Operation Romper Room (Disneyland, 2006)

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ehbowen

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Note for this forum: I wrote this for a family memory project my now 89-year-old Dad is working on. Thought I would share.

This is Eric, again. I had toyed with the idea of a family train trip ever since our successful jaunt to and from Michigan. One idea I had floated and even priced was that of returning to Michigan…in December! The plan, which never made it past the early stages, was to obtain tickets for the Steam Railroading Institutes “North Pole Express” and then head up there as soon as the kids finished with classes at Christmas break. But we couldn’t have taken more than four plus two adults, and when I floated the idea to Mom (Nancy) the response was along the lines of, “Are you crazy!”

But what we settled on was even more crazy…five adults (Nancy, Ken, me, and Joey & Erin) and the six Lichnovsky kids, heading from Houston to the west coast in May 2006…destination Disneyland! We made the plans and then broke the news to the kids at Christmas with a “scavenger hunt” series of letters. First we gave one to the baby, Allie, who was less than a year old at the time; it said, “Why? Because we like you!” and directed the next oldest, Abby, to look in Nana’s bathroom cabinet to see ‘Who’. There the kids found a list of all of our names, and a note directing five-year-old Benjamin to look in the garage workbench to see ‘When.’ The kids were really getting into it by now, and there they found a calendar with the last week in May circled and the instruction for Cassidy to look in the file cabinet to see ‘What’. They found a clipping from the newspaper travel section about vacations and instructions for Cameron to look in the upstairs closet to see ‘How’. He found a toy train and instructions for Bethany, who was nearly a teenager and had pretty much figured this out by now from family rumors, to look in the Victrola to see ‘Where’. When she found a DVD of ‘Disneyland Fun’, the kids basically went nuts.

During the next few months we had some build-up. We gave the kids some “Disney Dollars” which they could spend at the parks, and I held a “pin draft”. Pin trading was a “thing” at Disney parks in those days, and possibly still even today…I don’t have the time or money to find out! As with anything when adults get involved some become rare and valuable, while others are ‘can’t be bothered’, and…well. Still, I found a collector selling a lot of 40 authentic Disney pins on eBay, and then we held a “pin draft”. I laid out all 40 pins, and then one at a time I let the kids (except Allie, who was still too young) come up and select their favorite, one at a time, from the youngest to the oldest. So all five of them ended up with eight pins. I told them to hang on to them; they were sold at stores at the park and could be traded back and forth. The technical term for this is “foreshadowing”…

Fast-forward now to Friday, May 19th. Houston doesn’t have much of a train station these days; it basically looks like something you might have found in a small town in 1950 with “Greyhound” or “Trailways” on the door. But we filled it up.

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ehbowen

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I was working at the Convention Center at the time and had made arrangements to park there for our trip in a gated lot; after dinner we dropped Dad and the luggage off at the Amtrak station, parked Dad’s ‘Green Monster’ Ford van conversion, and took a cab back across downtown to the station. Shortly thereafter the Lichnovskys rolled in; the pile of luggage on the floor of the station vaguely recalled Mount Rushmore. At the time Amtrak rules permitted passengers to check three pieces of baggage each at no charge, plus carry-ons, and baby paraphernalia was supposed to be allowed as a carry-on. Key word: “supposed to.”

The train coming in from New Orleans was late by about an hour, but eventually I saw its headlight approaching from the east and called out, “Operation Romper Room—execute!” We poured everyone and everything into the first class sleeping car; Nana had a roomette all to herself, Pawpaw and Cameron shared another, I shared one with Benjamin, and the two young girls Bethany and Cassidy shared the last of our four upstairs roomettes. Downstairs, Erin and Joey and the two littlest girls Abby and Allie took the “Family Bedroom”, which has windows on both sides, two adult-size and two child-size beds.
It was right then and there that I ran into the first snag, and it was a big one. Amtrak rules said specifically that baby items were allowed in carry-on racks. But I found out that Amtrak rules don’t mean a thing if an Amtrak employee says different. When I began loading the car seats and folded strollers into the capacious downstairs luggage storage area, the car attendant stopped me. I pointed out that there was plenty of room, but he said that he might need the space “down the line”. I was taken aback; our party was taking up basically half the car; there wasn’t room for a couple of strollers? The car attendant told me that I should have checked them. I ran back inside—the Houston stop is a long one—but the station agent wasn’t having anything to do with it. “You should have checked it an hour ago; the deadline has passed!” It was starting to look as if we would have to abandon it all on the platform! Finally, though, I came to a compromise with the little king who called himself our car attendant; if I put the car seats in our rooms (and Nana had an upper berth which wasn’t being used), he would let us put the strollers in the downstairs rack. How noble of him.

