2011 Disneyland/ Vegas
3 days at Disneyland over Christmas weekend with a stop in Las Vegas on the way home
In October, I saw Stephen, an actor whose website I run, in one of the craziest Off-Broadway shows ever- really, even the title ("The Brain That Wouldn't Die! In 3D!!!") was pure silliness. As we were saying our goodbyes, he mentioned that he'd be in a tour of "White Christmas", but that it wouldn't be anywhere in driving distance.

A lightning bolt went off- I remembered that I still had $600 in Southwest travel vouchers from the not-really-delayed flight home from Disney World. Since I usually fly overseas, I wasn't sure how I'd use them. I now had the perfect chance!

After researching the tour stops and considering my schedule... it seemed like the most convenient time to get away would be Christmas week. Hmmm... I saw that the tour would be in Costa Mesa, CA then. So I hit my trusty Google maps to see if that was anywhere near Disneyland... and my jaw dropped when I saw it was only 20 minutes away. Score!

So onward I go for my 2nd annual Christmas time trip to Disneyland. This time, I am adding a quick stop in Vegas on the way home just for fun. I had an amazingly joyful time at Disneyland for Christmas last year- one of the few not depressing Christmases in my life. Hopefully this year will be at least just as much fun even though I couldn't justify splurging again on the lovely Grand Californian hotel; I'll be seeing Stephen in a show, so that should more than make up for any lack of ultra-luxurious accomodations. ;) And I will not be going through LAX airport this time, so that's also got to be an improvement. Having just done Disneyland a year ago, I don't have a long list of things that I absolutely must do- I mostly just want to immerse myself in the festive spirit, and enjoy whatever happens.
In my "I'm going to Disneyland!" excitement, I woke up before my alarm so I had plenty of time to make a quick run for extra cat food (even though I already had an adequate supply). I ended up leaving for the airport a half hour before the (early) time I'd planned. I'd rather have too much time at the airport than to have to rush around and worry about missing my flight... especially when all I'd be doing at home would be killing time.

I expected the airport to be chaotic so close to Christmas but it wasn't really bad at all. There were even tons of open parking spaces in the economy lot at the airport. (on my Berlin 2008 trip, all airport parking- economy and short term lots- had been full and I had to fend for myself without any GPS to guide me)

So what to do while I wait? First order of business was to get some lunch. When I saw a stand with sushi, I knew that was the place for me. New tradition: sushi at the airport before I travel! (I'd also had some before Australia). Yumm!

Traveling to Disneyland requires unleashing one's inner child. What better way to start than to take advantage of the free photo with Santa that they were offering at the airport?! So what that I'm Jewish etc etc. When Santa commented on my Phillies T-shirt, I told him I wanted another Phillies world series win for Christmas. So next year if they win, you can all thank me. (or curse me, depending on your baseball allegiances)

As I sat at the airport goofing off on the Internet and constantly checking my email, the following deep thought occurred to me: I've spent a heck of a lot of time at airports lately! So I made a vow- after this trip, there would be no more airports for the rest of the year!

I didn't have the greatest boarding position for my Southwest flight even though I'd checked in online exactly 24 hrs ahead of time. I hadn't purchased the preboarding option because I figured that traveling solo, it would be relatively easy to find a seat. And it was. I claimed seat 9F, a window seat next to a nice older couple. They turned out to be very cool... They have a niece in Sydney, have done a lot of travel, and are active in a hiking club.

It was slightly disappointing that there was no wifi on a 5+ hr flight. But then again, it was probably better that I didn't spend 5 hrs constantly refreshing my email. For my inflight entertainment, I ended up listening to some music on my iPad: first, "Kiss of the Spider Woman" and then "Cabaret"- the Dutch version which starred theatre goddess, Pia Douwes. Yes, there was a bit of a Kander and Ebb theme going on. Then I switched to 2 shorties: Dutch "Sunset Blvd" (yes, more Pia Douwes) and the Australian "Secret Garden" At least Southwest seemed to be quite generous with munchies.

I missed having a seatback flight tracker, as they do on most overseas flights. Most times, I had no idea where we were. However, the captain announced when we were over Denver, at which point I tried to send a mental "shout out" to a friend who lives in Colorado Springs.

It's easy to spot Vegas from an airplane at night... there's a whole lotta nothing, then- bam! Tons of bright lights! We landed in Vegas sufficiently early for me to grab a slice of pizza, gape at the slot machines in the airport, and still have plenty of time until my connecting flight. It was slightly annoying to be so close to my destination, but yet so far; airplane travel was getting pretty old to me.

The highlight of my 2nd flight was the spectacular nighttime view of the Vegas strip as we took off. Otherwise, it was so short that even though they took drink orders in advance and were efficient about distributing the beverages, people still had to gulp down when it was time to collect everything in preparation for landing. In contrast to my first flight which had been overbooked, this one was comfortably empty.

I landed in Orange County just before 8pm- and now my work began. My mission: make it to Disneyland to see the 10:15 showing of Fantasmic, my absolute favorite night time show. Standing in my way: claiming my checked bag, picking up my rental car, driving to the hotel, and checking in.

Bag claim took a bit longer than I'd hoped, but it wasn't too bad. Southwest has a swanky new terminal at John Wayne airport in Orange County... But the car rental desks are closer to the old terminal. So umm, I'd rather have had less swanky and more convenient. The car rental guy tried to convince me to upgrade from the compact car I reserved- but seriously, is any 5'2 single person going to buy the line that they'd be more comfortable in a full size car for more $? Well, it ultimately turned out that they gave me a larger car anyway (Chevy Impala) so heh, good on me for not being coerced into paying more! I somehow was able to combine 2 discount codes to get a sensational rate of $37 (including tax) for 4 days from Alamo.

And now the fun part.... driving a rental car through unknown freeways. Except... the seat was waaaaaay too far back. I couldn't figure out how to use it, so I checked the manual. The manual was useless so I tossed it in a fit of dramatic frustration and eventually found someone to ask. Turns out the manual was wrong. Go figure.

