Saturday, November 18, 2017

Disneyland, DCA, and a whole lotta taco salads

Sit down. Get a drink. This is gonna take a while.

Since one of the rules of social media etiquette is "Don't make it too easy for stalkers and burglars," and since we have now returned, I can tell you what Captain Midnight and I have been up to this past week.

How it started:

Back in October...
Soozcat: Hey, have you seen the fare sales for flights recently?
CM: Nope.
Soozcat: They are super reasonable. Look at this flight to LAX.
CM: That is a good price.
Soozcat: What are we doing the week before Thanksgiving?
CM: Nothing that I know of. You have anything planned?
Soozcat: Nope.

And so we did. Well, after shopping and paying for flight/hotel/rental car/park tickets/etc. and finding some cat-sitters.

If you're planning to visit the parks soon, some random bits of potentially useful info:
  • Long Beach Airport (we call it the Fisher-Price Airport for its tiny, retro terminal building) is a good choice. It isn't the closest to Disneyland (John Wayne Airport in Orange County is closer), but it's so small that you can get in and out of there fast.
  • Disney resorts offer few ticket discounts, but you can lower costs a little by planning ahead. We bought tickets from Get Away Today (who did not pay for this endorsement, btw), and this time we passed on the Park Hoppers to buy three-day 1-Park Per Day tickets. Each morning we decided which of the two Disney parks we'd visit (we chose two days at Disneyland and one day at Disney California Adventure). Whichever ticket option you choose, buying tickets in advance is better than buying full-price tickets at the gate.
  • If big crowds are an issue for you (they are for us), check a crowd forecast calendar (here's one) to see how busy the parks will be on the days you plan to visit. We picked the first few days in the week before Thanksgiving (the 13th, 14th and 15th) because we saw the crowds would be manageable on those days.
  • Arrive early. Even if you already have tickets, there will be wait lines at the entrance. You can enter the parks before they officially open; you just won't be able to get on any rides. Being right there the moment they open means more opportunities to get on rides and pick up FastPasses (on which, more later).
  • You can carry food into the parks. We brought simple snacks like beef jerky, cheese sticks and granola bars. Just don't pack anything in glass containers, because Disney security searches all bags and will remove glass. (I saw a four-pack of Frappuccinos getting confiscated from a woman ahead of me in line.)
  • It's easy to get dehydrated, and the cost of drinks inside the resort is nuts, so bring a water bottle with you (preferably plastic -- see above), drink early and often, and refill it as needed. And it will be needed -- we each went through 3+ liters of liquid every day. There's a water station at the Rancho del Zocalo restaurant in Disneyland's Frontierland. DCA has a baby care and lost child center next to the Ghirardelli soda fountain in Pacific Wharf; if you're polite and ask the attendants, they'll let you refill your bottle from the sink.
  • Get FastPasses. We've heard good reports about the MaxPass app, which lets you reserve FastPasses from your smartphone, but there wasn't a version for CM's phone, so we just picked up FastPasses as quickly as possible for any popular attraction we wanted to ride. We'd also see if other attractions in the area had short standby wait times and would get in line if the wait was 15 minutes or less. This method let us ride nearly everything we wanted at least once, and a few popular rides multiple times. Also, if you like the Indiana Jones ride, get FastPasses as early as possible and hang onto them even if the ride breaks down during your FastPass window (as it frequently does). You'll be able to get on as soon as it reopens.
  • KEEP TRACK OF YOUR TICKETS. You must scan your park entrance tickets at the beginning and end of each FastPass line, which means you take your tickets out more often, and every time you take out your ticket is another chance to lose it. And if you do, your Disney vacation is over -- no refunds. So keep your tickets safe.
  • There are LOTS of food options in the parks, and while none are super-cheap, some are better values than others. CM likes to get a taco salad from Disneyland's Rancho del Zocalo for lunch, since the price is relatively reasonable and it keeps him full until dinner. DCA's Pacific Wharf is a glorified food court; it's easy to walk around this area and make one of several choices for lunch.
  • While it's pricey (as of November 2017, expect to spend $100+ on a meal for two), we like to spring for an atmospheric lunch at Disneyland's Blue Bayou Restaurant in New Orleans Square. This perennially-twilit restaurant inside the Pirates of the Caribbean ride fills up quickly with reservations, but there's often space available for walk-in diners, especially at lunchtime. Just don't eat the gumbo! It's a total salt bomb.
  • Don't freak out too much about the signage that says the premises contain compounds known to the State of California to cause cancer. If you wander around Southern California, you will see these signs everywhere. And I mean EVERYWHERE. The State of California has determined that everything fun causes cancer. Just accept that modern life is inherently hazardous and go your merry way.
Well, enough of this gay banter, let's regale you with tales and pix of the vay-cay!


