I admit it. I felt like a traitor. I was raised as a Disney fan in a family that is slightly
Disney crazy. But then my daughter became a Harry Potter fan and I knew a trip to Universal Studios Orlando was in our future. We finally made it recently and it was well worth it.

We stayed on property during our visit which is highly recommended. Like Disney,
guests staying at the Universal resorts get into one of the Harry Potter sections an hour earlier than everyone else. If you are visiting during a busy time it’s worth getting out of bed a bit earlier to avoid some of the worst of the lines. Universal has four resorts currently open, Cabana Bay, IMG_6092Royal Pacific, Portofino Bay and the Hard Rock Hotel. A 5 th hotel, Sapphire Falls, opens later this year.

Of these hotels, all but Cabana
Bay, the value resort,  and the new Sapphire Falls include the Express Pass feature (more on that later).

Two different Harry Potter “lands” are incorporated into the two theme parks. In
Universal Studios, Diagon Alley, the London base for the books’ wizards, is a fully immersive experience that goes beyond the typical ride based attractions to incorporate restaurants, shops, shows and, of course, butterbeer. Diagon Alley’s main ride, Escape from Gringotts, takes riders into the wizard bank, complete with the trolls who run it,Displaying IMG_6105.JPG

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and on a high-speed race to get Harry, Ron and Hermione away from Voldemort. When you’ve had your fill of Diagon Alley, be sure to take the Hogwarts Express train to Islands of Adventure. On the train, you will ride with Harry, Ron and Hermione to Hogwarts but watch out for Dementors! The ride is different each way, so make sure to ride it both to and from Universal Studios. You can only ride Hogwarts Express if you have a park-to- park pass though.

In Islands of Adventure, the second Universal park, visitors find Hogsmeade, the town
where the wizarding school Hogwarts is located. There you can journey through Hogwarts and compete in a match of quidditch, the wizard game. The ride’s line winds through Hogwarts itself going through the dining hall, green house and even Dumbledore’s office. Warning: the ride is intense, I mean very intense, so if you are prone to motion sickness think twice. Dueling Dragons, a family coaster, is a tamer, less intense ride in Hogsmeade. Both Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade have a location for Olivanders, a shop where you can purchase your own magical wands. At Olivanders, you can go through a wand selection process and one person out of every group gets to have their wand selected by the wand itself. It’s a fun process but can have a long line for the show. Visit the Diagon Alley location where the line is typically shorter than the Hogsmeade location.

If Harry Potter isn’t your thing, maybe the Minions, IMG_6144Shrek, Transformers or the Simpsons are. Each of these favorites has one or more interactive rides or experiences. Minion Mayhem in particular is sure to please everyone in the group. Over at Islands of Adventure, your family’s favorite superheroes and the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park find their home. The youngest (and shortest) members of your party will love the Pteranadon Flyers were they can hang glide through the tree tops, but be sure to get there early as the lines can be long. A revamped Hulk coaster comes to Island of Adventures this Summer.

Which brings me to the lines. One thing that Universal is really lacking, in my opinion, is crowd management and how it handles wait times. Universal offers the option for the Express Pass in its attempt to manage its crowds. It works in a similar manner to Disney’s Fast Pass, letting you go through a shorter line than the regular queue. However, there are two HUGE differences between the Express Pass and Disney’s Fast Pass. The first is that you have to pay for it, and it’s expensive (almost as much as the cost of the ticket). If you stay at one of Universal’s premier or preferred resorts, the pass is included in the hotel rate. The second biggest difference from the Fast Pass is that it doesn’t work on the most popular rides. While we were visiting the wait times for both the Gringotts ride and Hogwarts ride were over 90 minutes, yet the Express Pass wasn’t valid on it. This is why the Early Admission benefit offered by all of the Universal resorts is so valuable. Visit these popular Harry Potter rides before the parks fill with people and then spend the rest of your day on the other rides with Express Pass and enjoying the shops and restaurants.

Overall, Universal Studios Orlando will definitely appeal to the movie lovers in your family. For a Harry Potter fan, it’s an absolute must do.

