The Sledgehammer – Version 2.0

October 26, 2011

How To Enjoy Disneyland Without Killing Yourself in the Process

Filed under: travel — Brian Lutz @ 12:33 am

I suppose I should apologize once again for the lack of Blogging here;  this past weekend was spent on a whirlwind roadtrip across the state with the rest of the family, where we gathered over in Pullman to meet my new niece Isla for the first time and to witness her baby blessing.  As always, it was nice to be able to get (almost) the entire family together for the event, although when you cram sixteen people (five being young children, and at least one of them potentially contagious with something) into an apartment designed for about four or so, things start getting a bit, shall we say, interesting after a while.  The trip also involved spending roughly nine hours in the car in both directions, which probably could have been used for some blogging if not for the fact that I was busy being bored (oh yeah, and I also didn’t have much of an Internet connection to work with either.)  Oh, and I nearly got suffocated by an overchlorinated hot tub at the hotel, but that’s another story entirely.

Anyway, with Autumn settling rapidly upon the land, and Winter being just around the corner, it’s starting to become pretty clear that Winter is on the way.  And the current climatological predictions for the coming Winter seem to be pointing suspiciously in the cold-and-wet direction, suggesting that La Nina isn’t quite done with us yet after this year’s unusually cold and excessively rainy Spring and early Summer.  Naturally, this is the type of weather forecast that can send even the most diehard of Seattleites scrambling to Expedia to go look at flights to somewhere nice and sunny.  Fortunately, I’ve already got one midwinter bug-out planned already (given this past year’s travel history, you can probably guess on that one),  but it’s times like this that having a convenient excuse to sneak away a weekend or two certainly can’t hurt.  As you may recall from back in September when I was busy traveling all over the place (sort of,) somewhere in the process of those multiple trips I managed to end up getting an Annual Pass to Disneyland.  At the time, it was a combination of various circumstances that led me to get an annual pass (making two different trips to California in one month, as well as planning ahead for another trip after the big California Adventure overhaul is finished sometime next Summer,) but now that I have it, I’m finding that it comes with the side benefit of having a built-in excuse to sneak down to California a time or two over the next few months.  Given some of the long-range forecasts for the Winter season around here, there’s a good chance I might need one of those.  Sure, it looks like Southern California may be in line for some of the same assorted meteorological crud we’re expected to get here, but there’s no way it can be any worse than here, right?

But it’s not just the ability to go basically whenever you want (blackout dates notwithstanding, although I opted for the Premium pass which doesn’t have that problem) that changes the way you spend time in the parks.  One thing I found from my second trip (after the coastal cruise) was that having the annual pass all but eliminates  the invisible timer that seems to hang over your head on a typical Disney trip, telling you that you’ve got only six hours of Disney time remaining.  As you might know from some of the previous posts I’ve written here, I’ve found that a multi-day trip to a Disney park is one of the least relaxing ways I have found to spend a vacation (at least one which doesn’t involve active participation in risky extreme sports.)  A typical day at Disney involves miles of walking (when I took a pedometer into the parks during my trip last May, I came up with a number somewhere between 10-12 miles a day,) hours of standing in line, and there’s a good chance you’ll be eating mostly junkfood along the way.   By the time you’ve been through three or four days of that routine, you’ll probably be more than a little wiped out, but given the cost of a 3-day Parkhopper, you almost need to go through this exhausting routine to get your money’s worth out of it.  With the annual pass, a great deal of the pressure to do things is eliminated.  It opens the door for things like spending just a few hours in the evening in the parks instead of all day, going in and riding just a few rides (or in some cases, perhaps even none at all,) and basically taking a much more casual approach than you would be able to otherwise. 

