Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Pepper Engine

My arm still hurts.

Now, look, I know I’m given to hyperbole. It’s my thing. But when I say my thirty-fifth birthday was the best in over a decade, I mean what I say. Friends from all corners of my life showed up for the revelry. There was steak and cupcakes; there was dancing and singing; there were gifts and high spirits and I didn’t want it to end. What I do kind of want to end is the goddamn pain in my arm.

The centerpiece of my whole birthday Kevstravaganza was Tattoo Day at Chameleon. Part of what made this so special was the appearance of one of my best friends I never get to see: Marty Marr of Jersey City, in for the weekend to celebrate in cake and ink.

Marty had no specific idea of what he wanted to get when we got to Chameleon early Sunday, but both Shawn and I were prepared. Shawn’s design – a black and white silhouette of the planet Saturn – seemed simple enough, even though it was crazy cool and totally fit with Shawn’s personality. Mine, however…

I’m not quite sure how to explain mine. I’ll preface by saying that my ink guy, Kelly the Wonder Tattooist (who discovered that I once called him “beefy and resplendent” online and now won’t let me forget it) is moving back to Dallas. I’m not quite sure why. Sometimes Boston seems to be a way stay station people breeze into and out of, which sort of plays hell with us lifers. Or maybe Kelly and his girlfriend are just fans of mugginess and urban sprawl. I mean, who isn’t?

Ah, but as a native Texan, Kelly also has a claim on that sweet, sweet nectar of the gods, Dr Pepper. When I told him I wanted something Dr Pepper-related, he got all excited. But we could never really settle on a workable design. My initial concept had been a bottle cap flying on a wave of Dr Pepper. Both Kelly and Shawn pointed out that brown liquid on my body would look … disquieting. Eventually, I sort of settled on an old-fashioned bottle, with the 10-2-4 design, but that didn’t seem quite right, either. “Maybe I should just go steampunk,” I told him. “I really want a steampunk design, I just don’t know what.”

Kelly looked at me. “Let me see what I can come up with.”

Two weeks later, he had this:

Now, look. I can’t tell you what this is, exactly. A pocketwatch seems most likely, but pocketwatches aren’t generally made of wood, are they? Even in the Victorian era? Besides, what sort of pocketwatch only displays 10, 2, and 4, the optimal times to “drink a bite to eat” in the old Dr Pepper ads? And thus we come to my confession: I’m not sure I entirely get steampunk. I love it. I love the look and feel of it. I love writing steampunk poetry. I dig the idea of robots and dirigibles and computers running on steam power. But there’s something fundamental in there I don’t grasp, in the same way I don’t grasp something about LEGO. It’s not the language per se; the term “new technology” when it’s combined with something steam-powered thrills me. I love stuff like that. But after eight or nine tries, I just don’t have a handle on steampunk fiction at all, which bothers me. Except … maybe I’m just allowed to like the stuff I like. It doesn’t all have to be this thing suffuses my whole existence, does it? I’ve already got a lot of that. Maybe it’s okay to just like what I like about steampunk and leave the rest.

Sunday m…

Pepper Technology? SteamPepper? The Pepper Engine? The Pepper Engine Ooo. I like that.

Sunday morning. It was my birthday and I had the privilege of going first. It’s usually Kelly’s day off, too, but he made a special exception for me. He also made a steampunk laser gun for me, which he handed me first thing. It’s all copper and wire and lasery and this is what I love. I settled into his chair and before he put on the gloves, he flicked a button and “Born To Run” filled the studio. The entirety of Greatest Hits accompanied me on my tattoo journey this morning, and I mouthed along to all the songs as they distracted me from my pain. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Kelly is the grapes, and no fooling. Holy cats.

Now, I’ve described the pain you feel in the chair before. Sometimes it’s a dull throb. Sometimes it’s high and sharp and glassy. It’s never not there, which is something I always seem to trick myself into forgetting. Usually, though, the pain dissolves into something like pleasure, once the endorphins rush in and the adrenaline takes over. This generally happens halfway to three-quarters of the way through, which makes the finish nicer than the start.

This time, though, Kelly had only been working on me for a half hour when it started to feel good. Which, of course, led to abject panic.

No! Not yet! Oh God, not yet! This is premature endorphulation! ONOZ!

Sure enough, an hour in, the endorphins wore off and the adrenaline dropped and oh, was that new pain a fresh trek through hell. Even given the nature of short-term pain memory, I still remember vividly the agony of my Barenaked Ladies tattoo, and how mind-blowingly ouchy the filling-in was. The last half hour on my Pepper Engine is the only thing that approached that sort of intensity. Kelly was detailing then, and at several points, I didn’t care how ugly it might have turned out; I just wanted it to end.

Of course I forgot all of that when I saw the thing. Holy cats.

“The brown looked awful before I added the lines to make it look like wood grain,” Kelly said, pointing it out. “And I decided to leave the actual Dr Pepper logo your skin tone, so it pops.” Boy howdy does it pop! The brass accents are just amazing, subtly metallic. The fine filigrees are just so perfect, and I love how he gave the lettering some shading so that it looks a little rusty, yet gleaming at the same time. At one point, I thought that the shading might have been enough, but I was not prepared for how much more fantastic the coloring made this piece. It is my most complex to date, and may overtake my DD as my favorite of my tattoos.

