Birthday Week

Last Thursday was my birthday, and we had a heck of a busy week around it!

For starters, we went to to Disneyland last weekend, flying down Saturday and coming back Tuesday, spending 2-1/2 days in the park(s). Since SuperShuttle has gone under, we tried Wingz, which is like Uber and Lyft except that they vet their drivers more carefully (or so I’ve read), and they primarily do airport transportation, where you can request a ride weeks ahead of time. Our trip to and from the Anaheim airport both went really smoothly, with friendly drivers who were on time and flexible. It was probably a little more expensive than Lyft, but not a lot. Would definitely recommend. We learned the difference when we used Lyft to get home from the San Jose airport on Tuesday and got a driver with a messy car with way too much air freshener.

The big change at Disneyland since our last visit (two years ago!) is the opening of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge (or “Star Wars Land” as lots of people call it). It’s still kind of in its formative stages, but it was pretty populated while we were there. The main ride, “Smugger’s Run”, is okay, being kind of a guided video game you play with 6 people, with excellent graphics. But the scenery in the area is the main draw, with an elaborate settlement with a large reproduction of the Millennium Falcon, as well as a small Resistance base in some nearby ruins (with a ride which opened the weekend after we were there). And also the second place in Disneyland that sells alcohol, a cantina you should reserve a spot in ahead of time. They also have a build-a-droid experience, and a build-a-lightsaber experience, and Debbi bought me the latter as a birthday gift. The lightsaber seems like it’s really high quality, with nifty audio and visual details.

Oga's Cantina
The interior of Oga’s Cantina.

We rode a lot of the old favorites, including Big Thunder Mountain Railroad 3 times. The Indiana Jones ride is showing its age and broke down a lot, including twice when we had fastpasses to it. Space Mountain was slammed as usual, and Haunted Mansion has gotten very popular lately, typically with a wait time double that of Pirates of the Caribbean. We rode Star Tours twice, though its current Rise of Skywalker form is not as interesting as what it was after its overhaul a decade ago, when you could go to 3 different world on each ride. Hopefully once RoS leaves theaters they’ll put it back to mixing things up on each ride.

My favorite ride used to be the Californian Screamin’ coaster in California Adventure, but they’ve reskinned it using The Incredibles – a film I’m not much of a fan of – and we didn’t get to ride it because – you guessed it – it broke down when we had fastpasses. Oh well! Alas, the nifty “tour of California” theme of California Adventure has now been erased by the Disneyfication of the park over the last decade, so it’s lost a lot of its charm. The new Lamplight Lounge is pretty nice, although I don’t think it’s displaced the Hearthstone Lounge for me (the best kept secret on the property, I think). A Bug’s Land is being demolished for – I believe – a Marvel superhero area, presumably to integrate with the Guardians of the Galaxy ride behind it. We also road Soarin’ twice, which is also not as great as its previous Soarin’ Over California incarnation was.

Anyway, that and our tired feet aside, we had a good time and will try to go back sooner than another 2 years!

My actual birthday rolled around on Thursday and I treated myself to my free Starbucks drink in the morning to go with the scones Debbi baked for me. I had a pretty quiet day at work – lots of people were busy so I went to coffee by myself, and in the rain yet! (But, I love rain.) The original plan was for me to grill hamburgers for dinner, but instead we went downtown to Don Giovanni, which was yummy.

And Friday we went to Sundance the Steakhouse, which is what I always pick for my “official” birthday dinner. Their Moscow Mules are especially yummy for some reason, and birthday mud pie for dessert is also a nice bonus. Debbi noticed that some of the crew from Fox’s NFL broadcast show were eating there, including Jimmy Johnson and maybe Terry Bradshaw, but we didn’t want to stare so I’m not sure. They were in town of course because the 49ers were hosting the Green Bay Packers in The NFL championship on Sunday.

