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777steve

Review - WESTERDAM DEC 12-19 '04 - Part 1

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Although we returned from our cruise on December 19th, this is my first opportunity to set down in writing some thoughts about the experience. Considering the wealth of information shared on the CC board and the number of times I have gleaned valuable and necessary information, I wanted to pass on some notes on my experience as well. Rather than an exhaustive retelling of each moment of our cruise, I will comment on the general areas of knowledge around which I see regular questions on the board. With the usual caveats of observer’s perspective, etc. firmly in place, I offer the following trip notes and hope you might be able to find something useful for your own cruise experience.

 

MS Westerdam / Eastern Caribbean / December 12th -19th, 2004

 

THE SHORT VERSION

 

Of the 17 people that were in my traveling party, 19 had a great vacation. One of our numbers apparently suffers from Multiple Personality Disorder so we can say he gets at least 2 extra votes. :) Seriously, though, the trip was very enjoyable and everyone found something to like. If I were comparing this cruise vacation to cars, I’d say the HAL Westerdam cruise was a Buick Park Avenue - utterly vanilla but eminently respectable and comfortable.

 

THE CRUISERS’ PROFILE

 

There were 17 people in our party ranging in age from late 20’s to over 60. We had 1 gay couple, 3 sets of unmarried but coupled straight friends, 3 sets of married couples, 1 younger single male, 1 slightly middle aged single female and 1 widowed older male. We ran the gamut of “types” in other areas as well - with some very wealthy and some not so well off, some very well traveled and some new to virtually any kind of travel experience. About half the group had cruised before - 7 of us with one additional HAL cruise under our belt. This cruise started with only my partner and I planning for a vacation - the others were added in ones and twos to arrive at our final number. The last cruiser was added the week we left. Were straight and gay, Republican and Democrat, straight-laced and slightly more flamboyant. Clearly our group represented a decent cross section of travelers from differing walks of life and with differing world views. Consequently, our expectations and evaluations of the product were colored by those differences. The good news is that all of our travelers found that there was something to enjoy.

 

PLANNING

 

We had booked our cruise through an agency that was recommended on the CC board. We used them for our Oosterdam cruise in January and enjoyed the same agent for our group on this cruise as well. They have what for me is a nice combination of online access with the personal interaction that I prefer. Because I had a fair number of first time cruisers, I prepared a companion booklet for their planning highlighting some areas that I thought would be of concern or interest in helping them to avoid any obvious pitfalls and generally enhance their experience. This little booklet also served to prepare them for realistic expectations about lines, crowds, tipping, dress codes and other things that can cause distress. This “little” book ran to 32 printed color pages when it was completed and included personalized luggage tags, cruise “business cards” and “find me” inserts for the inside of luggage. This effort turned out to be a real help during the course of our planning and actual travel. I know with certainty that it reduced or eliminated a lot of the questions and problems that can naturally occur when shepherding a group of 17 disparate individuals from four states on a vacation like this.

 

PRE-CRUISE DAY

 

 

 

Only one of our number flew into Fort Lauderdale the day of the cruise. The rest of us arrived a day early and stayed at either the Hyatt Pier 66 or The Renaissance Ft. Lauderdale. My partner and I stayed at Pier 66 on our last trip and at The Renaissance on this trip. We found them to be about equal in value (we used Priceline both times with very favorable results) and our other travelers felt the same. In reference to questions about whether we had been treated “differently” in any way at either of these locations because of the source of our booking and the price paid, the short answer is no. We were provided with the same service and amenities as any other traveler. We did however pay attention to the very clear notices in the Priceline booking process and in the hotel’s websites that did state that certain kinds of limitations on our room types, etc., did apply. This was not a problem but I imagine some people would find this to be a negative if they had not actually read the stipulations about deeply discounted rooms.

