ber 25, 2013
It had been years since our last visit to Marine World in Vallejo. So long, in fact, that we couldn't remember the exact date because the trip predated our first digital camera, and long ago enough that the animal theme park had changed its name not once, but several times. By any other name, a trip to what is now known as Six Flags Discovery Kingdom hadn't been on our to-do list since Ben was still in a stroller.
That changed in September during Glenn's fall vacation, when we had some free time on our hands and were looking for things to do that didn't involve days on the road and hundreds of dollars for hotel stays. Flipping through the pages of our Triple-A travel magazine, Via, we discovered that Sept. 28 just happened to be AAA member day at the theme park, and tickets that normally are close to $60 per person were just $28. We were there.
The discount tickets came with a few benefits. For an extra 10 bucks each we were able to chow down on an all-you-can-eat picnic lunch, and with the price of our discounted admission we were able to gain entry to the park a whole 90 minutes before it opened to the general public. What difference does that really make? Well, it meant that we had an extra hour and a half to ride the roller coasters without having to wait in line.
Roller coasters? At a place famous for its live animal shows and water attractions? Well, yes. As part of its ongoing makeover, Discovery Kingdom added rides to its lineup about 15 years ago while scaling back its menu of animal acts. You can still find elephants, tigers, dolphins and walruses at the center of various performances, but those shows are much shorter and more sporadic. To fill in the gaps, there are at least six major roller coasters and a host of other thrill rides that visitors can check out – and check them out we did.
We arrived at the park right as it opened at 10:30 a.m. and made a bee line straight to the coasters. If you know anything about us, you know that Glenn is a huge roller coaster fan, the faster the better, and that Roni can't be coaxed onto so much as a carousel, let alone any of the thrill rides that towered over the park's entrance in their garish carnival colors. Ben decided to sit this trip out, so it was just the two of us to work out some middle ground for our incompatible entertainment tastes. Our solution was to let Glenn satisfy his roller coaster jones while the crowds were light and before the animal shows started around noon.
Figuring he wouldn't have much time to hit the rides once things got busy, Glenn hit the biggest coaster first: the Superman Ultimate Flight ride, which rockets passengers at more than 60 mph 15 stories above ground, first one direction and then in reverse. Once at full speed and at the top, momentum carries the cars into a corkscrew descent that gives riders the sense of flying like – well, Superman.
It was on this ride that Glenn learned why there are pay-per-use storage lockers at the entrance to the line. That is where riders are supposed to stow all their loose belongings, such as cameras, that could otherwise fly away during a high-speed invert. Oblivious to this, Glenn made it as far as being seated in the coaster before the ride attendants noticed and made him surrender his Canon SX50 HS to a couple of girls in line who took care of it for him during his 90-second journey. After this, Glenn was smart enough to leave his gear with Roni during the other rides.
"You're already back?" Roni said when Glenn stumbled past the exit gate after what couldn't have been more than five minutes. "That's what happens when there are no lines," he replied, eager for more. We ventured next door to the Roar roller coaster, where again the line was negligible. Roni guarded the camera bag while Glenn quickly made his way to the front of the boarding lane. At first glance, Roar looked like a small wooden roller coaster reminiscent of Disneyland's Thunder Mountain Railway. But that was because most of the ride was hidden from outside view, and it was only once aboard that Glenn discovered the extent of the attraction. It was almost two minutes of twists and turns that left him nearly hoarse from screaming, and a bit dizzy from the vibrations he received from the coaster wheels bumping along the wooden tracks.
Two quick thrill rides was enough to hold us for a while. It was time to check out the barbecue we'd paid our extra 10 bucks for. The picnic grove near the coasters was fairly empty when we checked it out after 11 a.m., still too early for most folks to want lunch. We'd had no breakfast, so at least we had a good appetite. There were all-you-can-eat hamburgers, hotdogs, potato salad, chili, soft drinks, and ice cream bars for dessert. We ate our fill and headed back to the park to check out some of the animal exhibits. We watched the penguins play in their enclosure and marveled to the walruses swimming around their tank while waiting for their lunch. By then it was noon and the park opened to the rest of the world.
