Since our Harry Potterland annual passes expired in December, I guess it's only natural that we would return to the land of Disney, right? Over-priced tickets, super-expensive food, and massive crowds...what's not to like?
I did at least use the Disneyland Crowd Forecast to pick the best date to attend. And it proved to be about as useful as a consulting a Magic 8 Ball. The calendar promised Ghost Town crowds on our Wednesday in January, and maybe compared to a non-Ghost Town day, but it didn't feel all that Ghost Townish.
Disneyland again met all my expectations (none of which were optimistic). Most of the rides had lines of 30-45 minutes, but at least the lines weren't extended beyond the end of their normal stopping point as they were the last time I went to Disneyland. Luckily, the restaurants were pretty empty the couple of times we stopped for food. As we were eating, we did watch the lines grow and grow and grow so I guess we just had good timing. And, to be honest, the food we had in California Adventure (at Flo's in Cars Land) was actually pretty affordable. There wasn't a ton of it, but it was really tasty and relatively-reasonably priced for an amusement park (around $12 for a smallish adult meal). We also ate at the Pizza Port in Tomorrowland and I had a pretty good slice of buffalo chicken pizza. It was probably around the same price as the sandwich I had at Flo's and not nearly as satisfying.
But enough complaining about the stuff I didn't like (don't get too excited, I'm not going to stop blathering just yet) - on to my observations about the rides that I haven't been on since the end of 2015. My observations on updates may or may not have been actual updates. I could just be mis-remembering what it was like before. Who knows?
The first ride of the day: Space Mountain...or as it's known now: Hyperspace Mountain. The first thing I noticed, other than the name change, was the missing escalator to the upper level where the line generally began. The line now snakes up around the front of Captain EO (which is some other Star Wars related thing now) and over to where it used to pretty much start. Luckily, at least half of this winding outside line was empty so I was hurrying up to where it actually started near where the escalator used to be. The video screen near the entrance to the inside-part of the line is now Star Wars related stuff. The huge video screen in the final room now shows Star Wars stuff instead of the generic space stuff it used to show, but the huge spaceship suspended from the ceiling is still a non-Star Wars ship. And the audio playing while waiting in line is all Star Wars related now. Inside the ride, they added a few Star Wars ships/battles projected on the walls, and one tie fighter canopy (that's what it looked like to me) swooping down over the track. But it's really still pretty much the old Space Mountain with a few minor changes.
And then we were off to Pirates. On the way, since we were walking past it anyway, we picked up fast passes for Indiana Jones. I love Pirates of the Caribbean. It's my favorite ride (and area of the park inside Disneyland) by far. It's the only part of Disneyland I prefer to Harry Potterland. All that said, there wasn't anything visually different inside the ride as far as I could tell. I thought I heard some updated audio in the pirate skeletons in the pirate bar section of the ride (laughter that I don't remember being there in years past). And Jack Sparrow at the ride's end seems to be breaking down a little. His mouth was barely moving - but that's more of a non-update to the ride. Also semi-pirate-related, I saw some pirate skull key chains at the ride's end (I always pop into the pirate shop after riding POC) that I don't think I'd seen before. I wanted one, but wasn't ready to pony up $7.00 for it. There was a bunch of other stuff I hadn't seen before in the shop, too, but nothing in the super-tightwad price range.
After Pirates, we checked on Indiana Jones and saw that it was now broken down. So we would have to wait to see if it was repaired later. Instead, we headed over to The Haunted Mansion. I didn't see a single update to that ride, but it's such a classic ride that I think any "improvements" they make are just a waste. One non-update: the projected face of the murderous bride near the exit of that room looked less clear and a little messed up, so I don't know what was going on there.
After The Haunted Mansion, we checked on Indiana Jones again (still broken), and then headed over to The Matterhorn. Along the way, we passed by by Peter Pan (another favorite ride, second only to Pirates) and saw it was as super-crowded as ever. The rest of Fantasyland had pretty much normal lines, but Peter Pan is always insanely busy. So we skipped it. The Matterhorn seemed to be pretty much the same ride I remembered. There could have been some new Yetis (there are so many now I can't keep track of them all) or wreckage/debris. Or maybe even new Yeti noises, but it has never been a ride I loved, so I don't have fond memories of what it once was to compare it against.
