Having just completed our super interesting outing aboard the Queen Mary ocean liner/museum ship (out in Long Beach), Johann and Carl next decided that an impromptu drive out to Venice Beach (before we return to Anaheim) would definitely be a good idea.
Founded in 1905 and established as a seaside resort town, Venice stood as an independent city until 1926, when it and its man-made canals (hence the city’s name) was absorbed into the greater city of Los Angeles.
These days this residential and recreational neighbourhood is known for its bohemian style and sensibilities, long being home to a countless number of artists, poets, and musicians from all walks of life.
Labelled as “a cultural hub known for its eccentricities”, Venice’s biggest tourist attraction (if not Southern California’s number one visitor attraction) is without a doubt Venice Beach, which attracts literally millions of visitors each year.
The actual beach itself is wide, flat, long and covered in soft sand, making it one of those good beaches that people really can enjoy. Other than all the normal beach sports prevalent on its sands, there is also plenty of surfing (and other water sports) to be had in the sea, and a seemingly good lifeguard system in place.
There’s even a long bicycle track that runs parallel to the beach, which, given the number of bicycles cruising up and down on it (not to mention all the bicycle rental spots along the promenade), seems to be a very popular distraction indeed!
But a beach is just a beach, and in reality the real draw of Venice Beach is of course its world famous Venice Beach Boardwalk (sometimes called the “Ocean Front Walk”), a promenade/beach road that stretches for about 2,5 kilometers along the beachfront.
The promenade is vibrant, packed with art murals, buskers, hustlers and little grungy shops of all shapes and form. From clothing stores, marijuana dispensaries, bars, eateries, and curio stops, the Venice Beach Boardwalk is an eccentric mix of people from all races, colours and creeds, trying to simply make a living by selling pretty much anything to anyone.
There is also all the outdoor sports courts to glace over, play areas that include spaces like skateboard parks, paddle ball arenas, and of course all the well known basketball courts from which many a legendary NBA player has been plucked!
That said, honestly, I’m not really the type of person who likes this kind of place (I’m not overly fond of seemingly rundown spots full of hustle and bustle), but it would be a straight out lie to say that I didn’t find the Venice Beach Boardwalk a super interesting and intriguing spot. So many strange (and often eccentric) people to take in, from the hustlers in front of the freakshow attraction, to the preaching gangsters on a podium, to the guy selling insults on the side of the street!
Enjoy the sun on this warm Summer’s day, the three of us slowly ambled down the strip, taking in the sights and sounds, stopping for some frozen yoghurt (and some or other slightly less identifiable snack at a different hole in the wall eatery), before finally turning around once we had hit the famous Muscle Beach section of the boardwalk – which in itself is a very entertaining stop as you get to watch all the musclebound men and women do their strength exercises out in front of all the people walking along the promenade (i.e. showing off), with the guys quite often stepping out of their routine in order to flex a muscle or two while posing for some photo hungry visitor.
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So while I didn’t necessarily LOVE the vibe of the Venice Beach Boardwalk, I did very much like the art and appreciate the experience – after all, who hasn’t seen this famous strip of land on American TV before? :)
Day 3 of the NACUFS IDEA ’16 conference, and the morning after our evening of Angels baseball watching, Johann and Carl decided to skip the early sessions to instead act as tour guides and take me for some sightseeing of the area. Our first stop for the day: The Queen Mary ocean liner museum ship, moored in Long Beach, California!
Now a floating hotel and museum ship, The majestic RMS Queen Mary is a retired luxury ocean liner that sailed the North Atlantic Ocean from 1936 to 1967, bowing out of service following the dawning of the jet age (which marked the beginning of the end for transatlantic passenger services on the whole).
Build for the Cunard Line in Clydebank, Scotland, the luxurious (and gigantic) Queen Mary was fast enough to hold the Blue Riband accolade a handful of times, earning the award as it shuttled its 2139 passengers and 1101 crew members on its standard route between Southampton and New York.
During the Second World War, the Queen Mary was painted navy grey, fitted with a degaussing coil (to protect against magnetic mines), and enlisted as a troop carrier, a job which she performed rather well – apart from that time where she accidentally killed 239 people by slicing through one of her escort ships, the light cruiser HMS Curacoa, of course.
