Category Archives: It’s A Small World

Neat places I’ve been.

A Writer’s Journey Through Disney World: Part V

mickey float

Disney World has made the news a few times over the last few weeks, and not really in a good way.  First up was the brief notoriety afforded to Escape From Tomorrow, an unlicensed movie shot guerrilla-style surreptitiously throughout the Disney parks, with a storyline suggesting malevolence lurking behind the facade (the movie’s regrettable tag line:  “Bad things happen everywhere”).  Then there was this item from the New York Post revealing that one-percenters have been gleefully paying intellectually or physically challenged people to escort their families through the parks so they can skip lines.  It’s nearing two months since I last left the place that for me remains a reservoir of goodwill and good feeling in a world growing increasingly greedy and misanthropic.  And while I am ever aware of the essential contradiction at the heart of Disney World’s existence – a theme park celebrating the innocence of childhood that is lorded over by a corporation – I push back hard against the tide of cynicism lapping at its shores.  Reviews of Escape From Tomorrow are tainted by the writer’s opinion of the place; those who dream of kicking Mickey in “his pious balls,” as one sort put it, find their smugness vindicated by the movie’s skewering of the Disney tropes, where others who thrive on their positive memories struggle with the creep of darkness along the edges of the frame.  (For the record, I haven’t seen the movie.  With Escape From Tomorrow‘s official release looming in a few days, Disney has apparently chosen to simply ignore it, sidestepping the Streisand Effect.  The chatter and the publicity have likewise diminished, so good call there, Mouse House.)

Disney's Boardwalk at sunset.
Disney’s Boardwalk at sunset.

We remarked upon returning from our voyage how much we in point of fact didn’t get to see; a great deal of Animal Kingdom, including the delightful Festival of the Lion King show and the serene Flights of Wonder bird exhibit, was left unexplored as it was the only park we weren’t able to repeat visit during our eight days.  A healthy portion of Fantasyland in the Magic Kingdom was either down for refurbishment, still under construction or hidden behind impenetrable wait times.  I’ve long held the dream of dining at least once in each of the eleven different full service restaurants throughout Epcot’s World Showcase; a glimpse of the seating area in Mexico would be all we’d get on this occasion.  Speaking of food, one can’t conduct a proper review of Disney World without mentioning the dining fare – while one might cringe at the sight of folks strolling through the parks gnawing maniacally on oversized turkey legs that clearly aren’t from any turkey that wouldn’t fail an Olympic drug test, Disney does in fact boast plenty of culinary experiences that manage to enchant both taste bud and heart.  Our selections ran the gamut, from the ripped-from-Leave-It-To-Beaver meatloaf and pot pies of the Prime Time Diner in Hollywood Studios (where the waitresses yell at you if you put your elbows on the table or – horrors – use your walkie talkie – i.e. cell phone), to the finger-lickin’, artery-bustin’ ribs, cornbread and fried chicken of Mickey’s Backyard Barbeque (where the characters join you for an after-supper country dance party to burn all that stuff off), to even a messy yet tasty pizza delivered to our hotel room.

May I join you for dinner?
May I join you for dinner?

Of the more upscale options, we have two favorites in particular.  First is Sanaa, the African restaurant at Animal Kingdom Lodge’s Kidani Village.  The food at Sanaa is exotic and flavorful, replete with a wide array of tongue-tickling spices and compelling textures, but what truly sells it is the incomparable view.  Animal Kingdom Lodge wraps around an open area that is accessible to the animals of the Harambe Wildlife Reserve, so it’s typical to have giraffes and zebras wander by the windows of Sanaa as you’re sitting there enjoying your appetizer.  The first time we went, my wife uploaded a photo of the view to her Facebook page and one of her friends thought we were in Africa.  After dinner you can wander out to the central firepit and use night vision goggles to see if you can spot a wildebeest sneaking in for a bedtime snack.  There’s a guide on hand to assist with the goggles and answer questions (and presumably ensure that no one jumps the fence), and in one of the most serendipitous examples of small world I’ve ever encountered, I and the Namibian gentleman on duty that evening turned out to have mutual friends – these folks.

kouzzina

Our other favorite is Cat Cora’s Kouzzina, on Disney’s BoardWalk.  This Greek-themed restaurant, nestled comfortably amidst the old-timey seaside architecture and only minutes by foot from Epcot’s rear World Showcase entrance, is not somewhere I’d recommend if you’re looking to count your calories, not when the signature appetizer is the Saganaki, or flamed and decadently rich Greek cheese.  Another standout is the Pastitsio, a Greek take on lasagna with cinnamon-infused meat sauce and bechamel, which no one in our family has ever been able to finish in one sitting.  I opted for the braised short ribs this time, but even they come with potatoes mashed with smoked feta so alas, no room for dessert.

ohana
Flame On at Ohana.

One surprise last-minute addition was Ohana, the immensely popular Hawaiian family service restaurant at Disney’s Polynesian Resort.  We’ve wanted to try it for years but have repeatedly been thwarted by its tendency to book up months in advance.  It was a fellow countryman, one of the cast members at Epcot’s Canada pavilion, who alerted us to a new app that tracked up-to-the-minute dining availability.  Spotting a convenient cancellation, we leaped at it.  The equivalent of an indoor luau, Ohana is probably the friendliest restaurant we sampled this time, with staff calling you “cousin” and a ukulele-strumming entertainer leading the junior diners in hula lessons, Hawaiian karaoke and coconut races between courses, while you wait to be served beef, pork and chicken that’s been marinating for three days straight.  I can’t say it ranked quite as highly as Kouzzina or Sanaa with me, but I’m still glad random fortune allowed us to fit it in.  One more item scratched off the Disney Bucket List, as it were, a document that seems to get longer with each trip rather than shorter, and will probably never be satisfied.  There’s just too much, and Disney World is too far from home, and finances aren’t infinite.

It’s doubly ironic, because as I draw to the close of this series, I find myself reflecting on all the things I didn’t find space to include:  the Wishes fireworks show over Cinderella Castle, the five-floor DisneyQuest arcade and the rest of Downtown Disney, the quirks and quibbles about FastPasses, character encounters and LeFou’s brew.  But there’s an incident that occurred a few weeks after we got back that I think helps to put things into context and provide a sense of unity and completion to this quintet of ramblings.

My wife was in line to renew her driver’s license.  She was wearing the black Minnie hoodie she’d acquired on our trip, which sports ears and a bow on the head.  It’s really cute.  Thinking she couldn’t hear them, the couple behind her in line openly sneered at her, and the dude boasted to his charmless companion that he was proud that she would never wear something like that.  Apart from wishing I’d been there to deck this smarmy douchebag, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for him and his undoubtedly equally hipster-esque friends.  They do themselves no favors by pretending they’re above embracing Disney.  Sure, you can climb onto a soapbox and lecture the world about capitalism-run-amok under a layer of artificial pixie dust, but isn’t that the obvious argument?  Doesn’t it require more sophistication and a greater capacity to seek truth to look beyond these tedious trappings and find something of value that you can carry with you?  I am reminded so much of the late George Harrison, who while dedicated to the pursuit of spiritual enlightenment and musical achievement could still laugh at Monty Python’s jokes about cannibalism.  And I would not even suggest that Disney is somehow lowbrow, or lowest common denominator.  Yes, sometimes their attempts are clumsy, some of the movies aren’t great, we all wait with bated breath to see what they do with Star Wars and they’ve been accused of complacency as Universal Studios Florida nips at their aging heels.  But there is so much that should be celebrated rather than scorned.

