Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Love and Fireworks: My Disney history, and a trip report

Every time I come home from a Disney trip, I think my excitement for the parks will die down for a bit.

Every time, it gets more intense.

This time, it got way more intense.

My love for the Disney parks is in my blood. My parents' first visit to Disneyland together came in the 1970s before my birth. I would join them a few years later for trips during my infancy that burrowed deep inside my subconscious; I felt like I was a Disneyland expert as a preschooler even though I had barely been alive when I visited the place.

Our family's love for Disney has always been notorious — my mother's friend once joked that I had been conceived aboard Pirates of the Caribbean. After my first coherent trip in 1988, the Birnbaum guide became my Bible. Subsequent visits to Walt Disney World in 1989, '90 and '94 made me fall in love with EPCOT Center and Disney/MGM Studios.

And then high school and college happened, and then young adulthood, and then, in 2004, my first visit to what had been unofficially branded as "Disneyland for Adults," Las Vegas. My enthusiasm for Disney animation and films never wavered, but the parks became a distant memory from a childish time. Who needs The Enchanted Tiki Room when you have craps tables, Coyote Ugly and free beer? My parents kept going to Orlando twice a year, but why? Haven't they seen it all by now? Aren't there more exciting things to do?

That phase didn't last long.

Fate brought me back to Disneyland in January 2007, and the DisMadness was reignited like never before. I went straight to Indiana Jones Adventure on the first morning of that trip. I screamed and applauded when we narrowly dodged the boulder, and I was hooked all over again.

The blue caverns of POTC. Fireworks exploding over Big Thunder's second lift hill. Floating over a tiny London. Jumping to lightspeed with Captain Rex. Sipping on pineapple juice while the birds sing words and the flowers croon.

It felt like coming home.

I would return to Disneyland in December 2007, August 2011, February 2012 and March 2014. I visited WDW in November 2008, October 2010, February 2013 and, most recently, April 2015. That's nine trips in just over eight years, eight years full of people asking the question we're all too familiar with: "You're going again?!?"

Yep. And I'll go again and again. A Twitter friend asked her feed recently what it is about the Disney parks that instills such fervor in their fans, and the answer I gave had the illusion of being intellectual: "I am a huge fan of films and filmmaking, and being at Disney makes me feel like I am inside one."

That's of course true, but it's an attempt to church up the simple, emotional truth: I want to live inside a fantasyland with my loved ones, having fun and eating ice cream, all accompanied by a musical score and fireworks. (I mean, who wouldn't?)

In 2011, I met a young lady on OK Cupid who actually recognized me from my Twitter account as that guy from the newspaper who wrote a blog about "LOST." We went to see a late show of "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part II" on an unbearably hot summer night and, afterward, wound up kissing on her back porch until 4 a.m. We took out first Disney trip together in 2012, and were convinced we were having more fun than everyone else in Anaheim.

Three years and two months later on Saturday, April 18, I returned to WDW for a week with Lisa. At 1:45 a.m. Sunday morning, in one of the new fountain parks in the Magic Kingdom hub, she became my fiancee. Applause erupted from a group sitting at the Plaza on Main Street as I placed the blue diamond ring on her finger.
Yep, I went to Jared! I got the buttons Sunday afternoon at Epcot's guest relations counter.

Lisa and I took some unofficial engagement selfies in the
Port Orleans: French Quarter lobby on Tuesday.
Three days later, my parents arrived at Port Orleans: French Quarter for a weeklong stay of their own. Just under a year earlier, while sitting together at U.S. Cellular Field watching the White Sox lose to the Minnesota Twins, my father told me a November 2014 trip would be their very last.

Out of nowhere in early 2014, my dad was diagnosed with kidney failure and would begin his three-days-a-week regimen of dialysis treatments. He has no desire to take a kidney from one of his children, nor does he want to be put on a waitlist to get a kidney that his body might ultimately reject. He left work that spring and is now, for all intents and purposes, retired.

My mother has struggled with multiple sclerosis for at least a decade. Some days, she feels perfectly fine. Some days, she walks with a cane. And some days, her legs feel like they're on fire and she can barely get out of bed. She is, for all intents and purposes, retired.

Part of me completely understood why my dad was saying they'd never take another WDW trip, and part of me couldn't believe what I was hearing. WDW and Disneyland are the No. 1 topic of conversation for the Stangland family. It's no contest. "How many days?," I'll ask my dad. And he'll know, because he's always counting down. We're always dreaming of the next trip, talking about the latest announcements, and generally being giant nerds. We are a Disney Parks family, through and through.

So though I really couldn't swing it financially, I decided Lisa and I were going in November, too, even if it was only for four days and we had to stay at All-Star Sports. But fate had other plans for us, and I had to push our trip to April. Great, on one hand, because that gave me enough time to pay off a longer, better trip with a stay at a moderate resort. Not so great, on the other, because my dad said November would be their last trip. Ever.

He never told my mother this, apparently, because she went and booked an April trip anyway. And wouldn't you know it, she came home from that trip and already booked another one for October.

Are their trips different now? Yes. Dad has to take a cab from French Quarter to a clinic in Orlando for dialysis every other day. They rent ECVs to navigate Epcot's wide open spaces and take turns pushing each other in the wheelchair in the confines of Magic Kingdom and Hollywood Studios. They don't move very quickly. (Well, my dad does in the ECV. Look out, citizens of Future World!)

But while being on vacation is more difficult than it used to be, you know what they don't do while they're at Disney World? Deal with insurance companies, crazy neighbors, and car troubles, or worry about an upcoming doctor's visit. They do smile. A lot.

Bonnie and Glenn have been to the parks so many times and can take pleasure in the simplest things, like sharing a post-parks dessert at Sassagoula Floatworks or basking in the view of Future World's flowers from the World Showcase promenade. And on this trip, they got to share a Garden Grill character dinner, Citrus Swirl smiles and PhilharMagic feels with their son and their future daughter-in-law.

Our server snaps a shot of us at Epcot's Garden Grill on Wednesday.
You can see a blurry Farmer Mickey photobombing us in the background.

We live in a cynical world. (Settle down, Jerry Maguire.) It's easy to see the Disney parks as cynical places, where people plunk down thousands of dollars to "let the memories begin" at "the happiest place on Earth," a place "where dreams come true." But for some of us, the magic is absolutely real, and we want to experience it again and again. I hope we will continue to do just that.