(She is also known as having ferried Winston Churchill for his strategic meetings across the Atlantic a couple of times.)
As I mentioned earlier, nowadays the grand old lady operates as a floating hotel, with guests enjoying a pretty unique accommodation experience that does much to simulate what travelling across the Atlantic in the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s must have felt like.
The other side of the business is acting as a museum ship, with plenty of different tour options and packages available. The historic tour is the one we opted for, and after being greeted by our fabulously entertaining tour guide (seriously, this man was brilliant!), our group was guided through part of the ship while being fed a steady stream of interesting information and stories regarding this beautiful ocean liner and some of the famous passengers she ferried across the Atlantic.
The ship is known for its extensive use of wood from all over the then British colonies, and its magnificent murals, art deco styling, grand bars and luxurious ballrooms also make for a particularly visually stunning tour.
There is a big collection of model boats/ships on board (a gem for model building fanatics), not to mention a room (The Shipyard) dedicated entirely to LEGO creations – the centerpiece being of course the giant 250,000 brick big LEGO Queen Mary model ship!
The Queen Mary has also garnered a bit of a reputation for being a ghost ship over the years (thanks to all that creaking wood), meaning that (what else did you expect from Americans?) Haunted Tour packages are also quite the big thing for the operators.
Now I’ve never been on an ocean liner (or any other cruise ship for that matter) before, so for me this was by far the biggest ship that I had ever set foot on, and admittedly, thanks the historic grandeur of the vessel, I absolutely LOVED the experience as a whole.
(In other words, highly recommended if you ever find yourself out in the Long Beach area as a tourist!)
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Bonus: Directly in front of the moored Queen Mary lies the B-427 Scorpion, an interesting Soviet era attack submarine that has been operating as a museum vessel since 1995, going on show first in Australia at their maritime museum, before moving to Long Beach, California in 1998.
Sadly, the display is currently closed to the public, following the discovery of irreversible flooding in parts of the sub a couple of years back.
Bonus 2: I can’t remember exactly what movie I was watching the other day, but I spotted a golden mural, paused, and shouted to Chantelle, “Hey, I’ve seen that before!”. Turns out I was correct – given her grandeur, The Queen Mary shows up in a LOT of movies, commercials and television shows!
Bonus 3: That funny big dome out next to the Queen Mary is currently a cruise ship terminal (used by Carnival Cruise Lines), but before that it actually housed the magnificent Spruce Goose (the largest flying boat ever built, not to mention having had the largest wingspan of any aircraft ever flown) for a while!
Anyway, here’s the map if you want to go find all these things out for yourself!
The evening of the first day of expo was spent eating exquisite American steak. The evening of the second day of expo saw my colleagues Johann and Carl eager show off something even more American to me. In other words, off to a baseball game we went!
Truth be told, I was pretty excited about this. The fact is that I do actually rather like baseball. I played it as a kid for a good number of years (go Bellville Tygers!), and even coached a girl’s softball team late in high school for fun.
(Also, there was precedent to this. I caught a profession baseball game the very first time I ever left South Africa’s shores, meaning that there was no way that I could not make the same effort given the fact that we were now in the very home of this sport!)
Our hotel turned out to be within walking distance of the Angel Stadium of Anaheim (also known as The Big A), and as luck would have it, there was indeed a game on that very evening – the Chicago White Sox were in town to take on the local boys from the Los Angeles Angels (of Anaheim).
So we bought the tickets (reasonably pricey of course), walked down to the stadium (on the way discovering that this part of the States actually import a lot of flowering plants from South Africa – so, so weird seeing strelitzias along the side of the road!), took some photos, and grabbed some stadium beer, before heading in to find our seats – just in time to watch the t-shirt cannon girls begin entertaining the crowd.
As for the baseball itself, the game ended up being pretty good to watch. Despite no exciting home runs being hit, the Angels managed to run in a well deserved 7-0 victory, leaving the home crowd in quite the good mood.
(Also, I have to thank the super helpful/patient local who was sitting in the seat behind me – I kept pestering him with 101 questions when it came to the stats and abbreviations on the giant scoreboard, for pretty much the duration of the game!)
