Eastbound and Down

Tower of TerrorTomorrow morning I’m taking a flight down to Orlando to spend three days at Walt Disney World. I’d be a lot more excited, but it is a business trip, even if we are going to get two nights free. And being at Disneyland alone is weird but tolerable, while Disney World is more like being alone in a city. I’ll have the co-workers around during the day and likely at night, but still… it’s a business trip. There’s a weird disjoint there that I’m still wrapping my head around. It’ll be interesting to see it on an “adult” trip; my family and I have been taking basically the same vacation for the past decade and a half, so we’ve got our routine down (go on a ride, complain about how hot it is, repeat until it’s time to go home).

But it’s a business trip on which I’ll get to ride the Tower of Terror as many times as possible, so that’s not a bad thing. Plus, I’ll probably get a chance to see some of the backstage areas (but not the tunnels, because we’re not going to the Magic Kingdom). It was weird going into Disneyland through the back — walking around a bunch of warehouses and alleyways and turning the corner and all of a sudden being in Toontown. Kind of makes the place seem smaller and cuts a notch off the “magic.” It’s still neat to see, though.

And they’re putting us up at the Animal Kingdom lodge, which I’ve never been to but have heard great things about. The downside is that there’s no internet access, so I’ll be blogless for the next few days. We apologize for any inconvenience.


Space Mountain via blurry cameraphoneI just got back from Disneyland.

I got into Burbank a little after 5:00, and I’m already caught up with my work (or more accurately, I’m at a complete deadlock with my work and would need some kind of divine intervention to get past it). So I could either sit around the hotel for hours, or I could take advantage of my annual pass, drive down to Anaheim and ride the new Space Mountain as many times as possible.

Turns out “as many times as possible” was once. Tuesday night at around 8 pm, and the wait was 80 minutes. Even with all that, including the hour drive and the kids behind me getting all up in my personal space the whole time in line (because they were excited, so I can’t fault them for that), it was worth it. The ride is that cool. I’ve just got to go with somebody else now, so I can actually talk about it instead of just writing about it on my weblog.

After all that, I didn’t feel like waiting for anything, although the waits for everything else in the park were under 30 minutes. I went on the Matterhorn right as the fireworks were starting, and that was pretty damn cool. Not quite as spectacular as riding Big Thunder Mountain when the fireworks are going on — on Big Thunder, you come out of a tunnel and see the fireworks spread out all over the park, and it’s amazing — but still a great sight. Some of the fireworks are launched from the top of the Matterhorn itself, so the show was going on all around us.

And apart from that, I just had a beef skewer, a Dole whip, and a chocodile (from a 7-11) for dinner. If I were accountable to anyone, I’d be in so much trouble right now. Now I’m going to stay up too late playing my new videogame. Maybe I’ll build a pillow fort in the hotel room.

Flickr and Raccoon Dogs

Now there’s the title for a 70’s action movie if I ever heard one.

I got my copy of Pom Poko yesterday and watched it on the commute back to San Francisco. I’m impressed; Disney released it unedited. And with a pretty tasteful translation — they always refer to them as “raccoons” and never describe them as different animals, which is kind of a shame but perfectly understandable; and they describe at the beginning that the males can inflate and transform their “raccoon pouch” and leave it at that. There’s no cautionary or explanatory material anywhere else on the DVD, and it’s really not needed. (There are also no bonus features other than the original trailers, and a second disc containing the entire movie in storyboard format, but that’s no big surprise as this was never a huge blockbuster release even in Japan).

And I ususally hate English dubs of Japanese movies, but they did a pretty good job with this one. Some relatively big names for voice actors, including John DiMaggio (Bender from “Futurama” and Doctor Drakken from “Kim Possible”), Brian Posehn (again), and J.K. Simmons (from “Oz,” Spider-man, and the yellow M&M). I guess Disney can afford to hire anyone they want. I’m thinking it’s pretty damn cool that the movie was released in the US at all, and the fact that it’s a well-done release is just an added bonus. I’m also very happy I don’t work for Disney’s complaint department.