Shawn went in next with his Saturn, and Marty with his Chuck Taylor logo, respectively. I’d go more into detail, but sweet goddamn does my arm hurt.

But seriously whoa.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

A Day With Dave Cobb

In rapid succession, I tour the attractions of Disneyland with a bright, naïve eye. Fantasyland enraptures me and I spend the most time there, enthralled at both Alice In Wonderland and Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, dark rides both, neither of which exist in the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World. The controversy surrounding Mr. Toad is the stuff of legend. It used to exist in Walt Disney World, but a few years back, they tore it down to make way for a new Winnie-the-Pooh attraction. The general consensus seems to be How Dare You and Why Are You Ruining My Childhood, but the fact is that Walt Disney never meant his parks to be museums, intending them to be ever evolving. (The deeper, less knee-jerk reaction is that people wouldn’t have bitched so hard if the Winnie-the-Pooh ride had been as involving or as revolutionary as the one in Tokyo. But I digress; there’s a lot of ground to cover.)

As dusk creeps in, I exit. The lights on Main Street are just coming on, and it is my greatest regret that I did not spend more time here at night. For my money, the Magic Kingdom’s most magical land is Adventureland, but in Disneyland, I think it’s Main Street USA. Next time, when I’m not as go-go-go, new-new-new, I hope to take more time there, and simply explore.

Wait. Scratch that. My greatest regret has to do with the fireworks. But we’ll get there.

At once I head across the way to California Adventure, heretofore known as DCA. I’m wildly unprepared for what I find there, even though I’ve spent more time researching this park than Disneyland in the last few weeks. I’m fascinated by DCA mainly because I’ve never been to a DCA before. It’s an all-new park, and I am nervous to meet it.

Now, a very, very brief backstory about DCA: it’s a park with problems. It’s the most recent Disney park venture, and when it was built, a lot of corners were cut. At some point in the semi-distant future, I’m going to write a post about Michael Eisner and discuss the very, very good things he did along with the very, very bad, but suffice it to say that DCA was built cheaply, and without a proper vision. It is meant to celebrate the California spirit in all its forms, but mainly what it inspired was indifference. It was sloppy, it was gaudy, and most of all, it wasn’t really Disney.

Happily, when the new Disney regime came in, one of the main thrusts of interest was bringing DCA in line with all the other stateside parks, giving a feeling of depth and history, expanding it to include new attractions and lands, and giving it a unique nighttime spectacular show – all designed to make California Adventure a must-see park, rather than as the bastard stepbrother of Disneyland across the way. In addition, they are using the pre-existing structure of the park to tell a more expanded story of Walt Disney’s first visits to California, where he made his company and vision come to life. There was some talk about renaming the park Walt Disney’s California Adventure, which is a ton of geekery you don’t need to know, but which I love. The Walt in there underscores its burgeoning new identity, and I’m looking forward to returning in two years, when it’s ready, to get lost in it.

Now, though: now I sort of wander through, a little confused, a little awed. There are construction walls and cranes all over. The Food and Wine Festival is going on, but unlike the expansive, cuisine-focused festival at Epcot, here it’s more about demonstrations and a wine-tasting area. It’s interesting, but not what I’d come to expect from the Food and Wine Festival. You know, in all my experience from one trip.

I don’t explore DCA much – a trend that will continue – but when I come to Paradise Pier, my heart stops a moment. When this part of the park first opened, it was criticized for not being nearly “Disney” enough. Part of it makes sense: this was all about thrill rides and cheesy midway games, the type of park Walt reportedly hated; these parks were the reason he created Disneyland in the first place. But the renovation has been underway for awhile, and now this place has a distinct Victorian feel to it. There’s new area music that sounds like the Beach Boys as interpreted by a carnival organ. A giant Ferris wheel, called Mickey’s Fun Wheel, rises high above Paradise Bay, and the California Screamin’ roller coaster dominates the skyline, looking for all the world like a classic wooden coaster, even though it isn’t. To me, Paradise Pier looks like Paragon Park, a small amusement park that used to exist in my hometown when I was small. I never rode the roller coaster there. I was just too little.

I’m not that little anymore.

After my turns on California Screamin’ – two of them, howling into the setting sun – I return to my hotel room for some light exercise and sleep. I acquire water and granola bars for my early morning tomorrow, and though I try for TV, I’m just too sleepy. It’s a good thing: I’m meeting Dave Cobb in the morning, and a theme park day with Dave Cobb requires a lot of rest. I know from experience.

* * *

I wake up earlier than necessary. In part this is because I’m on vacation and excited and there’s Disney on the near horizon; most of it, though, is because I’m on the West Coast for the first time since 2005 and I haven’t adjusted nearly enough yet.

A scant continental breakfast in my belly, I hurry downstairs just as Dave Cobb is pulling up to my hotel. A brief tutorial on Dave Cobb: 1. when I talk to him, I rarely call him simply Dave. 2. He’s as full of energy as I am, if not more so. 3. He actually works on designing theme parks, which means Dave Cobb is part of the magic. This is also the first time I’ve hung out with him one on one and I’m a little nervous and a little in awe.