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A classic Americana experience at its best then. #USA2016
Despite having started off my first ever trip to the USA with some serious Disneyland tourist action, I was of course in Anaheim, California for work purposes – specifically to help man the Touchwork booth at NACUFS IDEA ’16, the 2016 national conference for NACUFS, otherwise known as the National Association of College & University Food Services.
In case you are wondering the connection, Touchwork’s main business focus is providing a platform and solutions in the CX (Customer Experience) space, something we’ve historically enjoyed great success in implementing in the USA university dining services sector. (Our biggest market by far).
Our USA office, led up by Johann Leitner and Carl Mostert, routinely hits the dining services conference circuit in order to cement existing relationships and turn up a few more opportunities in the university space, with Touchwork SA occasionally sending someone (i.e. me this time around) up for the experience.
Of course, this then meant finding a shirt and ironing it first (as a mostly work from home software developer, shirts aren’t something I actually own), before making my way to the Anaheim Convention Center in order to help set up our booth, grab a coffee, and then spend the rest of the day standing around and speaking to anyone who shows even the slightest glimmer of interest in what we have to offer.
Surprisingly, it went pretty well, and I pulled in some nice leads for the team, so come close of day I ended up being rather chuffed with myself (I’m not known for being a people person).
This went on for two days, the length of the showcase/exhibition part of the NACUFS IDEA ’16 conference (which itself ran for about four days).
It wasn’t all work though. The first evening we attended the NACUFS event party, catching the finals of the NACUFS Culinary Challenge, essentially a live Chef food preparation battle as what you would see on DSTV’s Food Network channel or something like that.
Asking the question, it turns out that dining services are in fact big business for American universities. A lot of prestige can be found in this function, hence the focus on profession chefs, and quite often this service is used as a class differentiation between institutions!
(Who knew that someone might actually pick a university based entirely on what food it has on offer!)
We also ended up bumping into one of our very good clients at that same party, and as such decided to leave the bustle behind and head out for a quiet supper with them instead – ending up at a particularly brilliant/upmarket steak place (Ruth’s Chris Steak House) where I ate what was probably the best steak of my life. (Mind you, the wine and conversation were just as good!)
On that note, the second evening after work wasn’t bad either – Carl and Johann decided that catching a baseball game was very much something that I as a first time USA visitor needed to do, a sentiment which I (who played baseball as a kid) most heartily agreed with!
Pictures of that particular outing a little later, I assure you.
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So. NACUFS IDEA ’16 appears to have been a decent success, but more specifically for me, was a great opportunity to see how Touchwork utilizes and sells my software on that side of the world, the end result being me given a much clearer idea of what software development our US office needs going forward.
Still, given the amount of tourist things I did along the way sure makes it difficult to think of #USA2016 as a pure business trip! ;)
Having now pretty much spent the entire day exploring Disneyland on foot, I found myself gravitating back towards my original starting point of Main Street U.S.A., somehow eager to stake out a good spot among what was quite clearly a rapidly growing crowd lining the edges of the street.
Turns out, the reason for this sudden change of focus for the hordes of people milling about the theme park was actually pretty simple – the time for the big finale pieces had finally arrived, kicking things off with probably the most amazing electric light parade that I’ll probably ever see: the Paint the Night Parade!
The Paint the Night Parade actually premiered in Hong Kong Disneyland back in 2014, but did eventually arrive at Disneyland Park on May 22, 2015 as part of the original theme park’s big 60th anniversary “Diamond Celebration” season.
A spiritual successor to the long-running Main Street Electrical Parade, Paint the Night is Disneyland’s first all-LED parade, utilizing over 1.5 million LED lights to bring to life the special affects of the 8 units and their 76 performers that make up the show.
Lasting for approximately 20 minutes, this spectacle of light is accompanied by a mix of arrangements of Jean-Jacques Perrey and Gershon Kingsley’s “Baroque Hoedown” and Owl City’s “When Can I See You Again?”.
The parade is led by the Peter Pan unit, featuring Rosetta, Silvermist, Iridessa, Tinkerbell, and Peter Pan. Following closely behind is the Monsters, Inc. unit (Sully and Mike), and the Cars unit (Lightning McQueen, Mack and DJ), before making way for the spectacular Little Mermain electric watercolors float (featuring Ariel, Sebastian, Flounder, King Triton, and Marlin and Nemo from Finding Nemo).
