Thursday, January 31, 2013

Big Thunder Rolls to a Stop, and the Legend of the Last FastPass

"Hang onto your hats and glasses, folks, cause this here's the wildest ride in the wilderness!"  And with that announcement, your little mining train glides around a bend into a cavern, swerving past the glowing eyes of bats, rattling up a lift hill past stunning scenes of stalactites and iridescent pools, then diving under a glowing, flickering waterfall to begin a wild race around the tracks of Big Thunder Mountain Railroad at Disneyland.  Set in a landscape reminiscent of Bryce Canyon, Big Thunder replaced the more sedate Mine Train Through Nature's Wonderland in 1979.  It's supposedly tame as roller coaster's go, but it kept me on the edge of my seat as a boy, and it took a while to warm up to it as an adult.  But on my last trip, back in 2010, I found myself really loving it.  Once I got used to the motion (and decided it really wasn't just a trick to lure me into a false sense of security and then kill me), I found myself really digging the ride, the excitement, and the scenery. I was coming back to Big Thunder again and again, checking out the differences in riding in the daytime and at night.  (Supposedly, in addition to the difference in the view, the trains move faster as the rails warm up through use during the day.  I'm not sure how true this is, but you could certainly believe that the trains move faster at night.)
"This here's the wildest ride in the wilderness..."
There could have been good arguments for making the Disneyland trip after visiting the Joint Meetings this year instead of before.  In particular, the parks would have been less crowded.  (Things were still pretty heavy on 1/3–1/8 while I was there.)  But I also would have missed out on some things:  Park hours would be reduced, and Christmas decorations would be coming down, including the Haunted Mansion closing to remove the holiday overlay.  And perhaps worst of all, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad was scheduled to shut down for a roughly ten-month refurbishment on January 6.

I am actually absurdly pleased to
possess this object.
Big Thunder was my first stop on this visit, and while it couldn't be my last, it would be the last thing I'd get on the night of January 6, when it was going down.  This was where I headed after finishing up my dinner and World of Color at California Adventure: to say farewells and ride a few last times on Big Thunder.

I got to visit a few times that evening.  As I stood in line amongst the narrow rockwork canyons, I felt the rocks and posts, drinking it in, and willing myself to be a part of this in the same way it was a part of me.  I also grabbed a last FastPass valid after 10:30.  (The park was closing at 11.) I figured it would be packed with people like me, wanting to get in a last ride at the end of the night before it went down, but surprisingly when I went back, there weren't many people in line.  No one actually bothered with the FastPass line much, and no one actually collected my ticket.  So as a result, I have a cool souvenir: One of the last FastPasses for Big Thunder before it shut down until the end of October.

The next day, not only was the mine train itself down, but the sidewalk past it (which wraps around into the back of Fantasyland) was also closed off.  (This made navigating the park just a bit harder, especially since they do seem to like to have shows in front of the Castle, which partially blocks off a second route from Fantasyland to Frontierland.)
Farewell Big Thunder.  Until you open again.
I'll look forward to seeing the new and improved Big Thunder the next time I manage to make it out to California.  Until then, my first loved coaster lives in me.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Carthay Circle Restaurant and World of Color

On my third night, I had reservations for dinner at the Carthay Circle restaurant in California Adventure.  This new upscale restaurant is actually in the theme park, housed in replica of the Carthay Circle Theater in Los Angeles, the site of the December 21, 1937 premiere of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. (I neglected to get a good exterior shot of the building, but there is a lovely one at the link above.) The restaurant appears at the end of Buena Vista Street, and caps off the themed entryway.  I figured I'd better go check it out, while it's still a serious restaurant and before Disney decides to convert it to a Princess dining opportunity, where you can meet characters and eat hot dogs with french fries.  (When California Adventure first opened, there was a lovely restaurant run by Wolfgang Puck.  It's now a chance for kids to eat with Ariel the mermaid instead. Also, one of my favorite restaurants in EPCOT, the Akershus in Norway, converted to princess dining a number of years ago.  As you can tell, this doesn't bother me a bit.)

Just behind my table:  There is a mural commemorating the movie
Snow White in the central cap on the second floor.
I headed in at six, waited a bit in a beautifully finished lounge, then was brought upstairs to my table. I got started in earnest, with a Hemingway Daiquiri and firecracker duck wings.  (The duck wings were really magnificent: hot, dark, sticky, and wonderful.  The chef had chosen to highlight various California ethnic influences, and these were inspired by Chinese cuisine, featuring soy and sriracha sauce.)  Then lamb for the main dish with a glass of wine (selected with the waiter's help), and of course dessert, which ended up being another wonderful chocolate and peanut butter creation.  (I do have a tendency here...)
Waiting for World of Color to begin from a prime viewing location.  Although Paradise Pier has never
been a favorite part of the park for me for rides, I do love the lights and colors at night.
Dinner at Carthay Circle also includes reserved prime viewing for the nightly World of Color light and water show at California Adventure (if you order at least two courses), so I headed down to the lagoon to watch the show after dinner.  It's a pretty cool show (I'd seen video online before, but it's pretty impressive in person).  It features a mixture of timed lights, music, fountains, fire, and animated scenes projected in high quality on huge water screens.  Very impressive. This show also added some holiday elements to the regular show, including an initial appearance of the Prep and Landing elves.  It made a beautiful end to the evening.  (Or at least it would have, if I didn't have plans to head across to Disneyland and see a few more things before I turned in for the night.)

As I headed out in the crowds, I looked out over the lagoon towards Paradise Pier on the right, Pacific Wharf on the left segueing into Cars Land (beautifully lit up at night), and thought that DCA really does finally feel like a full theme park now, a worthy mate to the park it sits next to.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Space Mountain

Should I try it or not?