 

 

 

Aside from the hotels, which were fine, our experience with Fort Lauderdale was largely negative. The notable exceptions were the crew on the Water Taxi when we went out to enjoy the views of the lights, yachts and waterfront homes on the way to Las Olas from the hotel. We were provided with a very informative and even fun narrative during our ride and tipped the speakers accordingly. Unfortunately, this was the exception.. We found (all of us separately and with different kinds of activities) that to an alarming degree, the service staff in the shops, stores and restaurants we visited were decidedly unfriendly. They were not just disinterested - they were overtly rude and seemed genuinely aggravated that we had come into their places of business. Fortunately, we were not of a mind to have our trip diminished to any real degree by these people. So in spite of the best efforts of some of the denizens of Ft. Lauderdale to spoil our fun, we opted to have a good time anyway.

 

 

One of the fun things we did on arrival at the hotel was walk across the street to the Walgreen’s to buy decorations for our cabin including garland, lights, door wreath , ornaments and a 4 ½ foot lighted Christmas tree. We had also brought from home a large snow-family holiday decoration (4’ x 6’) for the outside of the ship along the side of our cabin. Since we were going to be hosting a small gathering for sail away we wanted to add some touches to make it more festive. We’d had an identical cabin on a previous sailing, so we knew with some certainty what kind of spaces we would be working with.

 

(continued)

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CRUISE DAY & EMBARKATION

 

Using separate taxi services, we all managed to arrive at the pier for departure at about 11:15 AM. The doors were not open for security checkpoints until 11:30AM so the lines built up fairly quickly. All passengers, regardless of cabin grade had to pass through this first security gauntlet before being redirected into appropriate lines (suite, on-line forms, etc.). My partner and I were in an S cabin so were directed to the line with no people in it. A relatively nice person checked us in for the ship in about 45 seconds, turned over our boarding documents, took a security picture, gave us our goofy gold sticker and sent us off to board the ship. The other members of our group had about the same kind of experience - essentially pain free and uneventful. A note to the uninitiated: go with the knowledge that there are lots of people tying to do the same thing you are. There will be lines. Be patient. Breathe. Breathe again.

 

 

We were once again able to bypass the ubiquitous photographers and went straight aboard the ship. Since we had sailed previously on the Oosterdam, we knew the general layout of the ship and took the early boarding opportunity to begin preparations (with room service and the Neptune Lounge) for our sailaway party. We met up with other members of our group in he Lido and took seats near the pool area to await the cabin ready signals. Right on schedule at 1:30pm the general announcement was made and we were off to our cabins.

 

CABINS

 

My group occupied a range of cabin types. We had 6 S Suites: 3 on the side (Deck 7) and 3 of the Aft Corner S suites (decks 4, 5 and 6.) We also had 2 Cat A balconies on the stern, 1 side AA balcony and 1 Cat N inside on deck 4. My partner and I stayed in Cabin 5187 - an aft wraparound. We had stayed in 5186 on the Oosterdam in January and we took this ship and date specifically to have this same cabin location and configuration - just on the starboard rather than port side this time. For my partner and I, the trade off between the additional space in cabin on the side suites and the fantastic space of the wraparound on the aft verandah is a good one. We spend a lot of time on the verandah and not so much time in other parts of the ship. And, for what it’s worth to potential cruisers, the 5186/5187 cabins do have the largest interior square footage and verandah space of the available aft suites - only 30 square feet smaller then the side suites. The recognizable difference in the aft vs. side suites (using 5187 as the comparison) is in the space available between the foot of the bed and the wall. The loss translates into a smaller sofa (a thinner and shorter straight leather couch vs. the wider and longer angled one) and some loss of walk space when the chairs and table are in place in front of the sofa.

 

Frankly (and this is strictly my opinion), the room should not be called a suite. It’s a very nice space and the best on board (short of the Penthouses) but is not luxurious by any means and is not a “suite” of rooms at all. The bathroom on these ships continues to mystify me - it is entirely okay but utterly cheap looking. Another poster at one point called it a Holiday Inn bathroom. Of course the décor of the bathroom is not a deal breaker but it is interesting to note that lower tier suite level accommodations on RCCL (as an example) provide a much nicer blend of materials (wood and marble) to make the space seem more inviting. That said, the suite space is fine and the closet space is outstanding!