I’ve also been looking more at Flickr.com and am starting to catch on more to the appeal of it. I’m always late to the party with these internet phenomena, but it’s still worth pointing out. What’s neatest to me is the support for public forums and groups, and the ways that people are using them. Those networking sites like Friendster and Orkut are neat for the first couple of days, but after you settle all your “hey, that friend knows that friend! Small world!” incidents, it’s pretty useless. They try to create “communities,” but it just ends up being “so you like ‘Mr. Show’ too? Cool.” followed by awkward silence. And silences between internet geeks are the most awkward silences of them all.

The flickr people have realized that you can’t just facilitate people’s getting together, you’ve got to give them something to do. And, what’s most surprising to me, people have actually picked it up and run with it. What with this being the internets, there are of course the predictable “look at me naked” and “hey u live in sf too thats cool!!!1!” groups, but most of the ones I’ve found have been surprisingly clever and creative. Usually when you give a ton of people on the internets the chance to be creative, they don’t do much other than reaffirm the idea that 99% of everything is crap. But at least on the groups I’ve seen, people stay on topic or with the theme — “Tiki culture,” “Route 66,” “Most photographed landmarks,” “What your world looks like at 5:00” — and it ends up being pretty cool.

I’m actually encouraged to take pictures again. And just for their own sake, not to be “artistic” or as part of some larger project or some special event, but just because it’s pretty fun. An internet creativity experiment that actually encourages people to be creative; I never would’ve thought it possible.

I realize that I could use my RAZR to post on Flickr, but at that point I’d be turning into one of those guys who always talks about moblogging and geocaching and uses the term “blogosphere” non-ironically and refers to himself by his online handle. And SolGrundy don’t play that, yo.

Disney shows some balls

I just read that Disney is actually releasing Pom Poko on DVD in the US next week! This is my favorite Studio Ghibli movie and in fact one of my favorite movies, but I assumed that since Disney owned the US rights, we’d never, ever, not in a million years, no way no how, ever see a US release.

One of the reasons I like the movie so much is that it was my first exposure to an entire section of Japanese folklore. Before seeing Pom Poko, I’d never heard of tanuki. (Actually, it turns out I had, but I’d never made the connection.) But the “problem,” as far as Disney’s concerned, is that tanuki are always depicted as having huge testicles, and in the folklore it’s the source of their power. It’s non-sexual, or at least more a symbol of fertility than sexuality, but to Americans (myself included), the first reaction is always, “Whoa, check out the ball sack on that raccoon!”

Which is why I thought that once Disney bought the US release rights to all Studio Ghibli movies, we’d never see an American release of Pom Poko. It’s not just a case of how the characters are drawn, either; it’s actually the source of a couple of major plot points — one group of tanuki attack a police group using their scrotums, and another wise old tanuki turns his into a giant sailing ship. So Disney was left with the option of either going in and heavily editing the movie, or not releasing it at all. Since it’s a relatively obscure movie even among anime fans, I can’t imagine the money they’d make from the release would warrant the time and effort it’d take to edit it so heavily.

I haven’t seen it yet, obviously, so they could’ve turned the movie into a eunuch. But I’m encouraged by this interview with the translators, which suggests that they got around the concerns simply by translating “scrotum” as “pouch.” We’ll see.

And although I realize I’ve spent the entire post so far talking about testicles, the point is that it would be a shame to see it edited because it’s relevant to the folklore but such an inconsequential aspect of the movie overall. The real reason I love the movie so much is because it gets its message across so perfectly. It’s mostly an environmental message, like many Studio Ghibli movies, but it’s not reduced to platitudes or schmaltzy symbolism. It has talking animals throughout, but like Watership Down, they stay true to their nature. They’re not just furry stand-ins for humans, they’re really animals.