Naturally there’s a catch to all this, mostly in the fact that this approach is really only feasible in a situation where disposable income is relatively abundant and ongoing commitments are relatively sparse.   There are cheaper options for annual passes if you’re a Southern California resident, but those ones are loaded with blackout dates, and unless you’re going on your own you’ll probably need to buy more than one for it to be of much use.  Of course, living 1,200 miles from the parks does mean that I can’t exactly just pop in at will, but like I said earlier, it makes for a convenient excuse to grab a cheap airfare and head down for a couple of days.   And if the weather we’re expecting around here for the next few months is any indication, any excuse to get away is a good one, right?

October 16, 2011

Life in a Highrise Has Its Ups and Downs

Filed under: Random Stuff — Brian Lutz @ 10:35 pm

A few years ago, I used to have a personal rule that I lived by stating that I would take the stairs instead of an elevator if I happened to be carrying food.  To be honest, I’m pretty sure I could use to lose a few pounds here and there, and it’s been that way for quite a while, which is a far cry from back when I was the designated 70-pound guy on my junior high wrestling team, being around mostly to pick up forfeits because most of the other schools didn’t have a 70-pounder.  I figured that my eating habits probably weren’t (and still aren’t) the best in the world, and that I should probably try to get in at least a little bit of exercise along the way.  At the time, I was working at Microsoft, where most of the buildings on main campus have no more than three stories thanks to a now obsolete height restriction imposed by the City of Redmond building codes.  I was also living in a ground floor apartment, so it was rare that I would find myself more than a couple of stories off the ground. 

Fast forward a few years, and that particular rule has pretty much gone out the window.  Living eight floors up in a highrise apartment and working in a ninth floor office tends to make the whole “using the stairs” bit a somewhat less attractive option.  To be honest, I’m not even sure how you’d take the stairs to get up to the office where I work, or if it’s even possible to do so.  I do know where the stairs would be to take them, but with my car’s assigned parking space being on the third level of the garage, getting to my apartment would require going up 9  flights of stairs.   It would be ten, but oddly enough, this building has no fourth, thirteenth or fourteenth floors.  The 13th floor is missing for the usual reasons, but from what I’ve heard, the 4th and 14th floors were omitted because the architect of this building is Japanese, and in that culture the number four is considered unlucky.  Oddly enough, there is still a P4 in the parking garage.  Anyway, it doesn’t matter how many floors are missing along the way for one reason or another, when it all boils down, that’s still a lot of stairs to be trying to haul a load of groceries up.  Even without groceries to deal with, I don’t think I’ve made the stair climb up to my apartment more than once or twice in the fifteen months or so that I’ve lived here.

Needless to say, when you live in a place like this, the elevators tend to be a bit less of a convenience and more of a necessity than they might be when you’re living closer to ground level.  In fact, this is so much the case that this building is equipped with a rather large diesel generator, which mostly serves the purpose of keeping the elevators running in the event of a power failure.  It also means that unless you really want to take the stairs, there’s a good chance you’ll find yourself riding the elevators at least a couple of times a day.  This particular building is equipped with three elevators, two at the north end of the building, and one designated as a freight elevator at the south end.  And if any one of the three goes down for one reason or another (be it an elevator reservation for someone who is moving, or a mechanical issue) it can make getting around the building difficult at best.  Having two elevators down (as has been known to happen on occasion) will just make a mess.  Fortunately, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a situation where all three elevators were down, but at that point you might as well just stay in.

Then again, another thing I’ve noticed while I’ve lived here is that the elevators tend to function as the unofficial social center of the building, and most of the times I see my neighbors happen in the elevators.  Aside from a bit of space back behind the building which is mostly taken up by a big water feature, there really isn’t anything that could be called a yard around here (and unless I really want to go out and play on the freeway, there isn’t a front yard at all.)  There’s the lounge in the other building and the French Bakery in the atrium, but I don’t end up at either of them all that often these days.  This pretty much leaves the elevator as a place for running into people and saying hi.  After all, everyone’s going to end up there at some point eventually, right?

In a way, elevators become one of those mundane everyday things that in most cases you don’t really notice until you either end up waiting an excessively long time for one (more than about 30 seconds or so) or one of the things breaks down, leaving you either having to take the stairs or in some hopefully rare cases, stuck in one.  You start taking them for granted after a while, but you’d definitely notice if they weren’t there.  Especially if it meant walking up nine flights of stairs.