Back when I was about 10 or so, I went to Disneyland with my parents.  I have a lot of good memories from my Disney trips from those days, but the roller-coasters were kind of scary for me.  I do remember riding Big Thunder Mountain Railroad (a runaway mine train style ride) a few times, and being torn about whether to repeat the experience at any given time.  It was kind of fun, but also kind of scary.  (Yes, I've already copped to being a wimp.)  I think I went on the Matterhorn as well, although I more clearly remember being on a knock-off of sorts called the Alpine Sleigh Ride at Astroworld in Houston.  But Space Mountain was the "big" coaster for Disneyland: An indoor roller-coaster in the dark, with stars and asteroids projected to create an outer-space theme.  It was also one of the most popular rides.

Should I go?

When I was on that trip at a young age, I did try Space Mountain.  I can't remember much of the ride, but I can remember clinging for dear life to the lap bar and any part of the car I could get my hands on, being whipped around, certain I was going to be flung to my doom at any moment.  I was crouched in the seat so that mostly what I saw wasn't stars or asteroids, but my own shoe.  (It was an interesting shoe.)  After riding once, I knew that was a ride (unlike Big Thunder) on which I was sure I did not want to ride again.  And I avoided it ever since.

Should I get on it anyway?

Up into my adult life, I've mostly steered away from anything that would count as a "thrill" ride.  And Disney parks do have lots of stuff to do for those of us who are what is technically known as "ultra-wimpy," although they have been steering towards having more thrills over the years.  I remember going with my partner on a driving simulator called Test Track at EPCOT (which was the precursor to the Radiator Springs Racers I talked about previously).  While not up to par with a roller-coaster of any sort, it did feature some high speeds and simulating "skidding" which kind of panicked me.  My partner has a picture of me in the car; I think you can tell that I have a death grip on the bar in front of me.  The only thing I could think on seeing the picture was "How can he be calm enough to take a picture?!?"

It is just right over there.  It would be over pretty quickly, too.

But over the years, I seem to have mellowed.  I did manage to ride a few thrill rides, and about three years ago, I finally found myself absolutely loving Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, although it took some time to get used to, and the Matterhorn.  Plus the already mentioned racers in Cars Land, and the Indiana Jones adventure, in which you careen at high speeds on a jeep through the ruins of a temple.  But three years ago, even 'though I was enjoying all of these things, I didn't manage to work up the nerve to try Space Mountain again.  I knew that one was worse.
Spoiler Alert:  The fact that I was able to take this picture means that I was in line.
But here I am again, and I've been thinking about it again.  Should I try it?  It's the end of my second night, and I've seen the fireworks and had my cookie and hot chocolate, and I keep going back to these exhilarating high speed rides that I never thought I'd like, as if I'm psyching myself up for the big one.  I circle back a few times to Space Mountain.  There it is.  Should I do it?  I obviously don't have to do this, but I think maybe I should.  The wait time says 45 minutes, and the park closes in 30, which means it would be the last ride of the night.  No chance to go back through "It's a Small World" a few times to calm my nerves.

What the heck, I'm going in.

I'm wending my way through the line, a little worried.  There's a lengthy exterior line, which finally leads to an entrance to the main building.  I overhear two young men behind me:
First:  "It's pretty long on the inside, too, if I remember."
Second:  "That's what she said."
I about fall over, and make a mental note that the gentleman has just made the all-time best unprepared use of that line.
Almost time.
Finally, I'm in the loading area, then boarding a rocket and sliding down the lap bar.  (Is there still time to go crazy like Marge Simpson on a plane, and start jumping up and down yelling "Let me out! Let me out!  Let me out!"?)  And here we go, turning a corner amidst flashing lights, climbing a lift hill, then into a star field in the darkness, a soundtrack welling up around me.  I'm tensed at this point for the sudden acceleration, but we turn around and start another lift, hearing a countdown from ten begin.  Finally: "...3...2...1!" And we're off!  I'm tensed, but after a few moments, I start to relax.  This is not too bad; I feel the acceleration as we round turns, climb, and dive.  I hear a driving soundtrack swelling up from the speakers behind my back in time to the motion, and I feel the rush of wind through my hair as I seemingly rush through an inky blackness studded with projected stars.  I can sort of tell that there are tracks and girders around by the way the "stars" show up, but I can't reliably even make out the people in front of me.  I feel myself grooving with the motion, and finally (before long), we whip around another corner into blinding strobes, and lights which give me the strangely disorienting feel that I'm suddenly moving backward... and the rockets glide back into the launch bay, ready to unload us and pick up the next round of passengers.

That wasn't bad.  That was fun! And kind of exhilarating. And oddly, it bothered me a lot less than a lot of rides that I think are actually a lot milder.  (At some point later, it occurred to me that I would have been a lot more terrified if I could have seen what was going on.  As it was, it was just rushing wind, a feeling of acceleration, a soundtrack, and mostly darkness.)

And since Disney does like to take pictures to try to sell (remember the sudden flashing strobes at the end?), I have some evidence that I survived my first flight, and that I seem to have enjoyed it:
I'm in the back.  It's a picture of a picture, so
the quality is a little lacking.
I went back, too.  (A total of ten times in this trip in fact.)  All the pictures of me look about the same: slightly awestruck, but happy.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Christmas, Cocoa, and Cookies (Disney Style)

After spending my second afternoon at Disneyland, I took the monorail back out to Downtown Disney and had dinner at Catal, a Mediterranean restaurant I'm rather fond of.  It's nice to be able to relax a bit and enjoy a nice meal and a drink while I'm out visiting the parks.  (And the next two nights were only going to be upping the ante on this.)  I let myself indulge in foods I don't normally eat anymore, including some lovely bread, sangria, and even a yummy chocolate/peanut-butter dessert.  But that wasn't going to be it; I had plans for the night.

