Sunday, May 25, 2008

Vacation Post #5: Sea World

   Aside from Disneyland, this was what I was really looking forward to. I love San Diego -- it's so pretty  there. Sharon and I went there on our honeymoon, but I had never been to Sea World. When I was a small kid, we went to a place called Marine Land, which was kind of a substitute Sea World.    When we got there, it was a little cool, but we weren't really cold  -- yet. We got in to the park just a few minutes before the first Shamu show of the day was to start -- so we headed for Shamu Stadium. I wanted to get some good pictures, but I didn't really think about where we were sitting. It was the "Splash Zone." At that time we started to pay more attention to the young men selling ponchos. We bought a few. As it turned out, at that point, we didn't need them. The kids were disappointed that we didn't get wet. I was happy that I didn't get the thousand dollars worth of camera equipment, sitting in my lap, drenched in salt water. I'll come back to the Shamu show. 
   From there we decided to try the river rafting ride -- there aren't a lot of rides in the park, so you can really spend your time seeing the spectacular animals. We got soaked on the ride. Actually, those of us wearing ponchos - Sharon, Jordan and myself -- stayed relatively dry. Those who were more exposed -- namely Matt and my brother, Tim -- looked like they jumped in the ocean. We had to stop at the gift shop and buy Matt a new shirt, before hypothermia set in. 
   We saw the dolphin show. That's where we got wet. We saw sharks and penguins. The kids had a blast at the tide pool. Emma was fascinated by the star fish. I was surprised that she would pick one up, but I think she would have stayed there for hours. We went to the polar exhibit to see the polar bears, and somehow managed to miss them. We walked through the whole thing -- so we supposed  -- and saw not one bear. We must have missed a turn somewhere. After the dolphin show, everybody else headed to the sea lion show - which I hear was a riot - but I headed back to Shamu Stadium. I wanted to get some better pictures. 
   The current Shamu show, is called "Believe," and it was amazing. This was, by far, the best non Disney portion of our vacation. The first time we saw the show, we were sitting off to the side of the main "stage" so all of my pictures had the audience in the background, rather than the backdrop of the stage -- which is really cool (the backdrop, I mean). So I went back, alone, and sat in the dead center -- in the "Splash Zone" again (Shamu can splash as high as sixteen rows in to the bleachers).  My best friend, Aaron, saw this show earlier in the year and felt that it was too "green," that they were pushing their environmental, "reduce your carbon footprint" message too strongly. He's wrong (take that). Actually, knowing of the mission of Sea World (it's not just to show you how nifty marine life is), I expected to have a bit of an agenda thrown at me - but I was actually surprised that there wasn't more. To be honest, I wouldn't have minded all that much. These are passionate people, and passionate people don't bother me. Fanatical people bother me. Zealots. If you want to spend your life studying, and preserving marine life (or the planet - or whatever your cause is) I applaud that. It is a noble cause. My problem is with those who adopt the "if you're not with me, you're against me" attitude. The Al Gore types, who tell me that I am evil, if I am not as passionate about your cause as you are. Go ahead and work to make the earth a better, safer, healthier place to live. Devote all of your waking hours to it. I honestly admire that. I will try to spend my time helping to raise the next generation of inhabitants of this planet, hopefully more aware of the gifts they have been given. We're all working for the same thing, believe it or not. 
   But, I digress. The Shamu show, is incredible. First of all there are the whales. They are beautiful creatures. Killer whales are the top predator in the ocean, I did not realize this. And yet, these amazing trainers are not afraid to trust them with their safety, if not their lives. Why? Because killer whales are extremely intelligent, they are not just feeding machines (this is just one of the reasons they don't do the show with great white sharks). "Believe" showcases the incredible grace of these creatures. Who would have thought of an 8,000 pound creature as graceful? The whales jumped, they splashed, they flew. The trainer log rolled one of them across the entire tank. A couple of performers rode out of the water on the nose of Shamu. What a rush that must be! The whale did a backflip! Flipping dolphins are cool -- a backflipping whale is astonishing! And the music was so beautiful, that I had to buy the soundtrack. It's kind of a cross between the soundtracks for the movies "Gladiator," "Titanic," and "The Pirates of the Caribbean." If you can imagine that, you'll know what I'm talking about. If not, just take my word for it. 
   So, that was Sea World. It was a wonderful way to cap off the trip to California. 
   Oh, and on the way back to Anaheim that night, we stopped at a beach, so that my brother could get his "ocean fix" and so my kids could see the ocean up close for the first time. Their considered opinion is: "it's really big." 

