Sunday, September 13, 2009

Postscript

Those of you who read my Wombat in Anaheim trip report know that my July trip was spurred by the Vocal Majority men's chorus performing and competing at the Barbershop Harmony Society's International Convention in Anaheim. Well, the VM just had our Fall Shows this weekend back in the Dallas area, and our guest quartet was... The Humdingers!

You may not have heard of the Humdingers, but that's because their everyday employer owns the name they normally use. You see, these dapper men perform everyday on Main Street at a very popular Orlando-area theme park!!!

Yep, we had the Dapper Dans of Walt Disney World for our shows (oops, did I just use their real name?), and they were hilarious! And here's a picture of me with the group that I will treasure for a long time:

Friday, August 21, 2009

Epilogue

It’s now August, of course. Hey, it took me less than seven weeks to finish the trip report this time, unlike the four months it took for my last trip!
It’s always a bit of a mind-bender to write these reports in “real time,” but weeks after the fact, if you know what I mean. I have to put myself back into my mindset as it was at the time, even though there have been further developments since the trip. If you’re interested, here is a wrap-up of a few things:

Facebook was a new feature of this trip, both in posting my activities there and being able to keep track of others in the chorus. I didn’t realize how much my trip was being followed, though, until I got back and found that every Facebook status update I made was being faithfully copied into a thread on StupidGuestTricks.com for my Disney “family” to follow along there. I was both honored by the attention, and a little worried that they had so little happening in their own lives that they could spend so much time tracking mine!

My asthma really was worse than it ever had been. After our return, it ended up taking about ten days, two doctor visits, three different steroids (one in pill form, one inhaled, and one injected), one additional prescription med, and maximum inhaler use until it cleared up. They all worked, though; since then, my breathing has been back to normal.

My parents and aunt and uncle all made it home safely about a week after our return, having driven to some amazing natural wonders in Utah and Colorado. My parents just celebrated their actual 50th anniversary last Friday. (Yay Mom & Dad!)

Highlights on the trip for me were these: singing around the pool with my VM brothers, dining at Club 33 – what a treat! – and riding the Tower of Terror for the first time. And, of course, getting to spend time and share these experiences with my family was wonderful as always.

Lowlights – are pretty obvious: scoring higher than any chorus in history (to that point) and still only getting the silver medal, and the exhaustion/asthma attack that slowed me down so much in the second half of the trip. Oh, and I didn’t get to see Mickey, except once from a distance!

The Vocal Majority’s silver medal has taken a lot of getting used to by our chorus. We’re still happy for the Ambassadors of Harmony (you can see there amazing gold-medal performance here), but even seven weeks later it’s hard to get our brains wrapped around the concept of the Vocal Majority losing. That’s what happens, I guess, after a three-decade winning streak! (One wag recommending adopting as our slogan for the coming year: “VM Gold in 2010: Because Second Place Sucks!”)

Still, after taking off the remainder of July, the chorus is back rehearsing and more pumped than ever about the coming year. The attitude, the VM work ethic, continues to be, “Hey, we’re proud of what we’ve done. But that’s behind us – now let’s get better.” And that is exactly what we’re working to do. (And a good thing, too – we may have to score all 100’s to ensure a win!)

Oh, one more thing – the Disney / Vocal Majority connection that had me all excited about this trip in the first place? It’s happening again, although in reverse and on a slightly smaller scale:

We’re rehearsing now for our Fall show series, and our guest quartet will be: the Humdingers!!!

Okay, you’re not excited, I can tell. But that’s just because the “Humdingers” name is not as well known as the name they usually perform under. You see, their typical workplace is Main Street U.S.A. in the Magic Kingdom, Walt Disney World. Disney owns the name of their barbershop quartet, so they use the Humdingers everywhere else that they perform.
Yep. The Dapper Dans are on the Vocal Majority fall shows! (Tickets are available here!)
The VM has a full calendar of shows over the next year, plus competition at the District level in Little Rock in October and at the International convention next July – this time in Philadelphia. And so the countdown to VM’s twelfth gold has begun again!

I sincerely hope you enjoyed this trip report – thanks for reading! Just remember, if you had half as much fun reading it as I did writing it, then, well, I had twice as much fun as you. Sorry.

See you next summer in Philly!

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Home again

We’re onboard for our final flight, from Denver back to DFW.

I really enjoyed the 757 and its dedicated flight deck radio channel on the audio system. This is a different plane, though, with fewer channels, and the pilot radio shares a channel number with kids’ music. On our way to California, kids' music was all it played, but... hey, here they have it switched to the pilots! Great – that will really help the time fly.

We’re pushed back from the gate and taking off shortly after 6:00. I’m curious what the reason for the delay was.

We turn south, following the Rocky Mountains. The sky is really pretty, with several layers of clouds in the darkening blue sky. This is set to be about a two-hour flight, and with adding an hour for the time change, the sun will set before we’re on the ground.

I’m again enjoying hearing the chatter between the pilots and the controllers as I watch the mountains slip off into the distance. I try to interest Brandon in listening to the same thing, but he gives up after just a minute or so – he doesn’t understand the jargon.

The captain talks on the PA system to apologize for the delay, but not explain it. He and the copilot were supposed to be finished flying for the day, but were asked to stay on to take this one delayed flight. They themselves were not told why the flight was delayed or what happened to the crew that was supposed to fly it.

The sky grows darker and darker, and we begin our descent into Dallas / Fort Worth International. We approach from the north, so we pass Grapevine and the immense Gaylord Texas hotel – the Vocal Majority has performed there a couple of times since I’ve been in – and the newer Great Wolf Lodge. Becky’s friend Wendy and her kids are supposed to be staying there tonight. We wave to them as we fly past.