I headed back into the park (which, with all the lights and holiday decor, is even more lovely after a glass of wine) and enjoyed sampling my way through a number of my favorite attractions.  (At one point, I also rode through the Snow White dark ride with a group of three other people who I think were about mid-twenties.  One woman in the group asked if she could sit with me, and I said "sure", so they piled in.  She said the two of us were up front, which "is obviously the best place."  I deadpanned, "Yeah, but the witch might get us."  Sometimes you can make weird connections with total strangers while on a Disney vacation.)

But as it came up towards the nightly fireworks display, it was time to start rolling out my plans for celebrating Christmas right.  I hadn't indulged too much in holiday treats before I'd come, but I knew that Christmas celebrations would still be in full swing at the resort, and I planned to enjoy some cookies, gingerbread, hot chocolate, and eggnog while I was there, if I could find them.  The last time I visited, I also discovered a wonderful idea:  It may be worth standing out on Main Street to watch the fireworks display one night so you can get a good view (like I did the previous night), but it's not very comfortable to stand there and watch.  If you go back on a later night and sit yourself somewhere out of the main line of sight, you can see and hear most of the show, while parked at table at a closed cafe or someplace similar, and munch on some lovely dessert at the same time.  So this time it was going to be Christmas treats, and particularly gingerbread, which I knew they had.  I headed out to a bakery on Main Street about 45 minutes before the fireworks, and eventually ordered a gingerbread cookie, an iced snowman shortbread cookie (on a whim), and a cup of hot cocoa.  Everything was eventually wrapped up and passed to me, and worked my way out into Frontierland (feeling a bit like a salmon as I fought my way through a heavy crowd moving the other direction) and eventually found myself a table just as the Christmas-themed fireworks were starting.  I was just thinking, "How perfect is this?" as I unwrapped my cookies, and discovered the bakery gave me a Mickey Mouse cookie instead of a gingerbread cookie.  (Or maybe it was gingerbread also.  I did see online that someone was claiming there was a Mickey Mouse gingerbread cookie which was coated in chocolate, and that the chocolate helped offset the strong taste of the gingerbread.  But the point was I wanted the cookie to taste like gingerbread and not have the taste "offset.")  I tried the impostor cookie, but it didn't taste like anything I cared for, so I abandoned it and ate the shortbread cookie, drank the cocoa, and watched the fireworks.  (Which left plenty of time for some additional attraction visits before the park closed at midnight, but that's another story.)

But at the end of all this, I still didn't have my gingerbread.  I tried going back around to the various bakeries on Main Street the next night, and none of them seemed to have any.  And I thought, "Dammit, I am getting gingerbread!", so I tried once more two days later, earlier in the day, and finally found some.  And when I ordered it, I actually got it!  Hurray!  So I still had my Disney Christmas, although a bit more spaced out.  (Although I never could find anyplace that had eggnog, weirdly enough.  I figured they must have that too, but no such luck.)

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Star Tours

Back in 1987, Disney opened a flight simulator based ride set in the Star Wars universe, in a collaboration with George Lucas.  The attraction was called Star Tours, and featured what was supposed to be an uneventful shuttle tour flight to the Endor moon, piloted by a new 'droid.  Of course, 'something goes wrong', and we end up on a high-speed, turbulent voyage which includes a close encounter with the Imperial forces and a bombing raid on the Death Star.

For those who have not been on the ride, it's a small theater (maybe 30-40 people) built in an industrial flight simulator, so the room you are in actually moves.  (You have to seatbelt yourself in before it starts.)  The front "window" of the shuttle is actually a movie screen, and there is an animatronic (robotic) "pilot" sitting in front of the viewscreen.  Of course, the motion of the room is synced with the film, so that it feels like you are really flying, swerving, dodging, and (occasionally) falling.  When it opened, the argument was made that it would be fairly easy to update to new adventures, since shooting a new film and programming new motion was a considerably smaller investment than building a whole new ride, but it remained unchanged until 2011.

In 2011 it got a major facelift.  (Some spoilers follow, if you're planning on riding it yourself.) The film you view is a new adventure, set between the three Star Wars prequels and the last three movies. The adventure is randomized now: there are several different opening segments, some different middle segments, and some different end segments which can be pasted together at random, so that each ride will be different, and various characters from the Star Wars universe make different appearances. (In fact, your pilot is now the well-known C3PO, although he wasn't really supposed to be piloting, according to the plot.  Yes, we have another Something Goes Wrong story, which is a pretty standard trope for Disney adventures anymore.  But it's still fun.)  And the film itself is also now shot in 3D, so the virtual reality element of this is really stepped up:  You have a 3D visual representation of the view screen synced with the motion of the simulator.

Like Radiator Springs Racers, this is still considered a hot new attraction, and so the lines tended to be long.  Unlike the racers, there was no single rider line (that I could find), so I picked up a FastPass before I left for an afternoon nap.  When I got back refreshed, I checked it out.
Entering the Star Tours queue:  This isn't the attraction you're looking for.
The queue has been upgraded somewhat itself, with a few new robot characters and dialog, plus a translucent panel at the end of one corridor which shows the shadows of various 'droids, aliens, Jedi, and others walking past in another (fictional) corridor.  (I almost choked laughing when I noticed the outline of Jar Jar Binks frozen in carbonite being pushed past.  Someone has a sense of humor.)

The ride itself is pretty awesome.  I'm not sure how much the 3D effects add most of the time, but occasionally it's pretty nifty.  The basic gist of the ride involves the Empire trying to capture a rebel spy supposedly on the shuttle.  (In a clever twist, we are shown a picture of one of the guests actually on the shuttle at that point, which gets a rise out of them and their friends, and tends to get some laughter from the auidence.  The gift shop at the exit of the ride also sells "I am the rebel spy" t-shirts.)  Motion simulator and 3D hijinks ensue, and eventually you make it safely to some rebel haven and disembark.