Vacation Post #4: Universal Studios

   Let me first say, if you go to Southern California, intending to see Disneyland, Universal Studios, and Sea World -- save Disneyland for the last. It's not that the other places aren't cool, it's just that Disneyland is so much cooler...   On Saturday, May 4, after three (well, two and a half) days at Disneyland, we headed to Hollywood, to spend the day at Universal Studios. I had not been to Universal since I was about seventeen. I'm a lot older than that now. Not much has really changed. Well, okay, a lot of things have changed -- it's not that I'm indecisive -- but I guess I just didn't know what to expect anymore. There are new attractions, that I have never seen before -- the Shrek 4D movie, the Terminator 2 3D experience, the Jurassic Park and Mummy rides (a new Simpsons themed ride opened a couple of weeks after we left). We met the Simpsons and Dora the Explorer (yay!) wandering around the park, and we saw Frankenstein's monster once. But, somehow, Universal was kind of a disappointment. I think part of it was that the Disney glow was still on me (it still is). The park was dirtier than Disneyland, and people walking around with open cans of beer, just isn't conducive to that family friendly atmosphere -- I know, I'm a prude. And don't get me started on our attempt to get some lunch. I think I just never thought of Universal Studios as a theme park, but as more of a behind the scenes tour of Hollywood. 
   We did the backlot tour, which was what I was looking forward to. It was almost exactly the same as it was the last time I was there -- that's about 19 years ago, by the way. It was kind of dull. Here's how it goes: you ride around on a shuttle, and your over enthusiastic guide -- who probably recites her monologue in her sleep --  tells you about everything you're seeing. 
   "Over here is the office where such and such a director took a nap while filming such and such a movie. Here is a vacant lot, where a lot of movies you've probably never heard of, were filmed. This is the backside of a building where lots of cool stuff happened once. Here, in this non-descript building, many of your favorite television shows are being filmed, as we speak! I swear!" 
   After that, you go through a subway disaster and  get up close and personal with King Kong. Both of these were there the last time I was -- and they were more impressive then. 
   I realize I'm making it sound like we didn't have a good time at Universal Studios, but really we did -- it was just a little unsatisfying. The best part of the day was the Jurassic Park Ride -- which is like a half hearted attempt at a Splash Mountain ride. Sorry, there's that Disney comparison again.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Vacation Post #3: Mormon Watching

   Mormons are a peculiar people. We've always been told that and, the truth is, we kind of like it that way. But, living in Utah, amidst the greatest concentration of Mormons in the world, I didn't realize how recognizable a Mormon is -- at least to another one. In Disneyland, I picked up the unintentional habit of Mormon spotting. At Disneyland, Mormons are EVERYWHERE!   I'm not really even sure what it is, that makes them stand out from the crowd. There are certain tell tale signs (without getting too mysterious) that are dead giveaways (CTR rings etc...) but you generally have to get pretty close to see those things. I was spotting Mormons from across the park. Every line I was in, for rides, food or shopping, I was shoulder to shoulder with Mormons. Mormons just look different. Not weird, just not the same as everyone else. Actually, I suspect it was probably not noticeable to non Mormons in the park. I can't tell you if it's in their faces or the way they dress - they are slightly more modestly dressed than your average Disneyland goer. But, it's very subtle. (Okay, maybe they have a few more kids orbiting them than your typical park attendee and much to my brother's disgust, there was a lot of BYU apparel). It was mostly the Mormon mothers that really stood out -- maybe that comes from being married to one of them -- and I mean that as a compliment. It seems cheesy to say, but I thought it was neat that they stood out from the crowd.
   By the end of the first day, my Mormon radar was fully in tune. I was truly astonished at how prevalent they were. It was almost distracting. 
   Incidentally, by way of comparison, after Disneyland, we spent the next two days at Universal Studios and Sea World, and I saw not one identifiable Mormon. Truth be told, we spend a lot more time at Lagoon Amusement Park in Farmington, Utah, and the Mormons were easier to spot at Disneyland.
   The pictures I've included with this post are not of the random Mormons we saw, but just us. We're Mormons too. 

