Saturday, May 20, 2017

Right place, right time


  No, this post isn't about some new helicopter ride at Disneyland or Universal Studios. It has nothing to do with a theme park. It was, instead, a case of being present for a pretty spectacular event, AND being fortunate enough to have my SLR on me at the time.
  I was on my way home from a visit to the beautiful El Matador beach in Malibu, where I had been shooting lots of waves, sea caves, and the like. About halfway home, driving up one of Malibu's many mountainous canyons, I noticed a column of smoke in the sky ahead. As I drove on, it got thicker and thicker. I realized it was almost directly in my path.
  Sure enough, a couple miles ahead, there was the eruptings of chaos. Fire trucks, police cars, big smoke. A wildfire had broken out just off the road, and huge flames were shooting into the air. I pulled over onto the dirt and jumped out with my camera. Two air crews were battling the blaze, flying directly over me, dropping water, then returning to reload.
  I was able to capture just a few shots before the authorities came in and forced the few of us who had gathered to evacuate. The wind was picking up, and we were pretty close to the fire. Just after this, they closed down the entire road through the canyon.
  Nobody was hurt (save for a minor injury to one firefighter's leg from a falling rock) and no structures were destroyed. Congratulations, firefighters, on a job well done.





.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Universal acclaim


  By now, readers of this blog are convinced that all I do with my life is go to amusement parks. Not true. I assure you that I also sleep, eat, and spend a great deal of time in endless traffic gridlock. Oh, and sometimes I go to work.

  Once again, this week, though, we took a day to go play. This time, we jaunted around the world of Universal Studios. I hadn't been there since the late 90's, and the wife had only skirted through on her way into the ACTUAL studios. In addition to being amazed at how different the park was these days, we were totally blown away by some of the craftsmanship on display.
  Firstly and absolutely formostly (is that a word?), all praise goes to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Good grief was this an elaborate affair. I had seen pictures, and I had seen commercials on tv, but nothing prepares you for standing in the middle of Hogsmeade. It's so much bigger than you think it's going to be, and the level of detail and clear love for the property is nothing short of amazing. It's like you're right in the middle of the movies.

*Click images to embiggen


  Now, I wasn't one of the bajillion people who read the books, so my only knowledge of places, things, and characters, comes solely from the movies. Even then, my memory is a bit rusty. Nevertheless, it was such a wonderful, and yes, magical, place to explore.
  The first thing we did was get in line to be fitted for a wand at Olivander's Wand Shop. During our long wait, some online research (there's free Wi-Fi all throughout the park) turned up some helpful hints. We read that in the wand shop, only one person per party can be fitted for a wand, likely due to time constraints. The page informed us that our time would be better spent at many other places around Hogsmeade, most especially at Hogwarts Castle, where the big "Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey" ride was.
  We jumped out of line, and headed for the castle.


  As I said, I had seen this on TV in commercials for Universal. I though "Oh, that's cute," because clearly they weren't going to build a whole giant castle. Even though it IS a scaled down version, it's still VERY impressive, and manages to fool you into thinking it's bigger than it really is. The effect, is, to repeatedly use the word- magical.
  The queue on any normal day is probably horrendously long, as evidenced by how deep you have to go into the castle/mountain before boarding the ride. WHAT a queue, though! The passage through room after room and corridor after corridor into the bowels of Hogwarts was amazing! The level of care and detail on display blew my mind. Everything from the talking paintings, to well-known artifacts from the stories, to libraries and rooms to tapestries. I almost wanted there to be more of a wait so I could spend time looking at it all in depth. We purposefully picked a Thursday, though, so lines would be short. So, we sort of rushed right along, snapping a few phone pics:


Hall of portraits

Dumbledore's office

Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom

Sorting hat

  "Yeah, yeah," you might be saying, "the queue, the queue. What about the RIDE?!?" I believe my thoughts on that were something like "Holy shit!"
  They do warn you outside that if you are susceptible to motion sickness or dizziness, you shouldn't ride. Well, we had heard about that, so we took some Dramamine just in case. Neither of us are terribly susceptible, but it wouldn't hurt. I'm glad we took it.
  It's not a roller coaster, or anything conventional. It's also not one of those Star Tours type rides where you sit in front of a screen and the room moves, making you think you're flying. It's... it's hard to describe. I'd say it's sort of a hybrid between the two. You're strapped into a seat, and it does come off the floor. It does move. It sways, dips, turns, and dives. When you combine this with several different screens, and some animatronics, you get one hell of a ride. You genuinely feel like you're flying. It was exhilarating. We did, however, feel the effects when we stepped off. Shook the old equilibrium up a bit.
  So, we decided to grab lunch at the much recommended Three Broomsticks restaurant there in Hogsmeade. There was quite a line out the door, and I thought we'd be there forever. Amazingly, after a fairly short wait, they had moved enough people through that we were able to put in our order. 


  There were plenty of choices, and they were even able to accommodate our allergy issues with a plate of spare ribs, potatoes, and corn. It was delicious, and the price was surprisingly decent. I would have expected "park food" to be much more costly. Good on you, Universal.

  After we ate, we decided to leave Hogsmeade and go into the rest of the park. We checked out Springfield, the hometown of The Simpsons. It was hilarious and ridiculously accurate to the cartoon.




  Homer harassed me terribly while I tried to pose for pictures with he and Marge. He stood in front of me, walked away from me, made fun of me. It was great. We also saw Sideshow Bob. No sign of Bart or Lisa.
  
  Next up was an attraction that I had REALLY wanted to go into, The Walking Dead. I'm a big fan of the show, but the wife... not so much. She wanted me to go in by myself, but I gently coaxed her into coming in with me.



