Wednesday, April 30, 2008

WDW: Wrap Up

As we planned our trip, we decided to leave one free day to do whatever we wanted: riding a favorite attraction again, trying something we missed before because of time or long lines, sleeping in. Tuesday was that day.

CM opted to sleep in due to a cough and sore throat, and with the news of Frontier Airlines filing for bankruptcy, he wanted to contact the airline to make sure our flights back to California had not been cancelled. I wanted to trek back to the Animal Kingdom for one last go on Expedition Everest, but before heading to the bus, I stopped at the concierge's desk to make dinner reservations. My parents had given us money to use expressly on a big, expensive dinner to celebrate our vacation so, with the help of the two young men behind the desk, I selected a 7:50PM dinner at Les Chefs de France in the France Pavilion of EPCOT. Then, it was off to see the Yeti!!

At the Animal Kingdom, I walked as swiftly as possible through the already growing crowd (at 9:115 AM!!) toward the Tree of Life hung a right beneath a dinosaur skeleton around a bend past a theater and made it to the coaster's entrance to grab a FastPass. Then, I took a step back and noticed that the wait time was a mere 10 minutes. I jumped the rope and wound my way through the gallery to the train, locked the lap bar into place and screamed myself silly. Since I had an hour before the pass was usable, and not wanting to give the pass up, I wandered around the immediate area and munched on a pretzel in a very quiet, secluded area meant to resemble an Asian courtyard. While sitting at a table, a mama duck quacked away other birds as her three ducklings wandered around my feet, snacking on bits of pretzel and a few plants and insects they could find. Once they waddled to the next courtyard, I hiked the Maharajah Jungle Trek again, this time seeing most of the animals enjoying the cool morning. Finally, the hour passed, and I re-rode the coaster a fourth and final time before heading back to the resort.

CM was dressed and raring to go when I returned so we strolled back to the resort's boat dock to catch a ferry to Downtown Disney. He mentioned that he spoke with the airline while I was gone, that our flights were still a go as far as everyone was concerned. That load off our minds helped to make for a nice, relaxing trip, floating down the Sassagoula River admiring the birds, the trees covered in Spanish moss, the treetop cabins hidden along the waterfront, the pastel grandness of the Old Key West Resort. As we passed beneath the final bridge before entering a large lake, the cranes and storks -- all told about twelve or thirteen birds -- lined either side of the river, wings outstretched as if in a greeting to us. The children on the boat pointed with wonder as their parents snapped picture after picture.

The ferry left the river, entering the large lake surrounded by parking lots, restaurants, shops and nightclubs and docked between a large paddlewheel boat (Fulton's Crab House) and the Rainforest Café. We wandered in and out of shops, including what had to be the largest World of Disney Store ever built. I don't know how far it stretched, but I felt that a guide map or some kind of homing beacon would have come in very handy to find our way around. As it turned out, most of the shops in Downtown Disney stretched farther than you could imagine: the year-round Christmas shop; the toy shop with resembling a Lincoln Log house with an oversized Mr. Potatohead welcoming potential shoppers; the Lego store with life-sized Lego tourists and a sea serpent (in the lake); a Planet Hollywood in the shape of a giant plane with a UFO crashing into it. Very amusing, but we both decided that we'd seen enough and took the ferry back to the resort.

And caught another bus from there to EPCOT. We rode Spaceship Earth one final time so I could snap a picture of the hip, 1970s lab technician pictured here. Then, we dashed over to the World Showcase to brave the Maelstrom once more in Norway before heading to France for dinner. I'm glad we had the foresight to make reservations because the hostess turned families away left and right, and we still waited a good thirty minutes before being seated. Waiters hefting huge trays of food darted between tables and other waiters throughout the restaurant. Diners chatted noisily, happily, and a few French birthday tunes mixed in with the noise. We both ordered grilled filets with string beans and Savoy gratin potatoes and savored every morsel that passed our lips. Fantastic food, and great service from our waiter Julien. We even splurged, ordering a chocolate pastry for dessert which we greedily devoured as the fireworks began along the waterfront.

The rest of the trip, albeit it very brief went without a hitch. Unless, of course, you count the snow in Denver where we were to meet our connecting flight, a "hitch". Yet even that turned out to be a good event as CM had never seen snow fall before, and we witnessed the plane's wings being de-iced as we sat on the runway.

Good vacation? Definitely.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

WDW: Magic Kingdom

Monday morning, we lingered in our room, hoping to allow quite a head start to the many people we guessed were heading to the Magic Kingdom. Even so, the crowd gathered beneath the roof of the depot trying to avoid the sun, and a longer line waiting for the same bus trailed to the resort's back parking lot. We joined the end of the line and waited.... And waited.... And waited until two buses, both flashing signs for the Magic Kingdom pulled up to the stop. The crowd surged forward before the doors even opened, almost blocking the way for one man in a motorized wheel chair to leave the bus. he buses left filled to capacity, not even making a dent in amount of folks waiting. After another 15 minutes, I finally had the idea of catching the next bus to EPCOT.