• • •

Whew, that was a long, emotional way to introduce a trip report, wasn't it? Don't worry, this isn't going to be a day-by-day, blow-by-blow rundown. We'll call it a happy highlight reel of our five days at the Disney parks, one day at Universal Orlando, and eight days altogether in Florida. (Maybe there will be just a few lowlights, too.) So let's dive in:

The highlight reel

We made a last-minute reservation
for Crystal Palace on Friday. Lisa
desperately needed some Eeyore time.
The Magic Bands worked. Every single time, from check-in at Magical Express, to opening the door to our standard room at French Quarter, to validating our FastPass+ selections. We did not tie credit cards to our bands for various reasons, so we cannot attest to the functionality of using them as payment, but they never once failed to do anything else. A year and a half of horror stories from regular visitors, tweeps and message board users prepared me for the worst, and it never came.

Awesome meet-and-greet experiences. It became clear early on that Lisa wanted to meet a lot of characters on this trip. That's typically not my favorite activity, but how can I argue with the look of sheer joy on her face when it's her turn to hug Eeyore? Our first M&G stop was Princess Fairytale Hall on Saturday night to meet those sisters from you-know-what, and I was amazed by the amount of work and care put into the queue, the environments and the interactions. The Anna face character was flat-out incredible; she embodied the role better than any FC I've seen outside of the Gaston we met in 2013. A few days later, we met all four variant characters at Pete's Silly Sideshow and I was knocked out all over again. (Aside from the water play area, that whole Storybook Circus section of the park is a beautiful, somewhat hidden gem.) Obviously, M&Gs are not everyone's cup of tea, but you can't help but be impressed by what Magic Kingdom is doing with them. Lisa certainly was. Click here to see a gallery of all 41 characters that she met on our trip.

Best face character or bestest face character?
The surprise hits of the trip. Three things we skipped in 2013 ended up being standouts on this trip. I had a sneaking suspicion that Lisa would enjoy the much-maligned Stitch's Great Escape, and I was right. Considerable flaws aside, the former Alien Encounter still boasts impressive Audio-Animatronics characters and a unique theatrical presentation that is downright thrilling — until that chili dog gets burped in your face. What I didn't expect is that we would both love Monsters Inc. Laugh Floor. We laughed from start to finish, and so did everyone in the room. I've seen that show twice and it seems to be a can't-miss crowd-pleaser, yet no one ever talks about it. (And if they do, they complain that it doesn't belong in Tomorrowland. They're right, of course, but it's hard to care about that when you're enjoying it so much.) The third big winner was Great Movie Ride at DHS, which I hadn't seen since at least 2010. Back then, it showed its age badly and failed to connect. This time, it seemed to have regained some of its sparkle, and the cast members won the crowd. Lisa really enjoys AA-heavy attractions, and GMR is certainly that.

"This one's on Mickey." I've encountered my share of great cast members at the parks, but I had never heard that line before. On our first night, we went to Sunshine Tree Terrace to get our beloved Citrus Swirls. There was either a problem with the machine, a shortage of ingredients or both, so we were told we'd have to wait 10 minutes or so. I had no problem with that; a Citrus Swirl is worth waiting for. We watched tired customer after tired customer get aggravated with the overheated, overworked CMs as we patiently waited off to the side, smiles on our faces. When the Swirls finally arrived, I thanked the CM and pulled out my wallet — and that's when I heard her say those four words. (And mind you, we weren't wearing our Just Engaged buttons yet!)

Our spot for Wishes on Thursday right next to the Be Our Guest Restaurant entrance.

My new favorite spot for fireworks. I know New Fantasyland (or Fantasyland Forest, or whatever the hell we're calling it now) has been cited as a great alternative to Main Street for viewing Wishes, but I had no idea I'd end up loving it so much. We exited PhilharMagic around 9:15 Thursday night and decided not to fight our way to the front for the 10 p.m. Wishes, so I suggested we try a spot near Ariel. We walked past the castle walls and saw that no one — and I mean no one — was camping out near Belle's Enchanted Tales or Be Our Guest Restaurant, and I spotted a flat rock right near the BOG sign that looked like a fine place for Lisa to sit while I leaned against the rockwork next to it. I grabbed a LeFou's Brew and some grab-and-go apples, and soon we were watching fireworks explode over both Cinderella's Castle and Beast's Castle. Yes, you have to keep turning your head back and forth to see it all, but you are so close to the fireworks that the experience is overwhelming. We missed seeing the castle projections, but we sure didn't miss the crowded hub.

A man ahead of us in line for the Simpsons family
M&G won a ton of plushes at the carnival games
and offered Lisa his extra Lisa — and he didn't even
know her name was Lisa.
Springfield won the day at Universal. I love "The Simpsons." Who doesn't love "The Simpsons"? But when I saw pictures of the Springfield expansion at Universal Studios Florida, I thought it looked terrible and tacky. I had been on the Simpsons Ride in 2010, and I remember liking the queue more than the ride itself. That's still true, and now I can add the entirety of the Springfield area to it. Truth be told, we didn't have a whole lot of fun at Universal that Monday, and Springfield cheered us up in a hurry. There are jokes to read and hear at every turn, and while static, plastic characters aren't ideal, they do afford you plenty of fun photo opportunities. (An aside about photos: We saw 25-30 people with selfie sticks in our 6 hours at UOR. We saw maybe 5 people with them in five days at the Disney parks.) Lisa thought she would spend untold fortunes on merchandise at Wizarding World and Diagon Alley, but instead spent all of her Universal souvenir dollars at the Kwik-E-Mart.

British Revolution is Epcot's biggest hit. After our dinner at Le Cellier Sunday night (more on that ... a little later) we lined up for the Pooh & Tigger M&G at the U.K. pavilion and walked out just as British Revolution began their set. They quickly attracted a large, diverse crowd of all ages, and every single person had a huge smile on his or her face. Moms sang their favorite songs to their babies. Elderly women who didn't think they were going to see a rock concert at Disney World were dancing to "Won't Get Fooled Again." Lisa freaked out when she heard the bassline from "Another One Bites the Dust."

Joe from Brooklyn. Joe is a security guard at MK bag check, and Joe loves his job. He had a big damn smile on his face and greeted every single person with a genuine, positive attitude. "Good morning, Princess! You excited to meet Cinderella today?" When it was our turn to meet Joe, he congratulated us on the engagement and asked where we're from. "Chicago? Can't be," he said, as he rummaged through my backpack. "I don't see no Lou Malnati's pizza in there!" I wish I had taken a picture of Joe.

Our top attractions

Dinosaur. Lisa loved this ride in 2013, and she loves it even more now. She likes it far more than Indiana Jones Adventure at Disneyland, which uses the same ride vehicle and track layout. She screams in terror every time, even when it's the third ride-through in a row at 8:30 a.m. We were the first people in line at the Dino Institute that morning, and had the Time Rover to ourselves for ride No. 2. The CM at exit told us to undo our seat belts and then plug them right back in, and away we went on ride No. 3. I know this ride is often slammed for missing or half-working effects, and I suspect I know what those effects are, but I cannot deny that I love every second of it anyway.

