Reviving your inner child in LA: Universal Studios and beyond

DSC09155Walt Disney once said, “The real trouble with the world [is that] too many people grow up.” And what better place to reconnect with your inner child than Los Angeles: City of Angels, Tinseltown, Lotusland, and our personal and very timely favourite: La La Land. For La La Land it truly is, and we spent four days reaching back to revive our inner children who suspended any disbelief and just embraced the fun.

Four days in Los Angeles, you say? What could you do a mere in four days? As it turns out, quite a bit! And it all began at Universal Studios.

An actual working film studio and theme park combined, Universal Studios Hollywood is the quintessential La La Land location and one of the more interesting of the theme parks we’ve encountered. Armed with a native Angeleno who is actually “in the business” as they say (our son-in-law) we were whisked off to this fantasy land knowing that we were guaranteed to see the best of it. We were right.

The first step in day at Universal Studios is to pick a week day, get there early and make a bee-line to the backlot tour – everything else can wait. We boarded the tram at 10 am sharp and were on the first tour out. It lasted about 45 minutes and was worth the price of admission.

The tour took us past working studios where current television and motion picture productions are currently underway. It also took us through various traditional back-lot fixtures that included the Dr. Seuss Whoville village that was used to film How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Wisteria Lane of Desperate Housewives fame (yes, the lane and all of the house exteriors were fake), the shattered neighbourhood of War of the Worlds fame, a Mexican town replete with a flood which we experienced, a subway tunnel where we found ourselves in the midst of a fire, a flood and a cave-in, Amity Island from Jaws, the Bates Motel from Psycho, little Europe and a fill-in for New York City used in many movies and TV shows, all fake to the core, and we loved every minute of it. We even found ourselves in a high-speed chase in the middle of Fast & Furious. Then it was time for The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

[The houses on Wisteria Lane look so real, don’t they? Fake, fake, fake!]

One of the newest attractions, the Harry Potter part of Universal Hollywood opened in early 2016 and consists of a replica of Hogsmeade’s streets and an enormous replica of Hogwart’s. Why do we know so much about Harry Potter, you ask? Well, years ago when our son Ian was about ten years old and a fan of wizards, Patty stumbled upon a book called Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone at a local children’s bookstore. The clerk told her that it was new and unknown as children’s books go, but he might enjoy it. He then grew up with each subsequent installment of the franchise. Well, the rest, as they say is history and we know all about Harry Potter. So what did our inner children do?

We stood in a line that wended its way through Hogwort’s dark corridors while the portraits talked to each other and we received instruction from Dumbledore. Then we embarked on an animatronic and screen-based thrill ride (as it is described in various places) called Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. And it was certainly a thrill ride. When we got off we were happy that we had decided to get on before and not directly after lunch. If you take the ride, do leave all your belongings (purses, cameras etc.) in the provided lockers. You won’t want to drop anything off this one. Then it was, indeed, time for lunch.

We found ourselves in The Three Broom Sticks, a pub-like restaurant housed in what seemed to resemble the dining hall at Hogwort’s. The fish and chips and cold beer were welcome. But there was more to see.

We enjoyed the show featuring a variety of animals who have appeared in a plethora of films. We tend to think of on-screen animals in terms of dogs and sometimes cats, but we were also treated to birds, hedgehogs, and chickens to name a few. Who knew these animals could be trained? We do now.

We also took in the behind-the-scenes special effects show which provided a fascinating presentation on how some of those movie special effects are created. We’ll never look at a movie in quite the same way again. But the movie industry is not the only way we embraced our inner children.

The Magic Castle, Hollywood, California

The following evening, we were treated to a much less well known but just as fascinating experience. An adults-only private club, the Magic Castle is a Hollywood fixture. According to its web site, it “promotes the art of magic, encourages fellowship and maintains the highest ethical standards. We provide a friendly, inspiring environment where members and their guests can enjoy the art and each other’s company. Our goals are to advance the art and promote a positive image of magic and magicians worldwide…”[1] and word has it that the best trick is actually getting through the door. We were able to gain access only after our daughter and son-in-law booked a room at the Magic Castle Hotel next door, we followed their strict dress code [worth reading about ) and promised to leave all cameras and phones in our pockets.


At the Castle, which is housed in a century-old mansion, we ate dinner in their dining room, were amazed by face-to-face card tricks in the bar, serenaded by a piano played by a ghost (she could take almost all requests), and attended a truly professional show featuring prestidigitation. Another opportunity to let our inner children play during a very adult evening. No one under 21 permitted at all.

It’s good to know that travel can help us find our inner children, and that making discerning travel choices can elevate them that much higher! More about our recent trips coming up…


[Magic Castle photo credit:]



Two grand ladies of the sea: The original Queen Mary and Queen Mary 2

A poster for the combined Cunard White Star brand aboard the original Queen Mary.

