Monthly Archives: April 2008

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Tell Laura I Loathe Her

Perhaps it was the mood I was in this morning, but Mark Morford’s column on our docile, soulless mannequin of a First Lady made me laugh out loud several times.

By the way, if Hilary gets elected will Bill be referred to as the First Man? I always wondered that.

WDW Day Two: Animal Kingdom

Thursday, April 17th 2008 was the day me and my parents explored Disney’s Animal Kindgom. Although we got off to a late start due to a mysteriously un-set alarm, it ended up being very eventful full day and we wound up doing everything we set out to do. After a filling breakfast at the downtown Kissimmee Denny’s, we took the 10:30 a.m. shuttle into Walt Disney World. Our first priority upon entering AK was getting the “forgotten tickets” issue from the day before resolved. Luckily the employee we talked to cheerfully issued us refunds for the lost day on our three-day passes — Jonathan in Animal Kingdom Guest Relations, thank you very much for saving us a lot of heartache!

Dinosaur Ride Photo, Disney’s Animal KingdomAlthough we entered Animal Kingdom later than anticipated, that turned out to be all right since I intended to skip some of the more popular attractions and concentrate more on exploring the various areas. The first place we hit was the popular and relatively new Expedition Everest roller coaster, in order to secure Fastpasses for later in the day. This involved walking through the Asian area of the park, which was beautifully themed to look like a crumbling Asian villiage in the Himalayas. It was even hot, humid and crowded — exactly like the real Asia! We then walked to the silly Dinoland U.S.A. area to ride on the Dinosaur attraction. The vehicles for this bumpy ride were modeled on the oversized jeeps in Disneyland’s Indiana Jones ride, only this time you have to travel back in time to retrieve a dinosaur. It was frenetic and fun, a bit on the short side, and the many areas where riders are plunged into complete darkness made me even more uncomfortable than the huge dinosaurs that keep popping out at you. My parents had a blast. Once the ride was over, I bought one of those overpriced photos that they sell you at the end. In the photo, I’m the goofy looking guy sitting upper left.

Since trumped-up carnival rides don’t interest me much, we didn’t explore the rest of Dinoland, USA. Instead, we hightailed it back to Asia and went through an animal exhibit called the Maharajah Jungle Trek. What was interesting about this part weren’t so much the animals (much of whom were sleeping or hiding) but the gorgeous theming of the trail. It was made to look like an ancient temple with statuary and crumbling walls covered in murals. The other guests seemed especially annoying, elbowing their way to find the best viewing spots, but I enjoyed snapping pictures of things others were basically ignoring. That done, we went down the Asian walkway to catch the park’s daily Flights of Wonder bird show. At this point I noticed how the park, nicely designed as it was, was not made to handle high-capacity crowds very efficiently. Smaller than usual walkways, humidity-enhancing extra vegetation, and a crucial lack of shade add up to an unpleasant experience. Luckily we found a small respite at Flights of Wonder. This was a cute ‘n corny comedy show with a wide variety of birds, wrapped up in a superficial conservation message (something that pops up often at AK). Still in Asia, we took a break at the Coke stand which (yet again) was subject to some amazing theming.

Newly hydrated, we decided to trek over to the other side of the park to catch the Festival of the Lion King show. This was an impressive and grandly entertaining spectacle with a huge, energetic cast. If the show wasn’t quite Broadway caliber, it does beat anything seen on a cruise ship — and the family audience ate it up. I captured a bit of the show where huge floats get rolled out and posted it on flickr.

After this we decided to explore the area around the park’s “weenie”, the Tree of Life. Though the tree isn’t an attraction per se, several understated animal habitats and trails snake around the tree’s base. The parents and I spent a long time just gawking at the tree itself, which is intricately carved with animals in its base. A cast member walked by and aptly remarked on how guests just can’t stop looking at it. Later on, mom and dad searched for a guidebook on the carvings — in vain. Apparently Disney can stock about a million pieces of “Princess” merchandise in their shops, but no simple Tree of Life guidebook exists!

