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Saturday, March 18, 2017

Harry Potter meets Krusty the Clown at Universal Studios, Hollywood (Part I)

This past January, my wife kids and I were in Los Angeles for a couple of days to see the Rose Parade, and local sights. We topped it off with a trip to Universal Studio, Hollywood.

We lived in Los Angeles for almost five years, but never took our kids to Universal. They were just too young, and we had other options that were more age appropriate - like Legoland in San Diego, as well as Disneyland and Knott's Berry Farm.

The big draw, the HUGE draw at Universal is the new Harry Potter land, officially known at "The Wizard World of Harry Potter." Universal actually opens this section a full hour earlier, just to handle the crowds.

While this was our first time to Universal Studios, Hollywood - it was not our first time to see Harry Potter. 

Our family was actually on a work-related trip in Florida back in 2012, and visited the original Orlando Wizarding World of Harry Potter. 

While a duplicate of what's in Orlando, the Wizarding World is honestly very well done. The morning we were there it was pretty nippy - in the 40's. That's practically arctic by Southern California standards. The high for the day was only 59, our jackets weren't for show. Love how some people were walking around in shorts. 

The entire area was designed to look like Hogsmead, the mythical village just outside of Hogsworth - the massive castle from Harry Potter stories.

Shop windows to enjoy. Very well themed. I've never read the books (sorry) and only seen bits and pieces of the various films. 

Our kids, on the other hand, have enjoyed both the books and each of the eight different films. They were just 12 and 10 when we were in Orlando - to it was fun for them to be back as teenagers.

The stores look small because they are small. They really feel like something right out of the books or movies. The downside is this entire area is incredibly popular, and get very crowded, and those little stores are absolutely packed. 

The big signature attraction is "Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey." We were there during the two week Christmas/New Year Holiday Season. In terms of crowds, this is honestly the absolute worst time to go. But for us, like other out of town guests, it was the only time that worked. According to a local news report, Universal Studio Hollywood had their highest attendance EVER the day before (on January 2, 2017), breaking all records and closing their gates for the first time every. 

The next day, the day we were there, was almost as crowded. Fortunately, at 8am when we showed up, it wasn't bad and the ride was a walk on. By midday, people were waiting up to four hours or this one ride.

The ride in California is the exact same as the Florida version. For us, the ride was "good, but not great" - not as amazing as the first time we went on it in Florida. In my opinion, it is no where near as repeatable as some of the classics over at Disneyland. 

photo credit: Wikipedia

According to Wikipedia: "Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey uses KUKA robocoaster technology, which allows the seats to pivot while being held above the track by a robotic arm." The ride is really an advanced simulator, traveling through various scenes from the films, projected onto large screens. "The ride drops, spins around, twists and turns, but does not turn upside down, though passengers sometimes lie flat on their backs. Over-the-shoulder bars are used to secure guests in their seats, and a single parabolic metal bar is used as a hand grip." 

Unfortunately for us, the ride broke down while we were on it. Unlike, say something like Disneyland's Haunted Mansion, were were very strapped in, tipped slightly forward, and could not move. We were in front of a large screen, what - of course - went blank when the ride stopped. With a heavy jacket on, I began to feel very trapped. The air in the room was stale and I was doing my best not to panic. We had no idea if we'd be sitting there for 2 minutes or 20 minutes.

I'm in my mid 50's, I've been on hundreds of amusement park rides over the years. Sorry Universal, but this was the worst experiences I've ever had on any ride. That said, it's hard to recommend. If you do go, don't wear a jacket or sweatshirt. They have complimentary lockers. Use them, even if it means getting a little cold waiting in line - that won't be a problem in the summer months. Know that the ride could breakdown. Universal has to find a better solution. Part of the ride, you're literally sideways. That's fine for a couple of seconds - but are you trapped sideways if the ride breaks down? Yikes, what a mess.

Once we got off, I asked for front of the line passes (they weren't giving them out unless you asked). I had no interest in going on it right after we got off, but I was with my kids and figured I'd give it one more try in the afternoon (leaving my jacket in a locker, and knowing the ride might break down).