After that comes Toy Story (Jessie, Slinky Dog, Woody, Buzz Lightyear, and the Aliens), followed by Candlelight Dreams (Belle, Rapunzel, and Cinderella), and then the hugely popular (based on the crowd’s roar) Frozen Fractals float (featuring of course Anna, Elsa, and Olaf).
The last unit to come rumbling through is Mickey’s Lightastic Finale, featuring Goofy, Donald Duck, Minnie Mouse, and Sorcerer Mickey Mouse!
The parade is a wonderful, musical, and colourful assault on the senses, and was most definitely a highlight of the day for me.
Not that you have a chance to catch your breath mind you. No sooner had the closing notes of the Paint the Night Parade rung out, when the iconic Sleeping Beauty Castle sparked to life with all its bedazzling lights, causing the crowd to quickly shuffle further down Main Street (towards the hub) in order to jostle for a better view.
The reason for this move was of course to catch a glimpse of Disneyland Forever, the nighttime spectacular at Disneyland that premiered on May 21, 2015 (again as part of the theme park’s 60th anniversary celebration).
Weaving a 15 minute long narrative while depicting iconic scenes from many of Disney’s classic films, Disneyland Forever incorporates an incredible mix of fireworks, projection mapping, fire, lasers and searchlights to bring a truly spectacular closing show to life.
Now I’m already a huge fan of projection mapping and the incredible tricks it can play on your senses, but when you combine this technology with fireworks and story at the scale that Disney does – the end result is simply just “wow”.
Honestly, what an incredible experience, and quite probably the best way that you could ever cap a day out and about in a theme park off with! The music was rousing, the visuals and narrative inspiring, and the fireworks simply put, astounding.
There really isn’t any more to say than that.
Anyway, the smoke cleared, the crowd started leaving, and I found myself exiting the gates and trundling down the road to grab a bite to eat from my very first American McDonalds – purely because this is something that we have in SA and thus I wanted to compare.
As it turns out, the American McDonalds experience (especially in terms of flavour) is actually a lot better than what we get back home – which came as a bit of a surprise really, considering how little I think of McDonalds at the best of times!
A short bus trip back to the hotel and given the long day I had just got under the belt, I was soon fast asleep in my surprisingly comfy Holiday Inn bed.
Of course, I did take a few photos of the night, purely as a reminder for myself, but obviously they’re not great given the fact that I used my phone for the photography – nevertheless, here they are in all their fuzzy glory:
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Having now had my fill of the many, many lands of Disneyland, I decided to escape Disneyland Park (more specifically its crowds) by hopping on to the Disneyland Monorail and catching a ride over to the Downtown Disney District, an outdoor shopping center and promenade that lies nestled between Disneyland Resort’s two theme parks and all its hotels.
With no admission ticket required to access the area, Downtown Disney was apparently designed to attract local residents and to encourage extended stays in the resort district, so despite carrying one or two Disney dedicated stores and a bit of branding here and there, the promenade is refreshingly home to a lot of businesses not featuring a princess or mouse ears in their logo!
Hungry and with feet reasonably tired following such a long day of walking about, I ambled down the promenade, browsed through a couple of the retails stores (the art in the WonderGround Gallery was amazing, the World of Disney pretty cool, and the Lego Store of course interesting as always), and grabbed what turned out to be a particularly tasty sandwich from the Earl of Sandwich – right next to the AMC movie theaters and across the street from the ESPN Zone sports bar.
(Bad choice, I know, but I really liked the idea of sitting outside and watching people go by).
Anyway, bottomless sodas are so much fun when you’re not used to having them around back in SA.
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Refreshed and refueled, I hopped back on the monorail and headed back to Disneyland, eager to catch the late afternoon and evening parades!
After many hours of aimlessly strolling about, I had finally entered Tomorrowland, the last themed “land” still left to visit on my once in a lifetime, one day only, exploration of the original Disneyland theme park.
Tomorrowland has always been about the future, as envisioned around a time when the original frenzy of space travel began to grip hold of America’s psyche.
Of course, as we all know these visions of a future quickly become outdated and as such Tomorrowland has had to change a lot over time, far more than any other land situated out there on the sprawling Disneyland complex.
