March 2004
A Week in California

Carolyn's granddaughter, Taylor, had her sixth birthday in March and, as promised, we were taking her to Disneyland. Carolyn and I were driving from Denver, and Taylor and Craig, Carolyn's son, were flying from Dallas to Las Vegas, where we would meet them.

We had never traveled by car from Colorado to the West Coast and both of us were looking forward to the drive. We were not planning to make the entire trip in a single day, our goal for the first day was Las Vegas, which is about an eleven-hour drive. We left the house by 7 am and had lunch in Grand Junction, Colorado just before noon. Minor traffic problems on Interstate 70 near the continental divide caused a slow start, but we soon made up for lost time. We arrived in Las Vegas at 6:45 pm local time. The trip odometer indicated that we had driven 745 miles.

We checked into our hotel and headed to McCarran Airport with plenty of time to spare before Craig and Taylor's 9:45 flight. After dinner at a Mexican restaurant, we played video poker until they arrived. Carolyn won $10 and I won $75.

Mann's Chinese Theater We left Las Vegas at 9:30 am and we're soon crossing the Mojave Desert along Interstate 15. This desert passage was strangely scenic. The Mojave is an arid emptiness of rattlesnakes and ghost towns, many of which were created when tourists abandoned the historic Route 66 for the more modern and convenient I-15. We had lunch in Victorville, California near the San Bernardino mountains and the San Andreas Fault. We arrived at our Anaheim hotel before 3 pm.

With time on our hands, we decided to visit Hollywood, which is about an hour north of Anaheim. Allegedly, LA traffic is the worst in the US. I'm inclined to believe this after our experience. Had I not witnessed it with my own eyes, I never would have believed that traffic on an eight-lane expressway could be reduced to a crawl on a Sunday afternoon. Eventually, we arrived in Hollywood, where the least expensive parking we could find was $8 for a few hours.

We started at Mann's Chinese theater (formerly Grauman's), the pagoda-like structure that, to some, symbolizes Hollywood. The theater showed its first film in 1927, and I was surprised to discover that it is still possible to watch movies there. Mann's is renowned for its courtyard paved with cement impressions of footprints and handprints of early Hollywood stars. The theater is the focal point of tourism in Hollywood. The neighborhood is in the nascent stages of renewal. A major shopping and dining complex is being constructed nearby.

A vision of Hollywood as all glitz and glamour is quickly dispelled by an actual visit. The reality of Hollywood is much more dingy, tawdry and sleazy. For every success story, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of entertainment industry rejects. These people litter the streets of Hollywood, their wasted lives a reminder of the perils of obsession with stardom. Dazed and disillusioned tourists clutch their cameras, purses and children, while warily watching these tattooed, drugged-up freakshows and wondering why they came to Hollywood. Fortunately, in our case, Hollywood was not the reason that we were in Los Angeles.

We mildly enjoyed the "Walk of Fame," where show business names are engraved in Hollywood Boulevard sidewalk stars. There are more than 2000 names, with the older stars toward the east and the newer stars toward the west. It was interesting to discover that Walk of Fame recognition is not limited to actual people. Animated characters, such as Snow White, and animal actors, such as Lassie, have been awarded stars. A surprising number of the names are obscure. Each star has an embedded symbol indicating field of endeavor. There are five symbols: a camera indicates a film personality, a television set indicates a television performer or creator, a record indicates someone from the music industry, a microphone indicates a radio personality, and a pair of theatrical masks indicates someone from the theater. Only one person has earned a Walk of Fame star in all five categories - Gene Autry.

On the way back to the hotel, we passed the famous intersection at Hollywood and Vine. Today the intersection is home to more transients than show business executives.

Universal Studios
Universal Studios All of Monday was spent at the Universal Studios theme park. This is basically a ride-oriented theme park where the theme is the film-making industry. There are thrill rides, shows and Hollywood exhibits. The park is also a working film and television studio.

Near the entrance to the theme park is a colorful and visually dramatic shopping and dining area called City Walk. There is no admission fee for City Walk. Theme park admission fee is normally $49, but Carolyn had $25 admission coupons. Parking was less than $10.

