January 30, 2009

It's Magic

Wanna great picture of what the Disneyland Paris Resort is truly like? Go to this great fan website: DLRPMagic.com. This site is so well designed and executed, that the official site is put to shame. Park and attraction guides, updates, rumors, photos, and terrific videos of the attractions make this my stop for the latest on the French resort.

January 28, 2009

Two Spoonfuls of Sugar (Day Two at the Disneyland Resort)

After a pretty terrific but exhausting day at California Adventure, I came home to tell the rest of my family what my daughter and I had discovered- huge crowds all day long. Giving everyone the option of an early arrival and therefore shorter lines for major attractions or sleeping in and staying late with long lines all day, they wisely chose the former.

Due to the numbers in our group, we split into two cars and headed to the resort. Our car had arrived at 7:10 for the 8:00am opening, sleepy headed young adults in tow. Of course, due to traffic lights and patterns, our caravan unintentionally split up. Without our cel phones on, we quickly discovered our car was at the parking lot, while my wife’s car headed to the Harbor Blvd. entrance. This was a direct reflection of her not going to Disneyland since 1997- and me not remembering to tell her about the parking garage. Hopefully, the rest of our day would not continue in the same vein!

Our passengers jumped on the tram, figuring the best place to see everyone else would be by the security gates. The backsides of the backstage did not provide magical views of the resort! Indy’s building badly needs more trees, a new photo wrap or a paint job or something. Looking into employee areas is a poor show- especially to what we had witnessed in Orlando or Paris. Maybe the proposed expansion of Downtown Disney will provide a better view in the future!

We reunited -and it feels so good ;) - around 7:35am, quickly going through the security gates and getting into line with our previously purchased tickets in hand. The lines at the ticket booths were already very, very long. Magic Morning Hour was in effect, so the entry gates were closed tight to us common folk not staying on the property. At 8:00am sharp, folks started in.

Main Street was stunningly beautiful dressed in its Christmas garb, tree sitting majestically in the square. I savored the view, and that of Sleeping Beauty Castle, but turned directly left into Adventureland and right toward Indy- along with just about everyone else. Sending one of us with our passports, we gained Fastpass tickets for another ride, meeting up in line not too far away from where we began.

Snaking through the exterior queue (pun intended), we enjoyed the experience. The sound effects were on, Jungle Cruise boats chugging by, the vegetation lushly providing the right vibe: our first time explorers and old timers alike were wide-eyed. Inside the temple, I was gifted by rattling the infamous bamboo pole at just the right time, sending the ceiling dropping down on us. Never happened to me before although I’d seen it occur. Great way to start our adventure.

Once on our “troop transport”, our journey was exciting but I realized several effects needed to be brought back into the mix. Why does Disney spend all this money to build a world class attraction then neglect it instead of maintaining it in the highest operating mode? Frustrating. Our adventure was terrific to all- and only the most discriminating Disney fan was left realizing the shortcomings. (We gladly experienced the attraction later- to the seemingly same journey…)

Our plan was firmly in my mind, and we ventured on to Pirates of the Caribbean, my personal favorite Disney attraction ever. Almost a walk on, we set sail, and visions of a non-existent $250 lunch swam through my head as we glided past the Blue Bayou restaurant.

As has been written much before, Pirates at Disneyland is a much richer version than its Florida counterpart. The attraction looked terrific- and sounded terrific as well. However, the recent addition of characters from the popular movie seemed to widen the gap between versions. The California build-up to seeing Davy Jones is much needed, and the more intimate last view of Captain Jack is up close and personal. Additionally, the audio in Florida is noticeably inconsistent and weaker in result. For all the accolades I could heap upon California’s pirate adventure, I will proudly admit Disneyland Paris has the ultimate representation of this classic. (Look for my trip report earlier in this blog.) It is a version that is currently without Jack Sparrow…

Exiting the attraction, New Orleans Square delighted me with its holiday garishness! We wandered through its back streets taking in the d├ęcor and enjoyed Christmas classics with a jazz twist. Even a much needed bathroom break yielded a bit of treasure- a nice view of this mural (above) and a chance to grab some additional photos. I planned to return later in the evening to enjoy a nighttime visit to a now lost New Orleans of long ago.

We wandered past the train station to the Christmas version of the Haunted Mansion. It too, was almost a walk on. I was the only one of our group to experience this version in the past and quickly explained the story behind the transformation before we entered.

Creepy and delightful! My wife said it best upon our exit- “That was like a whole different attraction! I can’t believe Disney would take the time and expense to redo this for just a few months of the year!” I’ll say she hit the nail on the head. When Disney does it well, it stands high above its competitors in providing breathtaking experiences- and the management in California really knows how to please its audience and keep them returning all year round. (We’ll be seeing the new and improved Huanted Mansion in its original version in Florida in a month. Can’t wait. Watch for a future trip report.)

The compactness of Disneyland is a mixed blessing. Just around the (river)bend was Splash Mountain, our next destination. Yet because of it, the transition between the mansion and Critter Country is jarring, despite all attempts to ease us from one place to another. (In this man’s opinion, it is another area where Disneyland Paris excels. Each land feels so separate and distant from the others, a unique combination of enough land and excellent planning on the Imagineers part. Every Disney geek needs to see this park once to believe its beauty!) On the positive side, the smaller space demands creativity in planning expansion and gives “Walt’s park” an intimacy lacking in the other Kingdoms. Aspects such as landscaping take on a new importance, as tree and building placement becomes necessary tools to define and inhibit sightlines. (Something not well used or maybe even considered when designing California Adventure! There is hope this will change.)

