Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Biking to Ojai - May 2008

Mel has taken up a new hobby, so I'm finding myself on a lot of bike rides lately.    The trail up to Ojai is one of my favorites.    

We usually start out at Foster Park.   It's got great parking and nice clean restrooms (very important!).

I've got pretty comfortable accommodations in the bike basket.     And the views are nice from there - all the benefit of the ride with none of the work!
I believe the trail is officially called the "Ventura River Trail".    It goes along a river for part of the way and then ascends up into the mountains towards Ojai.    It rises about 1000 feet in 11 miles, not too bad.

The scenery is stunning!    You get everything from streams (where we often see people swimming) to mountains to wide open meadows.   
And we even get to see all sorts of "Yard Art" along the way......
Now, the 2nd best part of the ride happens when you get to Ojai.    We ride all the way out to the end of town to Bocalli's - where we get the best pizza ever made!!    This isn't a great picture of the building - but it does show how busy the parking lot always is!

So what's the best part of the ride, you ask?    Well, that's the ride back - it's all downhill!   Wooo Hoo!!!!

Las Vegas - February '08

You may notice that I go to Las Vegas a lot.    I'm not your typical Vegas traveler - not big into gambling or clubbing.    But I have family there.   Mel's grandma, 2 of her aunts and all of her cousins live there, so we try to go at least twice a year.    We don't always get down to the Las Vegas Strip (believe it or not), but when we do, we try to explore something new or something we haven't seen before.

This time, we had some fun at the Wax Museum at the Venetian hotel.  As you can see, I made quite a few new friends.....

And of course, what trip to Vegas is complete without a little sing-along......

We also got to ride in a Gondola outside of the hotel.   My pictures didn't come out for some reason, but I did get a nice one of me and the Gondola driver.....

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Space Shuttle Launch - Kennedy Space Center, Florida - October 23, 2007

I was incredibly lucky enough to be in Florida at just the right time to witness a Space Shuttle launch.    This is something I've wanted to see for as long as they've been launching shuttles, so I can't even begin to tell you how excited and honored I was to be there!

Mel was excited too.   The last time she had been at the Kennedy Space Center was right after the shuttle Challenger exploded.   The Space program was on hold, and much of the activities in the center focused on keeping the program alive.    So it was really special to be there to witness what we've accomplished since then.

The Discovery was the shuttle that was launching that day, and its mission was to deliver a new module for the international space station.
We had to get special tickets to be at the Space Center on launch day.    We ordered them ahead of time and were so unspeakably excited when they arrived!

We had to arrive at the Space Center early - several hours before the launch.   We had been warned about traffic in the area - and boy they weren't kidding!     But we got there and scoped out what we thought would be a perfect viewing spot - and boy did we guard that spot!   There was only one problem....  The place where we were looking very intensely wasn't where the shuttle lifted off!   We still could see it though - fortunately.   But it was kind of funny!

They had the launch control stuff going over loudspeakers, so we could hear messages to the shuttle as they prepared for lift-off.     Then the countdown started.   It was really neat because EVERYONE there counted down.    5.....4........3........2.........1!        And then you heard the engines.   It was a low roaring noise - hard to explain.   You almost felt it more than heard it.   And then (once we looked in the right direction), you could see it - lifting over the trees, leaving a trail of white smoke behind it.   Everyone cheered!    It's really an emotional moment to see it happen.   As it raised up toward the heavens, you could hear shuttle command talking to the astronauts.   We heard the command for booster separation then saw it happen.    We could even see the solid rocket boosters plummeting back to earth.    And we followed the shuttle until it was just a speck of light leaving the atmosphere.

(excuse the shakiness of the video - you'll get a laugh because you can hear us going "Wait - where is it??")

Even in the video, you can feel the roar of the engines.    Where you hear everyone clapping - about 1 min, 30 seconds in, that's when the Solid Rocket Boosters separated.   We could see them falling back to Earth.

It really was such an amazing sight!

After the launch, we all just stood there and breathed for a few moments - I think the whole place had been holding its breath!    And then we were able to roam around the facility and check it out....

This big building held the space shuttle launch simulator ride.    You could actually get tickets to go in and experience what a launch would feel like.   What was neat is that you had actual real astronauts describing what it would feel like and why you would feel the things you did.   Of course, we thought Mission Space over at EPCOT was just a little bit of a better ride.....