 

The beds are as good as everyone says they are. Another poster said that their increased “volume” made the cabin seem smaller. When we came into our cabin initially, we thought the space seemed smaller. On reflection, I believe it was the extra “visual” space that the bed takes with it’s higher profile that contributed to the perception of a smaller space.

 

SAILAWAY

 

Our cabin steward came to introduce himself to us shortly after we arrived at our cabin. His name was Johanes and he was a gem from the start. We took a moment to advise him that we were planning to have a party in the cabin for sailaway and apologized in advance for the extra clean-up work this would no doubt cause him. So we immediately gave him a few extra twenties to take out some of the sting. He retreated down the hall and came back in less than a minute with two bottles of better than standard champagne to help out with the party! Throughout the cruise, Johanes continued to be one step ahead of our needs. We had another pleasant surprise when our names called from the corridor - it was Hari, the young man who had been our cabin steward on the Oosterdam. We were able to inquire after his family (he had suffered a terrible personal tragedy during our prior cruise and had to leave the ship mid-cruise) but he was happy to report that life was getting back on track. He made a point of telling Johanes to take extra good care of us! I really enjoyed that personal touch as a way of starting the cruise off right.

 

One side comment: instead of the usual bottle of champers with the “captain’s compliments” we were provided with a bottle of merlot. It worked out fine for us since we don’t drink enough to fill a teacup during a normal year and could care less whether it’s there or not, but we did want to have every little sparkling libation possible for our sailaway party.

 

We did manage to get all of our Christmas decorations up and they looked great to me. I like a little sparkle for the holidays. Johanes said he and the other crew would be happy to use the decorations when we finished using them for the cruise. So that all worked out well for everyone I’d say!

 

 

We had met a fair number of CC members on the Roll Call thread for this sailing and arranged to have a party at our place for sailaway. Since we had the big verandah there was plenty of room. Between my group and the CC members who came to visit we had 40-50 people comfortably accommodated during the time we had the party going. It all worked out very well with room service providing trays of hot and cold appetizers and additional plate and beverage setups. CC’ers brought special cheeses, chocolates, crackers, sausages and other kinds of treats along with more wines and champagnes. All in all, it was a great welcome aboard and a nice way to put faces to the names we’d met on the boards. It was especially nice to have people we felt like we already knew to say hello to during the cruise. If you’ve never availed yourself of the opportunity to meet other CC members on board, I would encourage you to step out and say hello. It’s a very warm and pleasant way to meet people that you might otherwise pass without knowing how interesting, kind and generous they could be.

 

 

(continued)

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SERVICE NOTES

 

Since we tend not to make a lot of use of the ship facilities with the exception of the casino and main dining room, I am reticent to comment too extensively about on board service. I will say that the great majority of our interactions with service staff were congenial. The overall feeling seems to be “correct” rather then warm. The real stars for us (on this trip) were Johanes, our cabin steward and Celine in the Neptune Lounge. In the main dining room, we were served by Joko (our waiter) and Yudi (his assistant). Yudi was unfailingly warm and friendly with a constant smile while Joko was a bit more conservative. There were no real service issues to speak of.

 

DINING

 

We tended to have breakfast every day on the verandah (a high point for us) and dinner in the main dining room. A few times we tried to eat lunch in the Lido but this only reconfirmed my perception of this place as a particular horror. Rather than go into why I believe this place is so abhorrent to me, I will just say that it is probably my distaste for mass feedings and tray service with disinterested servers and leave it at that. Other people (including some of my traveling party) find the Lido wonderful and I’m glad that the majority find it to be a win. It’s just negative enough for me to want to avoid it altogether. One bright spot in the feeding frenzy was the young man I encountered twice at the hamburger grill station near the pool. He was especially bright and shining. On boarding day, the poor guy was already being harangued by some hateful old harridan and he was clearly feeling it. Although his smile never wavered and he did nothing to indicate how he might be feeling, he had a kind of slump that spoke volumes. When she moved away from the counter, I pulled a twenty out and gave it to him, called it hazard pay and told him I was sorry he had to endure that kind of nonsense.