Vacation Post #2: The Emma Experience

   This was the first trip to Disneyland for all of my children, but I was particularly interested to see how Emma, my almost five year old, would react. Matt and Jordan are going on nine and eleven, respectively, and while they can still see the wonder in things, they are old enough to distinguish between reality and fantasy. But, to Emma, a life size, flesh and blood Disney princess is every bit as real as the cartoon version. Though, consequently, that means that the other characters -- particularly six and a half foot tall Goofy (the first one we ran into) is also real. That didn't go over so well. And she was a little wary of the Enchanted Tiki Room, but when the wall she was sitting next to started talking, that sent her over the edge. Emma is also a little volatile -- what she will have nothing to do with one day, she may embrace with her whole soul the next (God help the poor sucker who marries her). So, we're vacationing with a total of seven people, Emma being the only one who will be a little iffy about certain attractions. I hoped that if I could just get her on to the bigger rides, she would settle down and enjoy them. And there's the rub, if Emma gets the slightest notion that she may not like something, there is NO changing her mind, and there is nothing to do, short of picking her up bodily and dragging her, kicking and screaming, on to the ride. Good times for all. So I adopted a strategy that, for the most part, got Emma in to places I would not have thought possible. I held Emma's hand, kept moving forward, deflected questions, pointed out things to look at, remained vague and, when necessary, lied. Parenting at it's finest. 
   The first challenge was probably the scariest -- The Indiana Jones Adventure. Emma loves -- yes I said loves -- the Indiana Jones movies. 
In fact, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is her favorite (have her tell you about the scene where Mola Ram removes the guy's heart sometime). But the ride is dark and loud and noisy and scary. We got on so fast that she didn't really have time to think about where she was, until we were in the jeep and moving forward. She wanted off, but there was nowhere to go and she was stuck. She was very brave. I wasn't sure she would ever forgive me, but as we walked off the ride, she talked non stop -- getting braver and braver the farther we got away from the ride. "I kept my hands up the whole time," "I sure did a good job driving," " I saved Indiana Jones," " I was trying to scare you Dad, but I actually scared myself!" "That was my favorite ride!" She still maintains this, although, when asked if she wants to go on it again she responds with an emphatic "NO!"
   We followed this pattern on several more rides, including Pirates of the Caribbean, and it really only backfired once -- at Snow White. After a couple of the big scary rides I promised Emma that we would go to Fantasyland and ride some of the more kid friendly rides. She wanted to ride a "Princess" ride. What could be more "princessy" than Snow White?  Well, the problem was two fold. First, the entrance to Snow White is kind of dark and mysterious (like Pirates and Indiana Jones) and Emma is an incredibly quick study -- she was beginning to sense a pattern. Secondly, her brother and sister have big mouths and had to mention that the ride is actually called "Snow White's Scary Adventures." That did it. Everyone, except Emma, (and me) went on Snow White. All things considered, Emma did very well, though, by the third day, she was perfectly content to stay in the Disney Princess Fantasy Faire. She had "seen it all" she said. 
   One other Emma experience. We went to Disneyland, Disney's California Adventure, Universal Studios and Sea World. And each place had a similar kind of ride. The oldest of this type of attraction was Star Tours, at Disneyland. You go into a small theater, buckle up your seat belt, and watch a movie while the whole place moves around, simulating the experience of flying in a Star Wars space ship. It's basically an interactive movie -- and it's pretty cool. To me. Well, after Star Tours, there was the Muppet 3-D movie at California Adventure, along with Soarin' Over California (which was incredible). Emma, actually enjoyed those quite a bit, though it took some coaxing to get her inside. At Universal Studios, there were two of these rides -- Shrek 4-D, and Terminator 2. Neither is as good as the Disney rides, and Terminator is very loud. Emma did okay with these rides, but, as I said, Emma is a quick study, and she had begun to notice another pattern developing, which was -- you start off in a room adjacent to the theater for a little introductory entertainment (some are more entertaining than others -- the Shrek one was just stupid), then you move in to the theater, strap yourself in, and mayhem ensues. By the time we got to Sea World's offering of this type (almost our last ride, on the last day of the trip) -- a helicopter trip into the arctic --  I was standing next to Emma in the introductory room (for lack of a better term), and I noticed her whimpering, as we began to head into the theater. Here is, verbatim, how the conversation went:
Me: "What's the matter Emma?" 
Emma: "Whimper, mumble..."
Me: "What was that?" -- it was very loud.
Emma: " I said, I can't take this anymore!"
Me: "It's going to be fine, I promise" -- I said, for the hundredth time.
Emma: (incredulously and looking at me, like I'm a complete idiot) "Then why are there SEAT BELTS!?"

