Vegas – Buses and Sharks and A Darker Side

Mandalay Bay in Vegas. A long, confusing bus ride.
Mandalay Bay in Vegas. A long, confusing bus ride.

Saturday. Last day. We had to do what’s left quick-like. Fast and furious. Dolphins at Mirage, take local transit, see Luxor, Excalibur, and sharks at Mandalay Bay, eat at some point, take bus to Fremont Street, try not to get pick-pocketed, find way back to hotel, eat supper, see Bellagio fountains and find a legendary pianist at Venetian for The-Oldest to watch.

So, here’s fast and furious travel. In 2 parts.

Up at 6. Went for coffee. Nuts in Starbucks. The weekend had arrived. Fed family from Starbucks and supplies bought at gift shop. Everyone dressed, showered, shaved, as needed, and we were out of the door by 11. Took tram to Mirage. Went to see dolphins there.

Seeing dolphins cost $22 a person. Are you nuts? For that price, I would expect to swim with them and have a happy ending afterward. Had an attack of cheap. Couldn’t pay that money to see dolphins. Headed to the far end of the strip.

It should be so simple. Get a bus pass...
It should be so simple. Get a bus pass…

Decided to take bus. Lots to see today, so bus made sense.

Couldn’t buy bus-pass at bus stop. Had to buy on the bus.

Became that guy who holds up 20 people trying to get on the bus while having to sort out how to get a ticket, then get the money for that ticket. Had to have exact change. $32. Of course. Didn’t have exact change. No, no credit cards. No NY NY arcade tokens. No balls of Canadian lint.

Had to get Prettiest-Girl-in-the-World to empty her purse to find the money. Stole coins from the boyz. Debated asking riders for money. Finally found enough. Finally paid. Took about 4 minutes or in bus time, 10 years. Ignored evil stares from passengers. Driver totally chill though.

The best way to see Vegas. Seriously. It's $8 per person.
The best way to see Vegas. Seriously. It’s $8 per person.

Went up to top of the double-decker bus. Hunkered down. Made no eye contact. Pretended to check phone. Unpuckered sphincter.

Got front seats as soon as people got off at the next stop. Boyz happy. Like a tour. Decided not to stop at Excalibur. Or Luxor. I mean why, really? One’s a pyramid filled with slot machines and the other’s a castle filled with slot machines.

So with time restrictions and being a little Vegas’d out, we went on.

Mandalay Bay entrance.
Mandalay Bay entrance.

Mandalay bay. Never been. Nice entrance from the sidewalk, lots of water features. Open concept. Loved it. Huge, huge walkways through the casino. I mean you could actually walk four abreast and pass by other people walking 4 abreast. Yes, lots of breasts there.

The-Prettiest-Girl-in-the-World spotted a wall display of boobs and bums. Covered her boyz eyes with her hands. Deeply ashamed I did not spot that display. May have to surrender my guy-card when I get back.

The best big burger ever at Mandalay Bay, Vegas.
The best big burger ever at Mandalay Bay, Vegas.

Failed to find the food court. Ate HUGE hamburger at expensive restaurant. Super yummy, but $$$$. Oddly, they stewed four tomatoes in The-Prettiest-Girl-in-the-World’s salad. Who does that? Is that a fancy thing?

Youngest had a meltdown after learning he left his hat on the bus. I was more surprised this hadn’t happened earlier.

Went to see the shark reef exhibit. Saw a croc up close. Freaky eyes. Saw piranha. Learned they are lazy hunters. Wouldn’t eat me alive. Kinda disappointed. Next I’ll find out that Raptors liked to cuddle.

The-Youngest's wife to be. A chatty 8-9-year-old who knew as much about everthing as he did.
The-Youngest’s wife to be. A chatty 8-9-year-old who knew as much about everthing as he did.

The-Youngest wanted to touch a ray. Took half an hour before he touched one. Kinda scary, you know. He met a nice girl there. His age. They exchanged vital ray facts. She had no fear touching the rays. He eventually got up the nerve. Said they were really slimy.

We decided to choose the wives for our boys. More on that at a later date.

Sharks were cool. LOTS of sharks in the final tank. Both boyz uber excited about them.

I spent more time watching the turtle swimming around. Not the sleekest, not the meanest, not the sexiest, just kinda doing his own thing in a very dangerous world.

Like me.

I am a turtle.