The theme of the drive was pretty much "holy shit, please let me get there safely so I can get out of this thing!"... In my down time, I was inspired to write a song parody about the experience:
Dashing through CA
In a car that scares me so
Through the dark I drive
Going oh so slow
Warm air through the vents
Mirrors not quite right
What fun it is to clutch the wheel
In my rental car tonight

Oh rental car, rental car
Anxious all the way
Oh what fun it is to ride
And not see the speedometer*

* (Well, unless you tilt your head.)
If that wasn't enough, I also felt like I was a contestant in the oh-so-hilarious game show "Fun with GPS" when I approached Disneyland because my GPS kept insisting I turn onto a road that is not open for traffic. And later it was telling me to make a U-turn when I could clearly see my hotel in front of me. Luckily I had a general sense of direction from my previous year's trip to Disneyland so I was able to ignore the errant instructions. (note: I checked online later and the Google Maps directions have you going all through Disney's California Adventure... and have the hotel located somewhere near the Monsters Inc ride. Err, no.)

Hallelujah, I finally made it to the Paradise Pier hotel at just after 9pm! I was very happy to be able to hand the keys to someone for valet parking; at that point, I would have paid anything so I didn't have to get in the car again- well, at least for the night. Check in went smoothly, although I was a tad disappointed that the "high floor" room I reserved was only on floor 8 of a 15 floor hotel. But since I'd made my reservation so late, and since I was focused on my mission (and secondarily rejoicing at being off the roads), I didn't say anything.

After dumping my stuff in the hotel room, I was so outta there. I didn't even take my requisite hotel room photos; they could wait. With a battle cry in my heart, I set my sights on the target. It wasn't even 9:30; I could totally do this! So I marched through the Grand Californian and Downtown Disney with complete tunnel vision. Even the Sephora I passed did not distract me.

As I stepped through the Disneyland gates, I could smell victory. I just missed a train from Main Street but I waited for the next one; I figured this would be easier than battling the crowds on foot. I'd used that strategy with much success the previous year. The Achilles Heel of my plan was that it assumed that the train would be up and running. After some announcements that there going to be a momentary delay due to some show causing traffic further down the track to stop, they said that the train was down due to mechanical problems. So I had to walk anyway. And by then I'd lost valuable time.

So of course all the best spots were gone by the time I made my way to Frontierland. This bummed me out a bit. But once the show began... I was in Disneyland! And I was seeing Fantasmic! My tears of frustration and disappointment turns to tears of pure Disney joy. For those 20 some minutes, all was right in the world.

Afterwards, I wanted to ride the Nightmare Before Christmas themed Haunted Mansion, which is a favorite of mine. A CM attempted crowd control and stopped the people in front of me so she could adjust the ropes. All well and good, but by the time she told people they could move, suddenly a whole bunch more people were ahead of me. I wasn't in the mood for that; it was very late eastern time and I think I was overtired. So I just basically said "screw this" and left the park. It was probably the right decision, but I wish I'd been able to end my Disneyland night on a high note.

Some may say that I "wasted" a day of a park hopper ticket on Fantasmic. But it was damn worth it! I love that show so much, and it was great to be able to kick off my vacation with a bang after a long and tedious day of traveling.

I took the long route back to my hotel, much more relaxed than my battle march to the park had been.. I wandered through Downtown Disney, stopping at Sephora (no, they didn't have the shower gels I wanted), and at Marceline's for a marshmallow treat I remembered fondly from 2010. Finally I got a hot cocoa to sip on the rest of my walk back to the hotel. I wanted to just collapse, but I still had some stuff to do first... including unpacking and assembling some holiday gift bags!

I might mention the fact that despite my original plan to stay at a motel, I ended up changing my mind at the last minute and booking Disney's Paradise Pier Hotel. There were several factors that entered into that decision, but the initial spark was when I got annoyed at the fact that the other hotel would not answer an email in which I asked them to confirm my reservation and restated my request not to be on the ground floor; since I'd be arriving late, I didn't want to necessarily be stuck with whatever was left... and, since I've worked at hotels and am familiar with the way they overbook, I also wanted to be sure I had a room. (I am 100% sure that I used the same email address I found for them several places online) Paradise Pier was expensive during Christmas week, but at least I got to squee that I was at a Disney hotel.
Fee photo with Santa Sunset from the plane Fantasmic Fantasmic Paradise Pier Hotel room
The plan was to sleep in a bit, and then head to Disney's California Adventure (DCA) when it opened for onsite guests after 9am. However, I woke up around 6:30, and improvised a new plan: head to Disneyland for the tail end of Magic Morning first. Magic Morning allows guests to enjoy most attractions in Fantasyland and Tomorrowland on specified days for an hour before the park is officially open to the public. If you are staying at a Disneyland hotel, you can take advantage of Magic Morning every time it is offered during your stay; otherwise, if you buy a multi day park hopper, you can enter the parks for a single Magic Morning. If you are not staying onsite and don't have a multi day hopper, I think you are out of luck.

I arrived just before the official opening time of 8am; having Magic Morning privileges allowed me to take a shorter line at the turnstiles and to queue up at Adventureland before the general public. They were apparently making Candy Canes in the candy shop on Main Street that day, even though it wasn't one of the advertised dates. They only make a small number of candy canes, only on certain dates, and they are highly coveted. I arrived early enough to have a chance to purchase one. However, I am not a huge fan of candy canes, so I decided to leave one for someone who would really want one. Merry Christmas, random beneficiary of my lack of selfishness! With any luck, it would give me some good karma, right..?

Walking into Adventureland, I passed by Indiana Jones, and it wasn't open. I shrugged it off and headed further to Nightmare Before Christmas themed Haunted Mansion. That was down too.... Whaaaaat?!? I hung around a bit, taking photos of a virtually empty and lovely decorated New Orleans Square. Still not open. Ok, I headed over to Big Thunder Mountain... which broke down while I was in line. Are you freaking kidding me?!? Gaaaah... Here I get to the park super early and I can't even do anything. Bah humbug!

I was elated when I finally made it onto a ride at about 8:40am, It's a Small World Holiday. Yay! They really decorate it quite nicely for the holidays and it's very popular this time of year. They even change the music to incorporate holiday songs.