“You look nervous,” he says as we head toward Disneyland.

“I am, a little.”

“Is it Disneyland?”

“It’s more you.”

“I’m not scary.”

“You are if you’re me.”

By the way, this conversation either happened or is wholly made up. If you’re new to this journal, this is not unusual. If you’re not, isn’t dialogue fun?

Here’s one thing about my entire trip to Disneyland: I never once saw the opening ceremony. To the point where I’m not sure if there is an opening ceremony. Guys, I was there for six days and I missed so much. Ah, but this is why Return Trips were invented. Dave Cobb led me through the gates and off we went!

Now, I’m going to say here and now: I have too little space to go on and on about every ride I did every day. It’s at this point I must make a choice about what to skim over and what to include, because as I stated, I was there six days, we’re already three entries in, and I’m on Day 2. So I don’t mean to skimp on the details; I simply don’t want to lose momentum. (Also, note: there are two MAJOR things that happened with Dave Cobb this first full day which I will have to cover later. This is way too long already.)

We ride Space Mountain first, and on the way in we met two fellows widely known in Disney circles. You know you’re a nerd when you randomly meet the guy who writes the Vintage Disneyland Tickets blog and go into full-on geeksquee. “You’re on my Google Reader!” I exclaim, trying not to sound too lunatic. “I just read that thing you wrote on Knott’s Berry Farm! It was very cool!”


People say that to me a lot.

From there, Dave Cobb and I plunge underwater in the Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage, repurposed from the old 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea ride. A precursor to the remainder of the day, Dave Cobb unobtrusively fills in the history, the details, the background of every part of where we are. Somehow, he manages to do it without disrupting the magic of the place for me. Knowing how things work often enhances my enjoyment of rides and attractions, but knowing negative background stuff weirds me out. Dave intuits and edits and informs and is the best guide I could have ever asked for. Besides, my gasps of awe seem to tickle him; I have an almost complete childlike wonder at the things around me when I’m doing Disney. I have to think that that would annoy some people, but I chose wisely on this trip. I truck with no cynics here; today, we cast forth with glee.

Two major standouts define my day with Dave Cobb, even though we rode most of everything and saw most of everything. The moment we step into the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, Dave excitedly turns to me. “You know there’s a whole Facebook group for the Smell of the Water Inside the Pirates of the Caribbean Ride, right?”

“I did not know that!”

“It’s true! I’m a member!”

“I also would like to be a member! OMG! I love this smell!” Lest you think I’m a hopeless dork, I will have you know that the Smell of the Water Inside the Pirates of the Caribbean Ride also placed high on the WDW Radio Show podcast when they did a show about the Best Smells in Walt Disney World. So, see? Not a dork.

The Disneyland version of Pirates has long fascinated me, because anyone who has been to both coasts insists the California version is better. According to accounts, the Florida version had been cut nearly in half, missing a number of sequences I’d only heard tales of. So it is with some elation that I approach the boat with Dave by my side, sliding in and hoping that the rumors are true. I don’t care about some perceived rivalry between the two parks; I’m here now, and all I want is the best possible ride I can get.

Oh kids: this is it.

Even before the first plunge, we whisper alongside the Blue Bayou restaurant, and even in the stark light of day it’s nighttime out. Atmospheric architecture is maybe my favorite slice of theme-park trickery – literally twenty paces from where we are is the hot California sun; in here, it’s a lazy New Orleans evening, and there’s a mysteriously absent banjo playing. Then that plunge, and you’d best believe I threw my arms in the air.

Near the end of the ride, Dave Cobb points at a wharf we’re about to sail under. “You hear that creaking?” he asks. “That’s there to mask the sound of the Disneyland railroad, which goes right overhead.”

I can’t help myself: “I love reasons!” And Dave collapses into a howl of laughter.

Outside, we meander over to the Haunted Mansion, which, unlike Florida’s rambling, foreboding Gothic is a pristine antebellum mansion that almost invites instead of unnerves. Almost. There’s something creepy about it, even though its creepiness is not as overt as the one in Florida. I’ve known it only for two days and already I think I might like the exterior more.

Inside, proceedings are much the same, though the California version is missing the Escher room and Leota’s head doesn’t float. The attraction itself, while one of my absolute favorites, is not why this stands out.

Outside, Dave Cobb looks back once and says, “This is the reason why I’m designing theme parks.” And he launches into a little pocket history of Dave Cobb: how he fell in love with the Haunted Mansion when he was small, how he grew up obsessing over it. When he was a teenager, he made a replica of the Mansion in his garage for Halloween and pushed his friends through it in a shopping cart. After a time, Disneyland itself fell away from me and the only thing interesting was Dave Cobb and his story: the way his eyes sparkled, the way the memories seemed to wrap around him like a fuzzy blanket on a cold morning. And I had time to wonder: how often is a person able to go back to locus of the thing that shaped so much of their current life? How often can a person literally return to the place and the thing that inspired them as a child, and how often does that thing continue to inspire? Some of us can go back to a classroom where we learned how to conjugate verbs, or maybe to a old parlor where we practiced an instrument or a bedroom in which we did chemistry experiments or made models. We can go back to those places but time changes them, divorces the immediacy of those early moments from the place that once housed them. Last year, I went back to my high school classroom in which I studied English with Miss Kreinsen; I gave her my first book of short stories and she gave me an award. But the classroom was empty and I didn’t fit into any of the desks. We grow up, us kids, and we leave these things behind.

