Sunday, July 6, 2014

There and Back Again: A Tale of an Excursion to, around, and beyond Disneyland

[Part One: The Journey, or the Destination?]

If anyone had been paying attention to my entries here and the cross-posted notifications in Facebook and Twitter, you would have seen that I had been conducting a countdown of sorts. The last time I had been anywhere near as far west as California was a trip to Las Vegas in Spring 2005 with friends from Atlanta, Chicago, and Phoenix.

As an aside and by way of a qualifier: I DO like to travel. There are usually two competing elements that have to align for me to be able to do it. I prefer to be able to take paid-time off (Vacation Days, PTO, however your respective employer codes it) and be able to afford the travel costs (gas/airfare, hotel, tickets if any, etc). The bigger/further the trip, the more these have to coincide. Now that I am a gainfully employed in a permanent position instead of contracting, the surprise gift of a Disneyland trip was very possible to arrange with my managers. If I had still be a contractor, I would have begged and pleaded with Kevin to cancel as any time I took off would not be covered by any accrued payable time-off system. Contracting/Temping sucks in some regards.

As a silly ninny I held off on doing any kind of packing until the day before for when I got home after work. Part of this was due to me not knowing if I would have to pay for checking luggage or not for part of my flights there and back. The tickets that had been acquired for me had stop-overs each way: ATL-HOU-LAX and LAX-MDW-ATL.

Along with the connections the flights had been set-up to take me on different airlines: Airtran and Southwest. My sweet friend Kevin knows that I prefer Airtran and booked via their website. Within the last couple of years Southwest bought Airtran and they have been merging routes, gates, and services since. Evidently, at least for the dates of my flights there and back, there were no direct flights available on Airtran out of ATL.

Having never flown Southwest before I was…leery…to say the least. I’ve read the complaints of passengers regarding people of larger/girthier bodysize in Coach class; including those flying Southwest. I also have trepidation about SW’s “No Assigned Seating” approach. As an Airtran flyer I knew the deal and had learned to work with it quite easily. I would book a ticket in an emergency exit row then when the online check-in window opened I would upgrade to Business Class (for the better leg room and wider seats) if available. More often than not, the upgrades would be there to be selected. Now, I had to take my chance on even getting a window seat (my preference) and hoping the person in front of me would not recline their seatback bashing my knees which would already be perilously close in the non-existent legroom. But…be that as it may. I checked in online and due to their code/system sharing once I was checked in for my Airtran flight I received my boarding position for Southwest.

To add flavor to my travel and park photographs I chose to take along a couple of toys from my desk at work: my WALL-E figure and a pewter/pot-metal gaming miniature TARDIS. I thought one or the other, or both, would be fun to take pictures of while exploring.

JoeZer's pint-sized traveling companions

I tried to get out of the office early the day before my flight out to LAX. But, as things have a way of conspiring together, while I did get approval to leave an hour early I received a client call that took me past the time I had been approved to leave at. So, instead of burning a tittle of PT minutes I opted to decline so someone else in the office could escape early if they needed. Believe me when I say that I was quite happy and relieved when it came time for me to turn off my desk phone and log off my workstation.

WALL-E, TARDIS, and I had an adventure to begin…and I had not even opened a suitcase to shove full of clothes yet.

WALL-E anxious to begin

Along with waiting to pack until the day before, another “last minute” decision I had made was to stay awake the entire night before leaving for the airport. No naps…just me bouncing off the walls of my apartment until it came time to throw things in the car, get myself to the light-rail, and disembark at ATL to shamble through security.

My ATL departure on Airtran was set for 8:40am ET. I arrived by light-rail at ATL at about 6:45am. Printed by boarding passes, checked my bag (surprisingly I was able to get all my needs for 6 days/5 nights in California all in to one suitcase), and then nearly feinted at the huge line with TSA. I got to my departure gate just as my flight was being called to begin boarding. Being an early Thursday morning I would not have thought that trying to get out via ATL would be so…thick…with people. Humanity, you always have to surprise me, don’t you?

Granted, I did learn something this round through TSA screening: do not pack the pewter/pot-metal gaming miniature in your carry-on/computer bag. For surely it will alert the bag scanners and have to undergo scrutiny for explosives and rescanned on the belt by itself. Admittedly, it is a hefty, solid piece of metal…so I can understand their concern. Minus 5 points for Gryffindor for causing a pause in processing people, JoeZer.

My first leg was comfortable and just as before whenever I’ve flown Airtran. It’s easy to say that I will miss them as a choice of airlines when the merger completes and everything of theirs is flagged Southwest. I have not had a single bad experience with them as a customer or passenger. Au revior, mon ami.

Next stop: Houston-Hobby for a two-hour layover.

Main observation about HOU was “Crimony, this is a teeny airport” when compared to the likes of ATL. Had enough time for a nosh and decompressing while anticipating my first ever Southwest boarding. My boarding position was assigned the code “B5” and my departure gate at HOU was “42”. Could my layover be any more influenced by science-fiction??

Directive?

For those who have not yet flown Southwest, here’s how their boarding process is broken down as best I can tell:
--- wheelchair/medical assisteds first
--- Group “A1-60” which normally encompasses those who are loyalty rewards members with SW or who pay for the ability to jump position in line
--- families with small children
--- Group “B1-60”
--- Group “C1-60”

A peccadillo I have with this is, of course, passengers bringing carry-ons and taking time to search out the seat they want to take near to where they stow their bags in the overhead bins. To me, this adds a layer of hassle that assigned seating does not have. But, whatever. I’m just a lowly fatman on a plane consisting only of Coach Class seats. What do I know?

I found an open window seat in a row where a fellow fatman had taken the aisle seat. The middle had not yet been claimed as I took possession of the preference. He and I looked conspiratorially at each other sharing the same thought: “Who would choose to sit between two heavyset passengers?”