Several of Favorite Place Travel’s agents are certified Universal Studios Resort Specialists. Contact us today to learn more about the options to make the most out of your Universal Studios visit.

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Not too long ago, we had the opportunity to take a quick trip to Austin, Texas on the same weekend as the Austin City Limits festival. The bad news: we had the kids in tow.  Austin City Limits (ACL) is billed as an “End of the Summer” music festival which takes place in Zilker Park, the Central Park of Austin.  Drawing acts from around the world, it ranks as one of the top music festivals in the nation.  Being from Chicago, I had visions of Lallapalooza-size crowds and not the most kid-friendly atmosphere (i.e. drunks wandering the streets). However, despite its unofficially tag line to “Keep Austin Weird” we were pleasantly surprised to find lots of kid-friendly (and adult-interesting) activities.

We were lucky enough to stay with family in the area saving us both money and lending their local know-how to the trip, but if you aren’t that lucky, hotels are plentiful, but book in advance, especially if there is a festival in town.  The downtown Austin area had all the major chain hotels while many boutique hotels can be found in South Austin.

The South Congress Area, located just past Lady Bird Lake, named for the former First Lady, is a great spot to get a flavor for the local people who are working hard to keep the unique, artsy vibe to one of the fastest growing cities in the U.S.  This area’s great mix of unique restaurants, boutiques, and independent shops kept not only the adults happy, but also the kids.

You can smell the leather of Allens Boots a store-front away and this huge store is filled with every type of cowboy boot imaginable, including ones emblazoned with the orange T of the University of Texas.  Once you’ve had your fill of shopping, there are plenty of family-friendly eating options including Home Slice Pizza, where they give the kids pizza dough to play with while waiting for their food.  Once you’ve filled up on pizza, be sure to check out the Big Top Candy Store, an old-school candy store filled with nostalgic, old time candy favorites and unique candy from Texas and beyond.

During the warmer months, the largest urban population of Mexican Free-Tailed bats hang out under the Ann Richard’s Bridge.  Around dusk, these bats leave the bridge to feed for the evening.   While normally this sounds like an area to avoid while 750,000 bats coming flying out of one spot, visitors and locals alike swarm to the spot to watch the bats take flight every night.  You can take a boat tour which cruises Lady  Bird Lake until they take off and then position themselves directly under the bridge (BTW, bats stink!) or watch from above on the bridge.

For history buffs, the Bob Bullock State History Museum is just a few blocks from the state capitol and tells the story of Texas from the Native Americans to today.  Also scattered around the city are signs of the city’s revolutionary past, which laid the groundwork for this city’s independent spirit. Replicas of the “Come and Take It” cannon which figured prominently in the Texas war of independence from Mexico and the “Come and Take It” flag depicting the cannon, the Lone Star and slogan, appear all over the city’s shops and galleries.

While we never made it to the ACL grounds, there was plenty to keep us busy and enough to hope for another trip to Austin soon.  The independent cowboy spirit mixed with an artist’s soul makes Austin the perfect place for everyone in your travel party.

To book your trip to Austin or for more information, contact your favorite travel agent at Favorite Place Travel or call 404.409.4174.

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I was a reluctant cruiser. After years of traveling through the US and Europe “independently,” setting our own schedule, stopping when we want to stop, eating when we want to eat, left me with a bias against cruises.  Someone else having control of my schedule just isn’t my thing, I’d tell friends and clients alike. But earlier this year, our family was made an offer we couldn’t refuse and next thing we knew, we were booking our cabin on a Spring Break cruise to the Bahamas on the Disney Dream.

We boarded the ship on Monday leaving Port Canaveral for our first stop in Nassau.  The ship’s lobby was gorgeous, very old Hollywood glamour, with a glass chandelier handmade in Italy, open ceilings and a touch of Disney with a bronze Admiral Donald Duck greeting passengers as they board.