The rooms were already made up for sleeping; it was well after eleven p.m. when we departed and we all tumbled into bed. Waking up the next morning we had our first encounter with Amtrak’s “Simplified Dining Service”. Basically, in an attempt to cut costs they had downgraded to one employee in the kitchen serving reheated precooked food on plastic plates. No more steaks, no more fresh eggs. Instead we were treated to the “Bob Evans Scramble”…a tasteless mess of eggs, and salt, and sausage, and salt, and cheese, and salt, served with a half-order of French toast. Or, at least that first morning, you could order the French toast by itself or a “Continental” of hot or cold cereal and a muffin. On the whole I think that Bob Evans should have sued Amtrak for defamation. Our waiter was the infamous ‘Bobby’, for whom English was obviously a second language and politeness not even a third language. Two years later the kids were still putting on skits making fun of his brusque manner.

The kids did enjoy the train trip; although Nana’s ‘room to herself’ soon turned out to be the go-to room for the kids to squeeze in and watch DVDs on her laptop and on the player which I brought along. They found other kids to interact and spend time with in the coaches and lounge car, and the dining car crew was good enough to allow them to use empty tables to play 42 (dominoes) as the ‘lounge car’ for this trip was a coach-cafe with plenty of unassigned seating but no available tables. The problem came that night. You see, the federal government has “Hours of Service” laws which restrict train crewmen to no more than twelve continuous hours on duty. When a crew ‘dies’ on hours they cannot move the train even into a siding; all they can do is set the brakes and wait to be relieved, and then must have ten continuous hours off duty before they can resume work. This is good; you don’t want a crew of zombies running a train. But, if that train is on a single track in the middle of nowhere…

Which is what happened to us. Ahead of our passenger train, a Union Pacific freight train went ‘dead on hours’ on a single track main line in literally the middle of nowhere. Normally they should have notified the dispatcher that they were running out of time and the dispatcher should have shunted them off onto a siding where they could wait without blocking traffic, but…shoulda coulda woulda. And that created a snowball effect as our already late train ran out of hours, and others waiting to pass the bottleneck ran out of hours, and…. The military had a term for this kind of situation, but it’s unprintable. Looking out into the night we could see four-wheel-drive Jeeps running back and forth along the tracks (no roads where we were) ferrying fresh and dead crews back and forth.

Eventually we got moving again, but I recognized that we were not going to get into Los Angeles before the Hertz desk closed at 2 p.m. (on a Sunday). I called to check to see if they would let us pick up our rental cars at the airport and return them to the station; they flatly said no. If we wanted to return to Union Station we had to rent from Union Station. I called Budget, the only other rental place with a desk at L.A. Union Station; they were more accommodating. So I canceled our Hertz cars and reserved a minivan plus a full-size car from Budget, with pickup at LAX and return to Union Station in a week.

I gave Mom and the Lichnovskys directions to our Travelodge motel in Hollywood; they all piled into a pair of cabs and went there to rest from the trip while Dad & I went to pick up the vehicles. L.A. has a “Flyaway Bus” service from the station to the airport; we bought two tickets on that and upon being dropped at the terminal took the Budget rental car shuttle to their terminal. Dad got the keys to a blue Buick LeSabre while, at first, I got a “shorty” Dodge Caravan. I hadn’t taken it around the block before I realized that it would never do for our huge crew and mountain of luggage, so I took it back and pleaded for at least a Grand Caravan. They had one and the let me have it, no extra charge. Bonus: It had a built-in DVD player. Thanks, Budget! I swung back to Union Station to pick up our luggage…and made a very Wrong Turn leaving the station. I was on the kind of street that you read about in those dystopian SF novels, with everyone looking at me from the shadows…and no GPS! But I kept my head, headed west, and soon enough found a freeway entrance which led me back to Hollywood.
 