Once on the ground, we’re at the gate quickly and out to the luggage claim. There’s no long delay this time before our bags hit the carousel, so we gather our still gold-threaded luggage and step out into the cool night air.

Ugh! Did I say “cool night air”? Okay, that is something we enjoyed in California, but this night air is not cool. It’s probably in the low- to mid-90’s here. I guess it’s better than if it had still been daytime.

We pull our bags out to the “shared ride” area to contact the Super Shuttle representative, and... there isn’t one. Hmm. We are a couple of hours later than planned. I call Super Shuttle from my cell, and the lady on the phone is very nice and says she’ll contact the dispatcher to have a van sent.

While we wait, a CityCab worker tries to get us into one of his vehicles. Sorry, we’ve already paid for the Super Shuttle. Can’t blame the guy for trying, though.

The van arrives within ten minutes, and we load and go. We’re mostly quiet now. That this is the end of the trip is getting more and more real. With little traffic on the road late on a Wednesday evening, we’re at our house in no time. Becky’s parents get their car and go, and we’re home at last.

As my last official act of the vacation, I update my Facebook status one last time for the friends who have been following my adventures there: “Wombat and his silver medal are home. Unpacking can wait until tomorrow. Good night.”

Denver. And more Denver.

So we have almost two hours on the ground in Denver, and it’s lunchtime, more or less. What to eat?

The central area of the United terminal at Denver International has a mix of restaurants, but one catches our eyes: Wolfgang Puck Express.

There’s a bit of a backstory to this choice, involving some silliness from our 2005 Walt Disney World vacation. We were in Downtown Disney, again looking for a place to eat, calling out different eateries we noticed to see if anyone else would be interested. I was a short distance away and only heard about this second-hand, but Linda spotted the Wolfgang Puck Express and announced it by saying, “There’s Wolfgang Puck” – which of course our funny family intentionally misinterpreted as if the person, Chef Puck, was nearby. And then Bob, not having heard this, walked up and said, “There’s Wolfgang Puck!” which set everyone off even more.

Yes, it’s kind of a “you had to be there” thing, but it’s fondly remembered enough that it influences our decision on where to eat today, over four years later.

Brandon and Benjamin share a pizza, but I like the looks of the roast chicken after Bob and Linda order that. It’s good – a generous serving of slow-roasted chicken with some kind of (tasty) sauce and a side of herbed mashed potatoes. Yum.

We’re able to take our time over lunch, but of course the boys get restless before long and want to walk around, so we let them go explore as long as they don’t go too far. Brandon goes downstairs and, while there, looks at the information screens again. He then comes back and reports that our flight is now delayed until 5:55 p.m.

Wow – another hour here? Okay, I know we didn’t particularly enjoy our rushed transition from plane to plane on our way to California, but really, we didn’t need to have the time made up on our way back!

So, now we have an additional hour to wait. Can’t be helped, I guess.

We finish up our meal and start meandering down to our gate, hoping to get a few seats in the waiting area. As we approach, though, it looks like our gate area is packed with travelers – the chairs are full, and many people are sitting on the floor and even out in the walkways. I look around and spot a few empty seats on the other side of the terminal, though. We’re checked in for the flight, and we’ll be in view of our actual gate, so this should be an okay place to begin our wait. We can move across when the mob clears out.

It’s a nice wait. I can look at the planes out the windows, or even the mountains in the distance. Pike’s Peak to the south is just barely visible in the haze.

I pull out a Reader’s Digest, one of a handful of magazines and books I always bring on these trips and never end up having the time to read. The others alternate between sitting and reading or working puzzles, and walking around. After an hour or so, the boys are asking for dessert, so they and Becky go back to the central area for a raid on the Haagan-Daz store. They bring me back a scoop of something very chocolatey. Nice people – I think I’ll keep them around.

They’ve also found that our flight, while not being delayed further, has been moved to another gate. The good news is that it is the gate right next to where we are sitting. We’ll be able to stay here until boarding time. Yay!

The wait doesn’t seem nearly as long as I feared it might, and our plane soon arrives. Time to board for the last leg of our journey.

Off we go... no, wait... okay, off we go, into the wild blue yonder...

We have a short time to wait for our first flight.

Orange County / John Wayne Airport has a large-windowed lounge area overlooking the runways – it’s where we ate lunch when we arrived eight days ago. It happens to be right next to our gate, so we can sit and watch the planes come and go. As an aviation buff, I used to do this for hours at various airports, before the post-9/11 security restrictions.

Just before 10:30 we see a United 757 land. I bet that’s our plane. Sure enough, a few minutes later it’s turning into our gate. And not much longer after that, it’s time for us to board.

We’re away on time. The pilot announces that we’ll be taking off to the southwest, and asks us not to be alarmed by their noise abatement procedures at this airport, which require them to throttle back after reaching only 1000 feet! Fun. Then once the plane is out over the ocean (it’s only five miles to the west) he’ll throttle up and climb as we turn back to the east.

Visibility out of these little side windows is not great, but I still like to follow the taxiway markings and see when we are about to turn for takeoff. John Wayne Airport has two parallel runways: 19R/34L, which is the longer, wider one used by the airliners, and the 19L/34R, a smaller runway used by general aviation planes. I wouldn’t normally note this, except that our jet turns onto 19L – the smaller one. Why? I’m trying to remember the times I’ve looked at the layout of the airport on Google Earth, but I don’t recall that it’s necessary to turn down the small runway to get to the big one. Hmm.