October 8, 2011

Random Thoughts: Putting In a Full 90 and California Speedin’

Filed under: Random Stuff — Tags: — Brian Lutz @ 12:56 pm

As usual with these things, I apologize for the relative lack of updates recently.  Since I got back from vacation a couple of weeks ago work has been keeping me fairly busy between making a switch to a new team and making sure that the person taking over the stuff I used to be working on is up to speed.  As such, I haven’t had a whole lot of time to do much Blogging lately.  That said, here are a couple of random thoughts from the last few weeks that don’t quite seem to be enough to get a full post out of.

As I was growing up, the two big sports in the house were baseball and auto racing.  Soccer was generally reserved for kids who played in the local youth soccer league, which I was never inclined to participate in.  It wasn’t until the 1994 World Cup came around that I really learned much about the global popularity of the game, and even then, I’ve never been a particularly big fan of the game.  It is mostly for this reason that until this past week, I had never been to a professional soccer game before.  I have occasionally found myself watching a random game on TV while  either bored or sitting in a Mexican restaurant, but less as a fan than as a disinterested observer.

Last Tuesday, that all changed as a couple of my friends ended up with several tickets to the US Open Cup final between the Seattle Sounders and the Chicago Fire at Phone Company of Indeterminate Name Field, and I accompanied them to the game.  Not only that, but they were in the good seats too, which meant that I got to watch the game from the front row near midfield.  If this was an (American) football game, these particular seats would reserved for season ticket holders, and would go for $116 apiece for a single game.  I’ve heard quite a bit about the Sounders and their fans, but this was the first time I’ve experienced it firsthand.  One thing you learn quickly is that virtually the entire stadium remains standing for the entire game, and spends most of that time engaged in one chant or another (in retrospect, I probably should have done some reading beforehand so I knew some of the words.)  In particular, the giant tifo displayed in the Emerald City Supporters section at the south end of the field before the start of play was particularly impressive.  As for the game itself, the Sounders won 2-o and claimed their third consecutive US Open Cup, the first team to do that since 1967-69. 

Most of my experience with watching live professional sports has been in the form of Mariners games, and although baseball is enjoyable to watch in its own way, I do have to say that there might be something to this whole soccer thing.  For one thing, stoppages during the game are minimal, and even when play does stop, the clock just keeps running.  Even with stoppage time added to the end of each half and a 14-minute halftime break, a soccer game easily fits into 2 hours, where baseball games these days can easily be dragged out for three hours or more, and an NFL game with all its stoppages and commercial breaks is in roughly the same ballpark.  It’s clear that Soccer still has a long way to go before it really makes it into the American mainstream (coverage of MLS on the main ESPN website is basically nonexistent, with just about anything besides the MLS Cup final being relegated to their Soccernet site in so they have more space for random NFL offseason stuff, NASCAR or preliminary rounds of some random golf tournament,) but if there’s anywhere that soccer is catching on in America, it’s in Seattle.

Following the cruise down the coast a couple of weeks ago, I had allotted myself a couple of additional days to spend down in California before returning home.  Although I’ve been down to California a number of times over the years, I really haven’t had much chance to just go explore and wander around, as most of my trips down that way either end up being a manic march through Disney or just passing through.  So when I made this particular trip, I made it a point to rent a car (which is something you really don’t need if all you’re doing is Disneyland) and spend some time wandering around the area.  This mostly took the form of a drive down the Pacific Coast Highway to see some of the beaches and towns along the way.  The photo above came from Crystal Cove State Park, where some large bluffs overlook a large sandy beach below.  It wasn’t exactly the best weather for beachgoing that day, but it’s still the kind of thing you don’t find much of around here. 