Spaceship Earth. Still the king of all WDW attractions, in my opinion, but some of the bloom has come off the rose in the era of MyMagic+. Until Friday, there were minimal crowds during our trip — but that didn't stop SSE from having a 30-minute wait at all times, thanks to the completely unnecessary FastPass+ line. In 2013, we took four trips through time with Dame Judi Dench. This year, we took one, courtesy of the FP+ I booked in February. I would have waited 30 minutes for at least one more go-round, but we ultimately decided against it. The ride itself is still stunning, and we even like the goofy thing at the end with the virtual bobbleheads.

Haunted Mansion. I suppose this is a big "duh" of an entry, but it's worth saying that we think MK's version of this attraction is superior to the Disneyland original. I like the piano-player gag better here, I like the M.C. Escher staircase room, I like the new Hitchhiking Ghosts gag at the end, and I even like the cemetery queue. (Blasphemy, I know.) Of course, my opinion may change when I meet the Hatbox Ghost in Anaheim next year...

Lisa got a little frisky with King
Triton across from the Ariel ride.
Under the Sea: Journey of the Little Mermaid. We love this attraction. My parents love this attraction. Seeing the look on my dad's face when the clamshells enter the "Under the Sea" room was just about worth the whole trip. I was very happy to see the new lighting package throughout the ride, and the show building and queue just knock me out. On Saturday night, a CM sent us through a second time because "literally no one else is on the ride," and I briefly considered pulling out the engagement ring during the "Kiss the Girl" sequence — can you imagine if I had dropped it on the track?! I think waiting until later was the correct choice.

Revenge of the Mummy and Men in Black: Alien Attack. Unquestionably our favorite rides at Universal Orlando. Lisa totally fell for the fake-exit gag near the end of ROTM, and gushed over the Animatronics and practical sets at MiB. A competitive shooter attraction, MiB stands tall over Magic Kingdom's version of the Buzz Lightyear ride, which lacks two fairly basic features they have at Disneyland: targets that light up when you hit them, and guns that you can actually remove from the ride vehicle.



Tasty foodstuffs

Pooh's Breakfast Lasagna. Drool.
Pooh's Breakfast Lasagna at Crystal Palace. This is basically the tastiest torture device ever. Here are the key ingredients from the recipe I found online: custard, pound cake, pancakes, waffles and pastry cream. I didn't care for the chaotic atmosphere at this character breakfast, nor do I care for most breakfast food (a Mickey waffle is about as complex as it gets for me), but I would consider returning just to have another bowl of this evil concoction. (Characters: Pooh, Piglet, Tigger, Eeyore)

The Riverside Mill. My dad insists that the $10 turkey dinner at Port Orleans: Riverside's food court carving station is one of the best meals on Disney property, and damn it, he's right. (And it's a great value, too.) Throw in a Yuengling tallboy and you got yourself a rainy-day treat.

Garden Grill. Our whole party had dinner at this "all-you-care-to-enjoy" restaurant overlooking Living With the Land on Wednesday night, and I can't imagine an easier, more efficient character dining experience. The circular layout means every table faces the walkway used by the waitstaff and the characters, and you can't really see the neighboring tables. So everybody patiently waits their turn for the characters, the waitstaff brings food as you need it, and the atmosphere is bright, quiet and inviting. The food is simple fare done well: chicken, beef, tilapia, potatoes, rice, dessert. I would definitely come back. (Characters: Farmer Mickey, Pluto, Chip & Dale)

Citrus Swirl. Sunshine Tree Terrace and Aloha Isle swapped places at MK, and nothing was lost in translation.

Frosted Rice Krispies treats. These are available just about everywhere at WDW, and we bought them just about everywhere. A treat bearing Olaf's smiling face from the Space Mountain gift shop was our gateway drug.


Lisa loved her filet with mushroom risotto from Le Cellier.
I was too busy trying to escape Searing Gas Pain Land.
Le Cellier. More like Le Salty-ier, huh? HUH?!? But seriously, the restaurant is gorgeous. The staff was great that Sunday night. I love the selection of Unibroue beers. I love the beer-cheese soup. (Who doesn't?) The ribeye was decent, not great, but most of all it was unfathomably huge. The cumulative effect of all this indulgence left me in agony for the rest of the night, which was mostly spent sitting on the waterfront between France and International Gateway and waiting for IllumiNations to begin.

it's a small world. This and Maelstrom were the two attractions in dire need of TLC when we last visited in 2013, and iasw still needs it. Cracked paint, dust, grime ... Mary Blair's work deserves better.

Most of Universal Orlando. We are apparently too old and lame to enjoy Universal's roster of turbulent 3-D extravaganzas. Our morning began with Escape to Gringotts and continued with Forbidden Journey after a ride on the Hogwarts Express. By the time we boarded Spider-Man around 9:30 a.m., I was ready to puke. When a ride sprayed water on us for the third time that morning, Lisa turned to me and said, "Every ride is the same." I was shocked by how much Lisa paid to get us into the park with Express Pass, appalled that they wanted to sell us a $9 lanyard to carry said passes, and infuriated when approached in a theme park by Team Members trying to get us to watch a Fall TV preview. When we cough up nearly $500 for one day's entry, I don't expect to dodge hucksters in polo shirts like I'm at the mall. Then the rain started. Then four chefs from Vivo Italian Kitchen sat next to us at Breadbox and treated the staff there like absolute crap. (Breadbox, FWIW, is very tasty. And very pricey!) We were at UOR for six hours, and we're not exactly clamoring to go back. Was our short, disappointing day representative of everyone's experience? Nope. But it was our experience.

Test Track. We saw the revamped pavilion in 2013 and enjoyed it, but now we can't help but compare the experience to Radiator Springs Racers at Disneyland, an all-time classic attraction that shares a ride system with Test Track and virtually nothing else. My favorite part of this now is designing the car, which ultimately has no bearing on the ride itself.

Let's close this out with some photos

New to us on this trip: the Terra Cotta warriors at the China pavilion.
We could sit and watch Dumbo all night long.
Gettin' #drunj with Barney at Moe's

We camped out by Hall of Presidents both times we watched the Electrical Parade. A perfect, mostly empty spot.
PO:FQ is, overall, my favorite of the WDW resorts I've stayed at.
Festival of Fantasy Parade, seen here at MK, and Soundsational at Disneyland
have proven that I, too, can enjoy daytime parades.
I've been to Cosmic Ray's on almost every trip but somehow never even saw Sonny Eclipse until this time around.

I could go on and on, but I've said quite enough for one blog post, haven't I? Thanks for reading this, friends. I had a lot of fun writing it!