Rounding the path into Critter Country was as if we journeyed outside the city to enter a whole new place. Even when it was Bear Country back in 1972, this area of the park has always enjoyed a unique feel. It is a beautiful segment of the park, providing a respite from wide open spaces and large crowds. There is nothing like it in Florida’s Magic Kingdom- and they are left worse off because of it. The restaurant on the river provides an additional retreat from the energy and pretty good food to boot. That said, let’s be honest here- Disney management made a huge mistake by ripping out all of the classic Country Bear Jamboree to put in a silly old bear. Don’t misunderstand. Pooh needs a place, and this area of the park needs a dark ride to delight the younger visitors. I just think one theater should have been spared, forcing a more creative use of the space to add a journey in honey pots- and satisfying the need for a little more history to exist in the park.

This small land was wonderfully and tastefully decked out in its Christmas best. We ventured under the Christmas tree hanging at the entrance to walk through Splash’s queue. Combining the funny little story, thrills, and fun, Splash Mountain reinforces why Tony Baxter is one of my most appreciated Imagineers. Our group left the attraction in various degrees of wet to drenched, both enjoying and thankful for the warm bright California sun. As we cruised back to Indy for a second ride, we took in the views. For the most part, Disneyland has aged well, (Tomorrowland being the sorry exception).

The Tomorrowland entrance was a mess. Between Buzz, Star Tours and the Astro Orbiter, it was just a sea of bodies with little rhyme, reason, or room to move. A design disaster anyway you view it. Time for Space Mountain- we thought! Standby lines were posted at one and a half hours. This was now the top attraction choice for most everyone on our list, yet no one wanted to endure the line, so we opted for a Fastpass for 5:30pm. Wow! The crowds here heavy, so we knew we’d have to suffer through some long times. My wife and I attempted Nemo while the rest of our crew opted for Buzz Lightyear. Upon seeing the line and noticing the time for the renewed sub voyage, we decided to join everyone else in line to battle Zurg with my favorite animated Disney character. (Sorry, Mickey!)

Took about a half an hour to get on to save the galaxy. While we were waiting, I noticed the new Fairies meet and greet. It was mobbed with people, the two queue lines meeting at the back of the old “America the Beautiful” building. From this point forward, all you could see were people, making maneuvering the park difficult.

Next up, a trip to Endor. At this point, our group split up, half going to grab a snack and half trusting an inexperienced robot with our lives. In the midst of waiting, we had the shock of our lives. Some friends from back home were standing ahead of us in line! What a great surprise- and we didn’t even know they were visiting California when we were. It is a small world after all. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.) Star Tours was quite a bit of fun- and the queue and props in tip top shape. I had expected Disney would let it fall into some measure of disrepair with version 2.0 apparently around the corner, but I was glad to be wrong.

Meeting up again, we tracked back to the Matterhorn Bobsleds, a longtime family favorite. The icy slopes beckoned. We opted for the Tomorrowland side and enjoyed watching the submarines once again travel through the lagoon. What a treat to see this unique attraction back in operation once more- and I couldn't wait for our voyage. (Wish I could say the same thing for the Peoplemover!) Our wait to encounter the Swiss mountain was surprisingly shorter than I thought it would be. After all these years, this 50 year old attraction still thrills- and provides some of the best views of the park.

Watching the monorail trains glide above us, it struck me that Disneyland has some very unique attractions compared to its sister parks; and although the layouts of the lands are similar, each has its own distinct feel and flavor. The Submarine Voyage, Monorail, Matterhorn and Autopia intertwine in a way that produces an energy not found in the other Tomorrowlands. Distinctively Disneyland. Too bad the Skyway and Peoplemover (or even the short lived and awfully fun Rocket Rods) were no longer part of that “World on the Move”.

Almost time for our 1:30pm lunch at Ralph Brennan’s Jazz Kitchen. We dropped into Frontierland and gained Fastpass tickets for Big Thunder, then took off down Main Street to exit, get our hands stamped, and enjoy the short walk to our restaurant at Downtown Disney. Departure to arrival at the Jazz Kitchen: ten minutes- but a world apart.

In hindsight, having reservations at the Jazz Kitchen instead of the Blue Bayou was a blessing from God. Downtown Disney was comparatively empty, and the change to a quieter atmosphere was refreshing.

Quickly seated, we enjoyed an absolutely terrific meal- and beignets for dessert- at almost 1/2 the price of what it would have cost us at the Bayou. The hour and a half out of the park gave us time to share stories, rest, laugh, and enjoy each others’ company without the stresses of trying to get to the next attraction. This has forever changed the way we will “do the parks” during the busy season, and this is my new favorite idea after using Fastpass and arriving early to beat the crowds. If you are the Disney Dining Cast Member who suggested this for us, thank you!

A short walk to the Monorail station led to a 3 minute wait for the next train. We were quickly back in the park and ready to go at it again.

Our time for the “Wildest Ride in the Wilderness” was near, so Frontierland was next. Aside from Main Street, this area of the park feels the most like “Walt Disney” to me. I can sense his pride in our American heritage here, his love of the Old West, and his appreciation for the pioneers who ventured westward. The newer Rancho del Zocalo restaurant fits in beautifully, nestled against Big Thunder Mountain. With the fort and the Golden Horseshoe nearby, the Mark Twain and Columbia sailing, the canoes running with the rafts to Tom Sawyer Island, Frontierland has plenty of atmosphere. In fact, all the land around the Rivers of America skillfully blends together, yet leaves each area feeling as a world unto itself. Can you tell I love it?

