Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Can it get more perfect?

We head back to the room before 9:00, and the sun has just set. If I thought the view from our balcony was spectacular during the day, well, it was nothing compared to the nighttime view!

Paradise Pier is glowing with neon lights flashing in different colors (and we can still hear the screams from riders of California Screamin’), and the Castle, Matterhorn, Space Mountain, and the Tower of Terror are all glowing in their nighttime lighting. It really is awesome.

The air is cooling down quite a bit – it’s supposed to drop into the 60’s each night, a vast improvement over the “lows” in the 80’s back in Texas – and I love it! I sit out on the balcony in my swimsuit. Fantasmic! should be starting at 9:00 over in Disneyland, and I look out over that wooded area of the park to guesstimate its location. Sure enough, suddenly a beam of light shoots straight up skyward, which I presume is from Mickey’s dramatic entrance.

Hey! I can even hear the music from Fantasmic! up here! Okay, really, I can at most hear that there is music, and it’s awfully hard to make out the specific sounds. Still, it’s pretty cool. I can also make out the crowd applauding and yelling from time to time.

Knowing the approximate length of the show, and how it ends, I am actually able to start following the music and flashes of fireworks leading up to the big ending. I hope we get a chance to see Fantasmic! in person here – everyone I know who has seen both the WDW version of the show and the Disneyland version tell me that Disneyland’s is far superior, and I love the WDW version. At the same time, because the Disneyland show is staged in the park on the Rivers of America, there’s not amphitheater seating like at the Studios park in Florida, and I don’t do well standing for long periods of time.

There’s a final discharge of fireworks, and I hear the roar of an appreciative audience over the distance. It is so amazing to be here!

Now, just a few minutes later at 9:30, the fireworks should begin over Sleeping Beauty castle. Yep – there they go. And... wow. Talk about your good views!

We’ve stayed in some awfully nice resorts at Walt Disney World – the Beach Club, right next door to Epcot; the Polynesian, across the lagoon from the Magic Kingdom; and the Wilderness Lodge, Disney’s own “mountain” resort on the shores of Bay Lake. All were magical, and several times we’d taken advantage of the Polynesian’s beach to watch the MK fireworks across the water.

While I’d stay at any of them again in a heartbeat, and we really love the theming, we’ve never had a view like this. Disneyland is right in view, with fireworks going off! How totally cool!

I know the general outline of the new fireworks show, and am able to spot Tinker Bell as she flies over the castle – twice – and also the newest addition to the show, the flying elephant Dumbo. We’re too far to see them as anything but large floating dots around the castle, but it’s still pretty neat.

The kids and Becky come and go off the balcony, but of course we don’t have to be outside to see the fireworks display – they’re just as easily viewed through the wall-to-ceiling glass doors from within the room. After 14 or 15 minutes of spectacular fireworks – no one does a fireworks show like Disney; our only regret is not being able to hear the music, since they are so perfectly coordinated with the soundtrack – there is a big cluster of finale explosions and the show is over. Multiple spotlights shine into the air around Main Street USA. It’s an incredible sight.

And we get this front-row (kind of) view every single night!

It’s almost ten o’clock, which to my not-yet-time-zone-adjusted body is nearing midnight. I quickly change and head for bed. It’s been a good day of travel and settling in. We will have some fun during the day tomorrow, and then the VM work begins in earnest tomorrow evening.

California, not dreamin’

Tony Roma’s has a good selection on their menu, but since I’m only able to get to one every few years, I stick with my favorites: a “Roma Rack” of St. Louis style Carolina Honeys, with sides of corn fritter casserole and their tasty garlic pan-seared green beans.

Even after helping demolish our onion loaf appetizer and a piece or two of bread with garlic butter, I’m still able to clean my plate. Hey, it is vacation! That is good eating right there.

Our gang is all a good bit more cheerful now that our hunger and thirst are satisfied. We depart to our various modes of transportation, and again, it’s exciting just to walk onto Disneyland property, even if it’s just to catch a bus.

Once back in our rooms – Bob & Linda have finally gotten their own, and it’s right next door – Brandon wants to swim, and I’m okay with that. We change into swimsuits and head down. Benjamin’s undecided about whether to swim, but Becky comes with us just to sit by the pool.

