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Belated Blogging

May 27th, 2008

If you thought that I’d think the long Memorial Day weekend was a perfect time to catch up on my blog, you are clearly not me, because I instead thought it was a perfect time to play with my Wii, early and often. My games of choice were “Pinball Hall of Fame: The Williams Collection,” a retro simulation of classic arcade tables, and “Thrillville: Off the Rails,” a theme park management title. The latter was aggressively teeny-bopper in style and complexity, but that was okay with me, because it also downplayed the three parts of theme park games that I hate most: economic micromanagement, incessantly pissed-off guests and copious amounts of vomit. The coaster editor was intuitive and fun, with all manner of wild rides to build.

So it was that I was otherwise engaged in building the perfect suspended roller coaster rather than writing about my recent California trip.

This was an unusual vacation for us in that it began with Vic and I in different places: me coming from the PBS conference in Palm Springs via rental car, and Vic flying directly into LAX. I was a bit concerned about that, but everything worked out okay. The drive from Palm Springs was scenic, what with the massive, massive wind farm on its outskirts amid the craggy desert terrain.

This creepy sculpture guards the entrance of a PS bar appropriately called “Hole in the Wall.”

Once I caught up with Vic, who’d already checked into the hotel, we drove out to Santa Monica to the area around the pier. A midway has been built up along it, and there’s a lengthy outdoor shopping corridor nearby with lots of trendy shops and nifty topiary dinosaurs.

Fortunately, we did not attempt to go down to my old stomping grounds in West Hollywood that evening, because it turned out that very day the California Supreme Court paved the way for gay marriage, and the streets were clogged with celebrations. We did make it the following day, by which time the furor had moved on, presumably to the local office of the justice of the peace. (Oh, and without getting on a soapbox, good for them.)

On Friday the 16th we ate breakfast crepes at the Farmer’s Market and then went shopping along Melrose Avenue. Melrose has a lot of hip clothing stores which Vic and I are much too old to even gaze upon, much less enter. It also has the display manikin pictured below, which Vic realized was not only lacking panties but sporting (and thankfully, the camera didn’t pick this up well) a thicket of pubes.

Stay classy, Melrose.

It was then off to Hollywood Boulevard for another leg of my L.A. reunion tour. As New York did with Times Square, so Hollywood has attempted with its famed walk of…er, fame. Unfortunately, they haven’t quite succeeded. The clean-up surrounds the immediate vicinity of Grauman’s Chinese and the impressive Kodak Theater (recent home of the Oscars), but once you get a block or so past Disney’s refurbished showplace, the El Capitan, it’s back to shuttered storefronts and sex shops. It’s depressing to see which celebrated personages of Hollywood long gone are unlucky enough to have their star on the Walk of Fame in front of a seedy electronics store.

Vicky gets the vapors on the Hollywood casting couch.

Oh, and then there are the street “performers.” You may have heard about them: enterprising bums who dress up as various characters and hang out in front of the Chinese Theater hoping to pose for photos with tourists in exchange for tips. It wouldn’t have been so bad if they weren’t so repellent and poorly costumed.

You know he’s Elmo because he has an Elmo bag and backpack.

I mean, I am not the PBS Police, but damned if I didn’t want to turn that guy in for trademark infringement. And he wasn’t as bad as the Spidey in a sweat-soaked, dark maroon suit, or the woman who couldn’t decide if she was Batgirl or Catwoman and so split the difference. At least the two Jack Sparrows were pretty good, because Captain Jack is supposed to look mangy.

In addition to them were the religious hucksters, the Scientologists and the incessant peddlers of Hollywood tours, the latter of which must have accosted us every ten feet. Hollywood can build all the fancy, schmancy monuments to itself that it wants, but what it really needs is a high-pressure hose.

Saturday the 17th I got together with my old California roommate Guy, who still lives in the very same apartment building that he did 22 years ago (rent control is, I’m told, a wonderful thing). I was blown away by his sizable collection of memorabilia from Disneyland’s “Haunted Mansion.” He keeps his home (as the ride’s spiel says) “delightfully unlivable.”

