30 April 2009

Of Mice and Jedi - Disneyland Vacation: Day 1

The second week of March was a memorable one for our family. It was so special, because it was the week of our first-ever official family vacation.

We decided to leave the twins home, so we could focus on the older kids; since they have at many times gotten the shaft since the twins demand so much time and attention right now, being so small. The older kids really wanted to go to Disneyland; and since Gwen and I hadn't been since we were kids, we were excited to go too.

We booked our vacation through a travel agency, and since Disneyland was our focus for this trip, we arranged it so we would be shuttled from the airport to the hotel (and back) so we wouldn't have to rent a car. We also opted to do two of the three days during the week, so we could hit most everything without the super-busy crowds and let Friday be a more casual day, with its big focus being on Fantasmic. We also flew out Tuesday evening, so I could take one less day off from work. That all worked out very well.

That is, until we landed in Cali and we almost missed the shuttle due to our checked bags being taken off the baggage claim carousel before we got to it... so we thought they were lost. Fortunately one of the information desk employees pointed me in the right direction and we caught the last bus to the Paradise Pier Hotel where we stayed during our trip.

Now I have to say something here... there is a reason they call it the Happiest Place on Earth. Every employee, pardon me, "crew member" we encountered during our stay at Disneyland was incredibly friendly; and not just in the park, but the hotels as well. I don't know how many employees Disney has, but to have everyone of us treat us so well was no less than an amazing feat. And I know we only interacted with a tiny percentage of the whole. Needless to say, we were VERY impressed; so one huge shout-out to Disneyland for their incredible crew. Even a groundskeeper we stopped to ask for directions dropped what he was doing to walk us near a block and point out the rest of the way for us; as well as answer a few questions for several minutes. It was awesome. I'll share more about the killer customer service in a bit.

On to the good stuff... (Forgive me... I'm a month-and-a-half late posting this... so the details and timeline may get a little sketchy)

Entering the Magic Kingdom - look how excited they are!!!

We started our first day in the Magical Kingdom a little late due to arriving so late the night before and not being able to awaken as early as we'd have liked to (good thing it wasn't the day of our "Magical Morning") :) We walked all the way across to the other end of the park and hit Denny's for breakfast, then walked back to Disneyland and entered the park.

Right as we walked into the gate, memories of my first visit to Disneyland came flooding back, and I instantly recognized the flowers on display as you enter the park.

Mandi and Kimmie in front of the Mickey flowers

We then went under the railroad bridge and onto Main Street. It was just as I remembered it, and I was so excited to be there. The kids were ecstatic. The first ride they wanted to go on was Autopia, since they could drive the cars. Mandi was especially excited for that one. Her dreams were nearly dashed when we got in line and she didn't meet the height requirement to drive by herself. We misinterpreted and thought that meant she'd have to be a passenger with an adult driver; but I decided to ask one of the ride attendants and they corrected us, letting us know Mandi could drive, but had to have an adult passenger. Kimmie was stoked too, because she also got to drive... (I had to push the gas, but hey...)

I didn't get a good picture of Brennan, but here are Mandi and Kimmie driving their cars... Lesson One, Mandi: Keep your hands on the wheel, and your eyes on the road!!!

Kimmie driving her Autopia car

Mommy and Mandi in their Autopia car

The kids were pretty stoked to get their Autopia drivers licenses after (can you say "money sucker," neighbor?)...

Since we started at the back of TomorrowLand, I figured we might as well hit everything we wanted to there to make the best use of our time. That was a big mistake, as Space Mountain was our second ride, and it pretty much ruined Mandi and Brennan for any other more intense rides for the rest of our stay. :) I guess I didn't remember it being that bad as a kid.

We hit the Buzz Lightyear ride (which ended up being a family favorite and the most ridden ride for us during our stay.) We then rode the rockets, and decided to move on to FantasyLand.

The family in front of the Magic Castle at the entrance of Fantasyland

It also was just how I remembered it. We walked through the story of Sleeping Beauty in the castle. Then we made sure to hit Peter Pan (one of my favorite rides, and now Kimmie's also.) After that, the Magic Carousel, Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, the Tea Cups and Alice in Wonderland rides then got some lunch.

Interestingly enough, riding the rides in Fantasyland reminded me that the old-school Disney movies really had a contrast of good and evil, and how dark the evil was. The corresponding rides contained the same contrast.

After lunch, we hit the ride that no one can miss when visiting Disneyland... It's a Small World.

It has been upgraded some since I went, with relevant Disney characters added in their respective cultures. That was really fun, as was watching Gwen mad-snapping pictures throughout the ride. I asked her when we finished if she even got to enjoy the ride (heh.) But what I loved most was the very end of the ride. And not because I was sick of hearing the song over and over and OVER AND OVER... but because of the coolness of the last room before you exit the ride.

What makes it so cool?