On my way out of the park, I stopped at the candy store on Main Street and inquired about the yummy peppermint fudge that I remembered from the previous year since I hadn't seen any on display. They told me that the whole park is out of fudge- and they've been out "since last Tuesday". Ok, that was the straw that broke this camel's back! I stopped at City Hall and told the CM truthfully that I hated to be doing this, but I just had to complain about the bad show. He listened, though he'd never heard of the peppermint fudge. He gave me 2 fastpasses to use later for almost any ride, which was nice. But I didn't really want anything other than Disney magic. I hope he meant it when he said he'd note my complaint about the fudge.

I headed over to DCA through the Grand Californian entrance that allows guests staying at Disney hotels to enter that park a little early every day. And then I headed to one of my favorite rides, Soarin, which makes you feel like you are in a hang glider over various CA locations... I had a nice little conversation with the ladies next to me and felt like perhaps things were looking up! Next, I headed to the brand new Little Mermaid dark ride. I liked it, though I thought maybe it could have been better/ longer. Then I headed to the other newish ride, Goofy's Sky School (the ride itself wasn't exactly new, but last year it had been closed to be rethemed)... which was a generic mouse coaster. Kinda fun, but I was very glad it just was a walk on because it wouldn't be worth any wait of consequence!

At this point, I roamed around the park a little- including a detour at the Bakery Tour where I happily munched on the free slice of sourdough bread- before eventually finding myself at Tower of Terror, which I'd love more if it wasn't for the fact that the Florida version is much more awesome; the CA version does not have a Fifth Dimension room and therefore does not ever move horizontally forward. Upon exiting the ride, I stumbled on some kind of Monsters Inc street show which I watched for awhile before heading to the Monsters Inc ride. At the end of the ride, the audio animatronic Roz said the same thing to me as last year about taking a photo of her good side.

Time for an early lunch break so I headed back to Boardwalk Pizza and Pasta and had the Chicken Sun-Dried Tomato Pasta. Quite yummy, through I couldn't quite finish all of it.

At about noon, I took a break from the parks so I could leave plenty of time for driving to the Segerstrom performing arts center for the matinee performance of "White Christmas" which was the main impetus for this trip to begin with. Since it had been ever so much fun to drive my rental car... I didn't want to experience how much more joyful it would be to drive when seriously pressed for time. I talked with a nice CM who brought my car, and then adjusted the mirrors... which of course I should have done when I'd originally taken possession of the vehicle.

The drive was a little less anxiety inducing than my first one, both because it was daylight as well as because I had some clue about where I was going. (the theatre is near the airport) But I was still rather freaked out, especially whenever I had to change a lane. Thank goodness for GPS, though. (this time it seemed to be accurate, although who knows if it took me on the best route) Also, I was practically roasting because I'd forgotten to check the manual to find out how to set the A/C.

After parking my car (and taking some time to research the climate control system), I managed to walk the long way around the theatre- I was so relieved when I finally found the entrance! I asked an usher for the location of the stage door, and then sat in the lobby and worked on my trip report for awhile on my iPad. Although I arrived an hour before the show, there were a number of other people there.

Once the lights dimmed, I experienced 2.5 hrs of pure joy as my fabulously talented friend Stephen blew me away with a completely new side of his performing talent, very different than any of the numerous roles I'd seen him portray over the years- this time, he was a quintessential leading song-and-dance man. Is there nothing this man can't do?! He's like the Daisuke Takahashi of performers, to use a metaphor that only my skating friends may understand. (it's a huge compliment)

"White Christmas" may not be the greatest of shows, but it had a lot of heart and Christmas eve was probably the perfect time to see it. And it snowed at the end! All over the theatre! Stephen really nailed all the singing and dancing- to be honest, the latter surprised me a bit because I've seen him in roles where he's had to do a little dancing and I can't say that I felt it had been a strength of his. More in line with my expectations, there were many strong acting moments in his portrayal of Bob Wallace. All in all, I am so glad I went; I only wish I had a recording to preserve the memory which is already growing faint.

Afterwards I was in a panic to find the stage door; I ended up taking long way around because I'm a goof sometimes. And then Stephen came out! And gifts were exchanged! Right off the bat, he surprised me with a signed poster from the show. I have to admit that one of my intial reactions was "How the hell am I going to get this home?" because I had some bad flashbacks of an annoying plane ride carrying home a "Martin Guerre" poster 11+ years ago (also from Stephen). Stephen advised me to roll it up; clearly he is smarter than me- well, at least at some things. Meanwhile, my eyes smiled at the sight of the short personalized message he'd written; lord knows I don't really need any more theatre memorabilia, but the message made it special to me. Plus, I was thrilled that he thought of me at all; I hadn't expected anything.

And then it was my turn to surprise him with some gifts I'd bought in Australia and subsequently carried though 6 plane rides. After some searching, I'd managed to buy some things I hoped his wife and youngest daughters would appreciate. However, I hadn't been able to find anything that I thought he'd like, and I don't like to buy gifts just for the sake of buying them. But from my perspective, I've designed and maintained a website for him- all the hours spent on that endeavor over the years would equate to quite a generous gift. The website truly comes from my heart, and there's probably nothing I could ever give him that would be even a fraction as meaningful, anyway. ("meaningful" to me, that is)

I was all flustered from the drive and locating the stage door so I must have been a barrel of laughs. Still, I enjoyed our typical delightfully random conversation. When he said he had to run off to wrap presents, I offered to help- but I wasn't at all surprised when he declined. I've always sorta wanted to at least just once have a relaxed sit down conversation with Stephen. Not even necessarily one on one. Sometimes I wonder if I am just somehow not quite good enough for that. But then- in the words of a "White Christmas" song- I "count my blessings" since I am truly grateful for the moments I have had.

Reluctantly, I got back into the Rental Car of Anxiety to return to my hotel, where I proudly showed off my signed poster to the valet guy who had retrieved the car earlier. And then... Back to Disneyland! As I entered the park, I caught the tail end of the Christmas parade, which was the Santas Claus float. One couldn't help but smile upon hearing Santa exclaim, "Tonight's the night.... And I'm READY!" which of course evoked cheers from the crowd.