After the excitement of The Matterhorn, we needed to keep that adrenaline rush going, so we headed to...see Animatronic Abraham Lincoln. What? Not exciting? Maybe not. But we needed to justify our visit as a "field trip" for Emeli, so an educational stop was in order (not to say the Pirates ride isn't educational, but since Disney Jack Sparrowed it up, it's a lot more fictional). It's the same ol' Honest Abe show it's always been. Nothing new to report there.
We headed over to California Adventure after seeing Robot Abe. CarsLand is pretty much the best part of this park (we'll see how I feel after the remodel of The Tower of Terror into Guardians-of-the-Galaxyland), so we headed to the Cars ride (it was closed due to technical difficulties) and then ate a late lunch/early dinner at Flo's. It was very tasty and not too expensive.
We popped into a couple of shops on the way out of California Adventure, but didn't try the only other ride I enjoy in California Adventure - Soarin' Over California (I don't even know if it's still open, it might be closed for conversion to Soarin' Over the World).
Back in Disneyland, we tried Indiana Jones again. Fortunately, this time, it was open so we jumped in the Fast Pass line. I don't remember seeing anything new on this ride either, but it's not a classic ride from my childhood that has burned itself into my memory, so I don't know for sure that nothing has changed.
Since we were right there, we decided to also ride Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. We didn't have a fast pass, so we had to wait in a crazy-long line that snaked back in front of the Mexican restaurant dining area. It was dark by this time, so I didn't really see much of the ride. There could have been updates that went unseen. The one update I thought I did see was something that stands out more at night anyway, so that could be a misconception, too. It looked like they added a lot of lit/burning fuses and dynamite to the Dynamite tunnel. It was pretty cool. And may have been cooler than last time, but who knows?
By now, we were creeping up on the 8:00 closing time, so we headed over to Tomorrowland for our last ride of the day: Star Tours. I didn't expect anything new so I was surprised by a bunch of updated videos on the huge video screen in the first room (showing all the interesting planets Star Tours can take you to, weather on the different worlds, etc) and what I thought was updated C3PO dialogue and new dialogue for the luggage scanning droid (that may not be true, though). The ride itself was to a planet that I don't remember ever having been to on Star Tours: Kashyyyk (the wookie world) and Coruscant (I think that was the end-point). Oh, and there were the usual close calls with Imperial ships and Darth Vader of course. Fun stuff.
After Star Tours, we made a shocking discovery: the Buzz Lightyear ride had a five minute wait time. And we were walking right past it, so we rushed to the front of the line for our actual last ride of the day. This was only my second time on this ride, so I have no idea if it was any different than it was from the day it opened. I did shoot a lot of targets with a gun in each hand (my weak hand, the left, scored higher than my right, which was weird).
On the way out, we were trapped behind the wall of parade watchers as the Electric parade wound it's way down Main Street. We should have escaped on the monorail, but I wasn't thinking. So instead, we were squeezed into a crowd of people as we waited to escape. It's a good thing no terrorists decided to target Disneyland that day We would have been sitting ducks.
So that's my Disneyland report. Exciting stuff.
The Whistler, John Grisham
Before I get started, yes, I know John Grisham's novels are essentially the same story rehashed with different characters/settings/legal issues, etc. I know this...and I don't care. John Grisham can tell a story that draws you in and makes you hungry to find out what happens on the next page. He makes the characters in the books feel real and interesting. Or real and loathsome, if they're supposed to be loathed1.
I actually stopped reading Grisham's novels for a couple of years because he was really letting his politics show and it was making the same well-written and engaging fiction...less enjoyable. But I've read the last several novels and even though there is definitely a bias to the left, they're much more politically neutral - much as they were in the beginning (or at least how I remember them being - my memory is far from perfect).
The Whistler is John Grisham's latest legal thriller. And despite the implications of the title, the primary character in the book is not a whistle-blower. She is, of course, a lawyer. An attractive lawyer, as are pretty much all of Grisham's protagonists. Young, idealistic, honest - very much the typical Grisham protagonist. There is a whistle-blower in the background of most of the story, but the reader is sheltered from the identity of this person for most of the book. The FBI also figures pretty heavy in the story, as they have in many other John Grisham stories. And, as usual, the FBI agents are perfect boy scouts2. And, in a Game of Thrones-y move, one of the main characters is killed of fairly early in the story.
