Welcome to my blog. I write mostly about travel and in particular my love of Disney, with a few tidbits such as musings about movies or theater thrown in for good measure. I have stories dating all the way back to 1997 so be sure to explore! I don't post regularly, so if you want updates be sure to join and follow this blog (links below). Feel free to share, and if you want you can also click the Facebook or Twitter links below. You can also follow me on twitter. And be sure to comment letting me know what you think!

Sunday, August 18, 2013

John & Kirk's Epic trip out west: Part 2 - Disneyland Resort

OK, so how do you know you're a Disney fanatic?

Do you get up while on vacation in order to be on the road by 4:30 AM so that you can get to a Disney park for early entry? If you do, then yes you are a Disney fanatic.

And yes, that's exactly what Kirk and I did on Monday morning.

Since we were now staying at The Villas at Disney's Grand Californian, we were eligible for early entry (getting into one of the parks an hour before regular opening - 7:00 AM in this case) for Disney California Adventure as well as Disneyland Park. "Good Neighbor" hotels (such as the Best Western we were originally scheduled for) also get early entry, but only for the days that early entry is scheduled for Disneyland Park. Our experience has taught us that 1) getting to any park right at opening is key to successful park touring and 2) early entry can be a great way to get in several attractions right away. I knew that Carsland in DCA - in particular Radiator Springs Racers - can have huge lines later in the day, so we wanted to take advantage of every early entry opportunity that we could.

And that is why, by 4:30 Am, we were headed north from San Diego to Anaheim.

We got to the Grand Californian a little after 6:00 and checked in. The cast member at check-in (Linda) took my phone number in order to text me when  the room was ready. She also mentioned a viewing area on the sixth floor from which you can view World of Color, and then suggested that we go to the main entrance to DCA instead of using the back entrance through the hotel because the line would go faster. It seems that the new policy of scanning everyone's ticket and verifying it against a picture of them caused slowdowns - but in particular at the DCA entrance. This is something they’ve got to figure out better. Anyway, we took Linda's advice and went to the front entrance of the park. This was the first time that either Kirk or I had seen DCA since the massive refurbishment - and the improvement is amazing. The entrance alone is simpler, more elegant and inviting, and less confused.

One thing I will say right here. I am not going to go into detail about the specific changes, nor will I go into a lot of detail about the new attractions. There are many online resources that will tell you anything you need to know (such as or +The DIS ). Instead I will simply write about my observations and thoughts. And I have a lot of thoughts!

Once we entered the park we headed straight to Carsland. I will add mine to the chorus of voices expressing delight with the fantastic job that Disney did with this area. The detail is amazing. First up was Radiator Springs Racers with only a nominal wait. Again I will echo what others have said about what a fun ride this is. One thing I've been hearing lately on the web and on podcasts is speculation that live, physical figures such as Disney's audio-animatronics are going to be replaced by projection systems (as can be seen in Universals "Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey"). While this may be true, I think that Radiator Springs Racers is a great argument for using physical figures. The use of audio-animatronics on this ride is second to none. That, along with the terrific theme-ing and the use of music make this a must-do.

Next up was Luigi's Flying Tires. We wanted to do this mostly because Kirk and I both lament the fact that we never had the chance to experience the classic Flying Saucers ride. I've heard mixed reviews of this ride, but Kirk and I both thought it was a blast. Finally, rounding out the Carsland attractions, was Mater's Junkyard Jamboree. I have heard that this deceptively simple little attraction is a blast, but I was still unprepared for the experience. Watching video, seeing pictures, hearing others talk about the ride, none of this will prepare you for what a blast this ride is. One thing that was neat was that, as we did not have to wait in line long, we didn't really watch others
riding before us. As a result we were caught by surprise with how the ride actually works. I can't really describe it, but suffice it to say that it takes surprising twists if you don't know to expect it.

I was hungry and needed coffee so I grabbed a cup and a cinnamon twist at a kiosk on our way out of Carsland. The park had now opened when we headed to Condor Flats for a flight on Soarin' over California. We got Fastpasses (9:40), but as the line was only 10 minutes we didn't bother. When we got to the point of being loaded we did what we always do - we requested row one. The CM said we would need to wait - no problem there - and had us move to the middle section (even better) so we rode from row one, middle section. Best seats in the house. Even though, and maybe it's just me, but it seems like the view in row one in Disneyland is not as good as it is in Epcot. The "wing" of the ride vehicle in Disneyland seems to cut off a fair bit of the top of the screen and I found myself having to duck down to peer around this obstruction. Does this happen in Epcot too? I don't remember it being an issue. There was a family next to mi - including a little girl - who had never experienced this attraction before. They were asking me questions about it. I told the little girl to "look for Mickey on the golf ball". During the ride I could hear her squeal with delight, and I also heard her exclaim "I saw Mickey!" after the golf ball flew by. I love getting to see folks - especially kids - having these experiences for the first time.

After that we hung out at the Pacific Warf area. The first thing we did was to get a couple of FPs for California Screamin' (10:50). I think it's interesting that Disney took down the MaliBoomer and did not replace it with anything. I think I heard why they did that but I don't recall. Improvement by subtraction IMO.

I wanted to do Toy Story Midway Mania but the line was 45 minutes and Kirk was not up for the wait. His point that it is exactly the same as at WDW is well taken and he wanted to do something that does not exist at WDW. I couldn't argue with that logic so we rode on Mickey's Fun Wheel instead (on the stationery gondolas. I'll never make that mistake again!) What an awesome view! Sometimes the simple attractions are the best. The stated wait was 30 minutes but I don't think we actually waited that long.

Our California Screamin' FP time was now up. OK, two things. First, I was not sure I'd want to do CS at all. While I do enjoy it, I am not a big fan of coasters with "bunny hops" as they make me queasy. Usually riding once, however, is no issue. The thing is, my stomach had not felt quite right the whole trip up to this point. Nothing that was interfering with the fun, but I didn't want to push it. So, I gave Kirk my CS FP and wandered while he rode twice. The plan was for him to call when he was done.

I decided to go watch "Instant Concert just Add Water". Unfortunately I got an annoying phone call that interrupted my vacation state of mind and also made me late for the show (which must be really short as I was only a few minutes late and missed it). Instead I sat on a bench watched for a few minutes as Goofy signed autographs and took pictures.

This is a good time to write something about the character experiences at Disneyland. I have to say that the characters at Disneyland are much better than those at WDW. I noticed this with my own experiences - as well the experiences I witnessed as I toured the parks. A couple of examples: while I was sitting on the bench I saw a funny exchange between Goofy and a young lady. After she walked up to him he turned them around in the wrong direction facing away from the camera. He acted confused for a second then, realizing his mistake, turned around to face the right way. After they got their picture taken he gave the young lady a big kiss, then wiped the "slobber" from his chin with an exaggerated motion. Very funny. Also, earlier that morning I saw Mickey kneeling down with a small child in front of one of the store windows on Buena Vista Street and pointing out all the toys in the display. Very sweet.

And speaking of positive Cast Member encounters, Kirk and I separately had positive experiences related to getting pins (though Kirk's was more impressive than mine.) In Kirk's case he was looking for a pin for a regular customer who is a Disney fan, and a Goofy fan in particular. He wanted a pin with Goofy, but specifically one that said "Disneyland". He could not find one. At one particular store he was looking and the CM asked what we was looking for. He told the CM who said they did not have anything. So Kirk left. He happened to wander by the store a few minutes later when the CM called to him "I've been looking for you!" It seems someone else had come in and traded a pin with the CM that was just what Kirk was looking for. He told Kirk to buy another pin and they could trade, which he did. Definitely over and above.