Big Thunder Mountain Railroad remains my favorite west coast thrill ride. It’s fun without being terrorizing, the views are great, and the theming is some of the best on the Disneyland Resort property. The additional bonus: it is an entirely different experience to ride at night. Everyone walked off with smiles on their faces. I do miss the Mine Train Thru Nature’s Wonderland at times, and wish, as with Pooh and Country Bear Jamboree, that Disney would have found a method to integrate them both.

Christmas at Big Thunder Ranch is really something. Reindeer, decorations, Santa, and lots of activity make this a pretty sweet seasonal treat. Like the backwoods of Critter Country, this area feels far off the beaten path. This section and the trail past it make for a nice walk even during a busy season. I know one day this section of the park will be transformed, but I hope the rustic ambience will remain without the addition of animated characters as basis for new attractions.

At late afternoon, the paths were filled with people like us trying to cram in as much as they could. I knew it was time to hit our “B” list of attractions for the time being. Amazingly, the Jungle Cruise had a ten minute wait. Our skipper was not the funniest I have had guide us, but he was pretty good. Seemed as if the cruise flew by, and before I realized it, Trader Sam had sent us on our way. (Thought the piranha effect was well done- and I so appreciate the little upgrades done to the old school Disneyland attractions over the years.)

Maintaining our sanity as we struggled through Adventureland, (Fastpasses for Indy were out with the standby line going upstairs into the Jungle Cruise queue), we eventually made it past New Orleans Square into Critter Country for a trip through the Hundred Acre Wood. The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh has taken a lot of flack from the on-line Disney community- and it deserves most of it. But the little ride does have its charms- sweet music and a consistently short queue. Our children groaned, and we smiled a bit. I find I like the gentle bouncing effect better each time I ride, and I love to watch the faces of the little children as they anxiously await their trip. There is an old fashioned innocence to this attraction that is growing on me. Be forewarned, next trip I may return liking the attraction.

Groaning turned to delight when we stopped inside the candy shop to indulge our collective sweet tooth. What a great and different selection of treats to be found here! The Tigger’s Paw was as tasty as it was cute. Kind of an orange creamsicle flavor and texture with a orange colored white chocolate coating. Yum!

Just as we were contemplating our next move, we realized our Fastpasses for Space Mountain were almost due. Off we went, braving the masses once more. We found just enough time for a quick visit to the home of the future in Innoventions. For an overall waste of space, I found this exhibit really interesting for a change. The technologies presented didn’t scream cutting edge but more just-out-of-reach. Yet it was such a likeable presentation overall. A good time filler. The sunset was coming over the park, and the lights were beginning to sparkle. I love dusk at the park. And it is a great photo opportunity, but it was Space Mountain time, and that took priority.

Using Fastpass on Space Mountain is great- there is no bypassing the detailed queue, yet you reach the front of the line in fairly short order. My first trip through the reImagineered Mountain was shortly after opening. I walked off queasy and of unsure footing. Not this time. Sailing through the universe was a pleasure- and most of our party exited ready to go again but fully aware the line was a killer wait.

At this point, half our party decided to head home. Of course, we joked they were the ligtweights in our not-so-humble-opinion, so we ventured on with our shortlist for the evening: Nemo, It's A Small World Holiday, the fireworks, and an evening stroll through a nighttime New Orleans Square and down Main Street.

Folks had lined up for quite awhile for the parade, and the whole of Small World plaza was a mess. It was made bearable by the gorgeous lighting found on the attraction facade. In fact, it was not uncommon to see people stop in their tracks and just stare as the building sparkled in front of them! We were just slightly better as we dove head first into the queue.

After a 45 minute wait, we set sail. This was my wife's first Christmas voyage, and she was delighted by what she found. If there ever was a Disney attraction that oozed charm and tenderness, this is it. Overly sentimental and optimistic in this harsh world, It's a Small World invites us to view our world with a little bit of hope and leaves me with an uplifted spirit, certainly an experience not a common occurance.

I found the relocated Rain Forest scene to blend in perfectly with its new South Pacific surroundings. I am ambivilent about the upcoming character additions, but absolutely thrilled that the United States will be more obviously honored come February! We have much reason to be proud of this country and what it was founded upon, our heritage and culture are just as spectacular and rich as those of our global neighbors. Bravo Disney, for making this small tribute happen!

Upon our exit, we fell into the crowd. The parade was just about to start, and honestly, this was the first time in decades I ever felt somewhat unsafe in a Disney park. This was a disaster waiting to happen! The crowds were so thick that should a fire have started, hundreds of people would have been trapped. In spite of all the wonderful things local management has done to enhance the park, they should be ashamed of themselves for allowing such an unsafe mass of people to be allowed into the park. Utter lack of responsibility or that of greed. There is no excuse. OK, now that I have said my piece, I will get off my soapbox...

Lines for attractions were unavoidable at this point in the evening, so we hunkered down into the Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage line. Another 45 minute wait. I love the first ride on a new Disney attraction, yet my growing anticipation was leveled by the newfound journey. Yes, it was great fun to sit in the subs again, but in my opinion, the experience at the Living Seas pavillion at Epcot is a much better one. Frankly, I find the sets in Florida richer and more effective in telling the story. The shorter voyage in the revitalized seacabs builds to a solid ending, but in California, the trip 's end is a solid let down. How I wish the Imagineers had been given the go-ahead for an Atlantis inspired journey instead! Chalk it up to popularity and commerce- but at least the Subs cruise again.

