Monday, August 24, 2015

Rockin' like an Autistic Kid

Somebody recently made the comment to me, "I had the music cranked and was rockin' like an autistic kid". And I thought to myself (in this order), that's funny. No, that's offensive. Wait, is that offensive? Hey, all the papers on my desk aren't aligned straight.

Here's the thing that struck as most important about his statement though. The rocking behavior is prevalent enough to be included in dumb puns in general conversation. That means pretty much everyone knows it happens. But I wondered if anyone ever really thought about why. I never really thought about why... and I do it too.

I am a card-carrying member of the autistic spectrum and a lifelong rocker. It isn't something you're likely to see me do since the full act is generally limited to when I'm going to sleep. Since I was a baby, I've rocked myself to sleep and I continue that behavior 40-something years later. It is also almost certain to happen if I manage to find a chair that rocks in some way. The alternate, lesser form of this (that often goes unnoticed because the neurotypical folks do similar moves) is shaking or sort of undulating a foot.

But why? It is such an innate thing for me and always has been and yet, I never really put any thought as to why I do it. Is it a stress-reliever? Sort of, but not entirely. Is it a way of blocking out the outside world? It can be, but not most of the time. I really tried to think about it for once and nail down the reasoning, but I found it makes more sense to explain what it feels like.

Rocking is just like breathing. It's that semi-voluntary movement that will happen whether you consciously control it or not. I don't always know when I'm doing it, but I always know when it stops. If I'm forced to stop, an internal tension will build up in me so fast that I feel like I'll have a panic attack. Just like being smothered.

There is a silent metronome inside my head, actually my entire body, that ticks away 24 hours a day. I don't hear it. I feel it. And I'm compelled to move with it in a way that brings order to my world. It's not my heartbeat or my breathing. It's not the song that's playing on repeat in my head all day. It's not the pace that I'm walking. Those things have their own separate and unrelated rhythm, though they will sometimes align for a little while if the beat is already very close. The speed of the metronome will change throughout the day as well, but there is no identifiable pattern. It doesn't get faster with excitement or slower with boredom. It just changes for no reason. Most of the time, I would describe it as a brisk walk or a little faster.

What will change with my mood or stress level is the intensity of the rocking. If I'm stressed out, the rock will be harder and each move a bit further. But the speed of the beat is unaffected. This can sometimes block out some external stress, but if I go too far, it can actually make things worse. It's a fine line.

The one and only scenario where the metronome stops entirely is extreme anger. Rage. I think most people experience these emotions very physically, even violently. For me, it is the only time I feel complete stillness. It's as though I've stopped breathing, and at times, I've found that I have. To be abandoned by my internal clock is a feeling I can barely handle. It's paralyzing. Thankfully, it's also rare.

Back in my happy place, there is another element to this feeling that is harder to describe. The movement has its own unique energy. I can't make it or make it go away, but I can very easily redirect it. The best example being when I shake my foot. I'm simply transferring the movement from my torso to my ankle. It's barely a conscious decision, but a necessary thing for practical modern life (and not getting awkward stares). The same kind of thing happens with my muscle jerks (or tics), which I have every day. I will feel the energy build up to what feels like a semi-voluntary movement, but I can sometimes change where the tic happens with a little concentration. Can't explain it. Just happens. All of this does seem a bit metaphysical. I think it sounds ridiculous too, and I've been feeling it for as long as I can remember. Too bad I can't channel that energy into laser beams or something. Because that would be awesome. 

I may have drifted off the subject.

Anyway, there. That's why I do it. It probably isn't any less mysterious and probably sounds even weirder than it looks, but that's what I got out of my little moment of introspection. That's why I like to rock like an autistic kid.


Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Hong Kong Disneyland: Tiny, Cute, and a Little Weird

Andy, Steve, Kristin, and I on the Subtlety Train.
While on an unrelated work assignment in Macau, China, my coworkers and I decided to take a side trip to Hong Kong Disneyland. It was a fun and amazing day despite being book-ended by 2 hours of travel each way and enjoyed through the filter of the most brutally hot and humid weather I've ever experienced. 

But it was super fun!

But seriously, it was crazy hot. I'm not even playing. Crazy hot. For reals. Ridiculous.

This incarnation of Disneyland will be very familiar to anyone
What's that green thing behind the castle?
who knows the U.S. parks and yet, it is different in odd and unique ways. As my friend Andy (who joined us for the day) so perfectly said, "it's like an alternate reality Disneyland". Everything is smaller. Noticeably, significantly smaller, and yet scaled in such a way that it appears on the surface to be Disneyland in California. 

Main Street USA
We don't need no stinkin' Partners Statue.
The entrance, Main Street, hub, and castle are laid out exactly like the original Disneyland but scaled down just enough that it feels like a tour of a movie set of Disneyland. The effect if further exaggerated by the fact that the paths in the park seem much wider than usual (which is actually nice). It would be easy to look at photos and think they were taken in California, except for a few oddities sprinkled in. There is a large, forest covered hill behind the castle, the castle actually sits slightly lower than Main Street (making it almost appear to be sinking), and there is an empty grass patch where the partners statue would normally be. It felt like a sci-fi movie, in which we were abducted by aliens and placed in a simulation where they got some of the details wrong. Or maybe I'm a nerd.