  Naturally, there were no pictures allowed inside. It's a walk through attraction, and it's brilliantly modeled after different parts of the show. The whole queue takes place in a hospital, which has clearly seen better days. Lights flicker, trash and equipment sit in piles in the corners, and blood stains the floor and walls in several places. 
  You're let into the attraction in groups of about fifteen or so, and you make your way through dimly lit corridors that guide you through woods, warehouse rooms, and other confined spaces. Along the way, walkers, played by real actors, lunge out and try to grab you. It was terrifying and so much fun. It really got the blood pumping!

  To calm ourselves, we went on the famous Backlot Tram Tour next. I used to love this as a kid, because I really wanted to be a filmmaker one day. Getting to see behind the scenes of a real studio backlot was a huge treat. Nowadays, though, having been an actor, and being currently married to one, that special thrill is substantially lessened. Still, it was pretty cool to see locations and vehicles from a few popular shows and movies. Seeing as how I hadn't been back there in almost two decades, though, there were a few surprises.

A fake Ferrari "stunt car" from Magnum PI

Happy to see "flash flood" was still on the tour

A rather gruesome plane crash set from War of the Worlds

The famous Psycho house

  Two things I remembered from my childhood, the "collapsing" bridge and the famous Jaws tank, had both been removed from the tour. They were still there, off to the side, but they weren't mentioned.

  We finished off the day with some coffee and a few photo ops with characters we encountered along the way:

Beetlejuice

Big Frank

Mumms

  And, of course, we couldn't come home without a few trinkets, which all came from Hogsmeade.


Honeydukes

Olivander's Wand Shop

Death Eater wand



  The park was closing as we were walking out, and a large crowd had gathered around Spongebob Squarepants, who was break dancing. I should probably have grabbed a shot of that, but we were too busy trying to get ahead of the exiting masses.


  Outside the turnstyles, we breezed through CityWalk, which was going to be open a couple more hours, stopping only at Sparky's, a candy shop, where I grabbed a big bag of delicious salt water taffy. Sweet way to end an amazing day.

.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

It's my birthday!


  Yeah, we're back at Disneyland! We went a day early, since my birthday was on a Saturday this year, to avoid the crowds. It was still pretty busy, but not enough to be bothersome. And after uncharacteristically raining for the last few days, the weather cleared up just in time!

  We started the day with Indiana Jones, of course, because, hey, it's me! The wife had never been on it before, and she loved it.

I even got to be in the driver's seat

  Then we did Pirates, which is also fun. Afterward, we journeyed over to Tomorrowland, which is mostly Star Wars stuff now. There, I finally got to meet the Dark Lord of the Sith himself, Darth Vader.

Probably should check that kid's pants

  Once we finally got in to see him, I completely got nervous. Your brain tells you this is just a dude in a costume, but after seeing him on screen all these years and how evil and terrifying he is, you're not prepared to just be cool standing next to him.

He didn't really have a lightsaber, I just thought it would be funny to add it in


  Other than this picture above, I pretty much fidgeted and kept my distance. Kudos to the actor in the suit. He silently pointed to where he wanted me to stand, and said a few Vader-y things to me, like "Today, you are a friend of the Empire." I had no idea I would have the reaction I did. Freakin' awesome.

  After we rode on Star Tours, which was also super fun, I met a couple other characters over on the California Adventure side:




  Obviously, I wasn't intimidated by these guys. They're on our side! Captain America was pretty cool. Amazing suit. We talked Indiana Jones a bit, since they're from the same time period, and then I met Spidey. He was the coolest of all. A total sarcastic smartass, just like me. We made fun of Captain America for being old. Good times.

Then we had lunch at this AMAZING place in Downtown Disney called Trader Sam's. Apparently, it's a thing, but I had never heard of it. It's an "enchanted tiki lounge." Basically it's just a dark, really amazing bar with a bunch of jungle-exploration type artifacts, pictures, and props. The drink menu consists of things like "the shipwreck," "krakatoa," and many others. The thing is, when you order one of these, they yell and scream things like "ATTENTION LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, WE'RE HEADED FOR A SHIPWRECK!" and ring bells and the lights flicker, and a model ship above the bar sinks into the ocean. It's really, really fun. Also, the drink I ordered, Shrunken Zombie Head, got me midday drunk.

And now I can drink my coffee out of it

  In the afternoon, we went over to California Adventure and rode Soarin' Around the World, which is a fave of ours, and we did Midway Mania, which I had never seen. It was a virtual 3D arcade where you shoot darts, rings, paint pellets and all kinds of things at targets. It was ridiculously fun. I can see why it had such a long line to get in.

Got my game face ON

  In the evening, just as the sun was going down, we went up on the giant Paradise Pier "Mickey's Fun Wheel." It was an amazing view!





  After a hilariously entertaining "A Bug's Life" show, we capped off the night with some very fine dining at Carthay Circle Restaurant. Now, stupidly, I didn't get any pictures. The place was beautiful, and is a mostly accurate recreation of the Carthay Circle Theatre from Hollywood's "Golden Age." Unfortunately, it was torn down in 1969. It was at this theatre (the real one) that Walt Disney first premiered Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937. Here are a couple photos of the one at California Adventure I found on Google:



  The food was delicious. I would totally go back there again for a special occasion. Pricey, but not enough to put you in debt. Lots of great pictures from 1930's Hollywood, and a lot of little hidden Disney touches throughout that our waiter was kind enough to point out.

  And after that, we were pretty much spent. Lots of walking, lots of adrenaline. Good, good times, and a fantastic birthday celebration.


.