When we arrive, the sun is low on the horizon, and the air is nice, but the water is cold. Brandon and I swim anyway. We spot a couple of VM guys with their families, including Jerry Andrews and our associate director Jeff Oxley, one of the most “decorated” barbershoppers in history – three quartet gold medals, multiple chorus gold medals with VM, and one gold medal as director of the Masters of Harmony. It’s still odd to me to see so many familiar faces on my vacation.

Becky goes back to the room briefly to let Benjamin know of the pool status, and when she returns he’s with her. By that point, though, I’ve had about enough of the cold water and Brandon and I are going to the Jacuzzi. Benjamin joins us there, and then he and Brandon alternate back and forth between there and the pool.

They try to get me to go back, but I’m not budging from the hot tub anytime soon. It’s hot, but not too hot, and the combination of bubbling water, palm trees, and warm California breezes make for a very pleasant evening. Fellow VMer Jerry Andrews joins us in the Jacuzzi, along with a handful of kids – I think they’re Oxley’s, but I’m not sure. The conversation is very nice, and it’s a great relaxing time.

California, baby. I could get used to this.


What started as a fairly random choice on our 2003 Walt Disney World trip has turned into an ongoing tradition for our family.

In 2003, once we checked into our hotel near the Orlando airport for our first night’s stay, we found that our hotel room keys would get us a free appetizer at the local Tony Roma’s. Now, we love us some Tony Roma’s, and given that by the time we returned to WDW in 2005 all of their Texas locations had closed, a return trip to the Orlando restaurant was a must. We ate there again on the first night of our December 2007 trip.

Well, upon using Google Earth to find local restaurants, I noted early on the presence of a Tony Roma’s about 3/4 mile up Harbor Boulevard, across from Disneyland. Our usual traveling gang (me and my family plus Becky’s parents) and our additional entourage (my parents and aunt and uncle) were happy to make plans to dine there tonight.

We have a logistical problem, though – how to get there? At Orlando, we either used our hotel’s shuttle or (on the last trip) purposefully booked a hotel right next door to the restaurant.

Here in Anaheim, though, transportation’s not a given. Our convention supplies bus transportation to and from the Honda Center 2 miles away for the competitions and shows. Everything else is considered “walking distance,” which is great in theory, but when you have a handful of slower-moving seniors and one slower moving middle-aged barbershopper (me, due to my foot/ankle surgery and the need to conserve my endurance for the contest), 3/4 of a mile is an awfully long way.

My parents, at least, have their minivan here, so my dad and Uncle Ron set off walking back to the Sheraton to retrieve it, leaving my mom and Aunt Kay to wait for them to return and pick them up. We can’t fit all 10 of us in it though, so the remaining six of us turn to the ART: Anaheim Resort Transit.

The ART is a group of shuttle buses and trolleys running 16 continuous loop routes throughout the area, and all 16 routes stop at Disneyland. Since the restaurant is roughly across the street from the DL entrance, it’s a much shorter walk from there than from here, so Bob, Linda, Becky, the boys & I all go to purchase ART passes.

With help from a few Hilton employees, we locate the ATM-like pass dispenser in front of the hotel. My family and Becky’s parents get three-day passes, as they plan to use the ART to do some sightseeing while I’m rehearsing over the next couple of days. Given that I will be in those rehearsals, I only obtain a single day pass.

My dad and Ron return with the van shortly after to pick up my mom and aunt, and we’re left waiting at the ART stop. It takes several minutes of standing in the hot sun until an ART trolley arrives; I worry that my parents will be seated and waiting for us for some time before we get to the restaurant.

Finally the trolley gets here; we climb on board, insert our passes, and take a seat for the relatively short ride. We’re all hungry and a bit dehydrated, so no one’s talking much, but I still can’t help being excited as travel up Harbor past California Adventure and turn into the Disneyland entrance.

The ART stops are actually on the Disneyland property, so as we exit the trolley we are surrounded by the lively music that Disney pipes into every location – in this case a cheerful entrance-area arrangement of “You Can Fly” that the boys and I have on one of our many Disney CDs at home. I love Disney parks, and even though we get off the trolley and immediately start walking off the property and toward the street, it’s a nice dose of the park atmosphere that gets me smiling.

We exit Disneyland, cross Harbor, and walk the short distance down to Tony Roma’s. We find my parents and aunt & uncle already at a table, as I feared, but it turns out they’d only just been seated. The timing is near-perfect. Bring on the Carolina Honeys! (After some water, that is – we’re all pretty thirsty!)