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ehbowen

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Monday, May 22nd, 2006: I had my customary Big Plans for this day, much of which fell through. I originally had plans to take the older kids horseback riding up in the hills, but the place had warned me that they didn’t give refunds and that they wouldn’t go riding if the weather was bad. I gambled, I lost…drizzling rain all morning long. But Nana wanted to go to Farmer’s Market, which we did; Cameron found some jawbreakers which were almost the size of baseballs. Well, the kid has always had a big mouth…(duck & cover!) We then spent some pleasant time driving through Griffith Park and up in the hills, making it as far as the Observatory which was closed for renovation but from which site we had a fine view of the L.A. basin and the Hollywood sign. We went back to our motel, the Hollywood/Vermont Travelodge, where we were joined by Nana’s brother, my Uncle Norman and his wife Catherine who had driven down from Reno to join us for a couple of days. They had their own room, while our party had three rooms. The Hollywood Travelodge is a ‘60s vintage motel but when we were there it was well kept up and an excellent value for the price; the kids loved swimming in their small pool.
That afternoon all thirteen of us packed up and headed out to the Santa Monica Pier:
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Norman and Catherine took that picture; the sun angle could be better but it shows off the background. The kids spent some time on the midway. Note the matching T-shirts!:
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Bethany and Abby playing ‘peek-a-boo’ on the Ferris wheel:
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A picture of the senior generation. From left: Catherine and Norman Robinson; Nancy & Ken Bowen:
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The main reason we were at the Santa Monica Pier was for dinner: Some months before I had done a little research and made reservations at Bubba Gump’s to have a table for thirteen at the pier for dinner as the sun set. They did right by us; we had a great table overlooking the ocean and dinner was wonderful. And Joey and Erin were kind enough to pick up the check! Here are the eleven of us, lined up from smallest to tallest (Allie in Erin’s backpack), as we await our seating for dinner:
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ehbowen

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Tuesday, May 23rd, 2006: This was a ‘big stuff’ day. Mom & Dad went off with Norman & Catherine to take a day trip out to Catalina Island. Erin took the minivan and the girls for sightseeing around Hollywood. And Joey and I took Cameron and Benjamin in the Buick out to San Pedro for a day of deep-sea fishing aboard the New Del Mar (stock photo):
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While our party didn’t have a whole lot of luck from a fish catching standpoint, all of us had a great time. And we weren’t entirely skunked; I did indeed land a grouper which was big enough to be a legitimate challenger for ‘catch of the day’. I lost, but it and the other one credited to Benjamin were big enough to feed our whole party…if we only had a kitchen. But we didn’t, so we gave the fish steaks away to the other passengers that day. I hope they were enjoyed!

Oh, yes, something else of note happened on May 23rd of 2006: Pawpaw Ken turned 74 years old! I had pre-ordered a chocolate-raspberry cake from Porto’s bakery before the trip, and that day I picked it up and brought it to a nearby Mimi’s Cafe for a special birthday dinner. The cake was delicious, and we had almost half of it left over. We tried to save it, but without a decent refrigerator to store it in…well, a couple days later we ended up dumping it in the trash. Still brings tears to Pawpaw’s eyes!
 

ehbowen

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Wednesday, May 24th: We’re going to Disneyland! We checked out of the Travelodge, drove across town to Anaheim, and checked into the Howard Johnson’s motor lodge. It’s another ‘60s vintage inn but recently remodeled and came highly recommended due to its excellent swimming/water park area; the recommendations were quite correct. Eight of us stayed there in two double rooms; Erin and Joey along with baby Allie stayed with friends who lived nearby. That first day of our stay I directed our party to the then-new Disney’s California Adventure, where I had lunch reservations at Ariel’s Grotto for a character luncheon. This is where the various characters come by, in costume, and interact with the diners. I had tried to make reservations for thirteen but they had said, “Oh, no more than twelve.” Norman and Catherine begged off, then, but when I checked in they said, “Oh, we can seat thirteen!” I tried to get back in touch with Norm but couldn’t. C’est la vie. Here are some of the characters (mostly Disney princesses) we met; oh, yes, Abby was dressed up in a princess costume too!:

Mulan; I told her, “I loved your movie!” and she asked, “Which part!” I hesitated no more than a second and told her my favorite scene was the ‘boot camp’ training sequence. “Really? Mine too!”
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Here’s Princess Jasmine, with our little princess Abby:
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Cameron making a friend of Ariel:
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Snow White with Abby, again
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And finally, a salute to two very remarkable book lovers:
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ehbowen