The ghosts that Dave Cobb sees when he comes back here are the same ghosts that were there when he was a child. Though Disneyland was never meant to be a museum, there’s a comfort that some things last forever … or at least a lifetime.

* * *
Oh, there was so much more to see!

We meet up with the Disney guys again and ride the Monorail, sleeker and slicker than the Florida models. We take a jaunt through the Indiana Jones ride and I want to ride again at once. And then again. And again. We have a light brunch at Banyan Barbecue – more on that in a later entry – and a heavy dinner at the Blue Bayou. We see almost all of it and then more, and Dave Cobb is well nigh inexhaustible. It’s thrilling to watch.

Then dusk is swiftly becoming night and my phone wakes up in my pocket. I glance down.

“Have arrived. Call when you can.”

Leaving Dave Cobb at the park – there’s always something for him to do – I hustle my way off property, back to the real world of Denny’s and interstates and vaguely-themed hotels. But once again unreality washes over me as a friend I always, always want to see (and never get to) steps out of his car. I don’t even give him a second. With all the might I can muster after a commando day with Dave Cobb, I run forward and grab Josh as tightly as I can and hold on for dear life.

“It’s nice to see you, too, Kevin,” he laughs, and hugs me back.

I step back and take him in. God, he’s a wonderful sight to take in.

“Josh,” I tell him, new excitement bouncing through me like a tightly packed ball of Silly Putty, “welcome to Disneyland.”

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Where Walt Walked

Exactly seven minutes.

That’s how long it takes to get from my hotel room to the Disneyland entrance. Seven minutes, and that includes the interminable elevator ride down from the fifth floor. This is only the first major difference between here and Walt Disney World, where I am accustomed to planning on twenty minutes of bus transport, and that’s on the inside. Even when I’m with friends with cars, there’s the essential travel time, not to mention the wait for the trams if our vehicle is far off. None of the four Florida parks – The Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Hollywood Studios, and Animal Kingdom – are all that close to one another, reinforcing the heightened myth that this is, indeed, a World.

Now here I stand, seven minutes out of my hotel room. I’m in the center of a large concrete plaza; the path forward leads to Downtown Disney, a few more steps away. I glance to my left and there is Disney’s California Adventure park, currently the newest of Disney’s theme parks. Massive, towering letters spelling CALIFORNIA loom almost menacingly before the front entrance. It’s a bit of a gaudy spectacle, and the microreplica of the Golden Gate Bridge just beyond the front gates does nothing to dispel this assessment. It’s worth noting, even at this early stage in my telling, that things are changing over at California Adventure, and one of the changes is this front entrance. Not to get too far ahead, but I look forward to returning in two years and seeing those horrible letters gone.

Looking left now, and there it is: Disneyland, where Walt walked. Beyond the gates sprawls a history of which I’ve never been a part, and the grandeur of this thought sends shivers through me. I have never liked the phrase, “Where it all started,” but I can’t shake the fact that this is where it all started. All of my Florida trips, the food I’ve eaten, the ink I’ve gotten, the attractions I’ve ridden, the memories I’ve made – it all began here, in this place. The Disneyland Train Station looks like the one at the Magic Kingdom, almost. I can see it from where I’m standing and that shiver goes through me again. Except…

Except I can’t shake those seven minutes. I can’t quite put aside the fact that seven minutes ago I was in my hotel elevator with its ads for Quiznos inside it, or that I passed a Denny’s on my way here. Moreover, I can’t get over the fact that I walked here. I did not take a bus or a ferry or a tram. I walked over here, and here it is.

My friend TC put it best: the difference between arriving at a theme park in Walt Disney World and arriving at one here is the difference between walking through a tunnel and walking through a door. At both entrance points, there exists the real world of fast food and responsibilities and taxes and strip malls, and at both exits lies a world of magic and exploration and artificial reality. But the journey matters, and here in Anaheim, that journey is not part of the equation.

People told me to prepare for how much smaller it was here, but I didn’t quite expect it to hit me so soon.

Shaking it off – Jesus, Kev, you’re not even inside and already you’re judging? Quit it, freals – I march forth into Downtown Disney. See, here’s what happened. When I was planning this vacation over a year ago, I planned on being here for five days, not including my travel day. Standing in the midst of all this, I cursed Past Kev soundly. How do you not include your travel day? You always include your travel day! Any moment spent at the resort and not in the parks is a wasted moment! Get in the game, you dolt! According to my travel agent, this is an easy fix. I just need to go to Guest Services at Downtown Disney and tell them to upgrade my Five-Day Park-Hopper Pass to a Six-Day. I’m pretty sure the price difference is $20, but that’s worth it to get nearly a full day in the parks on Day 1. It’s the start of my journey, and like so many mythic journeys, it’s one worth starting alone.

Of course, I immediately get lost.