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Others had told me that the ships weren’t overly “Disneyfied” and that was true.  Certainly Disney was present in its décor, but subtly so.  The biggest Disney characteristic was in the service provided on board.  The staff was accommodating beyond words. Our wait staff, Gilbert and Christina, who remained with us every night despite rotating through the onboard restaurants, entertained the children along with providing impeccable wait service.  The spa esthetician was the best I’ve experienced.

My husband found the workings of the ship itself fascinating.  Never having travelled on such a large vessel, watching the crew “park” and secure the ship, was amazing itself.  Watching the ship approach Nassau from our verandah, first a lighthouse, than a slip of land, then the massive Atlantis complex raised excitement from everyone.  However, the most excitement for the day was swimming with the dolphins at the Blue Lagoon, one of ship excursions. After an hour with the dolphins and a few more spent snorkeling in the crystal blue lagoon, we were well on our way to becoming cruise converts.  Going to dinner and a show then waking up in Castaway Cay, Disney’s private island, made us fully converted.

I would be remiss to not mention the Oceaneer’s Club and Oceaneer’s Lab, the kids clubs for the younger kids onboard.  Our children chose to go for an hour or so each day after dinner.  During that time, my husband and I explored the ship’s adult areas.  My personal favorite was the swanky champagne lounge, complete with pink and silver décor and a bubble fixture and corset bar. While I think my husband probably preferred the sports bar, what was clear is that there was plenty to do without children on board.

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Champagne Bar

Perhaps the highlight of the trip, however, was Castaway Cay.  The morning began with the Castaway Cay 5K, crossing the island at my slow and other passengers much faster pace.  After the run, the beach provided plenty to do, from lounging to in-ocean waterslides and ropes area. The island itself has large family beach areas and adult beach area, bike trails and designated snorkeling areas.   Despite the cruise being completely booked, the island never felt crowded or cramped.  Snorkeling equipment and floats are available for rent.  Our favorite activities were swimming with the stingrays and snorkeling searching for the sunken “treasure” off the beach.

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After 5 days onboard, I must admit that never once did I tire of having the schedule set for us.  There were dozens of activities scheduled each day, but we never once felt pressured to do any of them. They were options, not requirements.  As the person who typically makes the plans on vacations, it was refreshing to not have to worry about where we were going to dinner or what we were doing on a particular day.  Would I want to cruise for every vacation? Probably not. Will I do it again? Absolutely.

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To book your trip or for more information, contact your favorite travel agent at Favorite Place Travel or call 404.409.4174.

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This is my third and final post on my experiences in Nassau, each of them very different.  Please refer to Part 1 and Part 2 for the full series.

My third visit to Nassau was on a short cruise, and I was ready to experience a typical “cruise excursion”, but I didn’t want to go through the cruise line.  I used Shore Trips to book a 10-mile bike tour. My husband and I were instructed to meet our guide in front of the Parliament Building which is just a couple of blocks from the port.

Nassau, Bahamas Parliament

While we were standing on the corner in front of the Parliament Building, limousines began arriving and dignitaries got out and walked into the building. They were a part of the mourning party for former parliamentarian and educator Frank Leopold Edgecombe. We were witnessing an important piece of Bahamian history!

Our guide met us in her personal car, a lovely lady who hailed from England, but has lived in Nassau over 20 years. She took us to her home where we got on her bikes and took off.

While this may seem unsafe, getting in the car of a total stranger and going to her home, I knew she was vetted and trusted by Shore Trips, and not once did I feel unsafe. The guide lives on the other side of the island, so we got to see a lot of Nassau that most tourists never get to see. We got to see where the locals live, away from the port, the rum cake and Senior Frogs.

We took off on our bikes, and the guide provided some cookies, bottled water and rain ponchos. I didn’t think we’d need the ponchos, but it turns out the local guide knew what she was doing, and a few miles in, the bottom fell out of the sky and we were spared from getting soaked due to the foresight of the rain ponchos.

Now, lest you be midled, this wasn’t a scenic tour of Nassau for 10 miles. We went down old roadways, through not-so-pretty scenery, but it wasn’t a strenuous ride, and we ended up at a local beach in the village of Adelaide where the water was still and clear, far from the tourists. I was able to get a conch shell right out of the water that the locals had discarded, instead of paying $20 for one marketed to the tourists.