I decided to take the train to New Orleans Square and was relieved that it was actually running. However, Nightmare Before Christmas Haunted Mansion was down. Still. Apparently it had been working for only a brief period early in the day. Noooo! I had my heart set on riding the Nightmare Before Christmas Haunted Mansion on the night before Christmas... Last year my youngest niece decided to make it a tradition to see the Nightmare Before Christmas movie on the night before Christmas, and I said it was my tradition to ride the Nightmare Before Christmas Haunted Mansion the night before Christmas. (even though it wasn't exactly a tradition I thought I'd be able to repeat...)

So instead, I walked a little further to Splash Mountain which didn't have a line. Because it was rather chilly at night, I put on my rain jacket... with the hood all the way up. And then I headed over to Big Thunder Mountain railroad to use a fastpass I'd gotten earlier. It's always fun to ride it at night! Heard on the ride from a kid: "Where's the photo?" I guess kids these days expect ride photos on all bigger rides. In my day, you had to walk uphill both ways to get a ride photo!

I took a break for pizza at the Village Haus in Fantasyland, and thought fondly of my various silly dinners at the Disney World Village Haus with my nieces. Then I used my Space Mountain fastpass, and rode the Matterhorn since it only had a short wait. I thought about going on "It's A Small World", but the line was really long. But I caught the projection show on the facade, and enjoyed how the building looks all decked out in its brilliant nighttime holiday lights.

There was an announcement that the fireworks were canceled, but somehow I stumbled across the castle lighting ceremony which is always nice. At the end, snow fell down on Main Street to the tune of "White Christmas", and I had a bit of deja vu from earlier in the day.

I'd been checking one of my cell phone apps for Disney wait times in the vain hope that the Haunted Mansion would reopen. When I saw that it was listed as having a 20 minute wait instead of being closed, I made a bee line for New Orleans square via the train (which again didn't break down). By the time I got there, it was a 30 minute wait and there was no fastpass entrance open so I didn't think I could use the bonus fastpasses I'd obtained earlier from City Hall. As I got in line, I heard one of my favorite sounds: the opening bars for Fantasmic! Sorta magical... Hearing the soundtrack for my favorite entertainment as I waited for the one attraction I most wanted to ride on Christmas eve.

By the time I got off the ride, it was time to get a spot for the 10:15 show of Fantasmic; this time I managed to claim a space where I could sit and use my iPad as I waited. I loved the show as much as the previous night, although I noticed that the crocodile float was missing from the Peter Pan scene. This time, I only took a very few photos and just concentrated on enjoying the music and spectacle.

After the show, I decided to ride Indiana Jones using the single rider line, which moved very quickly. When I noticed that the line at the Coca Cola Refreshment Corner on Main Street was virtually nonexistent, I indulged in my nightly dose of hot chocolate. As I arrived at the end of Main Street, I overheard some chatter that the characters would be coming out soon. Yes! On Christmas Eve, the characters usually come out together before park closing with the classic ones wearing pajamas. I'd forgotten/missed this last year and thought I'd never get another chance to see it. I wasn't sure if they'd do it this year with the park open until midnight (usually it closes early on Christmas eve); but, from what I overheard, the characters actually came out a few times. I was the biggest kid ever as I watched the group of characters head out, one by one, onto the train steps; I may have even exclaimed "Stitch!" when I caught sight of Stitch dressed in a Santa costume. They were out for maybe less than a half hr; I stayed the whole time, laughing at the antics of Stitch and just basically enjoying a magical end to what had started as a rather dreadful day. I never did use those extra Fastpasses that I'd been given at City Hall; I found my magic without them.

All in all, it was a memorable Christmas Eve- I mean, how many days can you say you saw your favorite performer in a wonderful show, watched your favorite theme park spectacular, and also rode most of your most favorite theme park rides?
New Orleans Square, 8:15 am 12/24 it's a small world Riding through "it's a small world" Monsters Inc street show Poster Stephen gave me After the show, with Stephen (who is carrying my Christmas presents) it's a small world projection show it's a small world It's snowing on Main Street Fantasmic Christmas Eve character goodnight Christmas Eve character goodnight
6am, as announced by the buzzing of my alarm clock, came way too soon. But it is essential in Disneyland on busy days to take advantage of Magic Morning if you are eligible for it.

When I arrived at security at about 6:45, there were only a few people already waiting. After going through the obligatory bag check at the security checkpoint, I was first in line at one of the actual turnstiles. I watched with envy as 2 families were chosen to "open the park" by leading a countdown. I figured they'd never choose me since I don't have kids; even if I could ever manage to get my nieces to the front of the gates before a park opening in Florida (good luck with that!), they are already older than the average age of the kids that seem to be picked.

Still, I was gleeful to be one of the first through the gates... and down Main Street... and through the castle. I started out doing a suite of Fantasyland dark rides: first Peter Pan, followed by a break to ride Dumbo because there was no line, then Mr Toad's Wild Ride, Pinocchio's Daring Journey, Show White's Scary Adventures, and Alice in Wonderland. Then I picked up the pace and rode a couple roller coaster type rides: Matterhorn and Space Mountain. Wheeee! Even though I was getting really hungry, I couldn't resist the urge to ride Star Tours since it had no line. I felt a little queasy on it, and wondered if it was because I hadn't eaten anything. Still, I couldn't resist the temptation of riding Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters which was just across the way.

At this point, it was after 8:30am and I was totally overdue for some food. I probably was hungry and awake enough to have enjoyed a lunch even at such an early hour, but all the restaurants (at least those that were open) were still serving breakfast. There weren't many options, so I headed to River Belle Terrace in Frontierland; the line was short, but it moved very slowly. I ended up ordering a Mickey shaped pancake since I totally go for the cute. Yumm! And I definitely felt much better after eating something.

It was Christmas day so all day long I tried to wish cast members a merry Christmas. They don't get to enjoy the day with their families, so I figure it can't hurt to show some appreciation.

After I left the park for a break, I got a phone call from my friends Pam and Sean- they were on their way. Yay! I still had time to get in a ride on Soarin at DCA, and then I sat on a bench and messed around on my iPad so I could be somewhere stationary where they could easily find me. Or, alternately, shock me as it turned out... LOL, they made a stealth approach! They gave me an awesome Christmas card that included pix of their kitties (aww) and I gave them something from Australia.