Once you step outside of Main Street and the hub, you enter a fantastic sampler of Disney attractions, lands, and show elements from all of the other parks all over the world. Let me explain with a tour of the park, by lands and attractions.

Mystic Point

This, people. This.
Despite the fact that everything there was new to us, we basically rushed right to the newest new thing, Mystic Manor. The Manor is located in its own "mini land" (which is funny because all of the lands are mini) along with a restaurant and a small garden with 3 optical illusion sculptures. Because ghosts are not fun in Chinese culture, the Manor here is all about magical items. As a result, the Manor and Mystic Point have an aesthetic that is very reminiscent of the Adventurers Club (formerly of Pleasure Island in Orlando), but less cluttered.

Mystic Manor

I want to live in this.
The attraction inside the Manor is a trackless dark ride through a mansion filled with artifacts collected from various cultures around the world. At the very beginning, we are introduced to the collector and his always curious monkey companion, Albert. We also learn about the latest acquisition, a Balinese music box that is said to bring other inanimate objects to life. As you may have guessed, the monkey opens the box and crazy special effects ensue. You can see a video ride through HERE. The clever thing about this ride is that there are 4 vehicles dispatched at once that all get slightly different versions of the experience. We were able to ride in vehicle 1 and 2 during our stay.
Naughty monkey.

I absolutely loved the art direction, characters, music, and special effects in this attraction. The animatronics were fantastic and the effects were impressive, especially the use of lasers and video projection mapping. I was surprised however, by the pacing of the ride. It felt slow at times and there were odd pauses in action. My educated guess is that the desired pace of the attraction (fast and energetic) was being dampened by limitations in the ride system. The trackless vehicles felt sluggish on acceleration and rotation and the vehicle seemed to have a low top speed. The pauses appeared to be caused by vehicles waiting for other vehicles to clear a path. It is unclear if these limitations were self-imposed or a condition of the available technology.

In the end, it was a great show, a great story, and Albert is adorable.

Grizzly Gulch

The heat is on.
HK Disneyland opened without a Frontierland, but during the recent expansion, a "mini land" version of it was added in the form of Grizzly Gulch. Imagine if all of Frontierland had the same cartoon western feel as Big Thunder Mountain and you'll know what Grizzly Gulch was like. This land actually had quite a few small town structures and a lot of geyser-related rockwork. Because the area was pretty desolate and unshaded, there were plenty of water play elements to keep us cool. A little water doesn't hurt when you're already boiling in your own sweat.

Big Grizzly Mountain Runaway Mine Cars

Straight outta DCA.
On the surface, this new roller coaster would seem like a version of Big Thunder Mountain, but it actually has almost nothing in common with it. In fact, it feels like a low profile version of Expedition Everest from Animal Kingdom mixed with the rockwork from the Grizzly River Run at California Adventure. The coaster is basically 3 different ride experiences of escalating thrills, each representing a story beat in a very
simple story. In the first segment, a moderate thrills gravity coaster with a traditional lift hill, we are introduced to the family of bears living in and around the mine we are travelling through. In the second, we are traveling up another lift hill only to have a rope break send us careening backwards through the mine. In the last section, we find ourselves in a cave full of explosives where a Momma and Baby bear are attempting to steal fish from the miners. In the process, they set off the explosives and blast us out of the cave (via magnetic launch) on a high speed journey around the mountain. When we finally stop, we see that a slightly charred Momma and Baby survived and got their fish. This ride was adorable, simple, fun, and the overall favorite with our group.

Toy Story Land

"Reft, right, reft." I know, I'm awful.
Although I've never been to the Walt Disney Studios Park in Paris, this 3rd and final "mini land" from the recent expansion looks almost exactly the same. For me, it looked like a re-skinned version of A Bug's Land from California Adventure with some Disney Hollywood Studios in Orlando thrown in. The elements here were a handful of cleverly-themed, medium-sized flat rides. The land looked popular, but we barely slowed down as we walked through it. We were not the target audience.

The Green Army Men performers (same as DCA and DHS) did catch my attention though. It is culturally insensitive to say this, but hearing Sarge yell out "left, left, right, left" in a thick Chinese accent is pretty hysterical.

Moving on...


This land was a mind game. You know that crazy dream you had where you went to Disneyland and all the rides were all mixed up together? Been there. Like for real.

Though it started with the classic tribal gate that you see in California, most of this land looks and feels like Animal Kingdom in Orlando. And there are a lot of interesting blends of elements happening here too. As I said, there is no Frontierland so the closest thing to the Rivers of America is in Adventureland. There is also no New Orleans Square or Liberty Square so no steamboat or sailing ship either. Instead of Tom Sawyer Island, the island is home to Tarzan's Treehouse (which we didn't have time to see) and is accessible only by rafts. Now here's where it gets super weird...

