Wednesday, October 17, 2012

A Week In Review - STARWEST Conference -or- A Week in Disneyland

So a couple of weeks ago I went to California for a business conference. The conference was pretty cool…lots of great speakers, tutorials, keynotes, vendors and other work sessions to fill my head (and my bag) with lots of great information and contacts.

As an added bonus, the conference was held in the Disneyland Convention Center in the Disneyland Hotel. While this certainly wasn't my first reason for opting for this particular conference, it didn't hurt.

The conference (STARWEST) is hosted by SQE and they do a number of great conferences each year and also have a good selection of webinars and ongoing resources online. I've followed them and have been wanting to go to one of their conferences for a while. It was well worth it.

Unless I happen to have readers who are in the Software Test and/or QA industry, I won't bore you all too much with the various things I learned at the conference…hit me up after if you're interested. ;)

Instead, I figured I'd give a little recap on the "entertainment" portion of the trip.

Since it was at the Disneyland Hotel AND since I'm a big fan of Disney, I naturally opted for the discounted theme park tickets they were offering to conference attendees. Furthermore, I was able to get the discounted room rate and stay in the Disneyland Hotel.

Now, I've stayed at Disney Hotels in Walt Disney World before and they are absolutely super fabulous. In Florida if you're going to do extended time at Disney Resorts, it's almost a given that you should stay on a Disney property. They're close to the parks with complimentary shuttles so you don't have to worry about your own hotel shuttle into the large WDW complex or doing your own driving and parking.

In California, however, there are a TON of hotels within easy walking distance of the park and most at a cheaper rate than the Disney hotels. However, since the conference started first thing in the morning and I knew I might be lugging backpack and/or laptop to and from the conference, I felt alright opting for the somewhat pricier room. After the convention discount, it was only slightly more expensive than where we usually stay as a family (granted, as a family we usually have to get a roll-a-way or a larger room or adjoining rooms).

The Disneyland Hotel is fabulous fun. I'd been in the main lobby area before to eat at Goofy's Kitchen but hadn't really explored. They have fun art and themed nooks throughout the hotel. The hotel is split into three "towers" each with its own theme. The main tower (with the lobby/restaurant, etc) is the Fantasy Tower. To the East is the Adventure Tower. And across on the other side of the pool is the Frontier Tower. I was in Frontier facing South with a lovely view of the parking lot. *grin* If I craned to the left I could make out portions of Disney's California Adventure around the edge of the Paradise Pier Hotel. The Frontier Tower was themed in Frontierland style and had a cool scale model of the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad in the lobby.

My room had 2 Queen beds with a big wooden headboard on the wall behind them. On each bed was a long skinny pillow…on the left bed the pillow said "A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes…" and the right hand bed's pillow continued "…When You're Fast Asleep." The headboard had a carved picture of the Disneyland Castle with fireworks going off. If you flipped a switch on the nightstand lamp, a music box rendering played "A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes" and the castle and fireworks in the carving lit up. Very cute.

I also had a photo print of Walt Disney walking through the castle gate from Fantasyland to the Plaza. Some of the lamps and bathroom fixtures had Mickey heads integrated into their patterns. All in all it was a pretty magical and fun. The only down side was that the family wasn't there to share it with me…though I partially remedied that later in the week. Since this is our anniversary time of year, we also made sure my wife was able to fly out Thursday night. More on that later. ;)

As some added fun, guests in the Disneyland Hotel get a number of fun perks. They can opt for early park entry on certain days. There are spas and walks and special events and little things all around with different availability. The one "free" option that I took advantage of is the Disneyland Attraction Trivia. At the front desk they'll ask for your room number and then give you some trivia worksheets. While I was there they had a sheet for "Pirates of the Caribbean", "It's a Small World", "Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage", and "Jungle Cruise."

