Cruising in California 2012
Visiting California has been near the top of my to do list for a very long time. Even though I have traveled most of the United States, I never quite made it all the way to the other end of the country. In recent years I had made valiant attempts at planning a vacation in California with my friend Danny but something always came up to preempt it. The third time proved to be the charm in 2012 and we actually made it to the Golden State.
Thanks in part to all the time I spent on various occasions trying to plan this trip, I had an itinerary planned that would easily fill our slightly over a week long visit. Since this was my first trip to California, I had done as much research online as I could and tried to make our travels as efficient as possible. As it turned out, my scheduling was a bit optimistic and we only accomplished about 75-80% of what I had planned and some of that was not to the extent I would have preferred. I had gone into this adventure with the mindset that this would be a research and reconnaissance trip as well so it was all a learning experience for future visits.
Our west coast odyssey began at the airport in Orlando, Florida on a note of concern. The plane we were waiting for was delayed and eventually rerouted to another airport. After several updates, we eventually took off over an hour late on a different plane. We had been forced to violate our rule on direct flights with this trip when none were available between Florida and California. Fortunately the delay did not interfere with our connecting flight since forty other passengers from this plane were also going to California.
After a tricky start, we arrived in San Diego around mid afternoon on Saturday which, with the three hour time difference, was already night back in Florida. We picked up our rental car and drove about forty miles to the condo in Oceanside we planned to use as a base of operations for the duration of the trip. I had wisely not planned any activities that evening other than getting settled in and picking up a few supplies we had chosen not to carry with us on the flight. By the time that was done we were ready for a good night’s sleep after the stress of traveling all day.
The jet lag was surprisingly minimal on Sunday and we adjusted to the Pacific Time zone quickly. Since we had no way of knowing what condition we would be in following the cross country day of flying, I had intentionally left Sunday’s activities light. After breakfast we decided to cruise down the Pacific Coast Highway and take in the scenic differences between this end of the country and the other side we call home. It was a beautiful day and the beach was never out of sight for more than a few minutes for most of the drive.
We eventually ended up back in San Diego and stopped by a sizable farmer’s market – what we would consider a flea market in Florida. I was struck by the irony of the fact that most of what I found of interest at the market, mainly vintage electronics, was too bulky to try to carry back on a plane and too heavy to ship economically. I eventually settled for a pair of Mexican wrestler masks, one of the legendary Santo and the other of his occasional partner and chief rival, the Blue Demon. Danny also scored well with some gifts for friends and family including a brand new special edition Monopoly game. While the weather was nice, the sun was hot and relentless and we decided to call it quits after about an hour.
After the farmer’s market we headed up into the mountains of San Diego in search of a casino Danny had heard about. Had it not been for our trusty GPS, I would have been seriously concerned that we were lost as we navigated the sharply twisting narrow roads up the mountainside. Just as I was starting to think we had veered off into the middle of nowhere, we finally saw a few signs for the casino we were looking for plus another nearby one and realized it really did exist. It was odd to see something this big in flashy in an area with almost nothing else around. We hung out for a few hours and decided to try their dinner buffet which turned out to be pretty good.
The one thing I had scheduled specifically for Sunday was a visit to the South Bay Drive-In in San Diego. We returned down from the mountains and arrived at this three screen ozoner just as the sun was setting and the projector bulbs were firing up. This drive-in is one of several still in operation inCaliforniaand is located just a few miles from the Mexican boarder. We enjoyed a 35MM screening of Expendables 2, which had been renamed Expandables 2 on the marquee, before making the return drive back to Oceanside and calling it a day.
Monday was our first official tourist day and we started things off with Universal Studios Hollywood. Before we ever got there though I realized that the warnings I had been given about Los Angeles traffic were, if anything, understated. What should have been a 90 minute trip according to the GPS ended up taking us more like two and a half hours that morning. This turned out to be the typical duration for that time of morning but it could extend another hour beyond that depending on where in Los Angeles you were going and whatever the traffic obstacles of the day were. Returning in the evenings took anywhere between three and a half and four and a half hours regardless of how early or how late we got started.