I considered finding an interesting passage from the book to share, but nothing really stands out any more than anything else in my mind. It's all good. I could spoil the book by going more deeply into the story and characters, but I'll just leave it at this - if you read and enjoyed The Firm, I'm pretty sure you will enjoy The Whistler. If you require completely original plots in everything you read, this may not be the book for you.
1 I suppose it's possible that the same people who root for the Empire in Star Wars could read John Grisham's books and root for the shadowy, nefarious thugs to to win. Or at least to admire their clever criminality/viciousness. But I'm not one of those people, so I can only speculate.
2 Having dealt directly with the FBI in the past (in real life), I find that depiction to be a little bit of a stretch, but it makes for a more enjoyable story, so we'll overlook it.
Prince of Outcasts, S.M. Sterling
Here's an interesting note about this novel and its predecessor - The Change, an anthology3 written mainly by guest authors set in the same universe, was published between The Golden Princess and The Desert and the Blade (briefly mentioned in previous posts). I mentioned The Change briefly here. Several of the characters/settings created by other authors in The Change were then incorporated into the The Desert and the Blade and Prince of Outcasts (and will likely continue to be principal players in the story going forward). One of my favorites from the anthology, the Tarzan character, hasn't made an appearance, but the books don't spend much time on the east coast of the U.S., so he could still make his way into the stories. The latest books are giving us glimpses into more of post-change California, the South Pacific, Japan, and Korea, so that's been interesting.
Now, thoughts on Prince of Outcasts specifically...
I briefly mentioned Prince of Outcasts predecessors (The Golden Princess and The Desert and the Blade), but gave little more than a generic recommendation for both. Honestly, these three books all blend together in my mind at this point (though Prince of Outcasts is still pretty fresh), so from an overall perspective, here's the scoop: it's been a long time since technology ceased to function as it once did when the world reverted to a medieval playground. We've moved on to the third generation of survivors who think of the world their grandparents knew (airplanes, automobiles, etc) as little more than myths and legends. The big baddies from the earlier novels have been defeated, but other incarnations of the baddies are going strong elsewhere in the world so there's no time to rest and enjoy a little peace. The children of King Rudi (the son of Mike Havel and Juniper Mackenzie of the original novels) are now having adventures of their own and seeing the world.
Stirling's books are well-written and do inspire a hunger to find out what's going to happen next, but it's hard to explain why. Maybe it's because Stirling does so much research and writes with authority on nearly every topic. But he's also just a skilled, descriptive writer. If you enjoy post-apocalyptic stories and alternative history stories, you'll probably enjoy this series. But it's a weird blend of alt-history and fantasy, so if you're committed to alt-history rooted in fact, this may not be the series for you. And there's no end in sight for the series, so you can keep falling deeper and deeper into this weird universe.
3 Speaking of anthologies, Thieves' World is one of the best. If you can still find a copy (it's really old and likely out-of-print) of the original, I'd recommend it highly. I have an ancient copy in my book collection (as well as a non-comprehensive graphic novel adaptation).
Since every recent post needs to have some kind of reference to The Magicians for Dan, here's my obligatory Magicians-related comment: I still haven't watched the first episode of the new season of The Magicians. And the second episode just aired, but I haven't seen that one either. They're both queued up and ready to go, I just need to find a little time.
I started re-reading the novel again, but I had started to forget what had come before in the previous forty pages, so I started over. And on a non-Magicians tangent, I'm also currently reading the Joel McHale mostly-factual autobiography, Thanks for the Money: How to Use My Life Story to Become the Best Joel McHale You Can Be. It has been pretty amusing (I'm almost halfway through it now). I've literally laughed out loud a few times. The Joel McHale book is a physical book (I've been reading an eBook version of The Magicians), so it gets priority when I read. Maybe I'll have to go pull The Magicians out of whatever box it's in so I actually spend a few minutes reading it.