One of the most interesting experiences of our visit was the "Backlot Tour," which combines a "behind the scenes" look at movie making with an action ride. During the tour, the guided tram crosses a collapsing bridge, narrowly escapes a flash flood, and is attacked by both the shark from Jaws (his name is "Bruce") and King Kong. The tour passes sets from Pyscho, The Three Amigos, The Grinch, and Leave It To Beaver, among many others.

The most intense attraction was "Backdraft," which mimics the inside of a burning warehouse filled with exploding chemical drums. Very noisy and very hot. I expected the Special Effects Stage show to be informative, but it was also funny. The "Shrek 4D" show is a 3D goggle-type movie, with the 4th dimension represented by various gimmicks, such as moving seats and occasional puffs of air or water directed at the audience. I avoided getting wet by using my hat to cover the gadget panel mounted on the back of the chair in front of me. A low-key, yet touching, exhibit was a tribute to Lucille Ball.

Overall, we had a blast, but Taylor was confused and frightened by the realism of some of the rides and exhibits. She sat next to me on the Jurassic Park ride. After the giant T-Rex lunged at us and we went over the nearly 100-ft waterfall, she was shaking and crying. I assumed that the drop shook her up a little, but apparently it was the mechanical dinosaur that got to her. She was still too young to consistently recognize the line between reality and imitation.

Disneyland Tuesday was the high point of the trip - Disneyland. Before heading to the park, we took Taylor to a nearby hotel for the "Character Breakfast." This is a buffet-style meal where costumed Disney personalities mingle with and entertain the guests. There was a mix of characters - some old, some new, some very familiar, some only vaguely so.

There are really two Anaheim Disney theme parks. In addition to the original Disneyland, there is Disney's California Adventure, which is based on more of a California theme and is less kid oriented. We were headed to the original Disneyland.

After paying our $47 admission fees, we were soon inside the park. The 50 year-old park is a little run down and has lost some of its sparkle, but it is still Disneyland. It still has flying elephants and a fairy tale castle. Initially, the park layout was slightly confusing, but we quickly learned to navigate with ease.

We did a little bit of everything. The Jungle Cruise ride, one of the oldest in the park, brought back memories of my childhood visit to Disneyland. The thought crossed my mind that this ride could be "modernized" with live animals, which would make it more of a wildlife park cruise, but the original character of this classic Disneyland attraction has a very strong appeal. On the other hand, Tomorrowland, which embodies an earlier generations' vision of the future, seems hopelessly outdated.

The Mark Twain Riverboat, another ride dating from the earliest days of the park, is a paddle boat modeled after those that were so common along the Mississippi River during the late 19th century. One of our favorite Tokyo Disneyland rides was Pirates of the Caribbean, a boat trip through a pirate-infested Louisiana bayou. The Anaheim version is identical, except that the Pirates are not speaking Japanese.

Taylor loved Tarzan's Treehouse, the kind of structure every kid must dream of having in their backyard. As visitors climb higher and higher into the trees, portions of Tarzan's life are revealed in museum-like displays. Connecting walkways are built on sturdy (and fake) branches and swinging rope bridges. It was a lot of fun for the adults as well.

Unfortunately, two of the most popular rides, Splash Mountain and Space Mountain, were closed. One of the best roller coaster experiences, because it's dark and you can't see what's coming, Space Mountain is closed for maintenance until November 2005.

Another Tokyo Disneyland favorite that we enjoyed "revisiting" was The Enchanted Tiki Room, a sound and light show featuring animated tropical birds and Polynesian Gods. The biggest line of the day was not for a ride, but for an early afternoon showing of Snow White the Musical, which is a colorful stage production based on the familiar story, characters and songs.

While Carolyn dutifully took Taylor on all of the kiddie rides, such as the flying rockets or the spinning tea cups, Craig and I occasionally followed our own instincts. At one point, I got away long enough for a ride on the Matterhorn Bobsleds, which careen down, and partly through, a fake Matterhorn. Overall, however, some of the kiddie rides weren't so bad. I must admit that I enjoyed Peter Pan's Flight, Pinocchio's Daring Journey, and It's A Small World.

Our visit ended with a late evening parade along Main Street featuring the most popular Disney characters. It was a full day. We would leave early the next morning for San Diego.