I had been fascinated by all manner of photos, film and video footage of Universal Studios Hollywood from a very young age. As if getting to see stages and back lots where actual films and televisions shows I had watched were made wasn’t enough, the tram tours with recreations of scenes and effects from classic films seemed incredible. My research prior to the trip had turned up a disturbing fact I had honestly never realized before – Universal Studios Hollywood as it exists today is much closer to the theme park that is Universal Studios Florida than the movie studio it used to be. The revamped USH has many of the same rides that its Floridac ounterpart does like The Simpsons, The Mummy, Jurassic Park, and Shrek. They do seem to have a few unique attractions like the new Transformers ride but, with the exception of the famous tram excursion which has been considerably revamped, very little remains from the original setup.
As soon as Danny and I entered the park, I reviewed the map provided with our admission and noticed the Universal House of Horrors attraction immediately to our left. It’s not like I needed more incentive than the name to get me interested so I immediately knew that we had to see that first. As I approached the pretty cool looking castle façade, I noticed a velvet rope by the front of the faux drawbridge with an employee stationed nearby. When I inquired what the situation was, I was informed that the attraction was closed for the next three months for renovations and would be much better when it reopened. I responded abruptly with an expletive that clearly didn’t sit well with the family of four about six feet to our right and told the employee that I was visiting fromFloridaand these renovations did me little good. I had hoped my vigorous complaints might possibly get me inside the castle but I was only allowed past the rope to get my picture taken at the front door. This was not off to a good start.
The first ride we actually got to go on was Jurasic Park which is pretty much the same as the one at Islands of Adventure. Danny noticed this was a water ride and asked me if we would get wet. I told him I had been on the one in Orlando and only got a little damp. Apparently that ride isn’t as wet or I sat in a different part of the boat because on this voyage Danny and I were seated front row center and we got drenched! Now not only weren’t we off to a good start but my intel was suspect from here on out!
We decided to play it safe for our next ride and try the new Transformers attraction before it got too busy. This is a ride similar to the Spiderman one at Islands of Adventure where the forced perspective concept is melded with a traditional dark ride. For this one visitors are supposedly members of the human resistance in the war between the Autobots and the Decepticons. You’re mission is to smuggle out a critical piece of technology with the help of a new and untested robot. During the course of the ride you are trapped in the middle of a colossal robot battle, dropped from great heights and nearly decapitated on multiple occasions and all in the course of trying to save the world! This one really puts the latest technologies to good use and was easily the best ride at the park.
The Simpsons ride in California is the same as Orlando but still a lot of fun, so we took advantage of a lull in the crowd to jump on it next. We also caught a couple of the shows at the park including the special effects demonstration and the Waterworld show which recreates scenes and characters from the less than stellar Kevin Costner film.
Our final ride for the day was my whole reason for being at the park, the Universal Studios Tour. This tram ride, which actually lasts over an hour, has been a staple at the studio almost as long as it has existed and long before it was converted into a theme park. This was much closer to the motion picture experience I was looking for as we toured back lots and huge sets for all types of buildings and scenery. Sadly, due to damage and renovation, few of the classic exhibits that lasted well into the 80’s are there today. The famous house from Psycho and the Bates Motel now sit in the shadow of the Who village from the theatrical version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas. The scaled down recreation of Amity Long Island is still around and being terrorized by the shark from Jaws. Aside from these, only a few little areas like the Mexican town that is constantly experiencing flash floods and the thinly disguised Earthquake set are there from earlier times. Even the house from The Munsters television series has been repainted and repurposed and the entire neighborhood from Desperate Housewives has been built around it. With a fresh coat of paint and no roof, I suspect it is pretty hard to recognize on that show.
We had originally intended to attend a taping of the Tonight Show following Universal but since the tram tour, which I wasn’t about to skip, took longer than anticipated we missed our chance to see Jay Leno live. Instead we settled on dinner at the Universal City Walk next door and I was able to pick up a couple of T-shirts with the images of their famous monsters on them which were conspicuously absent in the park. I finally broke down and asked one of the shop employees where the monster merchandise was and was told Universal had stopped carrying it in the park some time ago and had no plans to bring it back. I had also noticed that the merchandise they do carry is becoming much more generic and a lot of it doesn’t even have the name of the park or even the studio on it. Way to celebrate your history Universal.
