A wimp's guide to America

Getting to the Grand Canyon is just a few hours drive from Las Vegas.
Photo: Stu Hunt/Fairfax NZ

Getting to the Grand Canyon is just a few hours drive from Las Vegas.

Travelling to America for the first time is not travelling to another planet.

So I'm a little reluctant to share the penetrating insights I gained from my recent trip since they've no doubt already been expanded on at great length. The simple fact is the rest of the world couldn't pull its gaze away from America even if it wanted to.

My own personal research consists of reality TV which bears no resemblance to actual reality and movies. Not the type of movies that are unflinchingly honest about daily life in the US of A either.

The thing about a country as vast as the States is that nothing is typical and statistically speaking visiting two states does not represent a broad cross-section.

But in any case a family holiday to Las Vegas and Disneyland wasn't really envisaged as a sociological study, more just a bit of fun. Actually it's going to sound like diary of a wimpy tourist.

Disneyland caters for children of all ages.
Photo: Stu Hunt/Fairfax NZ

Disneyland caters for children of all ages.

Our trip to Disney certainly wasn't born out of the happiest of events.

The get-together of my wife's family had its genesis in the death of my father-in-law.

Graham put great stock in making sure his kids experienced Disneyland and he wanted the same for his grandchildren.

He was diagnosed with cancer 15 years ago and spontaneous remission gave him the chance to see his daughters marry and his grandchildren grow.

But the time he borrowed back from cancer was called in last year and he died surrounded by his family in May.

Round two was ruthlessly quick and his plans to have one last family holiday were cruelly denied.

The whole kit and caboodle outside of Disneyland.
Photo: Stu Hunt/Fairfax NZ

The whole kit and caboodle outside of Disneyland.

So it was in tribute to Graham that the 14 of us, three couples, seven children and a mother-in-law organised to meet in the US for a fortnight of Vegas and Disney.

With an open mind and a lifetime of movies to draw on my family winged its way for two weeks of in-law closeness in Las Vegas and LA.

Let's start with Vegas.

Nobody does queues like Disneyland.
Photo: Stu Hunt/Fairfax NZ

Nobody does queues like Disneyland.

Foodies talk of refreshing your palate with sorbet ahead of the main course. Going to Vegas first was a bit like someone had fashioned that sorbet out of lard. It tastes better than it sounds but it's heavy going.

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Heavy like still staring wall-eyed at the slot machines at 6am while you drain the last of the 1-litre margarita in a green plastic yard glass. Heavy like Denny's for breakfast with such all-time classics on the menu as deep-fried steak.

We arrived here after no sleep for 20-something hours which is OK since the city is in a constant state of surge. With sleep proving difficult on the first night I took myself and my wide awake four-year-old on an educational tour of casino nightlife.

It's not really a kid-friendly place but Vegas makes no apologies for that.

There is Coke and M and M Worlds during the day but these are high-velocity merchandising in all of their sickly sweet smelling, brightly coloured, harshly lit glory which I fear may induce psychosis in small children. It certainly caused me a great deal of anxiety.

We did find a beer garden with giant Jenga which our resourceful children fashioned into beds. There may have been a subliminal message in this.

Patience has to be a virtue in Disneyland, otherwise you wouldn't last.
Photo: Stu Hunt/Fairfax NZ

Patience has to be a virtue in Disneyland, otherwise you wouldn't last.

I couldn't entirely get to grips with Vegas. I tried gambling but I got the speed wobbles after the first $20 was swallowed up. Still I managed to squeeze half an hour out of that.

My brothers-in-law had the minerals to perch at a few tables on their early morning pub crawl of the Vegas hotspots and one of them summed it up thus - Vegas 1, Mark nil.

There's some sort of light or water show every 15 minutes or so and if you lack the commitment to make it to Europe there are even somewhat realistic facsimiles of the Eiffel tower and the Sistine Chapel.

If you make it off the strip there's even the faded glory of old town which such high-end entertainment as as elderly men in man-kinis touting for photos.

For light relief the west rim of the Grand Canyon is only a couple of hours drive away from the city and so we ventured out to peer over the edge. What alarmed me about the Grand Canyon is that fact that there is no fence between the public and an impressive sheer drop.

I'm all for getting close to take in the view but this also made me nervous. Apparently more people die of natural causes at the Grand Canyon than plummet to their deaths but I take no comfort from this – people still topple off.