Like the character in the U2 song “The Wanderer,” sung by Johnny Cash, I went this time in search of experience that would challenge me as a writer and enrich me as a person.  In each park, I discovered a fundamental lesson.  Belief.  Being.  Connection.  Communication.  Four simple concepts that should be obvious but often get buried under layers of irrelevant complication, and form the very heart of the art of placing one word after another.  And isn’t it wonderful that these lessons didn’t have to be learned at the bottom of a whiskey bottle or in the depths of personal crisis.  They were plain to see and framed with Mickey ear ice cream – the literal spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down.  I departed after eight days, feeling my sense of storytelling renewed and a certitude about continuing to share my words with the world.  The writer journeying through Disney World is a wandering bard stopping for a drink at a wellspring from which imagination flows, and eventually he moves on, his thirst quenched, carrying that inspiration onward to wonderful parts unknown.  With a stuffed Winnie the Pooh under his arm.

So long, Disney World.  And see ya real soon.

farewell

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A Writer’s Journey Through Disney World: Part IV

spaceship earth

The Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow was Walt Disney’s prophetic vision of how we would be living today; a vast city thriving on the substance of its connections.  Walt wanted people to live and work there, but after his passing the Disney corporation decided they did not want to be in the business of running a municipality (ironically, Disney does operate its own municipality, the Reedy Creek Improvement District, which manages the land on which the Walt Disney World Resort sits) and instead transformed Epcot into what they knew they could run well – another theme park.  Famously derided by the likes of none other than Homer Simpson, who wailed “it’s even boring to fly over!”, Epcot has long been an oddity, its ultimate purpose somewhat out of sync with the predominant Disney mantra of just coming to play and be a kid again.  Throughout the evolution of its exhibits from opening day in 1982 it’s always been the more mature, educational counterpart to the whimsy of the Magic Kingdom, the fairy dust harder to see in the polished presentation of the technology of the future and the many shades of our present.  This is the park for the grownups.  Epcot the Expo.  Divided into two distinct lands, Future World and World Showcase, and presided over by the imposing sphere (or overgrown golf ball, depending on your attitude) that is Spaceship Earth, Epcot is more linear; easier to find your way around, harder to lose your way amid winding paths.  Yet for some reason I never feel I’ve truly arrived at Disney until I’ve reached Epcot.

There is an indelible scent to Spaceship Earth that speaks to my distant memory like trumpets heralding the return of a long-absent pilgrim.  A peculiar brew of industrial strength air conditioning, special effects smoke and wheel lubricant combines into a unique visceral trigger, the feel of the arm of an old friend draped around my shoulder.  What is ostensibly Epcot’s signature attraction offers a journey back through 35,000 years of human history, with the voice of Judi Dench guiding you from a frozen plain where primitive man hurls spears at mammoths in unforgiving darkness, through the development of written language and the spread of civilization across the planet made possible by the phenomenon of communication.  Drifting past animatronic humans painting glyphs on cave walls, an Egyptian slave pounding out reeds into papyrus, toga-clad Greeks delivering a lecture on mathematics and Arab scholars sharing opinions over a hookah, anyone who calls himself a writer cannot fail to appreciate the significance of what is unfolding before him and the small, yet important part that he plays in this ongoing saga.  (He is particularly moved when he sees Gutenberg examining the first printed copy of the Bible.)  Humanity defines itself by the sharing of its ideas, the stories we tell to each other and the method by which those stories are passed on, long beyond our mere mortal existence.  A mind raised in the presence of the Internet can scarcely fathom the limitations faced by our ancestors, the incredible patience needed to etch history into brick and mortar.  We live in a time when it is easy, too easy some might argue, to fire off every thought to the entire world in real time, with a few keystrokes and a click, regardless of whether those thoughts have any lasting value.  The democratization of communication gives everyone equal ability to mouth off at the celebrity whose last movie we hated or whose political opinions make our skin crawl, without the need to consider our words first.  Passion drives communication as it never has before, as ink no longer needs to be bought by the barrel and rationed out only to the reasoned.  Spaceship Earth‘s main presentation ends with a facsimile of Steve Wozniak building a personal computer in his garage in the late 1970’s, but if the golf ball was bigger, perhaps it might be updated to advance thirty years and show us where we are now – to remind us that as trifling as they may seem in the moment, our communications are our legacy to the generations to come, as much as those dusty scrolls in the ancient libraries are the legacy of those who preceded us.  Every precious word is written into the future.  One way time travel, as it were.

Gutenberg, regrettably reading the comments.
Spaceship Earth‘s Gutenberg, regrettably reading the comments.

Beyond the confines of Future World lies World Showcase, the part the kids usually find boring.  It is a collection of eleven pavilions each dedicated to a different country and staffed exclusively by citizens of those far-flung lands.  Walking clockwise you can stroll through Mexico, Norway, China, Germany, Italy, The American Adventure, Japan, Morocco, France, the UK and finally Canada.   The pavilions are sponsored by private corporations from the countries in question (with the exception of Morocco, which is sponsored by its government) and each features a signature restaurant and souvenir shops, where other attractions may vary.  Mexico and Norway are the only two with actual rides inside, while Canada and China feature movies and The American Adventure contains an animatronic show about the founding of the United States.  If you’re walking by at the right time you may chance to encounter characters, buskers or live bands.  And for the littler ones staving off yawns there’s an interactive adventure based on Phineas & Ferb that encourages them to hunt through the Showcase in search of clues while their parents ponder purchasing a kimono in Japan or getting henna applied in Morocco.  You’d think that Canada would be my favorite of the undectet, shameless patriot that I am, eh (despite my non-adherence to the rules of Canadian English spelling), but my soft spot here at Epcot has always been for the UK.

Not that you can tell by this picture or anything.
Not that you can tell by this picture or anything.

Anglophile leanings aside, regardless that a Beatles tribute band can often be found performing in a nearby gazebo and Mary Poppins is usually on hand to advise on how to say supercalafragilisticexpialadocious backwards, what endears this place to me is a memory of my father attached indelibly to it.  About three or four times a day a group of improvisational players gathers in the square and invites members of the audience to take part in a humorous spoof, jape or vignette drawn from the annals of that fine British tradition of pantomime.  The first time we ever visited Epcot they picked my dad to join in, and I’m sure his boisterous manner didn’t factor into it at all (he may possibly have jumped up and down to volunteer).  When I walk these pink pathways and look around the corner past the pub I can see him again, reaching for the rafters as he crumples to the ground with a plastic sword tucked under his arm while the players narrate “And he died… OVER THERE!”, pointing six paces to his left and forcing him to get up sheepishly and walk over and do it all again.  Olivier he was not, but he loved being part of that sort of thing, ever happy to look a bit silly to give a stranger a laugh.  I come by a bit of it myself, to be honest, and I’m often the first to raise my hand when a similar enterprise arises.  It feels like paying tribute to the late great old man, and so walking through the faux-UK at Epcot is too akin to the metaphorical laying of flowers for someone long gone.

But back to Future World, to The Land, and the most popular ride in Epcot, Soarin’.  It’s not uncommon that the fast passes for this ride are all snapped within a scant few hours of the park’s opening, it remains that popular.  Seinfeld‘s Puddy, Patrick Warburton, plays the chief flight attendant welcoming you aboard your 5-minute trip over the scenic vistas of California, set to a majestic score composed by the late, legendary Jerry Goldsmith.  You are seated in “gliders” that are raised high above the floor before a massive screen, and the film that projects before you brings you sweeping through the clouds over San Francisco Bay, through Yosemite National Park, Napa Valley, Lake Tahoe, Monterey and Anza-Borrego to name but merely a few.  The experience is not only visual as you are also greeted by the scent of citrus as you sail over orange groves and of salt mist as you watch surfers tumble.  Goldsmith too modifies the arrangement of his theme as it evolves to give appropriate flavor to both the natural wonders and the human achievements rushing toward you, before a fireworks finale over Anaheim Disneyland introduced by Tinkerbell heralds your inevitable return to earth.

soarin

I’m uncomfortable with heights, so I had every reason to expect that this experience would leave me dizzy, gripping the sides of the glider in nauseated panic.  But just as the theme song to Firefly insists “you can’t take the sky from me,” even acrophobics can come to understand the pull the clouds can exert upon those of us fated to stand on solid ground and gaze up at them in resignation.  A few years ago when my wife and I were in the Dominican I signed on reluctantly to try parasailing, and only after putting it off to our last day.  What surprised me most as the parachute dragged us up, up and away, was the silence of the sky, the utter peace to be found less than a hundred meters up.  The ground is a noisy place and we’ve all become inured to the persistent drone of our 21st Century lives – mechanical equipment, inane conversations, half-assed music played on repeat.  Dial all that down to zero, banish the distraction, and you find a hitherto unknown treasure buried beneath – a chance to hear the spirit speak.  In a theme park dedicated to the wonders of communication, Soarin’ is a reminder of the greatest communication you can have, and one you owe to yourself sooner rather than later.  It’s a chance to think about who you are, the sum of your contradictions and the difference between the face you present to the world and the true shape of your inner self that lies hidden behind it.  To unite the sense of the present with the memory of the past and the dreams of the future and find that the answer leaves you smiling.