Or at least, they’re really animals as the traditional folklore portrays them. Tanuki are fun-loving tricksters, and they have difficulty fighting against the humans destroying their mountain specifically because it’s not in their nature to take anything too seriously. When they try to fight back on the humans’ terms, they fail. When they’re in hiding and the humans try to call them out by singing the traditional children’s song, the tanuki can’t help but sing back. And more importantly, when they try to deny their true nature and blend in with the humans, they lose the essence of themselves. I’m sure that it has something to do with the fact I was working for EA the first time I saw it, but the ending never fails to make me start tearing up, every time I see it.


It was still pretty early when I got into LA tonight. As the sun set over the hills, it made everything look sepia-toned, almost as if I were flashing back to an earlier trip to Burbank. But then I realized that it was all due to the haze and smog, and my “look at the pretty orange buildings” was a little like being enchanted by seeing a rainbow in an oil slick.

The hotel is a lot more like the kind I’m used to staying in — functional but nothing to write in your blog about. All the hotel info is pretty aggressive about reminding me I’m right in the thick of Hollywood, what with Warner Brothers right across the street and the Disney Channel building looming overhead. As much as I’ve been going on about how I’m tired of all the slick, manufactured family-friendly theme park environments I’ve been staying and would rather “keep it real,” the prospect of sitting alone for hours in a Best Western didn’t seem that appealing.

So I headed back down to Hollywood Boulevard to take another stab at the tourist thing. The three-mile drive to Hollywood & Highland took 40 minutes (only 10 minutes of that were due to my getting turned around and inadvertently ending up at the NBC studios). I really wanted to see a movie at Grauman’s Chinese, for the theater more than the movie itself, so I was willing to see anything. They were showing The Dukes of Hazzard.

All right, maybe not anything. I checked over at The The The El Capitan Theater, which was showing Sky High, something I actually kind of almost want to see. But Disney apparently doesn’t want kids out too late on Tuesdays, because the last show was at 7 and I’d missed it. So back to Grauman’s. I was already 20 minutes late for the current show, and the whole point of going to a big movie house is to see the previews and the theater and the curtain opening and all that, so I decided to wait for the next show. Ten PM. Which meant almost three hours sticking around Hollywood so that I could get the chance to see The Dukes of Hazzard.

Overall I guess it wasn’t a total loss. I had a way over-priced but pretty good dinner at the tourist equivalent of a swank LA restaurant. I got to visit a Hot Topic, which is kind of like a mall-friendly conglomeration of Haight Street (right down to the adjoining Gap store). And I got another round in the Disney ice cream parlor, which had already forgotten all about Herbie and was now pushing princess dresses. Those guys work fast! None of the dresses were in my size, unfortunately.

As for the theater itself, it’s pretty cool. I imagine watching a good movie there would be awesome; as it is, the theater isn’t cool enough on its own to warrant seeing something lame. It’s got a great interior (although I was more impressed by the Fox in Atlanta), an enormous screen, and the best sound system I’ve ever heard in a theater.

I, Constipated Robot

Asimo at DisneylandSomething is horribly wrong. I spent most of the day thinking “I wish I weren’t at Disneyland.” Black is white! Up is down! Actually, I guess it’s more accurate to say: Southern California is hot! Disneyland is really crowded during the summer and even moreso after they’ve opened a new ride! So in other words, the world keeps on spinnin’.

I actually had a bona-fide work-related reason to go today, to check out the Virtual Magic Kingdom stuff. I didn’t see a lot, but as it turns out I’m going back tomorrow with a bunch of people from work to get the official tour. So the remaining time was devoted to Space Mountain, and sweating while being touched by small children.

(It was really hot, and kids have no sense of personal space. That’s all I meant.)

The new Space Mountain is wicked awesome. It’s been closed for two (maybe three?) years and just reopened for th 50th anniversary. I could understand someone’s asking, “this took two (maybe three?) years?” because they didn’t make any monumental changes like adding loops or anything. As far as I can tell, the track itself is exactly the same — but then, it didn’t need to be changed. My take on Orlando Space Mountain versus the Anaheim version is that California has the better coaster, but Florida has cooler effects and an overall better “show.” The changes to Disneyland’s add only what’s needed to knock it over the top.