There is really only one other ride in Wizard World - a short roller coaster called "The Flight of the Hippogriff". It's really for younger kids. There was no line, but even then my teenagers weren't interested.

At 9am, the opened the rest of the park including the Simpson's Land opened. The one ride is "The Simpson's Ride" - you enter through Krusty the Clowns mouth. More on that in a bit.

For fans of the Simpsons, you'll find the Kwik-E-Mart - actually a gift shop.

With, of course, gifts.

Moe's Tavern - which is actually just a restaurant.

And assorted fake entries, featuring Simpson's regulars like Dr. Nick Riviera.

We got in line for "The Simpson's Ride". Show up first thing, and there's almost no line. We probably waited five minutes, max.

I took a photo to "Krusyland" - the fake amusement park the ride is based on. I didn't have the time to read through the list of rides and attractions while we were there. I had a look when we got home: 

Very funny if you're familiar with The Simpsons. Not sure how the jokes would go over if you're never seen the show. Much more so than other amusement parks, Universal Studios is based on the assumption that you're already familiar with movies and shows their rides on based on. 

The Simpsons itself was another motional simulator. What's with the motional simulators? I know Universal Studios is about movies - but my kids were wondering "where are the actual rides?"

I thought it was interested that the only two themed lands at Universal "The Wizarding World of Harry Potter" and "The Simpson's Land" aren't based on Universal intellectual properties. The Harry Potter series is from competitor Warner Brothers, The Simpsons from Fox.

We paid over $400 for our family to get in. It was 10:00am, and we started wondering "so what else is there to do?" That's never good. 

We decided to try the Studio Tour, in many ways Universal's signature attraction. More on that next time.

© 2017

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Space Shuttle Endeavour at the California Science Center - and Americana at Brand

January 1st-3rd my wife kids in I were in Los Angeles to see the sights, including the Tournament of Roses (the Rose Parade) in Pasadena Monday January 2nd. Afterwards we hung out in Pasadena a bit, and then headed south to see Space Shuttle Endeavour at the California Science Center, next to USC.

Endeavour is one of four US now retired Space Shuttles. The others are the Atlantis at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the Enterprise in New York City, and the Discovery Washington, DC. If you're in Los Angeles, Endeavour is really worth seeing. And the cost is only $2. Perhaps the best deal in town.

The Endeavour is located in a large temporary building. Getting it there was an amazing feat. Plans call for a much larger permanent display building, allowing the Shuttle to stand upright.

Even it's temporary home, it's an incredible sight. But with the average camera, or iPhone, how do you actually get a photo of the entire shuttle?

Unless you have a camera with a wide angle lens, you'll cut off either the nose, or the tail, or both.

You could try to stand in the corner when you walk in. Fail. The poorly placed sign in the lower right at the entrance makes that impossible.

Of course, many thanks to donor Samuel Oschin for his sponsorship of this project. Everyone just wishes the sign was placed elsewhere. 

So, how do you get a photo of the entire Shuttle? If you walk over to gift shop area, try standing at the far wall and shoot over the racks of clothing and display. 

Voila. You'll have a photo of the entire Shuttle, nose, tail, and all.

The Space Shuttle Endeavour is located at the California Science Center, just southwest of downtown Los Angeles. Reservations are required on weekends and holidays. Here's a link with more information. 

While the Shuttle is great, there's more, much more, to see at the Science Center, including the undersea exhibit.

The Garibaldi is the official marine state fish of California. 

When we home schooled our kids in Los Angeles, I was hoping we could choose the Garibaldi as our school mascot. My kids wanted the pelican. So ... we ended up with no mascot. 

Love seeing Garibaldi in a recreation of it's natural habitat. If you want to see the real deal, try either Catalina Island, or La Jolla (just north of San Diego). 

When I was there, a parent kept referring to the Garibaldi as "Nemo". Sorry, Nemo was a tropical (and much smaller) Clown Fish. But I just kept my mouth shut. 

The California Science Center is fantastic. So much to see and experience. While the Space Shuttle Exhibit was a small $2 charge - the rest of the museum is FREE. 

