We drove down with Royal's parents and sister from Atlanta to Orlando, and we had two and half days in Orlando to see three parks.
At the end of a long day, we arrived in Orlando and had dinner at Landry's Seafood not far from our hotel. I got the shrimp embrochette, which consisted of stuffed shrimp with pepper jack cheese, seafood stuffing, wrapped in bacon, with a slightly sweet tomatillo sauce. This was served over dirty rice and green beans. Delicious.
We wanted to see some of the new stuff in Pandora so we ran over there and did the Na'vi River Journey (A+ ride!) before the lines got really bad. Christmas to New Years is a terrible time to be at the parks. Avoid if possible! It is shockingly crowded and the lines are pretty painfully long. But Animal Kingdom is full of cute live animal exhibits and plenty of beautiful architecture that does not require waiting in lines, so that was some solace.
We met up with everyone for It's Tough To Be a Bug, beneath the Tree of Life, in the roots. We had our picture with Donald and we did the TriceraTop Spin then we split and saw the Tree of Life up close together and had pics with Flick. A few years ago, we watched a documentary about the building of Animal Kingdom's Tree of Life (and we liked the fact that you can walk up to it and walk around it without having to wait in a line) so we were excited to see the enormous, organic shapes of the Tree of Life. We were blown away by how big and beautiful it was.
We went to the Nemo Musical puppet show together and simply could not believe how beautiful and interesting it was. We got falafel and fries and frozen yogurt in Asia, then saw the Flights of Wonder live bird show and then did the Maharajah Jungle Trek with live animals and an awesome aviary.
We went to Rafiki Conservation Station by train and the Affection Section (petting zoo) with the angry alpaca. We grabbed a dinner of curry corn dog and yummy beef and and gyro on flatbread in Africa.
As you might expect, the magic of the architecture and decoration (especially Africa and Asia) is that the teams designing them chose specific lived-in places in Asia and Africa (perhaps inspired Bhutan/Nepal/Tibet, in the Himalayas and Kenya?). They brought a modern, scrappy, resourceful, yet beautiful melange to life with specific details that create a believable aesthetic. It is not so clean and perfect as you might think (picture Magic Kingdom, or the Kingdom of Duloc, in Shrek), but more aged, distressed, and human, with its own rugged beauty. Clearly the teams did their research and based it on real places and the feeling just sinks into every inch of that place.
We met up for the amazing, live Lion King Musical since we had fast passes. Then it was standing room only for Rivers of Light. On the way out of the park, we saw Pandora lit up at night with bioluminescent light (fiber optic and ultraviolet effects).
We took the ferry to Magic Kingdom and then did It's a Small World first since the line was short and other lines were long and we missed the early 7am bus which Royal's family caught.
About five years ago, Royal and I each got the most inexpensive annual pass for Disneyland and Disney California Adventure (the one where they black out days where there would be annoying long lines anyway), so we were very familiar with the classic rides of Magic Kingdom and we tried to see as much new or different stuff at Disney World Magic Kingdom as we could.
We were blown away by the mosaics in the breezeway of Cinderella's Castle (and the castle itself, with its majestic height). Something so beautiful and simple really caught our attention. We were disappointed that one cannot go up into the castle, as one can in Disneyland at Aurora's Castle.
We saw Haunted Mansion together with the whole gang using our Fast Passes. We took the Liberty Belle steam boat on the Rivers of America which is utterly charming, as usual. Next we saw the Country Bear Jamboree with 22 animatronic characters.
We climbed the Swiss Family Robinson Tree House, which is unique to this park. We used our Fast Pass for the 4-D film Mickey's PhilharMagic starring Donald Duck and were pretty underwhelmed.
We split up and found food which took way too long because the good stuff requires reservations in the busy season (the sitdown restaurants). Again a good reason not to go between Christmas and New Years. We enjoyed LeFou's Brew (frozen apple juice with passion foam and toasted marshmallow flavor to sort of make it taste like ale?) at Gaston's Tavern. We also had BBQ chicken macaroni and cheese and a large cinnamon roll. We got a photo in Gaston's chair in his tavern and I happened to be wearing a matching outfit!