It’s possible that’s why Epcot completes the equation for me, why it’s what makes me feel most like I’m back.  I could go on at length about our experiences this time at some of the other favorite attractions; my son’s insistence on riding Mission: Space four times so he could fill each different crew position, his chance to have a conversation with an animated character from Finding Nemo at Turtle Talk with Crush.  Those family memories will be added to the extensive cache getting ever larger with each visit; complaining at the age of 8 that I didn’t like the food in the restaurant in the German pavilion (nein to your schnitzel!), watching IllumiNations around the World Showcase Lagoon on New Year’s 1990, listening to the Future Corps play the Jetsons Theme on a trip there with my high school band in 1993.  Ask me what I did a week or two before or after those individual moments and I’ll give you a master class in blank stares.  But decades later, here I am, transcribing these moments for the world and understanding that they, like those hieroglyphics on the pyramid walls, will now outlive me.  Writing into the future.  Just beyond the park entrance, before you reach Spaceship Earth, lie a series of obelisks on which Disney allowed guests to “Leave a Legacy” – a small, laser-etched photograph of yourself to be mounted there for all time.  The program was discontinued for whatever reason so a majority of space on the obelisks remains unfilled.  Yet it doesn’t really matter that I don’t have a picture of my face waiting to see me again at Epcot.  The true legacy is something I take with me when I go, etched in my mind, inspiring me far beyond the borders of Walt Disney World and Florida.

illuminations

A Writer’s Journey Through Disney World: Part III

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
The Tree of Life.

A week at Disney challenges even the hardiest of physiques; you spend an inordinate amount of time standing, walking on hard concrete, jammed into close quarters with folks who’ve perhaps not devoted as much of their energy to the maintenance of personal hygiene as you would prefer, and going from soul-sapping swamp heat to bone-chilling meat locker-grade air conditioning in as little as a single step.  There comes a moment, usually on day three, when you accept that the pain in your lower back and in your arches is inevitable.  Oddly, where at other vacation destinations you might resolve to spend the next day or two lounging in the pool to recuperate, at Disney World there is simply too much to do, too much to see, to let a mere trifle like physical discomfort discourage you from getting out to explore some more.  It was odd, reflecting on the trip from a few weeks’ distance, realizing that although we had about seven and a half days’ worth of park time, the list of what we didn’t get to do remains astonishingly long.  (Better to stoke the desire to return sooner rather than later, naturally).  A quick rewind back to Day Three, however, and our third park.

hungryturtle
Where hungry baby turtles awaited to devour us all.

Opened in 1998, Disney’s Animal Kingdom is the newest of the four major parks at WDW, and unless the Imagineers are hard at work on a secret project none of us know about, it is likely to be the last at the Orlando location, at least for some time.  Animal Kingdom is light on rides; apart from the rollercoaster Expedition Everest and the simulator Dinosaur, the park is dedicated to shows, educational exhibits and animal encounters.  The latter, then, is where it needed to shine, to give guests an experience they weren’t going to get at any of DAK’s elder siblings.  The Magic Kingdom had long featured the Jungle Cruise ride, but the biggest drawback to it was that the animals weren’t real (Walt wanted real animals, but wasn’t able to figure out the logistics of housing them safely).  Considering the preponderance of zoos in more easily accessible locations around the world, Disney had to do something extra special to compete in this realm.  What else, then, but to recreate a slice of Africa in central Florida?  And so we have Harambe Wildlife Reserve, and Kilimanjaro Safaris.  This enormous nature preserve (over 4 million square feet) is a Noah’s Ark of living African treasures, some critically endangered in their natural home across the ocean.  So typically scrupulous is the realism of the terrain, it’s said that when Disney finished building it, they invited a group of their African-born cast members for a glimpse of the attraction before it opened to the public.  Upon beholding the recreated savanna for the first time, one man burst into tears and declared, “I’m home.”  But you don’t have to have been born in Africa to feel a connection to this place.  My wife and I had visited countless times before; we would usually ride at least three times in any given day as the sights will always be different.  Normally, you board a diesel-powered truck with a dozen other guests for a 20-minute drive past the different habitats.  (There used to be a story along with it as you were supposedly on an expedition to chase down poachers, but this has been wisely pared back and ultimately removed to let the natural vistas take center stage.)  This time, with our son in tow, we decided to pay the extra cost to do the “Wild Africa Trek” – an intimate guided journey into the Reserve, to stuff the regular guests don’t get to see.  There were supposed to be eight of us, but for whatever reason the other five folks never showed – so we got a private, three hour tour.

hansthehippo
There is an untapped market, I feel, for hippopotamus dental floss.  “Hippoflossamus,” maybe?

Conservation was a passion of the late Walt Disney himself, and Harambe Wildlife Reserve is as much a research center as it is a chance for tourists to take pictures of elephants.  Our first stop along our hike was the hippopotamus pool and a meeting with Hans, the hungry hungry hippo.  Hans shares a habitat with his father Henry, and is segregated from the extensive female hippopotamus population in Harambe as “Disney isn’t in the business of breeding hippos.”  Said group of hippos is called a bloat, however, the collected group of females there is referred to as a pod as it isn’t considered Emily Post to make the indirect implication about a lady’s weight.  The researcher who was conducting Hans’ feeding clued us in to another amazing piece of trivia about these endearingly bulbous creatures:  in lieu of perspiration, the hippopotamus secretes something called “blood sweat,” a reddish fluid that contains natural sunscreen and antibiotic properties and is being studied extensively with the aim of recreating a similar substance for human use.  Not that any of that would matter to Hans as he gulped down one head of Romaine lettuce after another, leaving scarcely a leaf to dear old Dad.  I tell you, these young hippos with their sense of entitlement and their loud music…

overthegorge
“Drop them, Dr. Jones! They will be found… you won’t!”

Further on was a chance for us to channel our inner Indiana Jones and venture across a rope bridge hoisted high above a float of crocodiles, two of whom got into a scrap as we hovered over them.  One of the smallest crocodiles, nicknamed “Lethargic” for every reason you might expect, has had his hind leg spray-painted blue so the staff can ensure he’s getting an adequate supply of food, as he tends to be muscled out of the good stuff by his larger, snappier, more ill-tempered cousins.  Mindful of that scene in Live and Let Die when Bond is marooned on a small island surrounded by crocs and escapes by using their backs as stepping stones, I was deeply grateful for the cable and harness holding us securely a few feet out of range of their jaws.  I’m sure even Lethargic wouldn’t pass up a meal of fresh tourist.  However, ’twas not to be, and instead it was on to the second part of our tour, the drive across the savanna, where the animals are all (mercifully) herbivorous.

And occasionally amorous.
And occasionally amorous.

