21 April 2012

Amtrak Coach Seating Secret 1

Here is an occasional series on Amtrak coach travel (or, when you don't have or don't want to spend the extra cash on sleeper accommodations)written by me. With that said, here's the first installment on how seating in coach on Amtrak is done.

OK. You're taking a day trip on Amtrak from Tampa to Winter Haven or Sebring and back home. Besides, it's a great alternative to taking a drive there with gas prices hovering around $4.00/gallon!

You make your reservations ahead of time. You get your tickets and be at the station ahead of time. When the boarding call is announced you go to the boarding area for your destination.

Let me stop for just a moment. Understand that Amtrak's Silver Star (Train 91 southbound and Train 92 northbound) is an all-reserved train for which reservations are required no matter your seating option. According to the folks at Amtrak, a reservation in coach guarantees you a place on the train in the coach seating area but does not guarantee you a specific coach seat. Sometimes, the coach car attendant will tell you to take any seat. But most of the time, you will be assigned a seat. If you got a preference, that's great! I prefer the window when I ride in coach. (I wish Amtrak would give us passengers - at least Amtrak Guest Rewards passengers - an option for a coach seating preference when we book in advance!)

Which leads right up to my Amtrak coach class seating secret: If you are assigned a seat and you end up in a seat that you don't like such as an aisle seat, simply ask the coach car attendant if you can be reassigned. Nine times out of ten, the attendant will grant your wish. (Just make sure that your train is not completely full, especially during holiday periods!)

The same trick applies if you are assigned a seat and you do not feel comfortable with the seatmate next to you. Again, make sure that the train you are on is not next to full - you be the judge on that. This is very helpful for travelers traveling by themselves.

Of course, if you need the extra space and you are short on cash (meaning that the price of a sleeper add-on was expensive when you initially booked the reservation), you can ask the conductor on board to see if there is unsold sleeper space available. From what I have read on On Track On Line's Amtrak page, a conductor could sell you an unsold space for much less than what you would find on Amtrak's web site.

As always, keep checking back here at the Edward Ringwald Blog for more Amtrak related tips. And by the way, if you have an Amtrak coach seating related story that you would like to share, please feel free to post a comment.

13 April 2012

Where has Movie Theater Etiquette Gone: The Sequel

Now playing at The Edward Ringwald Blog: Where has Movie Theater Etiquette Gone: The Sequel.

The place: AMC Veterans 24 Theatres, located on Anderson Road and the entrance to the Veterans Expressway, Tampa.

The movie: Bully, a documentary profiling several families whose lives have been impacted by bullying in the public schools.

Going to the movies is a diversion for me, especially on a Friday after work. As I haven't been to a movie in a while, I pull out the BlackBerry to check and see what is playing. I came across a movie that interested me, and I decided to go see Bully over at AMC Veterans 24 Theatres in Tampa, which is a short ride away.

So, it was onto the Veterans Expressway and to the Anderson Road exit and the mandatory SunPass beep indicating that the Florida DOT took the appropriate toll from my trusty SunPass account. (Besides, there are plans in the works to widen the Veterans Expressway and convert it to the open road tolling concept similar to the Selmon Crosstown Expressway which would make life a lot easier - there was only one attended lane open and a line of cars was backed up). Two more turns and I made it to AMC Veterans 24 Theatres.

I had a pass that I could use for this movie which helped me save some cold hard cash. After a brief stop at the concession stand I found the correct auditorium and settled myself in for the movie. First the usual pre-movie stuff: Coming attractions, features, reminders from AMC about proper etiquette during the movie, and the movie itself.

Until the movie started. Then trouble brewed on the horizon as both the movie began and the movie progressed.

Several teenage girls entered the theater that were very noisy with the intention of disrupting the show for those people like me that wanted to see the movie. One teenage girl spoke abruptly like if she decided to push me to the side trying to get to her friends sitting on the right side of the theater. I along with two seatmates sitting in front of me told these teenage girls to be quiet.