When we crossed a trans-Atlantic voyage on a grand ocean liner off our bucket list last summer, we were hooked by the nostalgia of the grand ocean voyages of yesteryear. On board Cunard’s Queen Mary 2 with us on that voyage was a lecturer named William H. Miller (aka “Mr. Ocean Liner”) whose standing-room-only presentations that week were so mesmerizing that we bought one of his books.[1] When we read his description of the original Queen Mary as the most “beloved” of the ocean liners, we wondered whether her “daughter” the new Queen Mary 2 might in some ways resemble her earlier incarnation. Then, several synchronicities happened.

First, our son said, “I’m going to be in Los Angeles in February. Why don’t you two come and meet me before you go to Hawaii?”

Second, we started to explore activities in the LA area and discovered that the original Queen Mary is docked in Long Beach, California, a 20-minute drive from where we’d be staying in Costa Mesa.

Finally, Patty’s 89-year-old mother said, “You know, I’m sure your father came home from Europe [after fighting in WW II] on the Queen Mary.”

…so we knew we’d have to visit her…and we did.

When the Queen Mary was launched in 1936, she was considered to be the grandest liner ever built, and over her long and storied career, she not only carried passengers back and forth across the Atlantic from Southampton, England to New York City, but was also refitted as a troop carrier during the second World War, ferrying some 800,000 troops from the UK, through Halifax, Nova Scotia (where Patty’s father disembarked), to NYC. Today, she’s a hotel and a point of interest if you’re ever in the Long Beach area.

The Queen Mary as she sits alongside today in Long Beach, California.

Stepping aboard the ship is like taking a walk back in time. Our visit was timed perfectly it seemed since the crowds were thin and our pre-arranged tour consisted only of three of us (Art, Patty and daughter Amanda who accompanied us to LA to see her brother dance) and two others who dropped out after the first five minutes lacking sufficient English skills to understand the guide (who was quite an actor). So we had a private tour.

Our guide explained the way the three classes of passengers were divided – a notion that has (almost) entirely gone the way of the dodo on modern cruise ships. (We explained how Cunard still maintains this partially in an earlier post). The classes were not segregated by level, such as one deck for first class, another for second etc. Rather the first-class passengers’ accommodations and public spaces were in the center of the ship – where a ship is most stable. The second-class passengers populated the stern (rear) and the poor third-class passengers were all the way forward, a portion of the ship that, as the guide explained, often took a nose-dive under the waves in bad weather. Those were the days before modern stabilization. There must have been a lot of nausea in the bow!

The QM's atrium as it is today, restored to its earlier grandeur.

As we moved through the large public spaces on the Queen Mary, we tried to imagine what those grand balls must have been like and couldn’t help but make comparisons to the Queen’s Room (the ballroom), the champagne bar and the theater on the Queen Mary 2.

Perhaps, though, it was in the engine room below decks in the stern that harbored the most ghosts. As we walked through the darkened passages, just the three of us (we did this part without a guide), we could almost hear the crew as they toiled away. Then as we walked into the cubicle that had been created through a cut-out area on the ship’s super-structure, we were confronted by the eerie underwater sight of one of the original propellers, still in place under the water. That sent us flying toward the light!

The ship is also used as a floating hotel these days, although, according to the guide, the walls are so thin you can hear everything going on in your neighbor’s stateroom. When we reached the end of the tour, since there were only three of us, we asked if it would be possible to see a first-class suite. They are usually not part of the tour since they are part of the hotel. The guide humored us and went to procure permission. Success! Taking our time in the suite, our guide invited us to sit in the sitting room to try to conjure images of who might have spent time in this room in the 1930’s, ‘40’s & ‘50’s.

The bedroom of the first-class suite.

The suite consisted of a master bedroom, two bathrooms with hot and cold running fresh and salt water choices, a sitting room and a maid’s room that was outfitted with its own sink but she would have gone down the hall for the toilet and a bath. The burled wood built-ins (vanity table, desk, dressers, and bedside tables) are all original to the suite – although the flat-screen TV’s are not! There is no doubt they’ve done a remarkable job of restoration to provide an experience that takes you into another era.

After the tour we repaired to one of the dining rooms for fish and chips for lunch while we overlooked a marina filled to overflowing with modern sailboats. All in all, one of the great tourist experiences for people who love the ocean. The Queen Mary’s web site says: “The ship no longer sails, but she can still take you away.” Amen!

The corridor evokes a sense of history.

[FYI: They offer a variety of tours from self-guided audio tours, through WW II tours to a Ghosts & Legends Tour. You should take at least one of the guided tours, and try to go when the crowds are thinnest for the best experience.]

Come with us on our tour…

[1] Miller, William. 2010. Floating palaces: The great Atlantic liners. Chalford, UK: Amberley Publishing.