Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Behind the Sage Green Door

Both you and I could escape a long drawn out story about how much of a memorable experience we had on Saturday night at Disneyland’s exclusive Club 33 by doing one of those corny MasterCard commercial clichés that lists how bloody expensive each item turned out to be but the end results were “Priceless.” It would be cute and clever and work on many levels because of the coincidence of my last name and how the experience of going to Club 33 could very well be a one-in-a-lifetime experience for Kara and I… but frankly, summing it all up in a few words with a couple of pictures would go against everything I believe in. Plus, you’re not getting off that easily. Here is a picture of Kara in front of the sacred door.

Everyone reading this is aware of Club 33, and if you’ve ever stood outside the Blue Bayou, just to the right of Pirates, wondering if they might be able to squeeze you and your family of seven in at a five-thirty spot for dinner on a Saturday night during a three-day weekend may well have wondered what was that mysteriously looking door emblazoned with a most regal Club 33 logo on a fancy placard. It seems that only the fancy dressed folk were allowed admittance after, perhaps, pushing a hidden button and whispering a secret code. And when the door was opened, you could only glimpse over the hostess’s shoulder into a most splendorous of rooms draped in velvet and mahogany…just for a second, until the door was unceremoniously closed and you were shut out, back into the reality that the Blue Bayou hostess is laughing incredulously at you for even thinking of eating there without making a reservation at least a couple of weeks in advance.

You thought you were trying to eat at the nicest and most excusive restaurants in all of Disney’s great kingdom… but you were wrong. When you found out what Club 33 was all about, the bar had been raised. You had your sites set higher.

That was me. That was me many, many years ago, with the allure and secrecy of Club 33 was first presented. This is long before the Internet, so the access to insider information was impossible to discover, unless you knew someone who had actually been there. As a teenager or earlier, I knew exactly squat. So, it remained a mystery. Was it Club 33 because Walt Disney only allowed 33 members at a time, 33 of the greatest leaders in the free world could meet and dine with Walt Disney? Was it called Club 33 because it was 33 years between the time Disney started working on Disneyland and when he died? (It isn’t, of course, since he started planning Disneyland in the 40s). But there are a couple of other theories which hold some water: 33, when turned on its side look like MM, which could stand for Mickey Mouse; Walt’s favorite number was three; his daughter was born in 1933. Who knew, but I wanted to find out.

Years passed and I grew no closer to getting behind that mirrored Club 33 crest than when I first thought about it. Meanwhile, one of the girls behind the wine bar at the hotel would regale us with tails of Club 33 (she was dating some exec), only whetting our desire to visit.

Then you forget about it. You grow up, maybe, move on to life’s daily grind. Suddenly, out of the blue, an email arrives with an invitation to go behind the sage green door (as an afterthought, I added "sage" here so as not to confuse my story with that of the classic adult film of the same title).

One of Kara’s high school friends happens to be a fraternity brother of mine; in fact, I met Renato before I met Kara, and she had known him long before she knew me, of course. He and his wife Ester are big fans of the Magic Kingdom, and they have just as many scratches on their Annual Passes from frequent swiping as we do (though we are currently between Passes right now). Another fraternity brother, Jeff, is a scout for the St. Louis Cardinals, and he is one of the few individual members of Club 33 (most are corporate members and used by more than a few executives), and I had no idea he was a member. Both Jeff and Renato are on FaceBook, where Jeff noticed Renato’s frequent postings of Disneyland related photos and updates… he’s there with his family all the time… and he asked Renato if he’d like to dine at Club 33, a highly coveted invitation, as you can only eat there if you are a member or know a member well enough to make reservations for you. On the balcony overlooking the commoners, Kara and I pose for a picture during the fireworks show. We were told by the waiter, that the view isn't what it used to be thanks to all of the trees that grew over the years... he said people complain to Michael Eisner's office all the time to have them cut down.

Needless to mention in this story is that Renato jumped at the chance… but then who would they bestow the other two coveted spots to? They created a criteria of people who they wanted to accompany them and I’m told the list was short. They had a three-point roll of conditions: 1) For starters, they had to be people they’d actually enjoy dinner with; 2) They had to be able to afford it (and in this economy that narrows it down quite a bit); and 3) They had to be people that would appreciate it for what it is.

As it turns out, Kara and I fit the bill most perfectly (as we are most delightful dinner guests). Funny enough, at first, reluctantly, I had to turn it down, as criteria Number Two became a big factor. Since we are between Disneyland Passes, I assumed we would have to of either bought at ticket to get in (at $69 each) in order to eat there or renewed our Annual Passes (at $200 each), both options seemed like a misappropriation of funds in the post-Obama 2009 Household Budget. It would have made for an overly expensive meal, but Renato called me and clarified that admittance to the park is included with the reservations. After dinner, Kara standing in the main dining room with the bar and upstairs foyer in the background.

