To The Park That Walt Built

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What could be Mecca for Disney fans but Walt Disney’s original Magic Kingdom, Disneyland?

I’d been discouraged from visiting Disneyland before. “It’s so small. You’ve been to Disney World; you won’t be impressed.” ¬†And there’s the never-ending East Coast/West Coast rivalry, trying fruitlessly (wait, wait, I’m setting up something good…) to compare the apples-versus-oranges natures of the Anaheim and Lake Buena Vista resorts.

After my Adult Disney Renaissance (a term I think is attributable to @macabresalad over at Food*Fitness*Fantasy), I read up a lot on the creation of the Disney parks, and I¬†kept feeling drawn toward California. ¬†Regardless of how much more expansive and operationally impressive Walt Disney World is, I became obsessed with seeing this little nugget of a park, the park that changed the amusement and entertainment industry forever, the park that’s rooted deep in the history of a corporate canon so engrained into my psyche.

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I was fortunate enough to sucker two of the best fellas and Disney parks companions a guy could ask for into attending our first Disneyland visit with us. The promise of a Club 33 reservation didn’t hurt none, I’m sure! (More on that in a future post.)

When Lance, Phil, Brian and I walked under the Disneyland railroad archways and through to Main Street, U.S.A., it was like we were escape artists pulling off our biggest trick, slipping out of reality. ¬†It was early December, and the park was dripping from head-to-toe in festive decorations, Christmas background music carrying through the air, characters greeting in Town Square in holiday garb…there was an energy in the air I’ve never experienced to such a degree before.

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I’ve been trying to put my thumb on it for awhile, and I’m sure my eventual conclusion is nothing new: there’s such an emotional investment in Disneyland by the majority of its guests, locals who have been attending since they were kids. Disneyland is their land. They have a special sense of ownership over it, and they treat it with respect. Disneyland is not a once-in-a- or few-times-a-lifetime experience for visitors like Walt Disney World is; it’s part of the community. ¬†Disneyland often meets the standards these return visitors expect. ¬†In the same vein, people who go to Disneyland, for the most part, go because they love it, not because they feel compelled to lug their kids to a big resort as part of the American Dream/Requirement.

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There are loads of live entertainment: jazz musicians in New Orleans Square; Mary Poppins, Bert and their big brass band in front of Sleeping Beauty Castle; the Mickey and the Magical Map stage show and the vaudevillian Fantasy Faire Royal Theatre productions; the bands under the tent of the Big Thunder Ranch Jamboree.

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…and that’s not even counting Disney California Adventure!

Disneyland is chock-full of attractions, doubling(?) the number in Florida’s Magic Kingdom close to the point of claustrophobia, though I’d like to think of it as cozy.

That’s actually how I feel about the whole park. ¬†It feels cozy, like a warm blanket or a cherished stuffed animal from your childhood. ¬†It feels like a home away from home, a truly idealized mix of fantasy and nostalgia, both for Americana and the pop culture icons of my youth.

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I have so many other thoughts on Disneyland, on California Adventure, and our whole experience which I’ll elaborate on soon, but for this post, I just wanted to share how immensely enthralled I was by the whole park. ¬†Disney’s California operation is a park-based experience, unlike Florida, which is an all-encompassing resort experience once you get off the airplane. Now, I’m not saying one approach is better than the other; as mentioned above, it’s apples-versus-oranges, and which coast is better is based on your personal preferences.

What I want from a Disney park right now is the in-park experience, the attractions, the entertainment, the “show.” I was disappointed with our most recent trips to Walt Disney World, where we easily knocked out ¬†most of a park’s attractions in a half-day. ¬†I was concerned after our visit to Tokyo Disney Resort that the American Disney parks had just given up on the park experience by comparison in favor to finding new ways to milk their guests out of money.

I think about this inaugural Disneyland trip every day. Disneyland assuaged my fears and made me a believer again.