In my case, I went to the store at The Grand Californian looking for a logo pin. There were two designs, one that I liked a lot more than the other. For the one that I liked, which has a dangling key, there are designs for all 3 Disney hotels. In the store they had pins for The Disneyland Hotel and the Paradise Pier Hotel, but none for The Grand Californian. I was about to settle for the other design when the CM suggested I go to the store at one of the other hotels. "We sell out of our own design" he said, "but the other hotels sell out of their designs, so they should have the Grand Californian pins." I took his advice and found what I was looking for at the Disneyland Hotel.

Kirk got back from his two trips on CS (and reported that even the FP lines were long). We then hit an attraction we had both never experienced - Monsters Inc. ( a cute dark ride) - as well as a show neither of us had seen - Aladdin. This is a very good show and a "must see". I had heard that, especially if you get a particularly good Genie, this is a show not to miss. I have also heard it compared favorably to Broadway shows. OK, I don't want to sound like a snob, but I live in New York and I have seen many Broadway shows. While Aladdin is, indeed, very entertaining, it is not at the same caliber as Broadway.

After Aladdin it was time for our 2:00 lunch reservation at Carthay Circle Restaurant. This was something I was really looking forward to. And Carthay Circle did not disappoint. The decor - invoking the elegance of Hollywood in the 30's - was absolutely beautiful. Of the WDW restaurants I have been to I would say it reminded me most of The Brown Derby. The decor is very different, but the same level of elegance and attention to detail. The service and the food were equally high quality. As we were on the World of Color dinner package we were given the pre-fixe menu. Kirk started with soup (he said it was very good) while I had a salad (not sure what it was called but it had tangerine or clementine slices). The salad, though a bit heavy on the dressing, was quite tasty. We both had the short rib ravioli which I thought was very good. We also both had the toasted lemon pound cake which was excellent. We asked for tickets to the 10:15 showing of World of Color. Our logic was that, as the park closes at 10:00, that would give us more time in the park.

Even though I had not received a text, we figured our room was ready by now as it was after 3:00. So we headed back to the Grand Californian. Our room was indeed ready and we checked in. The rooms at the Villas (as the DVC properties are called) are pretty typical DVC studio rooms. Large enough but not exactly spacious and with a queen size bed and a pullout couch. Kirk volunteered to use the pullout - for which I was grateful. This was my second stay at The Grand Californian, the first being not long after the hotel opened. I have the same complaint about the Villas as I had about the hotel rooms - too dark. I get the theme-ing stuff and all that, but give us a little light! One minor annoyance was that someone had set the lock on the safe without closing it so we had to call the front desk to have this taken care of. A couple of guys from Security (why they needed two I don't know) came by promptly and fixed the problem.

We didn't really have much of a view. Our window was right next to a tall fence. I pointed out to Kirk that on the other side of the fence was DCA! Specifically it was the Redwood Creek Challenge Trail. When we opened the window we could hear kids playing on the trail, and Kirk said he actually thought it was the pool at first.

We headed over to Disneyland. After walking down Main Street we went to Fantasy Faire, which neither of us had seen. It was too late to see either of the shows (I was hoping to see both but I particularly wanted to see the one I had heard was narrated by 2 performers who played most of the parts. Unfortunately I could not recall whether that was Tangled or Beauty and the Beast). I also hoped to fine the "lost turret" that had been uncovered when the new area was built but I could not identify it. We headed over to the Castle for the Sleeping Beauty walk-through. I had not done this since I don't know when. Honestly I don't recall the original to be able to tell whether the refurb had changed it a lot - but I can tell you that this is a unique little attraction that everyone should experience. We were the last in the attraction - a fact that was confirmed by the cast member following us out who locked the doors behind us.

After visiting The Pirates of the Caribbean (15 minute posted wait, 25 actual) we were both hungry and decided to have dinner at Rancho del Zocolo because it was close and relatively un-crowded on this very busy evening. Mistake for me, big mistake for Kirk. For some unfathomable reason this eatery is set up with tacos on one side and enchiladas on the other. Now, What I really wanted was a taco and an enchilada - not possible unless you order a full platter from one side and a side order from the other. Well, that was too much food for me so I opted for the tacos since the enchiladas looked like they had been sitting there since this place was known as "Casa de Fritos". Kirk, on the other hand, did not get a good look at the enchiladas beforehand and ordered them. While my tacos where "meh" at best - about what I expected in honesty - Kirk said the enchiladas were awful. In retrospect we should have taken the time to battle with the crowds and go to Carnation Cafe.

We then crossed the plaza again to visit DCA at night. Like Disneyland, DCA takes on a whole new personality at night. Buena Vista Street feels warm and inviting with all the brightly lit storefront windows. Speaking of which, I had heard that there was a bit of a battle between Imagineering and Disney Merchandise over the store displays. Merchandise wanted the items actually for sale in the stores to be featured while Imagineering wanted to display items that would actually have been in stores at the time being depicted (the 20’s). Thankfully Imagineering won. The window displays in the stores on Buena Vista Street are absolutely charming. The cynic in me wonders how long this will last, but it certainly is nice for now.

Carsland also is absolutely beautiful at night, with all the neon and the rockwork all lit up. Although we missed it on this first night, one thing on our "todo" list was to be there when the lights are turned on in Carsland.

Eventually we made our way over to our viewing area for World of Color. I had heard that the viewing area for Carthay Circle guests was the best available, and we were certainly not disappointed, as we ended up right in the center. We did avoid the "wet zone" though. I should add here that, when we visited my brothers in Vegas, my younger brother Todd went on about what a horrible show WoC is. "It had this annoying and stupid theme song!" he said. (Todd is 5 years younger than me, so maybe he does not have the fond memories I have of the TV show). I told him that I had heard the show is wonderful, and is thought by many to be the best night time show Disney has to offer. Todd seemed genuinely surprised. "Really?" he said. "Fantasmic! is Way better". I just told him that I would judge for myself.

After seeing the show, all I can say is - did we see the same show? World of Color was absolutely AMAZING! Again, I won't go into a long description - there are many sites on the web that (such as +The DIS ) that do a better job than I ever could. Now, I know there are those that would disagree, but to me WoC is far superior to Fantasmic! (yes, even the Disneyland version which is much better than the WDW version). Kirk and I were both blown away by this show. In fact, walking away Kirk said he wanted to see it again. I said I wasn't sure if I wanted to because I wanted to see Fantasmic! as well as the fireworks. Kirk said he would forego the fireworks for a second viewing of WoC - something I was not willing to do. As you will discover, the point would turn out to be moot.

Thus ended our first day at The Disneyland Resort.

Day 2 would start off with an early morning run for me. This turned out to be very cool. First, I ran through Downtown Disney and then the courtyard between the parks before anyone was there. I saw a sight most rare: the entrance to Disneyland with absolutely nobody there. A bit later, on my return trip, I ran through again. This time the security folks and other cast members were just arriving. The guard at the bag checkpoint confirmed I was not going to stop - I told him I was going to the hotel. I also discovered the answer to a great Jeopardy question: "The first song played on the Disneyland song loop in the courtyard". And the question is: "What is 'Whistle While you Work'". The early morning cast members must love that!