We waited ages in line at Jingle Cruise and Royal disliked it (not Christmas-y enough and Royal did not think our guide was funny) but it was as I expected. The Enchanted Tiki Room had no wait and was good as always, and of course we got a Dole Whip. We had some busts in terms of opportunities to ride rides (too long of lines) and then took the railroad back to Fantasy Land.
We learned how they measure the wait times and updated the sign while waiting in line at Belle's cottage. They use a special NFC (near field communications) lanyard the cast member gave me when we entered the line, which I gave to the person at the front of the line. I was chosen as one of the two suits of armor in the audience participation Enchanted Tales with Belle. The entrance to the room, where the window turns into a door before your eyes is truly magical.
Next we saw Laugh Floor (Monster's Inc.) then met up with the family for Peter Pan. We did the Ariel's Grotto ride immediately after because of the short lines at the end of the day.
We all checked out of the hotel in the morning and drove a few miles to Epcot. In the early morning, before everyone has arrived, the lines are the shortest they will be for the day. So if you do not have a fast pass for a given ride, that is the time to hustle and get to your favorite ride so that you can wait in the shortest line possible.
We were excited to see the Frozen Ever After ride in Norway because it is a new ride. We got in early enough that we only had to wait thirty minutes and the ride was well worth it (the wait was two hours, later in the day). The ride is an example of Disney Imagineering Magic at its best: blending everything together to make something far more than the sum of its parts. For example, there is a place on the ride where you are only a few meters away from Olaf and he is walking around with his feet only touching the ground one at a time because they have hidden the armature behind a small embankment to give the impression that he is light on his feet. When you see Elsa singing her song and shooting special effects onto the ceiling, the animation is so smooth and elegant even if you know it is a robot it is still hard to believe, given how graceful the motions of her fingers and arms are. At that point in the ride the boat is sliding sideways and all the dazzling effect distract you from this weird boat motion so the boat is ready to send you downhill backwards through a puff of special effects smoke, which is all in service of the story and timed perfectly with the music and the moment. Animatronics blend with projected animation faces and eyes, sound, music, fog, motion, water splashing on you, etc. Disney at the top of its game.
We used our Fast Pass for Spaceship Earth, a ride which takes up the entire inside of the iconic golf ball structure, a geodesic dome designed in 1982 to look like the geodesic dome designed in 1967 by Buckminster Fuller. Some of the technology at the end hasn't aged as well since the refresh a decade ago (and the advent of the modern smartphone), but the ride narrative and scenes are pretty good and show how technology has developed over time and how humanity has moved forward toward the creation of the personal computer, showing a guy in his garage in the late 1970s who looks suspiciously like a young Steve Wozniak.
Next we used our fast pass to do The Seas with Nemo and Friends and were disappointed with how obvious a lot of the video screens were and how there wasn't much purpose to the ride because it was mostly a rehash of the movie until the end when they had actual aquariums with actual fish. This was also disappointing because Disney Imagineering had set the bar so high with recent rides like Frozen and Na'vi River Journey and Nemo is fairly recent.
We waited in the line for The Land, a ride about how people have been growing food on the land and how technology has changed and what the current state of the art is in the twenty-first century. The waiting line was super disappointing because—compared to everything else in all of the Disney parks, which is designed to have a façade to transfer you to another place and time—the space that they built consisted of what looked like an indoor shopping mall or a popcorn-ceiling covered inexpensively-built generic office building. They tried to cover it up with some lovely murals with some inspiring quotations, but again Disney has set a high bar and when they themselves fall short it is really obvious and embarrassing.
The ride for The Land itself was pretty cool because you go through several green houses where they grow a lot of edible plants and show you different things you did not know were edible and a lot of new growing techniques. For example brussel sprouts growing on a rope far above the ground, or interesting vertical metal spiral structures where greens can grow with very little soil space.
Other members of our party waited in line and did the Test Track ride which is like the Cars ride in Cars Land at Disney California Adventure, and they did Soarin', similar to you a ride that we have done at the California Adventure but with an updated video that goes around the world instead of staying within California.