Each worksheet had a dozen or so questions to be filled out while riding the ride. Some of them were very easy if you'd ridden the ride a number of times. Others required paying attention to small details in the queue or the ride itself. Still others required finding an information board (or Google) for rounding up data. For example in Pirates you were asked to count the number of boats seen or to identify when the ride opened. After completing the trivia sheet, you took it back to the front desk for a prize. Our prize (I did them with my wife) were a bunch of attraction specific pins (button style pins, not Disney trading pins). They're pretty cool and a fun added perk.

The Conference Pretty much ran from 8-5 every day (give or take a half-hour here and there). They had a continental breakfast for conference members and also provided lunch, which was great. Even though it was on a large scale, they still managed to have some pretty decent "Disney"-esque meals.

After the day of conference tutorials, speakers and meetings, things broke up. There were often post-conference activities available for those interested. I'm not a drinker so the bar didn't interest me. They had a few party style games and activities as well but I was actually more stoked to head into the Parks. The rush to the parks was especially urgent to me because they are on "off peak" hours which meant the parks closed around 8PM each night.

So much time so little to see. Strike that. Reverse it. ;)

My first priority was to enjoy the Halloween Holiday changes. I've always wanted to hit up Disneyland at Halloween-time to see the decorations and especially to ride "Haunted Mansion Holiday." That was my first stop. I made a beeline down Main Street (pausing to take pictures) and over to New Orleans Square to finally see in-person what Jack Skellington had done to the Haunted Mansion. Although the shorter hours are a disadvantage to off-peak season, the lines were definitely not as bad as in the summer. The queue for Haunted Mansion was just long enough that I got to slowly walk past all of the fun new decorations outside and really take them in, but not so long that I felt like my time was slipping away from me.

The ride itself was fabulous. I have always always always loved the Haunted Mansion. It's one of my favorites. Initially the transformation might make a big fanboy nervous…but I'm also a fan of Nightmare Before Christmas, so this is a fabulous melding. I absolutely loved it. I felt like some of the audio was a little muffled at points during the opening, partially due to some of the guests being a little noisy, but it didn't feel like they were any noisier than normal…and after multiple ride-thrus I did feel like I had a hard time really hearing everything in the Stretching Portrait Gallery.

Overall though, the ride was super fun and I really loved it. I loved the use of the Smell-o-Vision (or whatever Disney calls it) technology in the Ballroom to actually take a whiff of the smells at the Christmas party. I loved the larger than life Jack replacing the old caretaker at the Graveyard (though I was bummed at how easy you could see Zero's wires). I really thought the giant Jack-O-Lantern angels with their trumpets were probably the creepiest part. The only downside was that I couldn't ALSO ride the "normal" Haunted Mansion since I do love that one too. I am super glad though that I got a chance to see this. I hope to be able to bring the kids to see it sometime.

After riding the Mansion a couple of times I sailed with the Pirates (which was a walk-on), grabbed a fast pass for Space Mountain and grabbed some dinner. Space Mountain had also been changed for Halloween…it's now Space Mountain "Ghost Galaxy." It's the same ride but with a different soundtrack and some different visuals on the walls of the ride. Rather than the normal stars, constellations, galaxies and such, you still have a space theme but there's also a creepy nebulous orangish-reddish ghost-like being that's ominously lurching and grabbing at you. I found it moderately creepy but not terribly noteworthy. My wife (when she rode it on Friday) said it was super scary…so maybe I'm just desensitized.

On Tuesday night I made a beeline for Cars Land in DCA. This was not yet open on our last trip so I was excited to see it. Unfortunately the Radiator Springs Racers are still far too popular for a shortened visit like mine. Each night, the wait was between 1 and 2 hours and the fast pass was no longer available by the time I got there. Alas, it will wait for the next trip.

I did take a float on Luigi's Tires. This is a throwback to the Flying Saucer's ride that was in Disneyland back in the ~60s (?). Essentially it's a sort of hovercraft. The floor of the ride is equipped with a ton of high powered fans. The Tires are large and shaped like tires. The outer portion inflates when the ride begins. I'm not sure if the tires have a fan built into their bottom or not…it seems like they might. Whether or not they do, I'm not sure. But basically a pocket of air is created underneath the tire and by leaning each direction you're able to use gravity and escaping air to make your tires move. Don't lean too far though or the heavy solid portion of the ride will hit the ground and stop you. It was a slow paced ride but pretty fun even if just for the novelty of it.