The situation gets more interesting – the plane turns on a taxiway pointed back at the terminal building and comes to a stop. What’s going on? I daresay most of the passengers haven’t even noticed anything out of the ordinary, but I’m confused.

Within a few moments we hear our captain’s voice with an explanation. One of the flight management computers is showing an error message. It’s one of three redundant systems, so there wouldn’t be a major safety issue if it went out, but they don’t want to depart without it like this, just in case. They are trying to reboot the system to see if that clears the error. Okay.

We sit for about five minutes and then start moving again – the captain tells us everything is up and working fine now, and a tail wind on our way to Denver should make up for the delay here on the ground.

We line up behind a couple of other jets, and shortly we are turning onto the runway – 19R this time! Down the runway we go, and up into the air. I love flying! I barely even notice the engine reduction, even though I’m listening for it, and then in a matter of seconds we are over the ocean and banking to the left. The ocean and the beach look beautiful from above.

I plug my headphones into the plane’s audio system, and find that on this plane there is a dedicated channel for the cockpit’s radio transmissions. For a wannabe pilot like me, that’s a wonderful thing. I tune in and am able to follow all of the altitude clearances, heading changes, everything.

The flight goes really fast when I’m able to listen in like this. We cross Arizona, Utah, back into Colorado. I keep Becky and Benjamin informed as to when we are cleared to begin our descent – the cabin PA announcement comes right after I tell them – and when we’re cleared to land. It’s a great deal of fun for me.

Once we’re on the ground in Denver, we taxi to our gate – with no delay this time – and grab our carry-ons and head into the terminal. We’re here before 2:30 (Mountain time now), and our flight doesn’t leave until almost 4:00, so we have time for a decent lunch.

Hang on – the information screens are showing our homeward flight is delayed for an additional hour. Okay, so I guess we have time for a really relaxed lunch!

Homeward bound

We’re leaving today.

Back to Texas – back to the heat, to yard work, to my job. But also to our home, to home-cooked meals, to our own comfortable beds. I’m ready – even if we won’t have fireworks from our balcony from now on. Or a balcony, for that matter.

Because of our 9:15 Super Shuttle pickup time, we’re actually able to move at a pretty leisurely pace as we arise, get dressed, and put the final items into the suitcases and hanging bags. In fact, my parents and Ron and Kay are leaving before we are. They’re going to go get breakfast and then tour the Crystal Cathedral before hitting the road back east.

We gather in the hallway at 8:30 for goodbye hugs and well wishes. They’re planning on taking a more northerly route back, up through Utah and Colorado. Should be pretty.

We, of course, will do the same, but just by jet, all in one day. Our first flight leaves the Orange County airport just after 11:00, arriving at Denver around 2:15 (Mountain time). Our second leg – hopefully we won’t be racing through the Denver terminal to make our connection this time – leaves Denver at 4:00. We should be back in Dallas before 7:00.

With our goodbyes said in the hallway, we go back into the room and shout to them again from the balcony down to the parking lot, and then watch them drive away.

Since we’re packed, the time we have left in the room is mostly spent on the balcony, enjoying the view one last time. I know I’ve said goodbye to Disneyland, but I’ve got to get one last glimpse in.

Nine o’clock is when we plan to head down to the lobby. Just before that I start the automated check-out on the TV, but it’s taking a long time, and then returning an error message. After two tries I give up. I’ll just check out at the front desk.

I usually just leave my keycards in the room or turn them in, but I suspect these particular cards – with the Barbershop Harmony Society Anaheim convention logo and message on them – won’t be reused, so I toss them in my suitcase as a souvenir. (I find out later that Bob offered his cards at the front desk and was told to “just keep them.”)

We grab our bags and close the door behind us, and take the elevator down. One last stroll through the greenery of the pool courtyard – a lot of good memories here from such a short time – and then into the lobby building. There are two Super Shuttles already parked out front, and Bob & Linda go to find out if either is ours. I step over to the front desk and give them my room number. They type it in and tell me I’m all checked out – it’s that simple.

The lead Super Shuttle is indeed the one reserved for us. The driver loads in our bags and we climb aboard.

I’m wondering if I get another “last glimpse” of Disneyland on our way out, but it’s not to be – the driver turns south on Harbor, away from the parks, so they are behind us now in every sense.

We do get to enjoy one more thrill ride, though – the one to the airport! Our driver is, shall we say, a bit of an energetic driver. Our lane changes and rapid accelerations and decelerations make it a bit of a white-knuckle ride. Fortunately the ride to the airport is not a long one.

We’re dropped off at the airport right in front of the United area. Inside we go and up to the counter. There are actually touch-screen check-in terminals at the counter, but with an agent nearby to tag your bags and assist you. It’s kind of a mixed self-serve and full-service check-in process. We put in a credit card and it calls up our ticket info, then we select our number of checked bags (paying the fees for them) and it prints our boarding passes and luggage tags on the agent side of the counter. We place the bags on the scale one at a time and the agent tags them and takes them, and then he gives us our boarding passes.

Everything is going smoothly so far.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

That’s a wrap

As the crowd disperses, we follow the flow out through the tunnel and out the gate. Goodbye, Disneyland. It’s been really good seeing you again after all these years.

While taking pictures during the Flag Retreat, my SD card memory on my phone ran out of space. I realize with a little chagrin that I don’t have a backup – my extra SD card is in my MP3 player, which I misplaced months ago. Hmm. Brandon thankfully says I can use the remaining space on one of his. There’s really only the trip home to photograph now, but I still don’t want to miss anything.

