October 24, 2016

A Grand Californian Adventure: Part One

Aloha regular and new readers of Insights and Sounds!

Some of you may remember me from my trip reports to Walt Disney World last year. (Editor's note: The multi-part series starts here with a comparison between Disney and Universal.) Thanks to the generosity of this blog’s author Mark Taft, I am back to do an in depth investigative report on Disneyland’s 60th.

My wife Sue and I first stayed at the Disney Grand Californian Hotel back in 2010. As big fans of the Wilderness Lodge, one can understand why the thematic similarities would appeal to us. 

While some may call it “Wilderness Lodge Lite”, I feel the resort has its own identity/game plan and isn’t necessarily trying to totally mimic its Florida cousin.  Due to space limitations, GC definitely has a cozier, more intimate feel (eschewing the “WOW” factor one gets when walking into the lobby of WL). This lends itself to a more authentic feel that this could be a place that exists outside in the real world. Service and cast members are both top notch with security going above and beyond the call of duty (more on that later). The cast member who checked us in, Jeremiah, was extremely helpful and even comp us fast passes due to a slight mix up in the reservations. The rooms are clean and comfortable, but nothing extraordinarily spectacular. 

The Lobby. You just HAVE to click on this one to see it full size!

With two fantastic restaurants, and entrance straight into California Adventure, is this hotel worth the price tag? At a shade under $300.00 (which is what we paid back in 2010), the answer is an emphatic YES! At $550.00 per night, “Are you kidding me?” can be heard echoing throughout Radiator Springs Valley! Yes, this is what I reluctantly paid for during our stay there. There is no way I would have booked  at GC were it not my wife’s birthday. 

Sue is not a big Disney fan, but she was gracious enough to allow me to stop off at Disneyland before heading to Vegas. I have horror stories about our Super 8 Motel stay trying to save a  few dollars during our last visit. Not wanting a repeat performance, I bit the bullet and booked the hotel. Putting aside that no room (talking your standard affair, not a suite) is worth that type of money to me, we did have a wonderful time at the resort.

My wife and I were able to enjoy meals at both in-house restaurants, Napa Rose and Storytellers CafĂ©. We’ve been to Storytellers before, and always for the breakfast buffet. You can’t go wrong with the selection and quality of food here. And although I seem to run into Chip and Dale at every character meal, the service and theming make them more than bearable.  

Stories waiting to be told.

Overall, I think Storytellers is one of the nicest looking restaurants at any Disney resort and the way it integrates into the overall theming of the hotel is first rate. I definitely give Storytellers the edge over Whispering Canyon Cafe at the Wilderness Lodge.

While breakfast was on familiar ground, this was our first time dining at Napa Rose. It was either here or Carthay Circle Restaurant for my wife’s birthday, and Napa came in second (more on that in Part Two).  But it’s the end results that really matter…and Napa Rose was the clear winner. Not to say that Carthay was bad (it was great), but the food quality and selection at Napa was just that much better.  

We started off with the "Seven Sparkling Sins" as an appetizer. I can’t do any better than Disney’s official description,  so I'll just copy and past Disney's explanation:
"An array of tantalizations featuring spicy beef & peanut roll, curried crab taco, seared ahi nacho, shrimp in cucumber wrap with lemon dill creme, citrus cured salmon corn cake, tangerine grilled scallop and grape leaves with pheasant for two".
Immaculate in presentation, this appetizer proved to be worth the $45.00 price tag, with the spicy beef and ahi nacho my two favorites (probably because its so reminiscent of Hawaii food). As with our meals at WDW, we split the entree and went with the Skillet Roasted Prime New York and added a side of Truffled "Mac & Cheese" Orecchiette Pasta.

Although we had celebrated Sue’s birthday the night before, our waiter still presented my wife with a complimentary birthday dessert (Chocolate ice cream with a cookie foundation and a pinch of sea salt. The contrasting flavors of sweet and salty made it quite a treat!). Overall, it was our best dining experience of the entire trip!

Author Len and his wife Sue.