The chords ring in the Hilton lobby as we find our way to an escalator and up to the second floor, where the huge ballroom housing the convention headquarters is.

The setup in the main room is much like Denver. As we walk in the room, there is a stage with an open mike and several rows of chairs set up. Any quartet can hop up there and sing for the room, and later this week many, many barbershoppers will pay for the privilege to “Sing with the Champs,” taking the place temporarily of one of the members of an international champion quartet, singing with the other three for those assembled (and for a commemorative DVD).

The vast majority of space in the middle of the room is taken up with the “Harmony Marketplace,” the Society’s prime shopping area, with a vast selection of t-shirts, pins, hats, CD’s, glassware, jewelry, posters… just about anything you can imagine, if it can be emblazoned with a Society logo or something barbershop- or music-related. It’s a treat just to browse through the place.

Along the left and right walls are the booths of individual vendors, many of them quartets and choruses selling their products. About halfway down on the left-hand side I spot the Vocal Majority’s booth. I stop by to say “hi” to Carol Anderson, who manages our CD sales, but it’s on the way to our primary destination – the back wall, which has the convention check-in stations, ticket sales, and more.

This is one process that is greatly improved since Denver 2007. There we filled out slips of paper with our names and other info, and waited for the staff to create our name badges – a process which took almost an hour. Today, we step up to computer screens, type in our info, and our badges print immediately.

Manning the printers is “Art” from the Masters of Harmony, the local super-chorus that is the host of the convention, and who, as seven-time gold medal winners themselves, are second only to the VM in championships. The Masters won last year’s contest, and so are not competing this year. Thankfully!

Art sees my VM name badge and asks the question many others will ask this week, “Is VM going to take the gold again?”

I give a heartfelt and humble, “I hope so, we’ve been working hard, but we’ll see!” Which is true in every word – and much better than bragging bluster. The VM has a lot to be proud of, but much prefer to do our “talking” on the stage and deal with our “brothers in harmony” in a friendly and gracious manner. This is a hobby, after all, with guys from all walks of life who just love to make music, not a professional sports team with money on the line. There’s no place for trash talk.

As I prepare the badges for my family members, Art and I talk about what is bound to be an amazing event, this Saturday’s “Harmony Foundation Presents…” Show, which will feature four champion choruses, the HarborLites from the Sweet Adelines, the Masters of Harmony, and our chief competition this year, the Ambassadors of Harmony from St. Charles, Missouri, along with three champion quartets, OC Times, Vocal Spectrum, and Max Q. At the end of the show, the three BHS choruses, 450 men in all, will join together in one mega-chorus to sing three songs. There has never been anything like it before, and it’s bound to be pretty cool.

After the name badges are ready, we look through the Marketplace briefly. Becky and I get some convention logo t-shirts, a bargain at $10 each. I spot several other VM members milling about – Bones, Grass, Stevie D... (That’s Mickey “Bones” Bonesio, Phil “Grasshopper” McShan, and Steve DeCrow. While not universal, nicknames seem to flourish in the barbershop world. I’ve gotten more non-internet-related use out of “Wombat” since joining VM than at any time before.)

We don’t spend long shopping though, since it’s almost 5:00, which is around 7:00 p.m. (Central) by our stomach’s accounting, and we want to get some supper.

Into the barbershop universe

One thing that surprised me upon getting involved with the Vocal Majority is the subculture of barbershoppers – tens of thousands of fans of this interesting musical style who join from all corners of the world to meet and compete.

It’s like they have their own little world within the larger world. Some guys (in the Barbershop Harmony Society; the ladies have Sweet Adelines) gather to sing in quartets and choruses purely for the social aspect, some to put on shows, some just for the joy of singing. Other groups, like the Vocal Majority, have all of those factors but also work to be the very best and put it all on the line in competitions against other choruses.

The BHS has over 30,000 members worldwide, and a fair percentage of them gather every year at the international convention, which includes the competition for quartets and contests – what a current documentary calls “The Biggest Singing Competition You’ve Never Heard Of.” The convention also has quite a bit of camaraderie and fellowship. The Society truly is a brotherhood, and the hotel lobbies and even street corners are filled with music. Complete strangers spontaneously group themselves into quartets and sing “tags” together, the “big endings” of familiar songs. It is a visual and aural treat.

We’re about to submerge ourselves into this barbershop subculture in a big way. We have to check in at the convention headquarters, held in the Hilton Anaheim next door.