Brandon and I walk past the Mickey benches to the bus loading area and take our place on loading zone 3. As soon as we see the trolley approaching with “Route 3” displayed, I call Becky and let her know we’re on our way. Since the trolley drops us off right in front of the Overland Stage restaurant at the Sheraton, we’ll just meet her and Benjamin and anyone else who wants to join us there.

As we travel down Harbor Boulevard, I can’t help but keep ticking off our “lasts” – last time on Disneyland property, last ART ride, last trip down Harbor. It’s bittersweet. I’m really, really tired and ready to be home, but I always dislike not knowing when or if we’ll be back here again.

The trolley drops us off in front of the restaurant, and a few minutes later Becky, Benjamin, Bob & Linda come walking up. There’s a slight wait for a table, and then we’re seated.

Okay, we’ve eaten here twice before, and the Prime Rib French Dip sandwich I had on the first night was really good. Do I go back to that, or order something new? Eventually, I settle on the “Santa Fe Burger,” which comes loaded with roasted chiles, pepper jack cheese and guacamole – I’m in the mood for something with a kick. It’s pretty tasty.

Brandon and I let the others know what we’ve done since we parted after lunch, and then we found out about their afternoon. They first went to Fantasyland to ride Peter Pan’s Flight, but the wait was too long – so they rode Mr. Toad’s Ride! I'm curious about that. How did they like it? They’re kind of “meh.” It wasn’t a story they were familiar with, so they found it hard to get too excited about it. It was fun, but nothing spectacular to them.

From there they went to it’s a small world. Benjamin especially seemed to enjoy finding the Disney characters, a recent addition to the ride, among the singing dolls.

Finally they walked over to Tomorrowland to see if Autopia was up and running. It was! Benjamin and Becky rode, and both seemed to really enjoy it. Just from looking at the track yesterday, it did look like a lot of fun. Six Flags Over Texas has a drive-your-own-car attraction, but it’s just one big loop over flat terrain. Autopia twists and turns up and down hills – and with the monorail track overhead!

Once supper is over we head back to the rooms. Packing time! I always enjoy packing for the trip home much more than packing to leave on a trip. The latter is more stressful, since you have to make sure you have everything you might possibly need, balanced by the desire to travel as lightly as you can. But for coming home? No contest – you’re just throwing everything you own into any available bag. It’s only a matter of making sure you’re not leaving anything in the room.

Apart from our hanging clothes and my socks, we never really unpacked, so repacking is that much easier. I’m also enjoying the fact that the logistics of this trip are making the return a bit less stressful. Our land/sea trips we’ve taken before require two repackings – one to get from Walt Disney World to the ship and another to return home, and with the second one, our bags are to be packed and out in the hallway by 11:00 the night before we return. This time we just have the one repacking, and are departure tomorrow is at a comfortable time, with the Super Shuttle picking us up at 9:15.

The sun has set and we enjoy the view from our balcony one last time. Of course we have to watch the Disneyland fireworks. I have to say, this view from our room has been one of the very best things about this trip, and that’s saying something.

With the fireworks and packing done, we settle in for the night. Sleep comes easily at the end of such a busy vacation.

Retreat!

The Flag Retreat ceremony begins with the Disneyland’s All-American Collegiate Marching Band.

The 15 or 20 young instrumentalists in red, white and blue uniforms march into Town Square while playing a patriotic march. (As I write this, I’m sadly not remembering some of the musical selections or even the specific order of things since I didn’t take notes. I was too busy enjoying the ceremony and participating in it.) They gather first at the north side of the circle and then process around it to the south side while playing “You’re a Grand Old Flag.”

Then the Dapper Dans are introduced. Yay! I hadn’t seen them on this trip. With the band, they perform a medley of songs about America. They are good.

After the medley, the announcer says that the different songs from the five branches of the American armed forces will be played, and invites anyone who has served or is serving to come stand at the flagpole circle when their anthem is played. Wonderful.

Through the anthems, a handful of people, mostly older, approach the circle, and the gathered crowd applauds wildly for each in turn. When the Coast Guard hymn plays – looking around, I may be the only one who knows the words – I’m always fearful that there won’t be anyone, since it is the country’s smallest military branch. I’m a bit partial to the USCG, since my late brother Greg served with them for ten years as a radioman. Thankfully, one clean cut young man, pretty obviously still active, steps forward.

Now it’s time for the lowering of the colors. An honor guard of three uniformed Disneyland security officers marches into the circle. One man steps up towards the flagpole, but before reaching for to untie the flag’s rope, he turns to the military veterans and one active member on his left and says firmly, “Thank you for your honored service to our country” and salutes them. I’m misting up – I love it when people recognize the sacrifice of our military – as the officer turns and does the same for the men and women standing to his right.

The rope is untied, and as the flag is lowered, the band strikes up “Stars and Stripes Forever.” I’m singing along – again, probably the only one here who knows the words. (Or knows that there are words.) Fortunately for the crowd here, the band’s volume effectively drowns out my solo.

After the flags are down and removed, another song is played for their folding. And finally, to conclude the ceremony, we are all invited to join with the Dapper Dans and the band in singing “God Bless America.”

The officers, the Dans, and the band then march away towards the train station and the Flag Retreat is ended. Wow. It was a good old-fashioned lovefest for our flag, our military, and our country. You don’t see those very often any more, and it happens here every single day. God bless Disneyland for keeping the tradition going.

One more stop. No, two more. No...

We may be done with the attractions, but there’s still one more task in the parks: shopping!

Brandon has seen my new Mickey watch and his mom’s new Minnie watch, and he wants to buy his own. So while my parents are heading right to the exit and back to the hotel, Brandon and I detour into the Greetings from California store at the entrance plaza.