When it originally opened in 1955, Tomorrowland was devoid of several of its planned attractions thanks to budget cuts. Construction had been rushed, and Tomorrowland ended up being the last land to be finished, arriving as somewhat of a corporate showcase with much of its space occupied by company showcase pieces from the likes of Monsanto Company, American Motors, Richfield Oil, and Dutch Boy Paint.
Over time, following numerous changes to the configuration and attractions, the showcases were slowly left by the wayside one by one as Disney took proper ownership of the themed land and made it their own.
These days, the current incarnation of Tomorrowland (still sporting its classic 1950s pulp sci-fi look – though now tinged with a heavy slather of Star Wars theme) is home to the iconic Space Mountain, Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters, Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage, Autopia, and Star Tours: The Adventures Continue attractions.
Also, despite not being a particularly big Star Wars fan, it was hard not to be impressed with the very cool display set up in the Star Wars: Launch Bay area, not to mention the jaw-droppingly huge range of Star Wars merchandise on sale in all the official shops. (I suspect that a LOT of my friends would return with empty pockets and most likely a second mortgage on the house).
Given the Star Wars theme, the Matterhorn Mountain Bobsleds and Space Mountain, this was by far the most popular land that I travelled through on the day – and I suspect that this holds true pretty much every day, or will at least until the new Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge land comes online in 2019!
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And yes, as you may suspect, I absolutely LOVED the monorail ride.
Having already ambled through Main Street USA, Fantasyland, Mickey’s Toontown, Frontierland, New Orleans Square, and Adventureland, I was rapidly running out of themed lands to visit on this warm, crowded, windless Disneyland day – so I decided to cool down with a visit to Critter Country, or more specifically, its famous Splash Mountain!
Originally known as Indian Village and then later Bear Country, Critter Country is situated on an area that was split off from Frontierland and is themed to resemble the great American Northwoods – with its towering pines, waterfalls, and rustic buildings.
With the Indian and Bear motifs now quite diminished, Critter Country is very much inhabited by the Winnie the Pooh franchise, much of it centered around the super kid friendly The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh attraction.
However, if you aren’t really little enough to appreciate the wonderful world of Pooh, you could always hop on the big 20 person canoe and go for a paddle along the Rivers of America as part of the Davy Crockett’s Explorer Canoes attraction. (Sadly, along with the Hungry Bear Restaurant, closed on the day of my visit.)
That said, if you really want to get wet then you should probably join the queue for Splash Mountain, Disneyland’s iconic log flume ride.
As with most rides, making use of the FastPass system or being a single rider allows you to progress much quicker to the front of the seriously long queues, and given that I was traipsing along Disneyland all by myself, I found myself stuffed into the back of a hollow plastic log in a relatively short amount of time.
It was, as advertised, a great way to cool down on such a hot day! ;)
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Next up, a squelchy amble to the last remaining themed land for the day – Tomorrowland!
Having happily traipsed through Frontierland and New Orleans Square, the next themed Disneyland area that I entered happened to be Adventureland, home to the iconic Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room attraction.
Styled on that idea of 1930’s colonial exploration into the jungles of Africa or South America, Adventureland is all about the leafy exotic, with attractions including the likes of the Jungle Cruise, the Indiana Adventure and Tarzan’s Treehouse.
(And of course shops. Lots and lots of merchandise selling shops.)
Interesting fact – originally this themed land (based on Walt Disney’s award winning nature documentaries on Africa and Asia) was intended to have real animals from Africa inhabit the jungle river, but after zoologists told Walt that the real animals would either lie around or hide, the imagineers built mechanical animals instead!
By this stage of the day though, Disneyland was already packed full of people, which of course then means lots and lots of queuing. So pro tip – investigate the lands and their attractions before you visit the park, i.e. know what you want to see and which rides you want to ride before you enter, instead of just aimlessly wandering about like I did!
Honestly, other than the Tiki Room (which I just had to see for myself in person), I didn’t spend too long strolling through Adventureland – at this point I was hot and bothered, there were too many people, and the jungle atmosphere made everything feel quite drippy humid.
So instead of climbing up Tarzan’s Treehouse, I grabbed some photos on foot and continued my one day only tour of Disneyland…
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Next up for me – Critter Country and a wet encounter on Splash Mountain!