It was getting time to head back to Asia to honor our Expedition Everest fastpasses. This attraction definitely lives up to its “E Ticket” status. We ended up getting on in less than five minutes, with me and dad sitting in the front row of our runaway train. This was a quick and bone-rattling ride, climaxing in a view of an animatronic Yeti (which buzzed by too fast for me to really notice it). We had an intense time, and at the peak of the ride I had some time to look out and marvel at how massive the Walt Disney World property is — acres and acres of trees with bits of hotels and such in the distance.

With a 3:00 p.m. parade about to rumble through the park, I decided to get to AK’s African section to find out if we could get fastpasses for the park’s other E-ticket, Kiliminjaro Safaris. It turned out the attraction ran out of fastpasses for the day, so we just decided to go on it anyway. The other alternative was trucking to the park’s other side to see the last daily performance of the Finding Nemo show. We decided to stay put, a good decision since the queue was at most about 15 minutes long (just long enough to call Christopher at work!). The safari was tons of fun. I’d heard that it was better to catch this ride earlier in the day when the animals were more likely to be active, but that turned out to be no problem at all. There were dozens of animals out and I snapped a ton of photos. This was basically a Disneyfied African safari with a throwaway storyline relating to poachers. Me and my parents agreed it was the highlight of the day. After this we explored the Pangani Forest Exploration Trail, which does for African critters what the Maharajah Trek did for Asian creatures. I thought this one was more enjoyable and better put together than the Asian trail, even if the theming wasn’t quite as strong.

The day was winding down and there really weren’t any other rides I was interested in, so we got a little (disappointing) shopping in and departed the park a half hour before its 7:00 p.m. closing. I always wanted to see the nearby Animal Kingdom Lodge, so we decided to catch a convenient bus over there for some dinner. The main building opens up to a gorgeously designed vaulted lobby with African accents everywhere (even on the floor!). I was hoping to see the fake savanna which hotel guests can see from their room balconies, but when we made our way outside only a huge and noisy pool could be found. This was one of the few times I wished I’d planned better, since we could have made early reservations for the lodge’s delicious looking African buffet Boma. Instead, we made our way to the cheaper counter service restaurant near the pool and had to make due with typical burgers and fries. It was here that I noticed most of the guests were either British or South African. All in all, Animal Kingdom Lodge was a nice place to visit but I wouldn’t want to stay there (too many kids).

Since the shuttle back to the hotel wasn’t due for a couple of hours, we did some further exploring, taking a bus from AK Lodge to a bustling Magic Kingdom. I wanted to check out the super luxe Grand Floridian Resort, so we waited for a boat ride. In a bit of bad timing, a loud and obnoxious white trash woman got in line behind us and started arguing with her teenage daughter. We ducked out and tried to take a monorail to the resort, but there weren’t any available at the time. Trudging back to the boat dock, we found that obnoxious white trash woman left on the previous boat (or maybe she was fed to the alligators). Finally we got onto a much quieter boat; it was an excellent ride. On the Grand Floridian: what a beautiful resort. This is definitely where I’d want to stay if I won the lottery. All white buildings facing quiet courtyards, done up in understated faux turn-of-the-century elegance. Like the AK Lodge, the Grand Floridian opens up to a huge and impressive lobby filled with sitting areas containing overstuffed chairs and soft lighting. We made our way up to the second floor lounge to enjoy drinks while a live band played Disney tunes in jazzy arrangements. Seeing a couple dressed in evening attire, my mom at first was hesitant to go in with us looking like sweaty, dirty tourists — but she relented and we had a good, relaxing time. I sipped on my first Mai Tai, one of the best drinks I ever had. The resort was wonderful, and even more importantly it was a nice break from the crowded family-energetic atmosphere everywhere else in WDW. The visit was a pleasant capper to the evening and left us rested for the bus shuttle ride back to our comparatively spartan hotel. Next stop: The Magic Kingdom.