We step out into the parking lot and start walking down it until we can find a place to cross the street over to the Hilton. After only a few steps I find myself laughing – I see that the Vocal Majority truck, emblazoned with our logo, full-color pictures of the chorus, and our adopted description “America’s Premier Pops Chorus” in large letters, is parked in the lot in plain view of barbershoppers arriving at the Hilton. We’re making our presence known already.

I gather our family together by the truck for a group picture. I’m taking the picture, but I also manage to be in it, since my photo is already on the side of the truck!

I have to admit a bit of ego-driven anticipation to joining the convention. The Vocal Majority, as the winningest chorus of all-time, is well-known and very respected in these circles, and at these conventions I come as close as I ever will to being treated like, well, a rock star. I first noticed it in Denver two years ago, at my first convention. Even before I’d ever sung a note in public with the group, the fact that I was wearing a VM nametag alone was enough to get me all sorts of attention, questions, and compliments for the group. It was fun, in a very self-centered way.

We find the entrance to the Hilton and step into the lobby. A bright Barbershop Harmony Society logo is projected onto the lobby floor, and already we can hear tight, four-part harmony around us from various pick-up quartets singing tags. I smile at my family’s reactions – for all but my dad and Becky’s dad (who came with me to Denver in 2007), this is a new experience – and they all marvel at the music floating around us.

In this environment, you can’t help but smile.


Still no word from my parents and aunt and uncle, so I give them a call.

My dad answers his cell phone. They’re still at the Nixon Library, and my dad’s surprised we’re already at the hotel. “I looked at your itinerary just this morning, and you weren’t supposed to be there until 2:30!”

Me: “Um, check your watch. It is 2:30!”

The Nixon Library’s not too far away, so hopefully they’ll be here soon. In the meantime, we relax, unpack a bit, and sit enjoying the weather and the view. This is so different from our usual Walt Disney World / Disney Cruise packages. For one thing, we’ll be staying at this one hotel for the entire 8 nights, so we can completely settle in. Secondly, at WDW, once we check into our resort we head out to the parks right away. Having time to sit and relax is a new experience.

Of course, having a Disney park, or rather two parks, within our view is a nice bonus.

Brandon notes that the balcony locks from the inside, with both a lever on the handle and a latch mounted higher. “Why should it be locked from the inside? Is someone going to climb up to our balcony to get in?”

Rather than go into the ways that could happen, I take the whimsical approach: “Hey, remember, Disneyland is right next door, and both Tinkerbell and Dumbo can fly. And you do NOT want them getting into your room unsupervised.” As "proof," I point to the fact that the Sheraton "S" logo on the balcony doors faces out.

Benjamin chimes in, “Peter Pan, too!” (They're old enough to not really buy into the stories, but they still love to play along.)

It’s about a quarter till 4:00 when Brandon spots my parents’ minivan pulling into the parking lot below us. We all gather on the balcony and wait for them to exit before yelling a greeting – from ten stories up – and waving to them. They, in turn, wave to us to come down and help them unload. Oh, yeah, they’ve been traveling in this one van for a week – it’s not like they have easily transported two-bags-and-a-carry-on as if they’d flown.

We take the elevator down and, after reunion hugs all around, help haul the various items up. Among their possessions is a cooler and bags of cookies! That’s promising. And it turns out they’ve been assigned rooms right across the hall from us!

Bob & Linda still haven’t heard back on their room, so Bob calls the front desk to check. Still not ready, they’re told. That’s really odd.

We give my parents and aunt and uncle a short time to settle into their rooms, but by 4:20 we’re ready to head next door to the Hilton Anaheim and check in with the convention.

Disneyland out my window

We head for our room, following a hallway past a gift shop -- Benjamin our NBA fan is thrilled to see Lakers championship T-shirts for sale.