After getting back to the room Kirk told me that he would need more time and would not be ready for Early Entry, so I went by myself. I went back to Fantasy Faire and asked the CM there about the uncovered turret. he pointed it out to me. I had seen it the first time, but as it has now been painted to match the rest of the castle it really no longer stands out. I was hoping it was still unpainted. I started to head to Frontierland but was told that it was not open until later. That threw me for a bit of a loop and left me unsure what to do. I wandered around Fantasyland and headed to Tomorrowland when it hit me. DOH! Kirk does not really feel good about riding Star Tours and I love it. So I did ST and noticed that the queue area - while still essentially the same - seems to have undergone an upgrade. Of course the ride itself is the new "Adventure Continues" version. I was pleased that almost all of the experience I had was of bits I had not yet seen. It started with Darth Vader (the only part I've seen previously), then went to Hoth (very cool), a message from Princess Leia, and a final confrontation with Boba Fett.

Kirk had called just as I was entering the ride and we arranged to meet at Peter Pan with the intention of riding. While waiting I "people watched" and noticed something I had not seen in years - Alice and The Mad Hatter just wandering around unescorted. I don't know if this is a new thing or a Disneyland thing - characters walking around greeting guests with no escorts - at least not visible - but I like it. Once Kirk and I met up at Peter Pan we both were not willing to wait in the 45 minute line and there is no FastPass for PP in Disneyland. Instead we went to Tomorrowland and rode on Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage with a 30 minute wait. I then suggested using the Touring Plans Lines application (I put all the stuff I figured we'd want to do into the app while waiting) and Kirk agreed. Following the apps suggestions we had a pretty successful morning of touring: Splash Mountain (5 minutes) where we noticed several broken animatronic figures in the finale and Kirk got surprisingly wet, Haunted Mansion (walk on - now that WDW has the enhanced version there is no question which is better), Pirates of the Caribbean (5 minutes - the Disneyland version still beats our the WDW version) and The Enchanted Tiki Room (20 minute wait - we enjoyed Dole Whips while waiting). Next up on the plan was the Tangled show, but it was cancelled. "Character issues" according to the CM. The only other thing on the plan was "Mickey and the Magical Map which started at 11:45 (even though the application had the start time at 11:30). So, we meandered over to the theater and watched the show. Mickey and the Magical Map is a cute show and I would add it to you list if you enjoy such things - the "wall of video" technology is particularly cool. I was surprised upon seeing Mickey in the first scene that he did not have the "animated head". When he returned later in the show his head was animated, so I guess it was just malfunctioning in the beginning.

After that we headed over to the other side of the park for a ride on the Mark Twain. We both regretted not noticing that the Sailing Ship Columbia was also making a rare appearance - if we had known we would have waited for that.

We then walked around new Orleans Square for a bit. It was lunch time and we were both pretty hungry. But where to eat? Hmmmm... Oh yes! I almost forgot! We had a 1:15 reservation in a little place at 33 Royale Place. That would do in a pinch!

Yep, by the grace of a very kind member we had secured lunch reservations at Club 33 - the ultimate Disney geek bucket list experience. If you are not familiar with Club 33 I would suggest Googling it. The only concern I had was that we did not know this was going to happen until a few days into our trip and neither of us had really packed appropriate attire. The member who got us the reservation shared the official dress code with us - basically t-shirts and shorts were fine. We walked up to the door and pressed the doorbell button. A hostess greeted us, got my name and let us in. (OK, I admit it, one of the coolest things is the look of envy on the faces of those watching you go in.) As we waited downstairs a few people were leaving - all of them dressed much better than us. But after we boarded the elevator and went up to the dining room it was clear that, while some did indeed dress up, many were just in standard "theme park wear" just like us.

We were seated in the main dining room. There is a second - called the "Disney room" as well. Our server - Steven - took our orders and encouraged us to feel free to explore, take pictures, and ask any questions we wanted. For appetizers there is a small salad and appetizer bar.

I tried a bit of all of the salads - I don't recall if there was two or three, but I do recall that one of them was similar to the salad I had at Carthay Circle. For an entree I had lamb chops which was very good. Kirk had steak which he also said was good. For dessert the was a dessert bar and I had several selections including a coconut macaroon (which was good) and a berry tart (which was not that good). I also had a chocolate covered mini s'mores thingy that was awesome and one other dessert which I don't recall. The total cost was $80 each before tip (pre-fixe) but this is not a meal for which you worry about the price. If the chance comes your way you grab it - which we did. We ended up spending over 2 hours there. Here are a bunch of pics from Club 33 (and yes, this time I remembered to take a pic of my entree!)

Yes,that is the famous Vulture over our heads

Before leaving we looked over the Club 33 merchandise, which is stored in a glass case. Interestingly I had run into +Deb Wills  of – whom I have met on a few occasions – and she was also perusing the merchandise. I made the comment about how everything was available except the member ring. “Well, maybe you can get it” I said. “Oh no,” she replied, “I don’t have that kind of money!” Well, I don’t have that kind of money either but I did have enough to part with ($65) to get a Club 33 logo polo shirt. I also nabbed a few of the hand towels – also bearing the logo – from the bathroom.

After our terrific lunch experience we went back to DCA. I mentioned earlier that, for this trip, a big priority for me was to experience attractions and shows I had not seen before. So, when upon entering DCA we saw "5 Guys and a Dime" (did I get that name right?) performing in Carthay Circle we stopped to watch. Unfortunately we just caught the end of their show but they were a lot of fun. We then headed through Condor Flats where "Minnie's Fly Girls" had just started. We stopped and watched most of the show. Very fun! I love that 40's Andrews Sisters style of harmonizing. Our main goal was to get FPs for Grizzly River run which we did for 7:15 (a bit later than we hoped).

We then headed back to the hotel. I did laundry and went to the pool. Kirk hung in the room and ended up getting a very cool Haunted Mansion pin set he had his eye on. We headed back to the park about 6:00 wearing swimming suits and sandals in anticipation of our ride on Grizzly River. We checked out California Soarin' but at 45 minutes the line was too long so we just walked around the park a bit before our 7:15 FP time. Of course by then the line was not as long as it was earlier in the day (25 minutes) but for us it was a walk-on. And, of course, since we had the foresight to wear bathing suits, we did not get that wet. Of course we did get wet - you can't avoid getting wet at all on GRR - but we did not get drenched. Either way, we headed back to the room changed again, and went to Disneyland.

We got to the park at 8:30 and headed straight to Frontierland to see the 9:00 showing of Fantasmic! Our hope was that we could see the fireworks right after Fantasmic!,  giving us that chance to see World of Color again. Kirk was OK to skip the fireworks and I was OK with seeing them from a sub-optimal viewing place, so long as I got the chance to see them. Anyway, getting back to Fantasmic!, as we arrived last minute we did not get a great viewing area but it was fine. Yes, Fantasmic! is a great show. Were it not for WoC I would say it is the best night time show Disney has to offer. And the Disneyland version is, indeed, superior to WDW. But I'm sorry, IMO it does not hold a candle to WoC.

And sure enough, after Fantasmic!, the voice of Bill Rogers came over the PA system suggesting we stay where we were to watch the fireworks. As a lot of folks left after the show we were able to find a better spot (I asked a cast member where the best viewing was) and enjoy the fireworks with no hassle. No, not the greatest spot to see the fireworks, but at least I was able to see them!

After the fireworks we were both very hungry. And we made the same sort of mistake we had made the night before of going to the first convenient place - in this case the Stage Door Cafe. We both had fish 'n chips. Cold, dry and awful. I should have taken the advice I hear on podcasts and insist they make it fresh but, honestly, I just was not in the mood for the hassle.