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Vacation post #1: Magic Moments

Okay, so I can't write everything I want to write in one post, so I'll do it over several days. Bear with me.   So we went on vacation. This is not something we've done a lot of since having children. But, through the generosity of my mother, and due to the fact that she finally sold the house that I grew up in - after paying on it for 30 years -- we were able to spend six (ish) wonderful days in Southern California. It was my children's first trip to Disneyland, and the first time Sharon and I have been there since 1996. It is a whole different experience now. 
   Disneyland: Sharon and I last went to Disneyland in 1996, just before we moved up from Cedar City. At that time, Tomorrowland was under renovation and Disney's California Adventure was a parking lot. My kids were sufficiently blown away by their first trip to adolescent Mecca. We hit most of the rides in the park,  but even after two and a half days we didn't get to everything. Indiana Jones is great, but, for best attraction, my money is still on Pirates of the Caribbean. It has been quite enhanced since the release of the three Pirates movies -- and at one point the ride had been sanitized by the political correctness police, but I think there was such an uproar that most of the changes were reversed - there is a winsome wench on the ride once again. We rode, we walked, we shopped, we hemorrhaged money.
   I was completely satisfied with our trip to Disneyland, but there are a few things I would have liked to have done. I love Main Street U.S.A. -- not the shops exactly but the little theaters and museums (there are some neat ones in New Orleans Square too), but most people go right past them on their way to the rides. Did you know that Walt wanted Main Street to feel so familiar and nostalgic to people, that if you go into the alleys between the buildings, you can hear the sounds of turn of the century America -- a dentist drill, someone taking 
piano lessons etc..? I wish I could have spent a little more time on Main Street. 
   But, this being the first time for my children, I really wanted each of them to have that one special experience, that would stay with them all of their lives. I think we succeeded.  For Emma, that experience was meeting the Disney Princesses, but primarily her favorite, Ariel -- the Little Mermaid. The smile on her face, as we walked away from that meeting, told me she had just experienced the magic of Disneyland.
   For Matt, the moment came at the Jedi Training Academy. This is a show where Jedi Masters pull several potential padawans (apprentice jedi, for lack of a better term) from the crowd, dress them in Jedi robes and train them in the use of lightsabers. At the conclusion of the training two stormtroopers come rushing in to "secure" the area. The stage then rises up and out comes DARTH VADER!! He is followed shortly by DARTH MAUL!! They attempt to turn the younglings to the dark side of the Force. The Jedi Master decides that the only way to deal with this problem is for each padawan to face either Vader or Maul in single combat. THAT WAS SO COOL!! My son fought Darth Maul! The only thing bigger than the smile on Matt's face when it was all done, were the smiles on the faces of his father and uncle, who were living vicariously through him.

   For Jordan, it was a bit tougher to find that magic moment. I knew she would love the trip, but, while she likes princesses, she's no longer in awe of them. She wanted to try the Jedi Training, but even though she is only 10, sometimes she looks about 14, and they weren't picking kids much bigger than Matthew. Grandma to the rescue! My mom took Jordan shopping (never hurts huh? ) something she did not do for the other kids (that makes it special). But the real magic came when they stopped to have Jordan's portrait drawn as a caricature. A very large crowd gathered to watch the artist draw Jordan, and the woman who drew the picture, commented to Jordan that she was a very good model. And, of course, Jordan just HATES that kind of attention. (She really is a very good model, she has always been the easiest person for me to photograph -- she is stunningly photogenic -- her eyes pull you right in). This portrait of Jordan is my favorite thing that we brought home from our trip. It captures Jordan completely.