“Excuse me,” I ask a nearby Cast Member. (I’m not explaining Disney-ese in these posts, by the by. Context is your friend!) “But do you know where Guest Services is?”

He stared at me blankly a moment, then turned to a female CM. She, in turn discussed the matter with a third fellow. “Um,” the first guy said, “I think it’s near the movie theater? Or maybe that booth far off?”

“Thank you so much,” I said, because they’re just doing their jobs and even though they are apocalyptically unhelpful, they’re at least polite about it. Instead of trying another CM, I get on the horn with Travel Agent Michelle.

“Kevin! Oh hi! Are you in Disneyland yet?”

“I’m in Downtown Disney! And I’m lost!”

“But it’s so small!

Michelle talks me through it, and soon enough I’m exchanging one ticket for another in a tiny, hidden, completely unobtrusive Guest Services shopfront. I think it exists in a tesseract. Regardless, with my new Six-Day ticket in hand, I confidently and with great purpose make my way toward

“Ooo! A pin booth!”

And honestly, all I’m thinking of is getting a pin that says Disneyland, and maybe an attraction pin or two – stuff unique to the West Coast. As I step inside, however, I cast my eyes up and there, on a high shelf, is the Mechanical Kingdom box set.

Remember how I said I wasn’t going to explain Disney-ese? I lied. The Mechanical Kingdom is Disney’s recent embrace of steampunk. Which makes sense, since Disney – with 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Tomorrowland and Epic Mickey and a bunch of other stuff – had been doing steampunk for years before it had a name. When they introduced this new pin set, though, it was their first overt use of the term. Here’s the deal: there are five pins depicting various big Disney characters (Minnie, Donald, Goofy, Daisy, and Professor Ludwig von Drake) that are out and available to the public and though they are limited, they seem plentiful. Then there’s the entire Mechanical Kingdom box set, which not only includes a storybook of sorts, but also two more bonus pins: a steampunk Mickey … and Pirate Pete. For those not in the know, I have a special affinity for Pete, partially because he’s the oldest continually in-use Disney character. Partially for other reasons.

And here’s where good marketing comes in: those two bonus pins? You can’t get them outside the box. At all. But. Those five readily-available pins are like $12 each, and the box set is only $67. So really, you’re paying only seven dollars more to get two more pins and the whole box and storybook thingy! (Oh, I know I’m being taken. The difference [engine] is that I’m gleefully okay with it.)

The problem with the box set is that Disney produced only 300 for each coast. What I am looking at is a display copy promoting the set, and inside there is a broken Pete. I’m not going to buy a set with a broken Pete. Tentatively, I approach the woman behind the counter and point at the five “regular” Mechanical Kingdom pins. “I’d like one of each of those, plus an extra of Ludwig von Drake. That’s for a friend.”

She cocks her head at me. “You don’t want the whole box set?”

I crane my neck back and glance up at the display box. “Well, Pete’s broken. I mean, I like the Mickey pin, but even with a discount, the Pete pin would be the main reason I’d be getting it.”

She looks abashed. “Sir, we wouldn’t sell you a set with a broken piece. We have an unopened box in the back.”

I goggle at her for a moment. “You have … you have a Mechanical Kingdom box set? Here? A full one?”

“Yes, and the last one. We didn’t get many. If you…”

“I’ll take it! And still one of those Ludwig von Drakes!” I slam my money down and on my way back to the parks, I call Joezer.

“Good for you!” he says, sounding a little wary. “But didn’t you blow your whole travel budget?”

“No. I mean, a little, but I budgeted for souvenirs and sixty-seven dollars isn’t…”

“It’s only sixty-seven dollars?”

“Um. Yes.”

“They said it was going to cost $200! Oh my God! Can you get me one?”

“I think they were out! But I’ll ask around tomorrow!”

“Okay! Thank you!”

My phone stowed and my Mechanical Kingdom pins clutched firmly in my hand, I make my way out of Downtown Disney and back to that vast concrete expanse. It’s to my left now, Disneyland, and this time, there’s no hesitating. With no preamble, I hand my six-day Park-Hopper to the Cast Member, push through the turnstile, and for the first time ever, I have come to Disneyland.

* * *

People warned me it would be small.

The perception hits me at once as I step under the railroad tunnel and emerge onto Main Street USA. Things seem closer together, but the effect is homey as opposed to claustrophobic. Even in the overcast daylight, I notice the lights and the golden highlights, and imagine what the park looks like at dusk. I crane my neck up and there are the names on the windows, tributes to Cast Members of the past that were essential to the prosperity of Disney: X Atencio, Charles Boyer, Blaine Gibson, John Hench. Names of Imagineers I’ve read about, studied about. Quite a few of these names have been duplicated at Walt Disney World, but – and here’s the first time this happens – it strikes me that these were here first. For the first time, it strikes me that this really is Where Walt Walked, this was a place he was in, this was a park that occupied the man instead of simply the ideal. And a brief autobiographical pause: it occurs to me now that the entire basis of my happiness – at least as it applies to the larger world of culture, pop and otherwise – lies in the genius of five men. Stephen King, Bruce Springsteen, Gene Roddenberry, Stan Lee, and Walter Elias Disney started things that continue to this day, and continue to instill me with joy, every single day. All geniuses, all flawed, but each possessing a spark of something that has reverberated though the years to reach me. And while it’s certainly possible for me to visit King’s house or see Springsteen in concert, being here is different. Being in Disneyland is like being inside Walt’s imagination. And that counts for something. I think that counts for a lot.