We arrived late on the 11th and checked into our hotel. It was right by a state highway, which worried me, but we didn't hear traffic noises once. Thanks to an improperly-installed door, however, we did hear the conversations of everyone who passed by our hotel room, day or night. (We slept very soundly on this trip, so it didn't matter.)

About a block away, an El Pollo Loco was still open, so we drove through and CM ordered a chicken tostada salad. He devoured it with much gusto. (This started a taco salad obsession that lasted the entire trip; CM wanted a tostada salad from El Pollo Loco every evening. Literally. Every. Evening. In fact, if an El Pollo Loco were to sprout up in our town this moment, I couldn't keep up with the CM-shaped blur SPRINTING there to get a tostada salad fix.)

The 12th was a day of rest. We bummed around the hotel, watched TV, went to brunch, and I wrote many postcards to the fam. Following longstanding family tradition, I sent this to my sister Julie:

(Julie started it.)
The 13th and 14th were our Disneyland days. Surprisingly, I didn't take a whole lotta pix in Disneyland this time -- probably because I've taken extensive pix on our previous visits. I did have some time while Captain Midnight was riding Star Tours to take a few forlorn pictures of Tomorrowland. (I love the concept of Star Tours, but nothing in the parks -- not even the major roller coasters -- makes me as motion sick as Star Tours does. This time I didn't want to chance it, not even with Dramamine, so I waited while CM went.)

I used the word "forlorn" to describe Tomorrowland for a reason. Although it hosts popular rides like Space Mountain, Autopia, Astro Blasters and the Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage, much of Tomorrowland feels broken. It's clear the Disney Powers that Be can't figure out how to utilize most of the structures, such as the 3D theater (currently showing a less-than-spectacular 2D Star Wars clip show), the former Carousel of Progress (the no-longer-rotating show building holds Star Wars props and costumes and Darth Vader meet-and-greets), and the PeopleMover/RocketRods track (the abandoned loading area is shown above). If these structures had been razed and replaced with something newer and better, the area wouldn't seem as abandoned as it does now.

I remember what Tomorrowland was like when I was a child in the '70s -- still a little behind the times (it's tough to keep up with the future), but full of life and movement, with an active sky tram terminal, PeopleMovers rolling sedately overhead, and Stuff Going On everywhere. Even in the dystopian 1970s, Tomorrowland continued to posit a grand future -- as the Sherman brothers wrote, "a great big beautiful tomorrow" ahead. I don't get that feeling in Tomorrowland any more. I think the only way to get it back is to bring in people who are positive futurists, as Walt Disney was, and who are actively building the future right now. Let them show us how they imagine the world will be better in 20 to 50 years. So what if they're wrong? The old Rocket to the Moon ride got some things wrong, and so did the Mission to Mars, and the Adventure thru Inner Space. It didn't matter; these attempts to scry the future were, in their day, more bold than anything Disney has going on now.

And speaking of what Disney has going on:

You can't see much of it from inside the park, but at certain places in Frontierland -- notably, from the top of Big Thunder Mountain Railroad -- you can catch a few glimpses of the new Star Wars Land being built. The visible structures look flowy and organic. I'm not sure if they're working on a Tatooine-ish vibe or something we haven't seen before. And I hope that as they move Star Wars-related attractions to this new land, they will finally take on the brokenness of Tomorrowland and find someone with the vision to fix it.

So, as previously indicated, our first two days were spent in Disneyland enjoying our favorite parts of the park. Then, on the 15th...