Sharks! In the Shark Reef exhibit, Mandalay Bay
Sharks! In the Shark Reef exhibit, Mandalay Bay

Watched sharks glide over us from a glass tunnel. Watched sharks slide under us on a glass floor. Watched sharks slip around an old sunken-ship in the tank. Watched a school of Dora fish. Wondered how they survived in such a tank.

I suddenly wanted some fish and chips.

But no time. Left for the bus.

The-Youngest was thanked for holding the door. He liked being a doorman. Lots of people smiled at him. Many, but not all, thanked him. Many more took advantage of his skill and often family after family poured in like they expected a cute 9-year-old boy to hold the door for them. No looks.  No thanks.

I said we’d give him a cup and with his looks and great manners, he could afford a new house by the end of the week.

He said, no, but I think he loved the attention he got.

Feeling pretty tired after sharks. A week of running around gets to an old guy like me. Had a blister the size of a baby’s head on my little toe. Grossed out The-Prettiest-Girl-in-the-World. The youngest wanted to watch me pop it. Made walking a bit harder.

Off to Fremont Street on fast bus. Had to stand in the sun for bus. The-Prettiest-Girl-in-the-World not impressed with my earlier statement, hey, we won’t need sunscreen, we’ll either be in a bus or a hotel.

All of us got a bit of a burn.

20 cars like this all in a convoy. That's Vegas, baby
20 cars like this all in a convoy. That’s Vegas, baby

Fast bus zipped by a lot of stops. Hey, it’s the fast bus. It’s what they do. Saw a crazy convoy of cars painted the same. Like 20 cars. Took a picture.

Drove through a different part of Vegas. The dark underbelly, away from all the lights and glitter. The poorer part.

Saw lots of bail bondsmen. Saw a Coke machine with reinforced bars protecting it. Saw ruined buildings covered in graffiti. Saw fortified convenience stores. Didn’t take a picture.

Kept an eye on stops. Didn’t want to miss our stop and end up on a crack street.

Began to worry for the first time since we’d arrived in the US.

Had we made a mistake going to Fremont Street?

Traveling With Kids – San Diego – Balboa Museum of Nature

The Last Museum

IMG_3854 (600x800)The youngest said, as we drove to the airport, that museums were not that interesting because, you know, he kinda knew about everything that was in it.

I dunno if that was really true, but for the two boys, the museum of Nature was a completely different experience.

IMG_2292 (598x800)Both loved that when they walked in there was a dinosaur looming inside, looking like it was running from them. That drew them in. The wanted a closer look. Then they saw a big globe they could play with. That pulled them into the museum further. Then, out of no where, as they rounded a corner, a huge shark looked like it was leaping out of the water towards them.

And the museum had them hooked.

The youngest, after staring up in awe at the shark, ran off to play with things that could be played with. He moved continents. He made mountains rise out of the sea. He tore the Baja Peninsula from California. He plunged the globe in and out of darkness. Like a cruel and somewhat bored god.

The oldest inspected the displays, stopping at ones he knew a little about, talking to us about them, asking questions that we couldn’t possibly hope to answer. “So, if I could ride a shark and I could breathe underwater and I could control the shark with my mind, could I defeat Godzilla?”

Ok, he didn’t ask if he could defeat Godzilla, but he did want to ride that shark and control minds and had some tough questions to answer (unless you were a dinologist or whatever they’re called.)

For him, the museum fired up his imagination.

And isn’t that great?

I dunno if he actually learned any hard facts. But it got him thinking.

We moved from the dinosaurs upwards, checking out bones and peaking into the pirate exhibit that cost way too much to actually go into. It’s funny sometimes that I’ll spend thousands of dollars on a flight and hotel and balk at $30 a person to see pirates, but there it is.

IMG_3882 (800x450)The boys lost interest in paintings hung on the upper floors, but the youngest found a huge chalkboard where kids had written their profound thoughts and drawn smiley faces and stickmen. He grabbed an eraser and erased them all. To be fair, he likes to clean.

IMG_3881 (600x800)While he scrubbed chalk from the chalkboard, his brother examined tiny skulls. I could see his mind working. I could almost hear his imagination catching fire. Nothing like a skull the size of my pinkie fingernail to keep the attention of an 11 year old.

We saw more dinosaur exhibits, the youngest sifting through dirt to find bones,IMG_3897 the Prettiest-girl-in-the-world joking that it was nice for the dinosaurs to have colored bones so we knew what went where. The oldest gave her that look that I usually get.