Nassau, Bahamas

“Keep da beach clean”

We returned to the ship in plenty of time, and of my three visits to Nassau, this experience was one of the favorites. Exploring on our own (Part 1) was excellent, although due to safety concerns, I don’t recommend it. My visit to Atlantis (Part 2)  was once-in-a-lifetime, but been there, done that.

This organized trip by Shore Trips allowed us to see parts of the island we otherwise would not have seen and meet a great woman who loves her island and was eager to share with us.

To book your trip or for more information, contact your favorite travel agent at Favorite Place Travel or call 404.409.4174.

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From 32 to 2: A couples’ trip to Disney World

As many of you know, last December 32 of our family members came from near and far at Disney World for one week of family fun. It was fun, busy and full of crazy kids. Not too long after that trip, my husband and I had the opportunity to do something we hadn’t been able to do since our oldest daughter was born 8 years ago- sneak away, ALONE, just the two of us. So where did we go? To Disney World, of course!

WHAT? The first time in 8 years we have the chance for a “grown ups” only trip and we go to Disney World? Not Vegas, New York or New Orleans? Yes, Disney World is the perfect place for a couples get away. Prior to having kids, we had travelled to Disney World several times either alone or with couples. Our favorite time to visit was early Fall during the EPCOT Food and Wine Festival. Booths line EPCOT’s World Showcase offering culinary specialties, wine and beer selections from the featured countries as well as other countries and regions exclusive to the Festival. Wine and beer tastings take place daily, some for free and some for a nominal fee. While my personal favorite, dining experiences with world-renown chefs, feature either full meals or cheese or dessert specialties. (Last year’s festival featured dinners with Food Network’s Robert Irvine, Oprah’s personal chef Art Smith and Travel Channel’s Andrew Zimmerman.) While some kids may be up for one or more of the dining experiences, the events as a whole are decidedly adult focused.
This trip, however, could not wait for the Food and Wine Festival, but still offered plenty to keep us occupied without kids. We were able to make those dining reservations we avoided when we visited with our kids and stroll around the World Showcase sampling beer and wine from host countries and not rushing from one ride to the next. We went to the dueling piano bar and had drinks after dinner and generally enjoyed each other’s company. Could we have done these things other places? Sure, but nowhere else are we also able to jump on Soarin’ after drinks in Great Britain; watch Fantasmic! after having tapas and wine and the Brown Derby; or see my husband drink a beer in Germany with a giant beer stein hat on his head!

Enjoying a beer in Germany

Overall, our couples experience at Disney World was everything we remembered from our pre-kids days but even better, because we appreciated it even more now! We wouldn’t have picked another place to spend our first “solo” trip.

To book your trip or for more information, contact your travel agent at sgross@favoriteplacetravel.com or sglover@favoriteplacetravel.com or call Susan at 708.479.4693 or Stacey at 404.409.4174.

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Have you been waiting for the perfect time to plan your next, or **GASP**, first Disney vacation?
The Free Dining Promotion is the offer you’ve been waiting for!  It is now available to Disney Visa cardholders and it will be available to the general public on May 7th!
Does this promotion offer any real value to you?  YES!  The Regular Dining Plan is roughly $60/adult/day and roughly $21/child/day, so for a 3-night, 2 day stay for a family of 2 adults and 2 children, the Free Dining Promotion is a value of almost $500!
The travel dates for the promo are
8/31-10/3/14
10/26-11/1/14
11/9-11/20/14
12/12-12/23/14

A 3-night/2-day ticket is required.  Dining Plan is attached to your room nights, not the number of park ticket days.  Promotion is based on arrival date, so if you arrive on 10/3/14, for example, you would get Free Dining for the length of your stay.
Not valid at all resorts.  Value Resorts receive Quick-Service Dining but can upgrade to Plus Dining for a reduced fee.
Contact Favorite Place Travel for details and to secure your magical vacation!