Things were OK for a while until the same teenage girls returned. Apparently these girls were hopping from auditorium to auditorium; after all, a movie ticket in a theater such as AMC Veterans 24 Theateres does not give one the right to change auditoriums as one pleases. Your movie ticket only allows you to attend only one showing of the movie at that particular time and in that particular auditorium. By the time we got through a third of the movie these teenage girls were becoming more noisy and disrespectful, additionally a group of teenage boys came in out of nowhere and sat in the back seats (where I was sitting) just for the purpose of intimidating patrons that wanted to see the movie.

That was it. I along with a few other people including the seatmates sitting in front of me ended up leaving the movie and speaking to the manager on duty. We told the manager what happened - the teenagers being so unruly and disrespectful that they were disrupting the movie for others - and we received passes that were good for any movie, including movies for which no passes were accepted. Further, the manager had security deal with the unruly teenagers that were in the auditorium disrupting the movie going experience for others.

If you have read my previous blog entry on movie theater etiquette, you know why attendance at movie theaters is declining: The main reason is that there are people out there that do not want to observe proper etiquette in a movie theater when a movie is playing. For instance, there are the teenage kids that think it is their God given right to talk or text on their cell phone as well as have a loud conversation while the movie is playing. Then there are the teenage kids who have to make things hard for those people like me that pay to see a movie without any distractions of any kind.

When those teenagers swarmed around me on either side where I was sitting in the auditorium, I was concerned that these teenagers would do something either to me or to the other movie goers. It brought back an incident that took place around Christmas 2010 at the Royal Palm 20 Theaters in Bradenton (which was the subject of a story on Bay News 9) where a polite request to be quiet and respectful from a couple - the husband who was a United States Marine that recently returned from a tour of duty in Iraq - turned into a verbal confrontation at first then into a physical confrontation outside the theater. Fearing what could have happened when those unruly teenagers swarmed me in the back of the theater, and the fact that my seatmates in front of me were leaving, I used the opportunity to exit the theater before things got worse.

As I left AMC Veterans 24 Theatres, I thanked the manager for handling the situation and the free pass to another movie. As I wrote in my previous blog entry on movie theater etiquette, in today’s world there are unfortunately a lot of people out there who do not have any manners. It’s sad but it is true in contrast to how I was raised many years ago in a better mannered and civilized world, especially before the age of American Idol, instant gratification, Facebook and cell phones.

Further, as I mentioned in my movie etiquette blog entry I support initiatives by the movie theater chains including AMC Theatres’ Silence Is Golden program asking patrons to observe proper etiquette when inside the auditorium of a theatre and the movie is playing. As I mentioned earlier, the top reason why movie theater attendance has been declining for many years is because fellow patrons do not observe proper movie theater etiquette.

I feel more needs to be done to address the issue of people who do not observe proper movie theater etiquette besides the individual theater manager who is ultimately responsible for the so many patrons that come to attend a movie and make the moviegoing experience to its fullest. Here in Florida I feel that our legislators need to enact laws that make the deliberate disruption of a movie theater when a movie is in progress:

On the first violation, a civil infraction on the first offense with a $100 penalty.

On a subsequent violation within one year it should be a criminal misdemeanor carrying a penalty of $500 and/or jail time of up to 6 months in the county jail, plus a ban on attending any - and I mean any - movie theater in the state for up to one year which is imposed by the judge. That ban would start from the moment the person is released from jail and/or released from probation, much like the mandatory 10 day impoundment of a motor vehicle for conviction of a DUI charge, which starts after release. Moreover, the judge can also impose mandatory restitution to a movie theater that has had to refund or issue readmission passes to patrons that have had to jump ship from the movie theater due to misconduct.

Doesn't Florida have laws on the books that criminalize the disruption of a church service? If you said yes, you are right - it's codified in Section 871.01 of the Florida Statutes!

After all, court orders have much more teeth and bite than trespass warnings.

Perhaps the only place where you would see mandatory movie theater etiquette would be a movie theater on a military base such as MacDill Air Force Base. Not only movie theater etiquette is strictly enforced, there is one pre-show item that is missing from the commercially operated movie theaters such as AMC Theaters: The playing of the national anthem before the movie. Make no mistake, the protocols on a military base are strictly enforced to the letter.

Isn't the national anthem played before Tampa Bay Rays games at Tropicana Field? I thought so.