I was on my own for the next two days while Danny took a detour to Las Vegas but I had some major plans of my own. On Tuesday, I once again battled traffic into LA to meet author, director, amature paleontologist, and all around cool guy Don Glut. My one big regret for this trip, which was always in the back of my mind, was that the Ackermansion no longer exists and I could not pay a pilgrimage to this Fanboy Mecca as so many have done before me. Forrest Ackerman has always been considered the undisputed Alpha Fanboy but as soon as his Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine hit store shelves, there was already a band of founding Fanboys ready to pick up the banner and run with it. One of these founders, who has now graduated to elder statesman of Fandom, was a young boy so fascinated with monsters and superheroes that he had to make his own movies just so he could show them whenever he wanted – Don Glut.
By the time I actually knocked on Don Glut’s door for our first face to face meeting, I already felt I knew him well by his decades long Fanboy reputation and the E-mails we had exchanged. I was under the impression I was here to see his miniature Jurassic Park of dinosaur statues in his back yard that I had seen photos of on his website but as I walked into his house my eyes nearly dropped out of my head. Don’s home is very much a scaled back Ackermansion with trophies from his many years of collecting filling every room. I stared at his original artwork from horror comics and magazines in the hallway before walking into his media room that is adorned with the posters from almost every superhero serial ever made plus a few choice horror movies! As I made my way from room to room in shocked surprised, I had to continually fight the urge to bonk him over the head with nearest heavy object and start feverishly loading my rental car. Were it not for the fear of devastating my Fanboy Karma with such an act, I am not sure I could have resisted them temptation!
After thinking I had seen just about everything imaginable, Don led me into his den which was filled with the remains of animatronic dinosaurs and animals from a 30’s world’s fair! Don told me they still work but he couldn’t turn them on because he was running the air conditioning and it would blow a fuse. I finally remembered I was there to see the dinosaur statues so we headed outside for a few minutes before I returned indoors to plunder through more treasures. We finally broke for lunch and more fan discussion at the nearby Hillstreet Café and Don gave me a crash course in the nearby collectibles shops. Afterwards we parted company and I departed with a copy of Don’s latest book on Chicago area horror hosts, a two DVD set of his home movies under my arm and my head still swimming from all the vintage memorabilia I had just been exposed to!
I spent the afternoon visiting several collectibles stores in the Hollywood area including Hollywood Book & Poster Company and Larry Edmunds Bookshop, which are both located on the world famous boulevard. These were places I had dreamed of visiting for years and I was certain that the opportunities there to purchase quality posters for my collection would far outstrip my available finances. Unfortunately this was not to be the case. At the Poster Company I finally got to meet owner Eric Caidin, whom I have spoken on the phone to multiple times over the years, in person. I came up empty on the posters I was looking for although I did find a nice batch of back issues of Psychotronic magazine which I always enjoyed reading but could never find in local stores. Larry Edmunds was equally unfruitful in the poster department and, while they had a very nice selection of books, there was nothing I was interested in. Poster legend Ron Borst also has a shop in the area but it was only open on weekends so there was no way to work it into the schedule. After an afternoon of pounding the pavement, I was a little dejected that the poster market in Hollywood, at least in the area I traveled, was not what it used to be.
I was ready for a break from the LA traffic by Wednesday so I had planned to spend that day checking out the local collectibles stores, antique shops, and anything else that caught my eye in Oceanside and the surrounding areas. I had made mental notes of several places as we were cruising around on Sunday and the Internet had also offered up some intriguing locations although some of those would prove to be long gone. My first stop was Comics-N-Stuff in Mission Valley. This was an Internet find which was only a few miles from the condo. As I approached my destination, I realized it was in a mall which is usually the kiss of death for a comic book store. Even though I anticipated a small shop with a limited selection, I decided to trek inside anyway since I needed some provisions the mall might be able to provide. As I ascended the escalator to the second floor where the store was located, my eyes widened in surprise when I spotted a collectibles shop the size of a small department store!