Of course, donations are welcome at the entrance - but a museum of this calibre works hard to raise millions of dollars in private donations and corporate sponsorship to keep the California Science free to the general public. If was a holiday weekend, so - of courses - it was crowded. But it was great seeing so many families and kids out having a great time, and, yes, learning things. 

Parking is available in the adjacent lot. $12 for the day. Or, if you're only going to be there for a couple hours, you might find meters on the street. I went the discount route, and found free parking a couple blocks away.

The Science Center is also adjacent to the Expo Light Rail - which goes from downtown Los Angeles to Santa Monica. Here's a link to when my wife, kids and I took the Expo line here. 

We left around 4:30pm, driving past downtown Los Angeles, and north to Glendale. Pictured above is the Felix Chevrolet dealership just north of the Science Center. Felix Chevrolet has been around since 1921. Wow! Coming up on 100 years! . Their famous sign is sixty years old, and was declared a historic-cultural monument back in 2007. Good memories as a kid growing in Los Angeles. Whene we saw that sign, we knew were were getting close to the museum. 

Next stop: Americana at Brand in Glendale. 

Americana at Brand is a massive outdoor shopping/entertainment/residential center, located on Brand Blvd in Glendale. Here's a link to a visit when our kids were much younger. 

With a MASSIVE outdoor Christmas Tree, it was all decked out of the Holiday Season.

Christmas is a unique holiday, at least in the United States, in that it's both a religious and a secular holiday. In the US, it's also a national holiday. 

Of course, there's a time and place to refer to the entire season as "the Holidays" --- referring to Hanukkah, Christmas, New Year, and everything else. I do, however, cringe when people refer to either Hanukkah or Christmas as "Holiday" (as in "have a great Holiday"). Christmas is a national holiday, and is the US's biggest and most popular holiday. No one wants to exclude or offend anyone, but I'm curious why Christmas - and to a lesser extent Hanukkah - have become "holidays that must not be named" (to paraphrase Harry Potter). 

So (belated, or perhaps now early) Happy Hanukkah, Merry Christmas, and Happy New Year. 

My inlaws suggested Din Tai Fung, a Twaiwanese restaurant with locations in several major cities around the world. In 1993, the New York Times referred to it as "one of the top 10 gourmet restaurants in the world."

When we got there at 6pm - it was PACKED, with a 90 minute wait. Fortunately, our kids were old enough to hold off for an hour and a half, and we just walked around Americana at Brand. When we showed up at 7:30pm, the wait was three hours. And people were putting their names on the wait list, meaning they'd be getting seated for dinner at 10:30pm. Sure, why not. 

Location of Din Tai Fung, at Americana at Brand in Glendale. 

Outstanding food - yes, worth the wait. Based on the crowds of a holiday weekend, we probably should have planned to get there before 5pm. Oh well. Not sure what the wait is on an off night. Here's a link to their website. 

We drove back to our hotel in Woodland Hills for our big big day at Universal Studios the next day. More next time

© 2017

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Parks and Rec: Pasadena City Hall

If your travels take you to Pasadena - why not stop off at the Pasadena City Hall for a photo or two?

In addition to being a beautiful building, it's also serves as the exterior shot for the NBC TV show "Parks and Rec." 

Similar to "The Office," our teenage kids have become big fans of "Parks and Rec." No trip to Pasadena was complete without the obligatory stop. Which we did when we were back in town January 1st-3rd. 

After an enjoyable time seeing Tournament of Roses (that is, the Rose Parade) in the morning we drove over to see City Hall. 

In my non professional opinion, it's one of the most beautiful public buildings in California. Looks like I'm not alone in this assessment. 

Apparently, the fountain the in interior courtyard is so popular with wedding and quinceaƱera photography that the city is considering charging a fee. There was a wedding photographer the day we were there,  Monday January 2nd. 

A few from the backside. We where there on a holiday. The second story is open to the public during normal business hours. Street parking in downtown Pasadena can be a bit tricky - it's always helpful to have plenty of quarters for the meters. 

The Pasadena City Hall was completed in 1927 and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980. 

And, if you're in the area, why not take time to also enjoy the nearby Bungalow Heaven neighborhood? 

