Please, don't worry. As I stand here before you, I will do everything in my power to make sure that Pizarro's Bizarro Exress will open on time for the North American and European summer," said preservationist, Stefani Antuay.

Machu Picchu is one of the western hemisphere's most popular tourist destinations. It is a magical place, transporting visitors to the 15th century with stunning panoramic views of the surrounding peaks. A city that was very successful in going undetected by invading conquistadors is not so successful at hiding today.

A little more than 400,000 visitors per year visit the site, while Niagara Falls welcomes over 20 million. The Peruvian site, however, is vastly different for a number of reasons.

It is human-made and situated within a rugged mountain chain, which can be very difficult to access. This keeps the number of visitors down, but so does the Peruvian government. Why limit the number of tourists--especially since there is a sizable park entrance fee--if money is so desperately needed to preserve the city?

The main reason is preservation. Machu Picchu officials desperately need to raise revenue without increasing the number of tourists--foot traffic causes the most damage to the city--or the entrance fee. The Peruvian government has placed a freeze on both of these figures for the next ten years.

Officials want visitors to spend money once they get inside the ancient city. Could small shops with marked-up trinkets increase revenue? Yes, but on a very small scale. The coaster will be the most expensive thrill ride in the world at $1,500 per ride. Officials wanted a high-priced item that would also deliver high-end satisfaction.

"We want visitors to feel like they are getting value for their money," said Antuay. "Trust me, there will be no roller coaster in the world comparable to this one."

The same scientists predicting the slow downward movement of the city say that the added weight of the new roller coaster is worth the risk to preserve the UNESCO World Heritage Site for future generations.

The wooden roller coaster, which was started last June, is approaching the final stages of construction, and, when finished, will run almost a half mile and reach speeds of 100 mph and heights of over 8,200 ft above sea level.

"This will be one bitchin' ride," said Doug Sizemore, archaeologist adviser to the roller coaster construction company and a member of the prestigious American Archaeologists and Regional Preservationists (AARP).

Machu Picchu will not bear any of the cost of the new roller coaster, as Texas-based Six Flags Amusement Parks has agreed to pay the full price of the ride in exchange for the right to choose the name of the ride. Six Flags said that Ponce de Leon's Fountain of Extreme Vertical Drops was also a finalist for the coaster's name despite the fact that the "explorer" never set foot in Peru.

"It will raise a lot of money to help preserve the city," said scientist, Maita Ayar. "It's not the prettiest addition, but Six Flags gave me a pass for the whole summer, so..."

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Avatar joins with Pharmaceutical giant to launch new drug ... Avatar

West Point, PA--Merck & Co., one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world, has teamed up with 20th Century Fox and the 2009 film Avatar to create a new motion-sickness drug. The drug, Avatar, will help drastically reduce the sensation of spinning in patients experiencing abnormal amounts of motion sickness, also called kinetosis, especially while viewing films on large theater screens. "It can also be used for amusement park rides," said Merck director of sales, Hal Dilworth. Guests attending the Academy Awards on Sunday night at the Kodak Theater in Hollywood, CA will each be given a two-month supply of Avatar in the shape of the Oscar statue. Merck has clearly stated, with large warning labels on each bottle, that the drug is not recommended to be taken during Sandra Bullock movies. "It's not a good mix. It's just not," said Dilworth.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

PETA discovers Opening Ceremony whales discarded by stadium loading dock

Vancouver, B. C.--People For the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) kept a close eye on Vancouver Olympic Organizing Committee officials since the Game's Opening Ceremonies concluded on February 12 th. During the extravagant, three-hour long presentation, several blue whales were spotted at one point "swimming" through the stadium floor.

Crowds cheered as the mammals appeared to spray water through surface-penetrating blowholes and out into the stadium air. The show, claimed IOC officials, was part of a high-tech, multi-billion dollar computer generated imaging program.

"Vancouver officials claimed the whales were generated by computers," said PETA official, Pam Stevenson. "PETA knew something wasn't right. That's why we sent a representative to Vancouver to watch these guys. Somewhere along the line they were going to slip up and we were going to be there when they did."

Yesterday, a PETA intern, Tom Richards, 19, was keeping watch of the BC Place Stadium loading dock from a dumpster across the parking lot. Around 12:31 PM Pacific Time, two of the five large bay doors opened and Richards, between bites of a PETA-butter and jelly sandwich, witnessed a small crane hoisting a lifeless whale.

"What can I say," said a visibly choked up Vancouver Olympic official, Damon Bordent. "This, ah ... is a very embarrassing day for Vancouver and Canada. I'll admit it. We can't hide anymore. We had to use real whales because, let's face it, they can't make computers do what we wanted to do. In our defense, however, we felt we could save one of the three whales. It just didn't work out that way. It's extremely difficult to conceal three rotting, 170-metric ton whales. The smell alone should have been enough to make us turn ourselves in."

PETA looked for clues throughout the games, but ultimately revisited the Opening Ceremony video footage for leads. On February 17th, PETA requested to speak with hockey great Wayne Gretzky.

"Did you see how much he was perspiring during the lighting of the cauldron? He knew something was up. Honestly, that's what really tipped us off," said Stevenson. "That uncontrollable sweat."

Bordent went on to explain that the reason one of the cauldron's legs did not rise properly out of the stadium floor on February 12th was because it had become lodged on one of the whales.

"Wayne [Gretzky] was sweating because we were telling him in his ear piece that 'the leg is caught on one of the whales. Please stand by. The whales are getting hostile,'" said Bordent. "Wayne was instrumental in bringing the whales to Vancouver and we all thought that we were going to be exposed that night, which would have been a nightmare. I am just so thankful and proud that we were not discovered until after the Games were over."

Gretzky did say that he thought the whales were a huge hit and that "when I saw those three beautiful whales and the roar of the audience, it was like I just scored a hat-trick ... a natural hat-trick."