We continue past a snack shop and out through automatic doors into a courtyard.
I can’t help but think that having to go outdoors while hauling luggage would be a major problem in the heat of Texas, but here it’s in the upper 70’s, lower 80’s at most. It’s pretty nice.
We enter the tower through another set of double doors and take a glass elevator to the tenth floor. The view from this elevator is the courtyard and pool area, but what we’re most wanting to see is the view to the north – Disneyland!
On reaching the tenth floor, we wheel our bags down the hallway towards our room. There are black and white pictures of early Disneyland hanging in some areas of the halls – a very nice touch. We may not be staying in an actual Disney hotel, but the pictures definitely create some of the same atmosphere.
We find room number 1039, insert a key – green light, always a treat! – and the six of us stream into the room. After dumping our bags, every one of us heads to throw back the curtains and look out on the balcony.
And there it is – Disneyland!!! And it’s right outside our balcony! (Kind of.)
From our spacious balcony, which comes with two chairs and a table (not all the balconies at the Sheraton are this big) we can see the Anaheim Convention Center and all three Disney hotels – the Paradise Pier Hotel, the Grand Californian, and further in the distance, the towers of the Disneyland Hotel.
California Adventure stretches across our view from Paradise Pier with the California Screamin’ coaster and Mickey’s Fun Wheel, all the way past Grizzly Peak to the Tower of Terror. We quickly spot Soarin’ Over California and a few other attractions we want to visit.
This is cool – we’re actually so close that we can hear the people screaming on California Screamin’!!
Behind the California Adventure park is Disneyland itself. Okay, California Adventure looks fun, but seeing Disneyland tugs at my heartstrings. I mean, this is THE park, the original, where it all began. It was built by Walt Disney himself, and it is the only Disney park in which he actually walked and worked. There is not and never will be anything else like it.
The Matterhorn and Space Mountain are the two easiest icons to find, falling just to the left of the Tower of Terror in our view. With a little more effort we locate the Main Street Train Station, Big Thunder Mountain, and the top of Sleeping Beauty Castle.
Looking to the far right, to the east, I spot the brown walls and white roof of the Honda Center in the distance. It’s farther away, but for the next four days, I will be going there, not Disneyland. Competition and convention first, Disney fun later.
It’ll be worth the wait – especially when I can see it each day and night from my room!

Rooms… with a view?

Soon enough a Super Shuttle van arrives for us, and we load in and head to our hotel for the week, the Sheraton Park Anaheim, which is just south of Disneyland on Harbor Boulevard.

I’ve scrolled through this entire route using Google street view, but nothing beats being here! We love seeing the mountains around us, the palm trees, even the smog! I’m finding myself snapping pictures of road signs, and even just driving down Katella Boulevard. But hey, we’re here! It’s natural to get excited.

I’m still looking for a celebrity, though.

We roll into the hotel just after 2:00, unload the suitcases and head for the front desk. No sign of my parents – they theoretically arrived in the area couple of days ago, but were going to take in the Reagan Library in Simi Valley yesterday and the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda this morning before meeting us here this afternoon.

I’m not expecting to be able to check in. The check-in time at the Sheraton Park Anaheim is officially 4:00, but I figure it won’t hurt to ask, and if not we’ll store our bags and go register for the barbershop convention. But to my surprise, the cheerful front desk clerk doesn’t have any problem checking us in now. Yay!

She asks if we have any room preferences. This catches me a bit off guard – “Um, non-smoking, I guess, but isn’t the entire hotel non-smoking?” The clerk confirms that it is, but then prompts me with “Higher? Lower?”

AH! The lights go on – I do indeed have preferences for this! I eagerly request “Disneyland side, as high as possible!” Not a problem, she says. She finds a couple of rooms that connect on the 7th floor, but they aren’t ready yet. I tell her that connecting rooms are not necessary, just as long as they’re on the same floor. (We always say this and still always manage to get put in adjoining rooms. It’s uncanny.)

She looks again and finds two rooms (adjoining, naturally) on the tenth floor, facing Disneyland!! Woohoo!! This could very well be amazing! Fireworks from our balcony, every night? Woohoo!! Even better, the rooms are on the west side, closest to the Hilton Anaheim next door, which is the headquarters for the convention.

Our keys are issued – custom plastic card keys with the Barbershop Harmony Society’s Anaheim convention logo on it, which is nice surprise. The key cards will also serve as our bus passes for the convention.

The only minor glitch is that only one room is ready now. It shouldn’t be a big deal, though - we figure we can just all hang out in one room until the other one is ready.

California at last

We haven’t had lunch, and it’s almost 3:00 Central time, so food takes a priority over luggage!

We head through the Orange County airport to the food court and get some pizzas and salad. There aren’t a lot of seating options, but we find a couch-like place facing some big windows looking out onto the runway. My kind of place – I used to visit airports all the time just to watch the planes take off and land until 9/11 changed it to require you to have a ticket.