When I first saw the queue, I thought that the whole renovation was nothing more than a minor face lift. There’s new paint, it’s streamlined for FastPass, more lights and neon, and a new video-screen where a somewhat cheesy mannequintronic display used to be. But it turns out that most of the work went into the ride itself, which is exactly where it should’ve gone. They borrowed my favorite effects from Orlando — in particular the cool blue-light tunnel. What used to be a somewhat cheesy spinning laser-light on the lift hill is now a light tunnel done with projections or video screens that is just plain bad-ass. The inside of the ride is much darker; you can no longer see anything but stars.

And the cars look the same, but you can tell they’ve been significantly redone because the sound system is much cooler. They’re really committed to the soundtrack this time, apparently. And the music is cool — I was skeptical they could come up with anything that rivals Dick Dale playing a space surf guitar version of Carnival of the Animals, but the new music works. It’s like an updated version of the “Lost in Space” and “UFO” themes which actually fits in with the new theme better. Overall, it gets a solid A. Only reason it’s not A+ is because it’s a refurbishment instead of a whole new ride. I rode it three times, even though the wait was never shorter than an hour.

I did go to Innoventions for the first time in a while, which got “Now Is The Best Time Of Our Lives” going through my head for the rest of the day. Apart from the VMK, they were showing Honda’s Asimo robot. That was neat almost to the point of being Skynet alarming. They said it can walk 1 mile an hour, which if today is any indication, is faster than 99% of Disneyland guests. BOOM! And it can climb stairs and kick a soccer ball and dance like a fat awkward white guy.

The only reason I can’t get more excited about the prospect is because as nimble as it is, it still does that weird squat-walk. Like it’s always thinking, “If I could… just… fart!

The Accidental Tourist

For this trip, the company put me up in a pretty swank hotel right smack dab in the middle of Hollywood. (I like referring to Disney as “The Company” because it makes it sound like I’m working for the CIA or something). i’ve always wanted to see more of H-town than just the sign and the Capitol Records building from the freeway, but figured I’d have to take a separate trip.

Driving past Warner Brothers studios and the Hollywood Bowl was kind of neat. And the hotel’s right next to Grauman’s Chinese Theater (showing Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) and across from The El Capitan Theater (Herbie Fully Loaded) (and the extra “the” bugs the hell out of me, right there on a big neon sign and everything). I got the chance to take some quick pictures, ash on the Walk of Fame stars of celebrities I don’t like, and put my hands in Robin Williams’ cement impression. I lied about that last part. They’ve also got some theater that by the looks of the sign is home to “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” but I didn’t linger around that because it wasn’t worth the wait just to get a chance to point at people with disdain or get a glimpse of Sarah Silverman. So instead I went to the Disney Soda Fountain and Studio Store set up conveniently next to the the theater. I considered having my picture taken with a star, but couldn’t decide between Denzel Washington or Pamela Anderson, so I’ll have to come back for that.

I get the feeling that Real business travel is supposed to involve going to a strip club and then getting drunk in the hotel bar and taking a stranger back up to the room for a night of meaningless sex. But looking at T-shirts in a Hot Topic window, taking pictures of a theater, having an ice cream sundae, and then heading back to the room to watch Cartoon Network and read Harry Potter, is just as bad-ass, I’m sure. Besides I’ve got to keep up to the standards of The Company.

Who’s a great big birthday boy?

While I was getting my annual pass from the Disneyland Bank, the effusively friendly lady behind the counter took my ID and got all excited. “Happy birthday!” she exclaimed while grabbing a sticker and asking me what name I wanted written on it. I tried to point out that Monday was my birthday and wearing a sticker on Thursday felt like cheating, but she said, “That’s your birthday on the outside. From now on, today will be your Disney birthday!”