Pam was hungry so, after getting fastpasses for the 8pm show of World of Color, the first place we headed was to Ralph Brennan's Jazz Kitchen, which is a New Orleans themed restaurant in Downtown Disney. We shared a delicious garlic cheese bread appetizer, and then I just got some onion soup since I wasn't all that hungry. It was ok- a little spicy for my liking. Sean and Pam got Bloody Marys, but I didn't want to get anything alcoholic since I don't drink much anyway, plus my stomach had been bothering me in the week before my trip so I didn't want to chance it. The highlight of lunch was of course conversation with old friends.

I was determined that this year we actually do something, so we headed into Disneyland. Umm, wow was it getting packed! I thought we could get Big Thunder Mountain faspasses since supposedly its fastpass system was disconnected from the rest of the park. But the ride was being evacuated due to an apparent breakdown. Haunted Mansion Holiday was down. Deja vu, much? So we headed to Santa's Reindeer Roundup. When we saw that Haunted Mansion had reopened, we headed there to get a fastpass... only to see that they weren't issuing fastpasses. (I guess because they thought it might go down again?). Alrighty then. The standby line was way too long to bother with.

None of us were really enjoying the crowds, so we decided to hang around the Disneyland hotel. We stopped at a really cool bar, Trader Sam's, which is like a tiki bar where various special effects are activated when guests order certain drinks. One of their drinks caused the volcano in the window to erupt, and a few tiny bits of ice fell down on us. LOL! (Sean was in the bathroom and missed the little show.) I imagine it's a fun place at night if there's a crowd. I, of course, just had a water.

When I got hungry for dinner, Sean suggested we take the monorail back to Disneyland, where we ate at Red Rockett's Pizza Port. I had some Terra Nova Tomato Basil Pasta (penne) that probably could have been warmer, but it was ok. Once again, conversation and good company were the highlights.

After stopping at my hotel to get some warmer clothes and enjoying the carolers in the lobby, we headed over to Disney California Adventure for the World of Color evening show, and rode the Little Mermaid ride since it was a walk on. Pam got the ice cream she'd been craving, and Sean got some too. I decided it was too cool outside for me to enjoy ice cream.

I enjoyed World of Color a little more than last year, but it's still not a favorite or "must do" for me. The lack of a story line or theme made my mind wander sometimes. Plus the experience is rather annoying since you have to stand during the show and it's hard to take decent photos because there are too many heads/ arms holding cameras in the way. There's a lot of neat stuff technically, with colored water jets shooting in the air and projections of Disney heroes. So I'm definitely glad I saw it again; the wait was much more interesting with friends to talk to.

At this point, I was tired. Wait, let me scratch that- I'd already passed "tired" long ago. But I was also really enjoying hanging out with friends that I don't get to see too often. So when Sean headed into Disneyland, I followed. We were able to see a bit of the Holiday Fireworks show, which was cool because it had been canceled every other night. (apparently there had been a safety issue with one of the shells mis-firing). Then he led us to "The Magic, the Memories and You", a nightly show which includes guest photos projected onto "It's a Small World". I didn't really like it, and I don't think it was just because I was exhausted and my feet were killing me. But I am glad I had a chance to see it for myself, even though I didn't have the best view since I am so short.

Sean wanted to stay for "Fantasmic", but Pam was really tired. Which was probably a good thing since I would have otherwise stayed and regretted it later. So I had my nightly hot chocolate as we walked down Main Street and exited the park. We ultimately said our goodbyes and I headed to my hotel room, ready to collapse.

When I was having uncharacteristic trouble taking out my contact from my right eye... I realized that there was not a contact in that eye; I'd been walking around Disneyland all day with only one contact! The evidence was right in front of me on the sink- one very dried out lens. How the hell did I not realize that?!? Well, at least it could explain why the 3D on Star Tours sometimes looked funky to me!

And finally I was able to dive into my comfortable bed, with visions of a very merry Disney Christmas lulling me to sleep.
Disneyland entrance, waiting for gates to open From the ropes, just before 7am on 12/25 My Mickey Pancake breakfast Trader Sam's bar at Disneyland Hotel Carolers in Paradise Pier Hotel World of Color With my friends, Pam and Sean
As my alarm went off at 6am, I desperately wanted to cling to my bed. My body was still overrun with exhaustion from the day before. However, I knew that the only way to enjoy Disneyland was to get there for Magic Morning... especially since I was paying extra to stay at an official hotel partly in order to be able to take advantage of more Magic Mornings. So I dragged myself out of bed, with the promise that I could take a break to nap in the afternoon when it would surely be crazy crowded.

Even though I was a few minutes later than the previous day, there weren't many people lined up at security. I wonder if this is because they don't usually offer Magic Mornings on Mondays; they just added them for the holiday week.

Once again, I was first in line at one of the ticket gates. And once again, I watched with envy as a family was chosen to open the park. Then a genial older CM came over to my turnstile. What happened next is a bit of a blur, but he asked how many people were in our party; it turned out that he thought the children behind me were with me because they had similar hair color. When I told him that I was not with them, I figured I'd get out of the way so the family behind me could open the park. But then he said I could join them.

I was going to open Disneyland. Oh. My. Goodness! I was going to open Disneyland!!! Perhaps my lack of selfishness in not claiming a candy cane that I didn't need a couple days earlier was being rewarded. I felt like I was being sprinkled with a hefty dose of the kind of pixie dust that would truly be a dream come true.

As we stood in front of the entrance plaza facing the crowd, the CM gave us instructions on leading the countdown, and pumped us up with a speech about how we were going to be opening the most famous theme park in the world. He also gave us buttons which said "Honorary Disneyland Citizen"

When it came time to lead the countdown and then exclaim "Let the memories begin!", I gave it level 4 enthusiasm with my entire body (hopefully without too many flailing arm movements...). The CM said he was glad he'd chosen me; I only wish that I had thanked him or noticed his name... But my mind was drifting lazily in a cotton candy fog of "is this really happening?!". Plus, the whole reason I was at the front of the line was because I wanted to get to the attractions as soon as possible so I pretty much zoomed off right away. The previous day, it seemed like there was a PhotoPass photographer taking pictures of each family, but that didn't happen. No matter. I got to open Disneyland- that's a damn cool experience for a Disney parks freak like me!