Comics-N-Stuff was a real find. The store specializes in predominantly newer merchandise but is extremely well stocked and made me wish I had brought my camera in with me. As I dutifully reviewed each section and fought the urge to run around like a kid in a candy store, I noticed a very nice selection of modern Doctor Who merchandise and action figures from newer series. Going deeper into the store, I discovered back issues of comic books and magazines (some vintage ones I had never seen before) that were at very reasonable prices. I had amassed a nice stack of stuff which I nearly dropped when I saw a group of counters covered in vintage original hand painted animation cells. These were items I had never seen for sale before in person and I had to force some hapless employee to flip through almost everything behind the counter until I was satisfied I had pilfered out everything I could reasonably afford to purchase. The majority of the cells they had were from Saturday morning cartoons from Filmation studios and I walked out with items from Star Trek, Tarzan, Flash Gordon, and Shazam. My prize piece was a beautiful matted Hawkman cell from the 1960’s Superman / Aquaman Hour. I couldn’t believe I had almost passed this place up!
The only thing more fun than a day of perusing antiques, collectibles, and thrift stores is making a phenomenal score right off the bat. From that point forward it’s very easy to just relax and enjoy whatever you run across. I made a few more stops and was driving around in the beautiful weather when I realized it was getting to be time for lunch. I ran several scenarios through my mind and as I was picking the best one, I noticed a place called the Penny Lane Pub & Grill out of the corner of my eye. Before I could ponder the name any further, I noticed a huge sketched likeness of the Beatles on the front of the building and knew my lunch decision had been made for me! Once inside I soaked up the authentic British pub atmosphere and Beatles photos and memorabilia while chowing down on a veggie burger and some great homemade fries. Apparently the original owners of this establishment migrated to California from England and wanted to give Americans a taste of a real English pub. They did an excellent job but the current owner is in the process of deciding whether to keep the existing décor or change it, which may have explained the rather out of place hard rock music playing in the background.
After lunch I took a brief respite back at the condo and secured my treasures from the morning’s haul. For the latter half of the day’s activities I hit a few thrift shops in the nearby area that were really more antique stores judging by the merchandise on display and the prices. Once again I was thwarted by large size objects that would have been both costly and impractical to get back to Florida, including an unusual number of very nice paintings the likes of which I seldom run across on this coast. At one shop that had a sizable selection of military surplus, I found what I was told was a 70’s era fire protection suit but it looked just like something out of a 50’s science fiction movie to me. I was thinking what a great Halloween costume this would make when the $300 price tag snapped me back to reality.
Anyone who knows me or has followed my writing is well aware of the grudge I carry against the Walt Disney Corporation, stemming largely from their heartless and calculated destruction of the 20,000 Leagues under the Sea ride at Walt Disney World in Florida. This lead to my self imposed boycott against spending money on anything Disney related that has lasted for close to a decade now. I always left myself one loophole though where Dineyland was concerned because I wanted to see what was left of Walt Disney’s original vision for the only one of his parks he was able to see through to completion during his lifetime.
Thursday of our trip was dedicated to Disneyland, which thankfully is located in Anaheim, California – a safe enough distance from LA to avoid most of its traffic problems. The Disney property there is laid out more like Universal Studios in Florida with the original park and a newer one nearby called Disney’s California Adventure that contains most of the more modern attractions. I was extremely surprised that Disneyland seems to take a much more hands off approach to their rides than their counterpart in Florida does. The majority of the rides from the early years of the park still remain and most have had only minimal tampering. This includes MIA attractions from Florida like Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride and Snow White’s Scary Adventures, plus a few similar rides the Sunshine State never got like Alice in Wonderland and Pinocchio’s Daring Journey (a ride which actually opened in the early 80’s but is perfectly styled to the earlier ones). The one major exception to this is the Submarine Voyages ride which has been retrofitted into the Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage, although many of the signs still bear the original name. Sadly the “Nemo” being found is the colorful fish from the 2003 Disney film and not the famous Captain from Jules Verne’s classic novel. Most of the original animatronics that were carried over to WDW’s Leagues ride have been removed in favor of projected animated sequences that just don’t work as well in my opinion.