I decided it was time to change up the comics on my cubicle wall so I put up the first 7 issues of Dark Horse's Conan. The Joe Linsner covers are awesome. I actually had to skip issue #2 because the Frost Giant's Daughter cover is a little too risque for the office. So I have #1, #0, then #3-#7 on the wall
Speaking of things nerdly, nobody has been buying my comics or toys on eBay for the past few months, but here's a tribute to the many treasures that I have said goodbye to over the past couple of years...
Cul De Sac / Richard Thompson
While looking for a new calendar and hoping for a Cul De Sac desk calendar to adorn my cubicle (like the one I had several years ago), I discovered that Richard Thompson, the artist of Cul de Sac (that has sadly never been published in a local newspaper), died in July of last year. Richard Thompson was a guest at ComicCon many years ago, which is where I discovered and fell in love with his wacky world. I'm part Petey.
While I'm not feeling a Terry Pratchett or Douglas Adams level of loss, I am sad. And confused. The Cul De Sac comic strips have continued appearing online since he stopped creating them on September 23, 2012 (it had a five-year run). You would probably think I would have noticed the repeats, but maybe that's part of this strip's greatness. The humor is so well-crafted that it's always funny, even if it does feel familiar. The strip linked above was posted on December 29, but when I recently looked more closely at the date in the comic itself and realized it was from 2008.
Dave!, Marc Richard
I was contacted by another author trying to generate some positive feedback for one of his books. The author in this case was Marc Richard, and the book was Dave! (the first trilogy). I was told that my review of one of Terry Pratchett's books brought me to his attention. The book was described by the author thus: "It has aliens, politics, and lots of humor. It has been called Douglas Adams meets South Park, or If Christopher Moore had a job at the Cartoon Network writing for Adult Swim."
The back cover of the book provides this glimpse into the book's plot:
Can a horde of nobodies save the world?
Starlet Richter is your typical transgender woman living in the good ol' U.S of A.
The country is in ruins after President Gibson enshrouds it in his wall, and seals it off from the outside world.
After years of watching the place fall apart, she decides it's time to do something about it. She's going to help tear down that wall!
Eric Tisdsale is Starlet's long-lost love.
He's making a pretty mundane living as a pool shark, until one phone call changes everything.
He's asked to join the Invaders, a secret society led by a charismatic and flawlessly handsome dude named Dave.
Their mission: destroy the forces in D.C. and take the country back.
Both have their plans.
Both are in danger.
Will they save each other? Themselves? The country?
How about when they discover the president is not actually human, and there may be more of his kind hiding among us?
DAVE! is a science fiction comedy that features fast-paced action, pie-throwing clowns, nudists, and lots and lots of aliens.
Equal parts Hitchhiker's Guide and Coen Brothers, this series will have you laughing your way through the apocalypse!
The Douglas Adams/Hitchhiker's Guide comparison immediately piqued my interest. I thought the book's summary on Amazon sounded more like Billy Pilgrim's misadventures in Slaughterhouse Five than Arthur Dent's romp through the Galaxy, but I went through a Vonnegut phase many moons ago and read everything by Vonnegut I could find, so that didn't dampen my enthusiasm.
Sadly, the book wasn't all that I'd hoped it might be. It started out a little bit weird (email correspondence between many of the book's characters - including the author himself, who thought it would be fun to plug himself several times in the book) before becoming less weird, yet no more well-written. It didn't help that the story is a liberal's vision of the absolute worst-case scenario for the United States of 'Merica. I don't know if he came up with the story when Donald Trump ran for president in 2012 or if the Trump-then-Mel-Gibson presidency idea was inspired from the Donald's second, more successful, attempt to become president in 2016, or if he's just a little bit psychic and dreamed the story up well before the Donald ever expressed any interest in the Presidency. Prescience aside, there's not much here. Maybe I'm just not the demographic the book is shooting for (old heterosexual white guy), but I found few redeeming qualities in the book.