"Why?" Because we can catch the Monorail from there and ride it to the Magic Kingdom. Sure, it would take a bit longer, but it would make a nice change from the buses. Another group must have overheard us because five others from the group hopped on the EPCOT bus, and soon we were standing in a very short line for the Monorail. Within minutes, the long train pulled into the station. We watched as three people left the very front of the train, and I politely asked the cast member if we could sit up there. He told us to hang back for a moment while the few people in line boarded, then we followed him to the very front nose cone of the Monorail. He pushed a concealed button, revealing a door through which he guided us. A gentleman in a dress shirt and slacks with a Disney name tag pinned just above the pocket welcomed us as the driver boarded and shut the door. Cm and I spent the next 15 minutes chatting with the two Disney folk about our stay, the parks, the differences between Disneyland and the Magic Kingdom and so on. One major difference was with the Monorail itself. At Disneyland, it's considered a ride. It travels in and around the park, then stops inside near the Autopia. But at Disney World, the Monorail is a means of transportation. The rail does not stop and offload passengers inside any of the parks, only transporting them from one end of Walt Disney World to the other. Very interesting little fact. Once we arrived at the halfway point of the trip, we disembarked, each receiving a Monorail Co-Pilot's License from the driver.

Now we had a choice: take a different Monorail around the lake to the entrance of the Magic Kingdom, or ride one of the large ferries across the lake. Yes, a lake. With very expensive resort hotels surrounding it. Both lines looked equally long so we opted for the ferry, and after twenty minutes, we finally found ourselves across the lake, staring up at the pinkish spires of Cinderella's Castle. All told, the trip from our resort hotel to the park lasted about an hour and a half.

Our plan for the day was to ride attractions that differed from Disneyland in California. We wandered around the enormous grounds of the park, crossway waterways, scurrying along the streets of Liberty Square that quickly changed to the wooden boardwalks of Frontierland, dodging in between families as I dragged CM to The Haunted Mansion. Waiting in line the headstone for Madame Leota's grave moved, eyes opened, scanned the crowd then closed. I assured CM that it was different from California's, and once we boarded our "doombuggy" and rode through the portrait gallery and the room of ghostly green footprints on stairs leading in everywhichway, into the ghoulish heart of the mansion and through the graveyard, he enjoyed himself. Walking through the exit gates, we passed the pet cemetery, and I did a double-take. Pulling CM back, I shaded my eyes, looked carefully, then pointed to a statue at the very back of the plot. A small statue of Mr. Toad from Mr. Toad's Wild Ride. Curious, but as we learned later, that attraction had been closed and replaced so it was only fitting that the toad be in the pet cemetery.

The next few hours found us wandering through Frontierland, stopping at whatever struck our fancy. Which meant a brief period of nostalgia as we sat through a performance of the original Country Bear Jamboree. Not the best sound or animatronics, but what memories it brought back of signing along, stomping our feet, clapping our hands in time to the music. All the kids in the audience were enchanted as Teddi Barra drooped down from the ceiling on her swing, singing a love song to the cheering crowd. From there, we wandered, rode, laughed, snapped pictures, avoided spitting camels and had a grand time before heading to the land of Tomorrow....

Tomorrowland offered the more futuristic attractions, as the name implies. Space Mountain, the Astro Orbiter, the Tomorrowland Rapid Transit (to be read as PeopleMover by Disneyland fans). We got FastPasses for Space Mountain and had plenty of time to try out at least everything in the park before our time slot arrived. So we attended the Laugh Floor, an inter-active, real-time comedy show featuring many characters from Monsters, Inc. From the queue, kids could text jokes which the monsters might use during the show with the hope of making the audience laugh enough to fill one of their power canisters. Because the power of laughter is much stronger than the power of fright. A very fun show that had even us old codgers laughing at the silliness of it.

The sunlight slowly faded to dark as we rode a few more attractions before finally being able to use our passes for Space Mountain. We entered the building and walked and walked and walked and walked, passing the hundreds of people waiting in the stand-by line, until reaching the turnstiles. Two of the coaster cars sped by overhead, and I pointed out that we would be sitting one in front of the other instead of side-by-side, as in Disneyland's version of the ride. We inch forward, through the turnstiles, around a bend in the queue, and stop. We don't move for about 10 minutes. The car in the loading dock, filled with people, doesn't move. In fact, no cars leave from or return to our side of the station. Another 10 minutes, and a cast member announces over the PA that the ride is closing due to a technical malfunction. Everyone must leave the station. We followed the line in front of us out the exit where another cast member handed each of us a free pass to walk on any ride in the park.

We used them for a second spin on the Haunted Mansion before venturing into Fantasyland, hoping that with the late hour, many of the kids we be asleep or at dinner or back on a bus headed toward their hotel rooms. This wasn't exactly the case, but the attractions were definitely not as crowded as the rest of the park. The quickest-moving line was for 3-D film called Mickey's PhilharMagic so we slipped inside and thoroughly enjoyed the adventures of Donald Duck as he ineptly tries to use Mickey's sorcerer's hat to conduct a magic orchestra. He loses the hat in the process and must travel through a few Disney animated classics to find it before Mickey discovers what he did. One of the best 3-Di films, and all the kids in the audience reached for the jewels that Ariel floated into the sea, ooohed at the smell of fresh apple pie during the banquet in Beauty's honor. Very cute.

But after that, exhaustion set in so we hopped on a bus back to the resort.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

WDW: Disney's Hollywood Studios

The previous evening's weather reports predicted a slight chance of showers on Sunday. The various news channels offered differing reports with 30% likely to reach ground while another said the rain would happen in the clouds but fizzle before ever touching the Earth. CM wasn't feeling too well, thanks to a mild sore throat and cough, and wore weather-appropriate clothing, whereas I chose shorts. Everyone told me if it rains in Florida in April, it will be a light, warm rain so don't worry too much about it.