Jungle Cruise
What is going on here?
The dock for the Jungle Cruise is on the "Rivers of America" surrounding Tarzan's island. Imagine sailing around Rivers of America in Disneyland in a Jungle Cruise boat. It's seriously weird. We had to pause in the middle of the water and wait for the rafts to the island to cross our paths. As the JC boats pass around the back side of the island, the river narrows and becomes a more traditional Jungle Cruise river (though significantly more naturalistic and less trough-like). The boats are still on a guide track (which is capable of some very sharp turns), but being out in
Welcome to the jungle.
open water like that makes it feel like you're really at the mercy of your guide / driver. Speaking of guides, because of the region, the tours take place in 3 different languages (English, Cantonese, and Mandarin). There is a different queue for each language, but they run the load in such a way that the wait time is equal between them. It's a clever system that makes for a pretty big queue building. Our guide had pretty good English, but something gets lost in the translation. 
Instead of the dryly-delivered corniness, the script sounds much closer to "there is an elephant bathing, isn't it funny?". But it doesn't matter because this version of the Cruise amps up the scenery and animal realism and introduces a bit of action. Near the end, the boat makes a sudden and nearly 90 degree turn to dodge a fairly massive geyser that erupts in the water. And the finale is small fire and water show that tried to kill us. It's already 241 degrees outside, but the show still manages to end with a brutal steam burst that cooked us alive for an excruciatingly long time. Cool! Again, again!

Festival of the Lion King
Can you feel the AC tongiht?
Adding to the feeling of being in Animal Kingdom is the Festival of the Lion King that is (sort of) lifted from it. This show was really good and another group favorite, but it had a lot of changes and improvements over the Florida version. These elements may have been introduced into the original show's new home in AK. I haven't seen it since it moved. The HK version needs to work for at least 3 languages, so the original format with its audience participation just won't work. They dealt with this by taking all of the original show elements (except for the Tumble Monkeys, who were deleted entirely) and rewriting the show.
Dance battle.
There are also some technology upgrades including stage lifts, turntables, and all new floats that could drive around the entire stage and rotate individually. The 4 main singers are still the core of the show and have their same solos but they aren't tied to audience sections and animals anymore. To make it easier to understand, they simplified the overall story and added a pair of Translator Monkeys. If I am remembering right, it sounds like they may have rerecorded some, if not all of the score. It has been a long time, so I can't be sure. Anyway, the show is high energy and great fun. 

And air conditioned.

The future that never was...
Oh my lord, this land is tiny. It should be called Tomorrowcourtyard. However, the fact that it is so small that you see all of it at once also makes it far more visually cohesive than the U.S. versions. The theming all ties together quite nicely with Disneyland's Dark Crystal-ish Astro Orbiter in the middle and swooping architecture accented with little planets around the perimeter. It was also very well isolated from the rest of the park, which helps with the theme. There are 2 big and familiar attractions here, as well as a Stitch-based version of Turtle Talk (which we didn't get to). An Iron Man attraction was under construction in this area too, but there wasn't much to see of it yet.

Buzz Lightyear's Astro Blasters

This is nothing unusual, but always fun and like its previous incarnations, it has its own slightly unique track plan and scenery. Despite being a new layout to us, Andy still managed to murder me at it.

Space Mountain
The force is strong with this one.
This is exactly the same roller coaster as the current version in California. It even has the same soundtrack, minus the English countdown. Though always a fun coaster, this was sadly the only place in the entire park where I felt like the budget was clearly cut. The queue was mostly outdoors and the tiny bit inside was barely themed at all. The load station was pretty cool, with interesting internally lit planets and a big telescope-like thing, which I (of course) immediately dubbed the Space Penis. And suddenly, I realized that the Space Penis was recycled. It is (was) the central telescope-like prop in DisneyQuest (or it was built from the same plans). I was pretty proud of my fairly obscure catch on that one.

The DisneyQuest telescope. Look familiar?
The ride itself was strange. The first scene was a series of poorly lit, strobing blacklight-ish Asian-ish space gates followed by a lift hill surrounded not by a cool projection tunnel but a microwave oven-like metal box housing a handful of American DJ fixtures. The gravity section was mostly empty save for a few blacklight asteroids, but the ambient light level was so high that you could see everything. EVERYTHING. It felt like something was wrong. Hell, something was wrong. You could see everything. Thankfully, the finale tunnel was exactly like California. Also, air conditioning.

We rode it twice.