Saturday I went to Isle of Gamers for the Magic Theros: Beyond Death prerelease. I had a pretty good deck, I thought, although nothing obviously broken. My first match was a tie, but with 2 more turns I think I could have won it. I won my second match easily, and then tied my third match (and we barely started the third game). I think I played pretty well, but a 1-0-2 record was just barely better than break-even. Well, it beats a sharp poke in the eye! I can confirm that the card Ashiok, Nightmare Muse is a house. It almost singlehandedly won 3 games for me.

The deck I ran was close to what’s shown here.

Sunday we finally took down our Christmas lights, a week later since we were away last weekend, and then we watched football for the afternoon. The Niners annihilated the Packers, as the Packers’ offense was sloppy and the defense had no answer for Raheem Mostert’s run game. It was kind of embarrassing, really. The Niners face the Chiefs in 2 weeks in the Super Bowl.

I had today off for Martin Luther King Day, and Debbi didn’t. I think in 2023 MLK Day will fall on my birthday and I’ll get it off work for that reason (something that sometimes happened when I was a kid, as MLK Day was a holiday for some of my childhood in Massachusetts). I took care of some long-standing chores and finished Charles Stross‘ latest Laundry Files novel, which means I’m caught up on his books for the time being.

And that was about it. Not a bad, um, ten days of birthday celebration of various intensities. But I’m kinda ready for life to get back to normal for a few weeks, anyway. More rain in the forecast tomorrow, so that’ll make me happy.

Summer at Disneyland in February

We’re back from a long weekend at Disneyland! This was a slightly different trip for us, as we’ve never gone in February before, and we also flew down rather than drove. When you factor in getting to the airport early, flying is not a huge amount faster than driving (though if they close the Grapevine into L.A. as they did last time we went then it is quite a bit faster to fly), but it is nice to not have to do the driving ourselves, and it really does shave at least an hour or two off of the travel time. We also had a hilarious driver of our SuperShuttle from the Orange County airport.

We stayed at the Carousel Inn, which we were less impressed with. Aside from the extremely small bathroom and the tub drain getting clogged, it has a weird mix of old/new technology: Ancient lights with push buttons which are nonetheless wired to modern wall switches, and an old air conditioner with a modern thermostat control. It was like the ultimate half-assed remodel. At least the beds were comfortable and things basically worked, but it’s not a place we’ll be in a hurry to return to. Of course it’s also very close to the main entrance to the park, which is why we chose it (well, that and several other hotels were full by the time we booked).

Anyway, we bought 3-day passes for the parks since we got there early enough on Saturday to enjoy a half-day. Quite a few attractions were closed as they’re refurbishing many of them in preparation for Disneyland’s 60th anniversary which starts later this year. The two I missed the most were Soarin’ Over California and the Disneyland Railroad. Well okay, I also missed Muppet*Vision 3D, which is temporarily displaced by a Frozen musical theater.

Disneyland Main Entrance

Since we usually go to Disneyland during the holidays, this was a – for us – rare opportunity to see the Haunted Mansion in its standard, non-holiday configuration, which I appreciate more than the holiday version. I’m not a big fan of The Nightmare Before Christmas (I prefer The Corpse Bride), and the bright colors and less-detailed figures of the holiday set-up I find less appealing overall. I particularly enjoyed seeing the “bride’s attic”, which lead me to learn that Wikipedia has an enormous entry on characters in the Haunted Mansion. You’re welcome.

Though we were getting a series of rain storms at home when we left, it was bright, sunny and warm in Anaheim while we were there, and I wore shorts on Sunday and Monday, and was glad I’d brought them. Honestly I almost wish it had been a bit overcast like it was on Saturday, since it was maybe too warm for a few hours at midday otherwise. (I’m sure all our friends who are snowed in in the northeast are really sad to hear that.)

We spent a chunk of time in Downtown Disney, which now features what may be the largest Starbucks I’ve ever seen:

Ginormous Starbucks in Downtown Disney
(click for larger image)

And we spent chunks of two evenings in the Hearthstone Lounge for cocktails, and one night for dinner since we were not very hungry (having chowed down on fried chicken for lunch) and just had some of their bar snacks for dinner. This lounge is becoming my favorite place to end a day once the parks are winding down.

