WP_20150629_17_27_39_ProAfter years of travelling to Disney, we have come to the conclusion that the mid-day at Disney is just not worth it. As such, we skipped it this trip. On our New year’s trip this year, we stayed at a nearby hotel (Annabel Hotel), but still a fair walking distance. We were going to stay at the Disneyland Hotel, but decided to try the Grand Californian as a test. Being so close meant that our room was literally as close to the park as some of the rides. There was not reason not to stop back in the room, or swing by the pool, so that’s what we did.

We hit the park early each day. Right at opening, or taking advantage of the “Early Hour”. We found that at opening, the parks were really empty, and didn’t start to really fill up until around 11:30. At that point, we started working our way back to the hotel, usually hitting the pool by 12:30 or so (sneaking in an extra ride on the way back). We didn’t return until 4:30 or 5pm. Once the parades started, that took people away from rides and the lines were ok again. The later we stayed, the better the lines were.

Naturally, we hit all our big favorites, Pirates of the Caribbean, Indiana Jones, Haunted Mansion. For whatever reason, this trip Yulia started really liking the stronger rides. She’s never been a big Roller Coaster person, but she got really excited for Space Mountain, and Matterhorn, and we even got her to try California Screamin’ (in her case, this was aptly named).  She went on The Tower of Terror as well. A small amount of screaming may have happened there as well. I’m not sure why she suddenly started enjoying these types of rides, but we all had fun.

The weather was hot, so that made spending the afternoons resting or in the pool make even more sense. There’s actually a lot of shade in the Disney parks, but you cook out in the heat, and it just stops being fun pretty quick.

We even took time out to go to Tom Sawyer’s island, which is now “Pirates Lair” because America is full of Illiterate motherfuckers. That had more shade, and tunnels that Yulia and Sasha used to see if they could get me stuck or hit my head. (Final Score: Fake Rock – 6, Mark – 0).

On one of the days we tried for a dinner at our favorite place, the Golden Vine Winery, but by the time we had walked there the place was booked. The checking desk called around, and found that there was some space over at the new Carthay Circle. This was part of the remodel of the front of California adventure, (the whole remodel they did turned out great) and was designed after the theater where Snow White was played the first time. We had been to the bar there, but never the full restaurant. We ran over, and after a short wait, were taken to a table.

This wasn’t a regular park restaurant, this was really, really nice. There were  a few small special occasion rooms off the main room, and there were quite a few folks (not everyone) who were actually dressed for dinner. They had a very good wine selection, and from the menu we could see that this appeared to be an attempt at real fine dining. Our server confirmed this when we talked with her. This was a bit of an experiment, and the park wanted to see if some real upscale food would work in the park. We took her recommendation for wine, which was surprisingly good as it was Californian (usually too hot) and from the winery belonging to a Disney director. The food was all top-notch, if not a bit over spiced, like they were trying just a bit too hard. We were pleased in any case, and I’m glad to see Disney keep trying with the food in the parks. It has made a huge jump in quality over the years, and I’d rather they try too hard and learn than go back to hotdogs and nachos.

For our last night, we came back to the park extra late to catch two shows: The new Electric Parade, and the Main Fireworks.

I have always loved the Electric Parade. The original show was from the 70’s, and I remember seeing it as a kid with my grandparents. It went away for a long time, then about 10 years ago, it came back for a while. But it was the same show. it was cool, but the music and floats were a bit dated. Light bulb dresses on the princesses. Weird electronica music. A float for the movie Pete’s Dragon. (if you don’t remember Pete’s Dragon, then you are just like 90% of the visitors who kept asking “who the hell is the kid on the dragon?”) Shortly after we saw it with Sasha, they stopped the parade again.

They have a new electric parade now, and we were excited to see what changed. As it turned out, everything. Every float was new, from all the new rides and cartoons. much more advanced and larger as well. All new music, but I could hear that they sampled the music of the original parade in some sections. It was a nice callout to the old parade. Towards the end of the parade, I recognized just a few of the old floats that they snuck in, a callout to those of us who remember the old parade. We loved it.