Spin cycle.
This land was great. Similar to Main Street, it was a miniaturized version of the original with roughly the same layout. The Carousel, Dumbo, and the Orlando version of Tea Cups were all present and charming. The Pooh ride was a duplicate of Florida but with the added fun of an all Chinese language dramatic catfight in the queue between 2 ladies and the ride's staff. What's happening!? Also present was Mickey's Philharmagic, but we ran out of time for it as well.

it's a small world
it's a tiny, tiny world
The big ticket item was Small World and it was really great. The outside was a copy of California but the load was inside, similar to Florida. In this version, the ride was slightly reorganized, much newer looking and more vibrant than the existing incarnations, and sporting what seemed to be a new mix of the soundtrack. Like California's version, this one featured Disney characters in their home countries. The divisions between regions was far clearer and better labeled than other versions and some elements were relocated to more appropriate divisions. I can't think of any good examples now, but it seemed obvious at the time. 

A wonderful world of color
By the time we did Small World, it was dark and close to closing time. And it was freezing inside that building, which was perfect because we emerged from the exit into the outer bands of an approaching typhoon. At least it washed the 9 hours of sweat out of our clothes. At any rate, it was time for us to begin our 2 hour, 3 train, 1 ferry, and 1 taxi journey home. So we said goodbye to the tiny kingdom.

I hope you enjoyed your journey with us. Please gather all your personal belongings and step out the same way you got in because we didn't have enough room to put an exit on the other side. Thanks.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Aspergers

I recently had a brief encounter with a young kid who has Aspergers Syndrome. As an adult with AS, I found myself reflecting on all the awkward and frustrating life lessons that would certainly occur for him between his current age and reaching mine. I'm pretty sure he doesn't see it coming any more than I did. Wouldn't an instruction book or an Intro Class be handy? I really wish that as a child, teenager, and even as an adult, someone who knew what it was like could've given me a heads up. 

That is what I'm doing today. Here is my advice, expectations, and tips 'n tricks for that kid (any "that kid", really) with Aspergers. This is just my experience. Maybe it only applies to me. Maybe it applies to you or someone you know too.

1. Make eye contact. 
It is not a natural thing for some of us to do, and can be a very natural thing for some of us to avoid. But I've found that it is essential for success in some circles. No matter how uncomfortable, look into the eyes of people you are talking to, especially if they have some kind of authority or seniority over you. Even more importantly (and significantly more difficult), make eye contact when they are talking to you. This makes a huge difference to neurotypical (NT) people. What is merely a comforting act for us, can be interpreted as "being ignored" or "distraction" by them. I spent a lot of extra effort forcing myself to do this early in my career and I noticed an immediate difference in the way people spoke to me. It was very difficult, but all these years later, it is mostly a habit to do so. I still don't like it, but it's mostly effortless these days. Now I just have to find the other end of the scale and avoid awkward staring...

2. Not everyone will understand. 
Like depression, AS can easily fall under the heading of an "invisible illness" (though I don't consider it an illness). The way we think, the things we struggle with, and even the emotions we feel are basically hidden from everyone around us. Most of it is not obvious or can easily be written off as eccentric behavior. It would actually be simpler if this condition came with blue skin or pointy ears. Basically any physical, genetic trait that tells people, "this is real". But that isn't the case. This world is filled with people who just won't understand. When I try to describe what it is like, even I think it sounds weird and I've never really been able to accurately do so because I have no frame of reference for what it is like to be NT (aside from a few decades of observation). That is the problem for the NT folks too. They have no frame of reference for having a mind that functions differently. And if they don't understand, it's okay. They don't have to. There is another reaction that you are going to experience beyond not understanding too. Some people will simply not believe you at all. You're making it up. You're exaggerating. You're being a hypochondriac. Let me tell you that no matter the temptation, do not try to make them believe. They don't need to and you don't need them to. This is your life and it does not require justification or validation. Yes, it is frustrating having a big part of your life written off as fantasy, but to fight it will only make it more frustrating.

3. There is little comfort to be found in other people with AS. 
When you are part of a unique group or a minority, it is natural to want to seek out other people of your kind. I have done this on a couple of occasions. I went to two different Adults with Aspergers Social / Support Groups a few years apart and in different cities. Truth is, it wasn't comforting at all. It was a little frustrating, in fact. The problem is that we are very sensitive to all sorts of stimuli and easily lose interest in things that aren't part of a personal fixation. We also tend to have a lot of noisy and fidgety behaviors. Put simply, we all do the things that annoy each other most. Imagine tying a bunch of noisy and stubborn mules together and hoping they'll all move in the same direction. It just doesn't work out smoothly. I'm not saying you should avoid other Spectrum folk. Just be prepared for the possibility that it may not meet your hopes and expectations. And when it comes to romantic relationships, the idea that people with AS should only be with other people with AS is not realistic. My spouse is a very patient NT. If he were as quirky as me, we probably wouldn't have lasted very long. Maybe you'll have a different experience.

4. Do what you need, not what people think you need. 
Throughout school, my teachers were always on my case for not taking notes. They assumed it meant I wasn't paying attention. Taking notes has always been an issue for me because of the way my memory works. I remember the source of learning better than the documentation of it. In other words, if I take notes, my memory is of the act of writing the information down instead of what the teacher said and meant. I then end up with a bunch of notes that have no context or meaning for me later. I learn best by simply listening or watching. What I eventually learned is that I needed to ignore other people's expectations of me and do things my own way in order to succeed. Eventually, that success will prove out your personal methods to those that matter. In the end, results will please people better than people-pleasing will. Do it your way when you can.