I’ve been trying to think of a good term to describe the savanna portion of Harambe since we’ve been back and the best I can come up with is that it’s an oasis of living miracles.  Existence for the Harambe animals in their native Africa is fraught with peril and predators (some, sadly, human-shaped) but here they are free to be themselves and live quiet lives, as nature might have intended in her most idealistic mood, indeed, had she been crafting a Disney version of herself.  And it always looks picture perfect; park staff go out every single night to replant literally thousands of bushes and shrubs that have been eaten and otherwise worn and torn throughout the previous day.  The giraffes are particularly placid and accustomed to seeing those rolling metal boxes full of the squat little hairless creatures pointing lenses at them all day long, and they are content to wander about and do their own thing, secure in their safety.  Stephanie, the affectionate reticulated giraffe on the left in the photo above, who can be distinguished by her Mickey-shaped mark just below her right ear, seems to be a born showgirl.  Midway through the savanna is an observation post called “Boma,” or “safe place,” where guests on the Wild Africa Trek can stop for lunch and a chance to commune with these wonderful creatures.  While we watched, Stephanie entertained us with a comedy of giraffe errors; trying to access the leaves on a high tree branch, she would pull it down with her tongue only to realize she had no arm to grab hold of it with, and watch sadly as it snapped back into place, pulling the tasty morsels far out of reach of even her statuesque neck.

As I stood beneath the hot sun, inhaling pure air, listening to nought but the steps of hooves on grasslands and smiling at Stephanie’s resolve, I felt an unfamiliar sense of ease, and of serenity, the aching feet and back retreating into distant memory.  I felt the sense of belonging to the earth that is absent in the confines of the cubicle, the glass and steel of the city street, the world of the schedule and deadline and insatiable hunger for material things.  Stephanie wasn’t stressing about her job, her kids, rent, politics or some lousy losing sports team (or hits and likes on her blog, for that matter).  She just wanted the leaves on the tree.  There was a purity to her intentions that was enviable, a clarity of purpose to be admired and replicated.  I thought about some of the other animals we saw that day, like the white rhinoceros who is expected to be extinct within the next five to ten years, because of poachers killing them for their supposedly-aphrodisiac horns (you’d boost your sex drive more by eating your own fingernails, not that this fact convinces anyone).  A deep sadness came over me at that moment, a fundamental recognition that we are Doing Life Wrong here on this planet.  We like to think we are the masters of everything, you know, that old Genesis verse about having dominion over all life, but has acting this way made us happy?  Human arrogance has only cluttered our minds with trivialities, and the more we obsess over them the more miserable we become.  It’s no revelation that a walk in the woods heals the soul.  We come from nature, and whenever we go back to it we are renewed.  And sometimes it takes a giraffe staring at you like you’re smoking something to realize this again.

"Lighten up, dude.  And could you help me with this branch?"
“Lighten up, dude. And could you help me with this branch?”

The lesson the writer takes from the Harambe Wildlife Reserve is to be a sculptor with your words – carve away the unneeded bits, the bullshit (or wildebeest shit if you prefer), and hone in on the plain emotional truth of the experience.  Within the phenomenon of basic connection lies a million untold stories, and all the flash and fancy vocabulary in the universe can’t substitute for the simplicity and universality of raw feeling, like the unbridled joy in watching giraffes at play.  You must be able to feel, fully and completely, before you can hope to transmit that feeling to someone else.  Until then, you’re just a tourist with a camera, recording the superficiality but not the substance, and your pictures will be no more enduring than the ones of drunken Uncle Ralph with the lampshade on his head at last year’s Christmas party.

In Part IV, we visit Epcot, and go Soarin’.

A Writer’s Journey Through Disney World: Part II

topiary

Getting up before seven a.m. seems antithetical to the very concept of a “vacation,” but as rays of sunlight sneak through the crack in the curtains decorated with tiny traffic cones a la Cars, one cannot help but stir with delight at the prospect of another day in the Disney sunshine.  My wife made a great point the other night as she lamented not being able to return for a while:  when you are at Disney World, you are stepping into a pocket universe that seems as utterly removed from reality as any of your favorite fantasy novels.  You forget that you’re in the state that threw the Presidency to George W. Bush because its voters couldn’t read their ballots, where the current governor came from a business that was convicted of defrauding Medicare – paying almost $2 billion in fines – and believes so completely in the Tea Party’s desire to drown government in the bathtub that he signed a bill defunding mosquito spraying (because lower taxes are much more important than preventing outbreaks of malaria).  You cross the border onto the Disney property and you’re transported from that depressing place into somewhere that logically shouldn’t be able to exist in adjacent space.  Thoughts of the world flee from your consciousness; everyone is so blessed friendly and helpful here that smiles become currency and delightful surprises the expectation.  And today we’re headed to the nexus of the fantasy, the beating heart of the dream:  The Magic Kingdom.

cindcastle

Modeled after Disneyland, the Magic Kingdom is the original park, opened in 1971, though a 1971 visitor returning in 2013 would find it dramatically different as attractions have come and gone and entire lands have disappeared and been replaced with experiences new and improved.  Pirates of the Caribbean includes three cameos by Captain Jack Sparrow now, and the “roll call of the Commanders-in-Chief” portion of the Hall of Presidents grows increasingly crowded.  The staples remain, of course, as timeless as Cinderella’s castle, its spires visible from every spot throughout the realm, and the turn-of-the-last-century charm of Main Street U.S.A., though the bakery that once sent wafts of the aroma of warm cookies skipping through the nostrils of every passerby no matter the hour has, in a nod to the passage of time outside the Disney gates, become a Starbucks (the cups do feature an appropriately colorful rendering of sparkles and fairy dust).  And what never changes is this place’s ability to let you leave the cares of adulthood at the gate and regress to the time in your life when you were the happiest, when you knew nothing of cynicism or the burdens of responsibility, when you held your mom or dad’s hand as you waited in line to climb aboard Dumbo and soar into the sky.  Dumbo has been upgraded (two carousels instead of one and an interactive waiting area under a Big Top) and you don’t fit into the car as comfortably as you once did, but that feeling of reassurance is still there, that you have not lost your childhood completely.  It’s just been dormant for a while.

opening

The day began with an early arrival at the park so we could see the opening ceremony, where Mickey and the gang arrive by train along with a specially-chosen family to welcome one and all.  The entrance is designed so that you can’t actually see Cinderella’s castle from the outside; it is unveiled to you like the rolling back of a stage curtain as you step through into Main Street and stroll past its collection of galleries and emporiums, boasting seemingly infinite varieties of curios, souvenirs and Disney paraphernalia to suit all tastes and wallet sizes.  The rides await further on, however, and a right turn at the end of Main Street takes you into Tomorrowland – which hasn’t looked futuristic since at least the mid-80’s and is now more of a time capsule of what we once thought the 21st Century would resemble; in a way, the child’s dreams of the decades to come.  Presiding over Tomorrowland is of course the giant white dome that houses Space Mountain.

The most intense of the trifecta of “Mountain” rides in the Magic Kingdom – the others being Splash and Thunder, respectively – Space Mountain is another of those bits of Disney that used to terrify me as a child.  I was afraid to even go near it, and couldn’t even summon the courage to give it a try in the face of my younger sister deciding to brave its twists and turns through the darkness.  Of course it doesn’t help that there’s an urban legend about someone being decapitated on it too (in fact, the only thing that ever lost its head on Space Mountain was a dummy that was placed in the car standing up so the ride engineers could test for clearance).  Wanting to impress my then-girlfriend six years ago on our first Disney trip together, I gathered my wits and took my place in the rail-mounted spacecraft, and 90 seconds later, although I wasn’t exactly champing at the bit for a repeat voyage, the horrifying Space Mountain turned out to be not so bad in the end.  You’re actually not going nearly as fast as the Rockin’ Roller Coaster, but the complete darkness you’re traveling through and the resulting unpredictability of the track intensifies the sensation of speed, as though you are indeed on a rocket out of control in the heavens.  And yes, despite myself, I do still feel like I have to duck.  (Note:  You do not have to duck.)  You know, I never had much of an appetite for high-speed rides in my youth, but as I grow older, I’m beginning to grasp the appeal.  Perhaps it’s the creeping understanding of the passage of time, of ruing the inaction of younger days and wanting to seize as many of the moments as possible now, before it’s too late.  There’s the old saying that you’ll regret the things you didn’t do far more than the things you did; how one wishes that wisdom could be applied retroactively.  At the Magic Kingdom, you do get that second chance.  Space Mountain’s not going anywhere.