I went back several times during my stay, because it really is pretty cool.  I saw several different middle and ending segments, but always got the same starting segment, which featured Darth Vader trying to stop the shuttle from departing.  Overall the ride is a lot of fun.  The 3D effect is neat, the "rebel spy" story line is fun, and the whole experience is just fun.  And hopefully the random selection of different segments for each adventure will help keep the ride fresh even if it doesn't get updated for another quarter century.  (But given that Disney now owns the Star Wars franchise and will make more movies, I bet updates will be coming.)

Sunday, January 20, 2013

On to California Adventure

On my second day, I opted to start across the esplanade at Disneland Resort's second gate, Disney California Adventure.  Now when last I'd been to California Adventure, the park was undergoing major renovation, which finished this summer.  An entire new land based on the movie Cars was added, a major renovation to the entry area was completed, and a dark ride based on the movie The Little Mermaid opened.  Plus the major nighttime water and light spectacle World of Color.  I hadn't seen any of this completed yet, so I was excited to check things out.
Oswald's gas station on Buena Vista Street.
(Does everyone know who Oswald the Lucky Rabbit was?)

Now I actually liked the old entrance, with the colorful (and cheesy) tile murals, the Golden Gate bridge, and the giant "California" letters out front, and I admit I was a little sad to see it go.  But I also have to admit that the new entry land (Buena Vista Street) is in fact better.  It's beautiful, it feels intimate and detailed, and it does feel that you've entered a specific time and place.  It does indeed have some of the vibe of Disneyland's Main Street.  I'm impressed.

More of Buena Vista Street, still decorated for Christmas.
I headed back to the new Cars Land section of the park, themed to Radiator Springs from the movie Cars.  The land is also spectacularly themed, with Ornament Valley in the background (which I could see the back of from my hotel), but I'm headed straight for the new E-ticket ride that's built into that scenic backdrop:  The Radiator Springs Racers.
Yes, it's spectacular, and you get to ride through it.
The line is already at 90 minutes when I arrive in the morning, and all FastPasses are already gone (again).  But there is a single rider line, which promises to be much shorter, so I head on in.  It's still a noticeable wait (probably about 30 minutes or so), but the queue is really pretty lovely too.  And I notice that Disney doesn't miss a trick these days:  There are now people with drinks and snacks for sale sent up and down the line as you wait.

That's all well and good, but eventually I get to the front of the line and get loaded into a car.  Your trip starts on a winding road through a beautiful, winding road through a southwestern desert, past a scenic waterfall and into a tunnel which leads into the main show building.  Here, you start meeting other characters from Cars, and the animatronics are great.  (Of course, it helps that all the characters are, well, cars, and therefore supposed to look like objects rather than people or animals.  But the characters are very well done.)

Time to race! (And there's Cadillac Range in the background, which means my hotel was
just behind there.  Not that you can tell from here.)
After a brief tour of Radiator Springs (and an adventure in tractor tipping with Mater), you're ready for a race with another car of guests.  You whip around a race course at high speed, and one car is declared the winner.  (Randomly assigned, but on my first trip, my car won.)  And based on the picture below (which of course Disney tries to sell you a print of), I seem to have had a pretty good time:

It's no wonder the ride is popular; it's pretty much a perfect Disney attraction.  There are wonderful, lavish, immersive sets and backgrounds, well-done characters, and a little bit of a thrill (but not too much).  And the outdoor setting of Ornament Valley is absolutely stunning.  Now unfortunately, the thrills may actually be a bit of a problem for some.  I know that at one point, the thrills of the racing segment would have been a bit much for me, and are still too intense for some people to feel comfortable riding.  That's a shame, because there is a lot of magnificent scenery, characters, and story to see.  (But if you are among those who will skip the ride, someone has helpfully posted a full video on YouTube.)

I ended up going back for a second trip through the single rider line (the attraction really is that good), and found out (by chance) how they load and unload people with physical disabilities.  There's a separate bay off behind the main loading area in which a single car can be "parked".  People who need to transfer from a wheelchair or something similar can do so at this vehicle, and leave the chair to wait for them.  Then when everyone is loaded, the car can be slid back into line and it takes off with the rest, but comes back to the separate loading bay in the end.  I got assigned to one of these cars on my second time through the single rider line, so I got to watch the process.

And it turned out to be handy that I did end up in one of those pulled-aside cars. When I was getting out, I seemed to have a problem with my seatbelt getting caught on my camera strap for some reason.  I finally freed it, and got out, heading for the exit and looking for my clip-on sunglasses.  Where the heck were they?  Oh, right, I think I had them attached to ... my... camera strap... oh, I think I know what the seatbelt was caught on.  So I turned around, went back up the exit, and told the young lady working there that I thought I may have dropped my sunglasses.  They weren't anywhere visible, and I said "Probably in the car," with a disappointed shrug.  She told me I could wait there for the car to come back (in less than five minutes) and check then.  And lo and behold, when the car came back, there were the sunglasses sitting in the seat.  (I don't think this would have been as easy if I'd been in the main line where most of the cars ran through.)  So my sunglasses rode the racers one more time than I did on this trip.

I also hit the single rider line for the hang-glider simulator Soarin' over California,  which is among my favorite attractions because as you "glide" over the filmed landscape, you can really get the sense of flying.  It's as close as I can get outside of my dreams.  (By the way, I seem to have less ability to fly in my dreams these days.  I used to be able to soar, but these days when I realize I'm dreaming and try to fly, usually the best I can do is to hover about six inches off the ground.  And no, I don't want to talk about Freud's theories about flying dreams.)
Work for (very talented) percussionists at California Adventure.
"Aren't you a little old to be...?"
"Yes.  Yes, I am."
To finish up the morning, I saw street show featuring Phineas and Ferb, another street show featuring a percussionist trio of "street cleaners", tried the new Little Mermaid themed dark ride (very nice, with great effects; video ride-through is available on YouTube).  This one is not a problem for those who are avoiding thrill rides.