5. Earplugs, sunglasses, and tagless t-shirts are your friends. 
This is probably the first thing you'll work out on your own. There are a lot of tools out there to help turn the world of stimulation down a few notches. I always tear the tags out of t-shirts because they itch so badly. I rarely tuck my shirt in because the wrinkles are distracting. I wear sunglasses when I drive (even when it isn't sunny) because it improves my concentration. I wear earplugs to sleep because it eliminates the sounds that grab my attention. On that topic, I found that playing music or the TV to fall asleep actually kept me awake a lot longer. I also have some noise reduction earplugs that I've worn in noisy restaurants (Buffalo Wild Wings can be a nightmare for me) to help me concentrate on the conversation at my own table. Find tools that make you more comfortable and use them as much as you need.

6. Every interaction must have an opposite and equal reaction. 
Read the book Games People Play. I read this in a college Sociology class and it changed the way I see the world. It is basically an instruction book for human interactions and the ideas are so beautifully simple. Everything that another person says or does to you must be responded to with an equal action. If they say hello, you must say hello back. If they smile, you smile. If they ask you a question about your life, you must respond with interest in theirs. Basically, one person starts the exchange and it continues in equal measure until the other person speaks or acts last. Following this simple equation will go a long way toward ending awkward encounters and causing confusion. I still do this basic conversational math in my head when talking to strangers to this day.

7. Impersonation and acting.
This is really two tricks. The first is best explained by example. I used to have a job that required me to talk to strangers on the phone, and to this day, that is still one of the highest anxiety triggers I have. I was actually having a very hard time at that job because of this issue until I noticed something one day. I overheard the guy in the office next to me. He said the exact same phrases over and over when talking on the phone and he sounded so comfortable with it. The next time I had to make a call, I said his phrases and impersonated his tone. And it worked like a miracle. There were no awkward pauses or confusion on the call for the first time. My point is that if something is hard to wrap your mind around, just watch carefully what other people do and impersonate it. Don't do their accents though. That just makes it weirder.

The second trick here is acting. I did a lot of performance in my youth and discovered a secret. When I'm acting, none of the rules that govern my brain apply. AS people are ruled by rules and it can be hard to break them. It's also very hard to lie, even when it is best to do so ("does this dress make me look fat?"). The reason that acting got around this for me is that the character isn't me. I can do whatever I need to because the character can. They are not bound by my anxieties and insecurities either. Acting gives me super-confidence. I can speak to a huge crowd of strangers better than a small group of friends this way. These days, I use that concept in business a lot. There is a character version of myself that I play when I need to that is not held back by my social issues. It is my favorite life cheat.

8. Sit at the center of the table. 
This is a trick that I've only started employing in the last few years. At business meetings and social situations like dinners, I always try to sit in the center of a long side of the table. The social anxiety that comes with AS makes this seem counter-intuitive, but it actually makes things a lot better. Sitting at the end makes it far too easy to disconnect socially, but the main reason I avoid it is for hearing. One of my biggest autistic struggles is filtering out noise and concentrating on a single voice. At the end of the table, my attention is easily grabbed by the conversations all over the restaurant equally. By sitting more centered, it guarantees that most of the time that people are speaking, they will be facing in my general direction. This makes it easier to focus on the right voice because it makes it slightly louder than everyone else in the room. I find that I am naturally more of a participant just by doing this simple thing.

9. Learn meditation.
My particular AS recipe comes with the symptoms of muscle tics and the over-stimulation-triggered "rain man" meltdown, that in my case, looks a lot like a kind of seizure. As a teenager, I would have these episodes 2 to 5 times a day, sometimes lasting for hours each time. These days, it happens a couple of times a month at worst and rarely lasts very long. Meditation gave me the ability to control it to this level. I was taught biofeedback (basically an extra scientific version of meditation) as part of my early treatments and it allowed me to calm and redirect stress as needed to keep the episodes at bay. If you have any sort of physical stress reactions, this is an important tool to learn (in any form).

10. Observation is your super power. So is pissing people off.
You don't see things the way other people do. You will also notice things that other people won't. The finer details and discrepancies are obvious to you. This can make you really good at all sorts of jobs. Use this super power, but use it wisely. You can quickly become known among your peers as a detail-oriented person who is great with error-checking and quality control. You can also quickly become that guy who points out what everyone else is doing wrong. That's not what you want to be. I can't tell you how to find that balance, but you must find it. And it is different for each group when dealing with peers, subordinates, or supervisors. Don't hold back the things you see, but always point them out with kindness. You'll figure it out.

That's all I've got. If this helps you or someone you know, that makes me very happy. If it doesn't, well maybe it just gave you a little insight into how I tick. Feel free to pass it on and let me know if you have any tips or advice I should know. After all, I'm still figuring this all out too.