If you want to bring back civility and respect to movie theaters, please make it known to the general manager at the movie theater you go to, especially one you go to on a regular basis. Additionally, write your legislators in Tallahassee and demand better laws on enforcement of proper etiquette in movie theaters.

By the way, I can't close out this blog entry without a little description of the movie I have seen. If you haven't seen Bully yet, I urge you to see it at your local movie theater if it's playing in your area. It's a touching documentary of families who were touched by incidents involving bullying in America's public schools.

Just why do our public schools - despite anti-bullying policies put in place by many school districts including the Pinellas County School District - do condone bullying in any form and punish the victim (using useless zero-tolerance school rules, citing the Columbine High tragedy in Littleon, Colorado as an excuse among other things) instead of the perpetrator? It saddens me when a public school student goes to extremes when administrators will not listen to a student that needs help such as suicide or the girl in Yazoo County, Mississippi (which was profiled in the movie) who was bullied so much that she brought a weapon aboard the school bus; the girl was charged with serious multiple felony counts that carried the potential of life in the Mississippi State Penitentiary without any parole. Luckily, the charges were dropped but the girl was ordered kept in psychiatric custody until the doctors said that she is ready to re-enter society.

Again, you need to see Bully for yourself, especially if you have children going to public school. And if your children are being bullied in public school, please speak with your school's administration and don't let them brush it off as an isolated incident - after all, you as the parent provide for your child's future. Besides, bullying in school - either by fellow students, teachers or staff including administrative staff such as the principal or assistant principal - should never be a part of your child's daily routine at school.

And one more thing: I would like to thank the manager on duty at the AMC Veterans 24 Theatres in Tampa for handling the situation professionally and properly and for the free readmission pass! I went back the next day and got to see Bully in its entirety at the same movie theater, this time with a respectful yet interested audience in attendance. Just goes on to show you how AMC Theatres goes out of the way for its patrons like me.

08 April 2012

To McDonald's, Taco Bell and other quick service restaurants: My name is none of your business!

Back in July 2011 I featured a blog entry on McDonald's getting your name for your order. Now more and more quick service restaurants are getting into the act, saying that it is some kind of an accountability thing; Taco Bell is the next restaurant that badgers you for your name or you are subjected to substandard treatment. As such, I am reposting this blog entry with updated information so that you, the privacy conscious customer, can make an informed decision as to whether you should patronize that restaurant or not.

UPDATE: Recently Burger King has gotten into the act of asking for your name when you order inside. If you don't give your name you are subjected to substandard treatment by counter staff. Just what is going on here?

Let’s face it: You are out and about one fine sunny afternoon, and you want a midday meal without the major expense of going to a full service restaurant (where you have to wait while the waitress takes your order, and then you have to leave a tip in addition to your bill). So, you spot the nearest sign of the Golden Arches (or The Bell or whatever) and go inside rather than the drive thru.

Once you go inside you decide on what you want. Then you tell the clerk (who may be either friendly or surly with you) what you want. You pay for your meal and get what you want. Hopefully.

OK. We know that McDonald’s is known for the poor customer service that we have read about: Orders not being correct, rude and belligerent staff who do not care about customer service, quality of food being poor, and so on. (Believe me? Go to RipOffReport.com and do a search for McDonald’s! You’ll see!) While McDonald’s – after getting a lot of negative press on customer service – was repairing its image as a world known fast food chain, I have seen another fast food chain I feel is on the way down due to their customer service: Wendy’s. (Believe me, Wendy’s has good food but they need to improve their customer service; I can go on forever but I’ll save it for another topic).

I stopped at a McDonald’s one Sunday afternoon a few months back at their location on the corner of Martin Luther King Blvd. and Parsons Avenue in Brandon while I was taking a ride on Martin Luther King Blvd. paralleling the CSX A Line (this is the line that Amtrak's Silver Star runs on daily) to grab me a quick afternoon snack. When I went inside to order right after I paid for what I wanted I noticed something different: McDonald’s asking for your name!

I asked McDonald’s why they solicit names. They say that it is needed to correctly get your order to you, some kind of an accountability thing. As such, I was subjected to substandard treatment by their counter staff.