Animal Kingdom photo montage

Weekly Mishmash: April 20-26

Chalte Chalte (1976). Sometimes I like to check out old Bollywood musicals. This particular one is no classic — with clumsy direction and some really bad, overwrought performances — but it’s almost worth watching for the parade of garish ’70s fabric patterns on display. The plot involves a woman stalking a guy and his fiancée, since the man in question is the mirror image of her missing husband. In contrast to the hideously awful fashions seen throughout the film, the main woman eventually goes on a crazed rampage while wearing an understated white and gray sari. There might be a message in that, right?
Doris Day’s Vanishing Act by David Kaufman (Vanity Fair, May 2008). Coming across this long excerpt from a forthcoming Doris Day bio in Vanity Fair was a pleasant surprise. It basically outlines the 86 year-old legend’s journey from the peak of her success with Pillow Talk through various personal turmoils (finding her fortune squandered after her third husband Marty Melcher died chief among them) to being a dog-loving recluse in Carmel, California. Fascinating piece.
Helvetica (2007). A bunch of famous designers explain their love/hate relationship with the world’s most ubiquitous font. I found this documentary enthralling, yet Christopher was bored. It’s contains lots of visually stimulating examples of graphic design in its natural setting of city streets around the globe, yet I can see where the endless babbling might be alienating to non-designers. Four stars for those in the profession; three for everyone else.
Hula Girls (2006). An award-winning Japanese drama about a troupe of women who take up hula dancing to save their embattled coal mining village. If it sounds like I described an Asian female Full Monty without the stripping, you got the right idea. A heartfelt film with several notable performances; affecting even if it gets way too teary-eyed and touchy feely at times.
Scanners (1981). For some reason I always grouped this Cronenberg film with Altered States and Videodrome as some kind of early ’80s psychological sci-fi troika. One down, two to go. Except for the guy’s head exploding and some spooky sounds on the synth-based soundtrack, it’s pretty dull.

WDW Day One 1/2: Epcot World Showcase

Wednesday I outlined our day at Future World in Walt Disney World’s Epcot. Today I look at our afternoon/evening at the other side of Epcot, World Showcase. This was an inspiring and fun-packed segment of the trip and in a way it made up for the small disappointments in Future World. The W.S. pavilions, each devoted to a specific country, have a timeless appeal and luckily they haven’t been as “Disneyfied” as the rest of Epcot.

We set off by exploring the pavilions in counter-clockwise order around the large lagoon in which they were situated. This meant encountering Mexico first, but before that we needed to hightail it to Norway to get Fastpasses for that pavilion’s Maestrom boat ride. After that (and a bathroom break), it was time to check out Mexico. Unlike other pavilions, Mexico is mostly situated indoors in a gorgeously fake environment meant to be evocative of a remote village surrounded by volcanic mountains. A restaurant patio is situated near an indoor lagoon in which diners can watch people riding the pavilion’s boat attraction, Gran Fiesta Tour. This was a neat effect, reminding me of the Pirates of the Caribbean/Blue Bayou setup in Disneyland. Unfortunately at the time we were there it was both crowded and noisy (a live mariachi band was playing), so we quickly made our way to the boat ride queue. Gran Fiesta Tour is another WDW ride that recently underwent a renovation, this time in the form of an overlay with animated sequences starring The Three Caballeros (only one of whom is Mexican). Although it isn’t earth-shatteringly great, it was a pleasant diversion which I enjoyed a lot more than I thought. Tableau with dancing dolls were lively and fun, and the animated sequences weren’t too intrusive.

Onward to Norway — for some reason, I ended up spending more time at this pavilion than any other (or so it seemed). We needed to kill some time before the fastpasses took effect, so we took in a nice little exhibit on Vikings in the reproduction stave church. At some point my parents decided to relax with beer and wine in the café, which annoyed me since it was only an hour before our dinner reservations. The Maelstrom boat ride was also fun, even if it’s less about Norway than about passing a bunch of scary trolls in a big Viking ship. The ride ends with making guests wait to enter a theater showing a travelogue film. Upon being released, most of the people we were with bolted for the exit. After sitting for another five minutes with no film showing up, we did the same thing.