To book your trip or for more information, contact your travel agent at sgross@favoriteplacetravel.com or sglover@favoriteplacetravel.com or call Susan at 708.479.4693 or Stacey at 404.409.4174.

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Disney in the Extreme –Part I Travelling with a Large Group

Everyone thinks of a trip to Disney World as a vacation for kids- maybe take the family a couple of times while the kids are little, check it off your family “to do” list and move on to the next thing. However for many of us who grew up in a “Disney family”, a trip to Disney World feels like coming home.  Over the recent holidays, that’s exactly what 32 members of my family did, we came “home”.

Travelling with 32 people, coupled with the Christmas craziness, led to an experience I like to think of as “Disney in the extreme”.  Travelling with a large group of people, let alone family, can remove any hope of relaxing right out of your vacation plans, but after a few of these trips, I’ve learned a few things that that can help you and your group have a great trip, maybe even with a little relaxation time too.

Family Reunion at WDW

1. Pre-planning is a must. Start thinking about your group vacation at least 3-4 months ahead of time. Whether your trip is to Disney World or the beach or Ireland, when you are travelling with a large group of people, plans are imperative. Restaurants likely can’t take a large group as a walk-in at peak dinner hours, especially at Disney where restaurant reservations can be made up to 180 days ahead of time. Hotels fill up, especially at peak vacation times, and it’s much more difficult to “squeeze in” a large group versus a single family.

 

Families that play together, stay together

2. Discuss your expectations. It’s important to make sure everyone is on the same page. Will you all be travelling together all day, every day, or just meeting up for a few meals or activities during the week? Talking about everyone’s expectations ahead of time can save hurt feelings due to some members of your family having different ideas about what the vacation will be.

3. Don’t overplan. Yes, this tip seems to contradict #1, but really they balance each other out.  While you should have some plans set in stone, leave time to just “hang out” and enjoy each other’s company. Cousins really get to enjoy and get to know each other while playing in the pool. If you have cooking facilities, have dinner in one night where everyone can relax without the pressure of time or worrying about disrupting other guests.

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Taking time to enjoy your family (or whomever your group may be) outside of the hustle and bustle of everyday life can lead to experiencing them in a whole different, relaxed light. Let us assist you in making your trip one full of a lifetime of memories.

 

To book your trip or for more information, contact your travel agent at sgross@favoriteplacetravel.com or sglover@favoriteplacetravel.com or call Susan at 708.479.4693 or Stacey at 404.409.4174.

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DIVE INTO BIG SAVINGS WITH THIS SUMMER OFFER!

GoofyWith special benefits and legendary service, Disney Resort hotels are filled with wonder and excitement. And now is a great time for you to take the plunge with huge savings!

Save on rooms at select Walt Disney World® Resort hotels for stays most nights June 15 – Aug. 28, 2014.

Save up to 30% when you stay up to 5 nights*
Save up to 35% when you stay 6 nights or longer*
Save even more when you stay 6 nights or longer and add minimum 6-day Magic Your Way® Tickets to your room!**Not valid at all WDW Resorts

Book by June 6, 2014

To book your trip or for more information, contact your travel agent at sgross@favoriteplacetravel.com or sglover@favoriteplacetravel.com or call Susan at 708.479.4693 or Stacey at 404.409.4174.

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In Part 1 of this series on Nassau, Bahamas, I talked about visiting tourist spots outside of an organized excursion through the cruise line.

The second time I visited Nassau, I was able to stay at Atlantis with my husband.  Atlantis is a behemoth, and it is every bit as amazing in person as it is on all of the commercials on tv.   It is a cross between a popular water park and Vegas.

Atlantis

The beaches are beautiful and the water slides are thrilling!  After going down the Leap of Faith, the slide that goes straight down and through the shark tank, it took me a minute to recover my wobbly knees!  There was competition to get a chair by the large pool due to all of the cruise day-pass traffic, so be sure to go down to the pool early before they arrive.Atlantis Leap of Faith water slide

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Much like a cruise ship, all of the water activities shut down at dark and the nightlife begins.  There is a boardwalk area called the Marina Village at Atlantis adjacent to the resort with family-friendly dining including Ben and Jerry’s and Johnny Rockets, and shopping.  There are many different activities for children in the resort, including a family-friendly restaurant, Sea Grapes. There are also many restaurants and clubs to enjoy if you find yourself without kids for an evening.   There is a movie theater within the resort that shows both kid-friendly movies and popular blockbusters for the older crowd.