More recently I happened to stop by a Taco Bell on a Sunday afternoon, located in the same vicinity where the McDonald's is located on the corner of Martin Luther King Blvd. and Parsons Avenue in Brandon for a quick afternoon snack, then continue east to do some railfanning. I stopped by this Taco Bell a few times without any complaint but this time I noticed something different: Taco Bell asking for your name!

I asked the manager on duty why Taco Bell is soliciting names; he stated to me that it was some sort of accountability thing. Then came the substandard treatment from their counter staff.

In my opinion, it’s invasion of privacy by a quick service restaurant designed to get you in and out the door. Why?

If you want to know why I believe it is in invasion of your privacy, let’s go back several years to a pharmacy chain that was based right here in our backyard in Largo, FL: That pharmacy chain was Eckerd Drugs, with so many stores there was one near where you live. An article in the Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel in April 2002 sums up what was going on at Eckerd Drugs when you went to pick up your prescription: You were being asked to sign for your prescriptions as Eckerd claimed that it was an accountability thing; in reality Eckerd was using your signature as an authorization to invade your privacy by bombarding you with junk mail based on your prescription history.

To me, this is a potential violation of the Federal Health Insurance Portability and Privacy Act (the HIPAA Act) which mandates that privacy be maintained when it comes to dealing with personally identifiable medical information. According to the Sun-Sentinel article, Eckerd defends that their practices are fully compliant with the HIPAA Act.

Today, Eckerd Drugs is no more in the Tampa/St. Petersburg area. When Eckerd Drugs was sold to another company, at the same time its Florida locations were sold to CVS, which is what we know today.

In theory, McDonald’s (any any other quick service restaurant like Taco Bell for that matter) could use your name, especially if you pay for your meal using a credit card. Your credit card has a billing address attached to it (this is where you receive your statements every month) and there is the potential for your name to be matched up to the credit card you used to pay for your meal. Your name and address could be mined somewhere down the road and sold so that your name ends up – eventually – on a junk mailer’s mailing list.

Fortunately, it has not happened – yet. In the many restaurants I have visited, this is what I have noticed:

No fast food restaurant – McDonald’s and Taco Bell (until lately), Burger King, Wendy’s or any other fast food restaurant – asks for your name when you order. Those restaurants are self service, designed to get you in and out the door as quick as possible.

In the Tampa/St. Petersburg area, a substantial number of McDonald’s restaurants are franchised. The biggest franchise operator of McDonald’s restaurants in the Tampa Bay metropolitan area is a company called Caspers Company. It seems that the Caspers franchised McDonald’s locations of lately demand your name when you order; if you don't give your name you are subjected to belligerent treatment by McDonald's counter staff.

You know what a franchise is: The entity, called the franchisee (in this case, a McDonald’s restaurant), is independently owned and operated; the entity in exchange for a license and franchising fee gets the right to use the McDonald’s name and likeness. After all, McDonald’s – being the franchisor – is trademarked and their corporate attorneys at their Oak Brook, Illinois world headquarters go to great lengths to protect their trademark.

If you go to a full service restaurant, such as Denny’s or Village Inn, ordinarily you are not asked for your name. The only time you are asked is for the purpose of seating in case of a capacity crowd and you are waiting for a seat. The good news, however, is that once you are seated your name is crossed off.

Asking for your name in a fast food restaurant environment is not new. There are two restaurants which fall in between fast food and full service – Starbucks and Panera Bread – that ask for your name when you place an order. (On the Panera Bread side, when you go to the café side the server gives you a pager that buzzes when your order is ready but why does Panera Bread and Starbucks still ask for your name?)

OK. Now here’s my take on these fast food restaurants wanting your name, such as McDonald’s (especially the McDonald's restaurants in the Tampa/St. Petersburg area that are owned by Caspers Company) and Taco Bell:

You do not have an account relationship with a fast food restaurant – instead, a fast food restaurant exists for the sole purpose of quick food service to get you in and out. The only exception is a pizza restaurant that offers carryout and delivery, as your name (and address) are crucial.