In addition to the drive down Highway 1, I also found myself driving on California freeways for the first time, which also turned out to be a rather interesting experience.  Given the fact that most of my previous experience with California highways comes from old CHiPs reruns I was half expecting to find myself dodging spectacular car crashes (which may or may not explode in spectacular fashion) every half mile or so.  Sadly, this doesn’t seem to be the case, but one thing I did quickly learn is that people sure like to drive fast down there.  When I found myself on the roughly 15 mile stretch of the I-5 (yeah, all the freeways have to have a “the” in front of their name down there for some odd reason) that goes through Camp Pendleton, the posted speed limit was 65 miles per hour, but it quickly became clear that the flow of traffic was much closer to 80.  Now if I had been driving my own car at the time it might have been kind of fun to go that fast, but given the fact that I was in a rented Kia of unknown maintenance history it got just a bit dicey.  And even when I was matching the nominal speed of the traffic at 80 miles per hour in order to make sure I wouldn’t get run over by some Little Old Lady from Pasadena, I was still getting passed on the right by pickup trucks full of furniture.  The whole thing was kind of like that old arcade game Out Run (right down to the scenery,) only except for being the guy driving the cool car, I was in one of the random traffic cars that you’re normally trying to dodge while drifting around a corner at 150 miles per hour.

Oh, and incidentally, this song has been stuck in my head since I got back from California.  It’s really quite a nice place down there, and if it weren’t for the messed-up economy, dysfunctional politics and still ridiculous housing prices I could actually see myself living there if the circumstances warranted it.  Not sure that’s ever going to happen, but it’s still a nice place to visit.

October 1, 2011

Life in the Slow Lane: Cruising Down the Pacific Coast on the Sapphire Princess

Filed under: travel, Wanderings — Tags: , , — Brian Lutz @ 8:04 pm

From where I am writing this in my apartment in Downtown Bellevue, the approximate distance by car to any given point in the Los Angeles metropolitan area is going to be roughly 1,150 miles, give or take 50 miles depending on exactly what your final destination happens to be.  Assuming reasonably ideal conditions (of the kind that are rarely found much of anywhere) Bing Maps estimates the trip down I-5 to be a roughly 17 hour drive, while by air, a nonstop flight from Sea-Tac Airport to either LAX (954 miles) or John Wayne airport (978 miles) in Orange County will get you there in about 2 1/2 hours of flight time, plus whatever time you have to allow for getting to the airport and through the various mandatory pre-flight inconveniences beforehand.  A far more leisurely option than either flying or driving is the Amtrak Coast Starlight, which completes the trip between LA and Seattle in just 34 1/2 hours, or roughly twice as long as it would take to make the same trip by car.

Although the drive is certainly doable, the vast majority of travelers between Seattle and LA will be making the trip by air, being the fastest and in most cases the cheapest option out of these (I figure that my car would take about three tanks of gas in each direction to get there and back at a cost of about $50 a tank, whereas flights between Sea-Tac and LAX can often be found for $79 each way, and Orange County for only a little bit more than that.)  A train ticket can also be purchased relatively cheaply (assuming you can handle 36 hours in a coach class seat without completely losing your mind,) but for those people for whom a day in a half is just too fast, there’s another option:  Why not go by sea?

Granted, the days of the classic ocean liners are now just an increasingly distant memory, so it’s not exactly a matter of just hopping on the nearest ship to get from point A to point B.  In fact, most of the itineraries being sailed by the many cruise ships found throughout the world are round trips, beginning and ending in the same port and throwing in a few sunny and/or exotic destinations along the way.  There are a few that make one-way trips, but obscure Maritime laws from the 1880s prevent foreign-flagged passenger vessels (which is basically every cruise ship in the world except for one stationed in Hawaii) from making one-way trips from one US port to another one unless they stop in a distant foreign port (which, in this case means somewhere in South America,) so almost all of the one-way trips made by cruise ships, with the exception of a few Panama Canal trips that make a port call in Colombia, Aruba, Bonaire or Curacao along the way, would have to originate from a foreign port to be legal.