 

We had our dinner in the main dining room for all but one night. The food onboard was uniformly edible. Again, my metaphor of the Buick seems appropriate. Nothing outstanding, nothing disgusting. It was completely fine. I can’t even remember now what we ate except that my memory of it is that it slightly better than average banquet food. Considering the number of meals being handled, I think they do a fine job in providing a sufficient number of variants and preparation styles to suit as many types of dining requests as could be reasonably expected. I will say that in comparison to the service flow on the Oosterdam earlier this year, the Westerdam service flow seemed more even and faster paced - even with our large group. Maybe it was luck of the draw, maybe it was management style, maybe it was increased familiarity - whatever it was, it seemed more smooth and we had no complaints.

 

We did arrange to have dinner in the Pinnacle Grill one evening. I find, as other posters have stated, that the entrees are quite nice and the side dishes are the red-headed step-children. Unless I were introducing someone who had a special request to experience the Pinnacle, I probably would not dine there again. I find the mechanical service staff to be not just cold but so distant as to make the evening uncomfortable. I do realize (as some of our more vocal posters have stated) that it’s not the job of the service staff to be my friend. However, I do think that one of the hallmarks of the truly exceptional service is that one is made to feel welcomed and at home. Personally, I couldn’t wait for that experience to end.

 

PORTS AND EXCURSIONS

 

Nassau - more angry shopkeepers. We did enjoy a little jaunt over to the Atlantis Resort to see what all the fuss was about. Because of the short shore time, there’s just not a lot that can be accomplished. If we were to do this itinerary again, we would probably just sleep in and loll about on the verandah.

 

St. Martin - instead of being docked this time, we were anchored and tendered onto shore. We were joined in the seagoing suburbs by Celebrity and NCL’s Dawn. In all there were 7 ships in port the day we were there. We spent some time shopping (I bought two rings to replace some lost in a home robbery earlier this year) and beaching it. We got rained on during the day but that was more fun than not. It added some spice to the adventure. We had a rainy sailaway but that didn’t stop me from being out on the verandah again to watch Philipsburg recede from my railing.

 

Tortola - in January I took a very short walk and otherwise just stayed on the ship and would have preferred that we not go there again. This year though we signed up for the Virgin Islands Sail-a-way and 13 members of our group went. We sailed on a trimaran rather than the advertised catamaran which was kind of a novelty to me. We left under a lowering sky and fully expected to be cancelled or otherwise rained on all day. In fact, we sailed right out of the port and, on reaching the first destination (Norman Island I believe) we had clear skies and beautiful waters in which to swim and snorkel. I can safely say that I have not had this much fun in 20 years. This was a fantastically good time - including having engine trouble and missing Virgin Gorda completely! But the convergence of good people and good attitudes made the trip perfect. Okay, the rum punch may have helped some also! We absolutely ZOOMED across the waves under sail on he way back to the ship and I was able to ride the bow and be relentlessly splashed by the sea as we bounced across the waves. It was outrageous and more fun that I could possibly have imagined. My face hurt from the amount of smiling and laughing I had to do!

 

Half Moon Cay - another day in Paradise. We had the Purple and Pink Cabanas for our use during the day and two extraordinary stewards serving our needs. Ryan and Norman took care of us beautifully! In addition to the $50 apiece that we paid them as a base rate, I know that other individuals in the group gave them $10 per person in addition. I’m glad they made out well with our group - this was money well deserved. They catered to us far more than any reasonable person should expect. And even though we had cloudy skies for some of the day and the sea was a bit colder, we had a great time. I honestly would love to have a cruise that did nothing but sail around some and then park at HMC for a few days.