I also opted to try out the Golden Zephyr, which is basically a "spin you around up high" amusement park type ride on Paradise Pier (video on YouTube).  Given my increased ability to handle wild rides like the Matterhorn and Big Thunder Mountain, I thought this would be OK, since it looked a little milder, but this turned out to be a little rougher on me than I thought.  Maybe the spinning was too much, but I had to give up and shut my eyes when it got a little higher.  And then be very grateful when it was finally over and could get back on terra firma.  (Of course, the average six year old probably thinks the ride is boring.)

Having hit most of my "must sees" (and a few incidentals) at California Adventure, I decided to cross the Disneyland to pick up lunch and grab a FastPass for the revamped Star Tours attraction, then head back to the hotel for an afternoon nap.  (I'd been up early, and I planned to stay late today.)  And for lunch, I opted to try the much vaunted corn dog from a cart on Main Street in Disneyland.  (Lots of people rave about how awesome these hand-dipped corn dogs are.)  I can say I've tried it, and I can say that it was reasonably good, but I don't really get the excitement.  Of course, I had about the same reaction when I tried the (supposedly) legendary Dole Whip (a frozen ice-cream-like treat): fairly good, but not exceptional or worth worrying about repeating.  I guess I'm a heretic on some Disney food items.

But I do have to say I think the work done in the last few years on California Adventure has been exceptional.  It really does feel like a full theme park now.  Unfortunately, that means it's also drawing crowds like Disneyland does.  Five years ago when I felt like Disneyland was too crowded, I could slip across the way to visit a few attractions in DCA, but this year they both feel pretty crowded all the time.   Obviously that's good for Disney, and I'm glad to have the improvements, but I guess I'll kind of miss having a quieter place nearby.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

The Captain's Back

The 3D (sorry 4D) movie Captain Eo is back at Disneyland, and I knew I wanted to go see this again while I was out there.  I remember seeing Captain Eo, the 3D and special effects movie starring Michael Jackson, produced by George Lucas, and directed by Francis Ford Coppola, out at EPCOT in future world.  It was a pretty groovy little 80s Sci-fi mini-movie, with a somewhat contrived plot about a spaceship captain (Michael Jackson) and his ragtag band of misfits on a mission to defeat evil with the power of music.  (Well, you knew there had to be a way to get an extensive music video in there somehow.)

The show was shot in 3D using polarized glasses, and included in-theater special effects (like smoke and lasers).  It was replaced eventually with a movie (Honey, I Shrunk the Audience) themed on the movie Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.  At that time, the theater was upgraded with even more special effects, including water sprays and a floor which could actually move under the seats. Well in 2010, Disney returned Captain Eo to the theater for a "limited engagement" which is still going on.

I went because it's a great little piece of nostalgia for me, and I really can't see this anywhere else.  (Oddly enough, there was a video of it on YouTube, but of course there are no 3D effects.  It's just not the same unless it's in a theater.)  It was fun to see this again, and I'm glad I got to.  I'm hoping Disney realizes that there is a demand for some returns of old nostalgic attractions, at least for a while, when it's possible.

That said, I had heard that the integration of the new theater effects into the movie (especially the moving floor) was a little jarring.  It seemed to me like having the seats move in response to crashes, explosions, etc., would seem pretty natural and organic, so I wasn't sure what to expect.  Mostly the effects were fine, but I did find myself starting to giggle when I realized that the seats were bouncing in time to the bass beat during the music video portion.

By the way, adding in-theater special effects like smoke, water sprays, and moving seats apparently makes a movie "4D."  I actually overheard some kids waiting in line arguing over what particular added features made a movie "4D," vs. "5D" or "6D."  At least, I'm hoping they were kids; I didn't actually see them.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Watching the Matterhorn Break Down

On my first night in Disneyland, I visited The Matterhorn Bobsleds, using the magic of the single rider line.  (Otherwise, the line was a bit lengthy for me.)  I don't think this attraction had a single rider line the last time I visited, but the bobsleds have been redesigned.  It used to be that there was a long seat, and everyone in one party pretty much sat in each other's laps.  (Thankfully, they just put Mike and I into different seats even though we were together.)
The Matterhorn, in the daytime.  (Taken from the Alice in Wonderland ride)
When I was just about to the front of the line, the ride had a breakdown.  They started taking people back off who had just been loaded on, and announced that it would probably be at least a ten minute wait before it was running again.  I actually didn't mind much, because what I was watching happen was pretty cool.  (In retrospect, I'm kicking myself for not taking some shots of what was going on.)

First, the bobsleds were being brought off the ride, emptied of riders, and rapidly stored down front.  I discovered that the secondary track just behind the primary track (which you can see in the picture below) has a moving section (the part with the railing) which could shuttle the cars between the two tracks.

The cast members were working at a pretty quick clip taking the cars offline, and shoving them (manually) back onto the "storage" track.  I could see one car a little ways up on the mountain, which seemed to be stuck on an upward incline.  I'm not sure exactly what happened, but I know that roller coasters generally have anti-rollback devices to keep a car which can't make it over a hill from rolling back down.  I was slightly disappointed that I wasn't just a few minutes earlier, because I think I would have liked to be stuck in that car myself.  (The people onboard seemed to be having a fine time of it, anyway.)  It looked like they probably had a great view of the park, and there was a least some chance that they might be walked off the ride (like I was once on Splash Mountain), which I think is actually pretty cool. (You might get to see all kinds of awesome stuff that ordinary guests never get to see, even if only for a moment.) Eventually 'though, three people came out and actually physically pushed the car up over the hill and got it started again.  (I gave them a round of applause, although almost nobody else did.)