We were in.

Now, what to wear? Normally, I’m not one for fashion, and although I enjoy looking nice, I don’t go out of my way to buy expensive clothes and the current trends. As long as I’m covered in all the right places and the colors match as best as I can tell, I’m good with it. Because of this, my options for fine dining are limited to two nearly opposite sides of the spectrum: shorts and sandals or a full black suit. The various websites I consulted advised business casual, but I felt uncomfortable not wearing a tie, as Club 33 seemed like a place that you’d wear a tie to. If I was going to wear a tie, I had to wear a coat… and the only coat I had was the one nicely paired to my suit pants. That wouldn’t work, as a suit is too dressy for an amusement park.

Soon after Easter, I noticed a significant swelling around my middle, coupled with the fact that simultaneously, all of my clothes have inexplicably shrunk on the hangers, the pants I planned to wear no longer fit. So I hit the streets, walking and running about four miles each day in the hopes that Easter would work its way out of my system and that I’d drop 10 pounds or so, just enough to fit into my comfortable khakis and a nice button-up shirt. Well, after four days of exercises and a somewhat muted diet, I gained two pounds!

I couldn’t suck it up any more, so instead I bit my lip and forked out for the size 38 waist pants. While I was there, I saw a nice sportcoat they had in my size (46-long in case anyone needs any Christmas ideas), so I got that too.

I was all set, wearing three layers of clothing on the first 90-plus-degree day of the year, wouldn’t you know!

At about 5:30, we arrived at Guest Relations and picked up our complimentary admission tickets (that says Club 33 on them!) and since we didn’t want to walk around in the park on this especially packed day (we parked on the top level of the structure… I had never seen the top level of the parking structure before, and they weren’t taking the usual $11 parking fee either)… anyway, since Kara was wearing attractively strappy shoes that looked good but functioned like thumb screws, we decided on sitting out the crowds at our favorite watering hole, The Wine Cellar. Our table with the Villacortes.

With plenty of time to spare, we made out way into the park and over to the Magic Door, where we took a couple of pictures and saw a few other parties anxiously awaiting their turn through Disney’s most secret of places. There were a couple of little girls about Natalie’s age, all wearing their Sunday best no doubt, excitedly and perhaps impatiently waiting their turn. An older man stood next to me and asked if I was going in there, and the way he asked it was akin to him asking me if I was going to storm the beach at Normandy. I replied with determination, “Yes, I’m going in there.” He wondered out loud to me, “How does one get to go in there?” There was only one answer I could tell him: “Either you have a lot of money or you know someone that does… and we defiantly don’t have a lot of money.”

We met up with Renato and Ester, and at the precise time—a few minutes early actually—he lifted the secret cover on the brass call box, pressed the secret button and announced our arrival.

The door opened. We were in.

I won’t give too much away, lest I ruin the experience for anyone who is lucky enough to follow in our footsteps. I enjoyed how ornate it all looked. We rode in a quite compact elevator… ahem, excuse me, a French lift, to the second floor, where we passed the Trophy Room, so named because it used to have animal trophies on the walls. In this room is where the famous vulture resides, famous for being equipped with a microphone so that it could interact with the guests. Pictures on the walls so show some dignitaries and their visits. There was a beautiful phone booth that came from one of Disney’s movies, and a small marble table from Mary Poppins.

Our table was in the northwest corner of the restaurant, with views onto Rivers of America from the balcony. Unknown to us at the time, we were actually not over the Blue Bayou as we suspected, but instead, we had so twisted and turned a few times through the Club that we were sitting right over Café Orleans facing Rivers of America. This picture is of our table taken from out on the balcony.

I didn’t take as many pictures as I should have, and I felt like a goofy tourist (no pun there) every time I did take it out, as if it was the first time I’d been out of the barn. I didn’t take a picture of my dinner, like I would have normally at any other restaurant, and I didn’t take a picture of the menu, like I should have (hell, I came close to taking the menu). For that, I’m a little disappointed, as more pictures would have been nice mementoes; however, to better illustrate your possible lacking imagination or my inability to properly describe the scene, Google it, as there are countless pictures of the Club much better in quality than I'm able to take.

I started with local field greens, candied pecan, summer melon vinaigrette salad that was only $8, a glass of Zinfandel that was probably around $15, but I should have ordered the caviar instead (it just seemed like a good place to do that). One of the waiters arrived at our table every time I so much as sipped some of my water, to make sure my glass was topped off. I probably had five glasses of water to replace what I lost under my three layers and a most unforgiving sun that day.