Saturday, December 21, 2013

Great Moments from 2013 - A Positivity Experiment

By coincidence, I just posted about my favorite Disney-related events in 2012 and 2013.  But this is my official entry in the Positivity Experiment.  Top Ten Great Moments from 2013:

1.  I will celebrate my 17th Anniversary with Danny in 3 days!

2.  I celebrated my 2nd Anniversary at Thinkwell, where I've been happily helping design theme parks, and ended my nearly 6 years with Cirque du Soleil on a positive note.

3.  I got to visit Disneyland and Universal Studios more than any previous year.

4.  I got to meet Tony Baxter, Bob Gurr, eat in Club 33, and visit the Disney and Henson Studios for the first time.

5.  I met a lot of great people this year and, in the process, made a bunch of great new friends.

6. My first trip to Canada, 2 trips back to visit Orlando, and 3 trips back to Las Vegas.

7.  I made my first visits to Magic Mountain, a Ren Fair, San Diego Wild Animal Park, El Capitan Theater, Chinese Theater, Egyptian Theater, The Price is Right, Bob Baker Marionette Theater, Cinerama Dome, and the Pantages Theater.

8.  Health-wise, I lost 35 pounds (only gaining back 10 so far) and got to the point where I could do over 200 push-ups.  I also did my first hike and yoga this year.

9.  Was asked to be in a porn film.  Said no, but it was an honor to be nominated.

10.  Some very cool personal achievements have occurred at work, but I can't quite talk about them just yet.  Soon!

My Geeky Disney Year

I've been one of those hardcore "foamer" Disney nerd / fan since I was 10 years old (when I decided I wanted to grow up to be an Imagineer).  I honestly thought that the biggest highlight of my life would be working for Walt Disney World and WDI (from 98 - 07).  Seriously, few experiences can beat wandering around in the Haunted Mansion in the middle of the night.  However, 2013 (and parts of 2012) hosted a series of increasingly awesome Disney-related experiences, making it pretty much the geekiest of Disney years ever.  And I want to talk about it... like an excited 10 year old.  

Let me explain.  Better yet, let me recap:

- The first event really pushes the definition of year since it happened way back in May 2012... but it was amazing.  Thanks to a connected friend, I got the opportunity to visit Disney Legend, Bob Gurr, AT HIS HOUSE!  We hung out in his backyard on the side of the Tujunga hills listening to coyote packs and watching the sunset while drinking handmade Gurr-tinis and listening to Bob tell stories about working with Walt and building Disneyland.  This is the man that invented things like the Autopia cars, omnimovers, and the freakin' monorail.  He has a retired Toad car in his living room.  This was an awesome start to a string of geeky Disney events.

- In October 2012, I attended the Tron 30th Anniversary screening at the Chinese Theater (my first visit to the theater despite working next door for over a year).  This movie was a huge influence on me as a kid and seeing it again, restored and on a gigantic screen was a great way to revisit it.  This event included Q & A with the Director, Stars, and other key creators as well as an after party featuring some great artifacts and lots of lasers!  PHOTOS

- On several occasions in 2012, a good friend took Danny and I to Disneyland on his employee pass, and then in December, my parents bought us annual passes.  Between the two, we visited at least 20 times (which is a lot for us).  This gave me the opportunity not only to see all the latest goodies (like Cars Land) but also experience all the classic attractions I'd never seen before (like Lincoln, Storybookland, etc).  TONS OF PHOTOS  AND MORE

- In January, I kicked off my Disney geeky 2013 with a trip to the Henson Studios for work.  While not entirely Disney, I do closely associate the two and think it counts.  One of the biggest highlights was seeing an actual Skeksis puppet from the movie, The Dark Crystal (another huge influence from childhood).

- Throughout February and March, I created artwork, models and concept designs for a friend's finalist submission to Walt Disney Imagineering Research and Development's Living World's competition.  The entry was a time-traveling ARG puzzle game played in Downtown L.A., using augmented reality, elaborate sets and special fx, ride systems, and live stunt performers.  Although my involvement was indirect, it let me feel like an Imagineer again for a few weeks.  PHOTOS OF MY CONTRIBUTIONS

- June was my first visit to the El Capitan Theater in Hollywood to see Monsters University.  Though the experience was not the best due to terrible crowd management, it was great to see this historic theater (and the movie).