An account relationship with a business is like if you were opening a bank or credit union account, obtaining a mortgage for the house or condo you want, applying for a credit card or an auto loan, purchasing an airline or train ticket, renting a car, renting a hotel room, or leaving your own car at the shop for service. After all, these businesses have to know who has what.

Your name exists on your passport, as well as your driver license.

If in the event you are pulled over by a law enforcement officer, the law obligates you to identify yourself. If you are driving a motor vehicle, you must have your driver license in your possession – it’s the law.

Which leads to my opinion:

If I am pulled over by a law enforcement officer, I have to identify myself because it is Florida law. If I am driving a motor vehicle I have to produce my driver's license, as it is Florida law too. (Besides, the Florida Driver's Handbook tells you the same thing).

These quick service restaurant counter clerks - like those of McDonald's, Taco Bell or any other quick service restaurant - are not law enforcement officers nor school teachers. As such, I should not be obligated to give my name for a food and drink order. You, the restaurant counter clerk making probably minimum wage and probably got very minimal customer service training from your restaurant, will not get any piece of my personal information except if I decide to pay for my order with a credit card.

To law enforcement as well as businesses where names have to be kept for accurate recordkeeping as I mentioned earlier, that’s one thing. To fast food restaurants such as McDonald’s (especially Caspers Company, the major McDonald’s franchisee in the Tampa/St. Petersburg area) and Taco Bell, my name is none of your business!

07 April 2012

Tampa Bay Rays Opening Day - 6 April 2012

It's that time of year again! Spring training is all over, and baseball season is underway starting with the Rays' home opener against the New York Yankees at Tropicana Field. I think this is the year the Rays go all the way to the playoffs in October including the World Series and that cherished pennant - something St. Petersburg would be proud of.

Let me share with you a few pointers if you decide on attending any of the more than 100 home games this season at Tropicana Field. Believe me, some of my pointers can help you save money while you are at the ballpark!

1. Get there early to avoid the game time crowd. That way, you can stop and pick up your concessions before you head to your assigned seat.

Did I say get to the ballpark early? This is true if you got a favorite singer singing the national anthem at a game you want to attend. More on national anthem singers later.

2. Parking can get quite expensive, especially on Tropicana Field property. You are better off using an off-property lot or one of the parking garages in downtown St. Petersburg and use the convenient shuttle service to Tropicana Field. Better yet, if you live in St. Petersburg or Pinellas County and you live next to a PSTA line with regular bus service, why not take PSTA to the game? You may want to check PSTA's website for route schedules.

By the way, if you carpool (4 or more passengers in the same vehicle) to the game then your parking on Tropicana Field property is free. It is limited to the first 100 vehicles on Monday through Saturday games; on Sunday games there is no limit. Things can change from time to time; you may want to check the Rays website for details.

3. To save money on high concession prices, especially if you got a family of four or more, you can bring a limited amount of food and drink into Tropicana Field. At least the Rays - under the ownership helm of Stuart Sternberg - allow this; just make sure you are not bringing any prohibited items with you. Again, check the Rays website for details on their policies on what you can and can't bring.

4. The best place to sit for your money: The 300 level, also called the Upper Deck. Besides, you get a great view of the field for your money. Why waste money on these expensive lower level seats (unless, of course, it's a special occasion or someone sold you tickets to a seat in the Hancock Bank Club at a reasonable discount)?

5. If things go wrong while you are at Tropicana Field, the Rays want to know about it. Either when you enter the ballpark or before you leave, stop by Guest Services located at Gate 1 in Tropicana Field. Helpful staff at Guest Services will give you a form to complete and return. Although it isn’t required, having the names of Rays staff responsible will help. Depending on your complaint, the Rays will do everything and anything to make your ballpark experience a great one, even if they give you a voucher to exchange for a future Rays game at Tropicana Field.

Why do I say this? Let me share with you an experience.

Most of the Rays staff are very helpful, and I can’t complain about that. However, a part of the Rays staff that can use better customer service training is their parking staff, the people you see in yellow shirts telling you where to park if you decide to park on property.