Departing disappointed, a stop in front of the castle was just the thing we needed to remember why we loved the park at the holidays. How beautiful our small little palace was! Shimmering in the nighttime air, I couldn't help but stare at it, even though I remembered I had not made it inside to see the newly opened Sleeping Beauty walk through. No matter. This was enough for me now, and there was always the next trip!

New Orleans Square was next on our to do list and negotiating a swarm of people to get there seemed alot less manageable than it had just two and a half hours ago. However, we pressed on, and the end result was well worth the effort.

Disneyland at night is a feast for the senses. Others can enjoy the Fantasyland charm and the energy of Tomorrowland, but for me, nothing compares to what it feels like on the other side of the park. The buildings dazzle in their nighttime garb with everything from tiki torches to reflections on the water lighting the way. Mark Twain rounding the bend in its nighttime elegant glory while its passengers wave to those on shore. The smell of popcorn fading through the air along with the sounds of musicians plying their trade, the whistle of the trains rounding Big Thunder Mountain and the occasional gunshot coming from the Jungle Cruise.

In the cool of the evening, New Orleans Square is my favorite place to stop and rest, even moreso if it includes a mint julep and a journey on the Mark Twain. In years gone by, when the crowds were not so heavy, summer evenings enchanted as I wandered through the park, stopping to catch the detail aound me. For a split second this night, I felt that again. (It had been years since I'd felt like that, but a more recent late night visit to Epcot yielded that same sense as I strolled its World Showcase gardens toward the end of the day.) We savored the moment, then decided it was time to head down Main Street

As we headed down the Street, we turned and took one last glimpse of the park and its iconic castle. A friendly employee engaged us in some warm conversation. We strolled into the Opera House for a bit, and then we slowly exited the gates to tram back to the car. Another day, another wonderful visit- and back to reality we went.

(Photos copyright Lauren Taft)

January 27, 2009

Pressure's Off

I've been under alot of stress lately. Boy, that is an understatement. And I have been fighting discouragement, so my thoughts are running in a million different directions while I try to process things.

Due to this, living and dying has been a theme on my heart lately. You know, it’s the same old thing- dying to self and living for Jesus. Trusting Him or turning away. I’m not talking about the Big Denial, the going to heaven or hell type stuff. I’m talking about the little opportunities for denial. The daily chances to obey. You’d think that after so many years of trying to follow Him, I would have this down a little better. I want to be good. Really, I do. Don’t you? The truth is that it is a continual struggle to choose obedience, especially when no one is else would even know.

Now, I’m not talking about choosing blatant sin, here- although sometimes that may be the case. What I’m talking about is letting the selfish, Mark-focused side of me die by choosing to obey what Jesus is speaking to me at the moment. Like when He urges me to talk to my wife instead of reading the paper. Really talking to her like I would with a friend over lunch. Putting the paper down and paying genuine, undivided attention to her and her words. When everything inside of me is screaming, “This is my time. I’ll do it later- leave me alone.” That’s when the choosing is hard. Will I deny Him then?

Thankfully, the same scripture that brings a painful reminder of my human state also brings me hope:

“I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!” Galatians 2:20-21

The grace of God. Yeah, that’s it. I need to choose to obey- no question there- but God has given me His grace to be strong when I need it. I can’t earn a good relationship with Jesus anymore than I can earn my way to heaven. In my little decisions, if I don’t choose Him and obedience, Jesus will forgive me if I go back to Him with an honest heart of confession and repentance. The pressure’s off- Jesus gave himself in death for me, in my place. I don’t take that lightly. Neither should you. But don’t set aside His grace.

The sacrifice of Jesus and His grace for us is part of the “abundant life” He promised us. Let me challenge you this week: When you hear His voice, do what He asks. If you fail- even if you deliberately choose to sin by disobedience or by falling into old habits- run to Him and start clean again. I'm talking to myself here as well! The pressure’s off. Embrace His grace. He paid the price.

January 26, 2009

From Laughingstock to Increased Stock?

The transformation of Paradise Pier continues. As the Imagineers begin to reshape California Adventure into a park worthy of the Disney name, the challenges they face are numerous. How to do this and stay within budget? How to transform the park into one more people wish to visit? How to redeem the park from a history that includes being the laughingstock of the industry- one played for laughs by the Simpsons?

The task is far more monumental and the implications deeper than Disney will admit. At risk is the reputation of the Disneyland Resort, not Disneyland park. And the money that should flow from the expansion.

Walt's Kingdom will always be a sentimental favorite. But can the Imagineers transform California Adventure into a park that allows the resort to hold its own with its younger American cousin? A revamped park is a must for Disney's investment to really pay off. Future plans include adding more hotels and hotel rooms, an expanded Downtown Disney, and an eventual third park. Without the "blessing of size" and sitting in the middle of an unattractive city, Disney has to work very hard to convince travelers outside of California to spend their hard earned money here. California Adventure 2.0 must persuade the public that the suits are serious about making the Golden State resort one that truly shines. It's their last chance- and there will be no other. Fooled once, maybe. Fooled twice, never.

(Art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

January 24, 2009

Three Stooges

Nice photo here of my brother-in-law and my two nephews just prior to a family wedding. These three guys are among the funniest and sharpest witted folks I know. Great hearts and always good for a laugh!