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Waimea Canyon Drive

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On our last day on Kaua’i, with a late evening flight to Honolulu ahead of us, we didn’t want to lay out on the beach or do a strenuous amount of hiking since we didn’t want to sit on a plane, even for a 35 minute trip, being all sweaty and gross. ¬†So we hopped in our little Mazda 2 rental and made our way south from Kapa’a. ¬†Our destination? Waimea Canyon.

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I remember the first time I’d even heard of Waimea Canyon, on a friend’s Instagram of all places. ¬†Like Na Pali, I was immediately drawn to its natural beauty (we don’t see a lot of this jaw-droppin’ stuff where I come from.)

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While the label “The Grand Canyon of the Pacific” is erroneously credited to Mark Twain (who, in his travels to the Aloha State, never stepped foot on Kaua’i), the title is an appropriate moniker. ¬†While not as deep or wide (that’s what she said?) as ol’ GC, Waimea is a gorgeous watercolor of greens, reds, oranges.

“Are you crying?” Lance said, obviously delighted over my emotional reaction to…well, anything.

“No, it’s windy up here and suntan lotion and shut up, you stupid jerk!” I whimpered, wiping tears from my eyes.

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If you take 550 further inland, up to it’s dead-end deep inside Waimea Canyon State Park, you’ll dead-end at the second Kalalau Valley lookout, which straddles the top of a ridge overlooking rolling trees to the east, the grandeur of Kalalau Valley to the east, and Wai’ale’ale ahead of you, one of the rainiest spots on earth.

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For two kids from topographically-challenged areas of the United States, this double-whammy of incredible sights was hard to comprehend.  It definitely made me appreciate, right in that moment, how fortunate I am and my ability to even be there to see these things.

Na Pali

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If you’re sick of more Hawai’i posts after our vacation absence from the blog, well, I hate to break it to ya, but…

Instead of our normal day-by-day trip report, we’re gonna break down our latest, greatest Hawai’i trip into “experiences.” ¬†This one came from our third full day on Kaua’i (which we’ll talk more about in another post). ¬†I am a faithful user of TripAdvisor and had seen in the zygote-stages of our trip planning that the #1 rated activity on the island of Kaua’i was the Na Pali coastline.

The Na Pali coastline, like everything in the Hawaiian island chain, has been formed by millennia of volcanic activity, erosion, etc. etc. (Wikipedia, to my aid!) ¬†The ruggedness of the mountains, cliffs and valleys of Na Pali have made roadbuilding untenable, so the only way to access the northwest side of Kaua’i is by helicopter or to hike (I couldn’t afford the former and am seriously too lazy to do the latter.)

After seeing trip report photos of Na Pali, I knew, in the deepest parts of my shallow soul, that I had to go to there. ¬†It seemed beautifully, naturally impossible, and I had to see it. ¬†I poured over several dozen reviews of different boat and catamaran tours of the Na Pali coast, and finally settled on the Southern Star sunset cruise run by Captain Andy’s out of Port Allen. ¬†It wasn’t cheap (about $145 a person), but it included a freshly made-steak dinner and as many drinks as you could drink, so after doing some fuzzy math, Lance and I were able to justify the expense.

As soon as the boat left the dock, dozens of spinner dolphins came up along side to greet us, jumping and (duh) spinning wildly in the air.

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I don’t have the greatest photographic equipment, so no fancy jumping photos for you, dear readers!

Lance, of course, sobbed like a baby upon seeing a school of dolphins play in their natural habitat. “It’s the salt in the air!” he said, wiping away tears.

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The first half of the tour had us motoring up the coast, and the water was pretty choppy (and it’s supposed to be rougher in the winter!) so we got fairly soaked if sat anywhere outside (though why you’d sit inside the cabin at all during this tour makes little sense to me.)

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Sea cave!

The first stretch of Na Pali along the south side, right after you pass the naval station, is pretty “flat;” lots of red and brown and gray rock, shorn by pummeling winds which, we were told, only surpassed by the Cliffs of Dover for their intensity.

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Ahoy, mateys!