 

TIPPING

 

We consider the basic pre-tipping charge to be part of the cruise cost and feel it covers the basics only. We enjoy rewarding the people who make our trips special and did so regularly. As I said, we had some stars during our cruise who deserved and received far more than the minimum. I can’t imagine a condition that would be so bad that we would remove the auto tip.

 

OVERALL

 

HAL offers a perfectly sound product. On a rating scale, I’d say this was a solid 8.5 out of 10. Some aspects were well over 10. Since I’m new to HAL I can’t compare it to the “old days”. It seems perfectly acceptable to me in many ways. We rebooked with HAL for this cruise in large part because of the aft suite and balcony configuration on a class of ship that we knew from prior experience. The price to value ratio worked for us as well. I would not hesitate to recommend this cruise to someone whom I knew well enough to know would appreciate the pro’s of the experience and not be put off by what I am hesitant to call the con’s. Would I sail this ship again? Absolutely - provided the price point were not much different. Would I sail with HAL in general on another ship/itinerary? Almost certainly. While there were few "raves", the entire experience was very acceptable - even good. After all, a Buick is a nice, comfortable and, above all, non-surprising ride!

 

Cheers to all and may your cruises all be First Class!

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Steve, what a wonderfully PHRASED review. Having sailed on the Zuirderdam and the Oosterdam we too pretty much know what to expect on the Westerdam. For the Westerdam we will have suite 7051 but for our October cruise we are back on the Oosterdam we will have cabin 5187. We are looking forward to enjoying the Aft cabin.

 

Thanks for writing your review, sounds like you had a very enjoyable time with all your friends.

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A delightful review to read. Everything was well thought out and presented. Very well organized. :)

I'm especially glad you continued each post in the same thread. :)

 

I'm so glad you had an enjoyable cruise, as well as your many companions. It can be a bit frightening to know you are the one who made the recommendations. :eek:

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Localady - thanks!

KK - have fun - the ship is really very nice and occasionally very beautiful indeed!

Lisa - be careful .. once you go AFT you may find it hard to lose that huge verandah!

Ruth - thanks and, btw, I did think about you on the ship when the chocolate truffles were brought to our sailaway!

 

Cheers!

:D

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Steve, What a wonderful review!! I was actually picturing your adventures in my head as I was reading! More than a few of them brought a smile to my face!! What a great way to start my day! Thank you! CHEF NANCY:)

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Steve, great review. I especially liked the way you described your cabin as I have booked that exact cabin on the Zuiderdam for next March. We have 5 girls sailing, so 3 of us will be in 5187 and the other 2 next door in 5185, sounds like it will be perfect for us.

 

Now for you, back to reality.

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Steve, what a glorious review to read! You have a fabulous writing style - I wish you wrote reviews for some of the magazines I read. Thanks for taking such care to present both the pleasant and less pleasant aspects of your trip - and for reminding us that there is no such thing as a bad cruise!

 

Cathy

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Steve, wonderful review. I was especially interested in your review of the Virgin Island Sailaway. I am trying to decide what excursion we will take when we visit Tortola on the Zaandam in March. I am torn between a sailing excursion and a trip on our own to the Baths. I have found a few charters that are all day sails with lunch. Did you feel that 4 hours was long enough? We will be in Tortola until 11pm, so we could do an all day sail.

 

Thanks again for review and I look forward to hearing your thoughts on an all day sail versus the 4 hour sail.

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Thanks again for kind words .....

 

Doone .... we also had 5187/5185/5183 ... worked out beautifully!

 

Janice...

 

For us the 4 hours was perfect because it allowed us ample time to snorkel and play (and be tired) .. but still have time for a little time at Pusser's, etc. On the other hand, the idea of being on the water like we were all day is intoxicating. I don't think we could re-create that experience but it would be fun to try. If I were to do it again, I would do the same one.

 

Cheers again to all!

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Steve-

 

Thank you so much for taking the time to post such a great review. It's easy to read and flows extremely well.