Roni couldn't wait to check out the shark exhibit, with its giant glass tunnel through which visitors can walk beneath the aquarium that houses dozens of sharks, fish, eels and other critters. It was tough to take photos in the dark, but Roni got some decent shots with her new iPhone 5S. We went through twice, just so we could have the tunnel mostly to ourselves and linger longer at the observation area once the first crowd of the day had dispersed. The rest of our afternoon consisted of trying to hit all the major animal shows while still having some time to enjoy the other sights. We laughed at the antics of the wild birds, gazed in amazement as Bengal tigers swam after hunks of steak, cheered for the elephants as they took down a throng of human volunteers in a game of tug-o-war, and tried to photograph the aerial acrobatics of the dolphins at the ever-popular "Splash!" show.
After throwing in another half hour for Glenn to take on the Medusa roller coaster (the lines were quite a bit longer later in the day) and an additional half hour to scarf down some overpriced Chinese food from Panda Express, it was getting close to the time when sane people (i.e., those with a carful of kids) would normally head for the exits. But VIP packages make insane people of us all, and because ours included free admission to the first night of the park's Fright Fest, we couldn't leave without checking out some of the fright-inducing nighttime attractions.
Several years ago, theme parks discovered that if you dress up your ordinary attractions in a spooky Halloween theme you can draw a whole different type of audience. Discovery Kingdom is no different, buying into the success of the zombie/vampire craze and such major Hollywood films as "Night of the Living Dead" and "Zombieland." Fright Fest features hundreds of costumed ghoulies that make their entrance during "The Awakening" stage show and promptly disperse throughout the park to scare the pants off of delighted visitors. We had as much fun watching the reactions of the crowd as they were stalked by the zombies as we did looking at the haunting decor. For example, a graveyard was set up along a hillside next to a haunted mansion at which a bloody woman lingered in the doorway, fog swirling at her feet. In another location, a humongous black widow spider was illuminated in eerie green light. Cobwebs were strung along fences and lampposts. There were a few spooky rides and elaborate mazes to check out, too, but those required a $15 wristband, and we were just tired enough after a long day at the park that we were content just to look at the freebies.
It was nearly 10 p.m. by the time we hit the shuttle bus back to the parking lot, nearly 12 hours after we had arrived. That's an endurance test for a couple of middle-agers who are more accustomed to a couple of hours shopping or hanging out at a local festival, but we had a great time doing it and would certainly go again under similar circumstances. We're already talking about doing the Fright Fest event again next year.
The Discovery Kingdom adventure was undoubtedly the most intense activity we enjoyed during Glenn's two-week vacation, largely because we couldn't break away for much longer than a day here or there while Roni continued to work. We still managed to have fun.
On Thursday, Sept. 26, we embarked on a day trip that could have been to San Francisco before we decided instead at the last minute to head east. At last check, Lodi looks nothing like San Francisco, but getting there is much more relaxing than fighting weekday commute traffic to the city. We ventured up Highway 160 to the Delta Farmers Market outside Rio Vista, then continued on with no specific destination in mind until we came upon Terminous along Highway 12. For the past year we've been slowly photographing the various Delta bridges and had yet to capture the one at Terminous that spans the Little Potato Slough. Terminous is home to Tower Park Marina Resort, which as the name suggests is both a marina for boaters and a campground for Delta recreation enthusiasts.
We drove into Tower Park and staked out the bridge as best we could for our photo purposes. (It's a pretty boring bridge, sadly.) Then we explored the camp store and drove through the resort area to check out the accommodations. In addition to campsites and RV spaces, the place has several cottages that can be rented – something we've talked about doing one of these days. Reservations for the cabins are hard to get before Labor Day weekend, but in the off season you can have your pick during the weekday, and they are easier to reserve on the weekend. We liked a few of them, but we weren't quite sure what we'd do with ourselves for two or three days in a Delta campground less than 30 minutes from home, so we put a mental star by Tower Park with the idea of perhaps coming back the following week if we could figure out how to make it fun for all three of us.