But eventually, the ride started up, and I got loaded on.  I had a brief struggle trying to figure out how to sit in the new seats, which are still completely flat on the floor of the vehicle, but eventually figure out there was space for my feet up under and to the side of the seat in front.  (You're kind of still sitting in each others' laps, but everyone actually has their own seat.)  I discovered later that I have a much harder time in the front seat, which doesn't really have any nifty "feet slots".  And The Matterhorn is really pretty spectacular at night, since you get a (fast) view from above the park, and can see all sorts of wonderful lit up scenes from It's a Small World, and parts of Fantasyland or Tomorrowland.  It's visually stunning at night, as well as a fun ride.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

On Single Rider Lines

I mentioned the glory of the Disney FastPass in my last post, which allows you to essentially "schedule" a visit to a popular attraction for a specific later time in the day, and by so doing, skip most of the line.  FastPasses are wonderful, but of course have drawbacks.  You can (mostly) only hold one at a time, you have to come back later (sometimes much later), and if an attraction is popular enough, the FastPasses can all be gone early in the day.  (I ran into this problem with the new Radiator Springs Racers in Cars Land, which apparently run out in about the first hour every day.)  But if you're traveling alone, there is an even better trick than a FastPass: the Single Rider Line.

Single Rider Lines exist on some popular attractions which have a very specific seating capacity per vehicle.  Disney wants each vehicle filled completely, but sometimes the numbers don't work out.  The newly redesigned Matterhorn Bobsleds for example hold a total of six people (exactly) in each pair of vehicles which go together.  If you have two parties of three, or three of two, or whatever, it's easy to match capacity exactly.  But it doesn't always work out.  There is often one empty seat left, or sometimes two but no group of two waiting near the front of the line.  So Disney created the Single Rider Line.  If you wait in this line, you will be pulled out, one at a time, to fill in gaps in seating.  The great thing about the single rider line is that the wait is usually a lot shorter than the wait in the main line.

Single rider lines aren't available everywhere, but where they are, they are completely awesome if you are alone. The single rider lines got me onto Radiator Springs Racers, The Matterhorn, and Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Forbidden Eye multiple times with much shorter waits than the main lines.  Some people in groups use them too.  Frankly, I thought it was kind of weird how many groups I saw in the single rider lines, because the group will be split up, as the cast member guarding the line will warn them.  (When I ask about the single rider the line, the cast member usually looks visibly relieved, since I'm obviously by myself.  It's one of the few times I get a non-weird reaction from someone realizing that I'm at Disneyland alone.)  I guess people feel like it's worth it to get through the line faster, but I mostly feel that if I came to Disneyland with someone, I would prefer to stay with them.  Or maybe they don't like the people they're with that much.  Of course sometimes people try to keep their party together at the end of the line, which I'm sure drives the cast members crazy.  (Of course they are not permitted to keep their group together.  Learn the rules.)

And I have to say, the single rider line for Indiana Jones is a total trip.  If you're looking to use this line, it's a little tricky.  First note that you're going to enter through the exit, which is actually right next to the entrance.  (I had a little trouble figuring out the first time where the exit was.)  Grab the cast member watching the line near the entrance and ask for the single rider line.  He or she will give you a lovely little colored ticket, and send you through the exit.  The queue for this attraction winds through caves, tunnels, and an archeological dig, and so does the exit.  You have to keep a lookout for more cast members to direct you in odd ways at some points.  You eventually getting shuttled in with some people in the regular line for part of the way, and then get culled out of the herd again through a gate.  (I noticed some people just pretended not to be single riders anymore at this point, and sneaked on with the "regular" line, skipping ahead of a lot of other people while getting to keep their party together.  Bad form.  Very tacky.)  After being pulled back out of the regular line, we were sent up an elevator on one side of the tracks, which dumps you in a short hallway which leads to another elevator on the other side of the tracks.  (This confused me a bit on my first time, but on subsequent rides I was confidently leading my fellow single riders through the procedure.) You ride the second elevator down on the other side of the tracks, and end up in the loading area, where someone eventually notices you and loads you onto a transport for your journey into the temple.  Although as I pointed out to some of my fellow single riders, by the time you've finished all of this, you feel like you really have invaded a forbidden temple.  (Albeit a temple from an advanced tribe with elevators.)

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

In which I make it to Disneyland

And so here I am, walking my way up Harbor Boulevard from my hotel.  (And trying to walk somewhat slowly this time.  The last time I did this trip, I sort of wore out my feet by the end.  I'm going to be trying to save them as much as I can this time, which will involve checking out that shuttle bus service that runs in Anaheim.  But for today, I'm still walking in, and it's rather scenic.)

It's also pretty warm.  My general procedure for winter touring is to bring a bunch of t-shirts, plus a pullover and a light jacket.  The combination is plenty to keep me warm at night when the temperature drops, and gives me some flexibility during the day.  But right now, it seems kind of hot, and I debated leaving my jacket at the hotel.  But I knew I'd want it later that night, so I kept it.  Maybe it would be a good time to think about getting a locker at the park, which I haven't done before.
You can tell I'm not all that into this, right?
And as I walk up towards the esplanade between the two parks, it hits me:  There's a real feeling, and indescribably something that I always feel as I reach this point.  I've written before about the magic of entering Disneyland, and the extent to which this feeling is deliberately cultivated.  It becomes real in a way it hasn't been before.  Over to my right, past the busses, I can see the monorail beam and the outlines of Space Mountain and the Matterhorn looming up.  It feels different than the rest of my life.  It may be small hints of other things—maybe the distant aromas of popcorn and candy, or the faint and distant bits of music just below my hearing—but there is a thrill of realization that I'm really finally here, and soon I'll be walking under the berm and into the Happiest Place on Earth.
This is where the magic starts to happen
And soon enough, I'm at the turnstiles.  Where there is a small surprise waiting for me.