While they did those two rides, we proceeded to walk around the lake clockwise and saw the World Showcase, which was set up for the last day of the Holiday Festival where you can learn about different traditions and foods from each of eleven countries. Without listing all of them we will just say that we really enjoyed all of the architecture and the different shops and languages and foreign nationals filling them with their wonderful accents.
Notable was the architecture of Morocco where we were lost in the streets of Marrakesh. We also got two desserts in France, a wonderful bouche de noel, a tiny chocolate log with a chocolate orange mousse, a chocolate sponge, a crunchy chocolate praline on the bottom, and glazed with hazelnut chocolate ganache and topped with a little mushroom made of meringue like a macaron. Next we got a pumpkin spice macaron ice cream sandwich which was delicious.
We met up with our party at the end near Mexico and then worked our way all the way back around the lake a second time so they at least had a bit of time to see everything, if briefly.
We really enjoyed the architectural elements, although our wide lens froze up on the spot (and needs servicing) and we had to use our other longer prime lens. That ended up working out fine since a wide lens would have just capture the egregious crowds of not-so-photogenic people.
In the afternoon, around 3pm or so, we started our drive back to Atlanta and stopped in Valdosta, Georgia to eat at The Smok'n Pig, a real Southern barbecue joint. We arrived in Atlanta exhausted and stuffed full of food about midnight.
Over those three days we did about 60,000 steps or 30 miles of walking.
We visited Royal's family for three weeks over Christmas and New Years. Nearly daily, a troop of eleven turkeys came to visit: four toms (males) and seven hens. They were interested in the sunflower seed feast that we spread for them. But they were also interested in peeking through the windows of the sun room at what we were doing. Turkeys are very curious.
We visited Jared's family in Mesa Arizona but stopped at the Salton Sea along the way on Wednesday of Thanksgiving Week.
We arrived pretty early in the morning and started spotting birds by the visitor center, which was closed. We climb up the observation tower to look at the field full of thousands of snow geese (and some Ross's geese), which kept landing in little groups of dozens or hundreds, and kept up a loud cackle in the background.
We spotted some amazing butterflies by the bank of the canal. We spotted a kestrel and shrike on the power lines and Jared found many pieces of obsidian sticking up out of the rocky dirt road. Rock Hill is a little volcanic cone with a view over the mud flats and clear across the Salton Sea.
We saw a lot of waterfowl and shore birds on the little nursery islands.
All told we found around forty species of birds, including the quail and burrowing owl near the visitor center.
We visited Gilbert Riparian in February when we had a long weekend with Jared's family in Arizona, and found about fifty species of birds. This year we tried to find as many bird species again and we succeeded. It took us about five hours. Jared's mom joined us in the search for birds a few hours in. Rare birds we found included a greater white-fronted goose, a female surf scoter, a chestnut-sided warbler, and norther parula (another warbler species). Some favorites that we don't see where we live in California include vermilion flycatcher, numerous Abert's towhee (they look kind of like a female cardinal with a dark face), American avocet, verdin, and many more.
We planned an all-day date to hear the LA Philharmonic Orchestra play a two-hour program at Walt Disney Concert Hall and then a fancy dinner afterwards. Strangely we had never been inside the building together, though I (Jared) had been to a few concerts there when I was a student, many years ago.
We knew parking downtown would be unpleasant, and navigating the narrow, busy, one-way streets is a mess. Luckily a reasonable solution to this problem exists in the form of the Metro Red Line subway train. We normally drive a few miles and park at the Universal City Station parking lot (which is thankfully mostly empty on weekends) but today we had the clever idea to park at North Hollywood since the lot there was within walking distance of our dinner venue, itself a place with challenging parking conditions.
So after getting dressed up and packing a sandwich lunch, and running some errands, we parked in the corner of the North Hollywood Station lot and ate our sandwich. We took the Red Line subway train from one end (NoHo) to the second to last stop (from Union Station), Civic Center, a mostly boring journey of approximately 25–30 minutes (boring expect for the fascinating variety of diverse people who take the train). At Civic Center in downtown LA, depending on which side of the train platform you exit—the platform is something like 250 yards long—it is around a block-or-two walk from the Concert Hall.