We then headed to the other side of the park to check out the wait at Space Mountain. At 60 minutes it was just too long. We agreed we would ride using FPs the next day. Instead we took in some Fantasyland rides: Mr. Toad's Wild Ride (10 minute wait posted, actually 15), Pinocchio's Daring Adventure (no posted wait, actually 5), and Snow White's Scary Adventure (again nothing posted but actually 5). Peter Pan still had a 50 minute wait posted but what I could not for the life of me figure out was Alice in Wonderland's 30 minute wait. Since when was Alice so popular? Perhaps the popularity of the Johnny Depp movie had a residual effect on the ride? It just seemed odd to me.

That was it for our second day in the parks and we headed back to the hotel.

The next morning we packed our bags as we would be changing hotels (in the introduction to this trip I explained why we were on at the Grand Californian for 2 nights). We took the luggage to the car and made it back to the DCA entrance gate in time for Early Entry. Again we headed straight to Carsland. This time we got in the single rider line for Radiator Springs Racers and got on within a few minutes. At first it looked as if Kirk and I may be in cars racing each other but no such luck. One cool thing for me was that, while on my first ride our car was spruced up with new paint, on this ride we got new wheels and tires. After we finished (Kirk's car won, BTW, but mine lost as we had on our first ride), I decided I wanted to ride again but Kirk opted out. Again I went to the single rider line and, while it was a bit longer this time, I still got on in a few minutes. I was seated next to a lady who must have been all of 4'8" and weighed about 80 pounds who, during the final race segment, grabbed onto my arm for dear life while screaming with delight. After the ride finished and she realized she had grabbed me she apologized, to which I told her "no problem". I actually got a kick out of it. Again my car lost.

I met up with Kirk who had gone to Flo's for breakfast. I decided to go to the Cozy Cones and have a breakfast cone: scrambled eggs cheese and bacon in a cone-shaped bagel. It was OK but the eggs were a bit runny. Kirk said that the breakfast as Flo's - especially the eggs - was quite good.

We wanted to get FPs for the 9:00 showing of World of Color so we headed toward Grizzly River, where they are distributed. On the way Kirk decided to ride Little Mermaid Ariel's Undersea Adventure. I have never been on this attraction and The Little Mermaid is one of my favorite movies, but I have a standing promise with my younger daughter that I will not ride on it until we can do it together (either at Disneyland of WDW). So, I took Kirks pass and got FPs for us both. On the way back I saw that Soarin' over California had a short wait so I did that, even though the wait was a bit longer than I expected. Still, I got row one (although on the side).

We left DCA a little after 9:00 and headed to Disneyland. First this was to get FPs for Space Mountain, which we did (11;15). We then took a quick ride on the monorail after which we headed to Fantasyland to see some of the things we had missed. the line for Peter Pan was still prohibitively long, but Alice had a posted wait of 10 minutes and we figured it would not get any better so we did it. I told Kirk about the "Half a cup of tea" segment that was removed during the 1982 Fantasyland refurb in order to expand Peter Pan. And while riding I could see the section of track that headed off to a part of the ride that was now gone. After Alice we did It's a Small World which was a walk on. I really think the Disneyland version is superior to the WDW version (although I'm honestly not crazy about either). I should mention hear that one thing Kirk really wanted to do was to experience all of the attractions that had been in the 1964 World's Fair, hence the desire to go on It's a Small World.

We then went to Tomorrowland where I get a FP for Star Tours and we headed over to Space Mountain to ride using our FPs. Wow. Space Mountain gets the gold star for Most Improved Attraction. The track is much smoother and the music track is a terrific addition. Kudos. I always loved this attraction - and the Disneyland version is better than the WDW version IMO - but now there's even more to love.

I wanted to see the Iron Man exhibit at Innoventions so we spent a few minutes there. After that we hopped on the Disneyland Railroad so we could see the Grand Canyon Diorama (another World's Fair attraction). We stopped at the Toontown station and walked to Fantasy Faire so we could see Tangled. Unfortunately the theater was full but we were able to watch from outside. Upon watching I confirmed that, of the two shows, this was the one that I had heard about that sounded like the most fun. Good thing too, because I would not get a chance to see beauty and the Beast. maybe next time. Still, Tangled was a very cute show and the conceit of having 2 performers play pretty much all the parts (except Rapunzel and Flynn Rider) was very entertaining.

After Tangled I went on Star Tours using my FP while Kirk went back to Pirates of the Caribbean.

After that we headed back to DCA for lunch (don't you just love how park hopping at Disneyland Resort is so easy?) I went to Flo's and Kirk went to get a chili dog. I had a citrus turkey salad at Flo's for $11.50 which was quite good - but where was the citrus? I tasted a hint now and then but there was none in the salad. I realized it was probably that the turkey was somehow cooked with citrus. I toyed with having a milk shake - mostly because I wanted the cool souvenir glass - but I didn't because a) at $9.59 with the glass it seemed a bit much when what I wanted mostly was just the glass and b) I didn't want all the extra calories for what would likely be a mediocre shake. (I have a policy regarding ice cream. I love ice cream, but unless it's Haagen Dazs - or maybe Cold Stone Creamery or Ben & Jerry's - I just don't think it's worth the calories. This is why - horrors! - I generally do not get Mickey Bars)

I had expected Kirk to join me at the outdoor seating with the wonderful view of Ornament Valley, but he never showed. As I waited I noticed one of the souvenir glasses sitting on top of a trash can. A cast member asked if it belonged to anyone and nobody spoke up. I told him I was wondering why it was there and he offered to wash it and give it to me. I took him up on it and got one of the cool glasses for free. Kirk finally arrive quit a bit later, apologizing and telling me that he was delayed by a passing parade. No worries, as I had a wonderful time enjoying the view and the beautiful day. I told him about how I scored the free glass and he mentioned that he was going to buy a shake to get the glass. I told him he could have mine. "Are you sure?" he asked. I said that, as he was willing to pay the price for the glass and I hadn't been, he must want it more so I figured he should have it.

We left DCA and drove to our final hotel - the Anaheim Marriot - and checked in. Nothing major to report here - it's a Marriot. Once again I went to the pool while Kirk relaxed in the room (Kirk was a bit concerned about sun exposure). One thing about the Marriot, it has an unusual pool with half of it being covered (it goes underneath the building). In fact, when I saw the pool I realized I had stayed there before years ago. It has been refurb’d since and is much nicer now.

Since my DVC free parking was still good we drove back to The Grand Californian and parked there. We went back to DCA to see the lights come on in Carsland. I asked a cast member if he know what time the lights would come on and he said "7:49". OK, well that was specific enough. We had some time to kill and we were hungry so we headed over to Cocina Cucamonga. Cucamonga. Every time I hear that word, in my mind I hear Bugs' Bunny. "CUCamonga!" Anyway, I digress. I wish I could tell you what we had, what it cost and what my thoughts were - but I forgot to take notes. Sorry. I do seem to recall it was pretty good - certainly much better than Rancho del Zocolo.

I finished before Kirk (not unusual) and I was a bit worried about missing the lights so I headed over to Route 66 and got a perfect spot right at the entrance. There were a few other folks waiting as well, After a few minutes the lights came on and, while this is not something I would call a "highlight", I would say that it is worth doing if you can. I found Kirk right after, he had gotten there in time too.