Once the parade passed, we were told to move into Main street to watch the fireworks. This year is the 60th anniversary of Disneyland, so they had a bunch of “Diamond” things about, and the Fireworks show also got a special treatment. When the show started, Lights went down all along Main Street. Then once the first few displays went off, projected lighting lit up the Castle, and main street. Scenes to match the theme and music were projected, chimney sweeps danced for Mary Poppins, fake Snowflakes fell from the sky for Frozen, Finding Nemo had a giant Nemo fly past the Castle, all while the Fireworks grew bigger and bigger. The whole show was bigger end wilder effects before a huge fireworks finale. It really was the best display we had ever seen. We were literally stunned. When it finished, we cheered with the whole crowd for a while, before people started heading out. We moved back into the park to get in just a few last rides before it all closed.

We ended up leaving right at midnight, when the park closed. It was nice to have a short walk back to the room.

WP_20150627_19_09_20_ProWe opted to haul our own bags so we could leave the boat early. Most folks didn’t seem to care. Presumably they had a plane to catch later in the day, and weren’t in any rush. We were on our way to hit the beach, or at least a beach town for a few hours, then check in at Disney. In all honesty, the departure from the boat was amazingly fast. Carnival really fixed the system for getting off the boat. Once our deck was called, the lines were so fast that we basically walked non-stop through the ship, off the ramp and right to passport control. I don’t think it took us more than 20 minutes. We were back to our car and on the highway in no time.

Yulia had the idea for us to spend a few hours beach time in LA after my sister (who lived in LA for a few years) berated us for not doing so. Several times. Finally, we got the hint, and put it into our plans. Originally we were going to go to Huntington beach. Yulia spent some time there during a Gymnastics event a few years ago, and thought it was beautiful, with cool stores and a wide, sandy beachfront. But once off the ship, our first thoughts were getting some breakfast. Sasha was checking her phone, and found that there was an Urth Café in Laguna Beach. That was around a 20 minute drive, but seemed like a good idea. Sasha and I hit an Urth Café last time we were in LA for a dance competition, and while being pretty trendy, they actually make fantastic food. They also had really, really good coffee, which we were dying for after the ship’s coffee from the last week.

The drive down the coast was really amazing. each small coastal neighborhood was a little different, with flavors of industrial, hippie, and big money mixed together. We were surprised by the number of small islands and canals along the shore. From the big maps, you don’t really see this. Each inlet was packed with marinas and boats, and with homes lining the canals with their own docks. I would love to take time to explore these areas in a boat, but that would have to be another trip.

We pulled into Laguna Beach, and the GPS told us where to turn to find the Urth Café. We pulled up to find it surrounded by a chain link fence, with an “Opening Soon! – Now hiring” sign on it. It was about half complete. Apparently, they updated their website just a bit early. That was a realm bummer, but we could see the main town waterfront just down the hill from us, so we drove over there to see if something else was open.

The Laguna Beach downtown was surrounded by hills, with the beach spilling out into the ocean in front of it. We parked by the beach, and started walking around to find a place. All the stores were funky little boutiques and galleries. After wandering the back streets a bit, we turned onto the main street, which went up the hill to some cliff side restaurants and a little art market. We found a breakfast joint, and finally had some really good coffee. The food was great too. Sasha had some good eggs, Yulia and I had yogurt and fruit. Just a light breakfast overall.

We walked around the street a bit and went to the art market. The stuff for sale was cool, but the view from the market was amazing. You could look down from here to see the beach curve away from town, turning into rocks as the hill rose up on the other side of town. People were swimming, surfing and walking the entire length. We had another great view from the Wyland Gallery next door. (Wyland is that guy who paints whale and sea murals all over the world. Beautiful, but I think they all look exactly the same. But hey, it’s art) The patio at the gallery had one of those standing telescopes, so we could look through and get a closeup of the seabirds out on the rocks, and the surfers waiting for waves.

After a bit more walking we headed back to the car. We drove out the main road towards I-5, and it began to rain. Yes, California is in a drought, we come from Seattle, and it rains. It always rains on us when we are on vacation. No exceptions. This wasn’t too hard of rain, and we figured that it would wash off some of the dead bugs that were littering our car. So it was welcome.

