Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Lobby

Disney's Grand Californian Hotel

3:00 am.




gunh.. wha huh?



Oh crap. Did Kate break the building?

Four years ago when we stayed at the Disney Grand Californian, the fire alarm went off in the middle of the night and a couple minutes later they told us that everything was ok and we could go back to sleep. Not this time. We got slightly more dressed and headed out the door and down the exit steps. Sniff Sniff. Smells a bit smoky. As we got to the first floor and looked up, there were plumes of smoke against the mostly clear but very dark sky. Whoa. This must be the real thing.

We walked out to the front of the building and it looked like the smoke was coming from the main lobby area of the hotel. Lots of fire trucks were already there and Disney security folks were moving us back from the hotel. One of the people near us said that the giant Christmas tree in the lobby had caught fire. He had seen it in flames as he left his room. It was a big tree reaching probably 30 feet up into the open lobby and covered in lights, ornaments and ribbons.

The hotel staff and security folks started to pass out blankets to people waiting outside and after a few minutes we were all allowed to go into the conference center which was warmer and had better places to sit down. Over the next couple of hours, the staff did an amazingly good job of keeping us informed as to what was going on, passing out diapers to parents with babies, providing water, then pastries and then coffee as everyone else did their best to get some sleep on the floor of the conference center. The guests were pretty impressive themselves, taking the trays of pastries and walking them to the different conference rooms to pass them out to make sure everyone had a good chance to get something to eat.

My biggest concern at that point was that we had a 9:00 am flight and were supposed to try to get a cab around 6:30 to get there. Around 5:30 they announced that they would start moving people back up to their rooms floor by floor, starting with the second floor. I let one of the security people know about our flight and he told us we could go up with the first group so we gathered our stuff and headed towards the lobby. The security folks were practically falling over themselves to be helpful. They escorted us to our room so we could pack up our stuff, then escorted us back down to the lobby.

This was the first time we had a chance to look at the scene of the fire. The tree was gone and they were cleaning the carpet where it had been. The ceiling six stories above was covered in a grey soot and the wood cross beam showed some charring but otherwise the lobby looked almost normal. They suggested we go out the side exit to avoid all of the fire equipment and as we walked down the sidewalk we saw little piles of blackened debris. This was the route they had taken the remnants of the tree. The debris got a litle thicker and included several intact but blackened ornaments around the back of a Budget rental truck where the rest of the tree had clearly been stuffed.

We headed over towards the Paradise Pier hotel to try to get a cab to the airport and noticed at least five TV news trucks parked across the street. While Zach was getting ready to make his Southern California TV news debut and we were counseling him to say nothing, the security folks at the gate said they would get us a cab so we wouldn't have to run the news gauntlet. I'm sure this was partly to keep us from saying anything to the press but we appreciated them again going out of their way to help us. The drove us towards the Disneyland Hotel where they had secured a cab for us, transferred our luggage and we were on our way to the airport with plenty of time to spare.

There were so many opportunities for Disney to fall down here -- for them to get snippy, or to make us wait like everyone else while they took care of the hundreds of people who were camping out in the conference center. Instead, the service felt just as personalized as if we were the only people there enjoying just another of the many perks of being at the premier family resort. The security people followed up with us, got us where we needed to be safely and as conveniently as possible. Remarkably similar to how they responded when Kate and Zach were stuck on the roller coaster.

This was certainly a dramatic end to our Christmas trip but even more I think it is an amazing story of grace under pressure. Well done Disney!

Update: The LA Times has a story on the fire, including video from KTLA here.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

We Broke Disneyland

We are down at Disneyland for the Christmas holiday. We came down in for Christmas 2001 and it was not terribly crowded (people stayed away from big public places like this that year for some reason…) but this year the place is packed. Throngs of people flowing through the streets and extending attraction lines to over an hour in some places, but everyone is in pretty high spirits and enjoying the parks.

This morning, Kate, Zach and I decided to venture into Disneyland Park early, as it opened at 8:00 am. Rather than get stuck in the lines at the main entrance, we figured we would take the monorail in and start in the middle of Tomorrowland, so instead of turning right out of the Grand Californian hotel, we turned left and headed against the flow of early morning Disney revelers towards the monorail. When we got there the line looked really short. Too short. In fact, there was no line at all because the monorail was “temporarily unavailable due to technical difficulties.” It was broken. Oh well. We jumped into the people current and floated on down towards main entrance waiting in the bag check line (this wasn’t here in 2001…) and then the line to get in to the park.