We rode a bunch of rides multiple times, including the recently-refurbished Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. And while the Radiator Springs Racers is a fun ride, we only rode it once because of its long lines. And honestly, as I remarked at one point, the best thing about the Racers is that it sucks crowds away from California Screamin’, which to my mind is the superior ride.

Debbi also bought some Disney pins. I don’t think she’s going to go full-on into pin trading, but she did have this experience: We were in a store on Main Street and she saw a Tigger pin (Tigger is her favorite character) available for trade. The cast member (employee) working the counter said she could buy a pin off the wall to trade for it, so she told me to pick a pin for her. I picked a Stitch pin, and she made some comment about not liking that pin. (I thought it was fine, actually, but not one I wanted to own myself.) The cast member said, “You know whatever pin you picked would have been the wrong one.” Yeah, I did. So, Debbi traded for the Tigger pin, and the cast member took the Stitch pin to put on the board to trade. And just after he did, a maybe eight-year-old girl came up and said that she’d been looking to trade for that Stitch pin all day! So I guess I did choose the right pin!

Oh, and along the way I also took this picture of Debbi:



We and our tired feet flew back on Tuesday, and got home early enough to run some errands and settle in.

Debbi was intent on not running us ragged on this trip, and I think we had a good mix of doing stuff, standing in lines, and just hanging around. I think the only things we really missed were seeing fireworks, and riding Star Tours (we opted to ride Space Mountain a second time instead).

And I’m sure we’ll go back sometime during the upcoming 60th anniversary, too.

Three Days at Disneyland

Last weekend we drove down to Disneyland and spent three days there. Other than our trip to Disney World in 2007, I think this is the longest we’ve spent at a Disney park. But, we haven’t been in several years (thanks to our vacation moratorium due to Newton and Blackjack’s conditions), and Debbi was missing it, so we added the extra day.

Unfortunately, on Saturday when we drove down, snow closed both the Grapevine into Los Angeles and its main alternate route. After lunch at Harris Ranch, we learned of the closure in time to reroute from I-5 through the central valley to Hwy 101 on the coast, but it added 2 or 3 hours to our trip. We had 6:30 reservations for dinner and were worried we wouldn’t make it, but we got to our hotel around 5:40 and made it to dinner in time – where we met Mark and Yvette, whom we hadn’t seen in a while. They introduced us to the bar & lounge at the Grand Californian hotel, which has some killer drinks and some good appetizers.

Disneyland Main Gate

A few rides were closed at the parks while we were there, but the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad roller coaster was the only one we really missed. Otherwise we rode all of our favorite rides on Sunday, and went around the park in the railway train. In the evening we had reservations for dinner to get the preferred seating for the World of Color show, which was nice since it was getting pretty cold and a sit-down dinner was a good way to get out of the chill. (The restaurant also had the same drinks as at the bar Saturday night.)

Paradise Pier

One of the bummers at the park is that Starbucks is apparently taking over coffee services there. I don’t loathe Starbucks, but I do find them to be below-average coffee (especially drip coffee). They’ve replaced the old coffee ship on Main Street, which was wonderful, not just because you could get a free refill, but because the drip coffee was genuinely tasty. I realize that Disneyland’s relentless commercialism is just a part of the park, but this is definitely a big step backwards.

Monday was inexplicably cold and windy, which was awkward since this was the day we decided to try the Radiator Springs Racers, which is the hot new ride at California Adventure. We got a Fastpass for it and then stood in line for 90 minutes for an extra ride. And holy cow the main feed to the ride is the coldest spot in the park, and the staff don’t even have heaters to keep them warm! But we got to ride it twice. It’s a good ride, but not perhaps worth waiting that long for a go.

Radiator Springs

In the evening we had reservations at the Blue Bayou restaurant, and despite somehow having been forgotten about for a while after checking in, we ended up with a water-side table. The food was good as always. Just as we were finishing up and looking at the dessert menu, the manager of our section told us the fire alarm was going off and everyone had to evacuate. She told us since we were done we could just leave and not come back to pay. Strange! But surely a much smaller hassle than for people who were halfway through their dinner (especially since it was c-o-l-d outside).