This was the case with the trip I took last week, which was a one-way trip down the Pacific Coast from Vancouver to Los Angeles.  In a Grand Class Princess ship, a nonstop trip can be made between Vancouver and Los Angeles in approximately three days at a top speed of 22.1 knots (although in practice the ship will only go as fast as it needs to in order to make it to the next port on schedule,) but this particular trip added port calls in Victoria and San Francisco along the way for a total of five days and 1,244 nautical miles of travel (which comes out to a bit over 1,400 statute miles.)   If you’re in a hurry, than this certainly wouldn’t be the way to go, but being in a hurry really isn’t the point here.  Far from it, in fact.

Although a cruise to pretty much anywhere provides a nice little chance to get away from things and unwind for a while with only as many distractions as you permit yourself, this particular trip was interesting primarily for being a somewhat unusual itinerary, as these ships generally only do a couple of repositioning cruises a year.  Oddly enough, before I took this trip I had never been to Victoria at all, and the only times I had been in San Francisco previously were on airport layovers, which don’t exactly give you much chance to see the place.  I also haven’t had much time in Vancouver, which is really one of the nicer places I’ve seen to sail out of on a ship.

Perhaps the most interesting features of this particular trip that one would be hard pressed to find on another cruise were the nighttime sailaways out of both Vancouver and San Francisco.  Although the embarkation mess at Canada Place back in May when me, my sisters and their husbands went on the one-day trip down to Seattle didn’t exactly give me the best impression of the place, boarding was much easier and quicker this time around, and the Midnight sailaway even provided a chance to get off the ship for a while and go wander around town a bit after the mandatory safety drill.   Which was a good thing, because I found out a bit too late to do anything about it that I had forgotten to pack swim trunks, so I had to make a trip back into the city to find some lest I find myself unable to make use of the ship’s many pools.  Fortunately I managed to find a Sears on Robson Street that had them on closeout, and my vacation was un-ruined.

I don’t have a lot of pictures of Victoria, but I didn’t do a whole lot there anyway, mostly just went into town and wandered a bit.  I figure Victoria is close enough that I could get there as a day trip without too much trouble if I want to spend more time there.  The ride down to San Francisco from there was mostly foggy, and as a result didn’t provide a lot to see.  The fact that the ship’s horn was blasting for five seconds every couple of minutes also made it tough to spend much time above deck.  Fortunately, the weather in San Francisco was nice and sunny, but for much of the day the Bay was covered by a strange layer of thick fog that just never went away.  Originally, my plan for San Francisco was to take a trip over to Alcatraz, but due to some issues with customs that caused delays in allowing passengers off the ship, the shore excursion I had planned ended up getting cancelled.  Instead, I took a boat tour of the bay which went underneath the Golden Gate Bridge (which was a good thing, because when the ship went under it while departing San Francisco, there was so much fog we couldn’t see anything but a few vague lights.)  This was about as good a view as I was able to get of the bridge, although the fog does make for some interesting photos on its own.

The stop in San Francisco also featured a nighttime departure, and some excellent views of the city on the way out.  If you look in the background here, you can see some of the incredibly thick fog that had begun to form on the Bay and the surrounding areas, but never quite reached the city itself.   All in all, it’s an interesting place to visit, and one of these days I may have to go back to try to get to Alcatraz again, but I’m not so sure I’d ever want to live there.

All in all, I quite enjoyed this trip, although it would have been nice if the weather on the sea days could have been a bit better  On the other hand, it definitely could have been worse; the Sapphire Princess’ sister ship Golden Princess made the trip down from Vancouver to Los Angeles a few days after we did, and encountered some pretty severe weather off the Washington and Oregon coasts that actually broke some windows on the ship.  Next year, the Sapphire Princess’ southbound repositioning cruise will be done as a seven-day itinerary instead of this year’s five days, and add stops in Nanaimo BC and San Diego along the way.  After this particular trip I wouldn’t hesitate to book this ship or this itinerary again.  Just don’t plan on being in too much of a hurry.

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