 

I have a question... I'm curious, did you wear the "goofy" gold sticker? We thought them to be a tad "over the top" and didn't - then encountered one woman asking the concierge for more of them so she could wear them the entire voyage. I had to laugh... :rolleyes:

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Wonderful review, Steve! We enjoyed being on the cruise with you.....and your party. You went to a lot of extra effort to make things comfortable for everyone. Your pre-cruise publications were great! Got a chuckle out of the Walgreens bit....we went there too....a great source for those last minute decorations. Philip was correct in the availablity of outlets....we had plenty. I gave Hari my tiny decorated tree on the last day.....he said he would like it. Also gave him a healthy tip each week. He was a great cabin steward, and took such good care of us when we had a "flu" for a few days the first week of our B to B.

 

We felt all deserved good tips as we were spoiled rotten for the 2 weeks. The crew were so kind and attentive. It is common knowledge that their pay is much less than suits the work......so extra tipping is a "must do"!

 

I too would sail the Westerdam again in a heartbeat.....or the Zuiderdam or Oosterdam. I like those Vista ships.

 

Margaret

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777 steve .... Wonderful review!

 

Especially appreciated your comments on "Island Sail-A-Way" in Tortola. We have been on this excursion once before and are very much looking forward to doing it again in January. Question: :confused: After your first stop at Norman Island ... did you also go to Pirates' Bight on Norman Island? (We LOVED that stop!) :D

 

Thanks again for your time to do this great review!

 

Happy Sailing! OCruisers :)

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Ekerr: Actually we did wear the goofy stickers. :) I think I still held on to the notion that in the "old days?" the goofy stickers meant youcould be a priority boarding person ... with the way the boarding was being handled there ewas no need. Once on board, when I realized I had my Mariner Button and my Gold Sticker, I decided I probably didn't need it. Initially though it was kind of fun ... having all of my badges on made me feel like a 5-star General! :)

 

Margaret: I'm glad you found Hari as accomodating as we did. I was so sad about his news but happy to see him on the ship and bouncing back so well. Those guys do so much as ambassadors for HAL - and they make up for so much that gets "watered down" in other areas of service. And I also like the Vista ships ... in fact I'm VERY torn about the next cruise. Was seriously considering staying in the neighborhood .. but the O'dam on the Mexican RIviera itinerary looks so good to me and there are some sweet deals out there!

 

OCruiser: Because of our engine trouble we were "stuck" for longer than we should have been and the Captain decided it would best just to stay put and then when we left just go back to port. It was fine for us though since we were having such a good time where we were.

 

Anyway - thanks everyone for your kind words. I'm glad that the cruise comments have been received well. I'd hoped that any of my "not so wonderful" comments were not viewed as slamming HAL. I think they do a very credible job in managing mass market travel. For me, the cruise is all about the floating real estate - a sound sihp and a big personal space and the biggest balcony I can find spells 90% victory before we even set sail. Everything else is incidental to me.

 

Cheers all!

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OCruiser: Because of our engine trouble we were "stuck" for longer than we should have been and the Captain decided it would best just to stay put and then when we left just go back to port. It was fine for us though since we were having such a good time where we were.

 

Thanks, Steve, for your time to answer! We loved that excursion the last time and can't wait to do it again in January!!!!

 

Happy Sailing! OCruisers :)

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Steve,

 

Great review. I like your analogy of the Buick Park Avenue. That's why I keep coming back to HAL. They deliver a solid, consistent product. Nothing glitzy, but something you can depend on.

 

I've never sailed on one of the Vista class ships, but hope to some day.

 

Roz

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Steve - Enjoyed your review so very much as we will be sailing on Oosterdam to the Mexican Riviera in March. It will be our first HA cruise, and our family -two daughters, their husbands, and our three teen grandchildren. Our cabins are together, portside - ours is #5152, and we're hoping that the balcony dividers can be opened. Can you answer that question for me? Any other tips you can provide would be greatly appreciated. Thank you.

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The balcony dividers can be opened. Just ask your cabin steward. We had them opened for our Christmas cruise and it was great.

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