There is also a life-size model of a shuttle that you can go into and look at - you can see the control panel room and the payload bay.    It was kind of neat.
And it made a great place to hang out and get some shade.....
The rocket garden was really neat.    There were models of rockets from all different stages of the space program that you could see - and some you could even go into.    The rockets are beautiful silhouetted against the clear blue sky.

We could see the ginormous Vehicle Assembly Building - but since it was a launch day, we could not take the tour that takes you out there and to the launch pads.

One of the most touching displays at the Kennedy Space Center is the memorial to astronauts who have lost their life.     There is a huge black marble slab and their names are etched into it.   The slab is on rollers and can be moved.    It is moved throughout the day so that it always reflects the sky - so that "the astronauts will forever be among the clouds."      We stood there and looked at it in silence for awhile.    

If you ever have a chance to visit Kennedy Space Center, I can't recommend it highly enough.   If you will be in the area when there's a launch, do everything you can to go see it.   The shuttle program is scheduled to end in 2010, so there wont be that many more launches.   And it's soooo worth it.       Now I'm hoping I can see the shuttle land at Edwards Air Force base.    It lands here once in awhile, but there isn't much notice so it's VERY hard to get out there to see it.   But just a couple of weeks ago, I heard the twin sonic booms as the shuttle flew over my house for a landing at Edwards just a couple of minutes later.    That may be as close as I get to seeing it, but I'm still hoping!

(And if any astronauts out there want to take me on a shuttle flight....  just send me an email and I'm there!!!!)

Monday, December 29, 2008

Disney World - Hidden Mickeys - October 2007

Have you heard about Hidden Mickeys?     (No, I'm not making this up...)    They're all over all the Disney Parks.    They're little hidden images of Mickey Mouse concealed in the design of Disney attractions.    They're kind of tributes to the mouse....  (and actually started as inside jokes by the imagineers).

Gnugent and I had some fun looking for hidden Mickeys in Disney World   (Yes, we had some help from this book).    Here are some of the Mickeys we found  (We forgot to take pictures of all of them)....    And, there are no hidden Vera's or Gnugents anywhere to be found here....

This one is on the Tree of Life in the Animal Kingdom park:

And this is just outside of the Expedition Everest ride:

This is in the Conservation exhibit at the Animal Kingdom park.

This one is in the carpet at the beautiful Grand Floridian hotel:

This one is one of my favorites.  It's in a mural painted in the loading area of the Maelstrom ride in Norway (EPCOT).   Notice the Viking that's wearing Mickey ears.....

And here is the tunic of King Olaf of Norway:

This one is in a miniature German village in the World Showcase in EPCOT:

And this is in a pond in the Japan Pavilion:

This was in Morocco.   It was so obvious, I didn't think it would actually be considered a "Hidden" Mickey, but the book says it is:

Another one of my favorites - it's the carpet at the Rock N Roller Coaster:

And this is on the Tower of Terror (look at the smudge on the wall.....):

I think the most fun thing about Hidden Mickeys is that they're all different - you never quite know where you'll see one or what form it will take.    It's a fun little scavenger hunt and a GREAT way to kill time when you're waiting in line.   There's a book for Disneyland too!    If you're heading off to the parks, I recommend it - happy hunting!      (Note, the books are pretty small and easy to carry around the parks.....)

Disney World - Magic Kingdom & Disney Hollywood Studios - October 2007

Next Stop:   The Magic Kingdom - This is the park that is most like what I have at Disneyland.   It really was a copy of the original Disneyland, but with a few changes.

We were there in October, so it was decorated for their "Halloweentime" celebration.   When you first walk up to the park, you see the Mickey floral display all done up with pumpkins....
Now, I hate to be one of those people who's always comparing and saying "my park is better because...."   but in this case....   I have to say, Disneyland does Halloweentime better.   Our decorations are WAY more sophisticated and way more elaborate.    At the Magic Kingdom, there were only decorations when you first came into the park, but at Disneyland, they're all over, and they're at California Adventure too (there weren't any Halloween decorations at any of the other WDW parks that I noticed).     So, for example, here's the Mickey floral at Disneyland...

OK, I wont harp on this anymore....   But if you're listening WDW folks - you can do better!

Generally, the Magic Kingdom is the same as Disneyland, but there are some differences.   The biggest one is that the Magic Kingdom has Liberty Square, which is early America.    I liked it a lot.   But MK doesn't have New Orleans Square, so you miss out on some neat architecture.

and the Magic Kingdom's Haunted Mansion is WAY different from Disneyland's - and I have to say, I like it better!    The architecture is neat and I thought the ride (which had recently had some upgrades) is actually better than ours.     Especially at Halloween when we have that dumb Nightmare Before Christmas makeover, which I can't stand.