Entrance procedures have apparently become more complex since last I visited.  When the cast member at the gate scans my ticket receipt, it generates a ticket as usual, but she then asks to see a photo ID.  This I was not expecting, so I have to fumble around to find my driver's license.  I didn't quite catch what was going on at the time, but from watching other people go through the same process on later days, I know that she apparently entered my name from my driver's license so it could be printed on the ticket.  Anyone with a multi-day ticket had to show photo ID and the ticket every time the entered the park, and the cast member working the turnstile had scan the ticket and then check that the ID matched.  If the ticket scan indicated that the guest was re-entering the park for the day, they then had to use black light to check for a hand stamp.  (I'm not sure why they still need the handstamp if the ticket scan is valid and they require photo ID to use ticket, but this turned out to be the procedure.)  In general, this whole process had the effect of balling up the lines to get in something fierce, and made it something of a pain to "park hop" (move from one park to the other in one day), as my ticket allowed.

Now apparently it turns out that there is a thriving black market on multi-day tickets that Disney is trying to cut down on. The cost per day of a Disneyland ticket goes down quite a bit as you purchase more days, so some people purchase the maximum number of days, use part of them, then sell the remaining days at close to full price.  I understand Disney wanting to shut that down, but things really were slowing down at the gate.  At Disney World, they used to print your photo on your multi-day tickets when you first bought them, and I was wondering why they didn't just go back to that.  I just read online that Disney did start photographing guests on first entry on the first weekend after I left, although I think the photographs are being stored by Disney and brought up at the entrance kiosk when the ticket is scanned rather than printed on the tickets.  I just hope the procedure is smoother.  At least with the photographs I wouldn't be fumbling with dragging out my ID as well as my ticket every time I went in, and having to stow it again inside the gates.

What to do first once I made it on to Main Street?  First:  A FastPass to Big Thunder Mountain Railroad.  (For those not in the know, a FastPass is a ticket you get to a popular attraction which allows you to enter the attraction later in the day through a shorter line.  Generally you can only hold one of these at a time, although there are ways to wiggle this around a bit.)  Then I stowed my pullover and jacket in a rental locker, and marveling that I was wandering around quite comfortably in a thin t-shirt in January.  It occurred to me at this point that I could get a second FastPass in the second park, Disney's California Aventure, while I waited for the Big Thunder pass to come available.  (At least, I probably could; the systems were not connected in the past.)  I thought it might be a good idea to try to get a FastPass for the new E-ticket in the newly constructed Cars Land, the Radiator Springs Racers. I also thought it would be a good idea to get a pack of Dramamine, since I was planning riding some wilder stuff than I often do, so I tried the shops on Main Street, which should have carried it, but seemed to be out.  I went ahead and crossed to DCA (fumble, fumble with photo ID to enter the turnstiles) and found that no one there seemed to have Dramamine either.  Apparently everyone else had the same idea.  And there were no FastPasses for the Radiator Springs Racers left for the day.  (It turns out these go very quickly in the morning; the ride is very popular.  And rightly so; when I finally get to that point in my adventures, I'll explain why it's a blast.)

Although seriously, the scene with the reindeer images in the
Polynesian room gives me the creepy vibe that Santa ran into
a bunch of headhunters.
So back to Disneyland (grumble, photo ID, grumble) and over to "it's a small world" holiday edition, which I'm terribly fond of.  I love the cute little international dolls singing "It's a Small World", and I like it even better when it's filled with Christmas decorations and the dolls occasionally segue into "Jingle Bells" (or "Jingle Shells", if you happen to be passing the underwater scene with the mermaids) or "Deck the Halls."  It's all very festive and wonderful.

The line for Small World was somewhat long, but while I was waiting, I saw a Meet-and-Greet with Princess Merida from Brave taking place next door.  I never feel much need to actually meet the characters or get my photo taken with them, but it's kind of cool to see them wandering around the park, and it's fun to see how enraptured the kids can be at these things.  (Besides, I don't want to see the looks I'd get as a 41 year old single man with no children in tow who wanted to meet the princesses.)

Princess Merida from Brave
Despite the park being pretty crowded, I did pretty well for the rest of the day, seeing quite a bit with judicious use of FastPasses and Single Rider Lines.  (More on this later.)  But after the sun set, things got cold fast, and I was pretty soon retrieving first my pullover, then the jacket from my locker.  I made a lovely dinner out of quick-service at Bengal Barbecue, and even stayed pretty much on diet with a spicy Bengal Beef skewer and a "Safari Skewer" (asparagus wrapped in bacon), and hot tea.  (I know, weird choice, but it was getting cold out there by evening, and I just couldn't face a soft drink with ice in it.)

I went on Buzz Lightyear's Astro Blasters, and I think I may have beaten my high score, making it to Level 3 with 795K points.  (Of course, the high score for the day was over 3 million points.)  The ride takes a picture of you and offers to email it to you, but this time (as usually happens to me) the email never came.  I followed a large group of young men onto Pirates of the Caribbean who were (I'm pretty sure) passing around a pot brownie before getting on the ride.  They joined in enthusiastically on the "yo-ho, yo-ho"s in the chorus of the theme song, and I was sorry I didn't remember the rest of the words well enough to keep it going through the rest of the song.  (I figure it might have taken them by surprise.)