Tuesday we had a “magic morning”, getting into Disneyland an hour before regular opening, so we went to ride several of the classic Fantasyland rides (which don’t have Fastpasses and are often jammed with long lines during regular hours). This was the warmest day of our trip, and of course we had brought warmer clothes on this day – oh well!

We rode Pirates of the Caribbean in the afternoon, and as our boat came up out of the underground ride we noticed that there was no line and the front doors had closed. Sure enough, the fire alarm had gone off as it had during dinner the night before – but we made it through the ride anyway! That building was having a rough weekend. As did the Indiana Jones ride, which was closed for most of Monday and Tuesday, so we only got to ride it once.

Somewhere along the way we went into Innoventions in Tomorrowland which I’d understood had been overhauled from the rather dated “future of the past” look from when we went 10 years ago. If anything, it’s actually worse than before. While there are a few vaguely interesting exhibits, some of it is a shambles: There’s currently an exhibit for Thor: The Dark World which we waited in for 20 minutes without much idea of what it was or how often it ran; eventually we gave up. (As best I could tell it was some sort of film presentation.) And the first floor is a sort of “house of the future”, but with an outside ring which is basically completely empty – it felt like we were trespassing backstage. Very bizarre. And the house exhibit itself was no nicer than the house we actually have! Innoventions has to be the place in Disneyland with the least imagination. Bizarre – and entirely skippable.

On the other hand, Star Tours, which I was also underwhelmed by when I rode it a decade ago, has been significantly refurbished and is a lot more fun. We only rode it once on this trip, but I’d certainly go again.

While we in the parks there I took some pictures and texted them to my nephew, which my sister had suggested I do after I sent her a picture on our first night. She says he enjoyed getting them; I haven’t seen him in a number of years, so I’m glad he did!

Haunted Mansion Holiday

After the fireworks show on Tuesday evening we did a couple more rides and then called it an early evening. Wednesday we drove back home, and fortunately hit no snags other than a couple of slowdowns on the LA freeways (and, honestly, “a couple of slowdowns” on the LA freeways is about the best you can hope for). Our kitties were happy to see us and very snuggly, and we were glad to collapse into our own bed.

Alas, Tuesday afternoon I started coming down with a cold, and driving home didn’t help it any, so today I stayed home sick. Still, a fun trip all-in-all.

Disneyland at Halloweentime

Last weekend we made our annual trip to Disneyland. I’d advocated that we go sometime other than our usual December trip so that we can see the park when it’s not decked out for Christmas.

Of course, it was decked out for Halloween instead, but that’s actually less of a change than Christmas. I was a little disappointed that the Haunted Mansion had already switched to the decor for The Nightmare Before Christmas as I’d looked forward to seeing the base Mansion for a change, but oh well. Even more disappointing was the “Ghost Galaxy” decor for Space Mountain, which has terrible music and ridiculous imagery – Space Mountain is a fine roller coaster, but this decor was so awful we decided only to ride it once. I hope they rethink this in future years.

The trip was a little bittersweet because one of the couples we went with got ill and had to bow out on Monday, while the other is buying a house in southern California and left on Monday to deal with that. So we were on our own on Monday. On the other hand, it is generally easier for two people to make decisions about what to do in the park than six people, but still, it wasn’t what we’d planned.

We did get optimal weather on Monday, though: Rain in the morning to scare away the locals, and then warm and sunny the rest of the day!

We did a few things I’d never done before: Saw Great Moments with Mister Lincoln, which is shorter and lighter than I’d expected (though the animatronics are impressive). It made me want to watch Ken Burns’ The Civil War sometime (since I don’t think I’m up for reading actual books about the event). We also went to Tom Sawyer Island; I hadn’t realize just how much stuff there is over there, lots of little tunnels and ladders to follow, it’s probably great fun for kids.