Nor, indeed, are the characters that inhabit the parks.  In fact, they’re much easier to find now than they once were; in the distant past you had to rely on luck and happenstance whereas now they are located in specific viewing areas with appointment times clearly listed.  Some Disney fans feel this is a bit of a loss of the magic of the random encounter that used to occur, but it’s the inevitable consequence of too many short-tempered parents blowing a gasket that little Johnny didn’t get his picture taken with Mickey and in some cases even physically attacking the characters in reprisal.  What then is Disney to do but provide a more structured, consistent environment for these meet-ups?  In New Fantasyland, Ariel’s Grotto is a new permanent installation (on the site of the old 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea ride) that gives you the opportunity to say hello to the eponymous Little Mermaid, but the “secret” appears to be multiple Ariels waiting within, disguised by the bends and twists of the queuing area, to better handle the often crushing flow of eager youngsters.  The more traditional encounters are still held in the open air:  Chip and Dale and Woody and Jessie hang out in Frontierland, Pluto and Daisy Duck can be spotted on Main Street, and the whirling tea cup ride of the Mad Hatter features regular appearances by the White Rabbit and Alice herself.  Meeting her was our first and probably our single most delightful character greeting; upon saying hello to my son, who was wearing an Iron Man T-shirt, Alice inquired, “Are you Iron Man?  You don’t look like you’re made of iron.”  Another cast member suggested that the real Iron Man was considerably taller, to which Alice replied, “Well, perhaps he shrunk.  Or perhaps I grew?”  My son is at that age where reality is seeping through fantasy’s borders as he begins to suspect the truth of things, but I swear he thinks he really did meet Alice that day.  We certainly weren’t about to disillusion him by telling him it’s an actress doing a role.  Hell, she almost had me convinced.  So of course Dad had to get his photo op as well.

alice
Yes, I am really that freakishly tall.  And no, Royal Caribbean did not compensate me for wearing that shirt.

Since we’ve been back I’ve had conversations with a few friends and colleagues about Disney and been disappointed to hear tales of people who’ve found it frustrating, tiring or just not living up to expectations.  Folks who’ve spent no more than a day or two there and declared “I’ll never go back.”  While you can’t speak to the reasons why others may feel the way they do, the common theme seems to be a completely wrongheaded approach to “doing Disney.”  In fairness to Disney, they give you every opportunity to leave your misanthropy behind.  But if you enter determined to find flaws and disappointment so you can regale your knitting circle with smug superiority about how you’re the one person in the world that Disney’s magic didn’t work on, that’s exactly what you’ll come away with.  And that’s your loss.  If instead, you enter with an open heart, if you tuck thoughts of the outside world away, if you forget that it’s a 27-year-old actor about to collapse from heatstroke under the Mickey head and give yourself permission to be charmed, then you will be.  And buying into the illusion doesn’t take a lot of effort, it’s simply a question of appreciating the park as intended – as a child would.  As you once did.  So just play along, you’ll have a lot more fun that way.  I did Disney as a sullen teenager once and it was awful – but that was my fault, not Disney’s.  I’ve come full circle now, and I can watch my son’s eyes twinkle as he runs up to embrace Winnie the Pooh and feel just as giddy when it’s my turn for a Pooh Hug.  And as the sun sets over Cinderella’s castle and the last float of the Electrical Parade disappears up Main Street for the night, I can stroll to the exits with a weary body yet rejuvenated soul, and confident that this little pocket of eternal childhood stands ready and waiting for the next visit, and the next, in the years and decades that follow – whenever I need a reminder.  And this is only Day Two, there’s so much more to come…

A Writer’s Journey Through Disney World: Part I

mickeytowels

It’s hardly a huge revelation, but for those of you who read me regularly who may have chanced to wonder why August was a bit quiet here at the cracker factory, it’s because I decamped southward for a well-earned week of play at Walt Disney World and left all my cyber paraphernalia back at home – going “off the grid” as it were.  My better half and I hemmed and hawed for months about whether we were going to scrape together the scratch to celebrate the expansion of our family at our favorite vacation spot, deciding finally that we’d rather take our son now while he’s still full of childlike wonder and before life turns him into a cynical bastard like his father.  It was a huge deal for him – first time on a plane, first time voyaging abroad with his new mom and dad, first time away from his new home for more than a couple of nights.  Yet any worry on our part was unneeded; he ate it up, as any kid should.  It helped, too, that he had an expert pair of guides.

I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve been to Disney World – it’s probably somewhere in the high teens and the odyssey began right around the time Epcot first opened in 1982.  Almost half the pictures of my childhood that I’ve managed to hang onto were taken on the hallowed grounds of Lake Buena Vista, Florida, the thousands of acres of swamp that old Walt bought up for a song with a bunch of shell companies and subsequently transformed into a veritable Garden of Eden of family entertainment – and it does feel that way at times, like a universe removed from the cold reality of your life back home.  The misanthropes of the world deride it for predictable reasons – price, crowds, kitsch, a jaded perception of the Walt Disney Company as a greedy capitalist predator feasting on the willing yet innocent souls of impressionable children.  Without descending too deeply into cliché, it’s worth asking those folks if they can name many other places in this world where you can truly let yourself be a big kid (deeply a propos for myself as height sometimes makes fitting into the seats on rides a bit of an exercise in figuring out how squishable one can be.)  Also, as the title of this post suggests, I think it’s a place every writer owes it to themselves to experience.  There are other theme parks, to be sure, but going to Disney isn’t so much about waiting in long lines for a bunch of rides as it is immersing yourself in a story that is taking shape around you.  The commitment to the story is what elevates Disney far above the pretenders to the throne.

Day One saw us arrive late in the afternoon, checking in at Disney’s Art of Animation Resort.  This is the fourth on-property resort my wife and I have stayed at since we began voyaging here together about six years ago, after Port Orleans Riverside, Saratoga Springs and Old Key West, and the first for us to have more of a focus on der kinders.  Obviously you can save a few quid by choosing a non-Disney hotel nearby instead, but doing so robs you of not only the convenience and flexibility of the free (i.e. buried in the cost of your park ticket) Disney buses that run back and forth between their resorts and the parks at a constant clip, but of the sense that you are completely immersed in Walt’s world.  Being at Disney is not simply being a passive tourist, it’s diving into this realm of the fantastic, and why would you want to remove yourself from it each night to go sleep in a pre-fab Howard Johnson ten miles down the road?

aofa

Art of Animation is probably the most colorful of the resorts, and boasts four “worlds” of its own, each based on a Disney animated film:  The Little Mermaid, The Lion King, Finding Nemo and Cars.  Larger-than-life-size 3-D depictions of the characters await around each corner; Mater and Doc Hudson were there to greet us each time we returned to our suite after an exhausting/exhilarating day.  (Is “exhilazausting” a word?  Because that’s the most apt descriptor I can come up with.)  Anyway, after picking up our passes and with our luggage still in transition, it was park time.  And onto the aforementioned Disney buses, whose spiel I can recite pretty well verbatim at this point.  “Hello everyone, and welcome aboard the Walt Disney World Transportation System.  We’re on our way to Disney’s Hollywood Studios.”