During our meal (I had the boneless ribs) we ventured to the balcony to watch the fireworks and to look down on the regulars on the streets below, feeling very much like royalty. Dinner lasted almost three hours, as they took their time between courses, but it wasn’t like we were in a hurry. Frankly, I could have stayed there all night. It was very elegant, very accommodating and very much worth it. I had some sort of fruit tart for dessert, shown here in the picture. I should have picked the cheesecake, but I wanted to try something different.

The bill for the four of us came to just over $350, and since Kara and I had the wine and I finished dinner with a nice 20-year tawny Port I can’t normally justify buying, our portion was $190, plus a $30 tip (each).

Yes, it was worth it, just to say that we got the chance to go to an exclusive club that few people get to go. Of course, I hope we get asked again!

Afterwards, Kara and I took the opportunity to go on the Indiana Jones ride, as it has the tallest height requirement in the park and we wouldn’t normally get to go on it with the kids until they grow a bit more. It was five minutes to midnight and that was the closest ride.

Kara and I were home just after 1am, still full. It was a most enjoyable evening, and I’m glad we had the opportunity.

Sport coat and pants: $160.00
Kara’s new blouse: $25.00
Pre-dinner wine: $38.00
Dinner and dessert: $220.00
A night at Club 33: Priceless.

See, corny isn’t it?

Monday, April 06, 2009

The Economy On Ice

Let’s just get it out of the way upfront: I don’t like children. Sure, I love my own, and all of the children of my immediate friends and family, but that’s pretty much where I draw the line. All the rest are just annoying bags of irritating puss and misguided energy. I couldn’t be a teacher for anyone under the age of 16. I wouldn’t do well as a playground monitor or a child care supervisor, and I would probably get fired an amusement park for flicking kids in the backs of the their heads.

But, let’s take it a step further: I don’t think I like adults that much either, and I especially abhor parents. Now, wrap that up with fact that I spent Saturday afternoon with an arena full of them and you’ve got the background for today’s story.

There are certain things you do and don’t do in public. At least, that’s how I thought the world ran. You say sorry when you bump into someone. You clean up after yourself. You keep your hands to yourself. And most importantly, you don’t do anything to either cause inconvenience to your fellow citizens or do anything that is inconsiderate.

The funny thing lately is that, perhaps as I get older and more impatient to the shenanigans of the latest batch of malcontents that seem to have infiltrated every corner of society like a sour tasting jello- mold, I seem to see more and more inconsiderate people selfishly disregarding the civilized politeness that our grandparents promised us when they won World War II.

And most of them are parents (or at least court-mandated legal guardians).

Case in point: Disney On Ice presents “A Disneyland Adventure.” The tag line says: “Join your favorite characters on a trip through the park and thrill to “incredible” excitement when everyone’s favorites superhero family shows up to save the day!”

[As an aside here, I’m troubled by the awkward wording of the above tag line. I’m okay with a double predicate sentence and I’ll even let them skate—pun intended—on the fact that they’ve used an understood subject (you) for both verbs, but what bothers me is the way they used “thrill” as a verb. I’m not saying it’s wrong; I’m just saying that it is an archaic use of the tense and it makes the sentence awkward. They should have added “you will” before thrill.]

Anywho, the premise of the show was the story of the Incredible family (from the Disney movie The Incredibles) on their vacation to Disneyland, where they would suppress their superpowers and try to blend in with the rest of the crowd. Unbeknownst to them, and fantastically coincidental, was that Syndrome was also paying Disneyland a visit with the idea of taking over the Magic Kingdom and creating his own evil, yet profitable, them park.

Ninety-nine percent of the people that paid $15 a ticket to see the show arrived on time. The show was starting at 3:30 and we arrived in the parking lot just before 3:00. Already, there were substantially lengthy lines of jumbled people at all four corners of the Citizens Business Bank Arena in Ontario waiting to get in. We had enough time to achieve a false sense of security by the people half-heartedly peeking inside women’s purses for IEDs and dirty bombs, to take a few pictures of the kids, to get gouged at the concessions stand for two bottles of $3.75 water (it is filtered through gold, I’m told) and to make our way to the polar opposite corner of the building from where we came in, of course. And, after all that, we still had 10 minutes to spare. Ten whole minutes to admire the steepness of the arena sides, the elevation we were at and how big the building is.