After I stood on Main Street and watched the 9:30 Christmas fireworks show 'though, I decided I was pretty worn out for the day, and my feet were already feeling it.  (Not good.  Must be careful.)  The park wouldn't close until midnight, but I opted to head back to the hotel for the night and turn in, and sleep 'til I felt like getting up.

Getting to Anaheim

I awaken to a lovely Friday morning in southern California.
Yes, there are palm trees surrounding my motel.
Five years ago when I made this trip, I remember waking fairly early after planning to sleep later, and thinking, What am I doing laying here?  If I start now, I'll be in Disneyland sooner!  This time, I do lounge for a bit and enjoy relaxing as part of my vacation.  But nonetheless, I'm up and ready to go before to long, packed up in my cute little Mazda, breakfasted, and ready to drive to Anaheim.
My cute little rental.
I grab a drink and hit the road.  My car almost immediately buzzes at me, complaining that it has a low tire.  This is not an auspicious start.  There's a gas station nearby, and I find an air pump with a tire gauge attached.  I check inside the front door, where everyone always tells you the correct air pressure is located.  As usual, the location where the tire pressure is supposed to be printed is blank.  So I guess, taking a reading off of all four tires, tossing out the low reading, and assuming that the nearest multiple of five to the rest of the tires is the correct pressure.  When I get back in the car, it seems satisfied.  (I'm just hoping at this point that it doesn't have a leak which is going to cause me more problems later.)

I get started on my way up I5 a little after 10am, and hit some heavy traffic for a while.  I remember having the same problem five years ago.  I think I5 must just be a snarled mess all the time, since I can't imagine that past 10 is really the rush-hour time.  Oddly enough, it seems that lanes keep disappearing on the right side.  They must be reappearing on the left, since the total number of lanes doesn't seem to decrease by much.  But people keep having to merge left, over and over, which could be part of why this stretch of road is a mess.

Eventually the worst of the jam is over, and I can go back to enjoying the sunny California roadway.  Which is glorious.  As you drive up towards Anaheim, you have mountains on the right, and patches of ocean on the left.  And then, BAM, palm tree!  (Sometimes lots of palm trees.)  And a tendency towards white adobe buildings gleaming in the sun, capped with red tile roofs.  And more palm trees and other greenery.  The air smells clean from the ocean breeze, no matter how polluted the highway air might really be.  And some large structures that I think may be nuclear plants, but are still pretty lovely.  I would have taken a picture of some of this, but I was driving at the time.  I stopped at a rest area, but you couldn't see much from there.  Nonetheless, it's a great way to start this trip, with a peaceful drive for a few hours up the scenic coast.

I coast my way into my hotel about noon.  (And without any more car problems.)  By chance, I ended up at the same place I stayed at five years ago, which is pretty nice and within walking distance of the parks (although it's a somewhat longer walk than I would have liked).
Notice the Ghandi Palace restaurant sign?  Guess where I'm eating lunch?
The hotel has a room ready (although technically check-in is not until 3), and the rooms are as nice as I remember.
My room
My window this time does look out onto the park, although you can't see much, and I'm partly overlooking the rooftop of the strip mall next door.  (Last time, I had a view which was somewhat prettier, but which only showed the pool and the hotel next door.  Both versions are good.)  But now I can see the Hollywood Hotel Tower of Terror out the right side of my window, and on the left, I can see the back of the newly constructed rock work for Cars Land, both in Disney's California Adventure park.
Squee!  I can see it!  I can SEE it!
Lunch is easy since, there's a rather nice Indian buffet in the hotel itself, which I find is as nice as it was the last time I was here.  (But strangely empty; there was only one other person eating there during the time I ate my lunch.)

And now I'm set.  My car is parked, my luggage stowed, I'm fed and watered, and I have my tickets.  It's time to take a stroll down the street and start my first day at the Disneyland Resort.

Going to California

Five years ago, the Joint Mathematics Meetings of the American Mathematical Society and the Mathematical Association of America were held in San Diego.  I made the trip, but I also rented a car and made a detour up to Disneyland first.  (Because, hey: Disneyland.)  This year, the Joint Meetings were back in San Diego, so I repeated the entire trip.  I journaled the trip a bit, but I intended to travel-blog after I got back, and so here I am.

I left Erie on a cold but thankfully not very snowy Thursday, on my way to Philadelphia to catch another flight headed to San Diego with a stop in Phoenix.  (We were told it was 63 degrees in Phoenix, which already made me feel pretty good.)  I brought most of my in-flight entertainment (books, movies, etc.) on my iPad, and when I got up to visit the lavatory, I discovered that a lot of people apparently do the same thing now.  Most rows seemed to have at least one person watching video or reading from a Kindle or something similar.  I wasn't sure if we could disembark at Phoenix (which they called "Sky Harbor"), but we did and I got to stretch my legs a bit.  Then I was just grateful I got to get back on the plane, because it was another of the standard "This flight is oversold, and we need two volunteers..."  Well I had no intention of making the first day any longer or not showing up until the next day, so they can just keep looking.

The first day is rough enough anyway.  After about 11 hours of airports and flights, it's time to recover luggage, find the rental car site, unpack the Garmin, and find my way to a Wyndham Garden motel near the airport where I've booked for the night.  Then I can hunt for some kind of dinner, and settle for a somewhat overpriced chef's salad in a diner near the motel, and finally settle in for the night.  Of course, it's three hours earlier in San Diego, so I'm still getting to bed reasonably early.  That's the advantage of flying to California.  Of course, going back is murder.

The first day is long, but necessary.  I'm over two thousand miles from home, and now situated only about an hour and a half from Disneyland.  Tomorrow, I drive up the coast to Anaheim, where I'll spend five glorious days in the sun with The Mouse.  Then back down for five days back in San Diego at the conference, ending with my own presentation before I fly back again next Saturday night.