OK, so, here is what we hoped to do with the rest of the evening in DCA. I really wanted to see Radiator Springs Racers at night. We had 9:00 FPs for World of Color. And we wanted to go back to Disneyland after DCA closed. So we headed to Radiator Springs Racers to check out the single rider line. 45 minutes (the stand by line was 3 hours). It was now 7:57. It wasn't dark but probably would be by the time we got through the line. So, in order for us to get to see the ride at night and make World of Color, the line would have to be pretty much exactly 45 minutes. And single rider line waits are notoriously unpredictable. And no break downs (so far in that regard we had been lucky). Everything would have to fall into place perfectly - and how often does that happen? OK, let's go for it. We got in the single rider line. At first it looked like it may have been a mistake. But, in the end, the line was 42 minutes long, we got to ride it at night (very cool, an entirely different experience), we made it to World of Color (Blue section) and the show started 2 minutes later. Woohoo!

After that Kirk and I decided to split up as he wanted to go back to Disneyland to go on Haunted Mansion and Pirates again (Kirk has a policy of doing those attractions every day he is in the park if he can) while I just wanted to walk around and take in the sights. So Kirk headed to Disneyland while I strolled around Carsland and Buena Vista Street. Just as the park was closing I followed one of the Trolleys down Hollywood Blvd. with the hopes of catching a ride and I was able to hop on the last run of the night. I then bid adieu to DCA and headed back to Disneyland.

I was able to stroll around a bit taking in the sights - especially on Main Street - looking in the shops and enjoying the sights, sounds and smells.  Eventually I actually decided I would do 2 more attractions - Captain EO and Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters. Captain EO was even cheesier than I had remembered, and now it has the added benefit of being extremely dated. Buzz Lightyear was fun and I got a decent score (mostly thanks to the ride stopping with the guns still activated). Kirk and I reconnected in Disneyland. He told me that the line at Pirates was too long so he went to Haunted Mansion was a walk-on. He then went back to Pirates where the line had died down. Kirk wanted to go on Space Mountain again, while, again, I wanted to just walk around and head back to the hotel.

One thing I did that ended up being a bit of a mistake was to forget about my previously stated ice cream rule and go to Gibson Girl for a sundae on my way out. Now, what I wanted was hot fudge sundae. I saw the concoction on their menu and that was not really what I wanted. I went to the cast member and said "all I want is a plain hot fudge sundae with nuts. Can I get that?" Well, she said "Yes" with such conviction I thought she knew what I meant. What I got was the messy concoction with cookies and a mound of dripping whipped cream piled on top. I told the server "I just want a plain hot fudge sundae." "This is how we make it" I was told. So I took it and it started immediately melting. Seriously, how do people eat these things? First I threw out the cookies. Then I tried to take a bite but the whipped cream was melting all over my hand and falling over. And I had barely made it out onto the street! Then came the last straw - a glob of fudge fell on what is one of my favorite t-shirts. I had had enough. I took it back and said I didn't want it and asked for a napkin with water, which they provided. A CM behind the counter asked what was the matter and I told him To their credit they made me another - this time with the hot fudge even in a separate cup.

And it was good.

Well, that was it for us in terms of park touring. I went back to the hotel to get some much needed shut-eye, Kirk arrived later after riding Space Mountain, but that was pretty much it.

For Thursday the 8th - the day between our 3 days at the parks and the 3 days of the D23 Expo - we had debated quite a bit on what to do. I suppose we could have added a day to our park tickets and that wouldn't have cost too much. There were a lot of things we missed including the Beauty and the Beast Fantasy Faire show as well as some other street performers. We also missed some of our usual "must rides" like The Indiana Jones Adventure, The Matterhorn Bobsleds, Toy Story Midway Mania and Peter Pan Flight. And Kirk never got to complete his 1964 World's Fair tour because he missed out on Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln. But in the end a fourth day in the parks was never really brought up as an option. We had originally intended to do a "Walk in Walt's Footsteps" tour much like the one Nancy Johnson had outlined on the DIS podcast. We were also seriously toying with doing a day at Knott's Berry Farm. In the ended we decided to do... nothing.

We did sleep in (for the first and only time on the trip). I went for a run. We had to deal with some issues with the door. (The night before I came back before Kirk as I mentioned. After getting ready for bed I went to get some ice. And the door would not open. I tried and tried and ultimately called the front desk. I sat there in my boxer shorts waiting for security to come by to open the door, which they eventually did. Ultimately they had to replace the entire mechanism).

I wanted to go to the pool but the trouble with the door did away with that idea. Instead we walked to Downtown Disney for lunch at the Earl of  Sandwich. I had heard good things about this place and we wanted to check it out. We were not disappointed. We both ordered the Chipotle Chicken Avocado and it was delicious.

Hulk Smash!

We then walked around Downtown Disney for a while before meeting up with a bunch of folks from the +The DIS . We all met at The Hearthstone Lounge outdoor area. There were about 30 or 40 people there. I was able to chat with +Tom Bell , +Mary Jo Mellado Willey , Wayne Tiogo, Michael Bowling, +Craig Williams  (who was visiting from the Orlando team) and a lovely woman named Lisa as well as a few others. It was a blast!

Tom Bell, Kirk, Me, Mary Jo Mellado and Michael Bowling. Thanks to Wayne for taking the picture!

I would have loved to stay longer but we had a dinner engagement with my brother Mike and hs wife Evelyn. We met at a very nice Mexican restaurant in Old Orange called Gabbis. I love Old Orange and the restaurant was quite charming, but I have to say i was not crazy about the food. It was good, but honestly I prefer my Mexican food more traditional. But the company was great, and I had a margarita, so I can't complain!

After dinner I dropped Kirk off at the hotel and I went back to the Disneyland Hotel to go to Trader Sam’s. I was hoping maybe some of the podcast folks might be there but no such luck. Still, I had a Krakatoa Punch which, while a bit fruitier than I normally like, was quite good. And the souvenir mug was awesome! Hanging out at Trader Sam’s and watching all the goings-on was a blast.

Well that's it. next up is the D23 Expo! I hoped to be able to do this segment as well as the Expo segment by this week-end, but this took a lot longer to write than I expected. At any rate, I will have that up within a few days so stay tuned! And like me on Facebook, follow me on Twitter or follow my blog if you want to get updates.

John and Kirk's Epic Trip Our West:

Intro and Planning
Part 1: Las Vegas and San Diego
Part 2: Disneyland Resort
Part 3: D23 Expo

Friday, August 16, 2013

John & Kirk's Epic trip out west: Part 1 - Las Vegas and San Diego (and Rancho Cucamonga)

The trip threatened to get off to a very bumpy start - at least for me. I went into Manhattan to work from my mid-town office with the intention of catching s shuttle bus around 2:00 for Newark Airport. My with Andie kindly offered to take my (very large) bag with her to her office which happens to be very closes to where I needed to catch the bus. When I finished working for the day I met her at the bus stop and she gave me my bag. I just missed a bus. "No biggie" I thought, as there would be another bus soon and I was leaving with ample time to account for traffic. Then the bus was late. Again no big deal, still plenty of time. I boarded the bus and we drove to the Lincoln Tunnel. There we waited. And waited. And waited. After about an hour it was clear there was something amiss. As it turned out there was an overturned truck in the tunnel and the tunnel was completely closed down. And traffic was at a complete stand still. This did not look good. When we were basically in the same spot at 4:30 I figured there was no way I was making my 6:30 flight. Well, the gods smiled down on my, the seas parted (as did the traffic), the tunnel re-opened and I made it to the gate with time to spare.