The kids settled. An announcer’s voice boomed through the arena announcing that the show will start in 10 minutes… then five minutes…. then three minutes. The seats in front of us remained empty as did the row in front of it. I thought, good, for once, I can watch a show without someone sitting on my lap because some Neanderthal with an oversized head and a 10-gallon hat decides to sit in front of one of the kids.

The lights went down, the ice glowed with a cool array of Disney-approved (and probably trademarked) colors…the show was going to begin. The little girl sitting in the row behind us and three seats down to my left excitedly kicked the back of the chair in front of her. She’ll stop. Don’t worry. Her mother will notice, or the girl sitting in the chair she was kicking will complain.

Just when I thought the seats would go unused, a family of five or six appeared through the darkness of our section’s access tunnel. The show had just begun. Mickey Mouse and friends had taken the ice, singing and skating to the sounds of Main Street, telling of the glories of Disneyland. The first family wasn’t too inconsiderate. They appeared as though they regretted arriving late, that there was an accident or some incident completely beyond their control. Okay, a head briefly in the way as you sit down two rows in front of me isn’t that bad. You’re reprieved.

A full 15 minutes goes by. Now, we’re introduced to the lip-syncing and skating characters of the Incredible Family, and we’ve got a plot (trip to Disneyland, incognito, etc., etc.). We have a vested interested in the outcome. We’re hooked. We’re enjoying it.

What appeared next through the darkness of the access tunnel was what looked like two families, at least three or four women and a half-dozen kids that came in two irritating waves. What wasn’t immediately apparent was that they were related—or at least knew each other—but what was immediately galling was that the first wave sat in their assigned seats, by the aisle, while the second wave, who followed right afterwards, had to slide their way past the first group to their seats.

This, of course, we predicated by three or four minutes of them standing in the aisle while they studied their tickets, collected together their children and spoke loudly in Spanish. All the while, we’re trying to enjoy the show. Sit down. Shut up. There are dozens of people affected by your lack of consideration, the fact that you couldn’t trouble yourself enough to collect your tribe together, leave your duplex, pack them into your oxidized dark green middle-90s Dodge Astro Van, find a place to park and herd them into the arena by the time the show starts.

Now, my $15 ticket, and the tickets of my family and those around me, are worth less because our experience has been suspended, my enthrallment by the magic of Disney, my “thrill to the incredible excitement” has be interrupted by your discourteous reality. Just sit down. Just shut up.

The dust settles. Everyone is quiet. The show itself is quite loud, masking those little irritants that plague me, so I’m not completely distracted by the constant talking, the little girl kicking the seat behind me, the kid in front cackling obnoxiously, and the rustling of food wrappers and toy packages.

Who buys that much stuff for their kids? I’m going to call it stupid-rich as the original phrase is offensive and doesn’t exactly apply here. They must have spent $200 to go see this show. They bought sodas, boxes and bags of popcorn, some sort of box full of something and a couple of those whirling lighted toys. The noise of a half-dozen people eating right in front of you is like a hundred nails on a chalkboard to me. Not to mention the two girls who went to get it.

I had never seen these two girls before. One was Mexican and the other was white, and if you had pushed either one, they would have easily rolled all the way down to the ice. They were loaded with arms of food as they plodded their way up the stairs. I assumed they were going to sit behind us somewhere because there was no room in front of us, and thank God. I would have had to of held Matthew up by his ankles to see around them if they sat next to each other.

Instead, they stopped at the aisle in front of us and unloaded all of the food. They stood their for a while, maybe a minute or two, chatting, before they went back down the stairs. Then, about 10 minutes later, they appeared out of the access tunnel to our right, on the other side of our section. They climbed the stairs to the row behind us and stood there for a minute or two, chatting, before making their way back down the stairs. Where they lost? Did they even have seats? Then, a few minutes later, they’re treading back up the stairs on our left, and I don’t know how they did it, but they managed to squeeze themselves into the row behind us to find their seats almost exactly half-way between the two aisles. For me, there as negative space for my knees, as they stuck out beyond the backrest of the seat in front of me, and if anyone wanted to pass, I would have had to stand on my seat for them to get by.

After that, all was mostly quiet, but I was plenty pissed. Then an intermission… and we got to start it all over again. Guess who didn’t have the courtesy to get back to their seats in the 15 minute intermission? That’s right, the family of the year.

So, if it wasn’t for the people, I would have had a wonderful time, which is why I now hate people, their children and any public event where either of the two might attend. People are selfish and inconsiderate; they need manners, lessons in the politeness of society and a freakin’ alarm clock.

When I own an arena, the doors will close when the show begins. If you don’t have the decency to make it on time, your tickets will be refunded and you will be told to have a good day, as we point to the sign that says “we refuse service to anyone.”