At that point the lead flight attendant made the fateful announcement over the PA system. This was a full flight and all seats were booked. As it happened, there was a bendy, slip of a girl that was one of the last passengers to board. Her choice was already made for her as she was left only with the chair between me and my corpulent compatriot. She was slim enough where a part of me wondered if she was anorexic. She was also fidgety during the flight but never bumped either of us.

Me: I put in my earpods, started a Doctor Who audio drama by Big Finish, and let my mind wander above the clouds as I watched the passing scenery.

Destination: LAX
Achievement Unlocked: Traveling further west than before
Bonus Round Failed: Unable to dabble toes in Pacific Ocean due to time/transportation concerns

Qantas liveried Airbus A380 caught in the wild

The iconic part of LAX - always seemed larger in pictures

Bundling in to the car service Kevin arranged for my arrival at LAX I was whisked off to Anaheim and the Happiest Place on Earth while boggled at the haphazard drivers at Terminal 1’s arrival/departure area and then the LA highways, freeways, and such. I thought Atlanta drivers were a crop of crazies and that Orlando could be temper-testing. Little did I realize. We are NOTHING compared to the Greater Los Angeles area…at least from my perspective. This was one time I was glad to have not needed to rent a car.

Upon landing at LAX I caught up on texting with Kevin (as he had arrived earlier that morning) to make sure he knew I arrived safely and was enroute to the hotel. Our friend Paul had already arrived…so the party was slowly beginning. This was at about 1:30pm PT. By this time I had been awake since 7:30am ET the previous day – roughly 33 hours of consciousness so far. My brain was prepped and ready for the surreal as it was already nearing that boundary on its own.

From the approach the driver used, I had hoped to catch sight of Disneyland from the highway and local streets on our way to the Disneyland Hotel. I was a bit surprised when we were entering the grounds for the hotel to drop me off an I had not seen even a hint of the Matterhorn as of yet from outside the park. However, that would be an easy thing to get past in the grand scheme of this excursion.

Neither Paul nor Kevin were down in the lobby awaiting me; but the room number had been texted to me. An elevator ride later and knocking on the door, and I am reunited with friends I only see but rarely. Hugs shared, greetings greeted, I am allowed to freshen up and change for my first steps in to the fabled homeland: the first theme park Walt Disney built.

 JoeZer on DLR Main Street - unable to locate the castle

Getting to Disneyland, or even Disney California Adventure, from the hotel would take us on foot through Downtown Disney then, when arriving at the esplanade, either choosing to go left (Disneyland) or right (DCA). The main entrances to both parks are about a football field (if not less) apart from each other. SO EASY for park hopping, if I must say. This time, the destination was clear: Disneyland.

In brief, as I do plan on more detailed thoughts in following entries, I will say that the original park felt quaint and cozy to me. The buildings, attractions, lands are snuggled closer together and the exterior queues are coiled and designed in a way as to not hamper guest traffic unless there is an undue amount of attention for an attraction (brand new experience, reopening after long refurbish, etc). However, I can easily see how Walt’s comment about the Florida Project is very apt: for the original concept of EPCOT he needed, and got, the “blessings of size” by purchasing large tracts of land at fair prices before it became known who was actually making the purchase, thereby making the price skyrocket.

On the walk over from the hotel to the parks Paul, Kevin, and I stopped for a meal in Downtown Disney. Was good to get some real food in me after traveling all day and only having plane nibbles and airport Wendy’s in Houston. While in Disneyland for the afternoon I got my first runs through on some classics: Pirates of the Caribbean, Haunted Mansion, explored the “Mechanical Kingdom” exhibit at the Disney Gallery, plus other things that are escaping my brain at the moment.

Due to my self-imposed marathon of consciousness I began to flag on my endurance. My brain barely registered that it should feel like I was in the Twilight Zone or a parallel world while in Disneyland: similar experiences, buildings, and such but not all in the same place as I am used to them being in. We ambled back to the hotel to take in one lest new experience before retiring to bed: Trader Sam’s.

Now, one would think that as I am not responsible in any way for driving anywhere on this trip that I would (quite possibly over-) indulge in some libations. One would be correct in this case. But, knowing my current physical state, I opted to stay with only one drink this evening while enjoying the company of friends and the Tiki infused ambiance of the lounge. Our talks ranged topics near and dear to each of us as we partook of drinks and nibbles: Kungaloosh for Kevin, Krakatoa for me, something margarita-ish for Paul, and a Pu Pu platter for all.

Order this, and you will blow a volcano making it very happy.

This is what I swallowed when making the volcano blast.
And, yes. I got the souvenir Tiki mug to commemorate me
blowing the volcano.
 
Let’s just say, that since Trader Sam’s is designed as a Disney lounge, there are chances for things to happen within the bar when certain drinks are ordered by guests. As mentioned above, I ordered a Krakatoa. Doing so, I got to blow volcanoes.

Me. Blowing volcanoes. Amongst friends. Quite a nice way to wind down and wrap up my day’s travels and quickie peek inside the park that Walt built.

Brain was ready for bed. My spirit was happy and light.

So…I look at the old saying: “The journey matters more than the destination.” I wonder, now that I am physically at the destination for this trip, is my journey over? Or still in progress…?

A selection of "Welcome to DLR, ya First-Timer!"
Kevin had these laying out for my arrival at the hotel
(photo courtesy of Kevin Q)

 
~JoeZer
 

PS: Poor WALL-E and TARDIS never saw inside the parks once I arrived and unpacked at the hotel…

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Teddy-bearish Atlanta resident from Florida. Enjoys Doctor Who, steampunk aesthetics, Dragon*Con, Disney theme parks, Universal Orlando theme parks, cheesy pizza and lots of other things...