Once again, I started my day with the classic dark ride, Peter Pan. However, this time I immediately jumped to the more exciting rides and headed to the Matterhorn. When we saw that there was no one in line as our bobsled came to the unloading area, the other people in my bobsled asked if they could stay on. I took part in the cheering and high 5's when the CM said yes! Next I headed to Space Mountain... and once again was able to ride a 2nd time without getting off! This was even cooler because the queue area for Space Mountain is so long that it saved quite a bit of time not having to go through that maze to get back to the loading area.

As I passed the Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage, I noticed that there was no line; I'd never ridden it before because it's always been so crowded and I thought I might get claustrophobic on the actual ride. But with no line, I decided to give it a try. It was cute enough to do once, but probably not worth a wait. And I didn't feel claustrophobic, so yay.

It's a Small World Holiday had lines beyond belief the night before, but was a walk on at just after 8am. I asked if I could sit in the front row (to get better photos) and ended up having an entire boat to myself! Unfortunately, my memory card was full so I had to spend a few moments deleting Australia pix in the middle of the ride.

Time to hit the other holiday themed attraction, the Nightmare Before Christmas Haunted Mansion. But would it actually be working...? Yes! I clearly wasn't the only guest happy to see the gates open; the CM at the attraction joked that he didn't want to hear about it if we had any problems. Apparently they were just as fed up with the closures as the guests were.

Next up on my hit list of "Top Disneyland Attractions That Will Have Huge Lines Later" was Splash Mountain. But first I took an extended break to check in for my 9am flight the next morning. (*sniff*) Another walk on! Clearly, when I opened Disneyland I must have added an unspoken commandment that there shall not be any lines (at least for the first couple hrs). After the ride, the CM asked if we wanted to stay in our log to go on a 2nd time. You bet I did! The other people in my log squelched this magical opportunity, so I ended up with a whole log to myself. Which meant a lot of pressure to look good during the drop since I'd obviously have to buy the photo.

Speaking of buying things, I purchased some Tigger Tails after the ride. Tigger Tails consist of marshmallows on a stick, which are then coated in caramel and white chocolate and finally in orange sprinkles, with chocolate stripes across them. They get their name because they look kinda like Tigger's Tail. You can only buy them in that one shop in Critter Country. Later I discovered that they were indeed as yummy as they looked.

Finally, I completed my tour of Disneyland's mountains by riding Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. Unfortunately, it had a slight wait so I wasn't able to ride it twice in a row like the other mountains. At this point (around 10am), the Adventureland walkways were starting to get rather crowded. I rode Pirates of the Caribbean even though it had a 25 minute wait because I knew the waits would only get worse. On my way out of the park, I did the walk through Tarzan Treehouse- which gave a bird's eye view of the crowded walkways- and the Enchanted Tiki Room.

I hesitated in front of City Hall, debating whether I should ask for a replacement "Honorary Disneyland Citizen" button which I'd promptly managed to lose earlier in the day. (it fell off my shirt) I decided that I should ask, since it would have sentimental value to have one. The CM who helped me was wonderful- he made me repeat an oath that he said was required to be a Disneyland citizen. I wish I could remember the exact words, but it started with "I [state your name] solemnly swear" and included clauses about smiling, wishing a happy birthday to anyone with a birthday button, and eating any yummy food I saw even if it was not healthy. LOL! Thinking of the Tigger Tails, I told him I'd already fulfilled the last requirement.

It was 11:30 am which meant only an hour before my "20% off before 12:30pm" coupons expired so it was shopping time! I was disappointed that they'd apparently put some of the Christmas ornaments away for another year- there was one I'd seen the previous day which I wanted to buy for friends but I couldn't find it anywhere. Oh, well. I spent considerable time in the World of Disney store selecting items for myself and my nieces. I then headed for Sephora and managed to find the shower gel that I hadn't seen when I'd checked earlier- and it was on sale! Score!

For lunch, I decided to head back to the Tangaroa Terrace restaurant at the Disneyland hotel. I guessed correctly that there wouldn't be any crowds, and it was delightfully peaceful to eat my barbecue chicken sandwich and sweet potato fries outside on the terrace with a view of the pool area. Orders are placed via a touch screen system, which made me wonder how you could specify that you wanted something done slightly differently.

Finally, it was time to head back to my hotel room for an oh-so-very-needed nap. I toyed with the idea of seeing "White Christmas" again that night, but finally decided that I didn't want to drive my rental car any more than I had to. And I didn't want to bother Stephen again, either.

It felt good to just bum around the room for awhile, even after my nap. When I got hungry, I decided to head downstairs to the hotel restaurant but they told me it was a 40 minute wait. (they clearly were understaffed; when I walked by outside, I could see that there was a huge section of the restaurant that was a ghost town) I stopped by the friendly concierge to ask what time he thought I should leave for the airport. When he asked if there was anything else he could do, I jokingly said something about finding a place to eat. He couldn't believe that the hotel restaurant couldn't accomodate me but when he phoned over there, they apparently told him the same thing. He made some suggestions and then was able to make me a reservation for Storyteller's Cafe at the Grand Californian hotel across the street. Nice!

It didn't take very long until I was seated. I decided to order off the menu rather than do the buffet. The service was a bit slow but I thoroughly enjoyed my sake infused Sea Bass as well as my Mega Berry Smoothie. It was a fine place to enjoy my last Disneyland meal of 2011.

After dinner, I used the Grand California entrance for DCA and rode Soarin using the single rider line. Bless the single rider line for getting me on way quicker than the 50 or so minutes listed for the standby queue!

I crossed over into Disneyland with the intention of seeing the 10:15 showing of Fantasmic. The CM's controlling traffic were directing everyone to Frontierland instead of Adventureland, and I patiently obeyed and stood behind a rope with other people who were also waiting for the show. Bad decision! We were waiting forever, and could clearly see that people were being let into the Fantasmic viewing area from the other direction. Sure that the best spots would be taken and feeling claustrophobic from the crowds, I decided that the 2 times I'd already seen the show this trip were enough and battled my way against the people packed behind me to freedom.

