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I went down to Silicon Valley for a couple of days this week for work. This is my first time here actually (I went down to SF for a couple of days in July 2005 but didn’t spend time in the valley) so it’s been a learning experience.

What I learned is that it is basically like Seattle (but with better weather). Most of the areas that I’ve been driving around are filled with one-storey industrial buildings that house famous tech companies. There are a lot of streets, a lot of traffic lights, and a lot of cars. We drove from Sunnyvale to Mountain View for dinner the first night and it was more of the same. After dinner (at 8pm) it was back to the hotel which was a long term stay place that was reminiscent of my Archstone residences in Redmond.

Since I am still on EDT schedule (so 4 hours ahead), I’ve been waking up early. That’s unfortunate because there’s nowhere to go! There’s no where to walk and even though I have a car, there’s no where that I would want to drive too!

I can see why people would want to live in San Francisco and suffer the commute to the Valley.

When looking for things to do in LA, I came across the J. Paul Getty Museum. Some cursory research revealed that this museum had a huge endowment fund (even after falling 25%). Their wealth probably contributed to the fact that the Getty Center was huge, beautiful and the museum was free (well except for $10 parking).

We headed to the Getty immediately after we arrived, hoping to see some of it before it closed. It was tight, especially since the GPS led us to BEHIND the Getty center (although we did see a lot of nice houses). The Getty is located in the Santa Monica mountains, with the public entrance and parking at the base of the mountains. You then take a quick tram up to the top, overlooking the traffic-filled LA highways. At the top, there are various parts of the center overlooking a large part of LA.

If I were born in the 2200AD and went to visit museums from a few hundred years ago, the Getty is what I would want visitors to imagine late 1900 architecture to be like. The buildings are pale white and modern, with high windows and nice gardens. It was unfortunate for us that it was raining so we were not able to see the sunset, and it got dark soon after we arrived. The Getty is worth the price to see the architecture and environment.

Our building has a weird recycling system. For one, we actually have a recycling chute which we can thrown stuff down like garbage; no glass though – can you imagine bottles flying down 30 stories at terminal velocity?. But aside from glass we can put various other stuff: paper, plastic, that weird plastic-paper used in milk cartons into the same bag and send it down. This initially struck me as being quite odd.

At Disneyland, they had cans broken down into the usual categories, one for paper, plastic, cans and garbage. These were spread around the place but never together as a set, so you might have to walk a minute or two until you found where to properly place your refuse.

But just like my building, Universal Studios decided to be more convenient by only having one bin for your trash and recyclable items. Did this mean they didn’t recycle? No, because they take all the trash and then take it somewhere to sort out all the recyclable materials (every garbage can tells you this). Man, that’s a dirty job even for Mike Rowe unemployed illegal immigrants investment bankers, imagine all the turkey legs, napkins, and vomit they have to pick through!

Legoland was the fourth, and last theme park we visited on our trip; and I use the term visited lightly. The admission was another $60+ and although I’m a geeky fan of Lego, I don’t see how it would be worth the price of admission since we already saw animals, fairy tales and movie themed parks. We take the $10 parking hit, take some pictures and visit the gift shop without paying admission; but there was no gift shop outside and the gate was rather lame. Although on the way in, near the entrance, we saw a section of sponsored parking for Volvos (there is a Volvo-themed ride in Legoland)!

But lucky for us, we found out that we could get a 1-hour Shopper’s Pass and enter the park for free. We visited the gift shop, bought some overpriced Lego (but hey, we got our parking validated) and then dashed around the park for the rest of the hour. We spent a lot of time in Miniland USA which are reproductions of various cities and sites around the US in the style of Cullen Gardens and Miniature Village (but done in Lego).

Our quick visit was a interesting teaser for the park, it almost seems like it would be worth spending a few hours there; but maybe if the admission was only $20.

If I were to name one thing about San Diego, it would be that Seaworld is located there. Seaworld was the only thing that was a must-visit for me in San Diego. We bought a combo ticket, for $99USD which gave us general admission to Universal Studios and Seaworld within a 14 day period, which made the admission slightly more palatable than the normal $64.

The reason that it’s so expensive is because it’s not just an aquarium like the Vancouver Aquarium, but an adventure park! There were the shows that are present at aquariums, we watched a otter/seal/sea lion show, a dolphin show, and a killer whale show featuring Shamu. Although Shamu isn’t the name of any particular whale (their original Orca was called Shamu).

The Shamu show is the only reason worth going to Seaworld, the Orcas swim around, jump, do some choreography with the divers and splash the crowd; but they are bigger and splashier than the dolphins, and more agile than beluga whales. We spent some time visiting the exhibits, seeing manatees, sharks, penguins, polar bears and the normal aquarium fare. The penguins and polar bears were in a special wild arctic exhibit (with lots of AC, must be a popular building in the summer). We opted to take the “ride” version where we go in a motion-simulated helicopter to reach the arctic base; it wasn’t worth the 15 minute wait though.

I don’t think Seaworld is worth the visit, even at the reduced cost of the flex pass. Your admission price offsets the cost of the rides, but if you wanted rides, you might as well go to Universal Studios or some other roller coaster park.