...we went here. And to make up for not taking foties in Disneyland, I went a little overboard taking foties in DCA.

In the early planning stages, DCA was known as "Westcot." The original idea was to make it a western version of the Epcot Center in Walt Disney World, but at some point that idea was abandoned to make way for California Adventure -- originally a park made up of "the best California has to offer." But the original vision of DCA didn't work for most visitors, who reasoned that they were already in California and could go see the places that inspired DCA if they wanted; what they'd hoped for was something unique. So recently DCA got a huge (and expensive) overhaul.

The new entrance, in full holiday mode. The big letters stretching across the plaza that spelled out CALIFORNIA are gone.

Buena Vista Street, DCA's analogue to Main Street in Disneyland, recreates a typical Southern California main street of the 1930s -- right around the time Walt Disney released Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Most of this area is given over to shopping and dining, with a red streetcar running along the tracks every so often.

If I could give the Disney people one idea to implement in DCA, it would be this: add a transportation circle route. The Disneyland Railroad gets people to sections of the park faster than they can walk there, and it helps pull all the lands of the park together. There's no similar circle route around DCA, and it needs one. A streetcar running on a track around the edges of DCA would serve the area just as the DLRR does in Disneyland. If the track had to be routed through Cast Member Only areas, you could disguise it by creating tunnels or something like the Grand Canyon/Primeval World diorama that hides the big Cast Member area in Disneyland.

But they're not likely to do this, having just spent a bazillion dollars retooling DCA. Eh well.

The fountain in the center of the hub, Carthay Circle. It's very picturesque, is it not?

Lest you should forget: IT'S CHRISTMAS! (Even though it isn't Thanksgiving yet. Go fig.)

Here's the Carthay Circle Restaurant, taken later in the evening. It's a reproduction of the original Carthay Circle Theater, which hosted the premiere showing of Snow White.

Some architectural details on the Carthay Circle. The tile work on this building is splendorous.

No, really.

Worth stopping and taking a look at.

But we didn't stop for long because we only had ONE DAY in DCA. So, to the left of the Carthay Circle fountain is Hollywood Land, styled after silver-screen-era Hollywood at the height of its glamour.

At the end is the fa├žade wall which hides the Hyperion Theater, currently showing a one-hour adaptation of the movie Frozen. It's pretty good; I'd describe the production values as being near-Broadway quality, with digital projections to simulate frost magic and the movement of Kristoff's sleigh through the snow, and puppetry to bring non-human characters like Olaf and Sven to life.

As you turn the corner to the right, you expect to see the old Hollywood Tower Hotel (aka the Tower of Terror), but this has been retooled as a new attraction. More on that later.

This area has a 3D theater that until recently housed MuppetVision 3D, but which is currently empty. (My cousin David would be so sad.) It also has a Monsters Inc. dark ride called Mike and Sulley to the Rescue, which has an animatronic of Roz that's "smart" enough to recognize things like glasses, cameras, purses, etc., and to make comments about them as you leave the ride.

The Animation Building has several minor attractions, meet-and-greets with characters and Turtle Talk with Crush, but we like to stop at the Animation Academy, where you learn how to draw various characters from a Disney animator.

This time we drew Pluto.

CM's Pluto wants bones. I'm kind of surprised he didn't draw little taco salad pupils on there.

Let's move on to another section of the park: Paradise Pier.

It's reminiscent of many old beachside playlands that used to be very common along the California coast. (And it looks a little dreary in this picture because there was some mid-morning haze that burned off later in the day.)

To the left, a bit of Ariel's Grotto, a character dining area. To the right, a sliver of the Ferris wheel. In the center, a whole lot of screaming people doing a loop-the-loop on California Screamin'.

A better look at Mickey's Fun Wheel, which used to be called the Sun Wheel. Some years ago, Miss V and my sister Jenny rode this wheel, but they made the mistake of getting in a swinging carriage instead of a stationary one. I guess the erratic movement made them feel like they were gonna die. The trauma from this ride has scarred my sister sufficiently that she can't go on Ferris wheels any more.

