Day 0 – Wednesday, December 7th
This was our first time departing on an evening flight. It was nice being able to leisurely pack all day instead of getting up at 4am for a morning flight. Arriving in Los Angeles at 10pm made the initial trip to the hotel much more pleasant since there was less traffic than arriving at noon.
This was my first time flying on Jet Blue, and it was nice, but not as great as Virgin. We had row 1 (bulkhead), which had ample legroom (enough room to get out of the window seat without the aisle person getting up). The bulkhead also allowed me enough room to do some much needed stretching in front of my seat. I found the seat bottoms to be harder than Virgin, but much softer than Delta Business. The seats appeared to have very little recline. If they’d reclined more, I would have thoroughly enjoyed Jet Blue. Our aircraft was an A320, which appeared to not have closed captioning (however, I read that the A321s do).
We used Hertz LAX because of their “ultimate choice” system, which lets you pick your rental car. They have all the cars in the lot with the keys inside, and you can take whichever one you want from the class you paid for (or from a higher class for more money, of course). I liked this because it allowed me to find the car with the least odor (of about 10-15 cars in our section, only one had a mild shampoo smell–the others had various overpowering scents). Unfortunately, it wasn’t completely smell-free. But it was among the least offensive rental cars I’ve had lately. I wish they’d stop spraying them with such strong perfumes and scented cleaners. The car was a dark gray 2017 Nissan Sentra that had fantastic visibility.
We stayed at the Hilton Garden Inn Montebello. It was absolutely perfect. As of our stay, they still had the Garden Sleep System in the queen guestrooms (and some king rooms, but I booked a 2 queen to be safe). The shower was very hot and great pressure for California. The room was mostly quiet, especially overlooking the golf course instead of a road or parking lot.
Day 1 – Thursday December 7th
Breakfast was at Stuff I Eat in Inglewood. I love their fresh, healthy take on soulfood. I got my usual, the Sumthin’ Sumthin’ with an extra side of Mac n Cheese. Jacob had the Soul Food Platter (without the yams).
The main event for this day was Universal Hollywood. It ended up being a perfect day to go because it was not crowded at all. Even Hogsmeade didn’t feel crowded! It was so refreshing and relaxing enjoying a theme park that wasn’t crowded for a change (I can’t remember the last time our parks in Orlando felted uncrowded). This was the first year Universal celebrated Christmas in the Wizarding World, and we got a great view of the Hogwarts castle projects–twice! I said, after the first viewing, that the trip was worth it just for that (it was too crowded at UO to even get onto the main street of Hogsmeade to view it). The decorations are subtle and fit nicely with the setting, and the projection show perfectly captures the wintry charm from the books. Other than Hogsmeade, we watched all 3 of the live shows they offer. We’ve seen the Animal Actors show before (and it’s basically the same as back home), but the Waterworld stunt show and Special Effects show were new for us. We both preferred the Special Effects show. The stunts in Waterworld were impressive, but the story was too dated, undeveloped, and cheesy (even for us!). I’d love to see the show rewritten slightly with the same great stunt work. We also did the Walking Dead permanent haunted house, which marked our first haunted house together (Jacob’s never joined me for HHN). Since is wasn’t busy, the haunted house was very different from the procession of HHN–they send you in in small groups timed in such a way that you don’t encounter the group in front of you. It was much more fun having to explore our way through the maze instead of just following along behind the stream of people in front of you at HHN (obviously, they need to do it that way at HHN or else the lines would be even longer).
Next stop was Donut Friend. Best doughnuts I’ve ever had. What more can I say?
Dinner was takeout from Ramen Hood. I prefer takeout from there because seating is limited and it’s very hot, loud, and crowded in the market (too hot to eat if it’s not a very cold day/night outside, and this December had highs in the 80s in Los Angeles). It is packaged with the broth separate from the fillings and holds up to travel (easy to reheat in a hotel microwave). We parked in the attached garage for $2 and took our ramen back to the hotel. We watched the Psych movie premier on USA while eating our ramen.
Day 2 – Friday December 8th
Breakfast for today was Pomegranate. Jacob got the Crab Cake sandwich, which was fantastic. Their housemade (mushroom-based) faux seafoods are amazing and definitely what to get if you go! I got the Creamy Mushroom Pasta, which was okay, but not better than pasta I make. I wasn’t crazy about the particular mushrooms they used or the somewhat chunky sauce. The quiche and pumpkin sides were okay, but they have other offerings that are much better.