San Diego
San Diego The drive to San Diego took 2 ½ uneventful hours. We briefly stopped near an overlook just north of the city so that Taylor could get her first glimpse of the ocean. Before the day was over, she would see a lot more.

After finding the hotel without any problems, we drove to San Diego harbor for a 3 ½ hour whale watching cruise. It was windy and chilly, but we saw plenty of Gray Whales. We were also rewarded with some great views of the San Diego waterfront from the ship. I think Craig and Taylor enjoyed the boat ride out into the ocean even more than the whale viewing.

That evening, we visited a nearby beach and had dinner at a Mexican restaurant.

Sea World Originally, I had planned to check out some of San Diego's historic landmarks while Carolyn took Craig and Taylor to Seaworld. Almost at the last minute, I changed my mind. I'm glad I did.

SeaWorld is a mixture of exhibits, shows and rides, all tightly packaged around a marine life theme. Featured animals are not limited to dolphins and killer whales, but also include sharks, polar bears, penguins, manatees and moray eels, among others. Artificial tidal pools and petting ponds allow direct contact with sea life such as dolphins, bat rays, sea urchins, and star fish.

One of the wildlife exhibits is cleverly integrated into a thrill ride. The Wild Arctic begins with a simulated, yet very turbulent, helicopter ride to a remote Arctic research station. After disembarking, visitors exit through a long, and rather chilly, series of observation portals where they can view polar bears, beluga whales, and walruses in recreations of their natural habitats.

We were transported from one side of the park to the other on the Bayside Skyride, a quiet ski-lift-type ride with some scenic views of the San Diego waterfront. After spending the last two days at Universal Studios and Disneyland, we decided to skip the two thrill rides featured by the park - Journey to Atlantis and Shipwreck Rapids. Unfortunately, the Skytower ride was closed.

With few exceptions, tourists don't come to SeaWorld San Diego for the rides, they come for the shows. The highlight of any visit is, without question, the Shamu Adventure, which features a pack of dolphins along with the famous killer whales Shamu and Baby Shamu. The "theater" is a seven-million-gallon tank and those seated in the first few rows are guaranteed a thorough soaking. The level of sophistication of the tricks, not to mention the athleticism, was astonishing. I now include this animal performance in the short list of things that I've witnessed in my life that I would describe as truly amazing.

In addition to the "wow" shows, there are several of the "cute" variety. Pet's Rule features dogs and cats performing a variety of amusing prop-oriented stunts. I later learned that most of the featured animals were adopted from local animal shelters. Fools with Tools is a another comedy skit involving two sassy sea lions, a friendly walrus, and and mischievous otter.

A different type of show is a "4-D version" of R. L. Stein's The Haunted Lighthouse. This is a mildly entertaining twenty-minute tale of two children that encounter ghosts while exploring an abandoned lighthouse.

Las Vegas
Fremont Experience The last evening of the trip was spent in Las Vegas. Shortly after our mid-afternoon arrival, we began doing what one generally does in Las Vegas - gamble. Carolyn and Craig took turns entertaining Taylor, while the other played poker or whatever. I was not distracted by this chore, so it may be no coincidence that I was the only one that won anything that night. I came out ahead by about $250, so I bought dinner for everyone.

Carolyn wanted to Taylor to see the Fremont Experience, which is a sound and light show projected onto the canopy that protects Fremont Street from the elements. As if the neighborhood isn't bright and colorful enough already, the Fremont Experience features more than 2 million colored lights. The shows last about five minutes and occur on the hour between dusk and 11 pm. There are several different shows and all embody musical themes, such as Dancing in the Street, Motown or Vegas entertainment legends.

Drive to Colorado
San Rafeal Reef We dropped Craig and Taylor off at the airport and began the long drive back to Colorado. It's actually a very scenic drive, but between being anxious to get home and having seen most of what Utah and western Colorado have to offer many times before, we were reluctant to stop for much. We arrived home late that evening.

Photo Gallery

Disney Character Breakfast Disneyland Disneyland

Disneyland Disneyland Disneyland San Diego

Disneyland Disneyland Universal Studios

Universal Studios Universal Studios Universal Studios Universal Studios

Sea World Sea World Sea World

Disneyland Universal Studios Universal Studios San Diego

Universal Studios Universal Studios Sea World