Once we got into the park we headed straight for the Indiana Jones ride and we got in line. The line was moving pretty well until we heard an announcement that the ride was experiencing more technical difficulties and would be delayed for at least 15 minutes. When that delay turned into an “indefinite” delay, they cleared out the line and we headed off to look for a different thrill.

We went to the Matterhorn and got in the very long line, but decided it would be a good idea to try to get a FastPass for Space Mountain, so Kate headed off to grab those. A few minutes later, she called saying that Space Mountain was broken so she got us FastPasses to the new Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters ride. We started teasing her that she kept breaking the rides. When she got back to the Matterhorn, um… it broke. The car stopped going and we started to wonder what happened to all of the cars that were rolling around inside the giant paper maché mountain when it had technical difficulties but after about 15 minutes, it started working again as we actually got to go on a ride.

When we got out, we headed over to Buzz Lightyear to use our FastPasses but we were early so we tried to get a snack. After being turned away from 2 pizza places because they were not open (probably broken) we came back to Buzz’s ride to see a long line at the Fast Pass entry. Why? Well campers, you’ve probably guessed it already, but they were in the process of rebooting the ride. In case you’re trying to keep score, that’s four attractions, one transportation mechanism and two Italian eateries that were all unexpectedly out of service and it isn’t even 10:30 yet.

Buzz booted, though, and we did ride. Around this time, Leslie showed up and the rides were better behaved that afternoon. After dinner we went to California Adventure so Kate, Zach and I could ride California Screamin’ the zippy, twisty and loopy roller coaster. The line was short and before you know it, we were rolling and screaming. It is actually a very smooth ride given its gyrations and when we finished, Kate and Zach wanted to ride again so off they went. We watched them as they were launched up the first hill and a minute or so later we heard the telltale PA system announcing that California Screamin’ was experiencing “technical difficulties” and would be closed for a little while. Looks like Kate had broken another ride.

Kate and Zach, though, had not emerged from the ride yet and were, in fact, stuck in the roller coaster near the top of the highest hill. I asked the person turning would-be riders away from the turnstiles what was going on and she said that it happens all the time (why am I not surprised) and that this time it was probably just due to a problem with a chip in the station and there was nothing wrong with the cars or the track. In fact, she said that they were probably over cautious in how they set up the rides to stop working when just about any sensor indicates a potential problem and she mentioned that Thunder Mountain Railroad would break if a sparrow flew through the ride in just the right way. In the meantime, cast members would be climbing up to the train and walking the passengers down. I briefly imagined Peter Pan flitting up to the stuck cars and removing the safety harnesses but alas it was the maintenance crew who did the only flitting. Soon afterwards, I received a call from Zach’s cell phone. When I answered he yelled out “WE’RE ALIVE!!” and sure enough they came running up to us a minute or so later excited to tell us the story of their not-so-harrowing escape.

I guess now we know what happens when the roller coasters break down.

I don’t know whether the issue is that the now 50 year old theme park is showing its age and is just less reliable than it once was, or if the addition of all of the computer technology and associated complexity is the cause of so many failures. I’m sure at least part of the issue is that they are so concerned about making sure the ride is safe that they are willing to stop it for any indication, including mostly false positive indications, that there may be a problem. This is certainly the safest path through it has the same effect of making people wonder about the overall safety of the park that constantly releasing security patches does to people’s trust in computer software.

We will be back tomorrow, though and hopefully the rides will be in better shape.

The next morning...
Indiana Jones is still busted, but everything else seems to be working.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Goofy Lyrics from the '70s

When I wrote my last entry about pirate lyrics, it got me thinking about other songs with goofy lyrics. There is no shortage of songs containing trite phrases, epic tales of battles with the gods, melodramatic angst-rants, or stream of consciousness babble about a bathroom. And those are just ones that my bands wrote...

Sometimes, though, they go above and beyond and must be recognized so this is the second part of a series of posts about goofy lyrics.