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Thursday, May 25th: Today it’s “Disney till you drop!” We’re on Main Street in time for them to drop the rope, and then head directly to Peter Pan’s Flight before the line builds. There’s a really nice piece of software called RideMax that you can use to plot out your optimum “plan of attack” to make it onto as many rides as possible while minimizing your wait time in line. After Peter Pan, we split up. Pawpaw had an ECV scooter so he was able to use the handicap entrances, while I set out with Benjamin. We met Woody…
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And Mickey…
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And Cinderella…
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I had planned for us to regroup at noon at Sleeping Beauty castle for a group photo. Of course, noontime in May is not a good time to be taking photos, as I might have learned with a little more research. Still and all, I’m pleased with it. Matching T-shirts, again!:
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Remember what I said earlier about pins? Well, the kids had really gotten into it by now. They could use their spending money to buy pins, or they could trade with other collectors or with some of the Disney employees who wore red pin lanyards. Over the days we were there Bethany amassed a pin collection of essentially all of the Disney princesses and their princes, and Cameron had every Stitch pin that he could find. I’d have to ask the others what they ended up with. But Ben and I had a great time that day, and we ended up back at the Howard Johnson’s in time to watch the fireworks.

This is the last picture I have of myself with my Uncle Norman, taken in front of the Disneyland Railroad depot for Main Street USA:
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ehbowen

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Friday, May 26th, and Saturday, May 27th:

Truthfully, these two days were a blur. I have some isolated shots, and I know that I watched the parade from the Main Street Depot on my own (we had watched it as a group the previous evening). The older kids and I saw the Fantasmic! spectacular on the Rivers of America one of those evenings, and we also saw the fireworks from inside the park with “Tinker Belle” on her high wire. All of us saw “Billy Hill and the Hillbillies”, an excellent comedy and music show, at least one time, and I know that I took Benjamin for a Dole Whip and then in to see the Enchanted Tiki Room. Nana and I had a ‘grown up lunch’ at the Wine Country Trattoria restaurant in DCA, and had a dinner by ourselves in Downtown Disney. Lots of memories…but few details.

Nana at lunch at Wine Country Trattoria. Tired much?:
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Floats and characters from the (admittedly spectacular) 50th anniversary parade:
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ehbowen

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Sunday, May 27th—the ride home:

One more Big Event planned for this morning: A ‘character breakfast’ at Goofy’s Kitchen at the Disneyland Hotel. So we loaded up the luggage, cleaned as much of a weeks’ worth of crap out of the cars as we could while crossing our fingers that Budget wouldn’t back-charge us for what was left (they didn’t), and headed to the west side of the park and Downtown Disney.

The Goofy’s Kitchen breakfast was good as a breakfast; served buffet style ‘all-you-can-eat’ with eggs, omelettes, pancakes, bacon and sausage and the like, but with a few more specialties such as peanut butter & jelly pizza. The main attraction, though, was the character interactions. My camera battery died half way through, but here are some of my better shots:

The kids with Pluto:
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Bethany and ‘Alice’:
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Alice and Abby, having fun:
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We meet the Mad Hatter:
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One priceless interaction happened which I didn’t capture. Peter Pan came in with a very lovely Wendy. Our Cameron perked right up and told Wendy, “I know who you are!” Wendy asked, “Oh? Who?” Cameron said, “You’re the ugly step-sister!” I thought Wendy was about to hit him, but she turned to Peter and said, “What do you think of that?” Peter nonchalantly replied, “It happens!” I thought ‘Wendy’ was about to explode!

We piled in the car, drove downtown to Union Station, and unloaded our luggage…strollers and all…into the care of a very helpful Redcap. Then Dad and I had to get gas. There was (is) a station right down the street…but it had (still has) the highest gas prices I had ever seen! Here’s a shot from the trip I took with Dad in 2014…thankfully, without a car!:
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But we didn’t have time to look around; the rental car desk closed (on a Sunday) at 2 p.m. As it turned out, my receipt was time-stamped with a full one minute to spare….

Our train ride home was uneventful. We were late arriving into Houston, again, but as scheduled arrival at that time was 5:45 a.m. it gave time for Amtrak to feed us yet one more Bob Evans Scramble breakfast. (Maybe that’s not such a good thing?) Anyhow, we arrived home with all the passengers, all the luggage, more pins than we started out with, and a lifetime’s worth of good memories.
 

flitcraft

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A terrific read--thanks for sharing it with us. A family outing like that will never be forgotten. And it shows in spades the value of planning ahead--sometimes I think half of the fun is the anticipation and planning.
 
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