My advice for planning a visit to Atlantis:

  • Wait until your kids are old enough to enjoy the bigger thrill water slides.  If your children are small, I wouldn’t make this large of an investment to enjoy a kiddie pool.  The grandeur will be lost on them, and you’ll be captive to the kid areas, preventing you from getting the most bang for your buck.
  • If you want to experience the culture of the Bahamas, you’ll have to leave the resort.  Atlantis strives to provide for your every need so aside from arriving at the airport and driving to the resort, you may as well be in a sunny location in the US…or anywhere.  There is no local color represented here, but you can cross the bridge from Paradise Island and go into Nassau if you’d like to do some local shopping and dining.
  •  Atlantis is not a budget-vacation.  The price of a fully encompassing vacation is steep, so budget ahead of time (and then save more) so you can fully enjoy everything Atlantis has to offer.

There is a way to enjoy Atlantis on a smaller budget by staying at the Comfort Suites Paradise Island Hotel that is located adjacent to the Atlantis Resort.  When you stay at this hotel, you have full use of all the facilities at Atlantis.  This is a fabulous way to enjoy the luxury offered at this opulent resort for less!

The Atlantis Resort is a once-in-a-lifetime vacation destination for many and Favorite Place Travel would love to help you make this dream vacation a reality!

To book your trip or for more information, contact your travel agent at sgross@favoriteplacetravel.com or sglover@favoriteplacetravel.com or call Susan at 708.479.4693 or Stacey at 404.409.4174.

Favorite Place Travel

I have visited Nassau in the Bahamas three times in the past several years, and each visit has been completely different.

Atlantis palm tree

Nassau is the largest city and commercial center of the Bahamas with just under 300,000 people, and a very popular port among cruise ships.  Nassau is home to several all-inclusive resorts, including Sandals Royal Bahamian, and the very popular Atlantis Resort.

There are many fabulous sites to see on the island of Nassau, outside of the typical cruise excursions and day passes to the larger-than-life resorts.  This is the first of a three-part series of my experiences in Nassau, hoping to expose you to the island you may not know.

My first visit was on a cruise with my family a few years ago, and I was determined to experience the true color of Nassau.  Instead of booking an excursion and following the masses, I loaded my family into a jitney, the public bus, and we went to Ardastra Gardens, Zoo & Conservation Centre.  The jitney cost us $1.25/person which was a much more cost-effective option than a taxi.  Ardastra was a great up-close and personal experience with the animals.

Don't miss the World Famous Flamingo March!

Don’t miss the World Famous Flamingo March!

After our time at Ardastra, we strolled down the street and enjoyed a fresh seafood lunch of conch fritters and conch salad at the famous Arawak Cay or “Fish Fry” as the locals call it.  This was true local flavor!

Arawak Cay "Fish Fry"

After a filling lunch, we boarded another jitney and headed towards Cable Beach, one of the most popular and beautiful beaches near Nassau.    After we meandered through different resorts and up and down the street a few times, we stumbled upon a public beach access away from all of the busy resort activity.  We had this whole beach area to ourselves, and the water was perfectly clear and still.  What a way to enjoy the rest of the day!

When it was time to leave, we boarded the jitney once again, like pros, and returned to the cruise port for some final shopping before departure.  We loaded up on rum cake from the downtown shops proud that we were able to explore Nassau on our own without having paid the cost for a pre-planned cruise ship excursion.

Check back for Parts 2 and 3 of this series “What To Do in Nassau, Bahamas” for more ideas when you travel to this tropical island.

To book your trip or for more information, contact your travel agent at sgross@favoriteplacetravel.com or sglover@favoriteplacetravel.com or call Susan at 708.479.4693 or Stacey at 404.409.4174.

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