- This year was my first trip to D23 in August.  It included a presentation by Tony Baxter, recreating (via video) the Journey Into Imagination ride and the announcement of his window on Main Street at Disneyland.  This event also included my first Disney augmented reality game, The Optimist, which took me into the Fire Station, Main Street Cinema, and the Lilly Belle car of the Disneyland Railroad for the first times.  D23 PHOTOS  OPTIMIST PHOTOS

- In September, Tony Baxter came to visit my workplace.  I have few heroes, but this man would be one.  He did an hour-long presentation for us about his personal history and projects.  Nearly every attraction that inspired my love of the theme park industry is on his resume.  I got to speak with him after the fact and he even offered to help out with my Journey Back Into Imagination project.  PHOTOS

- Also in September, I finally got in to Club 33, thanks to my Cousins.  The inside is fairly small and while fancy, it's not really that unusual.  But the history and exclusivity of it give it an awesome vibe.  And the staff is happy to point out all the hidden gems inside, including the abandoned hidden microphones and one remaining animatronic that was intended to be interactive decades before it became a reality in the form of Turtle Talk with Crush.  The food in here was actually pretty amazing.  I have no idea what most of what I ate even was, but everything tasted great.  PHOTOS

- I've been to the IAAPA conventions before, but it has been a few years.  This time, I went as a member of a company that was escorting clients and helping them shop for the parts of their theme parks and attractions.  And my company, Thinkwell Group, was a sponsor of the event.  It was an exhausting and awesome week in theme park central that included multiple business trips to the Magic Kingdom and Epcot, where I got to see many attractions that I hadn't visited before.   PHOTOS

- And finally, we most recently went to see Saving Mr Banks at a special screening on the Disney Studios lot in December.  They open up to the public pretty infrequently and I had never been there before.  We watched the movie in a theater that is actually in the movie.  In fact, we were watching a movie about the making of another movie in the place where both movies were made!  Following that, we got to tour parts of the lot and see both real and imaginary artifacts (props for the movie) as well as real locations around the lot where the movie was made.  PHOTOS

I know a lot of this may seem silly or obsessive to many folks, but Disney has and always will be embedded deep in my DNA.  And the last year or so has been like one big Christmas present to that 10 year old in me that still gets excited about this stuff.  And I'd really like to thank the friends and family that made all of this happen.  Thanks Danny, Dad, Mom, Christi, Neil, Dave, Devin, Jonathan, Jon, Craig, Chris, Shauna, Keena, Erik, Kate, Bob, Tony, and Walt.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Mawwiage is what bwings us togewer today.

I've mostly been away from friends, family and coworkers at a training session for the past 2 days so I've been a bit isolated from the excitement of the good news about marriage equality.  I've been trying to read everyone's posts about it on breaks, but haven't really been able to talk about it with anyone yet.

Honestly, I hadn't really stopped to think about it much until now.  Let me start by saying that I am 101% happy about this giant step (leap) and it really does make me feel more like a legitimate citizen of this country.  And that's a big deal because I never really have before.  And I also recognize that most of "my people" still don't have it.

That's the thing.  I grew up in Texas where I lived a mostly closeted (and frequently scared) existence, outside of immediate friends and family.  I've worked as a Show Tech for most of the time since then and, though it is better, it still really isn't a very gay-friendly environment overall.  But now I work for a Creative Company and live in L.A.  I'm still getting used to the idea that it's OK to be me.  I'm totally out and happy, but I still find that I have to convince myself of that sometimes.  The decades of programming isn't always easy to overcome.  I've always been a 2nd class citizen and marriage has always been a thing that I'm not allowed to have, let alone think about.

But now I CAN think about it, and it feels so weird.  Like severely weird.  Like I've been blind my whole life and now I can see.  I don't even know what to do with this new ability.  I'm serious.  This is something I thought I'd NEVER see happen in my lifetime even with all the advancements in recent years.  I should be overjoyed (and I am), but I'm also scared to death.  "Congratulations, you can fly now.  Watch out for planes."

I guess the strange reaction is due to the fact that I think I have a responsibility somehow.  Am I supposed to race to the courthouse?  Do I get down on one knee or will that happen to me?  Do I have to do cake tastings and pick out invitations and stuff?  Oh lord, I'm going to need a gay marriage sherpa!  

Danny and I have been together for 16 years and we've called ourselves married and had rings (until I lost mine) and we call each other "husband".  We're already married in our hearts and minds and have been for a really long time.  Would we be doing it just for the benefits?  Is that even OK or does it somehow reduce the importance of the whole thing?  Am I not taking this serious enough?  Or too much?

I think that is what I'm most angry about when it comes to equality.  It's not that the "other side" says bad things about me or tries to keep me oppressed.  It's that in all this time, they've somehow subtly trained me to doubt my own value.  To doubt my own sense of what I deserve as a human being.  To doubt my own equality.

I think I need to do something about that.  I need to be the citizen that I'm slowly becoming.  I need to exercise my rights.  I think this will be the last time I think about this at all.  I'm just going to do it, because I can, I deserve it, and most importantly, I want it.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Me and the Lion Sleep Tonight

This last Friday evening through Saturday afternoon, Danny and I got the opportunity to try out the San Diego Zoo Safari Park's Roar and Snore Experience.  It was organized through work so we were there with a lot of my co-workers but also had a chance to meet some great new friends.  I'm glad we got to go and it was definitely a unique experience.

I've never been camping, but I want to say this only partly counts.  If you go to the website, you'll see a premium tent with hard wood floors, furniture, and electricity.  Danny and I were in a "Classic" tent, which has no power, a vinyl-covered dirt floor, and 4 sleeping pads.  It was very cold (for me), but the sleeping bags we brought were very warm.  Snails found their way inside every so often, but there were few bugs and it proved to be very rain proof.  It was fun and probably about as much of "roughing it" as I'm really interested in.  But the sleeping part is a very tiny part of the experience and not the reason you should go.  And you should go if you have the means.