We used to have headstones in our Haunted Mansion graveyard like this, but they're gone now.   I can remember standing in line as a kid and reading them.   They were funny.
I took a picture of this one for a reason - I used to have a wonderful boss named Fred, and he had this picture hanging in the office.   It always made me laugh.    It was kind of nostalgic to see it again.

Now, you may have the better Haunted Mansion, but we have a better Pirates of the Caribbean.   Although you had some cool things in the queue that we don't have...

like gnomads in the queue!

The funny thing about this picture was that another tourist pushed Mel out of the way so he could take a picture of Gnugent & me here.    She's like "Um...   I put them there...."    We had a good laugh over that and were wondering where our picture might end up.....

Another difference at the Magic Kingdom is the Fantasyland area.    It's still decorated like the Fantasyland that Mel remembers from her childhood.    At Disneyland, it was upgraded in the early 80's, and the look is totally different.   It was really fun remembering what it used to be like.

And then we went to the Disney/MGM (now called Disney Hollywood) Studios Park.    We don't have anything like this in California, except Universal Studios (which naturally isn't part of Disneyland).    It was kind of funny walking into the entrance since it's themed like a Hollywood Studio, so it was a lot like being at home!

The icon of this park of course is the Sorcerer's Apprentice hat.    It's ENORMOUS!
I liked this little fruit stand - it reminded me of home.   I'm sure the name "Anaheim Produce" is a nod to Disneyland....

The Disney/MGM Studio Park has some interesting attractions - like one that shows you how special effects are done for the movies.   We almost got picked to be in the "movie" that is made during the show, but Louise had been there before and knew what was in store (that is - that you get very wet!) and told them we didn't want to do it.    I was kind of glad of that, but it was still an interesting attraction (but VERY much like the Universal Studios tour).

There's another ride that takes you through classic film scenes & has some fun interaction in it.    And some stunt shows and other things like that.    Now, I have to admit, that where I live, there's a lot of this in real life - after awhile, you see all the movie trailers and trucks and things, and instead of getting excited about what movie star you might see, you groan and think "Oh great, traffic!"     So a lot of the "behind the scenes" stuff doesn't get me all that excited - that's not to say though that it's a boring park.   There's lots of neat things to see.

AND.... This park had  what turned out to be my 2 favorite rides in all of Disney World - and they're right next to each other!

The first one I couldn't wait to try...   We have a version of it at California Adventure, but I've heard time and time again that the one at Disney World is better!    It's the Hollywood Tower of Terror.

The outside looks pretty similar to ours, but the ride itself is a lot different - and the best part is that it changes every time.     It took a lot of convincing to get Gnugent to go on this with me.   He doesn't generally like drop rides, but neither do I and I LOVE this one.    What I had heard about the Florida version was that it has different drop sequences each time you ride, and I couldn't wait to try it.    I talked Gnugent into riding and the funny thing was - our first ride was a bit of a dud!    It was like a drop sequence for pre-schoolers!    But it worked out OK because it convinced Gnugent he could handle it, so he agreed to go on it with me again.   And the second time, it was GREAT.    Soooo much fun.    It's more like a bouncy thing than a drop, and this one bounced a bunch of times.    Even Gnugent liked it.    We went on it several more times while we were in Florida and he liked it better each time  (He even goes on the one in California with me now!).      

And then....   There was the Rock 'N' Roller Coaster!    Oh my gosh is this one fun!!!    (Note to other girl Gnomads out there - take off hair clips and earrings before riding!).    
  This one is themed to a recording studio, and even has a little movie starring the band "Aerosmith"  (did I spell that right?   Gnugent is a fan - I'll ask him....).     The whole premise is that you're speeding off to a rock concert and you're in a limo going through the jungles of LA freeways to get to the club.      You board the car, get all strapped in  (take off hats & glasses folks!) and it takes you to the starting area.   You sit there with the engine revving for a minute, and then you take off - 0 to 60 in like a millisecond!   It's such a kick!    And you go right into a dark room and into a corkscrew spin!    Wooo HOOO!!!!!     It's indoors, pitch dark except for freeway signs that light up only as you pass them.    There are corkscrews, loops, it's crazy!      It was sooooo much fun, I can't even count how many times we went on it!    Oh, and there's Aerosmith music blasting in your ears the whole time.     What an adrenaline rush!

So, when you go to that park, take the first right and go on Tower of Terror and the Rock N Roller Coaster - you will love them!!!!