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Four Days at the Disneyland Resort: The List

Day 1: Tuesday, March 4
1. Carnation Cafe breakfast (apple granola pancakes with chicken apple sausages)
2. Matterhorn Bobsleds (right side)
3. Mr. Toad's Wild Ride
4. Snow White's Scary Adventures
5. Pinocchio's Daring Journey
6. Pirates of the Caribbean
7. Haunted Mansion
8. The Many Adventures of Winnie-the-Pooh
9. Splash Mountain
10. Hungry Bear lunch (Big Al's Chicken Salad, Lemon "Bumblebee" Cupcake)
11. Emporium / Firehouse Five Plus Two / Main Street meet-and-greets
12. Radiator Springs Racers (single-rider)
13. Karl Strauss Beer Truck (Tower 10 IPA)
14. Sailor Donald meet-and-greet (Paradise Pier)
15. Ariel's Undersea Adventure
16. Golden Zephyr
17. Luigi's Flying Tires
18. Radiator Springs Racers (single-rider)
19. Goofy's Sky School
20. Toy Story Midway Mania
21. Pluto meet-and-greet (Buena Vista Street)
22. Trader Sam's (Kalua pork flatbread, lettuce wraps, Shipwreck on the Rocks in souvenir tumbler)

Day 2: Wednesday, March 5
1. World of Disney (Goofy earhat)
2. River Belle Terrace breakfast (biscuits and gravy, scrambled eggs)
3. Space Mountain
4. Space Mountain
5. Space Mountain
6. Buzz Lightyear's Astro Blasters
7. Star Tours (Falcon / podracing / Leia / Naboo)
8. Tomorrowland fruit cart (mangoes with lime)
9. Innoventions (Iron Man suits, Project Tomorrow, home of the future)
10. Autopia
11. Big Thunder Ranch
12. Mark Twain Riverboat
13. Jungle Cruise
14. Dole Whip
15. Indiana Jones Adventure
16. Flo's V8 Cafe lunch (pork loin with Coke BBQ sauce, peas & carrots, beans, Holiday Pie-O-Rama)
17. Radiator Springs Racers (single-rider)
18. Twilight Zone Tower of Terror
19. Mike & Sulley to the Rescue!
20. Buena Vista Street meet-and-greets
21. Ariel's Undersea Adventure
22. Bayside Brews (Torpedo IPA, Mickey Mouse pretzel)
23. World of Color
24. Earl of Sandwich (Original 1762, tomato soup, Guinness)

Day 3: Thursday, March 6
1. Carnation Cafe breakfast (Mickey Mouse waffle with strawberries, chicken-apple sausage)
2. Red Car News Boys
3. Goofy meet-and-greet (Buena Vista Street)
4. Radiator Springs Racers (single-rider)
5. Radiator Springs Racers (single-rider)
6. Cozy Cone Motel (souvenir sipper with Coke, Ramon's Pear-a-Dice soda)
7. Animation Academy (Pluto)
8. Aladdin: A Musical Spectacular
9. Soarin' Over California
10. Dug meet-and-greet (Grizzly Falls)
11. California Screamin'
12. Bayside Brews / Paradise Garden (Fullsuit Belgian Brown Ale, cream cheese pretzel)
13. Disney Gallery / Mr. Lincoln lobby
14. Alice in Wonderland
15. Pinocchio's Daring Journey
16. Sleeping Beauty Castle Walkthrough
17. Blue Bayou (Surf & Turf, house salad, creme brulee, mint julep)
18. Pirates of the Caribbean
19. Haunted Mansion
20. The Many Adventures of Winnie-the-Pooh
21. The Enchanted Tiki Room
22. Soundsational Parade (last three floats; hub)
23. Matterhorn (right side, single-rider)
24. Storybook Land Canal Boats

Day 4: Friday, March 7
1. Tangaroa Terrace (Hawaiian burger, sweet potato fries, pineapple & macadamia nut muffin)
2. Monorail from Downtown Disney
3. Buzz Lightyear's Astro Blasters
4. Maurice's Treats (Boysen Apple Freeze)
5. Frontierland Pin Trading Outpost
6. The Many Adventures of Winnie-the-Pooh
7. Pooh & Friends meet-and-greet (Tigger, Eeyore, Pooh)
8. Tomorrowland fruit cart (mangoes with lime)
9. Space Mountain
10. Star Tours (Vader / Kashyyk / Yoda / Coruscant)
11. Soundsational Parade (full performance; it's a small world corridor)
12. Mickey and the Magical Map
13. Roger Rabbit's Car Toon Spin
14. Plaza Inn (fried chicken, green beans, mashed potatoes, red velvet cake)
15. Mad T Party (end of band's first set; Blue Moon; band's entire second set)
16. Pluto meet-and-greet (Buena Vista Street)
17. Remember ... Dreams Come True
18. Fantasmic!
19. World of Disney (family souvenirs)
20. Earl of Sandwich (All American, cookie, Miller Lite)

Top attractions
1. Radiator Springs Racers (5)
2. Space Mountain (4)
3. The Many Adventures of Winnie-the-Pooh (3)

Notable omissions
Captain EO
Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln
Peter Pan's Flight
Pirate's Lair at Tom Sawyer's Island

Closed for refurbishment
Big Thunder Mountain Railroad
Disneyland Railroad
Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage
it's a small world

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

My favorite movies of 2013

I reach 2013's finish line with 42 of this year's movies under my belt, a number that, while low, is still better than what I had accomplished at this time last year. (28 movies? In all of 2012? For shame.)

More notable than the movies I have seen are those that I haven't: "12 Years a Slave," "Captain Phillips," "The Wolf of Wall Street," "Her," "Dallas Buyers Club," "Nebraska" and "Inside Llewyn Davis" are just a few of the critically acclaimed films I still need to see. Most, if not all, of those films will be nominated for multiple Academy Awards, and I'm sure I'll see them before the March telecast.

But that's a little over two months away. Today is Jan. 1, and these are the ten best films I saw in 2013, presented alphabetically:

"American Hustle," director David O. Russell — Early in this incredibly entertaining, sometimes euphoric film, combed-over con man Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and stripper-turned-partner Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) are lustily looking into each others' eyes as plastic-covered garments spin around them on Irving's dry-cleaning carousel. These two low-rent bottom-feeders are headed for the big time, but they'll always be cheap cons at heart. That, for me, will be the lasting image of "American Hustle," a romanticized depiction of the FBI's Abscam operation that was the most complete, most joyous moviegoing experience of 2013. All of the actors are absolutely perfect, from Bradley Cooper's fledgling FBI agent to Jennifer Lawrence's boundary-free housewife. The script is unbelievably funny. The filmmaking, which obviously owes much to Martin Scorsese, is exhilarating. The music choices, including a scene with Tom Jones' "Delilah" that nearly had me singing out loud in the theater, are familiar and fun. The smile on my face lasted the length of the film.