The next park on our theme park tour was Universal Studios. I wasn’t entirely enthusiastic about this one, and could have passed on it. But we went and it was entertaining. We arrived relatively early (everyone was still passed out on eggnog apparently), and went on the Revenge of the Mummy ride, the special effects and Backdraft stages. The special effects show talked a bit about green screens, and how sound is added to movies. Backdraft had some talking and then they burned stuff. The Revenge of the Mummy ride was surprisingly short, wikipedia says 2 minutes, but it had a what-it’s-over-already?? feeling.

After some lunch, we lined up for the Simpson ride. This was the worst wait of our entire trip; it was quoted at an hour but when we were halfway through the line, they started operating at limited capacity. It took us about 2 hours to get through the line, but the ride was pretty good. It’s a motion-simulated ride, but each motion simulator only had 8 people in it; and the screen was like a planetarium screen.

After that, we went to watch the Universal Animal Actor’s show, which was a bit disappointing since it was short. Plus I couldn’t tell whether the animals were screwing up, or whether they were gags inserted into the show. We tried to go on Shrek 4D but the line wasn’t worth it, and went past Grinchmas to see people play in the snow. By then, the park was really packed so we went on the Studio Tour to finish off our day.

The studio tour is both interesting and not. It’s interesting to see movie props and sets, but you’re just seeing environments (and a couple of cars) from a tram. It’s not like you get to really see how movies or TV shows are made. Interspersed in the tour are several “events” such as a bridge collapsing or a flood but I think they would only impress fool little kids.

The Studio Tour was the most interesting part of the visit, but not worth the price of admission. Unless you like the rides. Maybe I’m just getting old.

On Christmas day, we went to Disneyland to see their Christmas parade; and also because I’ve never been to Disney* before (although I went to 3 Disney locations in 2008 – Paris, Tokyo and LA). We expected a lot of people to show up for Christmas, so we arrived by 9:30. We didn’t have to line up to get tickets, but the park was already busy.

We started our day at the Main Street Opera house which houses a museum to celebrate 50th anniversary of Disney. It was useful for me to learn the history surrounding the origin of the park, and I’m surprised that the Adventureland, Frontierland, Fantasyland, and Tomorrowland themed areas still exist to this day. We headed to Tomorrowland first, which was the most interesting to me. Back when Disneyland opened, Tomorrowland had exhibits of what the future looked like; now it is much more boring and consisted mainly of rides (such as the Star Wars ride, Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage and Space Mountain that we went on). There was one exhibit called Innoventions which is basically a shill for Microsoft, Siebel and HP. I saw most of their “exhibits” at Microsoft Home in 2004. Instead of being interesting, Tomorrowland has been killed by commercialism.

Fantasyland was better since it was the representation of Disney’s core strength – fairy tales! We went on the Pinocchio, Snow White, and It’s a Small World rides here. The It’s a Small World ride was neat since they updated their animatronics to festive decorations.

After spending some time in Fantasyland, we queued up for the Christmas parade. I was disappointed in the parade, because it’s like a Santa Claus parade, but with Disney floats. It wasn’t any more extravagant or “magical”. However, we were lucky because we were at the start of the parade, because after Santa’s float passed by, we actually became part of the parade and walked down the route waving to the crowd. That was a bit surreal and hilarious.

We didn’t have as much time to spend in the other parts of the park. I liked Toon Town since the building designs were comical.

In Adventureland, we went on the Jungle Cruise in the dark, which added to the experience I suppose. If it was during the day, the animatronics would have been even more fake. In Critter Country, we went on the Winnie the Pooh ride – twice, and the Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean ride in New Orleans Square. I was interested in seeing the Pirates ride since it must be pretty amazing to spawn a movie right?? It wasn’t that impressive but was pretty good compared to the other rides at Disneyland. We thought the ride would be pretty laidback, and brought hot tea onto the ride. Which was a horrible idea in hindsight after we looked ahead and saw drops coming.

After sundown, there were a lot of photo opportunities because the park was lit up. We stayed at the park for over 12 hours, because we wanted to see a couple of night performances. We saw Fantasmic which used water fountains as a project screen, and waited for the evening fireworks. The fireworks were initially delayed because of strong winds above Disneyland, but eventually started. The fireworks themselves were pretty standard, but it was coupled with great (Disney-style, fairy tale) music which made the show memorable. Also memorable was the fact that the abruptly cut off the fireworks without explanation (I’m guessing it was the wind). There was also fake snow, which is nothing like the real thing and more like soap bubbles.

I can now scratch off going to Disney* from my bucket list. For a $64 ticket it was worth the experience. And if you truly wanted to experience all the rides, you will have to get a multi-day ticket.

We’re going to California for a week starting a few hours ago. We’ll be hitting the Los Angeles area and San Diego, including Disneyland on Christmas day. Hopefully it will be less crowded than the malls this past week. This means I’ll have to delay my usual what-I-did-this-year blogs, and post more travelling blogs in the future (although I still haven’t blogged everything I wanted to about Japan yet). Oops, well I always have a backlog of blog ideas anyways.