I didn't want to stay around for the added 11:30 Fantasmic showing, and there weren't any attractions that I really had to see, so just I did the walk through of the dioramas in Sleeping Beauty castle and said my goodbyes to Disneyland. On my way out the castle to Main Street I felt blinded by all the flashes going off around me as tons of people were photographing the winter castle. It was a heck of a trip so I was sad to see it end, but I knew there would probably be more Disneyland trips in my future.
My view as I prepared to open Disneyland on 12/26 Riding through "it's a small world" Haunted Mansion Holiday It was awesome to have a log to myself on 12/26 Yummy Tigger Tails, sold only at the shop in Critter Country Adventureland crowds, 10:30am 12/26 Storyteller's Cafe, Grand Californian Hotel
Yawn... another early morning as I prepared for my 9am flight out of Orange County John Wayne airport. Best part of leaving? Obviously returning the rental car! What a relief that was. Of course, my last drive was also when I finally discovered the secret to tilting the wheel so that the speedometer would be visible. D'oh.

While I thought I was headed to Vegas, it turns out that I was headed to "Vegas, baby"- well, at least that is how the flight attendant kept referring to the destination. The flight was nicely blink-and-you'll-miss-it short, and rather scenic. The cab queue at Vegas McCarran Airport impressed me with its efficiency- there are 20 or so numbered stations and people are directed in turn to the next available number where they are met with the next available cab. In what may be a first, I had a female cab driver. She was quite talkative and friendly. Halfway through the ride, she apparently realized that she hadn't turned on the meter. I don't know if this was a scam or not, but I like to have good karma so I decided to pay her what I felt would have been a fair amount + tip if the meter had been turned on. (this turned out to be the exact amount I paid to return to the airport, as well as what websites say the fare should be for the route) If it was a scam, she must have been scamming the cab company and not me because there was no guarantee I'd pay more than what was on the meter. Also, it was risky because I've subsequently read that if a taxi's meter is off, the light on top will be illuminated and it can be stopped if the police notice that there is a passenger.

I had originally made a reservation at The Mirage; however, when I'd recently seen that the Venetian had much lower rates available than they had originally, I changed my reservation. Best. decision. ever! (ok, so that is a little hyperbole...) I loved The Venetian. I thought I could have spent the rest of my life there and been happy- they have shopping, theatre, food (including chocolatey goodness), an ice rink, and even Diet Cherry Dr Pepper! If you could say that any place in Vegas feels classy, it would most likely be The Venetian. I was thrilled they had a room available right away, even though it was "only" the 16th floor and even though it had an awesome view of... not much besides a couple parking lots. All I can say about room itself is "WOW"! It even had a printer/copier/fax... although I never could get it to work. (perhaps because it was displaying a message about being out of yellow ink) The only thing I didn't really like about the hotel is that it seemed like no matter where I went, I was assaulted with music from "Phantom of the Opera" from what I had to assume was the movie version.

As I oohed and aahed over the various amenities and comforts, I txed one of my online friends, Laura, who would be leaving Vegas that afternoon. Of all the online friends that I've never seen in person, Laura has to be at the top of the ones I wish I could meet: she loves sparkly things, Hello Kitty, cats, travel, and being single. Among other nifty stuff. (Her excellent taste in most everything allows me to overlook her crap taste in overrated Russian male skaters... ) We would surely have tons to talk about! But alas, her family tore us apart as they insisted on going to Kohl's and then getting to the airport ridiculously early even by my standards. *sniff, sniff* Another time!

Once I was able to extricate myself from the room, I naturally headed for Sephora. When I got off the elevator, I was pleased to discover that the Phantom theatre was right there, so I went to pick up my ticket since there were no lines that early in the day. Also I noticed a stand with the most adorable cupcakes and made a mental note to stop there on my way back. (and txted Laura that she would be missing some great cupcakes...)

I spent the early afternoon exploring the shops at the Venetian and the neighboring Pallazzo. While I didn't buy anything of consequence, I did stop for a nice Spaghetti Carbonara lunch at Zefferino in the Venetian Grand Canal shops. Apparently I had more than just my lunch since a 2nd charge appeared on my credit card account. So this serves as a warning- if you eat at Zefferino's and don't pay cash, be sure to check your credit card statements! (I have obviously disputed the charge; we'll see what happens)

On the way back to my hotel room, I indeed stopped at the cupcake stand. Cursed indecision! I finally decided on 4 mini cupcakes: Midnight Madness Chocolate Chip, Scarlett's Red Velvet, Birthday Surprise and Wedding Cake plus 1 full size Texas Milk Chocolate cupcake. The 4 mini cupcakes were promptly devoured as I waited to do online checkin for my final flight of 2011 (*sniff*) They were as yummy as they were adorable!

After some down time enjoying my hotel room and its comfy bed, I headed out once again at around sunset. I wanted to see the tree lighting ceremony at the Venetian but discovered that they didn't start the hourly performances until 6:30. So I headed across the street to the Mirage, and confirmed that staying at the Venetian had been an excellent decision; I also watched the volcano erupt in front of the hotel which was good cheesy fun. Next, I headed next door for an obligatory visit to the Forum Shops at Caesars; they'd definitely expanded them since my last visit in 2005. Walking back to my hotel, I used ledges as impromptu tripods to try to capture some nighttime views of The Strip.

I was ultimately able to enjoy the tree lighting at The Venetian- which was, dare I say it, classy. It featured music, live performers and projections. The tree itself was quite dramatic and modern- it could switch to various different colors which gave it a bit of a different look. The square was extra festive with the presence of artsy streetmosphere type people- different ones from during the day.

Heading back to my room to drop off my big camera, I noticed that the Phantom souvenir stand was open so I bought my souvenir brochure in advance. I also stopped for some pizza at the food court- I wasn't exactly hungry but knew I had to eat something resembling an actual meal or I'd regret it later.