A short ride later, we were on the freeway, and heading north towards Disney. It has actually been a long time since we came to Disney from the south, So I had to pay attention since I didn’t know these ramps as well. It was all well marked, and since we were a carpool, we bypassed much of the I-5 traffic on the way. The ramp dropped us into the neighborhood just before Disney, and since we had stayed near here for New Years, I knew how to navigate to the right gate to get us to the hotel. We were staying this time at the Disney Grand Californian, which is the big and fancy hotel on the Disney Resort, and the only one we hadn’t stayed at before. We were only here for 3 nights, so we thought we would give it a shot. This hotel actually connects to the Californian Adventure park, so we will see if the short walk into the park is worth the cost.

Thankfully, there was a hotel laundry so we could get everything clean, we were pretty grimy after all this time on the boat. Our room seemed huge after staying in the boat cabin for a week. A shower, a rest, and changed into clean clothes, we headed into Downtown Disney to see if anything  was new. It was pretty much the same as the last time we were here (only 6 months ago). After a walk around, we fond space at the New Orleans restaurant just across from House of Blues. It was super busy, but as a party of 3, we were easy to find space for (all the other groups were huge, and waiting in an insane line). We were seated on the second floor balcony, with a view of Disney. A Jazz duet was playing next to us. Nice way to wind down the day.

2014_12_31_21_43_02_ProShotAfter three days we are finally getting a break from the cold.

The park has bee a blast, but we managed to come down during a record cold snap, and everyone here is bundled up like they are skiing. We picked up a few extra sweatshirts, and did the traditional Seattle layering up, but this is way colder than we expected. What’s even more surprising, is that this hasn’t hit the size of the crowds at all. We went for new year’s day to Disney and the crowds were crazy. the park was wall to wall with people, and everyone was bundled and wrapped up to the hilt. I was really surprised at how cold it was. I could really feel the heat draining out my feet and head, even with a sweatshirt. In the afternoon Yulia swung by the room and grabbed some extra clothes, and  it was still getting colder and colder.

Main Street was done up with huge screens and a stage for the countdown at midnight, and there was a special fireworks on the schedule. It looked great. The whole park was done up in Christmas and “Frozen” themes. The themes fit well with the temperatures, but we could have done without the added realism. We hit as many of the indoor rides that we could, but the crowds were making that impossible as well. Overall New Year’s Day was nice but just too cold and too much of a zoo to really be productive. I will say that the fireworks were amazing, and all the special Holiday themed rides are great (the Haunted House is done up with a Nightmare Before Christmas theme, the castle is Frozen, and there are decorations all over.)

I think the most interesting thing  in the park is the people watching. kids are super cute, the younger ones especially, dressed up as their favorite character in the park. Going on a ride with people new to the park is like being new again. all the laughs and screams from those not expecting the next surprise is just as entertaining as the ride itself. (We also love scaring kids in the Indiana Jones ride with the pole that goes BOOM in the queue. if you don’t know what this is, you are missing out.)

But not everything is great of course. I think the worst thing is people who don’t know how to handle being in a crowd. it isn’t a big deal when the crowds are low, but once things get busy, it only takes a few people to really screw things up. Disneyland is a busy crowded place. They manage thousands of people a day in a pretty small area, and do a really good job at it. but everything grinds to a halt when you get someone from Podunk, Arkansas who things that the local Walmart underpants sale is a pretty big event pulls one of these:

  • Have the whole family of 10 with a stroller and Mom in a mobility cart stop right in the middle of the path to look at the map.
  • Argue about wanting to go through the Fastpass lane without a Fastpass because it’s empty.
  • Drive a mobility cart into a line for a ride, getting stuck in the first turn of the line.

Actually, I think anything with one of those damn mobility carts is on my shit list. We saw a couple of rides where the line to come in the back way with a cart was as long as the line out front. We actually were trapped exiting the Indiana Jones ride to let a series of carts and the families come in the exit. it was crazy.

But that’s just part of the deal. Crowds are full of people, and most people suck. You just have to let them go and enjoy the good ones. And the squeal of a little kid meeting Mickey for the first time with a big hug goes a long way. Even Sasha was excited to meet some of the characters, including Oswald the Rabbit, and Jack Skellington, whom I had never seen at the park before.