The flight itself was completely uneventful. Then I went to pick up my bag. I went to the baggage carousel and waited. And waited. And waited. No bag. Now, remember, I was not planning to stay in the area. I was leaving on a shuttle that night to Rancho Cucamonga (about an hour away). So I went to the lost bag desk and got in line. And waited. And waited. And waited. Finally, after about an hour I got to the desk where I was promptly informed that my bag was on the carousel. And it was. Why I didn't see it was completely beyond me. Oh well. Finally, bag in tow, I went to catch the shuttle. The company promised pickup in 15-20 minutes. Well, an hour later my shuttle finally arrived. *sigh* To add insult to injury I was the last stop for the shuttle. I finally arrived in Rancho Cucamonga at about 1 AM. But who cares! The vacation has officially begun! Kirk and I stayed up and visited for a bit, but we were both bushed so we called it a night soon enough.

I should mention here that I am a runner. I ran my first race - the Walt Disney World Half Marathon - in January of this year. Since then I have run 3 more half marathons and a few 5Ks and 10Ks. I am now training for my first full marathon which I plan to do in November. I try not to let my vacations get in the way of training, so during this report I may mention on certain days that I went for a run. Without boring most readers with the details, I will point out that the training consists of "short" (in my case, 45 minute) runs and weekly "long" runs of anywhere from 4 or 5 miles to 13 or 14 miles. I also cross train with core and strength training (although my strength training has been waylaid by a fractured left elbow). Anyway, Thursday morning I woke up early and went on a very pleasant short run through Rancho Cucamonga.

After I got back we got ready to leave, had the font desk call a cab for us and went to Budget Rental Car to pick up our car - a Mazda 3. The car was fine except they did not fill up the windshield washer fluid which was annoying. Kirk and I drove to the neighborhood where we met and did a quick tour of our old stomping grounds, checking out some things that were relatively unchanged and others that had changed quite a bit.

We then hopped on I15 and headed out to Vegas. We stopped in the town of Baker for gas, noticing that there were several eating establishments there. Even though it was past lunch time and we were both hungry, we had already decided we would stop at Buffalo Bill's in Primm right on the border to Nevada. On our last trip to Vegas we did this and had a good time, especially riding the monster roller coaster "Desperado". Mistake. We may have enjoyed Primm on our last trip but not this time. First of all, neither of us really felt like riding the coaster. When we walked in Buffalo Bill's we were struck by the place's foul, musty smell. The food court was completely uninviting, so we went to the Primm Casino instead. The odor in the Primm was not much better. But we were hungry so we went to the buffet for lunch. It was not horrible, but that's about as positive as I can be. We decided that, should there be a "next time", we would stop in Baker for lunch and breeze right through Primm.

We arrived in Vegas in the afternoon and checked into the Aria. Boasting over 4,000 rooms, The Aria is, I believe, the largest hotel in the new City Center complex in Vegas. They tout themselves as the only hotel/casino in City Center, which I found confusing because The Cosmopolitan is also a hotel/casino. Turns out The Cosmopolitan, although right next to City Center, is not actually part of City Center. At any rate, The Aria is a huge hotel/casino that is part of a truly enormous City Center complex.

After parking in self-parking we made out way to the front desk. This is a very long walk that winds a rather circuitous path through the massive casino complex. In fact, it seemed to me that the front desk is as far from self-parking as possible. Like most Vegas hotel/casinos, The Aria does not really have an impressive lobby since the casino area serves more or less as a lobby. That said, the hotel's decorating scheme begins at the check-in area with dark woods, simple lines and lots of interesting textures. The modern design is reminiscent of many newer hotels, like The W and even, from what I've seen, Bay Lake Towers in WDW. While the style is clean and attractive, it is also perhaps a bit cold.

This design theme continued to the room, which was quite spacious. When we entered the room the curtain automatically opened, revealing an impressive Las Vegas Strip view - a nice touch. Speaking of that, while the view from our room was nice, I have to say that the configuration and position of the hotel makes me think that most of the rooms don't have much of a view. At least not a view of the Strip. Of course I can't confirm this, but it looked that way to me. And while, like the rest of the hotel, the room was clean, well appointed and tastefully decorated, it was also a bit, well, odd. As an example, in the bathroom there was a frosted glass wall and door separating the toilet area from the rest of the bathroom. OK, this looked pretty interesting but for all practical purposes it was useless. How shall I put this? Unless you are... let's see... comfortable enough with the person with whom you are sharing the bath to use the toilet with no wall at all, then this frosted glass wall makes no difference at all. You are still going to want to be the only one in the bath as you, uh, take care of business.

In addition to the odd glass wall I noticed the lack of towel rings. OK, I get it, towel rings ruin the aesthetic you are going for. But you know what? I have damp towels and I need to hang them on something. Annoying. And speaking of annoying, can hotels please start using safes that are big enough to hold a large laptop? Not a single one of the five hotels we stayed in on this trip - including the Aria - could fit my laptop. And the safe at the Aria I think was the biggest I encountered on this trip. In addition to large safes, most hotels, especially higher end hotels it seems to me, refuse to provide free wifi. This is another thing I find aggravating. I think that we are going to start seeing more free wifi in hotels in the future, though. At least I hope so.

On the good side, the shower was large and very nice and the beds were comfortable. Kirk reported that he did not like the pillows but I had no issues with them. Overall the room was quite nice and comfortable. Only minor complaints there.

Once you leave the room is when the complaints start. There are issues may have seemed very insignificant when taken individually, but I had the feeling that they informed larger problems. First, there are the little details. These are the things that you only notice when they're not right. An example was they had towel bin at the pool which was a large plastic bin with "Aria" scrawled on it in indelible ink by what appeared to be a three year-old. Speaking of the pool, or pools really, I was unimpressed. There are several pools with their own pool areas, and each of them is unimpressive. None are very large nor do they boast interesting landscaping or theme-ing. And the pools were too warm and the spas were not hot enough. A resort of this size should do much better. And finally, the staff. The staff at the Aria were actually quite pleasant to deal with, but there were little things that indicated what I suspect is a lack of proper training. One case in point: I asked where the pool was and I was told "The Second Floor". OK. I went to the elevator - no "Second Floor". I actually asked a guest who informed me it was on the "Promenade" level. Look, if the elevator says "Promenade", then call it "Promenade". You and the other folks that work there may call it "The Second Floor" but the guests have no way of knowing that.

Finally, housekeeping took Kirk's phone charger. Of course I don't think they intentionally took it - that would be silly. Rather I suspect they unplugged his charger when they plugged in the vacuum and inadvertently took it with them when they left. He didn't notice until we were ready to leave and we tore the place apart looking for it. Kirk called security who said they would call after the housekeeping crew came in "at 11" (this after the housekeeping manager said that the crew comes in at 9). By 11 we would be well on our way so Kirk just bought another charger. And they never did call.

So, no, we were not impressed with The Aria.

On that first night in Vegas we met 2 of my brothers - younger brother Todd and older brother Norm - for dinner. They had requested someplace "not too expensive" (no problem for me), so we went to an upscale burger place in The Cosmopolitan called "Holsteins" (a horrible name, but better than what I originally thought it was - "Heifers"). It's a cute place with a funky decor which predominately features the restaurant's cartoon cow mascot. We were seated in a large banquette which was, honestly, not conducive to conversation. We were seated 4 across with me and Kirk on the ends and Todd and Norm in the middle. As a result Kirk and Todd talked to each other mostly while Norm and I talked.