As we made our way north, the cliffs became much more rugged and fantastical. ¬†These photos with my shitty point n’ shoot don’t do them justice. ¬†Vibrant greens, reds, and browns highlighted this impressive, practically alien terrain. ¬†Not only did we spot waterfalls cascading down these cliffs, but mountain goats too! (Unfortunately, no photos exist of the mountain goat because he was SUPER far away.)

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Once we approached Ke’e Beach on the north shore of the island, which is the last beach you can access via car from the opposite direction, the catamaran shut off its motor and the crew began hoisting the sail. ¬†They also starting passing out “Sneaky Tikis,” a rum-based cocktail of which Lance took full advantage.

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As the sun set behind Niihau, the Forbidden Isle, (just behind Lance’s head in the photo above), our tummies full and, at least with Lance, heads a little fuzzy from too many cocktails, the Southern Star swept closer to port.

This post was hard to write because trying to articulate, much less justify, what we saw seemed impossible. ¬†Nevertheless, we both said to each other, afterwards, that the expense was totally worth it. ¬†Heck, it wasn’t even worth considering. ¬†The sail was a marvelous experience, Na Pali spectacular.

Lance summed it up in a way that made my heart all tingly: “Best day ever.”

Photo Friday: Packing Problems

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My lovely husband, my rock, the wind beneath my wings….well, he’s having some trouble packing. ¬†This usually results in me having to relinquish some of my luggage space to his exfoliating creams or his extra 30+ t-shirts for a ten-day trip.

So that’s it, Dear Readers: tomorrow, all that stands between us and the lush isle of Kaua’i are four planes, three layovers, 21 hours and several iced coffees.

Since I doubt we’ll be doing much (if any) posts to this blog for the next week or so, please follow us on Instagram (@lanceandjeff)¬†and Twitter (@lanceandjeff) (and go ahead and like us on Facebook, while you’re at it) to get the most up-to-date, kitsch-ily filtered photos of pineapples and frozen cocktails and snarking comments about fat Americans on the beach (oh wait, that’s us…)

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Hawai’i On My Mind: A Few Of Our Favorite Things

Not that we’re experts in Hawai’i or anything (especially since we’ve only ever been to one of the islands together), but, to paraphrase our friend Rosie, we know what we like and we like it hard. ¬†So the following are some of the things that have been dancing in our heads as we grow ever restless for our Hawai’ian vacation:

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Sunset drinks at The Edge of Waikiki:¬†We stumbled into this patio bar at the Sheraton Waikiki resort after its neighbor restaurant removed some of our favorite items and went scrambling for a place to get a drink. ¬†What a find! ¬†The Edge, sandwiched between the Sheraton’s infinity pool and the Pacific, has by far the best sunset views of any bar in Waikiki. ¬†And the drinks are so bleeping strong that, after two. I was literally falling over in gift shops and politely asked to leave. ¬†We can’t wait to see Lynn again, our favorite server!

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The steak plate lunch at HI Steaks:¬†Like Las Vegas, the cost of eating in Hawaii can start to add up, and most places you can go to grab a quick bite in Waikiki are overpriced for the pretty mediocre food you get. On our last trip, as I was starting to get fed up with the lack of quality options, we stopped in the local Foodland supermarket on the way back to our hotel when we decided to try their counter-service HI Steaks. ¬†And it just happened to be the best meal, hands down, of anything we’d had on that vacation. ¬†Perfectly cooked steak, seasoned rice, AND a spinach salad for $10? (And it didn’t hurt that Lance’s Hawaiian boy crush, seen above, worked the register on every visit.)

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You know, natural beauty and stuff:¬†This one is obvious, but between gorgeous sunsets, Diamond Head, Hanauma Bay, Waimea Falls, or various racially-insensitive islands, Hawai’i is a treasure trove of beauty. ¬†Point-n’-shoot cameras don’t really do it justice.

collage4Bold-ass birds: There are a lot of birds on the islands, including wild chickens, peacocks that roam around the Waimea Botanical Gardens, or seagulls who will hop right into your hotel room and steal your food when you aren’t looking. ¬†We dubbed them, “bold-ass birds,” because they get closer to humans than we’ve ever seen on the mainland.