January 23, 2009

Behind Bars

According to statistics 2.3 Million people are incarcerated in the United States! 2.3 Million- and that was as of 2007.

If you've known anyone in prison, and I have, their lives are generally very hopeless and bleak. Without negating there circumstances that brought them to these place, these are folks who still need love and encouragement.

Prison Fellowship Ministries is a great place through which to serve should you feel drawn. Check them out here.

January 22, 2009

More "Princess" Promotion

The promotion machine rolls on...
A new piece for the New Orleans focused movie, continuing to remind me this film will be a visual beauty!

January 21, 2009

Design Detail: New Orleans Square

In all of Disneyland, New Orleans Square is the most elegant and refined space to be found. The Imagineers accomplished something that is rarely done in our stateside parks these days and created a land so immersive and convincing. With worldclass and timeless attractions, shops and restaurants, this charming area can be explored for hours- causing a visitor to forget they are actually in a theme park.

This sublime and detailed painting is found high above the outside wall of the shop it advertises. (Hence, the difficulty in getting a great photo!) To find it, just exit the restrooms in the Square and look up. In fact, search high and low in this sophisticated little space, and you'll find wonderful design detail everywhere around you.

(Photograph copyright Mark Taft.)

January 20, 2009

Notable and Quotable: Abraham Lincoln

"...I know that the Lord is always on the side of the right. But it is my constant anxiety and prayer that I and this nation should be on the Lord's side."

Like his predecessor that he so admires, may this be President Obama's prayer as well.

January 19, 2009

Encouragement from an Unlikely Source

Ever find yourself so discouraged that you cannot find your way through a difficult situation? This is where I am with an issue at work.

Honestly, this thing has been gnawing away at me for six months, and regardless of how much I work on it and pray about it, little is changing. But get aload of this:

Today, as I was praying and reading my Bible, tears began to fall down my face as I struggled with this one same ongoing problem. I told my wife later that I didn't know how much more I could take.

Tonight, as I am paying our bills, I come across a new letter from our Compassion International child in Bolivia. The letter is written by our little girl's mother and includes this line: "She wants you to know she is praying for you and has this verse from the Bible for you, Philippians 4:13."

Of course, I know this verse- "I can do all things through Christ Jesus who gives me strength." In God's goodness and love for me, He chooses to use an impoverished little girl from Bolivia that we love and support to encourage me. Just goes to show sponsoring a child from Compassion is a two way blessing in more ways than we know.

Sunny Day at the Beach

Manhattan Beach, that is. My youngest daughter captured many wonderful images during our excursion to California this past December. Everywhere we turned, folks were enjoying the sun and the sea. After a terrific lunch, our afternoon bike ride laong the shoreline continued our fun. The evening sunset was among the most beautiful we'd witnessed during the week, with locals and tourists alike standing in awe of the brilliant hues. Just another reason I believe folks who don't like California have probably never been there!
(Photos copyright Lauren Taft.)

January 16, 2009

More on the Miracle

From today's Denver Post- the article about our friends' son and his girlfriend.

(In this photo taken by a ferry passenger, airline passengers leave the US Airways jet that safely ditched Thursday in the frigid waters of the Hudson River in New York. (AP, Janis Krums)

Karin Hill loves children.
So when US Airways Flight 1549 ditched in the Hudson River on Thursday afternoon, the 24-year-old Boulderite did what came naturally.
She asked another passenger on board — who had a baby and a toddler — if she could help by carrying the baby.
As they left the sinking plane, Hill carried the baby and then held the child as she stood on the wing awaiting rescue.
"She loves kids, so that seemed perfect for her to do," said her mother, Cathy Hill of Louisville.

Karin Hill and her boyfriend, Chris Rooney of Parker, had just spent a week in New York City on what Cathy Hill described as "a fun visit."

"She got some cheap tickets and stayed with friends. They were just back there sightseeing and having fun," said Cathy Hill.
They were flying to Charlotte, N.C., where they planned to change planes and fly back to Denver.

After the plane hit a flock of birds, pilot Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger III came over the intercom and told them to "prepare for impact," Karin Hill told her mother.

"She put her head in her lap. But her boyfriend kept looking out the window. His father is a commercial pilot, and he kept looking to see what was going on," Cathy Hill said laughing.
"Karin didn't know they were landing over water. She just thought, because they took that turn, that they were just coming back to the airport to land at the airport," Cathy Hill said. "Karin said she didn't know that but just kept praying that God would just land them smooth and easy. She said, 'I know God was watching out for us, Mom. I was just praying he would land us.' "

As they headed for the landing in the Hudson River, Karin Hill told her mother things were quiet in the cabin. "She said that everything was just really calm and cool. The pilot just said 'prepare for impact.' She didn't feel he was panicked in his voice or anything. And I am sure that kept them all calm."

Both Karin and her boyfriend were among the last people off the wing. By the time they left, the water had risen to her waist, said Cathy Hill.

"I asked her, 'Did you go check for hypothermia?' And she said, 'No, I didn't.' Once they got her over — by ferry — to a restaurant, apparently they got her out of her own clothes and got her into the chef's clothes," said Cathy Hill.

Karin phoned her father within 40 minutes of the ditching, but he didn't pick up because he didn't recognize the phone number.
Later, when he checked the message, he immediately left work, picked up his wife and they went home and turned on the TV.
On their home answering machine was another call from Karin.
"She said she and her boyfriend were fine and she would call as soon as she could again," said Cathy Hill. Since then, they've talked five or six times.

