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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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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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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.

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Christmastime in the City

Chicago is a fantastic city. It’s New York without the graffiti. We’ve got nice people (mostly) and great food, not to mention the lakefront and the best skyline in the world. Yes, I’m biased, but it’s totally true.  Nonetheless, winter is not usually thought of as the best time for a visit to our fair city. Normally, I’d agree that our winter weather is not ideal. However, Christmastime is pure magic and definitely not to be missed.

The Macy’s store on State Street becomes a holiday wonderland starting the weekend before Thanksgiving.  The animated holiday windows line State Street illustrating the history of Christmas at the store from the early 1900s. On the 5th the iconic Walnut Room on the 7th for a reservation to eat by the tree or go one floor up and check out the viewing area.

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If a more casual meal is more to your liking, the Christkindlmarket (German Christmas market) two blocks west in Daley Plaza is a highlight for both locals and tourists alike. Along with the best bratwurst this side of Germany, authentic German Christmas market stalls serve up potato pancakes, Glühwein, and German beer. Pick up a “passport” for the kids at the Holiday Hub in the pedway level of Block 37. They can get it stamped at each booth while you shop the authentic German goods, many from Bavarian retailers, like Christmas queen Kathe Wohlfhart. The market is especially magical at night when it sparkles with the 100th anniversary official city Christmas tree and Santa’s workshop.

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Back on Michigan Avenue, Millennium Park houses an outdoor skating rink and caroling at the Beanevery Friday. For a Christmas splurge, order a Cloudgate Martini at the Tavern at the Park.  For a mere $212, your pear infused vodka and Champagne martini comes in a silver rimmed glass with a Tiffany sterling silver bean necklace in a little blue box as a garnish!

North on Michigan Avenue leads you down the Magnificent Mile to the one of the finest shopping streets in the nation. Little girls shouldn’t miss the largest American Girl store in Water Tower Place and its Christmas windows, while everyone will love dessert at the Hershey Store, Ghiradelli’s or Sprinkles cupcakes.  Santa and Mrs. Claus reside at the top of the Hancock Building where the views can’t be matched.

If museums are more your cup of tea, head south on Michigan Avenue from Millennium Park to the Art Institute. Its treasure hunt, this year on December 8, has patrons hunting through halls, while you can build your own gingerbread house on December 14. Its wreath-sporting lions are a 60-year tradition for the museum. Further south at the Museum campus on Lakeshore Drive and 12th Street, Shedd Aquarium puts on its Holiday Fantasea show, while the Adler Planetarium hosts the Season of Wonder Winter Sky show.

The Museum of Science and Industry takes on a Disney theme this holiday season as it hosts the Treasures of Walt Disney Archives exhibit.  This exhibit features never-before-seen Disney memorabilia, from Capt. Jack Sparrow’s costume to dolls from It’s a Small World. The Christmas Around the World and Holidays of Light exhibits have the 45 foot Grand Tree surrounded by more than 50 smaller ethnic themed trees.

If by now you aren’t exhausted, you can cap off your evening at Lincoln Park Zoo’s Zoolights.  More than 2 million lights create colorful displays among the Zoo’s exhibits, while kids can enjoy free holiday crafts, ice sculpting and train rides. Best of all, it’s FREE!

While an average temperature of 40 degrees in December may not be beach weather, don’t let a chill in the air knock Chicago off your winter vacation list. The Christmas spirit lives in Chicago.

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 take your kids on their first visit to Disney World?  Do you dream of visiting Disney World but are convinced it is out of your budget?

I have three opportunities to make your Disney World trip more affordable and get more BANG for your buck!

1.  Fall Room Offer
This offer must be booked by November 3, 2013 and is valid for travel November 10-November 22, 2013 and November 30-December 23, 2013.

You can receive 15%-30% off on select Disney Resorts in the Value, Moderate and Deluxe categories.

2.  Winter Room Offer
This offer must be booked by December 31, 2013 and is valid for travel  January 5-March 5, 2014 and March 14-April 12, 2014.

You can receive 20%-35% off on select Disney Resort in the Value, Moderate and Deluxe categories.

3. Stay, Play, and Dine Offer
This offer must be booked by December 31, 2013 and is valid for travel January 5-March 5, 2014.

You can save up to $600, based on a family of four on a 5-night, 6-day Magic Your Way Package Plus Dining at select Disney Moderate, Deluxe and Deluxe Villa Resorts.  Or you can save $400, based on a family of four, on a 5-night, 6-day Magic Your Way Package Plus Quick Service Dining at select Disney Value Resorts.

These three promotions are available right now, and you can always count on your agents at Favorite Place Travel to make sure you are taking advantage of the best deal for your family.

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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We’ve made it through summer, and now it is time to start planning the next family reunion, but wait!  I have an idea!

Since you’ve done the same location every year for the past 20 years, and it is getting tired, what if you traveled to a destination where dreams come true?

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You’ve played the same game of badminton and cornhole with Uncle Fred for 18 of those years.

It’s time to breathe some life into this party!  Rollercoasters!  Haunted Mansions!

You’ve eaten the same macaroni salad from Aunt Marilyn for 19 of those years, and you’ve laughed at the same stories for all 20 years, trying your hardest to sound genuinely entertained.

How about genuine laughter brought on by our favorite Monsters, Mike and Sully, or the crazy antics of a Mouse and his friends?