But with time running out, we still had one last thing to do – See an IMAX film on dinosaurs. In hindsight, we chose poorly. We should have seen the show on sharks but both boys said they knew everything about sharks, and said it in that “duh, hello, bored,” tone. So, yeah, dinosaurs it was.

The graphics were good, the story kinda neat, but I think the boys were done for the day. A week of touring had finally caught up with them. They looked like they would fall asleep.

IMG_3875The museum wasn’t a complete disaster,IMG_3889 (600x800) don’t get me wrong. The oldest’s mind was expanded just a little bit that day, and the youngest got to touch, poke, rattle a ton of displays. They both got to climb on an elephant and the oldest found the red-eyed bird that had been following him the whole trip.

But hey, by the late afternoon, they were tired, they wanted to get home, they wanted to sleep in their own beds, play a little terraria and have enough face cloths to wash their faces.

IMG_3856 (800x600)So, we left the museum, Balboa Park, the city of San Diego and headed off to the airport.

Two tired boys?

In an airport?

What could go wrong?

Traveling With Kids – San Diego Seaworld – Flash Adventures

 How Many Adventures Can We Have in A Few Hours?

When there is so much to do and so many adventures, how do talk about all of them without boring everyone to death?

Answer, you can’t.

But let me summarize as best I can. Like a quick montage in a movie. Or remembering a drunken night.

The First Ride
The First Ride

After the seals, the boys go on the octopus-like ride. No lines. They literally run on. Twice.

Giggles are heard. Oldest loves every minute of it. Youngest not wanting to show he is a bit, you know, not scared, totally not scare, nuh-huh, nope.

Sharks!!!!
Sharks!!!!

Flash to the shark tanks. Sharks! There’s an upstairs where you can see the sharks in the pool. It smells very salty and fishie. No big surprise, I guess. The oldest knows more about sharks than the guides. He explains how to spot a tiger shark from a reef shark, what the difference is between a white tip and a black tip shark (you may be able to guess this one,) and what food they should be feeding all of them (and surprisingly it’s not ‘his brother’.) It’s really impressive.

IMG_0389 (800x600)A walkway leads down below. It’s dark. The walls look like clay. The walls have teeth in them. The oldest LOVES the teeth embedded in the wall. Especially the megalodon teeth. He forgets to hide the fact that he’s having fun. He smiles and talks about the teeth with animated authority.

Then we’re deep underwater. It’s dark. There’s a moving sidewalk that doesn’t move. No need. Not a lot of people here. The youngest, with eyes wide and mouth open, gets to walk through a tunnel while shark glide by overhead and beside him. He stops, transfixed as entire tour groups try to move around him. The oldest explains to me why one shark can be still and not die. I’d heard that if I shark stops moving, it suffocates. Not so.

None of the sharks attack. I am disappointed. The boys could have spent hours in that tunnel. The want to be sharks. They want one as a pet. The oldest wants to genetically engineer one that will talk with him.

IMG_0397 (800x600)I ask the oldest if he wants to take pictures for his dad. He’s not interested in taking pictures, in creating a visual history, (that’s my thing), but the idea sparks something in him. He loves doing things for others. So… pictures for his dad, a great idea. First, about 20 shark pictures. The, he wants one of him and his brother in front of, yes, you guessed it the megalodon.

Then to turtles. Not as menacing as sharks. A big slower. An old one has a huge bite out of his shell. I wonder what story he would tell. I ask the oldest if the turtle maybe swam into the shark tank. He looks at me like I’m having a stroke.

IMG_0423 (800x599)The youngest wants to take pictures of the turtles for his dad. He takes, well, about a thousand. Most, but not all, blurry. It’s hard to shoot in low light, harder still when you’re literally running around, and even harder when you refuse to listen to a wise new parent who has all sorts of great advice on how to take good pictures (even if, he himself, is completely unable to do so.)

The turtles are cute. But slow = boring. However, just as we are about to leave, we find a video game. We play small turtles trying to make their way to spawn on a beach. Evil, massive drift nets, oil pollution and sharks!!!! Try to stop us. We dive, we swim fast, we shoot upwards, at least one of us is eaten, at least one of us is captured by a drift net, but a few, a lucky few, make it to the end. The youngest spawns the most. For some reason, this does not surprise me. I expect this will be his future. 10 crazy-ass little ones of his own. Ha!