I suppose I should touch a bit on Downtown Disney…Disneyland’s shopping/dining venue. While there is nothing wrong with the assorted shops and restaurants, I think most folks coming over from the East coast will be sorely unimpressed. The Florida counterpart was already in a different league prior to the theming change, but now that Disney Springs is coming into fruition, the Anaheim complex seems even more underwhelming. It’s hard to place the blame squarely on Disney’s shoulders. The limited space really hampers what one can do in terms of creative ideas and visual synergy. Nonetheless, that area could use a strong thematic narrative like Disney Springs.

Up Next: Disney California Adventure

(Photographs copyright Len Yokoyama.)

October 20, 2016

The Very Thought of You

One of my all-time favorite songs from the American Standards songbook. Now sung by one of my favorite contemporary artists, Mr. Michael Buble. The Very Thought of You. What a gem! I hope the new album, Nobody But Me, is as good...

Minty Fresh Holiday at Tokyo Disneyland

Want a fresher than fresh look at the Tokyo Disney Resort? Then head on over to the always wonderful Magic Eye blog hosted by Mint Crocodile. He's just traveled the Asia parks and has some incredible photos to share. I've always appreciated his insights and his photos of the Disneyland Resort- and now it just gets even better. Thanks, Mint!

(Photo copyright Mint Crocodile.)

October 14, 2016

Nemo Takes Over Tokyo Disney Sea

The toon invasion of Tokyo Disney Sea continues. Nemo and Friends SeaRider is soon to replace Storm Rider at the new Marine Life Institute. 
...and what it used to look like.
Too bad Turtle Talk with Crush isn't in the area as well. Imagineering concept art from the always great Disney and More blog.
(Art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

October 12, 2016

Sweet Liberty

A visit to the Big Apple! Well, not me, but my wife, one of her sisters, and their mom. Enjoying all the sights and sounds of New York City without me there to drive the ship. 

Central Perk- I mean Central Park.

My mother-in-law loves both sunflowers and this artist!

Love Lady Liberty! Glad the ladies are having fun!

October 6, 2016

Unexpected Beauty

It really was a grand late summer afternoon, and the image of this beautiful flower against an old wooden blue fence caught my eye. Fortunately, I had my camera with me. I just love discovering the unexpected.

(Photograph copyright Mark Taft.)

October 4, 2016

Strong Man's Cry

Today there's not much to be said about the Disney World. Nothing to report about Disneyland or any of the parks that would be of great interest. In fact, it's a pretty slow season, even with Guardians of the Galaxy taking over Tower of Terror in California. 

So, instead, today I share what's on my heart. Am I a strong man in my own strength?Absolutely not. But as I humble myself before God, He gives me what I need. And my heart's prayer has been written before:

Create in me a pure heart, God, and make my spirit right again. Do not send away from you or take your Holy Spirit away from me. Give me back the joy of your salvation. Keep me strong by giving me a willing spirit. Then I will teach your ways to those who do wrong, and sinners will turn back to you.

                            Psalm 51:10-13

October 3, 2016

EuroDisney by Imagineer Herb Ryman

EuroDisney. The relatively short lived and ill-conceived name for the wonderful Disneyland Paris. Above you'll find Imagineer Herb Ryman's concept art for the castle. It's clear here they were wisely going for something new- not quite like the cookie cutter concepts used for Tokyo Disneyland or Hong Kong Disneyland. As far as I can tell, to do so is a huge mistake, and I hope the next Magic Kingdom styled park has a unique castle all it's own. 

(Art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

October 1, 2016

Coffee Wisdom

Loved this sign in a coffee shop far away from home...

September 30, 2016

Friday at Disneyland, 1968

No Haunted Mansion or Splash Mountain or Star Tours, not even Space Mountain, Indiana Jones Adventure for that matter, but it couldn't derail the success of the place. "Walt's Park" was the destination of many American families for their summer road trip in 1968. 

Into its second decade, Disneyland had experienced big growth- a New Tomorrowland, It's a Small World, and the epic Pirates of the Caribbean were now open, with the Haunted Mansion soon to debut. The numbers just kept going up. What would come next?

The answer: Very few "E Ticket" attractions, and then eventually, a whole new second theme park in California Adventure in 2001. And the numbers continued. How to fix a wonderful problem? It would mean rerouting the Disneyland Railroad, changing the Rivers of America, and creating a whole new Star Wars Land. Coming your way in 2018/2019. It will almost be a whole new park compared to what was seen in 1968 or on opening day in 1955...