I'm not one to turn my nose up at a good story with aliens, conspiracy theories, underground rebellions against a tyrannical government, and just a little bit of dystopian mayhem thrown in for good measure. And this book did include all of the above. Plus an overabundance of profanity. And I do mean overabundance. Man, there were a lot of words starting with the letter "F" in this book. And they were pretty much all the same word. With four letters. In addition to the profanity, it also excluded anything resembling a well-told story. The author seemed to be much more interested in trying to shock the reader with left-wing stereotypes than trying to paint a picture with his words. If this is what the future holds from millennial authors, I'm glad I already have a full library of classics to choose from.
On the positive side, the book was pretty well-edited. There were only a few errors that crept into the text.
In summary, while I'm not telling you not to read this book, I'm definitely not suggesting you should.
Warp, Lev Grossman
Immediately after finishing Dave!, I quickly started Warp to cleanse my mental palate. Warp is one of the few non-Magicians books I'm aware of by Lev Grossman (the only other one I've read/know of is Codex). It's as well-written as one would expect from the author of The Magicians. A quick, enjoyable read.
If you were fond of The Catcher in the Rye in High School (as I was), I have some good news for you. Holden Caulfield is back....kinda. This story takes place 50 years later, the protagonist's name is Hollis, and he's an unemployed college graduate with too much time on his hands. Hollis will not only seem familiar to those of us who grew up with Holden Caulfield, but also to those of us who have a affinity for Albert Camus's Mersault. And there's maybe just a little bit of Quentin Coldwater in Hollis, too. The story takes place in Boston and as someone who has spent no time in either New York City or Boston, Boston feels pretty much interchangeable with New York to me. I was considering blathering on about Hollis's characteristics that resemble Holden's, Mersault's, and Quentin's, but I figure nobody will care and even I'm beginning to lose interest in that topic...
One thing about the book that's both interesting and just a little bit distracting is the barrage of book/TV/movie quotes and flashbacks (I think) interspersed in the text. One of the chapters ends with a whole scene from Star Trek The Next Generation, complete with dialogue from Data, Picard, Crusher, and Troi. I'm not sure if these are glimpses into a slightly schizophrenic brain that won't stay anchored in reality, or if this was just Hollis's way of relating the world around him to the fictional worlds he lived in (very Quentin-like, if that's the case), or if maybe this was just a literary device used by the author to stretch out and liven up the prose. I guess that's left for the reader to decide.
Here is an example of what I'm referring to (the gray text is the book quote/TV quote/movie quote/flashback).
The bell rang, and the doors opened directly onto the office anteroom: apparently the company owned the whole floor. It was decorated like an old-fashioned cloakroom, with wood paneling and an umbrella stand. He walked through it into a reception area, which was painted a stylish, soothing rose color. The receptionist, a young woman with brown hair, looked up when he came in.
I am an android. Doctor. I am incapable of experiencing fear.
She was sitting on an uncomfortable-looking orthopedic chair with no back, wearing a headset phone. "Can I help you?" she said.
Why, Mr. Kessler is one of our most valuable clients.
Hollis cleared his throat.
"I'm looking for Eileen Cavanaugh."
"I'll see if she's free," said the woman,
She switched to an intercom and politely lowered her voice.
"Darcy? ls Eileen there? There's someone out here to see her."
She listened for an answer, then looked back up at Hollis.
"Your name?" she said.
Call me Ishmael.
He cleared his throat.
She waited For a moment for Hollis to give a last name, but when he didn't she just said "Scotty" into the headset, then stopped and listened again, tapping her pen.
in a tuxedo was doing tricks with ropes and knots in the middle of a ring of spectators. The peripheral highway that ran along the docks came up suddenly, only a block past the market. There was nowhere to cross it legally, but he waited on the shoulder for a while for a break in traffic, surrounded by broken glass and black, charred-looking blowout pads.
"You can't ride back in the rain, Hollis. Wait a few minutes."
"l can't exactly stay here. can I?" he said bitterly. "Anyway. it's not raining anymore."
"Yes, it is."
"No, it isn't."
Eileen went over to the window and pulled up the blinds. They looked out through the black bars of the fire escape. Night was falling.
"Is it?" said Hollis. "I can't really tell."
"l guess I can't tell either."
They listened for the sound of rain.
Anyway," she said. "Take an umbrella."