Outside, we wander past strollers lined up like soldiers on parade. Double strollers, umbrella strollers, high tech strollers with radar (or something that looked like it), strollers with coffee holders (oh what a good idea that is) and strollers with bags of diapers and wetwipes and toys and blankets. I’m glad, super glad, that I’ve entered this family at this point in the boys’ life. Stroller-aged kids look like a LOT more work. Plus, you know, strollers!

Now, if I was being wheeled around in one, that would be a whole different matter.

IMG_2194 (598x800)We go on to feel up manta rays in a pool.  I ask, what do they feel like? “They feel soft”, says the oldest. “They feel all raspy and rough,” says the youngest. Sometimes I think if you asked them what color the sky was, one would say blue and the other would say, white.

The youngest measures himself against a full grown ray. I refuse, having seen how close I am to a gorilla.

We eat almost too late. Everyone is getting the hangries. Hunger plus angry. Not a word I invented, but one I will promote. HANGRIES. We line up. We wait. We eat. No one is murdered despite the fact we have to wait a wee bit for fish and chips

Sitting down, that evil red-eyed bird appears and keeps an eye on the oldest. He’s sure it’s been stalking him. I can’t say he was wrong. I was kinda spooky. The oldest eats his food in record time.

But the real treats were yet to come.

Traveling With Kids – San Diego Seaworld – The Great Fish Throw

Fishie Adventures

Seaworld looked like it would be fun the moment we went inside, but would it live up to the hype?

See, you can touch the sharks

We stood in the entranceway a bit like a pack of deer in the headlights. So many things to do, and so many little feet wanting to run in every direction at once.

But it was a glorious morning. Sunny. A bit windy. Birds flew overhead looking for dropped crumbs. Kids shrieked in excitement. Mom’s yelled at their unruly ones to be less, well, unruly.

Now, one thing we decided to do in every park we’ve seen is set a rally point. You know, in case we become separated for some strange reason. You’d think becoming separated would be hard, at least I did, but all it takes is for eyes to lock on something, feet to move in a direction that is not the family direction and if everyone else is looking at their own stuff and continuing on, whammo, bingo-bongo, someone’s not there.

Sadly, that someone is usually me.

Oh, I know you were thinking it would be the youngest, but no, it’s me. One minute I’m all marching alongside everyone, then the next, “squirrel!” and off I go.

So today we chose the big-ass tower thingee, called the skytower. It’s hard to miss. It’s a tower.

seaworldsd2008mapThat set, we decided on a ride first. We had a map. We had food in our bellies. We were good to go.

First distraction.  We needed sunglasses.

We’d lost only one pair so far, which, I think, is a world record for a family of 4, so we decided that the first thing we’d do is go in search of new ones. The youngest found a barrel of swords (why swords would be in seaworld, I have no idea) and hacked and slashed imaginary enemies while I made sure he didn’t hack OR slashed any real people. But we failed to find any sunglasses at first.

Hard to believe, I know. There were plastic sharks and t-shirts and knacks and knicks and shoes and glass balls that the youngest desperately wanted to touch (and, I fear, throw at his brother), but no sunglasses.

No worries, there were plenty of little shops in Seaworld, so we began to march again towards the first ride…

Only to get distracted again by sharks in a pool. That we could touch. Wee little ones. I think I said, OMG, look, sharks we can touch in a pool!!! Luckily, everyone came with me. But, unluckily, none of us got to touch one. They were too fast, too far away sometimes and at least one of us, not mentioning any names, was pretty sure the sharks would take a bite out of them.

A little disappointed, the boys got bored really quickly, so we left the sharks to eat other little children and strode off.

We made our way to a ride first. A simple one. Sort of like the old octopus rides we’d go on a local fairs.

The park had wide lanes, unlike legoland, and though every park seems to be unable to make a straight line to anything, the lack of crowds, the massive space we could walk around in, made it feel, I dunno, more friendly. Maybe it was the sun being out, or the smell of popcorn and hotdogs and something fishie. Maybe it was just that I had pancakes for breakfast. Who knows?

But as we made our way to the first ride, we heard barking.

Seals!!!Seals!

I immediately went all ‘squirrel!” and detoured towards them. The family heard me shout, “Seals!” and followed me. It was feeding time and the seals were barking or slapping the water or just looking darned adorable, waiting to be fed.

But here’s the cool thing. It wasn’t the trainers feeding them. It was the seaworld-goers. Us.