I also think that the food just keeps getting better. We had a great dinner at the ESPN SportsBar. The Orange Bowl was on, and most of the people were cheering for one team, so I cheered for the other. I truly didn’t care about the outcome, but it just isn’t fun if you don’t pick sides. We also got tickets to see Trombone Shorty at the House of Blues. The opening act was The Record Company, another Blues band. It was an amazing show. I love blues in general, but this was absolutely over the top. I need to get on the mailing list for both bands. We will be planning to get tickets for the House of  Blues on our next trip as well, the venue is fun, and if you order early, they have some reserved tables. (And by the smell of the place, the Second-Hand Pot is free! )

Our favorite is still the Winery in California Adventure. it used to be the Golden Vine, but they changed it to the Wine Country Trattoria after their partnership with Mondovi Wines ended. The wine selection is mostly Napa and Central California, and the patio has a view right in the center of the park and you can watch people going back and forth to the rides. We overdid the walking on the first few days (averaging around 20,000 steps per day) so we took a several hour rest on our third day while Sasha ran around the park with some friends who were at the park at the same time.

We also had dinner there as part of their “World of Color” deal. You can wait to get a great spot to se the show (even if you grab a show Fastpass you need to get there early), or you you can order dinner with tickets from several of the restaurants in the park (Fantasmic runs the same deal). So we had dinner, wine, dessert, then had VIP spots to se the Holiday World of Color show. Well worth the time and money.

We had a late flight out, so we rented a car and drove to Venice Beach for the midday before catching our flight. Venice is great. It is really a funky old section of Los Angeles. A few of the original Canals remain, and we found breakfast at a joint that had one of the original Gondolas hanging from the ceiling. The weather had finally turned, it was warm on the boardwalk, and we walked up from Muscle Beach past the shops and Green Doctors for a few hours. The whole place is a big hippie zone, The street art and street people are great to see. We easily could have spent the day there (we found an old-school Freakshow which looked great, but we were out of time)

We finished with a walk in the sun, on the beach.  It was good the get the heat that we were hoping for, even if it was just for the last day.

wetLAXI’m not sure if we’ve taken a winter vacation as a family. We might have, we’ve certainly taken trips for Thanksgiving several times, this year included.

When I was younger, our family really didn’t take many summer vacations, but every other year we would head out to Hawaii. This was the big family vacation, and most of our Christmas present too. I loved it. We always stayed in Lahaina, on the island of Maui. I’ve only been back once since we stopped those family vacations, but I still love the town. Despite growth and sprawl in many areas, the town of Lahaina seems to keep it’s character and a bit of “Old Hawaii” feel. We should probably go back again. Unfortunately, the cost of going to and staying in Hawaii is crazy, but I’m sure there is a deal to be had. There’s always a deal.

We are heading to Disneyland. I hear from a lot of our friends that it’s nuts to go to the same place so often, but aside from simply liking Disney a lot, we have found a lot of advantages to the Disney Resort in California. This is something we learned when we visited Disneyworld in Florida years ago.  Our friend had a timeshare in Florida so we flew out to stay there and try Disneyworld and Epcot for a change. What killed us on that trip was the spread. Everything was spread out so far, the condo was a long drive into Disney, each of the Disney parks were separate from each other, and it was a wait and a Monorail ride to the next park. The parks were bigger too, but had the same amount of rides, so basically everything was just father apart. It ended up that we walked more and did less with our time.

Disney in Anaheim is the opposite. You have two parks, Disneyland and California Adventure packed in a fairly tight spot. Between the parks is the Disney  Downtown, shops and restaurants. Most hotels are in walking distance. It makes a huge difference in our time off when we can get so much more done without driving. Of course, we are near Downtown LA, so we can rent a car and drive in if we choose to do so (and we have done that before.)

Topping off our decision this time is that the park is all done up in winter decorations, with lots of stuff from Frozen. Apparently the whole castle is frozen solid, with extra parades and everything. That should be cool.

