Travel Tuesday: Dollywood or Bust

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Like some sort of religious zealot, Lance must make an annual pilgrimage to Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, home to Dolly Parton’s eponymous amusement park.  On our previous visit, we bought season passes, good from the holiday season of 2012 through the end of 2013; given that the season pass price was only ~$30 more than a 1-day ticket, we took a gamble, figuring we’d definitely be back in 2013.

Yet the close of 2013 was rapidly approaching, and we hadn’t once set foot on Wild Eagle OR Blazing Fury. Decisions had to be made.

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We again decided to visit Dollywood during the park’s annual Smoky Mountain Christmas.  The weather is cool in Tennessee that time of year and Dollywood is literally wrapped to the nines in Christmas lights.  Dollywood, not surprisingly in a Southern state, also runs a fair split of Christian and secular holiday shows, which is kinda charming, if you don’t think too much of the “organized Christianity’s long history of discrimination against gays” thing.

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Now, Dollywood is a TREK from Philadelphia.  It’s not really economical to fly (PHL-Knoxville is like $450 round-trip per person during this time of year), and while the drive is scenic, it takes 11+ hours.  ELEVEN HOURS.  Sweet lord.  Driving that in a Ford Fiesta too, while great on gas mileage, will make you go stir crazy. No amount of Hardee’s Thickburgers can make it bearable.  I was kinda hoping that this trip would get me out of having to visit Dollywood for at least another 18 months.  It was just too much time in the car to ask of someone…

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We arrived in Pigeon Forge on Saturday night, with just a few hours left before the park closed for the night.  The place was jam-packed with thousands of locals there to catch the holiday parade; after spending a half-hour just getting from our parking spot to the gate, we shimmied our way to the back of the park for the terrific Mystery Mine and Wild Eagle coasters.

On Sundays during the holiday season, the park doesn’t open until 2:00pm.  Still, we felt like seven hours in Dollywood justified the drive, so we spent the morning taking a scenic drive through the Smoky Mountain National Park, which we’d never done before.
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On the way up a mountain, we saw a bunch of pick-up trucks (of course) pulled over.  City-slick gawkers that we are, we rubbernecked only to find…A BEAR. And not the kinda bears us urbanites are used to…HEY-O!

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Yup, just a cub hanging out in the trees near the side of the road.  Lance and I both speculated that this could’ve been some elaborate trap by the bear family to lure in stupid tourists. We felt like we were in a good position, though, since most of the other spectators were significantly…larger and most likely slower than us.  (This is what happens when you have dozens of pancake restaurants in your town.)

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Lance doing his best Rafiki.

Unfortunately, with the afternoon came rain, and right as we were in line waiting to be let in to Dollywood, it started to drizzle.  And didn’t stop all afternoon.

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JAM-PACKED in Timber Canyon.

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6:00pm rolled around, just four hours into park operation for the day, and ropes started going up in front of ride queues.  We were soaked, but we were committed to getting the most out of this season pass which we’d only used twice.

“Is the park closing?” I asked a Dollywood employee.  It was supposed to stay open for another three hours.

“Yup, bad weather coming this way,” she said.

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So Dollywood management just decided to shut down the park early.  We looked at the forecast, and the weather was not anticipated to get any worse than it had been all day.  Lance and I figured that it was probably related to the very light crowd in the park all day–it wasn’t cost-effective to leave the park open for maybe 100 guests.

Lance was obviously disappointed–Dollywood is practically his second home (aside from Bath & Body Works…and Pei Wei…and Target…).  I was disappointed because we’d spent 11 hours in the car the day before to get here and only got six total hours in the park.  I was on the verge of breaking down into tears thinking that all that driving was for naught.

On the way out of the park, I made sure to visit Guest Relations.  “They’re going to make this right, dammit!” I said, though I didn’t know how much of a case we’d have as season passholders who just happened not to have used their season passes all year.

“Well, we can offer you essentially a rain check pass to come back during the 2014 year,” the Guest Relationships rep told us.  We took it.

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So now we basically HAVE to go back to Dollywood in 2014 in order to take advantage of our free passes (I’m not one to easily pass up a good deal.)  Which means another 22+ hour roundtrip commute to eastern Tennessee.

GAH.

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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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Travel Tuesday: From New York to Disneyland

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(Apologies for the random photos; my phone died midway through our day trip to New York, so all I got were some weird shots of Lance at Steak n’ Shake Express :-/)

There are not many Broadway shows that I have to drop everything to see.  While I appreciate the skill, discipline, and talent involved in staging these often elaborate, mostly intensive shows, it’s not in my blood like Lance (who owns the cast recording of Sunset Boulevard in six or seven different languages.)

Still, we hadn’t been to NYC together in almost a year, and with spring in the air, Lance was itchin’ to visit the Great White Way.  And this time, I was actually excited to see a show: the revival of Pippin, but  my enthusiasm had nothing to do with the show itself.

Y’see, I’ve mentioned loyalty programs before; most of the time, your “loyalty” is rewarded with a hill of beans, but every so often, if you play your cards right, you can hit the jackpot.  Today’s example: Audience Rewards.

Audience Rewards is the loyalty program for big-time theatre productions, mostly in New York.  Every time you see a show, you earn Audience Rewards points, the objective being to earn enough to redeem for free tickets to a stage show.

Well, like a lot of airline loyalty programs, Audience Rewards also couples with other loyalty programs, like Delta Airlines’ SkyMiles or Starwood hotel group’s Preferred Guest (SPG) program, where you can opt for your points from Broadway ticket purchases to go to one of these other programs instead.  Sometimes, they even offer a bonus.

This is why I was so excited to go up to New York for the day and see Pippin (and, with rush tickets, the fabulous off-Broadway production Peter and the Starcatcher).  See, for every Pippin ticket you purchased, you got 5000 SPG points, so between the two of us, that’s…well, you can do the math.

That may not seem like a lot, until you look at what 10,000 SPG points will get you: three nights at the Sheraton Garden Grove near Disneyland in California, a hotel that goes for over $130 a night.

Since we were already thinking about going to California this fall, these bonus points from Pippin will end up saving us almost $400!

As with any of this loyalty program stuff, the trick is not spend any more (or significantly more!) than you would normally spend in the pursuit of points.  It just worked out that we were looking to see a show, and this promotion happened to sync up with that.

Disneyland, December 2013, baby!!