So she wrote “CHUCK” in big letters with circles on the ends and drew stars all over it, and the rest of the day I got to walk around Disneyland with a big birthday sticker. All day people kept wishing me a happy birthday — cast members and other guests both — and would point out where to get free stuff or just take extra time to be social. What could’ve been a boring day walking around theme parks alone turned into a pretty awesome Disney birthday. And people wonder why I like Disney so much.

The “point” of the whole trip was to check out what had been done for the 50th anniversary and, secondarily but just as important for tax purposes, to see if anything conjured up ideas that seemed applicable to the project. The park looks really nice, and they’ve done a great job of making it feel like a big event is going on. The emphasis is on Disneyland itself, instead of the characters or movies that usually take the focus, and since I’ve always been a bigger fan of the parks than the movies, it all worked for me.

“Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln” has been replaced (I asked the host if it were permanent, but he said that Mr. Lincoln would definitely be back after the 50th) with a display on Disneyland history and a short movie hosted by Steve Martin and Donald Duck. The movie’s very clever and well done; they avoided the schmaltz and corny humor and just went with the “Disneyland is pretty cool” angle. And the display wasn’t just a repeat of all the same stuff they always drag out; most of the pictures and models and such, I’d never seen before.

And the new fireworks show is just great. Again, they kept the “Remember the magic of the dreams of a child’s wishes and imagination” stuff to just the beginning and the end, and kept most of it related to the park itself. They used lots of audio from the original rides and have a segment of the show themed to each of the lands. All of the effects are spectacular, like the huge fireballs for the Indiana Jones segment; and many of them are really clever, like the sparklers and fx going off all around the castle representing the Frontierland shooting gallery.

It was exhausting (I ended up just falling asleep when I got back from the airport & lunch on Friday), but a lot of fun. Now I just have to head back once they’ve re-opened Space Mountain.

Back to School

My first day on the new project is over, and it went pretty well as far as I can tell. I’m really excited about the project itself (which I can’t say anything about because of all the NDA’s and such), although that excitement is probably causing me to show off more of my Disney fandom than I’d like to. Hey, my career strategy so far has been “try to get a job at a company you’re a fan of and then work the hell out of it until you’re burnt out,” and that’s worked out okay so far.

The environment seems to strike a good balance between professional and super-talented, and laid-back. I’m still wary of getting too excited about any job after working for LucasArts, but so far all signs point to yes.

There’s going to be more travel down here to LA than I’d expected, but that’s probably an advantage. The bad side is my anti-LA bias that I’ve already made apparent; the good side is that it’s nice to actually see the people you’re working with. Plus, it should help structure my time better than “wake up, pour Coke, smoke cigarette, turn on computer, begin working.” And of course all that time spent on BART and at airports is life-affirming, in much the same way that people waking up from year-long comas resolve to live more fulfilling lives.

So now I’ve just got to figure out what to do with any down time in LA I might have. I’ve gotten some suggestions so far that I’ll try to check out. I’m not much of a club guy anyway, and going to nightclubs alone in a foreign city seems… well, I’ll probably end up doing it, but not until I’ve exhausted my theme park opportunities. The LaBrea Tar Pits are out because I hate redundancy; I would only go there to use a nearby ATM machine and type in my PIN number. And Santa Monica and the coast are out because I don’t like beaches (so I guess you could say I’m a playa hater)*.

*If you’re here from a link on the SDMB: yes, that’s the second time I’ve used that lame pun. Get your own blog if you think you can do better!

Some Alone Time with Mickey

You’ve just quit your job, spent a month unemployed, and turned old! What are you going to do now?

I’m going to Disneyland on Thursday, which proves that even something as awful as having to go to Los Angeles can have a silver lining. They’ve had a big 50th Anniversary celebration, and I’ve been curious to see what all is going on, but afraid to go because of the crowds. Hopefully on a weekday, it’ll be less insane. (Walt Disney World over the week after Memorial Day was nuts).

Used to be that the idea of going to a Disney park by myself would just seem miserable, but now I’m actually kind of looking forward to it. I hope that’s a sign that I’m just getting more mature, not that I’m getting more creepy anti-social.