The renovation of California Adventure continues. The metal structures for Cars Land are going up, the World of Color is live (it’s pretty good, but really just a higher-tech Fantasmic without a storyline), and Mulholland Madness is being redressed as a Goofy character ride. I’ll be sad when all the northern California bits have been ripped out and replaced with character bits, but as long as they still have California Screamin’ I won’t complain too much. (We rode it 3 times.)

We ended up hitching a ride home on Tuesday with a different friend due to the one couple getting ill, but it was fun to spend some time with him (and that way he didn’t have to drive back alone). We had a good time overall, even though things didn’t really go as planned.

Chilly Weekend at the Magic Kingdom

We’re back from our annual Christmas trip to Disneyland, with various friends. We had nice weather for the first two days (Saturday night and Sunday), albeit a bit chilly, and then Monday the rains moved in and we spent the day bundled up under ponchos. The rain tapered off around 3 pm, and we managed to hit all our favorite rides at least twice over the trip, so it all worked out. We also had two nice meals, at the Blue Bayou restaurant in Disneyland, and at Steakhouse 55 at the Disneyland hotel, both a cut (or three) above the typical park fare.

They haven’t yet started the major renovations on the California Adventure park, which will change it from a general California theme park to one emphasizing early 20th century Los Angeles, when Walt Disney first moved to the state. (They’ll be tearing down the Golden Gate Bridge, for instance.) That will be a sad time.

The trip home was delayed a bit by the bad weather closing the Grapevine, the stretch of I-5 north of LA, for 17 hours overnight. We got to the foothills at the tail end of the shutdown and got stuck for 45 minutes, but that’s not bad, considering. We arrived home to unseasonably cold weather (apparently it didn’t break 50 today) and some kitties who were very happy to see us.

Jefferson seems to be just fine, 10 days after his dental surgery. He was scheduled for his follow-up appointment tomorrow morning, but the vet left a message that his doctor got summoned to jury duty, so I’ll have to reschedule.

That hiccup aside, tomorrow it’s back to the grind: Morning coffee, getting caught up on work after two days away, and comic books in the evening. And getting into the swing of the holidays, with putting up the tree and outside lights this weekend. Not much to complain about, really.

A Most Busy Week

This week Debbi joined me in the over-forty club. She’s pretty happy about it. I was rather blasé about it until I started having my neck pains and so forth. Now I’m kind of annoyed at it. But, that’s me.

For her birthday we went down to Disneyland with several of our friends, including her high school friend Lisa who flew out from Milwaukee and who’s as big a Disney nut as Debbi and her other friend Lisa. We went into the park for Sunday night, and then on Monday and Tuesday, and last two of which were under the restricted 10 am – 8 pm hours for the season. Aside from the massive remodeling job on California Adventure (the ferris wheel opened while we were there), things were pretty much the same. Debbi was delighted: She got to see fireworks and go on every ride she wanted, and had a whole bunch of her friends there, and it all went pretty smoothly considering there were seven of us.

For her birthday I bought her a digital camera, and bought her (well, really us) a new coffee maker, since ours was on its last legs. I actually bought a new one of the exact same model we had, a Black & Decker TCM700 which makes the right amount of coffee for the two of us, and the thermal carafe works really well. (I decided the TCM830 10-cup model was perhaps more than we needed.)

In addition to those celebrations, we had our 8-year anniversary last Thursday, and went for our annual dinner to celebrate. And then on Saturday we went to our friends Josh & Lisa’s wedding, which was a nice ceremony at Thomas Fogarty Winery. I got to wear my new suit (with the lavender shirt) and we had fun hanging out with our friends there. The couple were very happy indeed, and are now off for a fun and relaxing honeymoon.

Fortunately thing didn’t back up too much at work, and I’m now trying to slide back into things. Today has been a little stressful, but I think it’ll even out tomorrow.

Our Annual Disney Excursion

We’re back from our almost-annual trip to Disneyland. I say ‘almost’ because last year we went to Disney World instead. As usual we went down with our friends Lisa and Michel, and met up with other friends Yvonne and Wender down there. On the drive down we all text messaged with Debbi’s sister Janine, who was working that evening, and we alternated with her coming up with movie titles for each letter of the alphabet. There are more movies that start with Q and X than you might think!