I had "The Classic" (a basic burger - $14) and 2 Guiness ($8.50 each!), Kirk had "The Longhorn" ($16) and a Diet Coke ($3), Todd had a quesadilla ($15.50) and Norm had a salad ($13). I also had onion rings, which I ordered specifically because I thought I read that they were beer-battered. They were not. Our total bill came to $91 before tip. The food was... OK. I would expect an exceptional burger for $14, and I can honestly say that the In-N-Out Burger I had on the last day of the trip was much better for less than a third the price. Of course comparing any burger to In-N-Out is not fair, but still... Kirk has the same impression. just OK. At least there was no exceptional food to get in the way of the conversation. I would not recommend Holstein unless you are dying for a burger and are right there.

As we had a $100 resort credit for the Aria, Kirk and I also ate at two restaurants there. We had much better luck with The Aria restaurants.

First, we had pizza at "Five 50". It was a good, rustic pizza. (Forgive me for not having pictures of the food, I am not in the habit of taking "food porn" shots. I always think of it after eating.) We split a 16" pizza with mushrooms, half pepperoni and half sausage. It was quite good. Although it looked too big for use to be able to finish the the whole thing, we managed. We also ate at a high-end Mexican restaurant called "Javier's". This would turn out to be, perhaps, the best meal of the trip. Kirk and I both ordered a Chile Relleno/Taco/Enchilada combination. (I only wanted the chile relleno and taco, but our server told me it would be cheaper to get the combo so I did. I did not regret this as the portions were not large.) The chile relleno was excellent, though a bit on the small side. The enchilada was good and the taco - the hard shell variety using a shell made from home made tortilla - was perhaps the best hard shell taco I have ever had. Also, instead of the usual pinto or black beans they served some sort of yellow refried beans - and they were delicious! The combos were $22 each. The food was excellent. I can't say the same for the drinks. I had 2 specialty margaritas - cucumber and pomegranate. Both were good but way too strong. And I don't mean booze strong - I mean taste strong. Almost thick and syrupy.I know this sounds like sacrilege, but I actually watered them down after a few sips. The margaritas were $15 each and Kirk had Diet Coke in tiny bottles for $5 each. Obviously they make their money off the drinks. The total bill was $90 before tip.

On Friday morning I got up for a run and ran down Las Vegas Blvd. By pure chance, and almost exactly the halfway point, I ended up near a pretty famous sign. I stopped to look and luckily there was someone there willing to take my picture:

On the DIS Unplugged podcast we discussed things to do while in Vegas. One thing we discussed was a zip-line through downtown Vegas. That sounded awesome - but unfortunately it is no longer available. Another idea was Cirque du Soliel, but the only one Kirk was interested in was "One" (featuring the music of Michael Jackson) which I had no desire to see - mostly due to the fact that, as it had recently opened, all tickets were full price. So, we decided to skip it. We actually ended up doing the same thing I had done with my family on our last trip to Vegas - Red Rock Canyon. Red Rock Canyon is a National Park just outside of Vegas - about 30 minutes from the Strip. In fact, when you drive out there you find yourself thinking that it couldn't be that close because you are driving through residential neighborhoods right up until the last couple of miles.

We were both a bit concerned about walking around in the 100 degree-plus temperatures, but the park is mostly organized in a loop where you drive from one site to another. You can get out and go for long hikes - but you don't have to. Even still, while we expected to stay there an hour or two and we were there all afternoon. I can not recommend this side trip enough.

Here are some pictures from Red Rock - hard to believe this is only about 30 minutes from the Strip.

I know what your burning question is: did we gamble while in Vegas? Yes. About an hour of video poker. Kirk lost $15 and I won $40.

On Saturday (August 3) we checked out of the Aria and drove to San Diego. Along the way we stopped in Baker to have lunch at one of the fine dining establishments that you can find in the West but not where either of us live: Jack in the Box. We both ordered their unique tacos (2 for $1!) and I had onion rings as well, which are also unique. Jack in the Box make their tacos by deep frying the taco shell and beef and then stuffing it with a half slice of american cheese, lettuce and sauce. Definitely a one-of-a-kind taste (thankfully, some would say I'm sure).

Alas, their deep fried apple turnover is no longer on their menu (or else I would have ordered one of those bad boys in a heartbeat!)

We arrived in San Diego just in time to check in to the hotel and get to the game. As I mentioned in the intro blog entry, I am a Yankees fan and, as serendipity would have it, the Padres played the Yankees this weekend. We stayed at the Bayfront Hilton. Nothing in particular to report here - it's a fairly typical and serviceable Hilton. the room was a bit smaller than the room at The Aria. And the view of the docs - with a Dole Pineapple shipment unloading - was less impressive. We found ourselves wondering if any of those containers were filled with Dole Whip.

Dole Whip anyone?

PetCo Park- where the Padres play - is a beautiful park (even though Kirk, who owns a small boutique pet supply store, was none too happy about being in a stadium named after his arch nemesis). The game was excellent except for the sun being directly in our eyes for the first half. It started out as a real pitchers duel through the 6th with Ivan Nova matching the Padres pitcher Tyson Ross 0 for 0. Then, in the seventh, Granderson hit a 2-run homer scoring himself and Soriano. Granderson would score again in the 9th. Nova pitched 7 shut-out innings with Robertson pitching a scoreless 8th and Mariano coming in for the save. The final score was 3-0 Yankees. The Rivera save was particularly satisfying because in the only game I had seen this season - Rivera's final season - he not only blew the save but lost the game. Kirk and also never seen the future Hall of Famer pitch and this would be his one chance. A great game all around.

On the podcast, Tony suggested we check out the Gaslamp Quarter, so after the game we did just that. The joint was jumping. It's a really cool part of town with lots of clubs and restaurants. Kirk had a hankering for some sort of seafood soup or bisque, and we ended up at The Palm which served a very good Lobster Bisque. I also had an excellent salad (like a Caesar but not) and a glass of very good pinot grigio. It definitely hit the spot. About $50 before tip.

The next morning (Sunday) I went down to use the hotels decent gym and then tried to get a cup of coffee at Starbucks but it was way too crowded. Instead we left - I figured I could get coffee on the road. Our destination was Old Town San Diego. Interestingly this was not one of the recommendations from the podcast, but I did hear about it from another episode of the podcast. Once we got there I went to the bar at Casa Reyes - which is located right in the center of Old Town - where I was finally able to get a cup of coffee. Not a great cup of coffee, but at least it dispelled the caffeine headache.

After walking around Old Town a bit we had lunch at Casa Reyes. We both had tamales - which were huge. I wish I could say the food was amazing, but honestly it wasn't. It was fine, but not great. The tamales were huge as I said, but not memorable. Neither of us finished ours. And the refried beans were pretty ordinary.

After lunch we decided to walk to the Presidio. Mistake. I'm not saying going to the Presidio was a mistake - walking there was. It was difficult to find as we could not find a clearly marked path and we doubled back several times. If you want to go there, drive. Still, it was very pretty, just not worth the effort we put in to getting there. While there we asked about the Mission and we were told that, while the Presidio location was the original location of the Mission, it had since been moved to another location.


Once we walked back to Old Town we decided that, as the Mission that exists now is not the original, we would skip it and instead look around Old Town some more. I was glad we did as Old Town is very interesting with some wonderful little shops and museums (including a cool little Wells Fargo museum).