"She is just a little fireball, just optimistic and bubbly," said Cathy Hill of her daughter. "She was in good spirits. She was shaken up obviously and probably in shock to some degree, but she just kept saying, 'I'm OK.' "

Cathy Hill said Karin's two sisters and brother — ranging in age from 17 to 25 — are just "thrilled" their sister is safe.
"They will be home tomorrow morning, and we are all going to meet up at the airport and go over to his (the boyfriend's) home. They said we could bring all our friends — that 'we'll tell the story once,' " said Cathy Hill.

"Our whole family really attributes this to the grace of God. He protected her and the plane and everyone. We all feel that way. We are just really grateful," said Cathy Hill.
Howard Pankratz: 303-954-1939 or hpankratz@denverpost.com

Happy Couple

Congratulations to the happy couple! May your lives always be filled with the love of Jesus, His peace and His protection.

Gems of Epcot - Canada

What a beautiful representation of our wonderful Northern Neighbors is found in Epcot's World Showcase! The warmth of the people combined with the various landscapes and buildings makes for a must-see area. And isn't the inclusion of a delicious meal at Le Cellier a perfect way to spend the afternoon, eh?

(Art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

January 15, 2009

US Airways Plane Crash and a Miracle

The US Airways plane crash hit home in a new way: Our friend's son and girlfriend were on the flight. Thankfully, although we have not heard from them, our friends- and all other passengers have survived. Prayer is good, so please pray for all the folks on flight 1549 from LaGuardia.

January 14, 2009

Two Spoonfuls of Sugar (Day One at the Disneyland Resort 2008)

There it was late September, and I realized that due to the timing, my only chance to go to the Disneyland Resort during a family visit would be sometime after Christmas and before New Year’s. What luck! Probably the busiest time of year. But it would be our only chance to do this as a family now that some of us had moved out of state.

Thinking through my plan of attack, a few things were obvious: One, I’d have to purchase our tickets ahead of time; two, we would have get there at the gate before the opening time; lastly, we’d have to be wise about using Fastpass, deciding what we really wanted to see.

There were also the non-practical but equally important emotional aspects of our visit. I wanted to see the attractions and attraction enhancements I had not seen. This included Pirates Lair on Tom Sawyer Island, the new Sleeping Beauty Castle walk-through, the piranha attack on the Jungle Cruise, and lastly, the Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage.

I was not the only traveler, however, and we each had our own ideas. My wife hadn’t been to Walt’s original park since Spring of 1997. Yes, 1997. We had been to Disneyland Paris and Walt Disney World, but she had skipped out going to Disneyland the last several visits. (She has not even seen California Adventure since it opened. But that is another story.) Therefore, the Christmas makeovers of Mansion and Small World ranked high. Our son had never been to Disneyland with his wife; neither had he been to the park for almost 15 years. Our youngest son and daughter had to "do the mountains". (Our oldest daughter was actually left at home last minute due to job requirements.) Satisfying everyone and seeing the best of the park would be a challenge. One aspect we all agreed upon: we hated crowds and wanted to make this as low-key a visit as possible.

We settled on visiting the park on December 30, thinking most locals would be back to work and many visitors gone. Not perfect but our best shot at the lightest crowds. Calling Disney Dining thirty days out to reserve a lunch reservation for Blue Bayou, I was surprised that the cast member answered my ringing call by saying "Hello, You probably want the Blue Bayou- and it is fully sold out!" My shocked response was "Yes- can you offer anything else?" After verifying my request, date and time, his reply informed me that in his estimation, that restaurant was full but over-rated, and Ralph Brennan’s Jazz Kitchen was much better both in quality and in price. I booked it, feeling a bit disappointed until I found Bayou's on line menu and saw their outrageous prices!

Due to a change of family plans once we arrived, I had a free day to myself on the 29th. I decided to go to California Adventure with my youngest daughter- the only person who wanted to join me; the others stating DCA wasn’t yet worth the price of admission.

We had our own list of must dos for the park: Blue Sky Cellar, Aladdin, Toy Story Midway Mania, Turtle Talk, Bug’s Land, and the Redwood Creek Challenge Trail- all items one or both of us had not experienced.

After a quick run to the resort the night before to purchase tickets, the morning of our DCA jaunt, we proceeded to stop and have beignets and coffee for a quick breakfast prior to the younger park’s 10:00am opening. Unlike Magic Mornings at Disneyland, we were let into the park and chose to head towards Soarin’ Over California to start our day.

This attraction never ceases to thrill and impress us- and make us proud we spent so many years living in the Golden State. What an error on Disney’s part to allow this headlining attraction- a California Adventure original- to make its way unchanged to Epcot! This should have remained in California as the park centerpiece, but, I digress.

An exhilarating flight and Fastpasses in hand for later, we were off to Toy Story Midway Mania. Passing the fully drained bay, we were amazed at how ordinary and ugly the entire area was without water. This was the price to play for poorly conceiving and building a park without a nighttime water show already in place. Arriving at the entry to this new-fangled shooting gallery, the line was now a posted 45 minute wait. We settled in, taking in the wealth of detail around us.

The beginning stages of transformation of the Pier were startling! This was what this area of the park should have been like at opening. At once elegant, fun, and totally in theme, Paradise Pier 2.0 will eventually live up to its expectation and name. The detail reminded me of what the Imagineers could do when given the proper time and budget. The colors were warm and inviting, the attention to craftsmanship evident. Can’t wait for more!