We arrived before 5pm and were brought to a little outdoor waiting area while our luggage was taken to our tents for us.  In that waiting area, we were given a little critter encounter.  We walked up just as the sugar glider presentation was ending, but we did get to pet and see Peanut the 3-Banded Armadillo.  It was a cute way to make the wait for everyone else's arrival interesting.

At 5pm, the park closed for the day and the 60 of us (including a few other people not from my work) were divided into our 5 tour groups (by tent clusters mainly) and taken to the camp at the back of the park.  My group was called Snakes (though it somehow turned into Slytherin later in the night).  We looked at a couple of enclosures on the way and then dropped into a back area for most of the walk.  This is when we became aware of exactly how much walking would be happening... up and down steep hills in many places.  This is not an ADA-friendly experience by any stretch of the imagination and can be challenging for people who have difficulty with a lot of walking.

The camp itself consists of hillside tents, a large picnic buffet area, a fire pit area, a restroom and shower building, and a first aid building - all overlooking a valley below that was populated with giraffe, rhino, water buffalo, and antelope the entire time we were there.  That area is also part of the Africa Safari Tram tour that takes place during the day.  

First up, was dinner!  It was an outdoor buffet of hot dogs and hamburgers that included a spectacularly over-priced cash bar (where I got a $4 can of 50 cent soda... only once).  The food and some drinks like tea, coffee, and hot chocolate were included.  During dinner, all of the tour groups were mixed in this one big area.

We finished eating and had some time to explore our tents and the safari overlook before the main event of the evening - the night walking tour.  Broken back into the smaller groups, we walked through the park with a guide for a little over 2 hours and saw animals by flashlight.  It was a very weird feeling for me.  If you've ever had the opportunity to be in a major theme park after closing, it's a magical feeling of suspended time.  If you ever have the chance, do it.  It's so strange and peaceful to see a place that is normally crowded and bustling be so quiet and dark.  This tour was similar except that I had a constant awareness that I was surrounded by unseen critters, watching us from the dark that surrounded our lit walking paths.  There was rustling and strange noises, the occasional reflection from a pair of eyes in a flashlight, and frequent appearances by the hundreds of wild hares that rule the place by night.  It sounds creepy but it was actually very magical and adventurous for me.

On the tour, we had only one chance to sit (for my group it was the first stop) to see and pet Rakesh the python in a darkened outdoor theater.  We also got to visit the elephants, several large African birds, a trio of sleeping lions (that were piled against the glass), and some antelope that were the size of Clydesdale horses.  Pictures were not practical for most of this tour, but the views are actually really good.  Searching by flashlight actually gives it a sense of exploration and discovery.


After the tour, all of the groups returned to camp for smores and popcorn around the fire pit.  Sticking with tradition, I burned a marshmallow.  After some socializing and snacking, an optional second tour begin that walked along the tram tour path.  Danny and I skipped that one due to exhaustion, but I heard it was cool and I know they went close to the giraffe.  I think the normally 20 minute walk got cut a little short for rain though.  Following that tour, it was more fire pit socializing until the bar and fire pit closed at 11:30p.  That's when it was time to sleep in the tents.

The first human wake up call started on a megaphone at 6:15a.  However, we were already up because of the 5a lion roars wake up call.  It's very strange and cool waking up to the sounds of actual lions.  Izu (who makes up part of the lion pile in the picture above) has an amazing set of lungs.  Stepping outside the tent, the first thing we saw was a mother rhino and her 200 pound baby!

Since the shower facilities are few and far away, we opted to wash our faces, brush our teeth, and maintain a safe distance from other humans for the rest of the day.  For breakfast, we had another buffet, but this time it was in a covered outdoor restaurant in the park.  Breakfast was followed by a meet n greet with an adorable Chinchilla in the same facility.

Next, we split into our groups again and went on a tour through the zoo to see more daytime friends, including gorillas, meerkats, smaller birds, and fruit bats.


At the end of that tour, we were all led to our cars to pick up and pack up our luggage.  However, thanks to a hand-stamp, we could re-enter the park and stay for the rest of the day.  Many did, but we only stayed long enough to do some snacks and shopping.  I'm glad we did though.  On the way out, we stumbled into a meet n greet with a fossa (the bad guys from the movie, Madagascar).  THEY ARE SO CUTE!  And hysterical to watch.  Like a weird combination of a cat, dog, and ferret, this mongoose relative is energetic and playful.  And they waited until after we watched him do a bunch of amazing tricks before they told us he was almost completely blind (he was a rescue).  For me, he was kind of the highlight of the trip.

So that was my first camping trip and visit to the Safari Park.  I had a really good time and can't wait to go back.  Danny and I are already talking about plans for that trip in the future.