Sunday morning was much cooler than the first part of our stay. The temperature dropped to the upper 50s, grayish clouds rolled in overhead, a cool breeze blew about the resort. No sign of rain, though. We ambled to the crowded busstop, hoping most people were going to the Animal Kingdom because it was open later for resort guests, but many more people than expected boarded our bus. We took our place standing the aisle and grabbed the railings overhead railings as the bus sped toward the next park.

The turnstiles spat us onto a replica of old Hollywood streets, with buildings, billboards and cast members decked out to resemble the golden days of Hollywood in the 1940's. Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters filtered through hidden speakers to assist the illusion as we turned right down Sunset Boulevard to check out the lines for the Rock 'N' Roller Coaster and the Tower of Terror. We cringed at the 75-minute wait times for each and quickly grabbed FastPasses for the Rock 'N' Roller Coaster. Unfortunately, the time was about 4 hours away so we headed back to the main square to wander the rest of the studios.

We walked up Hollywood Boulevard, toward the Asian-inspired archway of a famous Hollywood shrine, Garuman's Chinese Theater, and into our first attraction, the Great Movie Ride. Which wasn't as great as I remembered it back in 1997. We were ushered through a small movie theater into an awaiting square vehicle which would take us on our way through the magic of movies, with a guide to fill in bits of history along the way. the vehicle crawled through replicas of famous scenes movies, such as Alien and Casablanca and The Wizard of Oz, each filled with animatronic characters vaguely (VERY vaguely) resembling the actors of said films. Only much stiffer and less believable. 30 minutes of our lives we will never get back.

We rushed through the exit and hurried toward Star Tours, not to ride it because it's the exact same attraction we have in Disneyland, but to ooh and aah at the entrance to the ride with mimicked an Ewok village in the treetops. From there, we took a walk, as the cold rain gently started, on the Streets of America, which reminded me of the backlot at Universal Studios, and despite agreeing ahead of time not to ride anything that we had at Disneyland, we waited for the Muppetvision 3-D movie. Such a cute show that we couldn't resist it in Florida. After the movie, with stomachs rumbling, we found our lunch spot for which I'd made reservations the day before: the Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater. What a great idea for a restaurant: the inside recreated an old drive-in theater at dusk with the guests seated in cars with small stands of speakers between them as over-the-top movie trailiers from the 1950s played on the movie screen. After a few trailers, the intermission film about going to the lobby for a treat or hot dogs would play, just as when the drive-ins were big business. A nice, American-styled selection of food with hamburgers, hot dogs and a variety of sandwiches and salads. This was one of the stand outs of the park, and I'm glad I mde the reservations because the hostesses were turing people away at the door.

According to the FastPasses, we still had two more hours before we could ride the roller coaster so we headed back to the Streets of America and stood in line for the Hollywood Studios Backlot Tour. You know it's a good ride when the entire queue area is filled with stills and props from that "hit" film Pearl Harbor, and to get you in the mood for a brief special effects show, they tout the wonders of The Rock. The tram tour itself disappointed as we made a gigantic figure eight past movie props from little-known and not-very-popular films and into Catastrophe Canyon to watch as an oil rig catches fire during a flash flood that gushes from all parts of the canyon, even over our vehicle. We found very little else to do in this area as the new stunt show from Disneyland Paris was closed due to the rain, but we stopped at a picture spot (which we mistook for a new attraction) to have out picture taken with Mike Wasowski from Monster, Inc..

We still had time before the roller coaster so we roamed around the animation area. This used to house working animation studios where you could wander along the buildings and watch animators as they created cells for films. But no longer! Now, the animation building I remembered housed an "learn to draw animated characters" show (which I've sat through at Disney's California Adventure) and a live stage show about the Little Mermaid. No one was waiting for the show so we stepped into the bulding and watched a very kid-friendly, colorful and visually entertaining 17-minute reproduciton of the film. It opened with a blacklight puppet version of Sebastian singing "Under the Sea" and moved on to "Part of Your World" with a live actress as Ariel. Some very clever puppeteering and laser lights made this one of the better attractions at the park, and we walked out smiling as we headed toward the roller coaster.

But before getting in line, we got another FastPass -- this time for the Tower of Terror as it still had a 45-minute wait. After all the buildup we'd both heard about the roller coaster, the whole experience kind of fizzled for me. Perhaps it was the bad recording session movie with Aerosmith and Ileana Douglas before being shown to our stretch limo coaster or the riding in darnkess interspersed with tacky neon signs (reminiscent of the Mummy Coaster at Universal Studios) or the briefness of the coaster itself, but as we rolled back into the station, I said out loud (and CM can vouch for this) "Is that it? There's got to be more." Sadly, no. The ride felt as though it lasted no more than 30 seconds. And people waited 75 minutes for it!!!

By that time, both our spirits were very low as we trudged toward the Tower of Terror. The Hollywood Studios seemed to me like a last-ditch effort to compete with Universal's Island of Adventure, but it was a serious let down. All the fun I remembered from my first trip had vanished somehow, to replaced with a tacky imitation of Hollywood. We both wanted to leave right then, but held out for the Tower. I'm glad we did as it made up for much of the day, being just different enough from its counterpart on the West Coast to be entertaining.