It’s a large store, and we have to ask a cast member if they have watches. They do, but not nearly as large a selection as the Emporium in Disneyland. Brandon looks over the options but isn’t thrilled with any of them. He asks if we can go over to Disneyland to look in the Emporium. Okay – I hadn’t planned on any more park hopping, but we’ve got a little time.

Brandon does spot a rack of really cool pins – Soarin’ pilot wings with a wide array of names “pre-personalizing” them. He finds a “Brandon” set of wings and buys it.

Out of California Adventure we go – we get our hands stamped just for this quick jaunt to Disneyland! We cross the plaza and insert our Park Hopper tickets into the gate, and the female cast member working there mentions something about hearing the bird tweet. Hmm, I hadn’t noticed that particular audio cue before. When you first use a park ticket at the beginning of the day, the strummed-harp “magic wand” sound plays, so the CM knows your ticket is good. But when you re-enter that park later in that day, or go to the other park with a Park Hopper, it chirps like a bird, cueing the CM to look for a hand stamp. Cool.

We head into Town Square and the Emporium, going straight for the wall o’ watches. It doesn’t take Brandon long to find a watch he likes – it has a shiny orange face with a multitude of Mickey heads in the pattern. It’s a good watch, though the shiny orange does briefly remind me of the outfits of the Ambassadors of Harmony when they beat us last Friday night. I’m trying to move on with my life.

The purchase made, we head for the exit – but wait! The announcer is saying that the Flag Retreat will begin in just a few minutes. The Flag Retreat, a long-time tradition here at Disneyland, is a patriotic ceremony for the lowering of the flag. I’ve never seen it, but I love the flag-waving patriotic stuff. The announcer calls for veterans or current members of the armed forces to gather near the flagpole to assist in the retreat.

I ask Brandon if he minds staying for this. He does not.

Brandon and I get a spot by a bench right next to the central circle where the flagpole is located. This will be an awesome way to end our time at Disneyland.

All good things…

Right at 4:00 we spot Brandon and my dad ambling towards us.

Brandon reports that they were able to ride California Screamin’ and Toy Story again, and they also tried the Orange Stinger, a big swing ride inside that giant orange you see at Paradise Pier. Brandon didn't enjoy it too much -- the high-swinging ride set off his fear of heights.

My dad raves about “Magic Mania.” It takes me a moment to realize he’s talking about Toy Story Midway Mania. I gently correct him, with a pointed reminder that I’m a regular contributor to the StupidGuestTricks.com. There’s a whole discussion thread on the topic of what guests mistakenly call things. I don’t want to have to report him.

Off to Soarin’ – and it has a looong standby time: 15 minutes! Okay, by “long” I mean the longest we’ve had to wait for it in the multiple times we’ve ridden. We actually have time to read some of the historic aviation biographies posted on the walls of the queue.

I’m curious where we'll be sitting on this, my third time to ride this attraction. The first time (in Florida) we rode smack in the center, and yesterday we were on the bottom center.

The four of us are among the last in this batch of riders, so we’re sent to the last boarding area, last row. That’ll be the bottom left, if I’ve got this figured out now.

But wait! Someone miscounted and there are only three spaces left there. The CM holds us back and says we’ll ride on the next load-in, and calls for two or three more riders to fill the line. It gets better: once the pre-boarding announcements are made and the riders file into the ride room, we’re sent back to the middle loading zone, first row – meaning that we will be in the middle again, but on the top row!

Cool! I’ve wanted to see what it was like at the top. Some people have said like it best, if only because there aren’t other people’s feet hanging in the upper part of your view.

Preshow video, then time to board. We enter through the door and, sure enough, we get the top row, center. This’ll be amazing.

The all-clear is given and we swing up, up, until we are near the top of the screen. The view is awesome and unimpeded by other people’s feet. Too much fun. I honestly don’t think it’s enough of a difference to matter to me, since what you gain by taking away riders above you you lose from being near the top edge of the projection. It’s an incredible ride either way.

One of our very favorite things about Soarin’ is how it is so realistic, and the camera work so unbelievable, that you really feel as if you are there. When you pass the kayakers on the river, you swoop so low that you (and every other rider) instinctively lift your legs up so your toes don’t drag in the water! Same thing when you pass the skiers and juuuust clear the rocks on the ridge of the mountains. Everyone lifts their feet. It’s funny to watch, and to catch yourself doing involuntarily.

Tinker Bell greets us as we swoop down Main Street U.S.A. and fly over Sleeping Beauty Castle, with fireworks exploding around us. (Somehow that ending seems more appropriate here at Disneyland than at Epcot in Florida.)

Still an awesome, amazing experience, and good for our “last ride.” Hard to believe it's that time, but we need to eat, pack, and rest for the trip home tomorrow.

Gold-medal service

My mom and I exit from Monsters Inc. and look for another attraction. We’re freelancing a bit – no plan, no specific agenda, just passing the time with whatever entertainment we find handy. It’s relaxing and fun to do things this way for a change.

Muppetvision 3-D is right next door. Hmm, okay. This is another one of the funny 3-D movies/shows that Disney does so well. I’ve been to the Florida version several times, and of course my mom saw this two days ago when I went back to the hotel. But it’s here, there’s no wait, and its funny, so why not?

We enter the preshow holding area, and I can tell we won’t be here long – Sam Eagle is on the preshow TV monitors being tricked by Scooter and Gonzo into introducing Rizzo the Rat as Mickey Mouse. (Sam of course is indignant: “You are not Mickey Mouse! You are a rat!” to which Rizzo replies, “Rat schmat! Besides, they’re tourists! What do they know?” Makes me laugh every time.) Sam’s bit is very near the end of the preshow, and sure enough, the doors are soon opening and we take our place in the theater.