And then it was time for me to catch the 9:30pm performance of "Phantom- the Vegas Spectacular". Although I generally have an intense resentment for abridged versions of anything, I was eager to see the 90 minute 1 act version of Phantom because the theatre was designed specifically for the show and it was supposed to have better effects and such. Plus, it is Phantom so it's not exactly classic literature or anything. The cast boasts legit Broadway performers including Anthony Crivello in the title role- once again, a sign of some class, n'est pas?

Before the show started, I was engaged in conversation with the gentleman next to me who was a confessed fan of the show. (but not one of those crazy phans that make you shudder; just someone with some enthuasiam for the show) He seemed to be slightly misguided in thinking he'd seen a production in San Francisco without live music (Leanna if you are reading this... help?), but I just nodded and smiled. I tried to explain the sequel "Love Never Dies" to him (see my Australia travel blog for my uncensored thoughts on the Wrongness of that show), but I was gentle and skipped over some of the more outrageous plot points.

Although I could tell exactly where each cut occurred- and although it sometimes seemed strange to me to cut a single phrase- I really enjoyed the overall show. The effects and theatre were truly stunning and worth seeing, although the chandlier drop was still a let down. (I'd read that it was better in Vegas) Actually, they moved the dropping of the chandlier to later in the show which forced some line changes in "Masquerade". I'm not sure if it was better or worse there; it was just different.

The cast was quite strong. Anthony Crivello may not have been my favorite Phantom ever, but he certainly did a credible job. The one thing I couldn't quite shake was that Raoul reminded me of Blaine on the TV show "Glee" who is not exactly my favorite character. I'm not even sure exactly why, but there you go.

In act 1, someone behind me seemed to be singing along with the show. I didn't pay $$$ for a sing along! Fortunately, a few Barbara Fusar Poli death glares from me shut them up.

After the show, I returned to my room, ready to finally get a decent night's rest! Except there was only one problem- I could not for the life of me figure out how to turn off the light by the 2 stairs that led down from the bed area to the sunken living area. I'm not one for nightlights, but eventually I decided that I was tired enough and the bed was comfortable enough that it shouldn't really matter. And it didn't.
My hotel room at the Venetian Cupcakes Mirage Volcano My favorite shot of Vegas at night Phantom box office
The last day of the last vacation of the year. It should be depressing... and yet, I had done so much plane flying and running around in all sorts of timezones that I was looking forward to being able to rest at home, snuggled with my 2 kittens (aka the furricanes).

After getting dressed, I made the following observations: the Texas Milk Chocolate Cupcake was sitting on the table, I needed to eat something, and I was still on vacation. I think you all know what that meant...

I might have been tempted to spend the entire morning lazing in my hotel room, but my hotel had an 11am checkout time and my flight wasn't until 2:45. (I tried to get a late checkout but the phone recording said they weren't available and I wasn't sure how I'd find the correct "real person" to ask) So I decided to push myself just once more to take a leisurely stroll down the strip to see whatever I could fit in. I didn't trust the luggage check to not squash my "White Christmas" poster so it came with me; I'd rolled it up as Stephen had suggested with the help of some hair bands (since I had no rubber bands)

While walking down the strip, I came across 3 Elvises clustered around a walking "Welcome to La Vegas" sign. There has to be a joke in there somewhere, but it's escaping me.

When I entered the Paris casino, I decided to buy a ticket the "Eiffel Tower Experience" despite my fear of heights. The line seemed really short, but the elevators are so small that they can only take a few people up and a time, so it didn't move as quickly as I'd thought. The elevator to the observation deck had glass walls and I held on for dear life; it wasn't so much the height that bothered me (I mean, I am fine in airplanes) but the sense of instability. Once at the top, I really enjoyed the view of the strip- it would have been even better later in the day when the Bellagio fountains were working. The observation deck was enclosed in a fence, with occasional cut outs just large enough for taking photos. Once I made a circuit around, I was ready to get down. And by "ready", I mean "get me the hell out of this sky level cage!!!" When it seemed like they were going to cut off the line for the next elevator right in front of me, I totally begged for them to pleeeeeaaaaase let me on. Some nice people volunteered to let me take their places, but they ended up them stay on, too. I was quite happy to be back at ground level- Liberté! I bought a photo they'd snapped while I was in line, because I generally am a sucker for photos.

To celebrate my return to steady ground, I bought 3 cake pops at the Sugar Factory shop: Red Velvet, Reeses, and Chocolate. They arrived home ever so slightly damaged but were tasty nonetheless.

I walked a little further to the Planet Hollywood casino (aka the casino formerly known as the Aladdin when I'd stayed there in 2005). I had just enough time for a quick whirl through their shopping area/ Sephora before I really had to turn around and head back to the Venetian. I took the return walk across The Strip- not just for variety but because walking through the Harrah's area always seemed annoyingly congested. It was no problem at all to retrieve my belongings and catch a cab to the airport, where check-in and security went very quickly.

With a long flight ahead of me, I needed to eat something. I decided on Burger King, for lack of any McDonald's in sight. It's become a tradition for me to eat fast food at the airport on my way home from a vacation.

I meant to take a seat on the right side of the plane for a better view both during takeoff and landing, but I ended up turning to my right. Which of course was the left of the plane. I can be such a goof. But at least I had a window and was at the front of the plane, despite a mediocre boarding number.

In flight, I discovered a new annoyance: loud card shuffling sound. While not as annoying as shrieking babies, it proved to be equally incompatible with me getting much sleep. It didn't seem to bother the guy next to me, who was sleeping when I wanted to get up... so I perfected my skill of climbing over sleeping people and was able to successfully get out and back in without disturbing him.

The last hour or so of the flight was particularly annoying because I just wanted to be back home already. We finally landed around 10:30pm but between a long wait for my luggage and picking up my car, I wasn't inside my door until after midnight. I was happy to be back with my kittens... but not so thrilled to have said goodbye to mellow temperatures. It wasn't long before I collapsed into my own bed, satisfied with the successful conclusion of another fabulous adventure.
A Trio of Elvis and a walking "Welcome to Las Vegas" sign Paris Las Vegas Hotel & Casino View of The Bellagio from the Eiffel Tower at Paris Casino View from the Eiffel Tower at Paris Casino Cake Pops at The Sugar Factory at Paris