dhs

Formerly known as Disney-MGM, Hollywood Studios is the odd step-child of the four parks.  As I understand it, the park was originally intended to be a “half-day” experience and a few rethinks occurred during its development and construction, resulting in what can seem at times like only a partially formed vision, even if the atmosphere does succeed in replicating to almost museum-like accuracy the golden era of Tinseltown as it probably never truly was.  As a dedicated movie fan I am of course partial to anything old Hollywood, so I love the clapperboards and the old fonts and directors’ chairs you find sprinkled throughout the shops on the main drag leading up to the replica of the famous Chinese Theater that houses The Great Movie Ride.  This is the one element of DHS that hasn’t changed since it first opened over 20 years ago.  A slow-moving vehicle with a live guide takes you through recreations of classics like Singin’ in the Rain and Casablanca, before you’re held up in 1920’s Chicago (with James Cagney peering at you ominously) and your guide is replaced by a gangster named “Mugsy.”  Greed becomes Mugsy’s undoing, however, as he gets zapped by a cursed gem in Raiders of the Lost Ark and your original guide returns to shepherd you safely through Alien and The Wizard of Oz.  I’ve done the ride enough to not be surprised at the same story playing through each time; what is interesting is seeing how deeply into the roles the performers are willing to go.  If you’re unlucky, you get a bored Mugsy who can barely be bothered to mumble the lines; if you’re as fortunate as we were this last time, Mugsy reaches for the rafters and the experience is that much more memorable, even if you already know how it’s going to end.

The Great Movie Ride is a bit of a relic of the old Disney World, where all the rides proceeded at a stately pace suitable for grandma and grandpa.  Ensuing generations have insisted on “faster and more intense,” and DHS has responded with a trifecta of high speed, high thrill attractions.  First up for us was Star Tours, the Star Wars-themed simulator that foreshadowed for years Disney’s eventual purchase of Lucasfilm.  The old version, where a first-time droid pilot named Captain Rex (voiced by Paul Reubens, aka Pee-Wee Herman) accidentally veers you through a field of comets before stumbling into an attack on the Death Star, had long been a favorite of mine even if the storyline had grown a bit stale.  The 3-D upgrade has an animatronic C-3PO mistakenly take the captain’s chair and lead you through different world experiences (racing snowspeeders on Hoth, pursuing podracers on Tatooine, etc.) while Imperial forces chase you down in pursuit of a “Rebel spy” onboard your ship – one of your fellow riders selected at random.  (We rode Star Tours four times during our entire visit with our son crestfallen that he was never chosen to be the Rebel spy.  Maybe next time.)  The West Wing fan in me was tickled, of course, to hear Allison Janney as the voice of “Aly San San,” the flight attendant droid reminding you not to smoke or take flash pictures during your space voyage.  Original trilogy purists might be a little miffed at the emphasis on the prequels (and the appearance of Jar Jar during the Naboo sequence) but when you’re hearing your kid laughing hysterically at the pit droid chirping in angry bot-speak at Threepio for having broken his ship, that all goes away.  Bouncing around with hyperspace and blaster bolts flying at you and John Williams’ music pounding in your ears is as close as anyone who doesn’t get cast in Episode VII is going to come to being in the movie itself.  You’re not an observer, you’re part of it.

After that it was off to where story truly takes center stage – The Twilight Zone: Tower of Terror.  It scared the bejesus out of me the first time I rode it, about 15 years ago, and as it happens to be my wife’s favorite I’ve had to endure it several times since.  The showpiece is a thirteen-story sudden drop, with the car being pulled down faster than gravity (resulting in a momentary weightless feeling between plunges).  With a stomach that has never cared for having the ground disappear beneath it, I always feel a shot of trepidation looking up at the ginormous, creaky old tower as we walk towards it and assume our place in the queue.  You’d think that after having been on it nine or ten times you could steel yourself against what’s coming, but damn if it doesn’t still get to me.  Firstly, the drop pattern is randomized so you can’t predict it.  But what really amps the queasiness and the dread is the pre-show theatrics, including the waiting area itself; an old 1920’s hotel lobby, its furniture rotting under decades of dust and decay, framed by the stale scent of abandonment.  Chills seize your spine as you step from 115-degree Florida humidity into the dank, air-conditioned alcove, tightening the mood and the sphincter.  Then the lights go dark and on comes Rod Serling (voiced by an impersonator) to introduce tonight’s adventure with all the eerie trappings of that episode with the weird-looking pig mask people that made you shake under the covers when you were a kid.  You’re loaded into your car, and up you go into the black void, and like the best storytellers, they make you wait, drawing out the tension to unbearable lengths until despite this being your tenth time your fingers carve into the safety bar in horrified anticipation of that inevitable fall.  And fall you do, and against your better judgement and the rules of decorum you hear a wail erupt from your lips as the car plummets and bounces up again for another drop.  It’s somewhat cathartic, in fact, and as the car withdraws into the safety of the unloading area you feel a blush color your cheeks and the relief of the sensation of ground once more.  And as you exit through the gift shop you feel a bit sheepish at how worked up you got and how ashen you look on the ride photograph, and force a stiff upper lip lest you show weakness to your slightly-more-freaked-out son.

Contrast this to the Rockin’ Roller Coaster, where there’s no time for anticipation – you just GO.  The setup is that Aerosmith is late for a gig and they don’t want to leave their fans behind, so you’re loaded into a “super stretch” limo and propelled on a 90-second race through downtown L.A. to meet them.  The ride is unique in that unlike your typical roller coaster where you s-l-o-w-l-y chug up an interminable hill to get to the good part, here you only get a five-second countdown and a warning to keep your head back before the vehicle blasts out of the gate, hitting 60 miles per hour in 2 seconds and careening headlong into an upside-down loop that slams you against your seat with 4 G’s while Steven Tyler wails “Sweet Emotion.”  Neon roadsigns fly by as you curve into a corkscrew and round a series of tight bends before screeching to a halt at the big show (i.e. another gift shop).  As an approximation of the power and rush that is rock & roll (as well as a bit of the sense of never quite knowing exactly where you’re going), it fits the bill quite nicely – not that I’ve ever stood on stage at an Aerosmith or any other major rock concert, mind you.  I find it fascinating, though, how my response to this ride has evolved from my first experience on it (wheezing, never-gonna-do-it-again terror, as I recall) to now (giddy bring-it-on joy), as opposed to Tower of Terror, which still freaks me out every time.  I have to come back to the concept of story.  Every aspect of the Tower, even down to the costumes of the ride attendants, is designed to unnerve you (the screams you hear coming from it as you stroll the nearby boulevard are solid proof), whereas Rockin’ Roller Coaster is about inviting you to take a brief taste of the lifelong party that I’m assuming is Aerosmith’s existence.  Both thrill rides, but wildly different thrills and emotional impacts, and the story makes the difference.

We closed the first night with Disney’s Fantasmic, a show that combines live performers and images projected onto plumes of water spray in an exploration of the imagination of Mickey Mouse.  What begins as a lush and pleasant journey turns sinister as the Disney villains assert their power and wrack the little fella’s mind with nightmares, before Mickey manages to fight back in the name of all that is good and pure.  This is a fairly common plot with the shows throughout the parks, whether the theme is dreams, wishes, magic or what-have-you – everything starts out sweetly and then the bad guys turn up to wreck the fun briefly in advance of the triumphant, reaffirming conclusion.  While focused mainly on dazzling your senses, there is a message underlying it all; the power and importance of belief, the same resonant moral that has mature adults clapping desperately to revive Tinkerbell.  This is why my eyes tend to glaze over a bit when wags attack Disney for what they perceive as an attempt to homogenize culture, to filter everything through Mickey and Donald and Goofy.  It’s not so.  What you’re being asked to believe in and to imagine is not their product.  Rather they’re showing you what their imaginations have wrought and challenging you to open yourself to the possibilities of your own.  Yes, it’s amazing and wonderful and unbelievable and having a billion-dollar profit margin certainly helps, but when you go back to the beginning you find the same simple origin:  someone who had to have thought it up.  As a writer I find the message encouraging, daring to conceive the characters I’ve created as coming to life in front of me and thousands of others in this way and perhaps someday being as widely known as Mickey and Donald and Goofy.  Is that realistic, asks the cynical bastard lurking in the pessimistic corner of my brain?  Who cares.  For the moment my mind is convinced that it is, and that’s creative rocket fuel.