By the time we were past Tower Park, we were getting close to Lockeford, home to our favorite sausage company. It didn't take much convincing that we should drop in and pick up a few sausages for dinner. About $28 later we had enough meat to last us a few weeks, but none of it was edible without cooking and we were getting pretty hungry, so it was back to Lodi to look for a spot to eat. Roni had only had her new iPhone for a few days and was still having fun playing with Siri, the voice recognition software that allows users to speak questions and get an instant reply. We asked Siri for the closest restaurants in Lodi, and she (it?) spit back a list of a dozen that included a place called Fiori's Deli. We asked for directions and Siri complied beautifully. In a few minutes we found ourselves in a tired-looking strip mall on the outskirts of town. This was the home of a 4-star delicatessen? Looks can be deceiving, as it turned out, and Fiori's served up some pretty decent grub. We ordered some of their homemade soup, and Roni had a half sandwich while Glenn ordered the quiche. Quiche in a deli? How could we refuse?
Back on the road, we continued south on Highway 99 with no other goal than to find our way back toward home. We hadn't gone too far before we saw what appeared to be a large outdoor event center along the west side of the freeway. Upon closer inspection we discovered it was a garden center and what we had seen were some of the large statues and pavilions they had for sale. We immediately got off at the next exit. Lomeli's garden center was designed with us in mind, a veritable smorgasbord of concrete and metal statuary appealing to just about every taste. We spent at least an hour just browsing the acres of sculptures, taking photos of the cool collection in hopes of getting decorating ideas we might act upon later. The proprietors probably wondered if we were going to actually buy anything, but if they had seen our backyard they needn't have worried. We picked out three pieces we liked, including a curled up cat, a whimsical duck that was part of a set that had broken, and a two-foot cherub that we found hiding on the discount pallet. In all we spent $85 for some fun additions to our outdoor collection, and we headed on down the road with them strapped down securely in the backseat of Roni's car.
Our final stop of the day was unplanned, but seeing as how the rest of the drive had been unplanned, too, it seemed appropriate. Driving through our former home of Manteca along Highway 120, we passed the massive Bass Pro Shops and decided to check it out. We're not much into hunting or fishing, but the store is legendary for outdoorsmen of any ilk, and we had wanted to pay a visit for a long time. We decided we'd only stay a few minutes, considering our unrefrigerated stash of sausages in the trunk of the car and the hot Central Valley air that had been baking them all afternoon.
Walking into Bass Pro Shops for the first time felt a lot like being a kid and getting your first glimpse of Disneyland. The foyer resembles a classic man cave with hunting trophies decking the walls and taxidermied game animals peeking out from various alcoves. You enter the store by way of a what appears to be an archway carved through a massive tree that runs floor to ceiling. It isn't too many times that we've been awestruck walking into an unfamiliar setting – stepping out of Grand Central Terminal into the streets of New York for the first time was comparable – but we literally didn't know where to begin. Clearly our plan of "just a few minutes" was shot.
Armed only with our cellphone cameras, we drifted through the clothing aisles and into the general store section, eventually finding our way into what can only be described as fisherman's heaven. Row upon row of racks displayed every conceivable brand of fishing pole, bait and tackle. On opposite sides of the store were boats, ATVs and the stuff of extreme outdoor adventures. But that was only half of it, because if you looked up there was a whole other floor of stuff we hadn't even seen: hunting gear, archery equipment, shoes, tents, decoys and... a waterfall? Yes, there was a giant waterfall cascading from the second floor into an enormous aquarium on the ground floor that was home to some of the most popular game fish. But it was Roni who was hooked when she saw the two white sturgeons swimming around. We spent far too long just watching them and taking videos with our camera phones.
All good things must come to an end, unfortunately, and by the time we left Bass Pro Shops it was getting dark. We worried about our sausages. It was time to head home. But not before our hunger got the better of us and we stopped for dinner in Brentwood at a Cajun place Roni had wanted us to try, Orleans Restaurant. Despite the 49ers game being on TV for Thursday Night Football, the place was virtually deserted. We enjoyed our meal and brought home some peach cobbler for Ben to have for dessert.
The following Monday, two days after our Discovery Kingdom visit, we decided to make another attempt at visiting San Francisco. But a funny thing happened on the way to the city, or rather a not so funny thing: Glenn came down with a cold. We rarely get sick these days, but when one of us does it usually is for the worse. We tried not to let his sore throat and sinus congestion affect our plans, but in the end nature won and we decided upon a less ambitious adventure.