We are also staying in a smaller local hotel, instead of one of the resort hotels. We wanted to try it out and see if it adds too much to our walking distance. We will be back in the summer and if we like it we will use it again.

Yeah, we might be kinda nuts.

Seattle was around 27 degrees when we left. It was actually pretty clear, but we were freezing our asses off. We got to the Airport early, and missed the big security lines. This gave us some extra time to get food and a few drinks before the flight would start boarding. I’ve been really surprised at how much the Airport has improved. The food is pretty good, though expensive as shit, but the drinks are always great. We had some really good wine, and a value price of $19 for a 9oz. glass.

What a deal.

We missed the chance for a first class upgrade. Apparently they have changed the process for scoring this, you used to be able to check in online and if you were early, you would get offered the upgrade. Apparently you need to use one of the kiosks or ask at the gate to do this. We didn’t know and had we checked earlier we could have scored a full upgrade. Nuts.

Takeoff was smooth and easy. We grabbed some more drinks from the Sky Waitress and found that they had movies streaming on the internal Wi-Fi for free. This was pretty cool, but the system was pretty sketchy, and it took a few tries to get it going.

About halfway down, the first turbulence hit.

The weather report for Los Angeles was showing rain and a big temperature drop. It was supposed to hit 32 degrees overnight before warming back up again to the mid 60’s. We were hitting the front of this on our flight in. It was rough enough to stop drink service for the second round, so they now had my attention. We bounced around for the final 30 minutes of our flight, and made a wet and rainy landing into LAX.  LAX is never a pretty place, but wet and cold did it no favors. We wandered about until we could find our hotel shuttle, and had a rainy drive through LA traffic to Anaheim.

The weather cleared a bit as we got closer to the hotel, and the Disneyland area itself was dry. Windy and cold, but dry. The Hotel is right across the street from California Adventure, and Yulia (as the member of several Hotel Honors programs) scored us some nice upgrades on a suite. The place is old, but recently remodeled, so you get a bit of old California flavor in the place. The restaurant in the hotel is inexpensive, with great food and wine. After dinner we walked out into the bar next to the pool to see what the place looked like.

The the wind rolled in.

We were chased off the patio by cold winds whipping the palm trees around. No rain, but it was cold and uncomfortable. We went back up to our room and hid. We could see the big Ferris Wheel and roller coaster still running across the street. We would hit the parks tomorrow. For us the rest of the evening was in the room watching TV and listening to the winds outside. Some beer and snacks from the gift shop were dessert.

Welcome to Winter in Southern California.

The nice thing about traveling to Disney is that we fall into a pretty good routine. We go often enough that we aren’t in a rush anymore to try to do everything at once. Also, Sasha is older now, and we are hanging out for shows and events more, as well as some of the big rides.

But, as is tradition, we started on Pirates of the Caribbean. We did this as soon as we dropped our bags in the room. It was the evening when we arrived, but when you stay on the resort, the best times for the park are the early mornings and theWP_20130711_008 late evenings. Mid day is such a rush with the peak of everyone trying to get in as many rides as possible, that it is almost a waste, and we typically spend that time in the pool, shopping in Downtown Disney, or since Sasha remembered to take her pins this time, pin trading.

Sasha has been collecting pins since her first trip to Disney. She has a great collection now of cool and limited edition pins, and this trip we took some time with one of the cast members working one of the pin booths to get an explanation of how the sets go together, “completer pins”, newer Limited run pins, and all kinds of other info. It’s the best value for souvenirs at the park. Of course, you have to work the system. If you buy a top-run pin individually, it costs $9-$15, which is insane. Or, you can get a set of smaller, crappy pins for $25 for a set of seven. Cast Members will trade any pin for another. So I buy a cheap set once in a while, and Sasha scours the Cast Members for New Hidden Mickey sets and other cool pins.

Big Thunder Mountain Railroad was down for a refurbishment, which is a bummer as it is one of our favorites. We were staying in the Frontier tower of the Main hotel, which has a big model of that roller coaster in the lobby. It’s pretty impressive to look at the pattern of the coaster from above and see how it loops on itself. The display case noted that Thunder Mountain was built on the side f the old Mine Ride. You can still see some of the old ride tracks left over decorating the new ride. Two of the old ride effects, a waterfall and the “old faithful” geyser were removed from the park and built into the garden in front of the hotel tower. The geyser still erupts. Cool.