The Pasadena City Hall is located at 100 Garfield Avenue in Pasadena. 

Final photo. Next stop, the California Science Center next to USC, to see Space Shuttle Endeavour. 

© 2017

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Tournament of Roses: The Rose Parade 2017

On New Year's Day, my wife, teenage kids, and I drove down to Los Angeles to see the Tournament of Rose (more commonly known as the Rose Parade) in Pasadena. The Parade is normally held on New Year's Day, except when January 1st falls on a Sunday, as it did this year. So, technically, we enjoyed the Parade on Monday January 2nd. 

Above, a detail from one of the many floats, this one "Prosperity in the Wild," sponsored by Western Asset. Every square inch, including the face and bodies of the tigers, is covered in flowers or organic material. 

Here's another view of "Prosperity in the Wild" - which was awarded Directors’ Trophy for outstanding artistic merit in design and floral presentation.

Floats are sponsored by either corporations, by service organizations, or by local Los Angeles area cities. The City of Downey out did themselves again, this year with "The Gold Rush." This float had an actual working roller coaster style mine cart as the rolled through the streets of Pasadena. Here's a link to a 30 second video of the mine cart in operation. Downey was awarded the Governor’s Trophy for best depiction of life in California. 

24 organ, eye and tissue transplant recipients rowing in unison made up the "Teamwork in Life" float sponsored by Donate Life California. This is a great example of a float sponsored by a service organizations.

The City of Burbank's delightful "Home Sweet Home." Burbank is adjacent to the northeast border of Los Angeles, on the eastern edge of the San Fernando Valley, and it home to both Warners Brothers and the Walt Disney Studios. Like other cities that regularly participate, Burbank's float is paid for entirely through donations, and designed, built and decorated entirely by volunteers. 

One of the huge myths about seeing the parade is that you have to camp out the night before, or get there at the crack of dawn, to get a viewing spot. Not so. Sure, some people camp out on Colorado Blvd the night before, or get up at 4am, for a choice curbside seat. Others pay the big $$ for a bleacher seat along Colorado Blvd closer to the start of the parade.

Meanwhile, we got a good night's sleep, leaving our hotel in Woodland Hills at a very reasonable at 8am. No traffic - so got to Pasadena by 8:30am, and found a great spot on Sierra Madre Blvd around 9am, with our metal folding chairs. The Parade begins at 8:00am in downtown Pasadena, taking 90 minutes to arrive where we were. Very doable!

Above, 24 Hour Fitnesses' Crown City Innovation Trophy for best use of imagination and innovation to advance the art of floral design. 

Here's another commercial float: the "Spirit of Hawaii," sponsored by Dole, winning the Sweepstakes Trophy for most beautiful entry in the parade with outstanding floral presentation and design.

And another service organization float: "Doing Good in the World," sponsored by Rotary's International, and winning the Princess Award for the most beautiful float under 35 feet.

The Fantasy Trophy for most outstanding display of fantasy and imagination was awarded to BDK, A Singpoli Affiliate for their float “The Monkey King: Journey To Success.”

Detail from the Monkey King float. 

The American Armenian Association's "Field of Dreams" float, winner of the Past Presidents Trophy for most creative design and use of both floral and non-floral materials. Metro Los Angeles is home to the largest Armenian community outside of Armenia, with nearby Glendale being really the hub for the Armenian American community. 

Northwestern Mutual's "Waves of Hope," winner of the Animation Trophy, for - of course - best use of animation. 

We've been to the Parade many times, especially when we lived in Los Angeles. Here's a link to some photos from back in 2010.

Most years it was sunny and warm - Chamber of Commerce weather. This year, it was in the mid 50's - which would be balmy in New York or Chicago, but pretty chilly by Southern California standards. The scarfs and hoodie were't for show. Of course, those marching along the six mile parade route no doubt appreciated the cooler temperatures.

Behind us, one of the many outstanding marching bands. 

Every year there's one float this really stands head and shoulders above the rest. This year it was the creative and whimsical Books Bring Us Together, sponsored by The UPS Store. 