So we shuffle back to our resort and to our Cars-themed bedroom, having logged 2000 miles of air travel and what feels like an equivalent in walking, happy to see our luggage there safe and sound as expected, and ready to settle in to rest up for the adventure ahead.  Because we ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

To Be Continued…

Seven tips for improving your next flight

Flying metal tube of doom!

An uncounted number of stand-up comedians, both the successful and the ones who continue to toil away on the circuit to scattershot laughs, have worked the quirks and foibles of air travel into their routine at least once in their career, for the simple reason that it’s a universal experience that no one has less than a strong opinion about.  The old saying about how God would have given men wings if he had been meant to fly encapsulates the concept that the sky will never be our natural home – why else would we have to design and build these garish winged steel cylinders to get us above the clouds?  It seems too, of late, that fiscal austerity has conspired to make the experience as miserable as possible for the vast majority of passengers.  Even those of us who are just old enough to remember getting a full meal with actual metal cutlery on Wardair can cringe at stories about airlines reducing leg room yet again to cram in three more rows of chairs.  Airline advertising to the contrary, getting there isn’t half the fun, it’s just something you have to endure.  But as passengers, we make it worse for ourselves.  Expecting that the trend is not likely to change on the airline’s side in the near future, there are still a few things that could be adjusted to make the trip moderately more enjoyable, and none of them require the airline doing a blessed thing.  It’s just a question of some additional personal responsibility:

  1. Pre-boarding.  When the gate attendant advises that passengers with small children or those requiring special assistance in getting onboard the aircraft can come up first, why does it seem like everyone else in the damn departure lounge assumes they can as well?  Unless you are carrying three screaming terrors or are so elderly you can barely stand, wait for your turn.  What perplexes me most is that there’s no prize for getting on first – you don’t get to leave earlier and you certainly don’t get a lapdance from the stewardess or even an extra bag of peanuts.  You are trading in a precious few more minutes in the wide open lounge with its ready access to expansive, clean washrooms for the claustrophobia of the passenger cabin and the smelly steamer-trunk sized toilet.  Just chill and stand up when they call you.
  2. The “fresh air vents” above the seats.  I have opened these exactly twice during my history of air travel.  Both times I have come down with horrendous, hacking coughs and colds.  The problem is that when the outside temperature up above the clouds is about -40, real “fresh air” would freeze the plane.  So the dirty secret – pun intended – is that this so-called fresh air is just recycled cabin air, which means you’re inhaling every filthy little germ that has had the temerity to sneak through security to make the journey with you.  You are basically asking to get sick by opening these things.  If you don’t know the person you’re sitting next to, do them a solid and keep your vent closed, no matter how much you want to feel any semblance of breeze on your face.  Their lungs will thank you, and so will yours.
  3. On the subject of germs, personal hygiene.  I don’t care if you think you’re one of those people who can get away with bathing every other day.  You’re about to inflict your natural odor on dozens of strangers who, stunningly enough, won’t find it as sexy as you think your partner does.  When you know you’re going to be flying within the next six hours, please, shower, slap on that Speed Stick and keep your arms at your sides at all times.
  4. Reclining seats.  I have noted above the progressive decrease in the amount of leg room available on each flight, and while you at five-foot-two may see nothing wrong with kicking back after the seatbelt sign has been turned off, the gentleman behind you who exceeds six feet (eg. me) doesn’t relish feeling like the proverbial sardine for the next three and a half hours.  The very least you can do is ask.  I might be in a good mood and have absolutely no problem with it.  But if you just arbitrarily decide to force your seat back into my face without asking, I reserve the right to shove it back upright with equal discourtesy, and you shouldn’t act shocked.  And let’s be honest, these aren’t exactly La-Z-Boys – the amount of extra comfort you’ll achieve by reclining those three entire inches is infinitesimal at best, particularly when it compares to my level of frustration at having your seat back under my nose for the whole flight.  Stay vertical and keep the peace.
  5. Freaking out audibly at every little bump.  I get that it can be a little unnerving, but let’s just try to accept that air is mobile and constantly changing and the same forces that give us the rain we need to grow things for us to eat and keep our lawns green are what cause our planes to rattle around sometimes.  There are thousands of flights all over the world every single day and the media’s propensity to hype the hell out of the odd one that goes wrong has led average people to believe that they have something like a one in three chance of actually surviving a flight through rough weather.  The airline has nothing to gain by killing two hundred of its customers, so they don’t fly through this stuff if they don’t think they can make it.  Just pretend you’re on a roller coaster.
  6. Clapping when the flight lands.  This has made me roll my eyes since my very first flight.  I get that it’s ostensibly a way to thank the pilots, but the clapping always sounds like it’s less out of gratitude and more out of white-knuckled relief – like it’s somehow a God-ordained miracle that the plane arrived safely, and the same thing didn’t actually happen twelve hundred more times across the world that very same day.  I know this isn’t likely to change, but while we’re on the subject of the end of the flight, can we perhaps not all jump up at once the instant the seatbelt sign is off and perhaps just file out in a little more orderly fashion – again, recognizing that between Customs and the wait for your bags you still won’t get out of the airport any faster?
  7. Complaining and acting as though the airline has engaged in a massive conspiracy specifically to screw you.  We are all in the same damn flying metal tube of doom, brah, and what’s happening to you is happening to all of us.  None of us are getting where we want to go any faster or any more comfortably.  I was flying home from Calgary once and what was meant to be a short stop in Edmonton turned into a two-hour stay on the tarmac while a thunderstorm moved overhead (ground crews aren’t allowed out if there’s risk of lightning).  While we sat there, hot, frustrated and increasingly impatient, the drunken douchebag next to me felt it necessary, every five minutes or so, to exclaim with great erudition and wit, “Get this f—in’ thing in the air!”  Hearing this, the pilots sprang to action and revved up the engine and… well, no, they didn’t do anything other than continue to wait for safety clearance, as they would have had this assbutt remained silent – the only difference would have been a much calmer, more congenial atmosphere in the cabin – manna for some very tired and upset passengers.  You’re not being funny, or any kind of hero by expressing what we might be thinking.  You’re just being a dick, and as I think the Emperor Constantine once observed, no one likes flying with a dick that isn’t theirs.

So there you have it – seven easy tips that will cost you absolutely nothing, require the airline crew to expend zero effort, and may result in a much more pleasant trip for all involved.  What the airlines themselves can do to ameliorate the trip is a much longer list, and is more of a pipe dream in terms of it possibly happening in my lifetime.  But there is one thing – during the safety presentation, I think we can agree that at this point we all basically understand the general principles of how to operate a seatbelt, right?

Inspiration for a Saturday morning

My better half and I are Disney fiends.  We try to visit at least once every couple of years.  Our favorite ride, bar none, is Soarin’ – for those of you who are unfamiliar, it’s a flight simulator where you and about a hundred other riders are hoisted into the air before a massive screen on which visions of California race toward you.  The ride pivots and dips along with the images to give you the feel of flying over these vistas, accompanied by cool breezes and the scents of pine trees and orange groves.  It’s four and a half minutes of sheer bliss – and a taste of what it must feel like to be Rainbow Dash.

The score for this experience was composed by the late film legend Jerry Goldsmith, who is alleged to have done so for free after being literally moved to tears by his first ride.  The music captures, as sublimely as any piece I’ve ever heard, the exhilaration of wandering above the clouds on gossamer wings.  I can’t hear it without being lifted, and it’s my gift to you on what promises to be a beautiful day.

Take flight.

The elephant test for wine

Photo from thelivingwine.com.