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Yup, I”m pretty cool.

Uncle Bobo’s: We went to Uncle Bobo’s Smoked BBQ in Ka’a’awa based on the recommendation in the O’ahu Revealed travel guide. ¬†And it is no joke the best barbecue I’ve ever had. ¬†It’s a little shack-y type establishment next to a post office, just across the street from the beach; it seems a little dive-y, but isn’t that how BBQ is supposed to be?

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Shave ice and Yogurtland:¬†Yogurtland is by no means Hawai’i exclusive (I don’t even think it’s Hawai’i born), but the first time we stepped into this self-serve froyo chain was in Waikiki, so it has a strong association with Hawai’i for us (it is, no doubt, the best chain froyo out there, too). ¬†Then there’s Hawai’ian shave ice, too, which is basically where a huge chunk of ice is, duh, shaved down and served like a sno-cone and doused in sugary syrup, sometimes over ice cream. ¬†These treats are a steal at about $3 (sometimes more if you add on a whole bunch of flavors).

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Fruit stands: Roadside fruit stands have the best, freshest pineapple you’ll ever have…and you’re supporting a local business! ¬†Look at you, hippie!

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Being cute: Lance is no happier than when he’s in Hawai’i. ¬†I can’t wait to see that smile on his face, even if his teeth are all brown and yellow. ¬†Ick.

Hawai’i On My Mind: Pre-Trip Stupid Depression

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[I don’t want to sound like I’m trivializing any sort of depression or mental health issue, much less PTSD, but the acronym was just too easy and I’m nothing if not lazy.]

It’s started already.

It usually begins a week or so out from our vacation: Lance starts getting blue, mopey, nihilistic.

He’s stops going to the gym. “What’s the use? Nothing’s going to change between now and when we leave.”

He eats pizza for lunch…and dinner. ¬†“What does it matter? I’m such a fat cow.”

He’s quiet, distant, his mind obviously consumed by…something.

You see, this, dear readers, is Lance’s Pre-Trip (Stupid) Depression. ¬†He’s sad vacation will soon be over before it’s even begun.

“In a week and six days, we’ll already be back from Hawai’i!” he whines. “WAH!”

I’ll admit, I struggle with this thought process, which basically substitutes a person’s understandable “excited anticipation” for an impending vacation to a morose melancholy about the fleeting nature of vacations.

And once we’re actually sitting on a beach in Hawaii or perusing through shelves at Tower Records in Shibuya for obscure foreign cast recordings of Broadway musicals, it’s no better. ¬†Lance will let out an extended sigh and mumble, “I can’t believe our vacation is almost over…” when, in fact, we have six days left.

“Well, what’s the point of even going on vacation if you’re just going to be miserable before you go, miserable while you’re there, and miserable once vacation is over?” I ask, exasperated. Lance admits this change in his mood doesn’t make any sense. ¬†“Just let me eat my half a large pizza…!” he pleads. ¬†::MUNCH MUNCH::

I even try to rationalize with him. ¬†“You do realize,” I say, not helping my cause because I’m already establishing myself as a condescending jerk, “that we have other vacations to look forward to, planned all the way through spring of 2015! New York! Dollywood! Disneyland! A cruise! Europe!”

“But none of them are Hawai’i,” he states simply.

…And I can’t argue with him there.

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Travel Tuesday: Hawai’i On The Cheap

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We weren’t even supposed to go on vacation this year. ¬†We were supposed to “be good,” save up some money, find enjoyment in everyday things instead of dashing off to Florida or Chicago or, well, Hawai’i.

But, when Lance employs his puppy dog eyes and dimples…well, how could you deny him a vacation?

Still, we had to find to a way to take a vacation cheap. ¬†I’d been slowly building up my reservoir of American Airlines frequent flier miles to redeem for a trip to Europe, but since we’d redeemed our last bulk of miles for a trip to Japan (my choice), I (somewhat begrudgingly) decided to bequeath my miles to Lance, and that’s how we’re flying to Hawaii for free.*

[*plus $5.00 per person transaction fee.]