Across the water, you can see the Golden Zephyr swinging riders around. To the left is the Jumping Jellyfish ride. Behind them both is what I think must be part of the Grand Californian Hotel.

You can't go anywhere around Paradise Pier without seeing or hearing the roller coaster. It's built into everything. Does a great job of getting you excited to ride it, and there was almost no line on the day we visited because they had all four cars on the tracks at once.

Anyway, this is Toy Story Midway Mania, a hybrid dark ride and 3D video game. You put on your 3D glasses, hop in a cart and are steered around to various projected midway attractions where you hit targets with your onboard pop gun. It's fun, but a long wait because it's relatively new. CM got the high score for our cart every time.

I think the long-range plan is for DCA to be a showcase for Disney's newer properties, like Pixar and Marvel. You can see it already in Cars Land and a bug's land. I could easily see them rebranding this entire area Pixar Pier.

The bridge to Pacific Wharf, which as previously mentioned is a glorified food court. You can get Boudin sourdough bread and Ghirardelli chocolate here, which warms my little Northern California native heart.

Across from the entrance to Pacific Wharf, still on Paradise Pier, is The Little Mermaid dark ride. It's cute, and has some fairly complex special effects and animatronics for a kiddie ride. I'm sure it would fit well in Fantasyland if there were any space left, but it's themed well enough, being next to the water.

From this ride we learned that the fluke is the duke of soul. (Yeah.)

Remember how the entrance to DCA had a big sign that said "Festival of Holidays?" They weren't kidding. Although they did pass up Thanksgiving, just about every other winter holiday known to mankind is celebrated here (there's a strong emphasis on Christmas, but we saw items and performances for Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and Diwali as well). All along these walkways are little huts serving bites and noshes associated with the winter holidays, from gingerbread to rugelach to chana masala.

Also, I just want to point out the T-shirt of the guy on the left, which says, "I'm So Fly I Never Land."


a bug's land is mostly meant for little kids, who have to pass up many rides because they're not tall enough yet. All the kids I saw in this area were having a ball.

They were really pushing the upcoming Coco hard in DCA.

This is Princess Dot Puddle Park, a laminar flow fountain kids can run around in. Every now and then the huge sprinkler head to the right pops on and douses everybody.

Oh yeah, I did say we were gonna get to this later, and now it's later. So: this is what they did to the Tower of Terror.

It's now the Guardians of the Galaxy Mission: Breakout!

I have to admit, I didn't think I was going to like this retooling. The old Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, despite being based on a carnival drop ride, was suitably atmospheric and creepy, and the random drops were scary in an I-AM-GOING-TO-DIE sort of way. I didn't think they could make it better.

They made it better.

Here's Taneleer Tivan, a Bowiesque immortal character also called The Collector. Because nothing says "bloated ego" like a golden statue of oneself, no?

Tivan's vast collection includes a garden with unusual flora from around the galaxy. (I can just imagine some ornamental horticulturist being turned loose to find "unearthly plants" for this attraction, can't you?)

Every garden needs a gnome.

(Sorry about the blurriness; the FastPass line was moving quickly and I didn't get much of a chance to focus.) Tivan has captured the Guardians of the Galaxy and made them part of his collection, which they don't cotton to much. You are ostensibly there to view the wonders of the Tivan collection using a gantry lift.

A possibly familiar-looking hammer in the collection. There was also a yeti from the Matterhorn.

You enter a room described as Tivan's private study, and a film comes on wherein Tivan introduces you to his collection, but he doesn't get very far because Rocket drops into the room through a vent and starts messing with the audio. He explains that he needs your help to bust the Guardians out of prison, since humanoid hands are the only ones that can pass the scanners. Once you're in the lift with seatbelt securely fastened (and be sure it's SECURELY fastened, because you're gonna have some zero-g experiences soon) and it pulls away from the doors, you can see Rocket's silhouette on top of the gantry pulling cables apart and screwing up the hardware. Then he plugs one cable into a portable music device -- and the first time we rode this thing, the music from the Awesome Mix we got (it's randomly selected) made me holler YAAAAS because it was the Jackson 5's "I Want You Back." Which has the best intro bass line of all time, and you can't not be happy listening to that.