This is a fun show. I’m right in the age bracket that remembers when The Muppet Show debuted on TV, a clever and light-hearted bit of weekly entertainment, and a surprising one at that (“These are ‘muppets’ like on Sesame Street???”). I’m pretty sure I watched every show back then – and this was before DVRs or even VCRs. So while Muppetvision may not be the funniest attraction in the world, especially on repeat viewings, I still enjoy it.

The show is it’s good old reliable self – the penguin orchestra, Fozzie’s “cheap 3D tricks,” Miss Piggy’s water-skiing fiasco, Sam’s “salute to all nations, but mostly America,” Sweetums roaming the theater looking for Bean Bunny, and of course Kermit being thoroughly frazzled by all the insanity. And Statler and Waldorf heckling from the balcony. Love them. I want to grow up to be them, in some way at least.

In the end, when Waldo morphs into Mickey Mouse, it makes me think – have I seen Mickey on this trip? Oh yeah, I did briefly yesterday, greeting people in Town Square when we first arrived at Disneyland. I’m used to more interaction with him on our vacations.

Muppetvision ends in its usual destructive way, with the Swedish Chef blowing holes in the screen and the theater wall. Funny stuff.

We toss our 3D glasses in the receptacle as we exit and try to figure out what to do next. It’s almost 3:30. We might be able to fit in another attraction before our 4:00 meeting time, but probably not at the pace we’re taking things today. Besides, I’m getting thirsty.

We amble over to the Soarin’ area and, after getting drinks from a cart, find a shaded bench to rest on, just opposite the picture area with Lightning McQueen and Mater. We sit, talk, and relax in the shade, watching people walk by.

Becky calls me on my cell phone with a status update. They’ve left the park and are heading back to the hotel. We’ll get in touch later about dinner plans

Okay, here’s how meticulous Disney is about cleanliness in their parks: The tree we’re sitting under is dropping a few yellow-colored leaves, or something. It’s natural, it doesn’t look too bad at all to have them scattered about on the ground. But a custodial cast member, dressed in a white jumpsuit, comes by every so often to sweep up the yellow stuff. Wow.

On his second pass, I strike up a conversation. He’s a nice man, a few years older than me. His name is Alec [to the best of my memory – I didn’t write it down! Forgive me if that’s wrong, not-Alec]. I ask about the pins on his oval CM nametag. He’s happy to talk about them. One is his five-year service pin, a nice (and sadly, increasingly rare) accomplishment. The other, though, he is very proud of – a Spirit of Disney award, which he says is not given out lightly. He earned it for voluntarily spending time doing months of detail work on the Toy Story Midway Mania ride while it was under construction. I can tell he really feels a sense of pride and ownership in that particular attraction.

Alec shows us one more pin, which he wears on his collar – Mickey Mouse, in gold, dressed in a custodial outfit and holding a broom. This golden “sweeper Mickey,” he tells us, is definitely another honor – you have to earn bronze and silver before you’re eligible for the gold.

I’m tempted to tell him that I’ve earned my silver and am ready to get gold, too, but I restrain myself.

My new pal Roz

Tower of Terror may be my new favorite ride. It’s possible I like it even more than Soarin’, and that’s saying something. I’m definitely surprised how much fun it was.

My mom and Brandon liked it quite a bit also, though maybe not to the point of raving over it like me. I know Brandon is proud of himself for finally facing the ride that frightened him away so many years ago.

My dad’s reaction is cooler, and a bit perplexing. He liked it okay, but seems disappointed that “once it got going, it was just up and down until you were done.” Ooookay. I thought that was the whole point of the ride. Maybe I can get him to ride it again when they reprogram the elevators to travel diagonally, in circles, and upside down.

Brandon and I look around the gift shop on the way out, and he finds a pin he wants as a souvenir of his ride. It’s like a miniature “Do Not Disturb” door hanger with the Hollywood Tower Hotel “HTH” logo.

Okay, time for us to split up. Brandon and my dad will head back to Paradise Pier and my mom and I will stay in this area. We agree to meet back at Soarin’ Over California at 4:00 – if its line is not too long, that will make a great “last ride” before we break for supper.

My mom and I amble down the street towards the Monsters Inc. ride. Everyone else rode it on the first day, of course, but my mom’s a good sport about doing stuff again so I don’t have to ride alone.

I suspect she’s enjoying our time together a bit nostalgically – when I was growing up and we’d visit Elitch’s amusement park in Denver, my two older brothers would ride things together and my mom would ride with me. Then one day I decided I was old enough to tackle the thrill rides alone, and she was left without a riding partner. She still tells that story, by the way, overacting the desertion she felt to get a laugh. I’m glad I can be her riding partner again.

Monsters Inc. Mike and Sully to the Rescue is showing a 15 minute wait time. The queue is themed to a Monstropolis transportation center, and we are in line for our own “taxi.” Once indoors, I wish the line moved more slowly. There’s a dispatch office with a lot of notices posted on it, and they’re fun to read. I only have time to read the first in a list of taxi regulations, something about monsters being allowed to ride on the roof of the cab so long as they are so big that they dent the roof. The line keeps us moving – not a bad thing in itself, but I’m not able to read any of the other rules.

We load into the front seat of a cab. The ride is, well, pretty much what I expected, a dark ride retelling of the Monsters Inc. story – with Boo getting loose in Monstropolis, and Mike and Sully trying to return her to her room while avoided the sneaky Randall (somehow I’m partial to that villain’s name!). There are some great effects – Randall changing colors to match the background, and flying through the massive chamber of doors in particular.