Call me neurotic, but I get this queer urge to leap off great heights so I was caught between impressed and terrified all at once.

There's a small fissure in the rock that you can stand over and take in the view right to the canyon floor. It's hard to describe the scale of this and even harder to describe the sinking feeling that there's only a few inches of rock between you and oblivion.

I still can still see that view when I close my eyes and feel my stomach dropping.

It's a bit like that stopping at the Hoover Dam. Dams aren't intrinsically that interesting but I find the Hoover dam fascinating.

It was fashioned from blood, sweat and desperation at the height of the Depression. But it again involves great height – 112 people died building it. It's perfectly safe since you can't just fall off, but still I couldn't get the number 113 out of my head.

We capped Vegas off with Cirque De Soleil's breathtaking Beatles show. I took my older daughter. Seven years old and now a committed Beatles fan. This was without question an absolute highlight.

The final word on Vegas has to be my daughter who called it Lost Vegas which has since had all her friends asking how did you find it?

Vegas is a hit hard and hit fast town. Four days is probably lingering a bit but probably the perfect lead-in for some wholesome family time at Disneyland.

Disneyland calls itself the happiest place on earth and it would probably be true if the following makes you happy.

It's clean. There is barely a blade of grass out of place and a small army of people shuffling around scooping up even the tiniest shred of pocket lint that hits the deck.

And for a place that's 62 years old there is a surprising lack of general decay. So if bright colours and a slightly sanitised feel make you happy then we're off to a roaring start.

Mickey, Donald and all the crew hang out there.

When I say hang out, they make tightly rationed appearances where the hardy few who are quick to seize the opportunity and can tolerate lengthy queues without shade or water are rewarded with a photo and an autograph. And Mickey has that rictal smile to tell us that he's happy.

Actually I'm not sure about this one. I have a sneaking suspicion that the 19-year-old who pulls on that suit every day isn't just a tiny bit disgruntled that being Mickey isn't the launchpad to stardom he was hoping for. I mean they're not really letting him showcase his range.

If you're little unsteady on your feet you can, of course, hire a mobility scooter.

Mind you calling them scooters suggests they're zippy and compact when to me they looked like they were fashioned from the parts bin for an iron lung. So points for retro appeal and no doubt they're durable but negotiating the Disney throng in one of these is something like driving a b-train through the Hajj.

And while it's true there is safety in numbers, if there were happiness in numbers then they've truly clinched it with nigh on 50,000 people drifting through the place each day we were there. 

Disney is vast and now there's an area called Californialand next door of equally impressive dimensions. One day couldn't do it justice but five days was too much.

Striving for completeness takes time but the question is whether or not you need to squeeze it all in and how long you want to queue for. For every Splash Mountain there's an It's a Small World. I know that may be iconic but getting that tune out of your head takes a bit of doing.

The queuing madness reached its peak for me on the Cars ride with an estimated 228 minute wait which works out at about 90 minutes of wait for every minute of actual ride time.  

There is a fast-pass system so we scooted straight through on this one but I think that sort of wait may have found the breaking point in my resolve.

At night the electric parade and fireworks are well worth sticking around for but it makes for a long day and to be honest the crowds never really thinned out.

At the end of the day it was about the kids and they found it fun but tiring. The four-year-old was thrilled with all the bright lights and goings on but faded fast and the seven-year-old was a little underwhelmed.

In truth we took her to Six Flags Magic Mountain first and the discovery of roller coasters in all of their high-speed, bloodless glory ruined her for the old-school thrills of Space Mountain. But she was all for collecting the whole set of character autographs.

But what turns a seven-year-old's head is hard to read sometimes. We took her to a baseball game with a big crowd, fireworks and plenty of hype but the highlight for her was the nachos in a hat.

The last night we went out for one last drink and found ourselves ordering an electric blue, high-octane cocktail called Adios MF. I can't spell out the MF in print so you'll have to use your imagination but in the end that drink summed up my first experience of the US. Pretty to look at but I couldn't take it all in.

On the plus side the American people were almost universally warm, friendly and polite and the BBQ ribs are close to a religious experience.

Now I've been once and more or less broken in I'm desperate to go again just from a slightly different angle. And Mickey's not coming along for the ride.

 - Stuff


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