"The Conjuring," d. James Wan — I finally watched this last night and spent most of its 110 minutes hiding behind a pillow, yelling at the TV, and laughing and clapping after the biggest scares. That happened while I was sitting on my couch, alone, at home. I can't imagine what seeing this relentlessly scary movie was like with a packed theater. Wan, who also directed 2013's "Insidious: Chapter 2" and began the "Saw" franchise in 2004, may never top this '70s tale of a home besieged by demons and the paranormal investigators (Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson) who drive them out. It's like watching "The Exorcist," "Paranormal Activity" and "The Amityville Horror" all at once, with a terrific performance by Lili Taylor as the mother who wakes up with mysterious bruises all over her body and hears phantom clapping in her hallways. This feels like an instant classic.

"Drinking Buddies," d. Joe Swanberg — In a summer ruled by big, bombastic fantasies, this film made an impact with its realism. Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson, Anna Kendrick and Ron Livingston star in a Chicago-set tale of two co-workers who long to be more than friends despite their significant others. It's light on plot and heavy on talk, which is just right — as someone who has had more than one hopeless crush on a co-worker in years past, I was touched by "Drinking Buddies," and found myself laughing and tearing up in equal measure. (Plus, the first shot of the film is Johnson wearing an Old Style cap while brewing beer at Revolution, so it was basically love at first sight.)

"Escape From Tomorrow," d. Randy Moore — A black-and-white indie shot surreptitiously within Disneyland and Walt Disney World, "Escape From Tomorrow" puts a dark, surreal spin on places that are surreal to begin with. Where many saw a cheap film full of cheap shots at the Disney theme parks, I saw a daring, multi-faceted examination of an American rite of passage. The script knows far too much about the Disney parks and the people who visit them to be a full-on slam — one of the film's biggest laughs comes early on when the protagonist's boss gushes over the Soarin' ride, because OF COURSE some square's favorite ride would be Soarin' — and plays, for me, as a dead-on satire of the parks and the people who visit them. As we've learned from Twitter and message boards, you don't have to hate Disney World to be a harsh critic of it; I think the same applies here. This is an essential film for any fan of the parks. (And the payoff of the son's unfulfilled desire to ride Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin is one of the funniest scenes of the year.)

"Frozen," d. Chris Buck & Jennifer Lee — Elsa (Idina Menzel), queen of Arendelle, sings about who she is, not what she wants, in the most memorable scene of any movie I saw all year. "Let It Go," Elsa's anthemic display of confidence, is the best song in a Disney animated feature since the days of Howard Ashman, and the movie is perfectly entertaining even if the narrative is decidedly imperfect. This is one of only two movies in 2013 that I saw twice in theaters. (The other may involve stars and/or treks.)

"Gravity," d. Alfonso Cuaron — Definitely a film I admire more than one I genuinely like, but there is so much to admire. It is a leap forward for CGI, obviously, but "Gravity" wouldn't work without the strong performances of Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, or the emotional music by Steven Price. This is the rare movie that can move you with images alone; my tears flowed near the end as Dr. Ryan Stone's capsule re-entered Earth's atmosphere among the burning embers of space debris. Can you believe that some brave souls have actually seen something like that in real life?!

"Room 237," d. Rodney Ascher — Five insane theories about Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining," presented in a trippy kaleidoscope of film clips free of talking heads. This film isn't notable for the content of the theories themselves — though I do find the one about Native American genocide to be awfully convincing — but for how it puts our collective obsession with movies on display. Surely any hardcore film buff has a crazy theory about one of his or her favorite movies, right? (Mine is about Spielberg's "A.I.," which I implore you to watch again.) Available for streaming on Netflix.

"Star Trek Into Darkness," d. J.J. Abrams — Yes, I know (and mostly agree with) all the arguments against this movie. And yes, I was "in the tank" for this movie the moment it was announced, as I am not only A) a Trek fan but B) an unapologetic fan of Abrams and co-writer/co-producer Damon Lindelof. Feel free to discount my opinion of this movie, but consider this: If you can accept the idea of "Star Trek" as a thrill ride, can that thrill ride get much better than the two films Abrams has given us? As in the 2009 film, Zachary Quinto (Spock) and composer Michael Giacchino are the MVPs, though baddie Benedict Cumberbatch all but steals the show.

"Upstream Color," d. Shane Carruth — A sci-fi mystery with an indie spirit from the genius who made "Primer," "Upstream Color" is nearly indescribable. Its pleasures are best to be discovered by open-minded, adventurous moviegoers who don't need everything spelled out for them. Available for streaming on Netflix.

"The World's End," d. Edgar Wright — Wright and Simon Pegg close out their informal "Cornetto Trilogy" with a film about growing up and moving on — and alien robots. The true revelation of this film is Nick Frost, Pegg's constant co-star, who gives a nuanced, funny and brutally physical performance.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

RogerEbert.com's "Movie Love Questionnaire"

In which I reappropriate RogerEbert.com's "Movie Love Questionnaire" as a writing exercise for myself. I haven't written anything aside from tweets and my weekly newspaper column in a long while, and felt like taking a stab at this.
Where did you grow up, and what was it like?
Wheeling, Illinois, in a subdivision of townhomes called Lakeside Villas. In the grade school days, it felt like I knew everybody in the neighborhood. There were a lot of all-day bike rides with friends, long summer afternoons and evenings at the clubhouse pool, and NES sessions in the finished, wood-paneled basement.

What if anything did your jobs contribute to your sensibility as a moviegoer?
I worked for Suncoast Motion Picture Company at Randhurst Mall in Mt. Prospect for a stretch of five years, including summer, winter and spring stints when I was home from college. This is when watching movies went from an enthusiasm to a lifestyle. The need to own every movie I liked on VHS (then DVD, then Blu-ray) started here, as did my massive amount of credit card debt.

Was anyone else in your family into movies? If so, what effect did they have on your moviegoing tastes?
Everyone in the family is into movies. It is not uncommon for the immediate family to carry on entire conversations in movie quotes. I didn't have to beg my parents to see stuff like "Return of the Jedi," "Aliens" or "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" — they wanted to see them just as much as (if not more than) I did.

What's the first movie you remember seeing, and what impression did it make on you?
"Raiders of the Lost Ark," at Wheeling's Twin Drive-In. Seeing Toth's face melt at the end of the movie is my earliest memory — not my earliest memory of seeing a film, my earliest memory, period. If that's not a lasting impression, I don't know what is.

What's the first movie that made you think, "Hey, some people made this. It didn't just exist. There's a human personality behind it."
Definitely the "Star Wars" trilogy. We had a hardcover copy of "The Art of Return of the Jedi," and I remember seeing a behind-the-scenes special about "A New Hope" at a very early age. I probably knew who George Lucas, Dennis Muren and John Williams were before I entered the first grade.