Getting back to small, though: oh, man is Sleeping Beauty Castle tiny.

When I stroll down Main Street in Disney World, I am consistently astounded by the grandeur of Cinderella Castle. Here, I am equally astounded by the sheer smallness of Sleeping Beauty Castle. It looks almost out of place, if that makes sense, less a symbol and a destination and more another building along Main Street. As my trip would continue, I would consistently revise and rethink my opinions about Disneyland, but I never could get used to how small the Castle is. Curse me and my East Coast perceptions!

Of course, the first thing I had to do, the very first thing, was the Matterhorn Bobsleds. I have been dreaming about riding the Matterhorn for at least two years, ever since reading a book on the Disney Mountains (Imagineering At Its Peak; GET it!?). Standing below the Matterhorn is humbling, its faux-snowy peak rising up into that slate-gray sky like hope. This was going to literally be a dream come true, a fulfillment of a wish that…

Oh. It’s closed. “Until when?” I ask the Cast Member manning the gates, expecting him to reply November or something that would cause my immediate and bloody seppuku in the shadow of the Matterhorn.

“Saturday!” he calls back. Sweet relief washes over me. Or maybe it’s cold sweat. I really hope my virus isn’t coming back.

Thwarted by the false promise of the Matterhorn, I set my sights toward Tomorrow. Mere steps away is the entrance to Space Mountain. I’ve decided to make it my goal on this solo day in the parks to only visit attractions that are either unique to Disneyland or are radically different. The scuttlebutt has long been that Disneyland’s version of Space Mountain is radically different and radically better, and I’m about to prove that out, one way or the other.

I step into the queue and at once I am aware that this is the real beginning of my grand adventure. The walkways into the attraction are narrow and confining, utterly unlike the wide blue passageways of the Florida version. I like the effect, though, and there’s no line here so things move swiftly. Then I turn a corner, and gasp.

When you step into the interior queue at Space Mountain East, it’s up a long walkway; you can see the control tower inside from a ways off. Here, the hallway suddenly opens up into a vast room, and you become aware that you’re up high, so high, and you’re looking down at the cars. Above is a replica of a space shuttle, immense and menacing and inviting all at the same time. The catwalks wind swiftly down toward the loading zone and soon enough I’m seated, my pin set tucked judiciously away in the pouch in front of me, and we’re moving, and we’re turning, and we’re off.

At once, things are different. There’s a tunnel with an optical illusion that makes it feel like you’re tilting. Then plunging into the dark and there’s a countdown from ten. The stars are swirling all around and when you hit one, you’re dipping, oh, and flying, soaring through space. And there’s music, too, pulsing action-adventure music; the turns are more exciting, the dips are more thrilling, and I love my mountain in Florida, I will always love my mountain in Florida, but in this moment, this frenzy, this chaos, I think I might love this more.

I am here! I am here!

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

An East Coast Boy Goes to Disneyland


What I’m Reading Now: The Films Of Stephen King, by Michael R. Collings

It starts alone, and dark:

It’s 4:30 AM and it’s cold on my street. Moments before, I’d kissed Shawn good-bye; in his groggy, sleep-addled voice, he’d bidden me a safe trip and then immediately collapsed back onto the pillow. I watched him a moment in the spill of hallway light cutting a thin swatch across the bed. I wouldn’t see him in nearly two weeks and I wanted his face fresh in my mind the whole time.

Out on the street, my thin jacket on. It’s supposed to be warmer in California, but not much. I packed jeans as well as shorts and now I’m wondering whether I shouldn’t have brought a heavier jacket. 4:30 and the cab I’d scheduled the night before isn’t here yet. 4:30 and already I’m worrying about things I can’t control. A minute later, the cab shows up, and the cabbie tells vaguely off-color jokes I’m not embarrassed to laugh at, and soon enough I’m in line at security, taking off my shoes and putting my laptop in the bucket.

I’m not sure what I was thinking when I booked this 6:00 AM flight. When I plan vacations, I try to maximize their potential. Get there early, come back late. I’m still not sure if this is smart or silly. One side of me completely agrees with this point of view. My frosted side wonders whether vacations are supposed to include words like maximize. Soon enough, I am taxiing down the runway in a JetBlue Airbus, clutching my newest copy of It in both hands, reading passages during takeoff because that’s what I’ve always done during takeoff. Some people pray during takeoff. Some people pretend to be blasé. I read paragraphs about a child-murdering psychotic clown-spider from outer space because it makes me feel safe. We all have our rituals.

I’ve been prepping for this vacation for a while now. I know I’m a latecomer to the Disney party, and I can’t yet shake the feeling that I should feel bad about that. It’s the same thing about not being aware of Stephen King at the height of his 80s popularity, or Springsteen when Bossmania was gripping the nation. I was alive when all this was happening; why wasn’t I paying attention? It’s not like my odd nostalgia for eras predating me. I could have gotten into this stuff, if I’d really wanted to. Or maybe I just have a need to feel bad about things that are way out of my control. That’s an analysis for later.