With lunch over, we walk back through the terminal and out to the luggage claim area. Hey, this taking a break for a meal has its advantages – our bags are almost the only ones left on the carousel. No stressful crowd-fighting and suitcase-grabbing for us!

We’ve got another Super Shuttle reserved to take us to the hotel where we are staying, so we head out to the “shared ride” island and check in with the attendant.

As we wait for our van, Brandon points me to see Tom Jackson, fellow VM member, approaching. Indeed, he’s with his whole quartet, the William Kratt Chord Company, who besides singing in the Vocal Majority with me are also in this week’s quartet competition. And hey, now here comes Greg Clancy, son of our director Jim, longtime Associate Director of the VM before stepping down earlier this year, and quartet champion himself.

It’s an odd feeling as I wave to each of them – it’s great seeing familiar faces, but it’s really, really weird to see them in a different state! We’re not used to arriving at our vacation destination only to be surrounded by faces from home!

Sightseeing in a hurry

This second flight, from Denver to Santa Ana, promises to be at least a little more interesting out the window.
Ah, mountains. How I’ve missed you living in Texas. I grew up on the west side of Denver, right at the base of the mountains, and it’s a thrill seeing them again. I didn’t get much chance to enjoy you on the ground in our mad dash across the terminal – plus DEN is way too far out on the plains anyway – but I’m enjoying the view from my seat onboard as we climb out and head southwest.
We approach and crest the treeless peaks of the continental divide, still sporting snow in July. To the north is the cluster of tall mountains comprising Rocky Mountain National Park. I find myself wishing to visit them at ground level again. Maybe someday.
I took the time yesterday to get on Microsoft Flight Simulator and have it chart a high-altitude airway course from DEN to SNA. No guarantee that this United flight will follow it, of course, but I can use it as a guide to guesstimate our position.
My parents and aunt are all arriving in Anaheim today, also, but they’re driving. They left a week ago, with stops at the Grand Canyon and Las Vegas along the way. (We joked that they really just headed straight for Vegas and spent three straight days gambling, which is funnier if you know what straightlaced Baptists we all are.) My parents will have been married for 50 years in August, and this trip is their present to themselves.
If my route info is correct, we may just get a view of the Grand Canyon ourselves en route. It would be my second time to see it, and ironically, the first and only other time was also from the air, 28 years ago.
Sure enough, just at the time I predicted, the canyon comes into view. Man, the place is beautiful and awe-inspiring, even from six miles up. I’d love to see it up close some day. And it is enormous – at our jet’s speed we spend a full ten minutes or more passing it by. Wow.
The video system is not functioning on this plane, so we have to entertain ourselves. Becky works a puzzle book and then takes a nap. Benjamin, once he’s seen the start of the Grand Canyon, also naps. That kid can get comfortable on an airline seat tray more than anyone else I’ve ever seen! I plug in the headphones, tune to the 80’s channel, and watch the scenery change under us.
Just before landing in Santa Ana, I recognize the city of San Bernadino, and locate the mountain where the Arrowhead Springs resort is. I was there for a week and a half back in 1981 for rehearsal camp for the Continental Singers before touring the U.S. and Canada all summer. And now another singing group brings me back! Ah, memories.
Palm trees! We have palm trees in sight! And there’s smog! Now I just have to spot a traffic jam and a celebrity to know we’re really in L.A. Hey, there’s a (very minor) traffic backup! I’ll have to look for a celebrity later.
We’re on the ground in California at 12:50 (Pacific time!), and have no delay getting to the gate.

Denver – slow, then fast

The first flight does indeed go quickly. There’s not much to see out the window, but they show an episode of 30 Rock on the video screens, and then I peruse the SkyMall catalog – so much wonderful and expensive stuff!

As usual, we have several “stuffed friends” along for the trip, though Brandon has left his at home – he’s a teenager now, you know. Benjamin has Penny (from 102 Dalmatians) and Josh (a small bear wearing the jersey of Dallas Maverick Josh Howard). I have “Bari,” the baritone barbershop bear, which I got for Becky at my first International Convention of the Barbershop Harmony Society in Denver, 2007. It seems appropriate that he’s along for this event, since we’re going to another BHS International (and stopping in Denver along the way!).

We are on the ground in Denver around 10:30, Mountain time. (Gotta love those hours gained going west!) Unfortunately, there’s a delay at our gate, and we end up sitting in the plane for 35 minutes until we can get off. I use the time to update my status on Facebook, and find there that several of my Vocal Majority brothers are also traveling today (our first rehearsal is not until tomorrow night, so most are flying out tomorrow.)