Meanwhile, as I was watching the show, I decided that the whole Disney On Ice is a parody of the economy and the current administration. To me, it became, “The Economy On Ice.”

Here’s how (you may not appreciate this, having not seen the show but I’ll do my best to explain):

Syndrome and his familiar round robot enter the scene and capture Mickey and Minnie (which upset Matthew most of all). Meanwhile, the Incredible Family is visiting various theme ride, like Pirates, Jungle Cruise and the train ride. But, all of these rides, including the details of Main Street, where styled like their were in the 60s. It was Disneyland of old, including valet parking (which I don’t think they even offer at DL, ever). Syndrome, who is a robot himself, has reprogrammed the animatronics on each ride to cater to his evil whims. But what about Syndrome, the robot? Who built him? Why? Where does he come from?

The Disneyland they depicted in the show represents the good life. As always the good life is without trouble, lacking worry and is completely carefree. It is a good economy, happiness, a low interest mortgage within the buying means of the general populous. It is the one-income family with two cars in the garage and good jobs aplenty. Mickey and Minnie represent the mortgage companies, dare I suggest it fits to well with Fanny Mae and Freddy Mac… but it does. They’re borrowed money. We go to Disneyland to see Mickey and Minnie, to experience the lifestyle they have built for us there.

Meanwhile, along comes Syndrome, a soulless robot bent on destroying the happiness provided by Disneyland by sabotaging Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse, abducting them and taking over everything for his purpose. Who is Syndrome? Hedge fund buyers, AIG, SEC? Any organization that made money on the inappropriate home loans.

We introduce The Incredibles, a family of superheroes that is above the law. They go on the rides and do things that nobody else is allowed to do (like break the rides, for example, and become the grand marshal of the daily parade). They’re Congress, a mostly self-appointed heroes that seems to be there for the good of the common people, fighting evil, etc.

But who else happens to be at the park that day too? Why, it’s FroZone, one of the last superheroes left, and the best friend of Mr. Incredible. Interestingly enough, he swoops in periodically during the climax of the show to “save the day,” but really doesn’t do a whole lot except for come up with witty lines and fancy skating. He’s Obama.

Now, we’re at the climax of the show! Mickey and Minnie are prisoners of Syndrome and an epic battle is about to commence between him and the Incredibles. At Syndrome’s command, all of the Storm Trooper look-a-like soldiers from Star Tours are fighting the Incredibles, and they just can’t seem to win. The economy is getting worse. The soldiers keep coming, and Syndrome is howling manically. Congress isn’t effective at fighting the worsening economy, and the happiness of the people and their money seems doomed. In skates Obama for some pithy remarks and some fancy skating. He suggests that the people in the audience, the average citizen who has paid for the privilege of seeing the show (let’s not discuss how many people snuck in without paying), do something about it. We have to fight the soldiers. We have to sacrifice and take action to make the soldiers behave. Congress can do nothing. The problem is too big for them, and Obama can only come up with a hare-brained scheme that involves us pointing to one side of the arena and then the other side to confuse the soldiers. We’re supposed to confuse the economy into behaving, which is a lot like spending money when you are getting taxed heavily.

Meanwhile, after the soldiers are abated, Syndrome is still at large, and the Incredibles go in for the final assault… but they really do nothing but skate around in circles and complain how difficult it is. In comes FroZone, who immediately assesses the situation without having to talk to anyone about it. Again, another idea. He doesn’t suggest that the Incredibles actually do anything, nor does he suggest that they try a different approach. He turns to the audience.

Obama doesn’t ask Congress for a different level of spending, nor does he suggest that Congress adjust the way they normally operate. He turns to the people to again burden the load. Obama suggest that we all wish really hard for the economy to get better. We get mentally taxed to wish that Mickey and Minnie will be released, that home prices will rise and that the dollar will gain in value.

It’s not bad enough that we had to take the effort to battle the economy with no help from Congress, but now we have to bailout all of these companies too. We have to become The Incredibles and destroy Syndrome because the real Incredibles and FroZone were unable to do the job, one that we relied on them to complete.

So, here we are at the end of the story. And you know what is especially upsetting? Once Mickey and Minnie Mouse were set free, who got the credit for saving the day? That’s right, the Incredibles, when all they were capable of was some aptly timed remarks and some fancy skating.

Thanks Congress for the fancy skating. How much money does Syndrome want from us to go away this time? And who is to say he won’t return? All FroZone did was freeze him, which Obama will find out, frozen things will eventually thaw out in time for our kids to pay for them.

Nice show.

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