What's the first movie you ever walked out of?
Against my will, it was Disney's "The Jungle Book." My mother took my sisters and me to see it, and she got sick about a half-hour in. I later walked out of Soderbergh's "Solaris" because the picture quality was atrocious; we got free passes for a later date and decided to see a different movie. (I still haven't seen it.) The only movie that I would truly categorize as a walk-out was "Starsky & Hutch," a painfully unfunny experience. Thankfully, the Rohirrim were about to charge the Orcs at Pelennor Fields across the hall.

What's the funniest film you've ever seen?
I'm not sure, but I do know that, while the film (and its filmmaker) has faded for me since, my first experience with "Clerks" was a watershed moment. I had read about it in Rolling Stone months earlier, and Dan Benes and I spotted it in a Blockbuster on a Saturday night when we were tasked with babysitting his brother. We watched it twice, back-to-back, and started spreading the gospel at school the following Monday. When I went off to Eastern Illinois University in 1997, I made friends with the entire 7th floor of Carman Hall that first weekend by inviting everybody over to watch this crazy black-and-white movie I had that nobody had ever heard of.

What's the saddest film you've ever seen?
Two movies left me crying, drooling and pounding my fists into the floor: "Dancer in the Dark" and "House of Sand and Fog." I've seen the former four or five times since; I've never watched the latter again.

What's the scariest film you've ever seen?
"Poltergeist." Not even close. And it just keeps getting scarier. If we ever have kids, I imagine it will be damn near unwatchable.

What's the most romantic film you've ever seen?
"Once" feels like the right answer.

What's the first television show you ever saw that made you think television could be more than entertainment?
The first show that became a full-on obsession for me was "The X-Files." It was perhaps the first show that truly felt cinematic, which seems laughable now in the age of "Game of Thrones" and "Breaking Bad."

What book do you think about or revisit the most?
"Jurassic Park" by Michael Crichton, which is a bit of an embarrassing answer — but an honest one.

What album or recording artist have you listened to the most, and why?
John Williams, because he is the filmmaker (yes, composers are filmmakers too) most responsible for my love of movies. Metallica, because "Enter Sandman" came out when I was 12, so why wouldn't I be a Metallica fan?

Is there a movie that you think is great, or powerful, or perfect, but that you never especially want to see again, and why?
"Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" is one of the best movies I've ever seen, but I have never been able to make it through a home viewing. It's just too painful an experience, and I'm not sure I can even articulate why.

What movie have you seen more times than any other?
Whatever it is, it has the word "star" in the title, I'm sure. In recent years, the answer is definitely J.J. Abrams' "Star Trek." I suspect that the answer is actually "Return of the Jedi," aka "Star Wars: Episode VI."

What was your first R-rated movie, and did you like it?
My dad showed me "The Blues Brothers" when I was 4 or 5 years old, and it has always been a family favorite. I loved the musical numbers when I was young. The first R-rated movie I saw in a theater was "Terminator 2: Judgment Day," with my dad and our neighbor, Bob.

What's the most visually beautiful film you've ever seen?
I am tempted to say "Avatar," but then most of you will stop reading this and never again take me seriously. The real answer is probably "Pinocchio," which I finally saw on the big screen in college. It was a breathtaking experience.

Who are your favorite leading men, past and present? 
Tom Cruise. Leonardo DiCaprio. Jimmy Stewart.

Who are your favorite leading ladies, past and present?
Kate Winslet. Cate Blanchett. 

Who's your favorite modern filmmaker? 
This question is harder than I thought it would be. The easy answers would be Paul Thomas Anderson or David Fincher, but then I remembered that I didn't bother to see either of their latest films in the theater. (I would eventually be baffled by "The Master" and electrified by the American remake of "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.")

Steven Spielberg seems like another obvious choice, but I still haven't slogged through "War Horse," and I think "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" ruined an unprecedented streak of risk and creativity for him that began with "A.I."

Right now, amazingly, the answer might be Gore Verbinski, even though I wouldn't call any of his films a truly great film. (I mean, he's made three pirate movies and a Lone Ranger movie, fer cryin' loud.) But I like him and the people he's chosen to be his constant collaborators, and he's certainly never made a boring film. I'm sure this answer will change once I see the Coen brothers' next movie.

What film do you love that most people seem to hate?

What film do you hate that most people love?

Tell me about a moviegoing experience you will never forget—not just because of the movie, but because of the circumstances in which you saw it.
The third or fourth time I saw "Titanic" was at the Randhurst General Cinemas 16. A big group of us arrived more than an hour before showtime and were queued up in the hallway. With about 20 minutes to go, someone pulled the fire alarm, which delayed everything by another half-hour. We stuck it out and saw the movie anyway. A classmate of mine, Elizabeth Severson, started crying about halfway through the film and, as far as I know, never stopped — she was still sobbing when I dropped her off around 2 a.m.

What aspect of modern theatrical moviegoing do you like least?
Talking patrons.

What aspect of moviegoing during your childhood do you miss the most?

Going with my mom, who hasn't been to a theater since "Revenge of the Sith" in 2005. Her MS makes it hard to sit still for prolonged periods, so uncomfortable theater seats are a no-go. I would take my mom to the movies all the time, even in high school. 

Have you ever damaged a friendship, or thought twice about a relationship, because you disagreed about whether a movie was good or bad?
Nothing comes to mind.

What movies have you dreamed about?
One of the most vivid nightmares of my life came after watching "Dazed and Confused," believe it or not. Ben Affleck and his pals were hunting me down, paddles in hand.

What concession stand item can you not live without?
I can live without all of them. I never eat at the movies.

Friday, June 14, 2013

My immediate reaction to "Man of Steel"

"Man of Steel" is a pretty damn good alien-invasion movie. I'm not sure how I feel about it as a Superman movie.

Now wait a minute, you may be thinking. The guy who loves J.J. Abrams' blasphemous "Star Trek" movies has qualms with a reimagined "Superman"?!?!

Yes, and it comes down to character. The loudest detractors of J.J.'s "Star Trek" films don't like his manipulation of the canon, his emphasis on action over intelligence, or his screenwriters' penchant for ignoring (ahem) logic. What Abrams has absolutely nailed, however, is a cast of characters that we not only like, but love. Those characters have always been my chief attraction to the franchise, and I would gladly watch another twenty years' worth of movies starring the actors chosen to carry on their legacy.

So what's wrong with the characters in "Man of Steel"? Nothing for which I can fault the actors. You like Henry Cavill the moment you see him. You detest Michael Shannon the moment you see him. Amy Adams defies her super-sweet image and delivers the best Lois Lane I've ever known. Russell Crowe is so good as Jor-El, he nearly steals the whole movie.