Our connection here was not overly tight until the extended wait for the gate, but now it is. So once we get off the airplane we barely have time for a restroom break before making a quick dash to the other end of the terminal for our second flight. No time for a quick lunch, like we’d planned, so we’ll have to make do with the boxes of yogurt-covered raisins we brought along until we get to Santa Ana.

At DFW Airport

Traffic’s still not a major factor on the way to the airport, and we arrive at the United arrival area in Terminal B around 8 o’clock. We check our bags with the skycap. (And pay the new luggage fees. Yay.)

Our two biggest suitcases are on loan from friends Darren & Jill – we have smaller luggage ourselves, and we normally borrow bigger bags from my parents, but they are also traveling to California this week. So before the luggage is sent on its way, I take a picture of Jill’s bag’s distinctive handle tagged for SNA (the Orange County/John Wayne Airport in Santa Ana) and send it to Darren. These bags have already been to both Disneyland and Walt Disney World earlier this month, and now they get to return. (Darren had volunteered to accompany them again, but we didn’t have the packing space.)

With our bags on the way to CA, it’s time for us to join them. We head upstairs and through security. Bob, with his hip replacements, is wanded yet again. This is my first time through airport security with metal implants myself – I have two plates, two pins, and several screws permanently in my right ankle. My surgeon told me that I probably would not set off the detector because of how low they are on my body (“You may or may not find that reassuring,” he noted), and he is correct – I pass through the detector with nary a beep.

Becky, the boys, and I gather our shoes and belongings from the scanner conveyor belt. Is it just me, or are the TSA Agents getting funnier as time goes by? The older man agent at the security exit cheerfully prods us with, “You can get refixed over here. Reshoe, uplink, downlink, take all the time you need. Just hurry up!”

Our gate is right by security. We have a little time before our flight – enough for a McDonalds breakfast. Then its onto the plane for the first leg of our outbound journey – a quick hop to Denver.

Load and go

It’s Tuesday morning, time to fly to California! I’ve been working towards this week for over two years now, and it’s finally here! And I get to see Mickey as a reward!

Did I mention that being in the Vocal Majority, especially at contest time, is a lot of work? One of the chorus’s mantras is “Hard work is fun when improvement is evident.” Well, we’ve been working extraordinarily hard for the contest, and have improved beyond our wildest expectations – so we must have been having loads of fun!!!

But most of the work is behind us, or at least the work in Dallas. We finished off our local practices with a rip-roaring, standing-room-only dress rehearsal at a local high school auditorium last Thursday – what a night! We said our goodbyes to each other – a lot of “See you in Anaheims” and “Travel safes” – and now we start making our way to Southern California.

My night’s sleep has been fitful – I wake three times during the night in anticipation. With the competition to come, this trip is very different from our previous Disney trips. With them, my main concern has been getting there, and then I can relax and have fun. That’s still true for my family, but for me, I’ve got plenty of work ahead of me in California.

I’m awake at 6:00, and the rest of my family is quickly up and about. The SuperShuttle is due here at 7:20, but there is very little we have left to do before we leave. Bob & Linda arrive shortly after 6:30 – they’d given themselves lots of extra time to account for traffic, but there was none, even though this is a workday for most people.

We’ve tied gold yarn onto our luggage handles to help identify them at the airport. Gold will be a predominant color this week – we’re hoping every little bit helps the VM to bring back the gold!

The Super Shuttle arrives at 7:15, and by 7:20 we’re onboard and headed for DFW airport. California here we come!

Monday, June 29, 2009

Wombat in Anaheim - The beginning

This is too good to be true. Two of my favorite things are coming together – Disney and the Vocal Majority!

Those who know me well know that I love Disney, and my family has taken several trips to Walt Disney World and cruises on the Disney Cruise Line. We’ve had some amazing vacations – the most recent capped with an unexpected, complimentary upgrade to the Walt Disney Suite aboard the Disney Wonder, the best passenger quarters on the ship.

Another passion I have is singing with the Vocal Majority chorus. This group, billed as “America’s Premier Pops Chorus,” is officially the Dallas Metro chapter of the Barbershop Harmony Society, but it does not limit itself to barbershop music. The Vocal Majority, or “VM,” consists of 140+ men singing in tight, close-harmony, mostly a capella arrangements of standards, patriotic, gospel, inspirational, pop, and yes, barbershop. They are incredibly entertaining, if I may say so myself, and I’m very privileged to be a member.