It was great getting to revisit some old favorites from WDW like the Jungle Cruise, Pirates of the Caribbean, and the Haunted Mansion, which are all very similar to their Florida counterparts but not identical. For example, the HauntedMansion is an old south antebellum style mansion in Disneyland while the one at Disney World is a New England gothic style house. The interiors of both rides are similar but with distinct and appreciable differences. While I had been to Walt Disney World many times after the Big Thunder Railroad ride was added, it was always down for one reason or another during my visits. I finally got to ride it here for the first time even if I did have to go all the way across the country to do it! I also got to enjoy the Matterhorn Bobsleds (which has a strikingly similar structural design to Space Mountain), the Disneyland Railroad (which includes a surprise dinosaur area I had always wanted to see), and the always fun Star Tours ride that resides at Hollywood (formerly MGM) Studios in Florida.
The one major more recent attraction at Disneyland is the Indiana Jones Adventure: Temple of the Forbidden Eye. This is an interesting cross between a traditional roller coaster and a dark ride where visitors travel in military style troop transport through a cavernous excavation seeking treasure. The unique thing about this ride is that in addition to the traditional thrills of a roller coaster, it stops periodically for an animatronic Indiana Jones or other characters to interact with visitors. The ride also slows down in portions to allow guests to appreciate the craftsmanship that has gone into creating the illusion, something I have always felt more rides needed to offer for full effect. This ended up being the last ride we went on during our visit and it was an excellent choice to close out the park.
Much like Universal, I noticed that Disneyland also seems to be migrating towards more generic souvenirs. Apparently old school items like magnets and postcards are becoming obsolete and are being passed over in favor of iPod covers and laptop cases with Disney characters! I noticed that many of the t-shirts didn’t even say Disneyland or California on them and many items didn’t even feature Disney characters but were just something related to the theme of a particular attraction. The souvenir shops have also all become homogeneous with little variance between most of them. Obviously Walt’s original idea of a small town main street with distinct stores is long gone.
Our final day of fun in the sun in California started out on a down note. Danny was worn out from the Disney day and was seriously contemplating skipping the tour I had booked in LA. He eventually rallied but we got a late start and after battling the predictably awful traffic, it was almost our scheduled departure time of 1PM when we arrived at the offices of Dearly Departed Tours in Hollywood. I have known proprietor Scott Michaels and been a fan of his wonderfully weird website Findadeath.com for over a decade so if there was only one tour I could take in Hollywood, as it turned out there was, it was going to be his. Unfortunately Scott was out the day we were there but his associate Brian Donnelly did an absolutely outstanding job as our guide.
We took the Tragical History Tour, which is billed as a taste of the “twisted underbelly of Hollywood”, and I would say it was all that and more. Brian was very informative and entertaining as he took us to such sites as Bela Lugosi’s final residence, the hotels where John Belushi and Janis Joplin overdosed, the Viper Club where River Phoenix expired on the pavement outside, and even the public bathroom where George Michael was arrested for indecent exposure! We really got the bonus experience with Brian as he threw in some more mundane sites like George Burns’ house and the street that was used for exterior shots on The Beverly Hillbillies. It was a tremendous amount of fun and I have every intention of taking the Helter Skelter Tour the next time I am in town.
The Tragical History Tour was supposed to take about two and a half hours according to the website but ours ended up being closer to four hours. I have no complaints about getting much more than my money’s worth out of something but this did put us right in the middle of rush hour traffic, on a Friday no less, and made any further activities at that point very difficult. We decided to eat dinner at a local spot Brian and his co-worker Jayne Osborne recommended that was just a few blocks away. We managed to kill about an hour and a half so that the worst of the already bad traffic was clear but we knew we still had a two and a half to four hour drive ahead of us depending on what was left, so we headed home to get ready for the next day’s departure.
On Saturday, we had a crack of dawn flight out of San Diego which was made all the earlier since we had to drive forty minutes to the airport, return the rental car at an offsite lot and then hop a shuttle to the terminal. The one good thing about our early departure was the reduced activity, both on the roads and in the airport, so we made it to the gate in plenty of time for our flight. Thankfully, neither of the two planes we flew on that day were packed quite as badly as when we had traveled out. We arrived back in the Sunshine State at the Orlando airport around 7PM none the worse for wear but a little wiser for our travels. I still have enough items on my itinerary from this trip to fill up most of another visit to California so I have every intention of returning in the not to distant future. The next time, however, I will fly into Los Angeles, stay in Los Angeles, and do as many activities in that area as I can without having to travel into and out of Los Angeles!