All ends well, and as we approach the unload area, Roz is there in her CDA “Number 1” yellow outfit, talking to each car as it passes. We pause in front of her, and I take the opportunity to strike up a conversation. “Hey Roz, how’re you doing?”

She replies “Hello” in her droning voice.

Me: “You’re beautiful, you know that?” I’m lying, of course.

Roz: “So where’re you from?”

Me: “Dallas.”

Her: “Whatever.”

Our cars moves on. Okay, it wasn’t conversation on the level of My Dinner with Andre, but it was still funny.

Tower of Terror

The queue winds through the neglected gardens of the Hollywood Tower Hotel.

Brandon and I fill in my parents on the back-story of the hotel – how it was once the place to be for Hollywood stars, but since the lightning strike that caused five people to disappear off an elevator decades ago, it has been left vacant. With that in mind, we have fun all the more looking around the queue and the exterior of the hotel to see how the Imagineers have put in touches, some subtle, some not, of aging and neglect. Everything is perfectly run-down.

We even notice that the palm trees here – which are so neatly kept elsewhere in the parks – have accumulations of dead leaves. Nice touch.

The queue winds in and out of a shaded portico. The air temperature’s not too high, at least compared to Texas, but being in direct sunlight heats us up quickly, so I’m always grateful when I’m able to move back into the shade.

The line is long but is almost constantly moving, which I can handle better than standing in one place for a long time. Within the predicted half-hour wait time we’re entering the hotel lobby – itself remarkably preserved in a state of perpetual decay and neglect. Creepy and cool.

We’re directed into a study for the preshow with Rod Serling. It was this preshow that scared Brandon six years ago. At age 14 he’s handling it much better!

Time for us to become the “stars of tonight’s episode” of the Twilight Zone! Out of the study we file. Apparently there are two levels of ride elevator loading here, one at the level we’re on and one up a set of stairs. We don’t have to take the stairs, thankfully.

The line moves quickly and suddenly we are being shown to specific marks for us to stand on for fast loading when the elevator arrives. Yikes! The elevator is here! Too late to back out now. I’m getting nervous.

After we’re strapped into our seats, the CM loading us asks if there are any questions – and then lets the doors close in front of him before we can think of any!

The ride surprises me from the very first. I knew there would be a narration as we rode, but I did not expect that our first move would be backwards, not up! We glide back from the loading door, and suddenly everything but that door disappears into a star field, and then the door itself is gone. Again, cool and creepy!

We ascend a certain distance and are suddenly confronted with a mirror image of ourselves sitting in the elevator – then we are “zapped” and only a ghostly outline of our former image remains! Another vertical move of the elevator, and we’re stopped looking down a hallway. The five people who disappeared so many years ago now re-appear in ghostly form, beckoning us to join them. The hallway disappears – we’re in space again, leaving only the unfortunate five spinning off into infinity. The narration informs us that we have now crossed over… into the Twilight Zone.

Whoosh! We are pulled down, faster than being dropped. It’s impossible to judge distances in the darkness, but we’re pulled down at least several stories. I’m caught completely off-guard. Yes, I knew the drop was coming, but somehow I thought there would be some more movement, or a pause after the last special effect – perhaps lulled by the knowledge of the different ride setup at Walt Disney World where the vehicle leaves the initial elevator shaft and travels to the drop shaft. I was not expecting the drop – and it makes me laugh with surprise.

Whoosh! We zoom upwards, and doors open so that we are looking out over the parks. We are really high up. Whoosh! We go higher. Then we’re pulled down a long way – my pin lanyard is floating up around the level of my eyes. Up. Down. Down again. Up. Up again. Doooown… and Rod Serling comes on again to congratulate us on our survival, and to caution us about our choice of hotels in the future, or we just might end up checking into… the Twilight Zone.

I loved it. Loved it. Looooooooved this ride. I want to buy this ride flowers and have its babies. I enjoyed it that much – I’m smiling ear to ear and laughing my head off as we exit.

You can go your own way

Lunch at the Pacific Wharf Café was very satisfying. So now what?

For the first time in all of our travels together, it seems that we all have different ideas about what to do next. I’d like to ride the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. Back in 2003 Brandon and I went to ride the Tower of Terror in Florida, but we only got as far as the preshow – he was 8 then, and while he was prepared for the scariness of the drop, he wasn’t at all prepared for the Twilight Zone creepiness of it all, so we left without riding. I’ve been itching to try it out ever since – and Brandon, six years older, wants to also.

But Brandon also wants to ride California Screamin’ again, as does my dad. As limited as my walking is, though, I really don’t want to backtrack. I’ve done the rides I most wanted to do in that area, so I’m ready to move on.

Added into this is the fact that Becky and her parents want to leave California Adventure altogether and go back to Disneyland, to ride Peter Pan’s Flight and it’s a small world. Benjamin wants to go back to drive on Autopia, if it's operating. I wouldn't mind doing Disneyland again, but with my need to minimize walking so I don't flair up the asthma even more, that's not my favorite option.

In the end, we split up. Becky, Benjamin, Bob & Linda are going to Disneyland. Brandon, my parents and I will head towards Tower of Terror, taking in It’s Tough to Be a Bug along the way. After Tower, we’ll likely split up ourselves, with Brandon and my dad heading back to Paradise Pier, and my mom and I riding Monsters Inc. and whatever else we can find without too much exertion.

We bid goodbye to the four returning to Disneyland – making sure everyone is carrying his or her own park tickets and bus pass this time! – and my parents, Brandon and I set off for A Bug’s Land.