I went to a Rays game on Friday, 19 August 2011 against the Seattle Mariners. Normally I leave my small car in the parking garage at where I work as it’s a short distance to Tropicana Field. However, severe weather was in the forecast and the clouds were darkening up as the end of the work day - 5:30 PM - approached, and I made the decision to park at Tropicana Field rather than get caught in heavy rain trying to get back to my car at the office when the game ended.

So, I decided to pay the $20 to park in Lot 6. (Sometimes, you got to splurge a little bit, within reason). I followed the instructions of the parking staff as to where to park. As I settled into my space, the parking staff – knowing that I have a small subcompact car – was directing large SUV’s to park alongside my vehicle, creating a sight distance hazard especially when it comes time to leave. I decided to park a few spaces up so that these SUV’s would not be blocking my view.

After all, I see plenty of people park where they want in Lot 6, as tailgating is allowed in all Tropicana Field parking lots. I have seen people park in the lot and set up their tailgating gear.

Suddenly – without any warning – a man in a yellow shirt comes up to my car with a radio in his hand. It was apparently one of the parking supervisors, not a security officer. The next minute this man screams at me for no reason and at one point almost threatened physical violence at me because of his words and actions of which I will not describe here.

I was so fearful of that man that I ended up exiting Lot 6. I ended up parking in a lot which was not a Tropicana Field lot but the staff was way more helpful and courteous. I contemplated not attending the game against the Seattle Mariners but I already had tickets for which I paid good money for and I was not ready to let that money go to waste. As I entered Tropicana Field on the walkway on 3 Av S that leads up to Gate 1 the same parking attendant that threatened me harassed me as I walked by.

I stopped by Guest Services and filled out the paperwork describing what happened with the parking attendant during the game. I turned it in just before I left Tropicana Field for home. The helpful Rays staff at Guest Services was so good enough to give me a voucher to exchange for a future home game.

Labor Day weekend 2011 came and went. One morning at work the phone rang and it was the manager that oversees the parking attendants at Tropicana Field. I had an interesting, yet lively conversation for almost 20 minutes explaining what happened. The reason I did not get the name of the parking attendant that was belligerent at me was for fear of escalating the situation, as well as the fact that I was fearful for my own personal safety.

As a result, I was given free parking in the VIP lot just across 16 St S from Tropicana Field, which I very much appreciated for what I went through that Friday afternoon in August 2011 when I went to see the Rays take on the Seattle Mariners. I got to use it - at a Rays game on Sunday, 11 September 2011 against the Boston Red Sox, on the somber 10th anniversary of the attacks that changed America forever, 11 September 2001. That game had great pre-game ceremonies that marked the occasion.

This goes on just to show you how the Rays as an organization will go out of their way to make things right for fans just like me. At least Stuart Sternberg is trying to make the ballpark experience better for fans, but I think more work is needed if the Rays want to be successful both as a team that can make it to the playoffs as well as its relations with the fans, but I’ll save that for another topic as the 2012 Rays season progresses.

Earlier in this post I mentioned about national anthem singers, and that you want to get there early if there is a singer that you like that’s going to be in town and you find out that he or she is going to sing the national anthem at a Rays game. When I was at the Rays’ opening day game against the New York Yankees, BK Jackson played the national anthem on his saxophone with his signature tune yet respectful. After all, BK Jackson performed the national anthem at Rays home openers in 2009 and 2011 as well as Game 1 of the 2008 American League Divisional Series, all four games of the 2008 American League Championship Series and Game 3 of the 2011 American League Divisional Series, according to a press release by the Tampa Bay Rays on the game notes for opening day against the New York Yankees.

My take on BK Jackson and his performance of the national anthem at the Rays’ home opener against the New York Yankees on Friday, 6 April 2012 at Tropicana Field: His signature saxophone version of The Star-Spangled Banner was great. Now if only BK Jackson could perform two other national anthems: Slovenia’s Zdravljica and Croatia’s Lijepa naša domovino – they are two beautiful national anthems in Europe that would sound great on any musical instrument, even on a saxophone.

As the 2012 baseball season progresses, LET’S GO RAYS! This is the year we go all the way to October and the World Series and the day the Rays get their hands on Major League Baseball’s most coveted trophy: The baseball pennant.