VM strives to be the very best in the world at what they do, and they put that to the test regularly -- they compete with other choruses from around the world through the Barbershop Harmony Society. The BHS holds a convention every year, and choruses (and quartets, in a separate competition) travel from all over to entertain, be judged, be ranked, and hopefully take home a medal.

The Vocal Majority has won the international gold medal for best chorus an unprecedented eleven times. Furthermore, when a chorus wins the gold, they must sit out of competition for a full two years, meaning they are only eligible to win again three years after their last gold medal. VM won their first gold in 1975; their next gold medal came in 1979, and since then they’ve won the top prize every three years: 1982, 1985, 1988, 1991, 1994, 1997, 2000, 2003, and 2006. Coming in to 2009, that’s an amazing 30-year undefeated streak.

Since I’m a new member, I wasn’t part of any of that.

I joined VM in 2007. My first performance with the chorus was at the International Convention in Denver that year, before 9,000-10,000 screaming fans in the Pepsi Center, with the reigning champ Vocal Majority performing a “swan song” set to “sing away the trophy.” What a thrill! Since that time, I’ve performed over 30 times with VM, including four show series, several private shows, a wedding and a funeral (and the show count would be much higher if I hadn’t been derailed in the Fall of ’08 by foot surgery); and I’m on the two most recent Vocal Majority CDs: “Believe,” released Christmas of ’07, and “Something’s Coming: Broadway Hits from America’s Premiere Pops Chorus” which came out in April of this year.

Singing with the VM is a lot of work, but a lot of fun, too. Not only is the chorus made up of a great group of men from all walks of life, but just making that kind of music, being inside those tight, ringing chords, is an experience nothing else can match.

And now it’s competition time again. The Vocal Majority’s last win was in 2006, so we will compete at the 2009 International Convention of the Barbershop Harmony Society. And guess where that convention is being held?

Anaheim, California. Home of Disneyland. Woo hoo! This is a double thrill for me – it gives us a reason to take another Disney trip, but to the original park that Walt built this time, and I get to sing with VM and (hopefully) win my own gold medal in the process.

In addition to our usual gang of six – me, my wife Becky, our two boys Brandon & Benjamin, and Becky’s parents – my own parents are driving out to California along with my aunt and uncle, who have become huge VM fans themselves. We’ll go for the convention and stay for Disneyland!

It’s going to be awesome.


My name is Brad, a/k/a “Wombat.” I am a 44-year-old Dallas-area attorney, married father of two wonderful boys. Disneyland was the first Disney park I visited, in 1982, and this will be only my second visit there, after five intervening trips to Walt Disney World. For this trip and the previous four WDW trips I have had by my side my beautiful wife…

Becky, teacher, homemaker, and all-around cuddly person. She doesn’t get into all of the Disney planning like I do, but she loves being there! She visited Walt Disney World once with her family in the 1980’s, for our honeymoon in 1990, and since in 2003, 2005, and 2007. We are parents to two wonderful (and funny) boys…

Brandon, a 14-year-old starting high school in the Fall. Brandon is a creative guy with a sharp mind, wants to be an engineer, and would be delighted if someday “engineer” became “Imagineer”! His brother is…

Benjamin, a smart, funny 12-year-old headed for seventh grade. Benjamin is focused and passionate about the things he cares most about – which is basketball in general and the Dallas Mavericks in particular! We are blessed to be traveling with…

Bob & Linda, Becky’s parents, my wonderful in-laws and the boys’ grandparents, who have traveled extensively and who love Disney! Bob is a former Air Force jet pilot and retired educator, while Linda is a church organist and full-time grandma to Brandon, Benjamin, and four other grandsons. Joining us in Anaheim will be…

C.S. & Gail, my parents. They have never been to a Disney park, but we’ve wanted to have them along for some time. Our boys simply adore them, and unlike some families, we all get along very well – in-laws (& outlaws?) included. This trip is a gift they are giving themselves for their upcoming 50th wedding anniversary! Traveling with them will be…

Ron & Kay, my uncle and aunt – Ron is my mom’s older brother. They’d heard other quartets and choruses before, but we got them to a VM show in December and they are hooked!

Check back soon – the trip is about to begin!