We pass under the Bug’s Land sign and quickly locate the queue for It’s Tough to Be a Bug to the left. I’m looking forward to this. I’ve seen it twice in Florida, though it scared the willies out of then six-year-old Benjamin (and he hasn’t wanted to see it again since). I think my parents will enjoy it.

The queue doesn’t have any of the grandeur that the Florida version does, but then how could it, since the queue at the Animal Kingdom winds through the roots of the majestic Tree of Life and all of its animal carvings. This version of the queue is still cleverly, if subtly, themed. As you wind your way down to the entrance, the dirt and grass around you seem to get larger, as do the rocks embedded in the dirt. It gives the effect that you are shrinking down to bug size as you go.

We get our “bug” 3-D glasses and enter the darkened pre-show area. In my past two viewings of this show, I started loading in pretty quickly and didn’t have as much time to view the spoofs of Broadway posters mounted on the walls: Antie (instead of Annie), Beauty and the Bees, A Cockroach Line. As I’ve written, my family loves puns, so we’re all groaning as we read each poster.

I’ve noticed an odd behavior for these shows – people like to crowd right up against the line for the show doors. If they put any thought into it, they wouldn’t be so eager to be the first in, since everyone is directed to continue across the rows of seats. If you’re first in, you’re closer to the far edge of the theater. It’s far better to stand back from the doors and end up closer to the middle. (Of course, many of the me-first people are the same ones who then ignore the rules and stop in the middle of the rows, making people climb over them. Gee, I hope it didn’t hurt too much when I stepped on your feet as I passed you!)

Show time! It’s fun to hear my parents enjoying all the wonderful, imaginative Disney touches in the show. They gasp with delight when the curtain of butterflies takes flight and laugh at all the surprising squirts of “acid” and “stings” of bees.

I especially enjoy hearing them react to the “bug’s exit” at the end of the show. Too funny!

Okay, back into the sunlight we go – time for the Tower of Terror! It’s a beautiful Anaheim day as we stroll through the park, heading to the Hollywood Pictures backlot.

I’ve not been to this section of the park before. It reminds me a lot of the Studios in Florida – Hollywood-style architecture, even the “street extending into the distance” fake buildings and massive painted scene like on the Streets of America. There are also occasional collections of lights, director’s chairs and such, as if this were a working studio lot.

We turn the corner and see the Tower of Terror looming above us. I’m getting excited, maybe even a bit nervous! It’s been a long time since I’ve done any kind of a drop ride, so I’m very curious how I’ll take this.

Wait time? Twenty-five minutes. We can handle that.

Lunch?

There’s disagreement in our group about our next stop.

We normally like to eat early, around 11:00 for lunch and 5:30-6:00 for supper. It’s not only what we’re used to, the crowds generally haven’t yet hit the eateries yet at those times.

It’s now 11:30, and we’re ready to eat, but Brandon and my parents haven’t ridden Toy Story Midway Mania. We’d looked over the food choices available in California Adventure before arriving today and settled on the Pacific Wharf Café, located back in the wharf area of the Golden State section of the park. If we went there now, we’d have to backtrack quite a bit afterwards to get back here.

We end up in a split, but everyone’s happy about it. Bob & Linda are going to go on to eat, while the rest of us stay behind to ride. We’ll all meet up at the restaurant afterwards.

So my parents, Becky, the boys & I walk over to Midway Mania. The wait time is up to 20 minutes, which is still very doable, and which surprises me. At the same time, though, while my breathing is a bit better, my ankle (the one that was surgically rebuilt last Fall) is starting to bug me, so I choose to sit out riding again. The other five get in line, and I find a shady spot near the ride exit to sit.

There’s a lot to watch – people, attractions, games, workers down in the drained lagoon – so the time passes pretty quickly. My five come out of the exit after a half hour raving about the ride. I have a more important question, though – did anyone beat my score of 121,500? No! (My dad did come close with 112,000.)

Okay, now we’re ready for lunch! We wind back around the east end of the lagoon – uphill this direction, so it’s slower going for me – and then across a couple of bridges to the wharf area. They’ve done a great job recreating the feel of the San Francisco wharf areas, and the smell of sourdough bread baking adds a lot to the atmosphere. I love fresh-baked sourdough!

Bob and Linda are dawdling at a table waiting for us. We head inside the café – okay, the smells are making me really hungry now – and get in line. Despite the noon hour, the lines are not too bad. Brandon gets a good-looking sandwich, Benjamin opts for clam chowder in a bread bowl – yum! – but the salads catch Becky’s and my eyes.

I order a Sonoma Chicken & Apple salad, described on the menu as “tender pieces of chicken breast with tart, crisp apples, celery, and walnuts in a creamy honey dressing with a dash of lemon, served atop a bed of garden fresh lettuce.” Mm-mm. Becky immediately zeros in on the word “shrimp” in a neighboring item on the menu, the San Francisco Shrimp Louie salad. It’s listed as “chilled bay shrimp on a bed of mixed greens with hard-boiled egg, tomato wedges, olives and a zesty Louie dressing.” Neither of us has any idea what “Louie dressing” is, but she decides to risk it.

My salad is absolutely wonderful, exactly as described, but tastier. Very filling and satisfying. The texture of the cooked chicken blends perfectly with the crunch of the apples, celery and walnuts, while the sweetness of the apples and the dressing really compliments the chicken well. Becky’s delighted with her salad as well.

The salads are served in bread bowls, so even after the salad is almost gone I can tear off big chunks of fresh sourdough to enjoy. Yum – who needs dessert when you have a meal this rich and good?