The chief problem I have with Superma — er, excuse me, Kal-El — is that he comes off more like Bruce Banner than Clark Kent. When Kal-El needs to fight, he suddenly has little concern for human life. The civilian body count racked up in the last 45 minutes of the movie has to be astronomical, and Clark is responsible for a lot of that as he tosses General Zod and his minions through office buildings, storefronts, cars, trains ... you name it, it gets destroyed in "Man of Steel."
Then there's Jonathan Kent, played perfectly by Kevin Costner. He is barely in this movie, and the film's structure, which tells young Clark's story in flashbacks, keeps us from ever really connecting to Pa Kent emotionally. This film is far more interested in Jor-El, whose consciousness is kept alive in a Kryptonian ship, much like the crystal recording of Marlon Brando that appeared in "Superman: The Movie." That focus on Jor-El does yield some very good things in the film, but I don't think the audience is (or even should be) emotionally invested in Jor-El. He's not the man who raised Clark to be the good — no, super — man he would become.

But for everything "Man of Steel" does that I didn't like — including some of the most intrusive, obvious product placement EVER — there's something else it does that is extraordinary.

The most obvious place to begin is with the action sequences, which are so overwhelming that I found myself shaking my head in disbelief. This, perhaps, isn't the preferred reaction — it is better to be exhilarated and/or delighted, no? — but there are sights in "Man of Steel" that simply have to be seen by any and every moviegoer. You may not respond to them emotionally, but you will be awed all the same. (I especially enjoyed any sequence involving Zod's henchwoman, Faora-Ul, who is more magnetic and seems more deadly than her master. I've never seen German actress Antje Traue before, but I hope to see her again.)

The absolute best thing about "Man of Steel," the one thing I will tell all my friends about when they ask me my opinion of the film, is Lois Lane. Hands down.

I've never thought much of Lois Lane. I've never been a reader of the Superman comics, so my opinion of Lois has been forged by the flighty, feisty Margot Kidder, and by Kate Bosworth, who was so flat and uninteresting that she almost single-handedly killed "Superman Returns." In "Man of Steel," Lois Lane is not just a big-city reporter — she's a world traveler who has been embedded with soldiers. Lois is no damsel in distress — she's been in the shit, as Max Fischer would say, and she doesn't suffer fools gladly. She figures heavily into my favorite scene in the film, a tricky little action scene with Russell Crowe that reminded me of "Minority Report."

In fact, "Man of Steel" reminded me of a lot of other movies that don't have "Superman" in the title, especially "Independence Day," the "Star Wars" prequels, and the "Matrix" trilogy. (The final, cartoonish fight between Clark and Zod was more satisfying the first time I saw it in "Matrix Revolutions.") That's not a knock on the movie; in this age of superhero movies, it's refreshing to see one that doesn't feel like one.

As I alluded to in my first paragraph, this is an alien-invasion movie more than anything else, and I think I would have enjoyed it more if it wasn't burdened by the Superman legacy. That being said, I feel like I need to see it again — this is not a movie you can easily dismiss.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Five reasons why I loved "Iron Man 3"

1. "Iron Man 3" brings a sense of realism back to the Marvel Universe while also raising the stakes.

 "The Avengers" ends with a cataclysmic battle between superheroes and alien invaders over, around and through the city of New York. Oh, and a nuclear missile thrown through an interstellar wormhole by a billionaire playboy wearing a flying robotic suit of armor.

"Iron Man 3" shows a hero still reeling from the effects of that experience, and pits against him (and the world) a very real, relatable threat. Americans were recently reacquainted with the spectre of terrorism on our home turf, so The Mandarin — with his slick propaganda videos, Bin Laden-esque visage and determination to kill innocent people — doesn't feel like a ludicrous supervillain. We know that real people are capable of such horrors.

Tony Stark's crusade against The Mandarin begins, sans suit, in a small town in Tennessee, where he sees the aftermath of one of the presumed attacks. Here we see Tony Stark stripped of his power, his allies and his enormous mansion, and for the first time in a long time the Marvel Universe feels like it exists in ours. Tony has to rediscover the ingenuity he once had in that cave in Afghanistan, resulting in two wonderful action scenes that dazzle us even though that iron mask is nowhere to be found.

Bringing this superhero back down to Earth could have worked against the film's third act, when the action rockets way over the top, but the story and characters build in such a way that the film's pyrotechnics feel like the natural outcome. This is no small feat for director Shane Black, who is as essential to this film as Joss Whedon was to "The Avengers."

2. The screenplay by Shane Black and Drew Pearce is truly funny.

"Thor" mostly didn't work for me because the jokes fell flat. (And Kat Dennings was interminable, and the product placement was really distracting, and Tom Hiddleston hadn't quite found his groove ... but enough about that.) "Iron Man 3" of course benefits from Robert Downey Jr.'s effortless charm and natural good humor, but the script seemingly goes out of its way to give us moments of levity amid a film full of pretty grim stuff.

Improbably, it works. The biggest mistake "Thor" made was to rely on pop culture references in telling fish-out-of-water jokes. "Iron Man 3" has its share of pop culture jokes, yes, but the bulk of the humor grows organically from the characters or informs us about them in some way.

And hey, Robert Downey Jr. doesn't even get the funniest line in the movie.  

3. S.H.I.E.L.D. is out of the picture.

My main problem with the Marvel Universe films prior to "The Avengers" was how concerned they were with selling "The Avengers." "Iron Man 2" was particularly guilty of this, handing large sections of the film over to Agent Coulson, Black Widow and Nick Fury instead of trying to make us care about Ivan Vanko and Justin Hammer. (I mean, did you ever care about those characters? I sure didn't.)

"Iron Man 3" puts the focus right where I wanted it, on Tony and those close to him. Those high stakes I mentioned before are also very personal — the way the film plays out, we feel like anything could happen to anyone. Everyone knew the superfriends would triumph in "The Avengers," but there are moments in "Iron Man 3" that test our confidence, and that's a very good thing.

I really can't think of a good reason why Tony didn't enlist S.H.I.E.L.D.'s help to fight The Mandarin, but I also can't think of a good reason why I should care, given how good the movie is without them.

4. I found myself humming the theme on the way out of the theater.

For years, I have bitched and moaned about the lack of rousing, recognizable musical themes in superhero movies. I was baffled by Danny Elfman's score for "Spider-Man" — the guy who gave us the iconic Tim Burton "Batman" theme couldn't give us anything to grasp? — and Hans Zimmer's "Dark Knight" scores, while effective, certainly aren't hummable. Alan Silvestri had a near-miss with "Captain America: The First Avenger," and his perfectly wonderful theme for "The Avengers" was woefully underused.

Then there's the music for the first two "Iron Man" flicks. John Debney gave us a score as bland as "Iron Man 2's" villains, but even that was light years better than Ramin Djawadi's downright offensive efforts in the first film. Crunching, tuneless rock guitars interspersed with AC/DC songs do not an effective score make.