We usually stay at a hotel in walking distance of the main gate, and this time we stayed at the Candy Cane Inn, which was a little weird in that it had mechanical key-cards on the doors, rather than the usual programmable mag-strip ones. I don’t think I’ve stayed at a hotel which didn’t have mag-strip key cards in a decade or so; I wonder why they haven’t upgraded?

Our alarm went off at 5:30 am on Sunday morning so we could eat breakfast and get to the park at 8 when the gates opened. Yes, I know, it’s practically inhuman. 🙂

The weather on Sunday was great, warm although not actually sunny. We zipped through the Indiana Jones ride and then went over to Space Mountain. There we were fortunate to end up in the “handicapped car”, in which they let us go through twice. Space Mountain is one of the better roller coasters I’ve been on, so this was a treat. We also went on the Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage, which was okay, although it’s no roller coaster.

Over at California Adventure we played the new attraction, Toy Story Midway Mania, which is a lot of fun as you get to shoot all sorts of things in a virtual arcade and rack up points. It’s very well conceived and implemented, and naturally the lines were quite long. No Fastpass, alas. But we did Fastpass California Screamin’, which we rode 3 or 4 times during our two days there.

A temporary ‘mini-attraction’, Walt Disney Imagineering Blue Sky Cellar, describes the changes in store for California Adventure. They’re basically removing the northern California decor from the park (such as the Golden Gate Bridge) and adding more southern California elements, plus more character bits (a big Mickey head on the ferris wheel). This is rather disappointing, especially since I enjoy the park for the rides rather than the character bits. On the other hand, they’re adding some new attractions, including a large area named Cars Land, which apparently will expand the park considerably, probably by consuming another parking lot. The key ride looks like it will resemble Test Track, which was the coolest ride at Epcot in Disney World.

Wender and Yvonne left after dinner as they were only staying for one day and had to drive home, but we stayed into the evening and for the fireworks. But a sign that we’re all getting older is that we were running out of gas by 10 (can’t imagine why – we’d only been running around on our feet for 14 hours) and decided to head to sleep before the park closed.

Since we called it an early night on Sunday, I was game for getting up at oh-god-thirty again on Monday to go to the park; usually I sleep in a couple more hours on our second day. When we stopped to take pictures of ourselves in front of Sleeping Beauty Castle, we met a Disneyland employee who was pin trading and seemed to be there to greet visitors and tell them interesting trivia about the park.

We walked through the restored castle – it closed before my first trip to the park several years ago – and ran into him again outside. He told us about the Matterhorn ride: Apparently it consists of three individual structures (the ride tracks, the mountain, and the old central tower for the Skyway, and there’s a basketball half-court inside the structure. Wacky! Then he took us to the front of the line so we could go on the ride. Debbi and Lisa were talking about how we were having all kinds of good luck on this trip.

The day was full of rides as usual, plus an excursion to get beignets in Downtown Disney. We had a bit of bad luck when I wanted to ride the Disneyland Railroad, but it was held up by the parade going on. It go an all-clear to go once, but just as it was moving a couple and their small children decided to get off, and the conductor had to stop the train, and they missed their window. Bummer! (And geez, what were those nincompoops thinking rushing off like that?) But we did eventually get to ride it.

Sadly, Disneyland closed at 6 on Monday for the employees’ cast party, and although we went over to California Adventure, it was pretty crowded and we only went on a couple of rides. Then we were rather indecisive about where to get dinner, but ended up at the House of Blues, where we were fortunate that there was a shorter-than-advertised wait.

Tuesday we pulled everything together and drove back to the bay area. Debbi remarked that we’re always much less chatty on the drive back than the drive down; I think it’s because we’re all tired from being on our feet most of the weekend. At least, that’s my excuse!

But it was a good trip. Debbi really loves Disneyland, and although I don’t need as much Disney as she’s up for, I enjoy going once in a while.