The float was designed to spotlight The UPS Store's ongoing support of the Toys for Tots Literacy Program. The float was awarded the Isabella Coleman Trophy for best presentation of color and color harmony through floral use, and featured a 42 foot tall giraffe. Really outstanding. I actually followed this float a couple blocks, taking additional photos. Love it. 

Not all floats are whimsical and fun. The AIDS Healthcare Foundation sponsored "To Honor & Remember Orlando" in memory of the 49 individuals killed, and 53 injured, in last June's terrorist attack/hate crime in Orlando. 49 doves were released as the float. The float was a sobering reminder of the deadliest terrorist attack on US soil since September 11th,  2001 - and the deadliest incident of violence against LGBT people in US history. The float was also awarded the Lathrop K. Leishman Trophy for most-beautiful noncommercial float.

Some commercial floats are subtle, some not so much. The California Milk Advisory Board's "Legacy of Generations" felt a bit like rolling billboard. Got to love the chunky milk coming out of the bottle - doesn't that mean it's way past it's expiration date? 

In contrast, the Ragu Pasta Sauce "Simmered in Tradition" - also promoting a food product - took a much more subtle, and in my opinion more effective approach. Sure, there's a plate of spaghetti towards the front of float, but it's not the main focus. 

The float won the National Trophy for best depiction of life in the U.S.A., past, present of future, and featured a farmhouse and fanciful tomato vine along with birds and butterflies. 

In many ways, this float - as well as several others - remind me of one of the Apostle Paul's sermons in the New Testament. I suppose I'm unique, I tend to think about this sort of thing a lot

Preaching the gospel in the city of Mediterranean city of Lystra, Paul said: "We are brining you good news, telling you to turn ... to the living God, who made heaven and earth and sea and everything in them. In the past, he let all nations go their own way. Yet he has not left himself without testimony: He as shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy." Acts 14:15-17

Joy. And beauty. A common argument against Christianity is summarized in the simple "what about suffering?" In other words, if God exists, why is there suffering? 

Perhaps a more difficult question - at least philosophically - is "what about beauty?" If God doesn't exist, how do we account for the beauty we see around us? Or life itself. Why is there something - rather than nothing?

I doubt the good people at Ragu were thinking much about theology - or the provision of God - when it came to the design of this float. 

Yet, it's still there. This float and others pointing to the natural world around us and the Providence of God can't help but point to the reality of a Creator. Certainly, Christianity is more than acknowledging the existence of God. But it's a starting place.  

A final closeup. Well done, Ragu. 

I have never watched the TV show The Bachelor, but I like their float. Apparently, so did the judges. Their float "Echoes of Loves" was awarded the Princess’ Trophy for most effective floral use and presentation. 

Here's some additional details of "Echoes of Love." As stated earlier, every square inch of a float needs be covered by flowers or organic materials. 

Another view. 

For some reason a small door was open as it cruised by. Check out the driver (with the headset) in the center of the photo. 

California Polytechnic Universities float "A New Leaf" was awarded the Founders Trophy for the most beautiful float built and decorated by volunteers from a community or organization. Cal Poly is the ONLY university to regularly have a float in the Rose Parade. 

Since 1949, the float has been a team effort of the two university campuses: Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and Cal Poly Pomona. The two campuses are 240 miles apart, and over the years their floats have won over 50 awards. Way to go, Cal Poly!

A final float photo: "We Came, We Saw, We Covered" by Farmer's Insurance. Along the six mile parade route, the massive RV would rise up and then go back down to "cover" a group of dogs on vacation. Everyone wants to make sure they're "covered" (insured) right? Cute play on words. Farmers took the the Grand Marshall’s Trophy for excellence in creative concept and design.

And a final tip: we highly recommend bringing metal folding chairs. Sure, they're not as comfortable as cloth camp chairs - but the key is that you can stand on them. As long as you're not blocking anyone else's view, this allows for excellent viewing. And, if you get tired, you have a place to sit. All the photos on this post were taken from standing on a metal folding chair with my iPhone. So, yeah, it works. 

Here's some additional thoughts on the Tournament of Roses (the Rose Parade) from a previous post

More to see in Pasadena after the Parade, and in Los Angeles that afternoon. That'll have to wait until next time. 

© 2017