After returning to the hotel and resting up at the pool (for me) and in the room (for Kirk) we decided to head out to Belmont Park and The Big Dipper roller coaster. This was another of Tony's recommendations. And if this had been about 20 years ago it probably would have been a good one. But for us, it just didn't really have much to offer. 2 good things did come out of it, however. First, it was our one and only opportunity to check out that beach. Although admittedly all we did was check it out, as we stood on the boardwalk for a few minutes and looked out to the ocean. Also, Belmont Park has a "Hot Dog on a Stick". This little franchise in ubiquitous in Southern California malls but I have never seen one anywhere else. I had a corn dog and a lemonade. It definitely took my right back to the SoCal mall experience...

The lobster bisque at The Palm in the Gaslamp Quarter was such a hit we decided to go there again. We headed back to the hotel pretty early as we would be leaving early the next day for Disneyland. One thing I like to indulge in is the occasional cigar (preferably with scotch). The Hilton is a non-smoking hotel but they did have a nice little smoking area with seating, so I went there. Now, it obviously takes a lot longer to smoke a cigar than a cigarette, so as I set there several cigarette smokers came and went. I thoroughly enjoyed speaking with them. First was a young Italian mother living in France. She spoke several languages, but her English was very rough. Still, we managed to have a pleasant conversation. She left and was replaced by a young woman from England of Scottish decent, with whom I discussed accents. Finally was a Turkish gentleman who I chatted with for a few minutes before it was time for me to leave. It was a very pleasant finish to a fun couple of days in Vegas and San Diego.

I know that most of you reading this are probably most interested in hearing about Disneyland and especially D23, but I wanted to write them in chronological order. I hope to have the rest done by the end of this weekend, so stay posted! And if you want to get updates when I post entries, friend me on Facebook or follow me on Twitter or add me to your Google+ circles (link below).

Next up: Disneyland!

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

John & Kirk's Epic trip out west: Intro and planning

OK so this was an epic trip. There's no other way to put it. A 12-day whirlwind of activity culminating in the ultimate Disney event and including some interesting surprises and more than one fortuitous happenstance. In fact this trip could have been titled "A Series of Fortunate Events". But I get ahead of myself...

First, this is another entry in the on-going saga of my friendship with Kirk that goes back more than 45 years. I will not get into details here, but you can read about our previous adventures HERE.

James Michener wrote that if you want to understand the history of Texas, you have to go back to the dinosaurs. Well, to understand this trip you don't have to go quite that far back, but you do need to go back 2 years to September 2011. That was when D23, the official Disney fan club, held there second bi-annual expo in Anaheim, CA. I read all about the expo online, saw pictures and videos, and read blogs and reports, and I made myself a promise that I would be there for the next one. And of all the people I know, besides perhaps the youngest of my 2 daughters (who is never available that time of year), I knew that the person I wanted to share the experience with my old buddy Kirk. And so it happened that, about 2 years ago, I called him up and said "Dude, we are going!"

As the date got closer we started expanding on our plans. Naturally we would have to spend a few days at Disneyland. That went without saying. A quick visit to Las Vegas also seemed appropriate - especially since 2 of my brothers - neither of whom I had seen in a couple of years - both live there.Then Kirk mentioned that he had never been to San Diego and always wanted to go there. Another thing Kirk and I like to do is go to MLB games, so I looked up the schedule for the Padres. And wouldn't you know it? The Padres played the Yankees (I'm a Yankees fan) on the weekend before the expo. All the pieces were falling into place. Finally, I decided to book the flight using frequent flyer miles. Because of the limitations on when I could fly using points the trip ended up even a bit longer. So, here is our final itinerary:

  • Tuesday July 30 - Kirk flies to Ontario, CA, booking a hotel in Rancho Cucamonga using points. (Kirk and I met in Rancho Cucamonga - previously Alta Loma - and Kirk grew up there. He wanted to spend a day visiting his old stomping grounds).
  • Wednesday July 31 - I fly into LAX and take a shuttle to Rancho Cucamonga. (Originally I was going to spend the first night near LAX and rent a car the next morning, but I saved abou $150 by canceling the hotel and staying with Kirk in Rancho Cucamonga, and even more important I saved over $300 by changing my car pickup to Ontario Airport. And yes, I was still dropping off at LAX.)
  • Thursday August 1 - drive to Las Vegas for 2 nights at the Aria. I would pay for this in cash, about $400 total but with a $100 resort credit.
  • Saturday August 3 - drive to San Diego for 2 nights at the Hilton Bayfront. Again, Kirk paid with points.
  • Monday August 5 - drive to Anaheim for 2 nights at the Best Western Inn and Park Place Suites, again me paying with cash. This hotel is located on Harbor Blvd. right at the entrance to Disneyland.
  • 3 days visiting Disneyland.
  • Wednesday August 7 - switch to the Marriot Anaheim for 5 nights - again with Kirk using points. Originally we were going to do 3 nights at the Best Western and 4 nights at the Marriot, but when Kirk called to make the reservation they gave him the 5th night for free. This would be the first in a long string of happy surprises on this trip.
  • August 9 to 11 - D23 Expo.
  • Monday August 12 - Night flights home for us both.

OK, everything was set.

As part of my planning for this trip specifically, as well as just something I do for fun, I listen to the DIS Unplugged Disneyland Edition podcast. Over the years I feel like I've gotten to know Tom, Nancy, Tony, Mary Jo, Wayne (who has left) and more recently Michael. Now, a while back they did a series of podcasts where they helped a Walt Disney World veteran plan her Disneyland visit. While doing these shows they asked for other folks to write in if they wanted help with their trips. I thought that would be fun, but I assumed they were looking for folks with families and that they would not be interested in a couple of men-of-a-certain-age planning a trip out west. Tom kept asking for, as he said, "victims - I mean - volunteers" so I thought "why not" and I wrote in. Well, a few weeks later Tom invited me on to the show and I had the distinct pleasure of being a guest on one of my favorite podcasts.

OK, so at the beginning of this I wrote that you could read about the on-going saga of my friendship with Kirk. If you are interested in the whole story, which I do not write about in this blog, I suggest you listen to the podcast. There are 2 episodes as of this writing. You can find the first, where I tell the story of our friendship (which is, if I do say so, pretty intriguing) HERE and the second HERE. There will be a third later where I recap our trip, and I will post a link to that when I have it.

One more thing before I get into the meat of the report. As I mentioned we had a reservation for 2 nights at the Best Western Park Place Suites. Well, I had also put in a waitlist request for The Villas Disney's Grand Californian, a Disney Vacation Club property (I am a DVC member). I was told in no uncertain terms that I should not expect to get the waitlist request fulfilled. As it would turn out, I found out about a week before our departure that our request had been fulfilled. So I cancelled the Best Western because we were staying at The Grand Californian! (And using DVC points so there would be no cash layout.) Another fortuitous event.

Next up: Las Vegas and San Diego

John and Kirk's Epic Trip Our West:

Intro and Planning
Part 1: Las Vegas and San Diego
Part 2: Disneyland Resort
Part 3: D23 Expo

Thursday, July 4, 2013

John gets interviewed on a Disneyland podcast!

On July 1st I was interviewed on the DIS Unplugged Disneyland edition podcast. The show was uploaded on July 4th. It was a lot of fun! My thanks to the DID Unplugged crew Tom, Mary Jo, Nancy, Tony and Michael. You can listen to the podcast here. Check it out!