The next pavilion on our tour was China. For the Flower & Garden Fest, this pavilion was decorated with cool little seed topiaries depicting the animals of the Chinese New Year. Since it closing in on dinnertime, we just milled around browsing the shops. Although the Beijing Olympic mascot merchandise was tempting, I decided to buy something cheaper — a lovely blue silk shoulder purse. I have no idea what I could use it for:

WDW souvenir Chinese silk bag

I also bought a bag of a Chinese candy called White Rabbit (pictured further below), which is kind of like a subtly sweet vanilla Tootsie Roll wrapped in edible rice paper. Ever the weird candy connoisseur, I was hoping to get a wide variety of goodies from around the World, but alas I only ended up with stuff from China and Japan.

The afternoon sun was setting, almost time for our 5:00 p.m. dinner reservations in the Germany pavilion next door. My dad picked out the Biergarten, which coincidentally was one of my top choices since I love German food. Biergarten is a buffet-style eatery with live music and communal seating with eight to a table. I was looking forward to meeting the guests we’d be seated with, but unfortunately they were a dud. They didn’t speak a word to us or even look in our direction! (And, no, they weren’t a foreign tourist family.) Luckily the restaurant made up for that in every other department. Our server was gracious and eager to talk about her hometown of Frankfurt, and the food was deliciously filling. I had (among many other dishes) two schnitzels with hunter sauce and two apple strudels for dessert. Waddling out of the restaurant, we browsed some of the German shops. I was so hoping to find some of my favorite chewy raspberry candies in the candy shop, but alas they had mostly gummy bears.

Italy was next on the agenda, and since that pavilion has no attraction it was a brief visit. We only spent about five minutes there, but I got some good photos of the pavilion’s faux Renaissance architecture. At this point, the sun was setting and we bolted to America for another bathroom break. A viewing of the audio-animatronic extravaganza The American Adventure was to be in store, but the next showing wasn’t starting for at least a half hour.

While mom waited in the pavilion, dad and I took a quick trip next door to Japan. It was beautifully crafted with a pagoda and nice gardens. I checked out the Mitsukoshi department store, hoping to find some cool toys — maybe a Kubrick Disney action figure or some hip Oswald the Lucky Rabbit branded stuff? Unfortunately, they had a bunch of Hello Kitty, Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh merchandise that’s already familiar to most Americans. Exploring further, I did find a couple of things to get. One was this wonderful cat-shaped teacup which I bought for Christopher:

Japanese yellow cat teacup

In the candy section, several bags of a gummies made by a company called Kasugai caught my eye. These were in a dizzying array of flavors; I picked out a pineapple one. What a treat — very flavorful and delicious!

Epcot Candy

After my dad and I breezed quickly through a cool little exhibit on vintage Japanese tin toys (boy, I wish I could’ve stayed longer), we went back to the American Adventure to meet up with mom. This was a beautifully mounted and super-corny show hosted by audio animatronic versions of Ben Franklin and Mark Twain. Things got so sugarcoated and patriotic that I almost felt guilty that I was moved by the ending. This is one of the best shows in WDW from an imagineering standpoint — the craftsmanship on display is top-notch.

By the time the show let out, it was nearing the end of the day and the showing of Epcot’s nightly IllumiNations fireworks display. Five minutes before starting time, we managed to snag a great viewing spot on the island located between the French and British pavilions. We found some empty spots on the stairs and it was nice just to get off our feet. The show was beautiful, although I was a teensy bit disappointed given the hype I’d previously read. Mostly it’s lots and lots of fireworks — beautiful, awe-inspiring fireworks, but fireworks nonetheless.