So then you start getting randomly pulled up and dropped to various levels, and at each stopping point you see a high-resolution projection of what the Guardians are up to -- usually getting attacked by various other denizens of the Tivan collection which are on the loose as well.

It was fun, but being a fat lady I had to hang onto the grab bar with all my might after the first good drop. Even with the seatbelt as tight as it would go, I was taking some serious air. WheeeAAAAAUGH

Let's see, what else? To the right of Buena Vista Street is Condor Flats, but I didn't really take pictures of this area. It's where you can find the Soarin' ride, which is one of my favorites, but it was completely socked in with people. There was a huge line just to get FastPasses, and the standby line was over an hour long. So we didn't ride it this time.

Instead we continued on toward Grizzly Peak. Look, son, a majestic fake waterfall!

This whole area has a National Parks vibe, very early 20th century Arts-and-Crafts-ish, with WPA-styled art.

The Grizzly River Run had been down for a while, but it reopened just as we walked by, so we got on with no wait. Even the big bear statue at the entrance had been Christmasified.

Because it's pretty much impossible to take pictures while on this ride (unless you have a GoPro or some other waterproof camera), I got some foties of other people on the ride.

Behold the intrepid whitewater rafters as they set a course for soggy jeans!

And off they go, never to be seen again. At least not by me.

Most other water rides in the Disneyland Resort say, "You may get wet." Not this one. This one says, "You WILL get wet. You may get SOAKED."

Having ridden this several times, I have to say there is still some truth in advertising. I was drippy but happy the rest of the day.

And here's Cars Land, the newest land at DCA. And yes, IT'S CHRISTMAS.

A little peek down the main street of Radiator Springs... but wait, what's this?

NOOOOOOOO! The big ride we came to ride is UNAVAILABLE during our one day at DCA?!?!

Yup yup yup. True true true. If we'd chosen to visit DCA the day before, we could have ridden it. But we didn't know. So we didn't get the chance this time. It just means we have to visit DCA again soon, right?

Well, while we're here, let's just see what else Radiator Springs has to offer.

This little tractor ride is the DCA equivalent of the Mad Tea Party ride in Disneyland. We got a kick out of Mater giving safety instructions, both in English and Super Redneck Accent Spanish.

They really did a great job of bringing Radiator Springs to life.

The Cozy Cone, looking (appropriately enough) cozy. With the Guardians of the Galaxy ride in the background, because you really can't hide it.

Flo's place.

No need for coolant today, I did the Grizzly River Run.

The Casa Della Tires, reminding you that IT'S CHRISTMAS.

At the intersection of the main drag and Route 66, a little impromptu dance party with waitresses doing the boogie.

City Hall, with a bit of the Cadillac Ridge showing behind it. CM pointed out to me that each section of the ridge is different because of the differing fin styles on each model year of Cadillac. I love it.

Oh, and a hubcap Christmas tree because have we mentioned IT'S CHRISTMAS?

Disney is exceptional at providing immersive detail. Here they didn't have to do anything but put up an Exit sign. But they wanted everything to reflect the idea that this is Radiator Springs, even the small details. That's part of what makes it magical.

One of the good things about the racers ride being closed is that there were no crowds here. So it was easy to take some good pictures of the track and its surroundings.

Now you know why Radiator Springs is called the Gateway to Ornament Valley.

You can see a bit of the track from this vantage point. There's also a plaque with lots of information about all the rock formations, and lots and lots of car-related puns. Some geologist had a field day.

The best-lookin' guy in the whole resort. And I got to hang out with him! Lucky me.

The aftermath:

We headed home on the 16th, by which point CM was starting to feel sniffly and had a sore throat. He's spent the last few days with a full-on head and chest cold, which is not the best way to round out a vacation, poor guy. But at least he's sick at home, which is better than being sick on vacation. I have been dosing him with chicken soup and ginger tea, and he's been taking medicinal hot baths and eating fiery raw garlic popcorn, so whatever bug he's picked up should soon be defeated.

And if you got all the way to the end of this long and rambly vacation tale, congratulations! You are truly mighty! Go get yourself a taco salad!

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