The funnest ride I had in Cars Land (ok, so I only did two…but hey, I was pressed for time) was Mater's Junkyard. The idea is that Mater is hosting a hoe-down out in his junkyard. He's up in the DJ booth spinning tunes and singing the songs (which he does with hilarity). In the junkyard are a bunch of small tractors each hauling a little trailer that you get to sit in. The tractors spin around a sort of double figure-8 and the trailers are on a pivot so that as you're turned one way or another, the momentum sends you spinning. It's like an ongoing game of crack-the-whip. It was surprisingly more fun than I expected it to be.

In addition to the DCA staples that I always ride (I'm looking at you "Tower of Terror"), I got on a few that other family members had wanted to avoid last time…namely Mickey's Fun Wheel and the Toy Story Midway Mania ride. I took the non-swinging car on Mickey's Fun Wheel (I'm not sure my acrophobia would enjoy the added swinging motion) and it was a nice relaxing ride with a cool view. I expected the Toy Story Midway Mania to basically be a rehash of Tomorrowland's Buzz Lightyear Blasters. I was wrong. First of all, it's in 3D. Which I thought was odd…how do they make a "ride" 3D? The answer is that instead of a bunch of props and animatronics and stuff, you ride around between a bunch of large screens. The screens are filled with animated objects for you to shoot at. It becomes a larger than life 3-D video game. I didn't score super well, but I had a lot of fun and will encourage the kids to go with me next time.

For my first dinner in DCA, I stopped in at Carthay Circle. The atmosphere is just lovely. Modeled after an early 1900s movie theater (specifically the one where Snow White and the Seven Dwarves debuted), this place was really very cool. The entire restaurant has subdued lighting, elegant looking furnishings and fun photographic artwork from the early 1900s.

The menu is a bit pricey (especially the meat dishes) but the pasta dish is affordable and very tasty. I also must whole-heartedly recommend the Carthay House Biscuits. Hot fried biscuits stuffed with white cheddar, bacon and jalapeños and served with apricot honey butter on the side…I was certainly skeptical about the combination of flavors. But oh my were they tasty. Wow.

Wednesday night was a lot of fun repeating favorite rides again and again before hopping into the waiting area for World of Color. For dinner that night, I grabbed one of their "World of Color Picnics." It seems you must order these ahead of time (the people in front of me hadn't ordered one and they were all sold out) but you can do so online or first thing in the morning.

I have to admit that the food in the picnic wasn't fabulous. I got the "taste of Asia" picnic and it came with a cold salmon noodle salad and some other goodies. The flavor was alright but a little dry as compared with other Disney fare. The "American" meal might be better, but I wasn't in the mood for fried chicken. Still, the main reason to get the picnic is because it also includes a "fast pass" ticket to let you into shore-side seating (standing) for World of Color. I ended up just slightly off-center and one person back from the fence right by the water. While I was too close to get really good videos or photos of the overall production, I was in a perfect spot to be absolutely amazed by the show. I'm kind of a sucker for these sorts of things but I was in awe at the spectacle of World of Color. It was so super fabulous. I loved it.

Thursday marked the last official day of the Conference and the corresponding vendor Expo, but Thursday evening also marked the time my wife got to join me for some fun. Her favorite ride is Pirates, so we took the plunge into the murky waters a few times. She was also excited for Haunted Mansion Holiday. Somehow I hadn't ever made it clear to her that the actual ride changed…she thought it was just the external decorations. When she got inside and saw the changes to the ride, she giggled, laughed and pointed with childlike delight. It was awesome!