With the closing of IllumiNations it was closing time on our Epcot day. Unfortunately we never had time to visit the Morocco, France, United Kingdom and Canada pavilions, but I did get to look at the buildings on the crowded walk out of World Showcase. Trudging to the monorail ride back to the WDW transportation hub, I was impressed with the efficiency Disney has to move thousands of bodies where they want to go in a timely manner. Everybody got out in a timely manner with little jostling or stress. We returned to the hotel room exhausted but happy that we had a first day to remember. Tomorrow we’d be back on our way to Disney’s Animal Kingdom theme park.

WDW Day One: Epcot Future World

A week ago today, we (my parents and I) took a day-long holiday Walt Disney World’s Epcot. You gotta understand that this is something I’ve wanted to see ever since it opened in October 1982 — but, firmly rooted in Arizona, we always went to Disneyland next door in California for our Disney getaways. As a longtime Disneyland fan, it was interesting to compare and contrast the two parks. Having fun in a casual way that wouldn’t overtax the parents was the main objective, but I planned everything in advance to take advantage of the best times to ride each attraction.

We started off the day dragging ourselves out of bed for the shuttle’s 7:30 a.m. pickup. Sure, our flight arrived really late the previous night and we we in no mood to get up, but I had a fully packed day planned with lots to see so there truly was no alternative. We arrived at WDW’s central transportation hub to board the monorail entering Epcot. It was there, unfortunately, that my mom discovered she forgot to bring our three-day passes. Damn! Instead of heading all the way back to the hotel, we decided to buy one-day passes and hope that a Disney employee could spread some pixie dust and get us a partial refund on the other passes.

Seeing Epcot’s Future World unfold via monorail was (I hate to say it) a magical experience. My heart jumped when Spaceship Earth could be spied in the distance peeking over the trees. Getting closer, I was surprised to find the place a bit smaller in scale than what I imagined. I pictured us trucking along all day going from pavilion to pavilion, but in reality they’re all relatively close together. We bought our passes and entered the park. Upon arrival, we made a beeline for the Test Track attraction to get Fastpasses. For those who don’t know, a Fastpass allows you to go on a ride using a faster moving line later on in the day, providing you go back to an attraction during the time frame printed on the ticket. This early jostling with the crowds was a bit trying, so my mom suggested a little break with coffee and pastries. It was nice, and I flung some pieces of cheese danish at the aggressive white seabird hanging around.

The first ride we went on was Mission:Space. This is one of the newer attractions that has undergone criticism for not being “futuristic” enough, but I actually found it enjoyable in a low-key way. Guests play the role astronauts piloting a claustrophobic spacecraft to Mars, coached along by Gary Sinise. I was planning to do the wimpier version of the ride, with no spinning, but the parents insisted on playing it dangerously. The experience wasn’t too bad, but the odd moments of disorientation gave my stomach a pronounced queasiness that wouldn’t let up for an hour or two. It was weird, but the only thing that truly bothered me was the constant cold air blowing in my face. After the ride finished, we trudged down a spartan, flourescent-lit, too-long hallway — a very un-Disney like ending.

One ride down, several more to go. Onward to the Universe of Energy pavilion to ride on something called Ellen’s Energy Adventure. This was Disney’s attempt to liven up an older ride by framing it in a film with hip, young celebrities like Ellen DeGeneris, Alex Trebek and Bill Nye, The Science Guy. Unfortunately the film basically screams “1996″ and suffers from having a squishy, corporate-safe message (offshore drilling is the best thing ever!). Long, tedious, shoulda been skipped — even the part where the ride vehicles go through dioramas with audio-animatronic dinosaurs let me down. And Ellen was so annoying!

By this time we were due back at Test Track, Fastpasses in hand. I’ll say it now: the outside of this building sure is ugly. Cheesy banners and scaffolding everywhere; certainly not something that inspires wonderment in the possibilities of the future. The inside queue, seemingly inspired by the local Home Depot outlet, doesn’t improve things. We only had to wait about five minutes to board our “car”, and once the ride got going it was fun, if a little on the brief side. I’d love to go on the speedy outside section of track during a hurricane. The ride dumps you into a GM showroom and gift shop, not exactly a transporting experience.