The road cleared for a minute. He jogged across a few lanes of black asphalt worn shiny with age, jumped over a guardrail, and suddenly he was at the docks. Two enormous splintery gray timber wharfs jutted out into the harbor in front of him. The New England Aquarium stood at the end of them, on a double row of massive concrete pilings.
A scum of Foam and floating trash bobbed around the base of the pilings, but farther out in the main harbor the water was blue and clean. The air was chilly. Seagulls wheeled and cried overhead. Hollis could see as far as Logan Airport on the far side of the bay, where every couple of minutes another plane took off or landed, weirdly out of sync with the roar of its engine because of the time...
The story ended a little more abruptly than I would have liked. Xanthe is still an enigma to me, the repercussions of Peters's peer pressure were left unexplored (sending the barely-ever-there Mersault to prison was the point of The Stranger, after all), and I wanted to know more about Eileen. But maybe that's all coming in Warp II: The Wrath of Caulfield.
One last thing before I go - a couple more doodles. They're not great, but they're pretty good. As always, the originals looked much cooler than these scans. But whatcha gonna do?
I still haven't finished re-reading The Magicians, but season 2 of The Magicians starts on SyFy in a few days so I guess I better get back to it so I can compare the original to the TV version with more authority. So far, everything I remember as being wrong when watching the TV version has been pretty-much spot on, though.
This will probably be my last mention of the Happy-Happy Fun World of Harry Potter. So no more Pottertopia logo after this post. Back to boring old Badbartopia...
The wife and I took our final trip to Harry Potterland the first week of December, expecting to see Potterville all decked out in Christmas trees, holly, lights, and all manners of Christmassy goodness. Universal Studios itself was pretty well decorated (the Dr. Seuss tree was really cool), but there wasn't a single Christmas decoration in Hogsmeade. Not a sausage. Speaking of sausages, we also didn't bother eating at the Three Broomsticks on this visit. I think the lack-of-Christmas-disappointment ruined our appetites. So any temptation we may have had to return the next week (the final week that our passes were active) or to renew our passes for 2017 was removed. We didn't even bother with Butterbeer on this visit, though I did finally get a chocolate frog (they come in milk chocolate only...yuck) with a wizard card before we left. It was Helga Hufflepuff, sadly. I was hoping for Dumbledore. On the way out of the park, I also picked up some bottled butterbeer from the gigantic - and way-overpriced - Sugar store in the Downtown Universal Studios. I've had the bottled stuff before and found it pretty mediocre, but I think they must have adjusted their recipe because it tasted a lot more like the real thing than I remembered.
We also rode the Flight of the Hippogriff mini-coaster for the first time since our initial visit before Harry Potterville was officially opened to the pubic, and the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride inside Hogwarts. And now, the big news for those of you who didn't have a chance to visit Pottertland before the end of 2016 - the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride inside Hogwarts has been modified from a very cool 3D ride to the same ride minus the 3D. The physical characteristics of the ride remain unchanged...but there's a lot more blank space visible inside the ride now (it's the same space, you just didn't see it before) and it feels less "real" than it did with the sweet 3D quidditch goggles that had to be worn when the ride's video interaction was all 3D.
Here are a few photos (a couple are things I hadn't taken a photo of previously, but most are the same old buildings, crowds, etc). There are also a few photos of Christmas decorations around the non-Potter parts of Universal Studios. And a couple of the Jurassic Park area - the ride was closed for renovations, so we didn't go on the ride in 2016 even though I remember it fondly from years ago. And we stuck around after dark for the first time with these passes. So some of the photos are from after dark, which adds a whole new perspective (especially in Potterland).
Universal Studio Christmas decorations (and other nighttime lights)
Jurassic Park (the ride was closed, so this is all I got)
Potterland - for the last time
Also, the crowd-forecast calendar was reasonably accurate for the day we attended. It was supposed to be a ghost town, and generally was. Lines were all super short, anyway, even if there were quite a few people there. We actually stayed until after dark and saw the lights turn on inside Hogwarts and around Hogsmeade, which was pretty sweet.
Here are a couple of recent doodles. Enjoy.
I had also planned to mention a couple of other things, but all this Harry Potter stuff has taken the wind out of my sails. So next time...