We did leave immediately afterwards, reaching our resort at almost 6PM. We rested for about an hour, then caught a ferry to Downtown Disney to try to grab a bite to eat at Planet Hollywood because I had a $15 coupon. Sadly, the wait when we finally made it through the immense crowd was about 40 minutes so we decided to head back to the resort for something at their restaurant before turning in for the night.

Friday, April 25, 2008

WDW Intermission

Much more has been happening in my world since returning from the Land of the Mouse that I felt a brief respite from Disney-related items was in order. Don't worry; I still have at least two more parks and our flight back on Frontier Airlines to discuss and will get to that this weekend:

- Last Friday, I had one of my remaining wisdom teeth extracted. And only the one because x-rays showed that the root of the lower left wisdom tooth may be inside the nerve canal. The dentist said they won't extract that tooth unless medically necessary because doing so may cause permanent paralysis. Yea!!! I still need to schedule a Panorex scan of my jaw just to make sure where the roots actually lie.

- I broke down and purchased the next part of the Myst computer game cycle: Revelation. No, I haven't played it every single night -- just most nights, though I did make time for Lost last night -- but I did manage to make some good headway. The puzzles are more intricate though fewer as this game seems to focus more on the story-line about two brothers (from the very first Myst game). Plus, much more interaction with characters, both human and animal.

- The day we left for vacation was my parents' Wedding Anniversary, and this past Wednesday was my brother's big 4-0 so I met with the whole family last night at an Olive Garden in Huntington Beach to celebrate both happy events.

- Work became extra busy as I added some new job duties to what I already do around the office. It involves what I call "trying to break our database", finding bugs and errors and things that don't work. I'm really starting to enjoy it.

- Tomorrow, CM and I are heading to the Festival of Books at UCLA so I will more than likely be spending more money on more books that I really don't need.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

WDW: Disney's Animal Kingdom

I woke early on Saturday and headed to the lobby to get us both some breakfast items and to check with the concierge about making dining reservations. We learned from walking around the World Showcase the day before that very few restaurants accepted diners without reservations, and with neither of us wanting to rely on hamburgers and hot dogs for the remainder of our stay, we browsed through the Zagat guide and chose a few places to eat. The concierge, a friendly, plump, bespectacled woman, happily checked her computer to find any vacancies at the restaurants I chose -- one for Animal Kingdom and one for the Hollywood Studios the next day -- and hooked us up with exactly what we wanted.

Back at the room, CM showered and dressed, pleased with the reservations, and we headed for the bus to Disney's Animal Kingdom.

Upon passing through the turnstiles, we followed the mass of people forward, toward the centerpiece of the park, the Tree of Life. Even from a distance, we could see the many carved animals filling every space of the trunk and rising toward the fake leaves above. As we followed the crowd, most of which seemed to be heading in the direction we wanted to go, I noticed the small animal habitats along the route, with an anteater or mccaws or storks to look at as we walked. Each habitat contained a display with information about the animal, where in the world it lived, what it ate, and so on, and I couldn't help but mentioning to CM that it reminded me of the San Diego Zoo. "I was thinking the same thing," he said, "only with rides."

The crowd moved into Asia, and we trudged along with me snapping pictures of intriguing street signs and the varied waterfronts along the route to the latest Disney roller coaster: Expedition Everest. From a distance, the attraction does resemble a smaller version of the famed mountain and nearing the entrance to the queue, we marveled at the amount of detail Disney used to create the feeling of being in Tibet -- past outpost buildings with backpacks and mountaineering gear suspended from the ceiling, Yeti shrines with money and fruit laid out in tribute, Tibetan temples to wind through. Enough to keep our attention so we didn't notice the 45-minute wait. And I released my inner (outer?) Disney geek and talked almost non-stop with the man and his family directly behind us in line about the differences between Disneyland and Disney World. Much to CM's boredom, I'm afraid. (Sorry Sweetie!) The ride, however, was definitely worth the wait. We boarded a mountain train which roared from the station and up a small hill. The short roundabout drop afterwards led to a much higher, longer climb into the heart of Everest. Once we reached the top, the car swiftly descended around a corner, up a short rise...and stopped. The track before us had been torn apart so we couldn't go any farther. CM and I wondered how we were going to get down when the train started backwards, into the mountain itself in a sloping downward curve that let loose the stomach butterflies. The train moved briefly up a hill only to stop again while a shadow of the mythological Yeti tore up the track we were just on. With a clic,, the train surged forward, plunging down and through an opening onto the Animal Kingdom and zipped around some tight curves, back into the mountain to face the Yeti in person.

We disembarked from the train, all smiles and adrenaline pumping, walked quickly to the ride entrance to get FastPasses for another go round.

While we waited for the time on our passes, we crossed a bridge toward DinoLand to cool down in the air-conditioned theater showing a musical version of Finding Nemo. That turned out to be a great 40-minute rendition of the show, hitting all the major scenes and characters, using large-scale puppets (similar to The Lion King), and singing new songs to tell the tale. After the show, we searched for the bathrooms which were a bit of a trek and located next to another roller coaster that I couldn't convince CM to try, the Primeval Whirl, which used spinning cars that dashed up and down hills and flung around corners. He doesn't know what he missed! Then, we raced back to hop on Expedition Everest once more before fighting our way through the crowds to Africa.