“This is your captain,” the calm voice above says, and I look up from my Doritos Munchie Mix. I’ve emptied the contents onto a napkin on my tray-table and made fastidious work out of separating the pretzels. The Doritos Munchie Mix is a heavenly mix of cheesy starch, but the interloping pretzels are the Devil’s work. “We’ll be landing somewhat earlier than expected, about twenty minutes or so. Sorry about the turbulence, folks. We’ve smoothed out and we look to be staying that way for the remainder of the trip. Enjoy the rest of your flight.”

I power up my iPod and check the time. It was currently noon in Cupertino, California, and it instantly became my goal to be inside Disneyland by 4:00. Tomorrow, my theme-park aficionado buddy Dave would be there to show me around. Following him in rapid succession would be my friends Josh and Tim and Vince and John K. and John H. and Rich and Reid and more and this would be my first and only chance to be at Disneyland alone. I want to take it.

We touch ground in California and LAX is huge and confusing and it’s a testament, I think, to my ease with travel that I don’t panic once. So often at home, I rely on friends to get me from point A to point B, and while most of them are perfectly fine with it, I know it’s a burden, however slight. But when I book a trip, especially a Disney trip, I know how things work for me rather than against me. Airports democratize people. A good portion of us is carless, and a good portion of us is traveling alone. LAX is huge and confusing, but it doesn’t want to be. It wants to help you, because that’s what airports are designed for. It tries, and eventually it succeeds. Months earlier, I’d booked a shuttle from LAX to Anaheim, and while it is a frothy exercise in tedium waiting for it, it eventually arrives and whisks me away. Things at once become better when the driver snaps off Rush Limbaugh in mid-rant. Nobody in the shuttle is into that. I plug in Springsteen and close my eyes.

When I open them, we are speeding down a highway, whose name I don’t know. Maybe it’s a freeway. Hell, it could be an access road. This is one of my more basic failings. Street names elude me. Highways are a mystery. What I notice, though, is palm trees. Palm trees on the side of the road. I’ve seen them in Florida but they aren’t native there. Nobody had to bring them to California; they just happened. It occurs to me that I’ve missed California maybe more than I’d let on.

Our big purple shuttle pulls up in front of a hotel adjacent to the one at which I’m staying. “It’s the construction,” the driver apologizes. “I can’t turn around in their parking lot.” Despite this, and the delay, and his unfortunate choice of talk radio, I tip the guy five bucks. From the curb, I can see the entrance to Disneyland and a weary version of joy is pinballing inside of me. I knew it was close. I hadn’t known it was this close.

I check in, only a little sad that the hotel lobby is just a hotel lobby. In my Disney World experiences, a hotel lobby is a paean to some bygone era or faraway place, with all the frills upon it. At the Carousel Inn and Suites, it’s just a hotel lobby. Kind of a small one. I don’t know if I’m expecting snarling malcontents to hurl my hotel key my way, but everyone at the desk is perfectly pleasant, and within moments I’m in my completely reasonable hotel room. Two beds, a shower, a sink, and – surprisingly – a fridge and a microwave. Which I pine for when I’m at Pop Century and which I don’t use even once here.

A quick shower and a change into clothes I didn’t travel in and I’m on the fifth-floor balcony. From my vantage point, I can see the sensual rise and slope of California Screamin’, the headlining rollercoaster at Disney’s California Adventure park. Mickey’s Fun Wheel is more in the foreground; though I’m not a Mickey Mouse fanatic, seeing Mickey’s face from where I am standing cements where I am. It strikes me as utterly fantastical that I can see these things from where I stand. Until right now, Disneyland has existed in books and online and in films and music. Now, it’s a tangible reality, so close. Why am I nervous?

I grab my backpack from the room and take the elevator down and within three minutes, I am standing under the diminutive sign: Disneyland Resort – meaning the Disneyland Park, Disney’s California Adventure, Downtown Disney, and all three Disney-owned hotels. All of it, right here, and all I need to do is walk over the threshold.

“I’m here,” I whisper to myself. “I can’t believe I’m really here.”

It is 2:30 in the afternoon. The sun is high in the sky and there is a smile upon my face.

I hold my breath and take a step forward.

Friday, April 2, 2010

A Bear Can Rest At Ease

“So my girlfriend read your journal where you call me ‘beefy and resplendent’,” Kelly said, disinfecting my arm.

“Oh, God. You know, when I wrote that in my LJ, I never really thought you’d ever read it.”

“You sent me the link.”

“Yeah, I just … I’m not sure I consider the ramifications sometimes.”

“Well, it doesn’t matter. Every time me and the lady get into a fight, it’s nice to tell her that I have options.”

“Oh, you totally do.”

“Shut up and sit still.”

I did. A moment later, needles tore into my skin while my buddy Steve took pictures. It’s how we do.

Kelly's counter. Note the Dr Pepper! I sure did.