After spending the afternoon knocking around the area’s horror-themed stores (there are more than you might think), we left Guy and drove down to Anaheim to visit one of my first loves, Disneyland. While I’ve been to Disney World in Florida a couple of times in the past few years, it’s probably been at least a decade since I’ve been to the original. And boy, has it changed. Happily, for the better.

I was amazed at just how built up the area has become. Disneyland had once been hemmed in on all sides by sprawl, but they’ve apparently managed to buy up enough of the surrounding area to do some proper landscaping and further separate their fantasy land from the outside world. (Something that had bugged me in previous visits was just how depressingly visible reality was from some of the taller rides.)

We stayed at a place called the Candy Cane Inn, a nice, non-Disney hotel that was literally walking distance from the main gate. It took me a while to get my bearings despite my old familiarity with Disneyland, as there’s now a second park (“California Adventure”) on the site of the old parking lot, as well as a smaller version of Florida’s “Downtown Disney.”

On the midway at California Adventure.

Now, I’m in many ways a Disneyland purist, but part of that is embracing Walt’s philosophy that the park will never be finished. And so I not only wasn’t bothered by the changes large and small that I discovered, but was generally pleased with them.

Among the enhancements was the addition of animatronic Johnny Depps to “Pirates of the Caribbean.” They were well-integrated into the storyline and, given that the films had so many visual nods to the ride, they fit right in. Also welcome were the now-floating head of Madame Leota in the “Haunted Mansion”‘s seance room, as well as the spruced up attic scene with its murderous bride. And while it’s been a long time since I’ve been aboard the Disneyland version of “Space Mountain,” the ride seemed much smoother and faster and kicked a tremendous amount of ass. Finally, the long-dormant “Submarine Voyage” was back, ridding itself of its absurdly outdated mechanical fish-on-sticks technology in favor of underwater projection systems featuring the cast of Finding Nemo. It was cute, if not necessarily worth the insane crowds lined up for it.

One of my favorite spots on Earth: the path leading up to Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion.

I’ve always preferred the original Disneyland to its Florida cousins, and this trip reminded me why. It’s smaller, and thus easier to get around. It’s the only park with the “Indiana Jones” ride. It still has charming and unique Fantasyland attractions such as “Alice in Wonderland,” “Storybook Land,” and “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.” Its version of “Pirates of the Caribbean” is considerably longer. And it has the Blue Bayou restaurant, which overlooks the “Pirates” swamp and simulates a nighttime sky in broad daylight. We got a waterside table and watched the boats drift by on their way to Davy Jones’ Locker.

We also got stuck on “Alice in Wonderland” and had to be evacuated, the first time that’s ever happened to me. Not sure what happened, but all the lights came on and we were trapped amidst the giant flowers until a “cast member” escorted us out through a side door. Hey, at least we got to go straight to the front of the line once the ride was fixed.

The view from our “Alice” car.

“California Adventure,” which I saw for the first time, seemed to echo comments I’d previously read which suggested it was a theme park in search of an identity. As Vic put it, you’re already having a California adventure. My impression was that most of the attractions were things that you’d find at a non-Disney park, including the ubiquitous river raft ride. Still, I had to admit that the “California Screamin'” roller coaster was a hell of a lot of fun. I also enjoyed their version of the “Tower of Terror,” though in this case the Florida version is more extensive. And while the giant Ferris wheel–which has cars which slide back and forth as well as revolving–had me ready to hurl, both of us really enjoyed the Monsters, Inc., which ends with an animatronic Roz (the slug-like dispatcher with the gravelly voice) taunting riders in real-time via a hidden cast member. Honestly, I think you could take Screamin’, Tower and Monsters (plus the popular “Soarin’ Over California”) and ditch the rest of the park.

Most of the time we were in California it was 90-plus in the shade, with Palm Springs baking in the upper 90s as we flew out on Tuesday the 20th. Imagine our surprise when we got home and it was in the 50s, in late May no less. And today, as I look out the window at the rainy, 55-degree day, I find myself wishing I was back in California, eating a frozen Minute Maid lemonade and waiting to go back on “Space Mountain.”

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