UGH!  Just the thought of coordinating your entire family, including cousins, aunts, uncles, siblings, nieces, nephews, grandparents from every corner of the United States is overwhelming…nah, we’ll stick with the same old routine…

But what if you have help planning it, so that the grandparents who don’t move as quickly as the grandchildren can have fun also?  Your single brother and his girlfriend who want to peruse the World Showcase at EPCOT can enjoy their time while the nieces and nephews play in the Dinosaur Graveyard at Animal Kingdom.  Everyone gets to enjoy their vacation!

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AND you don’t have to plan it alone!  

Your Favorite Travel Planners at Favorite Place Travel will create a package for your family so each family unit can customize their Disney vacation exactly how they want, while providing opportunities for the entire family to gather and share stories and memories from their Disney adventures.

You can take a group tour behind the scenes at one of the theme parks or have a private character meal just for your family.  Your group may be eligible for group discounts on park tickets and lodging.

All you have to do is provide basic information to your Favorite Place Travel Planner, and the planning begins…no headaches, no stress!

Give us a call to start planning the most memorable family reunion to the Happiest Place on Earth!

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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There are two Disney World promotions available right now for the Fall and Winter months allowing you a great opportunity to experience all that Disney World has to offer without spending all that your wallet has to offer!

True statement!

Fall/Winter Room Offer

You can save up to 30% at select Walt Disney World Resort hotels!  For stays most nights September 29-November 22, 2013 and November 30-December 23, 2013.

You must book by September 15, 2013 for travel September 29-November 9, 2013

For travel November 10-22, 2013 and November 30-December 23, 2013, book by by November 3, 2013.

**Terms and conditions apply.  Contact Favorite Place Travel for full details.**

 

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Free Dining Plan Offer

Book by September 25, 2013  to get a FREE Disney Dining Plan when you purchase a non-discounted 6-night, 7-day Disney room and ticket package at select Disney Moderate, Deluxe or Deluxe Villa Resort hotels.  Or purchase a 6-night, 7-day Disney room and ticket package at a Disney Value Resort and receive a FREE Quick-Service Dining Plan.

Offer valid for arrivals most nights September 29-October 2, October 18-November 2, November 11-23 and December 12-22, 2013.

**Terms and conditions apply.  Contact Favorite Place Travel for full details.**

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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Up until a few years ago, the thought of spending a week on a beach had no appeal to me.  I am a lake girl-I like to swim, boat, waterski, kayak, and float- none of which I could do (or felt comfortable doing) in the ocean.  As a result, being at the beach to me meant sitting on the sand getting bored after about 30 minutes.  All that changed 2 years ago with a trip to the Outer Banks of North Carolina.  My husband and I picked the Outer Banks for our first beach vacation in years because we wanted a location that wasn’t too commercial.  My previous beach vacations had been to beach towns with too many condo buildings, not enough character.

The Outer Banks has both character and history. The first British colony was there, along with Sir Walter Raleigh. So were the pirates, including Blackbeard who terrorized ships up and down the coast. Civil War battles were fought and the Wright brothers flew there. There are also the wild horses that roam the northern towns and the lighthouses, including the Cape Hatteras lighthouse, the tallest in the US. In other words, there was plenty to do and see outside of sitting on the beach.obx wild horses

That’s not to say that the beach isn’t worth the trip alone. I had been to the Outer Banks as a child, but the only thing I remembered were the Coquina shells-colorful little clams which wash ashore and then quickly burrow down into the sand. This memory was a powerful one though, as I envisioned our kids having just as much fun as I remembered scooping up the clams and feeling them burrowing down in their hands or watching them burrow down into their buckets. I was not disappointed on our trip to Coquina Beach.

Coquina Beach is beautiful and undeveloped.  A part of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, it is part of a 70-mile stretch of protected shoreline stretching from Ocracoke Island on the south to Bodie Island on the north.  This large public beach is undeveloped and was crowd free, even during Fourth of July week.  Just off the shore were dolphins and pelicans.  On the beach were not only the coquina shells, but also ghost crabs and even snakes (ok, only one but that was enough for me!). These critters alone were plenty of entertainment for the kids.

Jockey Ridge State Park , home of the nation’s highest natural sand dunes, was the sight of the Wright Brothers’ test flights. Now it’s a great hike for a beautiful view from the ocean to the sound and a fantastic place to fly kites. The kids loved running along the dunes with their kites and watching the kite surfers out on the sound.

As a lover of lighthouses, the Outer Banks provides four lighthouses spread along its shores for visitors.  All four are climbable for visitors and a hike to the top of one of the three climbable lighthouses along the Outer Banks also provides incredible views.  Currituck lighthouse , is also closely located to the famous Banker horses which roam free on the northern end of the island. To experience these horses in their habitats, Wild Horse Adventures, in Corolla, was fantastic. Our guide took us through the horse’s territory where these horses unbelievably roam free next to houses and their inhabitants. The area is also accessible for free to anyone with a four-wheel drive vehicle.

Don’t get me wrong-the beaches of the Outer Banks are great as well. Most locations have plenty of public access and are rarely crowded. The lack of condo buildings and high rise hotels help prevent the wall to wall people present at many other beaches we’ve visited.

This year’s trip was our second in as many years, and there are still things on our list to see and do.  Another trip will be in our future- let Favorite Place Travel help you and your family experience the Outer Banks as well.

Sam OBX

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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