We were also close to the Tiki Bar, which is always fun, as the whole place is animatronic, with thundershowers, tikis that watch you, strange noises, and is themed for the headhunter in the Jungle Ride. Yulia and I sat at the bar, and I was picked for the “Curse of the Tiki” effect, where they slowly shrink the bar stool under you until you are almost on the floor. I love this bar.

We used our Early Entry passes once for each park, which meant getting up at 6am, but since we got in an hour before the general public, we were able to hit all the major long-line rides in each park before 9am. It was the only way to get on the new Cars ride, which had 2+ hour lines all day, every day. Fastpasses were gone within an hour. Once the crowds hit, we would hit some of the little kid rides, like Peter Pan and Mr. Toad. The crowds would usually chase us out by noon.

Our last day in town, we rented a car and drove up to Santa Monica.WP_20130713_019 This was Sasha’s idea, as she loves LA, and wanted to see some of the nice parts of the town, and knew of some store on the promenade that she was dying to see (and had saved her money for). The promenade is very LA, with street performers every few feet, lots of cool shops, and great food. Once Sasha finished with her favorite shop, we found a little French Bistro and had lunch. This was literally a sidewalk cafe, with the kitchen built into a newsstand kiosk in the middle of the street, and all seating surrounding it. The food was great, and the people watching was fun as well. It was nice to have food that was not Mexican or Deep Fried. No matter how hard you try, eating while travelling is tough if you want to be healthy.

After shopping a bit (and buying a new suitcase to replace the broken junk we were using) we walked to the Santa Monica pier. I was excited to visit this as it is the ceremonial end of Route 66. The actual end of the old highway is at 7th and Broadway, a few blocks up, but the cool signs are on the pier, so that made a better photo op. The pier was packed with tourists and performers all the way to the end. It was hard to get through the crowd, but pretty cool to read the history of the pier on the placards. You could read about the building, fires, rebuilding, and the view of the beach from the pier was impressive. The beach itself was packed with people as far as you could see.

We walked back up the pier towards town, and the crowds were getting worse. It didn’t help that the Born-again preachers with megaphones moved in, and with their volumes turned to full, shouted to the crowds how we were all going to hell. While that was annoying, worse were the groups of people moving down the sidewalk that would not watch where they were walking, and shove is right off the path into the street.

For this, I invented a new game. I called this, “Pay Attention Asshole.” The rules were simple. Your family gets half the sidewalk. My family gets the other half. If you aren’t paying attention, I’m not getting out of your way. The number of people who barrel forward while looking sideways is amazing. The number of them who give dirty looks after getting a 200 pound shoulder slammed into them is slightly less amazing. Yulia and Sasha thought I was being terrible, but liked having the sidewalk cleared for them.

We headed back to Disneyland, and planned on having dinner at The House of Blues, and try to catch a show. We packed our bags in the room first, then headed over for dinner. I grabbed tickets for the show, and we headed in for dinner. Having dinner before the show let us skip the line. The drinks were good, and the food was as well. We were pretty surprised, as I expected the food to be typical chain restaurant fare, but it was really good Cajun fusion meals. I had a jambalaya that was some of the best that I have tried. It was really amazing.

The show was running a bit late, so we had an extra drink and some fantastic Key Lime Pie, then we waited at the side of the venue with the other diners who were seeing the show. After the line grew a little in our area, and a lot in the General admission area, they gave a security sweep to the group, and started letting us in. We were the standing room only section, and found a good rail with a view of the stage. Things were getting a bit late, and we were pretty tired, but we wanted to catch at least part of the show. I grabbed the bar special, and shot and a beer, both of which turned out to be supersized. We caught the opening act, which was a Funk band with a hard rock edge. I loved it, but I was harder for Yulia and Sasha to follow, as the band did a lot of original material, and only I knew most of the funk covers they did.

After they completed their set, we were too tired to stay for more. We flew out the next morning early, and this made a fitting end to the week. And to a great vacation.