But Brian Tyler, of all people, comes to the rescue in "Iron Man 3," giving Tony Stark the melodic and anthemic music he deserves. (And AC/DC? Nowhere to be heard. Unless I'm forgetting something.) Tyler's previous work had not impressed me, but he gets a tip of the cap for this one.

5. The movie isn't afraid to take risks. (This section contains A VERY BIG SPOILER.)

The fine web-based film critic @scottEweinberg tweeted this earlier today: "Congrats to , not for the opening weekend, but for making a good film despite knowing it would be a smash hit anyway."

Marvel and Jon Favreau made a risky bet in casting Robert Downey Jr. for "Iron Man," and it paid off handsomely. That spirit continues in "Iron Man 3," which enlisted the services of Shane Black, a writer/director not known for crowd-pleasing kiddie movies. The result is an unlikely success that is very much a Shane Black movie, but also very much an Iron Man movie.

But perhaps the biggest risk taken in "Iron Man 3" is the subversion of The Mandarin, Tony's biggest villain in the comic book world. The film's big twist reveals that The Mandarin is just an actor, and that the Extremis-producing scientist Aldrich Killian is pulling the strings.

Turning The Mandarin into a boogeyman played by a desperate addict is a crazy idea that works for a number of reasons: The ads never hinted at it, the casting of Ben Kingsley doesn't suggest it (and pays off in big laughs), and Aldrich Killian turns out to be a very formidable foe indeed. I'm sure hardcore fans of the Iron Man comics are upset with this twist; as someone who is strictly a fan of the films, I have no problem with it.

In conclusion

"Iron Man 3" is not a perfect film. I thought it was a bit dodgy until The Mandarin's assault on Tony's home, and that some of Black's more unsavory tics were on display. Rhodey gets marginalized again, and I found myself wishing that it had been a Downey/Cheadle buddy pic or that Cheadle had been cut altogether. And clearly, those infected with Extremis should have burned through all their clothes. (Right???)

But I don't demand perfection from my superhero movies. I do demand that, in this age of superhero saturation, they try to surprise and delight us. "Iron Man 3" certainly did that.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Three magical days

In July of 2011, I decided I'd had enough of being a sad, frustrated man who pined for women he couldn't have, and I created a profile on OK Cupid. Minutes after doing so, I got a DM from a young woman I hadn't heard from in a long while: "I know you from Twitter :)"

That woman used to go by a Twitter handle that used her full, real name; I knew she was a film student at Columbia College, and that she had a cute and kissable face. When she messaged me on OK Cupid, she went by the name @LostOnTheFringe, which explained why I hadn't seen her online in a while.

Soon after that message, we were IM'ing each other. Then calling each other. And then, on July 30, we were sitting next to each other in a D-BOX theater watching "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II" in 3D. The rest, as they say, is history.

I had always wanted to go to Disneyland for my birthday. In February 2012, that dream came true -- and @LostOnTheFringe was right alongside me. Here are some wonderful highlights from that trip, which happened to be her first to the Happiest Place on Earth:

We arrived in Anaheim on Jan. 31. We stayed at the Holiday Inn on Walnut Street, which is my favorite hotel in the area. It's quiet, it's clean, and it's a 15-minute walk away from the esplanade. We could have walked underneath the monorail tracks that run along the backside of Downtown Disney, but we opted to walk through the Disneyland Hotel campus every morning. On our last day, we had brunch at Tangaroa Terrace. Yum!

Here we are with our 3-day Park Hoppers. We look ridiculously happy, don't we?!?

We had breakfast at Riverbelle Terrace the first two days of our trip. The Mickey Mouse Pancakes are irresistible, mostly because they provide you with a photo-op :)

The Matterhorn was down for refurbishment for our entire trip; I dubbed it "The Sadderhorn."

In line for Toy Story Midway Mania. Aren't we sexy beasts?!?!?!?!

Lisa bought a pair a Pluto mouse ears at DCA, then we saw Pluto about an hour later after returning to Disneyland!

Oh, Toadie. How I love you. I wish you were still entertaining guests in Florida. That being said, I LOVE Fantasyland in Florida -- PhilharMagic is one of my favorites. We'll get to experience the new stuff in a few weeks :)
Here's my beauty pose on the Mad Tea Party!

Look who we ran into just outside of Star Traders! This seems like an awfully random place for these three characters to show up, eh? (Not that I'm complaining!)

Day 2, my 33rd birthday, began with a Monorail ride from Downtown Disney to Tomorrowland, where we defeated Emperor Zurg. @LostOnTheFringe absolutely LOVED Buzz Lightyear's Astro Blasters. (She also said this picture proves we were the happiest couple in Anaheim that day. I must agree!)

We really enjoyed the Pooh ride, which inexplicably has a bad reputation. @LostOnTheFringe wanted to take one of these Heffalumps home with her!

Yeah, we laughed our asses off at this. We are 12 years old, apparently. (But shouldn't everyone at Disneyland be 12 years old?)
 Cheers for Pooh!

You should have seen the look on her face when I told her Disneyland had a petting zoo! We met the goats on Day 2, and she was in heaven. I can't wait to take her to the Affection Section at Animal Kingdom!

@LostOnTheFringe is ready for Splash Mountain, or, as she called it, The Ride With The Stupid Hillbilly Animals.

We saw the ultimate showdown at Jedi Training Academy: Darth Vader vs. Superman! (The kid in the Superman get-up seemed to be totally unaware of what was happening to him, lol)

Yes, that's a real seagull next to the fake ones in the Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage lagoon. How awesome is that?!?

@LostOnTheFringe's co-worker desperately wanted Goofy's autograph, and we obtained it after some waiting (or stalking) in Mickey's Toontown. Daisy totally photobombed them, though :)
This might have been the highlight of the trip: We stumbled onto a game of Red Rover conducted by Rowdy Hatter and starring Cinderella and her mice, the Fairy Godmother, Aurora and Ariel. At one point, a guest was asked to "come on over" while doing a Captain EO moonwalk. So, so awesome!

@LostOnTheFringe poses with her new friends!

Here I am making a "shady" pin trading deal with a CM on Main Street :)

As a superfan of both pinball and Indiana Jones, I was overjoyed to find this pinball machine in Adventureland.
 We had dinner here on our second night. @LostOnTheFringe had the filet, and I had the crabcakes. A wonderful dinner!

Aren't we just adorable?

 I cannot lie -- I LOVE the Ariel ride. @LostOnTheFringe loves it even more. We did this six times on our trip, the most of any attraction. It might seem like a C-ticket to you, but it's an E-ticket in our hearts.

And here's the parting shot of @LostOnTheFringe giving Pluto some love :) We had an incredible vacation, and hope to repeat it this year at Walt Disney World. Hopefully we'll have another great trip report for you in February!