Our local sideshow barker, a Mr. Potato Head, was witty and fully functional. Very impressive. Reading each poster for Midway Mania, I gleaned as many facts and hints as possible. Boarding the attraction vehicle in anticipation of the first ride of a new Disney attraction is always an exciting event for me. What would this be like? Would I enjoy it? Could Disney dazzle me after all these years?

How can I describe Toy Story Midway Mania? In one word: disappointing.

After all the hype, the on-line photos and trip reports, I found myself having an enjoyable time but not being astonished by the end result. Traveling in front of a bunch of screens with a minimum amount of props and set pieces is not my idea of a world class attraction.

Midway Mania is a nice "C" ticket attraction, housed in a "D" ticket building, found in an "E" ticket location. Admittedly, this new attraction was what needed to be present in the Pier moving forward. Midway Mania is a step in the right direction but not worthy of the attention it has received.

Time for some good old-fashioned fun. That meant California Screamin, one of the best coasters on the Disney property if not on the West Coast. The crowds had built by this time, and we encountered another lengthy wait. Once we boarded, the music kicked in, building the anticipation for another terrific ride. Certainly not the tallest or fastest or the most technologically impressive, California Screamin succeeds because it puts fun before fear. The launch gets the heart racing, and the drops keep it going without creating paranoia about what will happen next. A themeless queue is its only shortcoming, and that may get fixed one day, but for now, this attractions rocks with the best of them even without it. We left with huge smiles on our faces. What more can you ask for?

As we realized Aladdin was to start in 12 minutes, we rushed to the theater and got in the top balcony moments before the show began. I had seen the production a few years prior, my daughter had not. As usual, the Genie took center stage and never gave up his hold on the audience. Jasmine was quite good, with a fluid movement and a wonderful voice. The same could not be said for the show’s namesake. He was stiff and soulless in his presentation, his voice mediocre at best. The rest of the cast was nondescript. However, for a theme park show, it was still better than anything found at Disneyland. A slight walk to Tower of Terror left us with new passes.

Hunger hit us, and a stop at Taste Pilots fit the bill. What is it with this place? Every visit, busy season or not, means huge crowds and poor service. Thankfully, excellent burgers almost made up for the forty minutes it took from stepping in to receiving our food. The self-service kiosks were gone, but the process was still not acceptable. Dining at California Adventure has become a problem when at opening, it was full of choices and high quality. The paying customer now suffers. This matter must be fixed before the crowds grow due to Disney’s numerous expansion plans.

In Florida, the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror is my main reason for visiting the underwhelming Disney Studios. At California Adventure, this attraction is a main draw but a second class version of the original. The set-up lacks the mystery of its older sibling. The inside of the hotel is too bright and cheery, and the lack of forward movement makes for an extremely short ride without the necessary emotional build up for the drops. Still fun and still first class for California Adventure, but still just good enough.

In some ways, "good enough" seems to be the mantra for this park- at least in its current incarnation. There are very appealing aspects, but they seem to be individual parts instead of a complete and compelling whole. The park lacks soul and heart, something the Imagineers hope to bring after an almost billion dollar laundry list of improvements. I hope they accomplish their mission.

Following our brief haunted hotel tour, we dropped into an undiscovered gem in this small park: Turtle Talk with Crush. The Animation Building was an early DCA hit for good reason. The variety of attractions inside are only strengthened by the presence of this presentation. Crush delighted us, adults and children alike. The concept is simple but the technology amazing. Loved it at Epcot. Just as much fun at California Adventure. This attraction is truly under advertised and overlooked by a majority of the crowd. Crush is a clear home run- and we left with another smile left on our faces.

Crossing back to another side of the park, we took in the Blue Sky Cellar, while the crowds were thick and people getting impatient around us. It was a 5-star presentation, leaving me filled with hope that the park will eventually end up one California fans can be proud of. Phase One does seem heavy on adding characters, but this is just the start of a fresh beginning.

The afternoon was slowly changing into evening, and we had forgotten about Grizzly Rapids. It would certainly be less advantageous to an all day excursion at the park to be left wet for the rest of the day. We chose to ride anyway, and the queue was surprisingly full.

This choice yielded some unexpected benefits- time to take in the detailed queue, great photo opportunities, being immersed in the beautiful forest atmosphere- and getting partnered with a fun-loving family from the United Kingdom once it was our time to board.

While I firmly believe Disney settled for the expected and fairly cheap circular rafts instead of letting research and development come up with a true rafting experience, the ride is undeniably enjoyable. Would I like animatronics? You bet I would (and I hope they are added one day)! But overall, this is still a winner. (Animal Kingdom’s Kali River Rapids only dreams of being this good!) The views of the surrounding area are great, and the environment is rich. The spinning drop was not in operation, but that may have saved us. Our friendly Brits were absolutely soaked while we had a few splashes, nothing more.

We were left in good and dry shape to continue to the Challenge Trail. This was a new experience for both of us. The lower levels seemed fairly ordinary, and in the past, this had kept us from continuing on. This time, we did- much to our delight. The sun was now going down, providing a beautiful backdrop to our evening photos. The park ranger stations and theme transported us to another place. This was surprising as California Adventure has been rightly criticized for not doing this well. Feeling far away from the crowds of Southern California, it was awhile before I realized the best views of the area and the majestic mountain came from the rooms of the resort behind me. Conclude what you will about the designer’s motives in this being so.