(Art copyright The Walt Disney Company.) 

September 25, 2016

September 22, 2016

Lava Craters of Hawaii

From the incomparable photographer and Disney park lover, Len Yokoyama. The lava craters of Hawaii make for a stunning photo. Stay tuned for Len's trip report on the Disneyland Resort...

(Photograph copyright Len Yokoyama.)

September 20, 2016

Notable and Quotable: Charles Finney

"Everyone has a great responsibility to win as many people as possible to Christ. This is the great privilege and the great duty of all disciples of Christ... I fear I must say that the great mass of people professing to be believers seem never to have been impressed with this truth. The work of saving souls is something they feel they can leave to ministers. Many believers suppose it belongs only to those who are called to preach the gospel as a life work. They fall to realize that all are called to preach the gospel, that the whole life of every believer is to be a proclamation of the glad tidings."

Charles Finney

September 19, 2016

Escape to Disneyland or California Adventure?

A day's escape to Disneyland or California Adventure? Which would you choose? Why?

I'm sitting here thinking about how much fun it would be to treat myself to a day at one of those Disney parks, and I really can't decide. So, maybe I'll just share a few thoughts and wait for some opinions from those who read this blog.

On the pro Disneyland side- It's "Walt's Park". You can almost feel his presence as you walk around. Not literally, of course, but in a sense of his influence, his love for the project and dedication to the craft of theme park design. I know when I enter the park, there's a more gentle, leisurely pace to my stride, and I don't run from attraction to attraction. I tend to look around more, take in the sights and listen to the sounds that "say Disneyland" to me: The whistle of the train, the sounds of the Disneyland band, the honk of Main Street's vehicles, and the toot of the Mark Twain. (Of course as nighttime falls, walking through the castle while "When You Wish Upon a Star" is playing makes for a very sublime and sometimes even a very melancholy experience.)

Imagineer Marc Davis' unused Pirates art.

The wealth of attractions in this little park offer something for just about everyone, but there's a couple that are enduring classics.  In addition to the attractions referenced above, a visit to Disneyland is incomplete without Pirates of the Caribbean, the Matterhorn Bobsleds, It's A Small World, and at least one of the dark rides found in Fantasyland. Lately, I always seem to be in the park when Jack Skellington takes over the Mansion. I miss seeing the original!

Honestly, as much as I love so many of the more modern day attractions, (I'm a huge Indiana Jones fan!) only one of the "post-Walt" rides give me the same classic Disney feel: Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. It's a testament to the heart and soul of Imagineer Tony Baxter and his strong understanding of what made Disneyland an enduring love of kids of all ages the world over.

A nice little nook to explore inside the castle.

Here's the problem not living close by anymore. I always have to do a "best of" kind of visit now. Or at least, I just to may sure I see what's new, since I never know when I'll be back. When I am not short on time, I love wandering into places guests rush by on their way to the mountains: The Main Street Cinema, the Firehouse, and many other nooks and crannies in each land you just have to find for yourselves. (It's something that was missed when designing  Florida's Magic Kingdom but rediscovered later at the incredible Disneyland Paris.) 

Food plays a lesser role, and a simple box of hot popcorn, a mint julep in New Orleans Square, chocolate licorice, and a cool Dole-whip in the Summer are my snacks of choice. I could spend the day wandering around, treats in hand, watching the crowds. The only exception is the Mint Julep. It just demands that I sit on the patio in New Orleans Square and listen to some live jazz! Especially since I can no longer do it on the Mark Twain under the stars. (I'd trade Fantasmic for that opportunity anytime.)

(By the way, you'll notice I'm using concept art for this post. My friend Len Yokoyama is sending me his California trip report, so I'll just wait so you can see some incredible photos instead of my amateur ones!)

The great new entrance.

As wonderful as Disneyland is, there's times I just want to go to its younger sister, Disney California Adventure. What once was a relative disaster on opening day has now become a pretty terrific but very different park all its own. The park had its serious flaws. In fact, it was almost a reverse of Disneyland: there were so many little smaller charming attractions, the "E Ticket" rides and must-sees were clearly afterthoughts or at least missing on opening day. Soarin' Over California was the exception.