I dunno who started to jump up and down first, me or the youngest. We had to feed the seals! We had to.

So I went and bought two orders of fish please, hold the fries and tarter sauce. For $5 we got 5 little fish. I wanna say they were sardines, but I know about as much about fish as I know about why people like watching golf. The oldest, however, had no desire to throw anything and the Prettiest-girl-in-the-world, refused to wander around smelling like fish all day.

The youngest and I didn’t care. We love throwing things and, to be honest, we don’t care that we would smell like fish.

IMG_0349 (800x600) (2)We looked at the seals, chose one that looked the cutest, bobbing up and down in the water, his big eyes on us, his head wagging back and forth like a happy, puppy dog tail, and the youngest tossed him a fish. We chose one who was barking, one who was clapping and tried to throw one who had a great scar on his eye who sat on a rock in the middle of the pool. The youngest missed his first throw, the fish snapped up by a smart seal who circled the rock waiting for people to miss. The second throw missed too and I began to worry the youngest didn’t have the coordination or strength yet to make the throw.

Hey, it wasn’t easy for a little guy. He  had to clear the glass, had to arc it over all the other seals, avoid the fish-stealing birds and hit a pretty small target 15 feet away.

I gave the youngest my fish. I told him he could do it. I told him to keep his eye on the seal. Don’t worry about the glass or the distance. Just see that seal and throw the fish.

The youngest threw with all his might and with the seriousness of a major league pitcher. I want to say the entire crowd watched, but I doubt that was true. Certainly the Prettiest-girl-in-the-world and the oldest watched the fish arc over the glass, soar through the air and nearly smack the seal in the face before he jerked his head and gulped it down.

We cheered.

The last fish he gave based on which one barked the loudest, then we washed up, washed up again for good measure, and strode off to the first ride, the youngest so happy to tell us how he did it.

“Joe, did you know that if I got my arm all the way back and threw, it went farther?”

“Mommy, did you see me feed that seal with the one eye?”

“Joe, did you know I did the best throw there?”

It was a great way to start our adventure in Seaworld.

It was, however, nowhere near the coolest thing we did.

It’s On Fire

It’s On Fire

catching fireHunger Games: Catching Fire. It’s hard to do sequels. Some are brilliant. Godfather 2. Star Wars: Empire Strikes Back. Porky’s 2.

Most, however, are a disaster. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Dumb. Conan the Destroyer. Jaws the Revenge, (which if I remember correctly actually had the SHARK trying to get revenge.)

So I’m always a little cautious. Like walking on ice cautious.

But Catching Fire is simply fantastic. Better than the first. Better than the book. Better than a big-ass bag of buttery popcorn. It’s worth seeing in the big theater. It’s worth seeing on IMAX. It’s worth seeing with a friend.

The formula for success is simple. Good actors (who create great characters.) Great writing (that builds tension, adds depth and emotion to the story, that makes us care, that makes us feel.) And impressive details, from the tiny things like the whiter than white-white smile and purple eyebrows of the announcer, Caesar Flickerman, (aka, Stanley Tucci), to the immense and impressive Capital City.

Being the uber nerd, I love it when the visuals are amazing, when they’re so good you don’t poke your companion in the ribs and sneer “did blind 2 year olds do this?” The fog is perfect. The lighting is perfect. The ashen-grey of district 12 is perfect, with its coal-dusted miners tramping back home. And Katniss’ wedding dress, nothing short of amazing. (And this from a guy who normally would make farting noises when asked about wedding dresses.)

woodyIt has great moments that I won’t spoil, made even more epic by the superior acting of Jennifer Lawrence (Katniss), the ever surprising Cheers’ Woody Harrelson (Heymitch) and the evil Canadian, Donald Sutherland (who even has a very personal reason for wanting to see all the cuties dead.)

jennaBut the supporting cast and characters are strong as well, from the smirking is-he-an-ally-or-enemy? Finnick (Sam Claflin), to the spunky axe-wielding, I-love-to-be-naked-in-an-elevator, Johanna Mason (Jena Malone).

There’s so much to love. Heroes die. Innocents are abused. Villains triumph. All seems hopeless. Until the end.

Which, spoiler alert, is not really the end, but is satisfying enough, I guess, though I have to confess to sitting through the credits hoping for a bit more.

And isn’t that the best recommendation for a movie? You don’t want it to end.