“I know it when I see it,” goes the famous quote from American Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart.  Stewart was talking about what does and does not constitute pornography, but the statement can go broader than that:  it can be applied to anything that comes down to a matter of individual preference.  I have always enjoyed a good glass of wine, but like many I’ve found the world of the oenophile somewhat daunting, with its stereotypical images of aesthetes with noses held high waxing pedantically about the subtleties of bouquets, the suitability of pairings, the ideal shape and weight of glass and why the ’59 is better than the ’61.  Wine culture seems by its very nature to be impenetrable, a secret club replete with its own terminology and secret handshakes.  As the steward pours out the sample and tells you to be mindful of the scents of currant and chocolate dancing across your palate with each sip, one can feel a spectacular sense of intimidation, or at least the longing to be trained as a sommelier (and possess a doctoral fluency in French) in order to appreciate wine the way it seems you are supposed to.  But good wine is like a good book, a great movie or a beautiful woman – you know it when you see it.

This past Easter weekend, my better half and I decamped to a brief tour of Niagara’s wineries.  It’s not something we do regularly, which seems a shame given that it isn’t a long drive away.  We have never pretended to be experts in vintages; in fact, the stuff we love to drink would probably be frowned upon by more seasoned wine patrons.  Our cellar, if you can call a wine rack in an unfinished basement that, is a mishmash of gifts from friends and relations and odd bottles picked up randomly throughout our worldly escapades, along with a few regular favourites.  We’d fumble for an adequate response if asked to speculate about tannins, oaking and aging, or the intricacies of merlots versus cabernet sauvignons and pinot noirs.  But we don’t care.  There are few things we love more than a good bottle of South African shiraz with dinner.  The smoothness of an adored wine heightens the elegance of a great meal, softens the mood and loosens the tongue from the awkward requirements of casual conversation about the weather and the plight of the Leafs, revealing a path into deeper, more meaningful interaction and connection.  That’s my attempt at a literary explanation.  More simply than that, it tastes frickin’ amazing – and it makes your food taste better too.

There is a growing resentment against what one would consider the finer things in life, and wine is often singled out, along with lattes, as a singular example of what separates societal castes – a distinction I’ve never bought into and have railed against in the past, as it seems largely invented by those aspiring to elected office.  Wine is not, nor should it ever be, the sole province of an elite few.  I can find no good reason why a guy who loves his Miller Lite and his double-double can’t appreciate a chardonnay as well.  Nothing prevents him from walking into a winery and trying a few different vintages (it’s usually free to do that).  Forget having to justify your taste with polysyllabic terminology and recitation of arcane lore – the question is just, as it is with anything, do you like it?  No?  Okay, try another one.  The possibility of discovery is tantalizing – you may uncover a true treasure, as we did over the weekend, a rare (for our region at least) 2008 ice wine shiraz that trickles over the tongue like rich nectar.  I don’t think that being able to appreciate that makes anyone a snob, nor should not knowing the history of the soil that grew the grapes or the entirety of Proust’s back catalogue prevent someone from trying it.  Wine, like culture, is there to be enjoyed by all, and the only barriers to that world are those we erect for ourselves.  You don’t need to know everything about wine to love it – to paraphrase Potter Stewart, you’ll know it when you taste it.

UPDATE:  One of my Twitter connections advises me that the glasses in the above photo are in fact champagne flutes.  Any port – pardon the pun – in a storm.

We can’t stop here, this is bat country

Las Vegas - little fear, some loathing.

I’ll admit I’ve wanted to use that line for the title of a post for a long time.  Then it occurred to me that it might be best applied to a review of the locale it is describing, and thus a new category is born.  The reality of life and limited vacation days mean that my better half and I don’t get to see as much of the world as we’d like, so we treasure our infrequent voyages abroad and try to pack as much sightseeing into them as we can while setting aside sufficient downtime – no point coming back from holiday feeling more tired than when you left.  Las Vegas, which we visited four years ago, is obviously not a place to lounge around (unless it’s a specific type of “lounge” we’re referring to).  If New York is the city that never sleeps, Vegas is the city that can’t sleep because it’s on a perpetual crack high.  In Hannibal, Agent Starling comments about a letter from Dr. Lecter postmarked Las Vegas that it must be from a remailing service, as Vegas is the last place the cultured killer would ever be.  There is however a culture here; it’s the culture of affluenza in the backyard of the one percent, oozing wealth and fortune and gobs of excess at every turn.

The Strip at night.

Monty Python has a bit where Michael Palin, playing a priest, goes on at length about how “incredibly huge” God is.  Your first sight of Sin City from the runway at McCarran International Airport is misleading – you can see the hotels in the distance, but your mind, accustomed to the size of hotels from your hometown, can’t comprehend the sheer scale.  You think, “oh, well it won’t take that long to walk up and down the Strip.”  That is, until the steroid-enhanced architecture of buildings like the MGM Grand, the Luxor, Caesar’s, the Bellagio and so on along Las Vegas Boulevard puts you in your place.  This is the pinnacle of capitalist triumph, built on inconceivable mountains of debt, what the Egyptian pharaohs might have crafted with their armies of slave labor had they been fond of slot machines, gin and neon.  By any measure of sustainable or even logical urban planning, Las Vegas should not exist – it makes no sense to drop a metropolis in the middle of the desert.  But once it’s there, why not go full tilt – let’s have trucks spew diesel fumes up and down the Strip for twenty-four hours straight carrying ads for gentleman’s clubs, let’s install ubiquitous misters to spray what’s left of the Colorado River on sunburned heads, and let’s run enough air conditioning to sear the ozone layer to a crisp.  Of course, that’s part and parcel of the Vegas allure – that with a few lucky hands at the blackjack table you too can afford your own $500-a-round golf course (or, at the least, not blink at the idea of a $6.50 glass of orange juice).

Taxes and gratuity not included.

There is plenty to loathe about the idea of Las Vegas; the excess, the waste, the glorification of wealth as mankind’s most noble ambition, the destitution of the ones who have bet the house and lost.  However, something about it tempts you to say “the heck with it,” set the moral issues aside and plunge yourself headfirst into the Vegas experience.  You can spend a week there, never set foot near a gaming table and still see something different in every passing minute.  Each hotel has its own custom Cirque de Soleil (or Cirque de Soleil-knockoff) show, and any Beatles fan wandering through won’t want to miss the Mirage’s presentation of LOVE, a collaboration setting the spectacle of Cirque to the timeless music of the Fab Four, which will never sound better than it does blasting remastered from a hundred speakers inside the theatre.  If you want kitsch, the cheesiness of “classic Vegas,” well, there is still the topless girlie show at the Tropicana, the men of “Thunder from Down Under” at Excalibur, and “Sirens of T.I.” at Treasure Island, where the spectacle of a pirate ship sinking before your eyes every half hour has been enhanced with a lot of busty, scantily-dressed women.  If you want something you can safely show the kids, take them to the M&M’s exhibit to say hello to a lifesize Red and Peanut, then wander across Las Vegas Boulevard to watch the dancing fountains at the Bellagio and re-enact the final scene of Ocean’s Eleven.  And speaking of fountains, only in Las Vegas will you turn a corner in a casino and stumble across something like this:

A living statue at the Venetian. See the water pouring out of her fingertips?

Would I go back?  It shames me to admit, in a heartbeat.  Mainly because I feel like I still need to figure Las Vegas out.  I can sneer at its over-the-top opulence in one breath and revel in its eternal party atmosphere in the next, and for me that contradiction is endlessly fascinating.  There is art and joy to be found beneath the layers of gouda and heartbreak; sensory experiences to be relished, regal comforts to be absorbed.  Perhaps the karmic way to do Vegas is to pledge an equivalent amount of reading Shakespeare and doing charity work for every day you decide to spend under the Nevada neon.  Or, at the very least, tell yourself that the allure and seduction of Lady Vegas will not change you nor what you hold dear.  For bat country may be a nice place to visit, but you probably don’t want to leave your soul there.