Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Like tuh-mater, but without the "tuh"

So I have two words to describe Disney's new Cars Land: awesome, and unbelievably crowded. Wait a minute... ahh, who's counting anyway? Have you heard about this place? It's the latest and biggest upgrade to Disney's California Adventure in Anaheim, CA, to date. Price tag? Try $1.1 billion dollars. That's right, billion with a "b". But the stakes are high, even in a down economy, and attendance at California Adventure has been sluggish since its opening in 2001, as compared with other Disney properties. So in typical Disney fashion, they paid out big bucks for the big guns.

In the past that might have meant Snow White or The Little Mermaid, but in 2012 it's Pixar and the cast of Cars. That's right, Lightning McQueen, Sally Carrera, Mack, Tow Mater, and the rest of the gang from Radiator Springs are all here. The scenery is just amazing. Ornament Valley looks just like it did on the big screen, and there is a real southwest, Route 66 feel about it. One of my favorite attractions is Luigi's Flying Tires. You may remember Luigi as the proprietor of Casa Della Tires in the movie, but this ride is like nothing you've ever seen before. You sit atop a giant Fettuccini-brand tire (about 9 feet across) while about a million air jets turn on, and lift you ever so slightly off of the ground. Think air hockey, only with you as the puck. Then you and your companions lean in the direction you want to go. That's when the bumper car action starts, and man-oh-man is it fun. Even as you are sitting on it, banging into other riders, it just doesn't seem like it could possibly work. Like something you drew up in your bedroom as a kid, that somehow sprang to life. But I guess that's the point, and is what the folks at Disney and Pixar are all about. I wonder if they can do anything about those jet-packs we were promised?

Of course no Cars-themed park would be complete without a Mater attraction (like tuh-mater, but without the "tuh"), and Cars Land does not disappoint with Mater's Junkyard Jamboree. It's like a kiddy ride meets The Grand Ole Oprey. There are 22 adorable baby tractors with articulated eyes and mouths that pull you around the circuit as Mater leads as a combination square dance caller/stand-up comedian. The tractors dance along, if you can imagine, and you'd really have to be a grouch not to have some fun on this one; especially when little ones are involved.

But the main attraction, in my opinion, are the Radiator Springs Racers. Up to six people board a car familiar from the movie, and take a tour of Radiator Springs and Ornament Valley. So you see the "Pull-up and Fill-up" service station, the Comfy Cavern Motor Court, and run into Mack, Lightning McQueen, and the rest of the gang along the way. And then right at the end, you are pitted against another group of visitors in a race for the checkered flag. You'll zip over hills, high-banked turns, and camelback straightaways against a backdrop of red-rock formations. The cars are on a track - giant slot cars actually - but you really feel like you are racing against the other car. It's great fun, and you will want to ride it again and again.

If you are considering a visit, and you should be, I would offer you two pieces of advice: wait awhile; and rent a timeshare. This park just opened last Friday, and it is estimated that over 45,000 people were there on Saturday. I am pretty sure I made physical contact with each and every one of them. And not in a good way. Plus there were mechanical issues, which should come as a surprise to no one. Give them a month or two to work out the kinks, and put it on your family vacation radar. There are tons of timeshares available in Anaheim, which will not only put you near Cars Land, but Disneyland proper, Knott's Berry Farm, Legoland, and Universal Studios Hollywood, to name a few.

Well, I'm off to Hollywood for my rendezvous with death. No I am not planning a Belushi-style O.D. at the Chateau Marmont, although you can visit Bungalow #3 if celebrity death sites is your thing. No I am headed to the Museum of Death, featuring the largest collection of serial murderer artwork, Manson Family crime scene photos, the guillotined head of the Blue Beard of Paris, a body bag and coffin collection, full-size execution devices, autopsy instruments, and much much more. On the gruesome scale, this place is an 11, and makes the Belushi death scene look like a suite at the Waldorf Astoria.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Hoisting the Cup

The tension, the action, the blathering of the ESPN announcers; there's nothing like this time of year to get me glued to the television set. No I am not talking about the Stanley Cup Finals, which barring a miracle will go to the the L.A. Kings tomorrow night. I am referring to the Scripps National Spelling Bee, of course. It was won this weekend by 14-year-old Snigdha Nandipati of San Deigo. The word that put her over the top? That would be "guetapens". That's right, guetapens, a French-derived word meaning ambush or trap. Sounds more like writing implements made out of cheese to me. Fortunately young Snigdha didn't need to know what it meant, she just had to spell it correctly. And spell it she did, along with all of the other words thrown at her over the course of a week-long competition which eliminated the other 277 contestants. For her mastery, she took home a trophy, $30,000 in cash, a $2,500 savings bond, a $5,000 scholarship, and $2,600 in reference works from the Encyclopedia Britannica. Not bad for a week's work, and it beats the heck out of taking a hockey puck in the kisser.

Of course it is important to remember that these contestants are just children, and they are being put under extraordinary pressure. I tend to forget this myself as the words get harder and contestants are eliminated. I will admit to catching myself yelling at the television in my timeshare this weekend on more than one occasion. It's all well and good for a grown man to be able to spell "vetiver" (I didn't, by the way) from the comforts of home, but it is quite another for a 10-year-old to do it on live TV. Snigdha's parents said that in the run up to event she was studying 6 hours a day (or more) on weekdays, and as many as 12 hours a day on weekends. Are you kidding me?! That $40k or so in prizes isn't looking like such a bargain after all.

And then there are all of the post-championship obligations: interviews, parades, TV appearances, etc. And in what has become a National Spelling Bee tradition, young Snigdha made an appearance on Live With Kelly, joining Ms. Rippa and her co-host Bryant Gumbel. Talk about no place to hide. An over-caffeinated ditz on one side of you, a pompous gasbag on the other, and an obligatory "mock" spelling bee against the two of them. Besides the fact that Rippa can't seem to recite her own name without a tele-prompter, and Gumble is too self-absorbed to be aware of much else, this kid just correctly spelled guetapens for goodness sakes. If you want to improve the ratings of this abysmal TV show, how about having Rippa and Gumble skate a shift or two against the Kings?

But I digress. Miss Nandipati handled the situation with the grace and aplomb befitting a champion. She says she hopes to be a neurosurgeon when she grows up, and if she works as hard at that as she did on winning the spelling bee, I have no doubt that she'll succeed. I am already looking forward to next year and seeing some of the kids that almost made it this year take it to the next level. The competition is held every year in Washington, D.C., and you can find a timeshare rental in nearby Fort Washington, MD, or Alexandria, VA. I would also highly recommend the 2002 documentary Spellbound. It follows eight kids as they work their way toward the finals of the national prize. You see first-hand the tremendous effort they put into even making it to the finals, and meet a few parents you'll probably want to strangle along the way.

Well, I am off to the International Spy Museum where "nothing is what it seems". That's right, there is a museum dedicated to the craft of spookery right here in our nation's capital. It features the largest collection of international espionage artifacts, hands-on activities like code breaking, and even a school for spies. I'd tell you where it is, but then I'd have to kill you. I know, I know. That joke will self-destruct in five minutes, I promise.