Well, when you go through the ride, you get to see all kinds of cultures from around the world, displayed in splendid and vivid color, and it is wonderful. When you get to the end, they re-present the cultures all together in a huge final room. But the really neat thing is that they display them all in white... which to me represented equality for all mankind, regardless of culture. It was very VERY cool. Kudos again, Disneyland; very well done.

It's a Small World

Inside It's a Small World

Inside It's a Small World

After Small World, we made our way up near ToonTown, and noticed a spectacular medieval-looking stage where the Disney Princess Fantasy Faire appeared on the park map. We ventured there since that was going to be the highlight of Mandi's and Kimmie's sojourn in the Magic Kingdom. I asked the crew member managing the 2-mile-long winding line to the Princess Faire how long the wait was. She replied with a smile, "2 1/2 to 3 hours."

I replied, "Wow, so I guess the only real way to handle this attraction is to get here first thing in the morning?" She confirmed, so we decided that would be one of our plans-of-attack for our remaining two mornings.

We made a quick run through ToonTown with the intent of coming back the next morning for our "Magical Morning", because we thought we got to meet the characters there first thing in the morning and what not. While there we snapped a picture with Mickey, but didn't have anything to get his autograph with, so we figured we'd need another encounter before we headed home.

ToonTown - The Roger Rabbit fountain

ToonTown has this cool fireworks building with a detonator out front that the kids can play with to make things explode in the building. We watched a kid set them off. Brennan was intrigued and had to go give it a shot...

Brennan went to the detonator and tried a couple of times to get it to work. When he couldn't, I went over to him and tried to offer assistance, telling him he needed to put more "oomph" in his push on the detonator. It failed for me too... so I left him to try again. Another fail.

What happened next was hilarious... watch and enjoy (make sure to click on the HQ if you can.)

By now, we were pretty tired (legs hurt from walking around all day), hungry (dinner time was fast approaching) and the kids were dying to get Mickey-Ear hats. So we made a stop to let them pick their personalized hats, took one more ride on the carousel in Fantasyland, then headed out of the park to Downtown Disney for some dinner before heading back to the hotel for a break.

Brennan is infatuated with Wizard's Apprentice Mickey lately, so he was euphoric when he found out he could get a Wizard's Apprentice Mickey-Ear hat. Mandi and Kimmie picked cute hats too (Kimmie's has a cute princess train flowing off the back):

Sorcerer's Apprentice Mickey and the Kids

Sorcerer's Apprentice Brennan

Mickey Mandi

Princess Kimmie (front)

Princess Kimmie (back)

We were planning on heading back to the park after dark, to see it while all lit up, but found ourselves so tuckered out that we decided to crash for the night. Besides, the next day was our "Magical Morning" and we wanted to take full advantage.

To make sure we could do so, I talked with Guest Services in the lobby of our hotel, the Paradise Pier. I discovered a misunderstanding I'd had about our vacation package: the "Magical Morning" isn't the same deal as the ToonTown special ceremony; that's a separate additional purchase. So I asked what the "Magical Morning" entailed, and he kindly told me that we got to enter the park and hour early, and that only Tomorrowland and Fantasyland were open at that time.

"Well crap!!!" I thought out loud, "... Those are the two areas of the park we focused on today! We would have saved them for tomorrow had we known that!"

Bless the good man's heart, he took pity on me, apologized profusely, despite the fact that it wasn't at all his fault, and asked me for the names of a couple of rides we were really wanting to go on, so he could give us unconditional fast passes for those rides. I told him we really wanted to hit Splash Mountain and the Indiana Jones ride (the Indiana Jones ride being my most anticipated ride, as I'd never been on it; and I thought the kids would love it, since they've been so into the movies lately. Remember this later when we get to that part of the park...)

Now, if you're not familiar with Disneyland's Fast Pass system, many of the more popular/crowded rides have a mechanism where you can use your ticket to get a special pass for a certain time block where you can return during that time block and advance to near the head of the line, regardless of its length. The pass is only good for your time block and you can only have one in your possession per ticket at-a-time, if I understand correctly.

Well, this fine gentleman gave us a super pass that we could use whenever we wanted (no time constraints.) It was an incredibly nice gesture and was more than appreciated with this newb failure on my part. You'll see how everything worked out better-than-planned when I recount entering the park for our "Magical Morning" in the next post.

Paradise Pier hotel entrance

Stay tuned for Day Two of our Disneyland Adventures...

06 April 2009

As Sisters in Zion

I had the blessed opportunity to live in a little piece of heaven known as Big Stone Gap, VA and Wise, Virginia (southwest corner) for about 6 months of my life while serving in the Tennessee Knoxville Mission (TKM) during the latter-half of 1993.

While there, I fell in love with the people there, including Bishop Yates' family. We had some special times while I served there and I miss them dearly. They and their extended family "adopted" me while I was there. I spent 6 months in their ward, and for 3 of them, kept guessing I would get transferred the next month. My final month there, some of the members joked that if I didn't get transferred that time, I would become the ward's next Bishop. Too funny.