* * *

A little over half my ink Means Something. You know what I mean: the tattoos that have personal life ramifications. The Blue October one which I got the day after my first improv party, so I could capture that one special moment in time forever, when I look in a mirror or something because I put it on the back of my neck? Or the anchor, which symbolized not only my 13th tattoo, but my tenth anniversary with Shawn (who later got nearly identical ink). Stuff like that. I mean, if you stretch it, all of my ink can Mean Something, right down to the interobang and how it not only is about my love of writing, but also about how I met my friends Kenny and Matty and blah blah Kev, stop thinking so much. Even Super Mario has the whole Dad connection (actual recent conversation with Dad: “Remember that time you got me Super Mario 2 for my birthday and no one else had it and I loved it more than anything and it was a big deal?” “Um, no?”) But every one in a little while, I just sort of really like something and want it on me permanently.

Of course, I can’t be like Tracey when it comes to this stuff. “Oh, a pretty girl had a star on her neck, so I want a star on my neck, and OMG is that a pretty rose picture on the wall, because I like pretty roses, so you should inject that into my skin forever, OMG YOU GUYS I WANT A HEART LIKE AN ATOM DIAGRAM, and I want a street vendor with dodgy ink to do it!” Still, Tracey’s penchant for simple, pretty design has some advantages, most notably that they’re quick and small and are licked on by kittens. When it comes to design I like, the interstitial stuff that doesn’t necessarily impact my whole life, things get … big.

Enter Baloo.

Look, it’s not as if The Jungle Book is my favorite film, or even my favorite Disney film. It might not even be in the Top Ten (for funsies, let’s see what would be in my Top Ten Disney films: The Rescuers, Robin Hood, Beauty & the Beast, Aladdin, Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Lion King, Tarzan, Mulan, Lilo & Stitch, and, for sentimental reasons, The Fox & the Hound. The Princess & the Frog may well make my list eventually but it’s still too new. Oh, look, I’ve digressed.) I like the song “Bare Necessities,” but it’s not my favorite Disney song. Even Tale Spin isn’t my favorite cartoon from the Disney Afternoon – that would be DuckTales (woo-oo!)

But there’s something about the character I relate to. He’s a voice of authority who also listens. He seems lazy, but he’s also responsible, and…

Oh, who the hell am I kidding? He’s a big roly-poly bear and he’s fun. Duh.

In the years I’ve been going to the Disney parks, Baloo has become my humungous squee moment. I’ve posed with Baloo. I’ve gotten pictures with Baloo. I danced with Baloo in the Castle Hub in the Magic Kingdom. That in itself is a reason to move it, shake it, and celebrate it. He’s a neat character, drawn in a style I like. Plus, I kind of wanted a character tattoo I could show off at the parks. It’s not weird!

I’d been playing around with the idea of the Baloo featured in my LJ banner, dancing with his arms out. In the original picture, he’s spinning Mowgli around; in my banner, he’s holding a huge old-fashioned Dr Pepper. But when you take stuff out of his hands, it looks like he’s gripping something invisible. I wrote to Kelly. “Is there anything you can do with his hands? Move his wrists up and not have the hands gripping?”

He wrote back: “I’ll do my best, but if I go with those specifications, he looks like he’s attacking.” And with no Don Karnage in sight!

Steve and I got to Chameleon a little early and Kelly showed me the things he’d been working on. “Now, I know you liked this first design, but I found this one online where he’s, like, dancing with his hands up, and I…”

I love this one, let’s do it!”

“Um. Okay?”

Now, folks? We’ve done the tattoo thing before, and because I’ll probably get hyper detailed with my steampunk Dr Pepper tattoo for my birthday, I’ll just gloss it over from here: rending, searing pain. The coloring hurt more than the outline. Kelly’s got goddamn sexy arms. Took a break halfway through because oh my god the rending, searing pain. Seriously, how do I always forget it hurts this much? And then it was done, and now Baloo and I are constant companions. I can fall apart in his backyard!

(Oh, and quickly: I made the mistake of looking up images of Disney tattoos online the day before, and oh hell are there some godawful artists out there. I found one that made Baloo look afflicted with Bell’s palsy. And one where Simba was so misshapen that it was like looking into a poster arguing for animal euthanasia. There was momentary panic. It passed. As momentary things generally do.)

Three quick things before I jet:

1. Steve seems to have finally decided to get a tattoo. He may throw in with my whole Birthday Tattoo Party, the details of which I will enumerate once April has released me from its hectic grip.

2. You guys, the steampunk Dr Pepper design has gotten even cooler. And crazy intricate. Kelly copied a design for me, but I losted it. He’s assured me that he will post it to Facebook on Saturday, and I’ll share it all with y’all then. But fucko, is it going to hurt.

3. I think I found my new artist. His name is John, and he works with Kelly at Chameleon. I haven’t fully vetted him yet, but Kelly vouches for him, and he’s a big comic-book fanboy. So we’ll see. Oh, we’ll see.

It doesn’t have to mean anything to be awesome, I think. The next one’s going to not only be steampunk and Dr Pepper, but it will also be my Farewell To Kelly ink, so that’s a thing. This one didn’t have to be a thing. I saw a Barr about a bear and it turned out nifty. Sometimes, that’s all you really need.