I made lunch reservations at a sit-down restaurant called Tusker House, but we were a few minutes early and decided to wander through the African marketplace to waste some time. The streets were filled to capacity with people taking pictures, pushing strollers, yelling at one another in foreign languages. We made our way to the Kilimanjaro Safaris and once again used the FastPass while we ventured back for lunch.

Even after checking in at Tusker House, we still waited a good 25 minutes before an older Japanese lady led us to the banquet room, trying to relate the story of the buildings as we passed. For the most part, we nodded and smiled, throwing in the occasional "Really?" and "Wow!" to let her know we were listening. She steered us through the buffet room, made to resemble a courtyard with multi-colored fabrics draped across the ceiling to diffuse the sunlight, and the odors of spices and foodstuffs almost stopped us from finding our table. The woman was replaced by our waiter who took our drink order and set us loose on the buffet. Delicious vegetarian samosas, spicy curried chicken, couscous with stewed tomatoes, chicken and beef dishes, and macaroni and cheese or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for the kids. Not to mention the tables of desserts!!! I ate two platefuls of regular food, and CM and I split a small tray of chocolate pomegranates, cookies and brownies. So much better than hamburgers and fries!!

Somehow, we forced ourselves from the table only to stand in line, in the intense heat, to catch one of the buses for Kilimanjaro Safaris. This reminded me of the extinct Lion Country Safari from old Orange County, CA, when my folks would pack my brother and myself into the Buick to drive through a landscape filled with giraffes and lions and other African animals, sometimes approaching the windows of the car to look in at the weird animals inside. Kilimanjaro was almost exactly like that, with a giraffe that stood literally five feet from our safari bus. The added twist came with a report of the radio of poachers in the area so we followed in pursuit to catch them before they could leave the Harambe Wildlife Preserve with a baby elephant. Very exciting!

After the safari, we made one last visit to Asia so I could see the tigers on the Maharajah Jungle Trek. But before we reached them, CM stared through the windows of an enclosure containing the large, hanging, furry bodies of Malayan Fruit Bats. Some hung by a single foot. Another had its wings full opened as the breeze rocked it back and forth. For some reason we found them mesmerizing, spending a good 15 minutes just watching them sleep before heading on to the tigers then back to DinoLand for our final attraction of the day: Dinosaur! This wild romp took us back to the time of dinosaurs in order to capture and to bring back to the present a living specimen. Very dark and bumpy, with tyrannosauri popping out left and right to attack the jeep. By the time we ambled through the exit, we were both hot, tired and in desperate need of showers thanks to the heat.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

WDW Vacation: EPCOT

Friday we decided to spend the day at EPCOT -- short for Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. (It didn't hurt that the park stayed open 3 hours later for resort guests.) I'd learned during my previous visit many, many years ago, that most visitors to EPCOT tend to start in Future World as it's what you enter after passing through the turnstiles so my idea was to spend the first part of the day in the World Showcase, which incuded all the country pavilions, then work our way to Future World with all the thrill rides and technological stuff. But we did stop for a brief moment to ride Spaceship Earth before leaving the future.

Spaceship Earth, the big silver, multi-faceted sphere that I think most people associate with Disney World, is a ride. Through animatronics and narration by Dame Judi Dench, we riders learned all about the history of communication as the slow-moving cars wound us to the top of the sphere. Then, through some questions asked on the monitor during our return trip, we watched a short, funny film about our future which included "likenesses" of us in space-aged garb. The ride exited into a room filled with games and exhibits to show what technological advances lay in store, and we spent a few minutes checking out the 3-D surgery program and sending electronic postcards of our trip through Spaceship Earth before loosing ourselves upon the world.

Along the way to the World Showcase, I snapped pictures of some of the various plant and sculpture exhibits, all designed to show what we can do to "green up" our gardens, to conserve resources and much more. We reached the Canada Pavilion only to find most of it roped off. CM shrugged so we moved on to the England Pavilion, but all the shops and the Rose & Crown Pub were closed. And from the look of the crowd waiting to cross the bridge into the France Pavilion, we guessed that the world didn't open until 11AM. (If one of us had looked at the guidemap....) So we backtracked, with our stomachs growling, and ventured into The Land back in Future World. Hundreds of others must have had the same idea because the building was packed, but I assured CM that they offered pretty good food, something other than burgers and fries and we plunged ahead. The Land also provided a boat ride that displayed new techniques for farming and agriculture. However, the wait time was 40 minutes; I suggested taking advantage of the FASTPASS to save a spot in line while we ate lunch. What a great idea that turned out to be!! We leisurely munched our caesar salads with chicken, peoplewatched, discussed what park to hit the next day, and once we were done, walked through the special FASTPASS entrance and onto the awaiting boat. The line lasted maybe 2-3 minutes at most while others continued winding arond the queue, grumbling at us skipping ahead of them. Once the boat moved into the greenhouse, I transformed into the typical tourist, snapping pictures left and right of the canopies of eggplant, giant winter melons and tomatoes, oohing and aahing at every little thing. CM was embarrassed, I think, and I promised to contain my picture-taking enthusiasm.