The Flight(s)

There are lots of ways to build up your frequent flier miles balances, the easiest being signing up for an airline-branded credit card, but this kind of behavior makes me nervous because of the pings to your credit score and trying to manage that many extra cards (my brain just doesn’t work that way.) ¬†Still, one card sign up will probably net you enough sign-up bonus miles to get you to Hawai’i. ¬†Easy peasy macaroni cheesy.

Still, that game makes me a little uncomfortable, so I play a longer one (think Monopoly instead of Connect Four).  There are a lot of little, free ways to collect miles, usually through online promotions or through online survey sites like e-Rewards.  You can also keep up to date with the latest promotions via some useful blogs like Mommy Points, View from the Wing, and One Mile at a Time.  By using e-Rewards, earning miles for hotel stays and car rentals (for both work and personal travel)  and cashing out my hotel loyalty program points for airline miles, I was able to slowly grow my frequent flier mile balance to just what we needed for two roundtrip, off-peak tickets from Philadelphia to Honolulu (35,000 miles each.)

Later, when we decided to split our Hawai’i time between O’ahu and Kaua’i, I redeemed another 5,000 miles a person for one way tickets and had to pay $90 each for a ticket back to O’ahu since there weren’t any award seats available for the day we wanted to travel.

So now we’re at $190, for two roundtrip flights from the mainland to Hawai’i and two roundtrip inter-island flights.

The Hotels

The trouble when we booked our frequent flier mile trip from Philadelphia to Honolulu is that the frequent flyer award availability was limited; there were no flights that allowed us to stay for seven nights, so we’d either have to stay for four or five, or stay for ten or longer.

Of course, since this is Lance and Hawai’i is his ultimate favorite place, we chose to stay for ten.

This then posed a significant challenge to our “budget” trip to Hawai’i. ¬†Waikiki is not cheap, especially when you want to stay in a decent hotel (Waikiki is chock full of crummy, old, run down hotels that can charge an arm and a leg because it’s Waikiki).

Since I got a Hyatt-branded credit card last year (for the no-international service charge), I’ve been accumulating Hyatt points which can be redeemed at one of the two Hyatt properties in Waikiki. ¬†Our “target” hotel was the Hyatt Place Waikiki, since it’s newer and requires fewer points per night to redeem. ¬†Over the past year, through various bonus points promotions (spend $6000 on your card and get an extra 6000 points) and basically putting all of my expenses on the card (and, of course, paying them off immediately), we were able to get three nights for free.

Via the Hyatt Best Rate Guarantee, where Hyatt will match a lower price from a third-party website and give you another 20% off, I was able to get the rest of our nights at the Hyatt Place Waikiki for $437.61 after tax for three paid nights.  I use hotel search aggregator sites like Room77, Kayak, HotelsCombined or Trivago to search for the lowest rates; these search sites pull rates from dozens of other booking websites, including Expedia, Priceline, and others.

Once we knew we were going to Kaua’i, I booked four nights at the Courtyard Kauai at Coconut Beach, part of the Marriott family of hotels. ¬†Marriott also has a Best Rate Guarantee, so I was able to get our four nights on Kaua’i down to $374.00 after tax.

Our hotel costs for ten nights, then, end up being $811.61, or about $81 a night, a steal on Hawai’i.

The Total

Between the flights and the hotels, we’re just over a thousand bucks for the two of us: $1001.61. ¬†That’s cheaper than the per person cost of our first trip to Hawaii back in 2010, when we only stayed for seven nights and only visited one island.

Granted, this total isn’t including rental cars or food, and we’ll need a little bit of both. ¬†And it doesn’t truly represent how free your trip to Hawaii could be, if you saved your hotel points up longer or played the game a little more intensely to rack up points faster. ¬†But to get a flight and hotel to Hawaii for around $500 a person is a pretty good deal in my book.