I really loved the elegant Seasons of the Vine film and going into the beautiful California Zephyr train for a treat. The hidden trail woven in throughout Grizzly Rapids and the small path by the winery called for exploration.  

Nowadays, the success of the park has changed its feel. In place of the old strip mall entrance which was empty 15 years ago, the charming Buena Vista Street should be a place to find the guests stopping to take it all in. It's chock full with the layers of detail that used to only be found in the other park. However, it's really an early morning mob scene as families of all types rush to Cars Land for their ride on Radiator Springs Racers, the new champion of Disney attractions. 

The change is not without solid reasoning behind it! I'd argue it is the first undeniable home run by the Imagineers since the original Twilight Zone Tower of Terror at Walt Disney World. And the land surrounding this iconic attraction is every bit as spectacular as the attraction it hosts. My morning in this park begins with a quick ride on Racers followed by breakfast at Flo's. On the patio of course, while I watch the cars zip around the banked turn of the track. It's an almost otherworldly experience. I am no longer in the middle of Orange County. In this writer's not always so humble opinion, Cars Land accomplishes here what New Orleans Square does for guests at Disneyland: It provides a total atmospheric experience which makes the suspension of the current world a reality. Yes, it is that good! It will be the hallmark for which this crop of Imagineers is one day celebrated. 

The old Condor Flats Airfield- hone of Soarin' Over California.

Soarin' Over California is another must-do for me. It's as close to flawless as any of the original opening day attractions could have been - which isn't saying much looking at the slate of what was premiered. I also always ride the Little Mermaid and Monsters Inc

Mermaid? Yes. Not because its so excellently well done but because of my great love for the film and its music. (OK, and because Ursula is my favorite Disney bad guy!) The attraction does have its strengths- the Under the Sea segment and the giant Ursula are the highlights- yet I almost always walk off the attraction's clamshells thinking about what should have been. This could have been and should have been on par with Haunted Mansion, but it is still work the time spent to ride.

Surprisingly, there are some loved segments of a day at California Adventure which are centered around food. I've already mentioned breakfast in Cars Land. Next up would be lunch at the Wharf while I sit under the sun listening to the Mariachi Divas. I love the Asian bowls and their variety of sauces. (I recently discovered the Korean one. Yum!) This lunch setting gives me that Epcot vibe I can't get elsewhere on the grounds. I have yet to find the perfect dinner spot or the right treats, but once I do, the day will only get better.

What California Adventure lacks in layers of attractions it makes up for in this one simple way: The place just feels new. There's much to be said for that. Sure, there's also big gaps in the quality. Big gaps! Hollywood land is still a mess, and Paradise Pier looks much better, but World of Color aside, unfortunately, it still lacks attractions of much substance. The seaside carnival theme just doesn't work for me. Nor do endless films, which still make up too many of the parks' attractions.

So, there's how I'd spend my day escaping to either  Disneyland or California Adventure. How would you spend yours?

(Art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

September 16, 2016

Karen Carpenter in Brazil

The Summer Olympics 2016 are over, but recent events like those surrounding Ryan Lochte will keep the country of Brazil in the news headlines for months to come. 

With that in mind, I stumbled across these interesting photos of Karen Carpenter as she and brother Richard were busy promoting their newest album, Make in America there. Brazil's famed Sugarloaf Mountain looks to be the location here. 

Upon close examination, Karen looks thin but very stylish. And it seems as if her time posing for her photo sessions for the aborted solo project were put to good use. There are very few times she looked comfortable in front of the cameras, but this seems to be one of them. 

Unfortunately, it wouldn't be much longer after this time that the beloved singer would be gone, leaving millions of fans in shock and mourning.

September 15, 2016

Taste of Italy

Take a look at those little red umbrellas on the right side of this photo. My wife and I were blessed to be there in 2007. The region of Cinque Terra, Italy is absolutely gorgeous. One of five villages, you're glancing at Vernazza. That secluded bay was the perfect spot for our mid-afternoon dip! The area is not as famous as other spots, but that is exactly what makes it a must-see place. Low numbers of tourists and a real local flavor. 

(Photographer unknown.)