We made it in time for the pre-show lecture where a gentleman explained to us the stories behind the three pieces we would hear:
We had nearly a half hour after the lecture to explore the garden and grounds on the terrace level (including the giant blue-china-covered, rose-shaped fountain), and even peak inside the different doors into the hall itself, seeing the views from the expensive seats, while a few scattered musicians prepped their instruments on-stage.
When the performances began, we were impressed by the youth and vigor of the conductor, an accomplished woman named Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, a Lithuanian musician who has worked with the LA Phil extensively in the past, and now heads the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in England. Mirga is younger than both of us, and a petite individual. Her fluid gestures would sometimes grow in energy, resulting in motions that carried her into the air several inches. Speaking of youth and vitality, we were definitely some of the youngest in the audience (aside from a small group of students), perhaps a generation younger on average.
The performances of the entire orchestra were sharp, exciting, and very expressive and worth the ticket price, and the acoustics of the hall are world-class. The strings sang and soared, and the french horns would make the angels sigh. The concert hall itself seats over 2,000 people but it really does feel intimate and small, even from the cheap seats. (Our tickets were for the balcony, second row from the back, but near the middle. We had a lot of stairs to climb.)
We made use of our binoculars, watching the patient non-playing musicians counting dozens of bars of rests, watching them get ready to play again (and inferring what was coming—you know it will reach a crescendo when the percussion section sits up) or watching them switch instruments. For example, three clarinetists with 8 clarinets between them, or the contrabassoon, with its extra loops, played by a bassoonist who would also switch to a normal bassoon, even in the same piece. The pieces had notably smaller brass sections, with a few french horns and a few trumpets. The bass section was enormous, to make for a lack of tubas, and each bass had five strings, presumably for extra low range. The basses played beautiful pizzicato parts during much of the lovely Mahler symphony, and made the hall really vibrate when they bowed the strings.
Our favorite, in terms of entertainment value, was the percussion section: the triangle, the jingle bells; one gentleman played the gong and cymbals, another played four timpani, another a colossal bass drum, with jumbo mallets. Royal began craving campfire-toasted marshmallows while watching the percussionists raise their "marshmallow"-ended mallets in preparation for their parts.
Judging by the audience reaction, they enjoyed the performance as much as we did. After the clapping finally died down, we made our way back down to the garden and exited externally, to the street, after enjoying the garden again for a while.
On the way home we took the walking path through Grand Park (behind some of the unimpressive, boxy civic center buildings). Grand Park has an impressive cascade of fountains and a lower, very shallow area, complete with children getting wet, and various rolling lawns and ugly pink park benches (painted to match the lovely pink flowers of the weird green silk floss trees).
We definitely worked up an appetite by the time we arrived in North Hollywood in the San Fernando Valley, and placed some of our items in the trunk of the car and walked about four blocks to Hayat's Kitchen, a Lebanese restaurant on the corner of Vineland and Burbank. Here we ordered the Feast for Two (really a feast for four to six?) with the works. For appetizers: pita with hummus and smokey eggplant baba ghanoush; tabouli salad (diced onions, garlic and parsley); a special garlic sauce with a creamy texture like mayonnaise made by blending garlic, lemon juice, olive oil, and ice; tahini sauce to dip falafel and fried minty-cheese rolls in.
Eventually, when the main course came, we gorged ourselves on kebob: a huge side of garlic fries and onion slices to go with the roasted tomato and jalapeño, grilled chicken, kafta (a beef sausage), and fillet mignon steak—with enough leftovers for breakfast, lunch, and dinner the next day. When our check came, we each got a delicious piece of complementary baklava.
We were wiped out when we made it home that evening but happy to enjoy an unusual and exciting day—unusual in the sense that though we saw a number of birds (hummingbirds, yellow-rumped warblers, and even a ruby crowned kinglet, returned for winter) we did not make a checklist, something we have been doing for months now.