By this point, the park’s crowds were thinning, making for a fairly short wait on another underrated attraction: Monsters Inc. This great ride with the strange facade holds up well visit after visit, earning the place of my favorite dark ride after Peter Pan Flight. Even though remnants of the odd Superstar Limo can be found, this ride has it all: detailed sets, a clear story (even if our on vehicle television screens didn’t work- poor show!) and endearing characters. How can you not love Sulley and Boo?

Surprisingly, I enjoyed our next stop more than I thought- Muppetvision 3D. The visuals were crisp, the theater looked brand new, and Kermit was as engaging as ever. Too bad the Muppets are past their prime. I’d bet that it is soon to go, however, as the show was a walk-on and our theater was almost empty.

Last of our pre-Screamin’ trio was the park’s other 3D experience. It’s Tough to Be a Bug was enjoyable as well, with another near empty theater. Let’s get real here: 3D attractions age quickly, and it is a poor choice of Michael Eisner’s to have this attraction housed in the centerpiece of the amazing Animal Kingdom theme park. Yet another example of a "C" ticket attraction found at an "E"ticket location.

It was now time for a newer tradition. Screamin’ left us breathless with laughter! Having been blessed with the front row, my daughter and I were delighted by the dark skyline and lit up park as we zoomed by. With the ugly Anaheim Convention Center and backstage areas more difficult to see, this attraction takes on a whole new feeling during the evening. Paradise Pier finally sparkles, taking on new life and energy. Buildings in the Golden State transform with an elegance unseen during the day. Disney’s lighting experts have reason to be proud of there work here.

After a disappointing ride on Mulholland Madness, (can we please just get rid of this embarrassment?), there were a few attractions left for us to experience. We wandered through Condor Flats, again stunning at night, and journeyed into A Bug’s Land to complete our rides for the day. Heimlich’s train was short but sweet, and Flik’s Flyers a little more thrilling than expected. The area was deserted except for a few other families, making for some great photos and walk on attractions. Heading toward the entrance area to view the Electrical Parade, we’d had a full but overall satisfying day.

Disney’s California Adventure is evolving, and mostly toward a better park than at opening. (Like the photo below says, Start Over!) There was Disney magic to be found. Recent changes have brought a mixed bag of unexpected successes and minor failures. Mistakes like removing the Eureka parade are balanced by some wonderful additions. There is still not much variety between thrills and films, with a low amount of attractions the whole family can enjoy together. Daytime clearly reveals the park's weaknesses and much of that involves outside diversions and the framework of Paradise Pier. Yet, the plans look promising to change some of California Adventure's harsher realities, even if it does involve many character additions. Our thoughts? We will be returning in 2012 when the amazing proposed changes are now realities in concrete.

Walt's original park was our destination for tomorrow- and we had to get some sleep.

(Photos copyright my wonderful daughter. Watch for Disneyland trip report soon.)

January 13, 2009

Those Pesky New Year's Resolutions!

How are you doing with those New Year’s resolutions? If you are like me, you’ve already struggled and broken some (or all) of them! It seems that the resolutions we take to heart, the vows we make ourselves, and the promises we believe from the mouths of others, are the ones that wound us the most when they are broken.

I was thinking of King David.
Let’s look at some events of his life: the faithful child, who took care of his father’s sheep; anointed by Samuel as Israel’s future king; not a warrior, yet he conquers the Philistine giant and his praises are sung by the people; best friend of the king’s son; honored and trusted musician of King Saul; desired young man who becomes the monarch’s son-in-law. David- the classic Cinderella story. The “golden boy”. Everything good came his way. (Don’t you just hate those types?) Things couldn’t get any better.

But life didn’t stay that way.

David, Part Two: His popularity outshines that of the threatened and insecure king. Saul opened desires to kill him. So, after trying to do everything right, David becomes the hunted, as if he were this evening’s meal running in the field. Now a fugitive, David flees from his home, says goodbye to his friends, and lives a life on the road, sleeping in caves and wherever else he could find rest, feigning craziness in a time of desperation. Once beloved, now betrayed. All the while keeping an eye out for Saul. Waiting. Watching. Wondering about God, and wondering about his life.

What about Samuel’s word from the Lord? What about the promise? Where was God in all this? Was David in despair at times and disappointed? You can bet he probably was.

David, Part Three: After a turn of events, David, now about 30 years old, ascends to the throne of Judah while Israel remains under Philistine domination. Five years later, the kingdom becomes one under David’s rule. A long period of successes, both religious and military in nature, occur after this accomplishment. God is faithful to his word.

David, Part Four: the man after God’s own heart makes sinful choices causing dire consequences. David the adulterer and David the murderer; the brokenhearted father as his family falls apart and turns against him; the prideful warrior who counts his manpower to nourish his pride.

Was David disappointed now? You can read his psalms for yourself and see. Yet, through the end of his life, God is waiting for David’s return of heart.

Betrayals, disappointments, and broken dreams may be ours, but there are few disappointments greater than being let down by our own sinful choices. Realizing the frailness and weakness of our souls. Doing things we never thought we would. Watching our world crumble. The desire to replay our choices and the shame we carry eat us alive. If only we could turn back time…

Yet, in his great and merciful love, God chooses to let us start fresh every day.

Where are you today? What setbacks, betrayals, and disappointments have you encountered? Was it at your own hand or the hands of others? Whatever state you find yourself in, God is waiting for you with open arms. In Him, and only in Him, can we really trust. He is waiting for you. Just go to Him.

May the Lord bless you this week and remind you of his great love,