On Thursday and Friday we hit a lot of the classics that we've loved for a long time. Splash Mountain, Pirates (again and again), Tower of Terror, Big Thunder Mountain and more. We were also able to take a ride on the Matterhorn which had been closed last time we were here (it's much darker now that they closed the holes for the Skyway, though I'm kind of sad to see them go).  I took her into Cars Land (sadly when we got into the park around 11:30, the fast pass for the Radiator Spring Racers was already gone for the day). She laughed and enjoyed Mater's Junkyard as much as I did.

Just before leaving California Adventure, we made a stop in Hollywood Land to make a purchase in Off the Page. I was stoked to see Stitch on the street outside the shop. While my wife went inside to make her purchase, I stood in line to meet Stitch and get our photo. Unfortunately the line for Stitch moved faster than the line for shopping. Soon I was at the front of the line and my wifey was nowhere to be seen. I let the person behind me go ahead of me. Then again. And again. And again.

After a few minutes, Stitch's cast member was letting the crowd know that Stitch's time was done and he had to go. I reluctantly went up alone and got my photo with Stitch. I thanked him and was wandering away when suddenly he perked up and waved at the cast members and at me. He grabbed us and led us to the door of Off the Page, indicating that I should grab my wife and get her out there for a picture. She was finalizing her purchase, but quickly hopped over for the photo op. It was really very cool and above-and-beyond service to have Stitch take a special moment to make sure she was in the picture. I was impressed.

Friday night was a special Halloween event…Mickey's Halloween Party. You had to have an extra ticket to attend, but you were also allowed to come in costume (something not allowed in Disney Parks if you're not an employee or a young child). I went as a swarthy pirate and was accompanied by a dazzling duchess. We made our way back into Disneyland Park just as they were closing it down for non-party-going guests. The initial surge of people was a little troublesome as the Cast Members worked to funnel party goers one way and everybody else the other way. If you got caught on the wrong side of a rope or wanted to go to certain places, you often found yourself blocked entirely. By ~30-60 minutes after park closing, things had settled down.

Disneyland at Halloween Time after dark is pretty cool. Lots of pumpkins and jack-o-lanterns all over the place. For Mickey's Halloween Party, they changed the normal music for something a little more "festive." The Castle and the Main Street Railroad Station were each lit by eerie greens, purples and oranges sometimes overshadowed by spiderwebs or other images. It was pretty funny to see normal party goers dressed as Disney villains getting stopped and asked for photo-ops or autographs. It makes it easy to see why Disney doesn't normally allow costumes. :)

A few areas of the park were changed into "Treat Trails." We only went down one trail but essentially they wind through a segmented restaurant, path or other area of the park and have a number of "trick or treat" stations where you're given a handful of candy. It was pretty fun. They also had a number of character meet-and-greats.

Our main reason for staying late though was to wander around in costume and ride the rides. In between Splash Mountain and Pirates and Haunted Mansion and Space Mountain we happened to see the Cadaverous Dans (?) singing on a raft on the Rivers of America. We also happened to be in just the right spot for the Halloween Firework show which was pretty impressive. We sat down in the Jolly Holiday patio for a snack and managed to catch the Halloween Costume Cavalcade (albeit from a distance). It was a lot of fun.

Saturday we had a quick meal, packed up and headed home. The kids were excited to see us. They were a little bummed that we went to Disneyland without them (especially as we showed them pictures) but since they had just barely gone last Spring and since they got to sleep over at their friend's house, they weren't too utterly disappointed.

This was a pretty fun trip. I'm glad I finally got to cross a couple of things off my pseudo-bucket-list…I've now stayed at the Disneyland Hotel and I've been to Disneyland for Halloween.

Now if I could just get somebody to sneak me into Club 33 for a day. ;)


Brian Miller said...

nice...sounds like a great trip...would be very cool to see disney at halloween....the smell tech they have is pretty amazing...

when i saw the title i was thinking star wars weekend....which i would love to go to...

Okie said...

Yeah...I would definitely love to go to Star Wars Weekends. One of these years. ;)