After that I was getting thirsty, so we checked out the Coca Cola-sponsored Club Cool in Innoventions. This is a little area in which guests can sample — free! — various sodas sold throughout the world. The bitter Italian soda is the most notorious offering, but there’s also a German lemonade, a Mexican apple soda (my mom’s favorite), and the best one of all — a light-tasting Chinese watermelon soda. This little diversion actually made for one of the highlights of the day (we ignored the rest of Innoventions).

The park was starting to get crowded, so I decided to fit a visit to the recently refurbished Spaceship Earth, a.k.a. the giant golf ball. This had one the longest lines in Epcot, but we toughed it out and got on in about 15 or 20 minutes (the longest wait during our entire trip). Despite technical difficulties with the ride vehicles’ computer screens, it was a lovely and inspiring journey. I loved Judi Dench’s narration and all the detailing in the various audio-animatronic figures. This is Epcot the way it should be.

Reaching high noon, we trekked to the other side of Future World to get a Fastpass for the Living with the Land ride. On the way out of the pavilion, my parents insisted on taking a detour from the schedule — they wanted to see the Lion King movie (sigh). Okay, fine. It was cute and nicely animated, addressing pollution for the kiddie set, but also skippable for anyone over the age of eight. We also took an unscheduled stop at the former Wonders of Life pavilion, which was holding some exhibits relating to Epcot’s annual Flower & Garden festival. I waited outside on the patio and took a moment to call Christopher and bug him about how he’s working and I’m not!

With the afternoon sun blazing away, we took shelter in another renovated pavilion, The Seas with Nemo and Friends. Now, the idea of riding a clamshell to meet Finding Nemo creatures sounds like something too irresistible to pass up, but in reality the entire pavilion was a bit of a letdown. The Pixar overlay seemed a bit like a cheap afterthought (the exterior, with the “mine” seagulls and a waterfall, was a lot more creative), and the sealife exhibits were beautiful but not any more impressive than what you’d find at a real aquarium. All in all, I took a bunch of blurry photos and left pretty quickly.

It was here that we trucked over to the Land pavilion to use our Living with the Land fastpasses. Truthfully, I didn’t know what to expect of this ride. But I unconditionally love boat rides of every kind, so we decided to give it a shot. The ride takes guests though greenhouses and aquariums showing new methods of growing produce and fish. That might not sound like much, but I was totally enthralled. Who knew? This made up for the Land pavilion itself, which had all the ambiance of a shopping mall food court.

Throughout the day we were going through Future World in roughly counter-clockwise order. That put the Imagination pavilion next, but I decided to skip it entirely. Instead, we went to the butterfly tent set up as part of the Flower & Garden festival. This tent was crowded and there weren’t many butterflies (which kinda had me worried for their safety), but there were some great topiary and flower displays around the lagoon that connected Future World to Epcot’s other half, World Showcase.

Well, this entry has gone on too long — and we’re only halfway though the day at this point! — so I will write about the gorgeous sights of World Showcase tomorrow. Photos from the day can be viewed in my WDW flickr set.

WDW Epcot flickr set

Whoa, Ho, Ho It’s Magic

I limped back from my Disney World trip last Saturday with jet lag, achy feet, sniffly nose and a dry throat. At this point it’s safe to say that I’m all Disneyed out for awhile. It was a fun and frenetic three days — I will have a more detailed report on each day later. By the way, I am so sick of tourists. Think of the dumbest, most obvious things that someone would say in a theme park, then multiply it by a thousand. That’s what it was like, and it sure doesn’t reaffirm one’s faith in humanity. Despite those annoyances, I had a memorable time. More later!

Animal Kingdom Tree Of Life

Magic Kingdom Castle in the Morning

Epcot Flower Display