With that boat ride finally over, we wandered back to the World Showcase, this time happy to find that all the countries had opened for business. We admired the totems in Canada, wandered the flower gardens in England, smelled various perfumes and watched street performers in France, shopped the Moroccan bazaars, admired the antique tin toys in Japan, cringed at the uber-patriotism in the American Adventure, took our picture with Minnie Mouse in Italy, enjoyed the clockworks in Germany, wander through miniature terra cotta warriors in China, rode the Maelstrom (a quick boat ride that goes backwards down a hill) and ate sweet Kringla pretzels in Norway, and tried to find Donald Duck on a boat ride through Mexico. Most of our time at EPCOT was spent strolling through the countries; I remember during my first visit in 1997, my group acted the opposite, rushing through the showcase so we could ride and re-ride everything in Future World. but now, as I'm older, I wanted to see everything to be seen and to show it to CM. I wanted him to enjoy it as I did, and I think I succeded.

But eventually, we did return to the Future. We stopped first at Mission: Space to get a feel for what it's like to sit in a rocket as it launches then navigate around Mars. They offered two versions of the ride: one for those who wanted to hurl their lunch and a gentler version for the rest of us. We opted for that one, but even so, the vehicle came equipped with barf bags. A very exciting ride, and each of us had a part to play as the flight crew, pressing buttons at a specific time or steering the rocket. We next rode the Universe of Energy featuring Ellen DeGeneres as she matches wits with Jamie Lee Curtis on a nightmare version of "Jeopardy!". We both agreed that the ride sorely needed to be updated. From there, we hopped aboard a clamshell in The Seas with Nemo and Friends that wound through a huge aquarium, afterwards dropping travelers into an exploration area to take longer looks into the aquarium or to see manatees and lion fish and sea horses or to take part in an interactive movie with Crush the turtle. Our stomachs bagen acting up again, but we decided to find out the wait time for Test Track, which simulates what car companies use to test the safety features of their vehicles. The wait time turned out to be 70 minutes so we chose to find dinner first.

As we headed for the central area around Spaceship Earth, my phone buzzed witha voicemail from my office. Yes, I did return the call because it was an emergency, and I'm glad I called because my boss innocently asked, "Aren't you two flying back on Frontier?" Yes, we were. Our plane was scheduled for Wednesday at 3PM. "Well, I just read on yahoo! that they declared bankruptcy. I just wanted to give you a heads-up in case you didn't know." Fan-fucking-tastic! I told CM the news, and all through dinner, we contemplated what to do next.

What could we do? With dinner in our bellies, we headed back to Test Track. The wait time hadn't diminished so we got in line, then CM tried to find a number for Expedia. 411 wasn't much help, and neither was his cell phone internet connection. "I'm not going to stress about it," CM said. "The number's back in the room so I can call tomorrow morning before we head out." So we waited for Test Track, our heads thumping with that infernal techno music that looped through the queue area, until we were assigned a car. That was an interesting experience as the young couple behind us introduced themselves as being from Minnesota and asked CM and myself point blank if we were lovers. When I said yes, the young man thrust his fist between us and asked us to "pump" it -- which I hoped meant to hit his fist with ours in a sign oif solidarity -- so we did, then his girlfriend asked us to do the same thing to her first. Bizarre, but kinda cute in its own weird way. As for the ride itself, we both gave it a mixed review, as it started on a boring note with stopping, startgin, breaking, heat and corrosion tests. Only when the car left the building and jumped in speed to about 60-70 mph, circling around the track a few times, did the ride become exciting.

By the end of the day we had tried every single attraction in the park, with the exception of "Honey, I Shrunk the Audience" and "Soarin'" because they were the exact same attractions as here in California. And we've ridden them many times before. So we boarded the bus back to the resort, watched a bit of local news and fell into a deep, exhausted sleep.

Friday, April 18, 2008

WDW Vacation: Day One

We packed the night before so all that would be needed were to wake up, wash/shower and zip to LAX by at least 6 AM. Everything ran smooth until we transitioned from the 710 Freeway to the 105 Freeway. That was when we hit the slow-moving morning-commuter traffic. (And with me driving and constantly looking at the clock trying to gauge how late we were going to be, I'm surprised CM didn't forcefully commandeer the car from me.) We inched along, but made it to the parking structure at the Crown Royal Hotel with enough time to make it through the baggage check and airport security.

Or so we thought.

As the bus from the hotel rounded the ramp to drop us off at the terminal, we passed at least 8 news vans, from CBS to NBS to Univision and a few radio stations, that backed up the cars and taxis trying to drop people off. All thanks to American Airlines which had cancelled numerous flights to inspect faulty wiring. Fortunately, the driver squeezed into a quick vacancy, and we dragged our luggage into the terminal, dodging makeshift queues and dozens of people wandering about screaming loudly into cell phones about the large crowds at the counters, heading directly toward the self-service ticket stations. Unfortunately, when CM attempted to input his information, the computer screen warned us to go to the counter to check-in. We pushed our way through the hordes of incoming passengers to the American line, and within 10 minutes, our bags were checked and boarding passes printed. But -- we had to lug our bags to the gigantic x-ray machine taking up space in the lobby to have our bags screened. The attendant would not accept my bag until I removed the travel padlock, which I did grudgingly, and then he pointed us toward a set of stairs that led to the security check.