In this post, I'll be focusing on the Yates' oldest daughter, Courtney and her youngest sister, Kristen.

Kristen was 4-5 years old at the time, and one of the cutest little girls I'd ever met. As you can see from the back of the picture of me holding Kristen, her family (including extended family) and I used to joke around about Kristen being my future wife. :)

At the risk of embarassing them (bless their hearts, nothin' but love!!!) this is what we all looked like back then:

Kristen Yates and Elder Litster - Fall 1993
Kristen Yates and I - Fall 1993

Kristen Yates and I (back of photo)

Courtney Yates - Christmas 1993
Courtney Yates - Christmas 1993

So I'd tried and failed twice to hook up with their family while they made two sojourns to Utah for weddings of sisters between Courtney and Kristen.

Luckily, I found Kristen on Facebook a couple of months ago (thank heavens for modern technology!) As we started catching up with each other, I discovered she is currently at BYU. Of course, I had to invite her for dinner, so I could catch-up in person, being as I haven't seen her in 15 years, not to mention I'd like to pay back at least a small inkling of what her parents did for me while I was serving my missin in Wise!

We planned a "dinner appointment" and I brought her to my home on 22 March. The cutie I knew back then has blossomed into a beautiful young woman her parents can be proud of. I was so happy to see her, to hear that she's strong in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and happy.

We talked, looked through some of my mission pictures, ate dinner, played Apples-to-Apples with the fmaily, watched "It's Latter-Day Night" (well, most of it... it locked up on us during the last act) and had a wonderful time. Talking with her, hearing that Southern accent, took me "home" to my mission long ago; so many dear friends that I long terribly to see more now, than ever. (Now, there is more to the story of this night, but I have to wait until later to tell it; for reasons that will reveal themselves then.)

After taking Kristen home, I wanted to detour to the airport and fly out to Virginia. I was hoping to see her again soon, and got my wish earlier than I thought would happen. I learned that Courtney (who now lives in Arizona) was coming up two weekends later to go to General Conference with Kristen. Selfishly, I begged them to come to my homs for Sunday dinner again, so I could see Kristen again and Courtney for my first time in 15 years.

Oh, the trip we took down memory lane; sweet nostalgic goodness. We laughed about all the goofy things we used to do when I got to spend time with their family (I had an electronic whoopee cushion, we played fun mind games with the kids, etc.) There was one time they reminded me of when I was with their "mamaw" (grandma) who happens to be a germaphobe and I love to life (which, for the record, is a bit better than loving someone to death.)

I put a big glob of lotion into some tissue when she wasn't looking. I then pretended to sneeze into it when she was looking, and showed it to her afterward. I'm rotten to the core; but what can I say? Boys will be boys. Good times.

Back to the story. I got to catch up with Courtney, hear about her awesome adoption of a beautiful baby from the Ukraine, learn of her family in Arizona where she is also strong in the Gospel. I was happy to hear about friends back in the Powell Valley ward, sad to hear about some unfortunate things that happened in some of their lives, but overall wanting even more to return and spend more time with those wonderful friends.

We ate gabbed and gabbed, ate dinner, played Phase 10 with the family, feasted on Gwen's world-famous chocolate-chip cookies, and re-watched a new copy of "It's Latter-Day Night" that wouldn't freeze up on us.

I was sad to see it end, but again, the night drew to a close and Courtney and Kristen had to head for home. They either had a good time, or would good sports and humored me when it was time for pictures.

So you've seen the before, here is the after (Note the Celestial glow beaming from the ladies; I'm not worthy to be that close to any of them...):

Kristen, Jeff, Gwen - March 2009

Courtney and Kristen - April 2009

Gwen, Jeff, Courtney and Kristen - April 2009

I'm grateful Courtney and Kristen were kind enough to bless me and my family with their presence, sacrificing their short time together to come patronize my need for nostalgia. :) I sure hope I'll get to see the rest of the family soon *NUDGE NUDGE*

I'm seriously tempted to buy airline tickets to fly out there for a weekend soon. I'm dying to visit!

This was another one of those times where I'm reminded that this life is all about people. We don't get to take anything with us but the knowledge we gain here and the relationships we build with people.

Tread lightly and handle those relationships with care. Don't waste a moment, because you'll treasure them later, even some of the bad moments. I'll never forget those I left in that small corner of Virginia. As Courtney and Kristen were in my home, we repeatedly said how floods of memories came back, as if it were yesterday. It's amazing what a few minutes with someone you haven't seen in years will do for you. So much happiness filled my heart. It always does with reunions like these.

Keep that in mind next time your High School, Mission or other reunion comes around. Too many times, I talk with friends who have no interest in going, but don't know what you're missing. Try it, you'll be glad you did.

Thanks, Courtney and Kristenl "Ah love ye!" And thanks Mom and Dad Yates for raising such a wonderful family, and sharing yourselves with me! You've officially stolen a part of my heart, and I send my love to you. God bless!