We hadn't driven across the Bay Bridge since the new eastern span opened after Labor Day. We hadn't even taken photos of it on a recent trip to Oakland to collect a finished newsletter job from a printer. So we decided on this day to stake out the best photo spot we knew of – the end of the Berkeley Pier. The pier takes you nearly a quarter mile into the Bay and is the favored spot of fishermen, lovers and graffiti taggers. Maybe on a clear day it would have been a great spot for photographers, too, but Sept. 30 was foggy and overcast with rain threatening, so we had to settle for some disappointing shots of the bridge and nearly shrouded San Francisco skyline. Where just a little more than a week earlier Oracle Team USA had staged its stunning comeback to win the America's Cup sailing event, now the waters were mostly devoid of small boats and the shores free of spectators. We strolled the pier to its truncated end and looked beyond the security fence to where the seagulls rested on the remnants of the original pier's pilings. It was incredible to imagine a time when the pier extended nearly 3.5 miles into the Bay, more than halfway to Alcatraz island.
Although Glenn wasn't feeling well, he still had an appetite for lunch when we settled on a hole-in-the-wall place called Easy Creole (Thanks for finding it for us, Siri!) The restaurant is typical Berkeley, with the menu changing day to day based on the whims of the chef, and vegetarian and vegan dishes served right alongside more typical New Orleans-style fare such as red beans and rice and etouffee. The spicy dishes were perfect for a sore throat, and we left there feeling better and fuller than when we had arrived.
Glenn's cold got worse after that day, so our plans to spend a couple days overnight somewhere like Tower Park during the final week of vacation wound up instead being spent resting up at home. It wasn't an entire loss, as we all had more than enough projects to keep us busy or entertained.
Roni was sweating over the details of a major fundraiser for the Delta Science Center, which was scheduled for Oct. 12. Dubbed "Fish Tales: Stories of the California Delta," the goal of the event was to raise money for production of the DSC's 2014 Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Educational Resource Calendar. The calendar is distributed to more than 7,500 fifth-graders in the area the DSC serves, and it costs nearly $7,000 to produce, so donations are critical. We came up with the idea for the Fish Tales event in hopes that people would pay $25 each to come listen to several longtime Delta residents share their fascinating histories of the region.
As part of the event, Roni and her board decided to hold a silent auction and invited local businesses to donate items for it. We had no idea how many items might be donated, so for good measure Glenn cooked up three of his plywood character cutouts to supplement the offerings. During the week he was recuperating from his cold, he designed small cutouts of a barn owl, a river otter, and a coyote howling at a full moon. The coyote was based on a design he had made for Roni as a Christmas gift nearly two years ago; she liked it, so we hoped others might, too.
Despite many promises from people who said they wanted to attend the show, advance ticket sales weren't especially brisk. We arrived at the event date not certain how many would actually show to hear the stories, sip wine, feast on hors d'oeuvres, and browse the auction items. Roni had a good group of volunteers that evening, including a dozen or so students from Antioch High School who came to help serve the appetizers. The event was held in the amphitheater at Big Break Regional Shoreline in Oakley, which is a perfect venue for Delta stories as it looks out over the San Joaquin River. It turned out to be a fair crowd of about 75 people, and even though technical problems delayed the start of the storytelling (they couldn't get the lock off the electrical box to power the lights and sound equipment) the "Fish Tales" were well received.
The committee had wound up with enough auction items to fill a couple of tables, and there was some pretty nice stuff. But it seemed that no one wanted to bid on Glenn's owl, otter or coyote. When it came time to clean up from the event, the critters rode home with us, but they didn't stay unadopted for long. Glenn's brother Sean had come out for the show, and when Glenn offered to give him the coyote out of brotherly love, Sean offered to buy it for $20. We don't know what he plans to do with it, but somehow we expect to see Halloween pics of the coyote dressed in appropriate seasonal attire.
The Fish Tales event raised about $2,000 for the calendars, so while there is still a ways to go to the goal, at least there is a firm foundation to get the ball rolling on the project. In the interest of full disclosure, we have donated the design work on the calendars for the past three years. We get a great price on the printing, but great doesn't equal free, so hopefully some big benefactors will come through before the presses roll.
Speaking of presses rolling, there is lots to tell about Glenn's newspaper relocating to new digs as well as Ben's new business making buttons from his original artwork. We'd love to share more with you, but we've about consumed our allotment of electrons for this month, so we'll try again in November. Happy Halloween!