Up the stairs and into another line of tired and disgruntled passengers with boarding passes and ID ready. We wound down the hall, into the main security room. In here, dozens of passengers slowly removed their shoes, stuffed wallets CDs watches keys into carry-ons and rolled them into the x-ray machines before stepping through the metal detectors. We followed their lead with me glancing at the clock whenever possible to see how much time we had before our 8:35 AM flight.

After putting on my shoes, CM and I followed the crowd into the terminals and grabbed a quick bite to eat at Burger King before the next trial before reaching our gate. Due to construction, we now had to board a bus which would carry us to our gate almost on the other side of the airport. Luckily, we made it to the gate with about 10 mintues before our flight began boarding.

Once in our seats, we both closed our eyes and didn't wake up until Orlando, FL.

At the Orlando Airport, all we needed to do was to retrieve our bags from the baggage claim and to find the Disney Welcome Center. From there, we casually boarded a Disney Magical Express bus, sank into the comfortable seats while our driver -- not the happiest person on Earth, and sounding like Eeyore -- welcomed us to the Walt Disney World Resort. The bus ride lasted about 40 minutes, giving us a chance to see a bit of the lush green scenery and mulitple waterways and rivers before turning into our stop, the Port Orleans - Riverside Resort.

The Riverside contained two different types of buildings: the first resembled large Louisiana plantation houses; the second were smaller lodges known as Alligator Bayou -- what I quaintly referred to as the servants quarters. We stayed in the Bayou, in a very spacious room, with a gigantic King bed (complete with Mickey-inspired quilt). We walked around the grounds after unpacking, marveling at how much it didn't feel like Florida, and wound up back at the main building to find a bite to eat. Back at the room, we watched a little TV (mostly Disney-related channels, including 8 ESPN stations) and decided to go to bed early in preparation for the busy day to follow.

***All the pictures have been uploaded! Check them out: Walt Disney World Vacation.***

Thursday, April 17, 2008

We're Back!!

In spite of the few travel hiccups (such as the airline filing for bankruptcy), we made it to Walt Disney World and back in one piece. Today, we're unpacking, washing clothes, downloading pictures, and slowly returning to the normal routine. By tomorrow, all the pictures should be uploaded and ready for viewing so until then, it's good to be home!!

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Vacation, All I Ever Wanted

Tomorrow's the day! At 8:30AM we'll be airborne, flying toward Orlando and all things Disney. In trying to think of something appropriate to post, to keep you all entertained for the week that I'll be gone from blogdom, I leave you with this video of what I'm most looking forward to at Walt Disney World....



M-I-C.... See you real soon!
K-E-Y.... Why? Because we like you!
M-O-U-S-E!!!!

Monday, April 07, 2008

Released from Exile

I finished last night. After a week of fretting through puzzles and admiring the graphics and effects, I solved the last task and emerged victorious! (Prepare for geekinesss....)

Friday evening, I picked up from where I last stopped: in Edanna, a huge tree-like island, trying to figure out how to pop that gelatinous plant. After toying with a weird sunflower that reflected sunlight, I focused the reflected light onto the plant, which then burst and I continued my way to the very bottom of the tree, solving puzzles along the way until I was able to return to the main island of J'Nanin. CM watched from the bed, fell asleep and when I checked the clock, the bright blue digital numbers glared 11:30 at me. I reluctantly saved the game and shut down the computer.
Saturday, we ran quite a few errands in preparation for the trip: buying some shorts at Old Navy, a few shirts and travel-sized grooming products at Target, eating a late lunch at Islands. By the time we parked and stomped up the stairs, most of the day had already passed. We watched a little TV, and I even tried to read, but the game kept pulling at me so I gave in. Turned on the machine, slipped in the disk and set off to explore the next Age. This time, I called to CM and asked if he wanted to try the game. I stood over the chair as Amateria appeared on the screen, an Japanese-inspired land ringed with curving tracks much like a pinball machine. From the platform on the screen, we stared at a pagoda with curved tracks racing down each of its four side. The path leading to the pagoda was missing planks, forbidding us to cross, so CM turned to the left and followed a few suspension bridges into a corridor carved into the rocks, leading down a dimly lit, hexagonal staircase. After more exploring -- me telling CM which way to turn, what to click on, etc. -- we discovered three platforms that rose into the air, each overlooking a separate section of the island. CM left me to the game, "Just remember, I refuse to be a mistress to Exile!", and returned to the TV. I set about trying to solve the puzzles: how to create a complete track section so that a glass ball doesn't shatter before reaching the end. It took some time, but by 11:00PM, I had almost finished this Age before realizing that CM was asleep on the bed.

Sunday morning, we helped our friend CS pack up much of his belongings and carted them to his new house about two miles away. After another late lunch, we lingered on the couch back at the apartment, reading the newspaper, until the urge to play the game called once more, and I found myself back in front of the computer. And I finished Amateria, running to the living room to drag CM back because what happened was so cool! I clicked the last segment of a puzzle, and a glass ball formed around the screen. The ball dropped down one of the tracks and ran through the entire island, going through buildings and rocks, through forcefields and across weighted pathways. CM was mesmerized so once I returned to the main Age, I found the last linking book and off we zipped to Voltaic.
This time, I left CM alone -- after a little hovering -- to wander around the Grand Canyonesque landscape. He clicked down pathways, found an underwater turbine and managed to turn it on, discovered hidden doors and elevators. And soon, 45 minutes had passed. He was in shock, finally understanding how the game could suck someone in, hours passing by unnoticed. So I took over and after another hour and a half, finished the last of that Age's puzzles by filling a hot air balloon and traveling through a valley back to the entrance of the island. CM walked back in to change for bed and instead watched as I linked back to the main Age and uncovered one final linking book.
At the start of this Age called Narayan, an enraged Brad Douriff (who has been egging my character on throughout the entire game) related the final puzzle for me to solve: how to turn off the forcefields surrounding this floating island in order to escape. This took quite a bit of thinking and toying around with what few objects there were, and after about an hour, I finally figured it out! I set Douriff's character free -- without getting myself killed in the process -- and saved the very last linking book, returning it to its rightful author.