Today's topic: Tolkien-esque Fantasy
Every teenage boy goes through a Rush phase. OK, perhaps it's every white teenage boy goes through a Rush phase. Maybe it's every middle class, midwestern, white, teenage-boy-who-is-coming-off-of-a-metal-phase goes through a Rush phase. No matter. There are many of us. If you go back far enough in your Rush collection, though, you will find the period between Neal Peart joining the band around 1975 and the time that they hit the mainstream around 1980 there was a distinct interest in grand tales of mythology and Tolkien-esque fantasy. The best known is probably 2112 but Rush had so many examples. The two part Cygnus X-1 trip through a black hole that spanned two albums is another classic. Some of the best examples of the "cult of j.r.r." were in their earlier work. Perhaps my favorite is By-Tor and the Snow Dog.

Tobes of Hades, lit by flickering torchlight
The netherworld is gathered in the glare
Prince By-Tor takes the cavern to the north light
The sign of Eth is rising in the air

Spoiler Alert: Snow Dog is victorious.

Or how about The Necromancer from Caress of Steel -- a song in 3 parts titled
I. Into the Darkness II.
II. Under the Shadow
III. Return of the Prince

Guess what? By-Tor returns! This time he is redeemed.

Prince By-Tor appears to battle for freedom from chains of long years
The spell has been broken...the Dark Lands are bright.
The Wraith of the Necromancer soars
away in the night.'

Stealthily attacking
By-Tor slays his foe
The men are free to run now
From labyrinths below

Here's something you didn't know. I read that Peter Jackson's next movie will be about By-Tor. Another blockbuster for Jackson I suspect.

Of course, Rush was not the only band with Tolkien tendencies. Led Zeppelin may have started the rock-n-roll epic tales genre with songs like The Battle of Evermore and, of course, the classic Ramble On

Mine's a tale that can't be told, my freedom I hold dear.
How years ago in days of old, when magic filled the air.
T'was in the darkest depths of Mordor, I met a girl so fair.
But Gollum, and the evil one crept up and slipped away with her, her, her....yeah.


Zeppelin had another song with white shining ladies, May queens, pipers and some sort of a stairway but I don't think it ever really caught on.

There are, of course, many more out there. Feel free to add more examples of Tolkien-esqe Fantasy lyrics in your comments.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

The World Needs More Songs About Pirates

When I was young, I was a big Styx fan. Phew. I feel better getting that off my chest already. Yes, it was back in the 70s so it was before the Mr. Roboto days but I actually had all of their records up through Cornerstone and that includes the four pre-TS albums. In the early 80's, though, I discovered Rush and never went back.

Last weekend, I found a CD that had all four of the Wooden Nickel albums so I bought it just to relive my carefree youth. This morning I was listening to "The Serpent Is Rising" and was amazed at how much I could remember of those songs. I couldn't have told you anything about those songs yesterday but as they started it all came back to me. It's amazing how those things stick in your head over such a long time.

The songs are sooooo 1970s. Classic chord progressions, real synthesizers from the days when there were no presets, screaming high vocals and the lyrics -- oh man those 1970's lyrics.

Krakatoa you've changed your ways
from evil days.
Oh I know a once violent isle
and gentle smile.
When the dust and lava cooled
you were sterile as the rock from which the earth was tooled.

Wow. That's powerful stuff. As I rolled up to the office today, though, the song Jonas Psalter came on. A touching tale of pirate greed that perhaps went too far. Was it Ann Bonnie who done him in or was it his own remorse of having achieved all that one pirate could in life? We may never know. But you know... it made me wonder why bands just don't write songs about volcanos or pirates anymore.

Those were the days.

BTW - here are some things I learned today about Styx that I didn't know before.
1) Tommy Shaw's birthday is September 11. It seemed like a regular day back then.
2) Styx did an album with REO Speedwagon. Kind of sounds like one of those Scooby Doo meets Superfriends cartoons, doesn't it?

Friday, December 02, 2005

Oh. That's not a good smell...

Zach's video card had decided to go all retro on us and only display 4bit color in 640x480. It still new about its driver and all but it was clearly not happy so I opened up the machine to put in a new nVidia card. The operations went fine. The card was safely in, I attached the Zalman CPU fan above the heat sink, closed the case, attached the power and turned it on.

Then came the smell.

The sickening, smoky smell of electronics failure. "Oh," I said, "That's not good."

The Zalman fan was not spinning and while the drives would spin up, nothing else was going on. Sad really. That little CPU had given so much to us all.