And then....I shut off the computer, moved to the couch in the living room and watched TV with my Sweetie.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Phantom Menace
Before Thursday night, I think I was the only gay man in North America never to have seen The Phantom of the Opera. Even though during college, I overplayed my soundtrack cassettes to the point that I bought a second set, knew most of the lyrics and could sing along at any given moment. My friends, and even a roommate or two, all balsted the soundtrack whenever possible. Most of them have even seen the show muliptle times: CM at least 7; CS 4 or 5; even my Mom has seen it three times. So finally after more than 20 years, I CM treated me to a performance at the Orange County Performing Artscenter.

CM and I met for dinner beforehand at the Corner Bakery in South Coast Plaza, wandered through a few shops (spending too much time browsing the available games for the Nintendo DS), and leisurely crossed the bridge over Bristol St. to the Artscenter. Once inside, I immediatley purchased a souvenir program to add to my collection then led CM up the stairs to our seats in the Orchestra section. The tickets were for Row G and offered a nice view of the stage, though I was worried about being able to see anything stage right. The set was ringed in grey and dingy drapes, theater curtains hanging haphazardly against the black wall, and at center stage sat a large object covered with one of the dingy drapes and with the word "chandelier" painted across the front.

The lights dimmed, and the auction began. A bit long and dull, but I knew that was just building up to the unveiling of the magnificent crystal chandelier which would then swing over the audience and rise to its resting place far above the stage. Instead, what was unveiled would have hung over the bar in an old Wild West saloon. No sparkling crystals to dazzle the crowd. And it oh so slowly assembled itself on stage (a nice effect) and oh so slowly lifted off the stage over the audience and up toward the ceiling while the very visible stagehands removed the grey drapery and curtains from around the set. After what seemed like twenty mintues, the show finally proceeded, and all I can say -- at the grave risk of being forced to return my gay card -- is that this was one...dull...show.

The story plodded along, not quite sure if it was a romance or a thriller. Jason Mills as the Phantom was miscast to me. Nice voice, but not the stage presence for such a menacing character. In one scene, Christine removes his mask, cringing to to other side of the stage in horror while the Phantom cowers then slowly crawls across the stage while singing, his voice unfortunately punctuating every word as he slammed an arm onto the stage. I did all I could not to laugh. And Polly Baird as Meg Giry was more focused on making sure she had the proper stance rather than a good voice. Sara Jean Ford performed fantastically as Christine Daaé, allowing her strong soprano to soar to the rafters. I felt bad for her when someone's cell phone rang during Wishing You Wer Somehow Here Again, but she didn't let that affect her performance. D.C. Anderson and Bruce Winant added the right comic touch to their roles of Messrs. André and Firmin.

As I feared, I missed a few crucial moments -- and most of the Masquerade number -- thanks to the design of the set and the theater. During Masquerade, a giant red drape blocked most of the stairs from my view so I never saw the dance nor the Phantom's entrance. The character of the Phantom came across as nothing more than a glorified stalker. (I preferred the Phantom in the book, a more menacing, haunted figure.) And let's not forget about the chandelier "crashing" to the stage. I lowered over the first few rows, stopped, slowly angled toward the stage, settled gently on the stage floor. I expected it to move faster, to be more dramatic after hearing others rave about that scene. I was so let down that CM asked if I wanted to leave during intermission. But I stuck it out, if only to say that I had seen Phantom.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

T-Minus 7 Days....

Airline Tickets: check

Resort Reservations: check

Park Hopper Tickets: check

Catsitter for Diesel: check

Mickey Ears: check
This time next week, CM and I will be in the air, happily flying toward Disneyworld and our first, real vacation together. We'll spend 6 nights at the Port Orleans - Riverside Resort (pictured) on the Disney property. I stayed there on my one and only previous visit way back in 1997, when the resort was known as Dixie Landings, and decided that was the place for us.

I'm so excited!!!

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Exile Continues....
Normally, I'm not so geeky, but....

I did manage to get a bit farther than I thought I would. The puzzles are more difficult than the last game, and I was incredibly surprised to find that I'd discovered how to access certain rooms containing the linking books. In the first room, I managed to link to a world called Edanna. In essence, this world, or "Age" as they are referred to in the game, consists of one big plant. I've walked up and down the single path many times, reaching the point in the picture. Partway along the path, I found a gelatinous, eyeball-type plant, and I know that I need to pop it somehow to create a reaction in order to further the game. The problem: I have no weapons - knife, dagger, spoon, toothpick. So I'm at a quandary as to what I need to do next. All the answers are there so if I take some time to look around, to try moving or touching things, something is bound to happen.

(And next time, I promise to have something more interesting to write about!)