I finally got to have my Stawberry Shortcake, and it was worth the wait! When the server asked if we’d been there before, I mentioned how I lost my last desserts from there (see last January’s triplog for the bus incident), and as we were leaving she gifted us a chocolate berry mousse cup, which was also delicious (amazing chocolate mousse).
We attempted to go to Griffith Observatory today, but by the time we got there at 1:15 (with them opening at noon), all the parking near the Observatory (at $4/hour!) was taken. I was coming down with a cold and wasn’t up for the hike up from the parking lot near the Greek Theater, so we spent a little time in the nearby park area, then left. We ate our gift dessert at a picnic table, found an adorable gathering of bees at a water fountain, and saw a bunch of other wildlife (tons of woodpeckers!).
We tried a new place for dinner, Gracias Madre, and it was okay, but not great. I really enjoyed the mashed potato enchiladas and the sides of kale and beans it came with. However, the tamal was terrible–the texture was all wrong and the filling was one-note. Neither of us could eat it or the side of spicy, pickled vegetables that came with it. The only thing we ate from that plate was the beans. The mini chimichanga from the happy hour menu was good (but a little greasy) and the nachos from the same menu were also good (but not remarkable).
Day 3 – Saturday December 9th
Today, we tried out The Basement, which is an escape room that is acclaimed for having very high set quality. We really appreciated the design and the way they integrated all the puzzles into the theme (no combination locks there!). We ran into a few practical issues due to the immersive themeing, though. The first was that they used smoke effects in a small space, and with my respiratory issues and Jacob’s asthma, we were severely hindered by it. I wasn’t sure what their rules were regarding leaving the room for a moment and coming back (they didn’t have the usual rules/safety spiel that most places do, opting instead for a themed intro video), and in hindsight, I should have used the release to let us get some fresh air, but instead we just persevered (and suffered for it). The other problem for me was that the sound effects, while immersive, were much too loud. So loud in fact, I couldn’t hear the hints over them. They were kind enough to eventually momentarily cut the sound to play the hints so we could hear. We did a room that’s supposed to be 2-8 people with just 2, and that made it quite difficult as well (one aspect in particular would make me inclined to say there should be a 3 person minimum). Nevertheless, we did appreciate their design quality and would be interested in going back some time to do another room with a larger group.
After the escape room, we had brunch at Crossroads Kitchen. I’m really hoping their dinner offerings are better, because brunch was quite disappointing. The kale salad was great–finely chopped kale with a tasty dressing. However, our entrees were mediocre-to-bad. Jacob’s chick’n sandwich was fine, but not any better than the ones he whips up as a snack from frozen Boca patties. My mushroom crepe was a disaster. I should have got a pic of in unfolded because there was only filling for about 1/2 the width of the crepe, and it was mostly a few pearl onions and maybe 2 pieces of mushroom. The sauce had an odd sour flavor to it. Overall, terribly executed.
For dessert, we went to Sakuraya mochi in Gardena for some authentic red bean mochi, and it was fantastic!
Next stop was some serious nerding out in Torrance, stopping by the high school and the house used for establishing shots in the Buffy TV show. We were true Hollywood tourists for a moment. It’s cool that you can totally recognize the buildings even though they are situated differently than they appear in the show.
After that, we headed to Redondo Beach Pier for some wildlife watching. I really enjoyed Redondo; it was a relatively quiet and accessible beach (free parking the day we went!). We heard some sea lions and saw lots of birds. We walked along the shore and up to Veterans Park (basically just some trees and benches) and saw a lovely sunset.
Dinner was at our favorite restaurant, Shojin. I love the atmosphere there and their sushi rolls are so good. We got an orange chick’n appetizer, that was nice, but not spectacular, and a pumpkin soup that was really nice. We got our usual appetizer of the stuffed shitake mushrooms, which was fantastic as always. For rolls we got the crab cake hand rolls (new favorite!!) and two baked scallops. The apple crumble for dessert was okay, but I much prefer their cakes at Pomegranate (need to remember to stick to desserts and Pomegranate and skip them at Shojin). I also found my new favorite tea, the Choco Latte Rooibos from American Tea Room.
Day 4 – Sunday, December 10th
I decided to try for the Griffith Observatory again today, and I’m so glad I did! We got there at about 9:50 for the 10am opening, and there were parking spots available at the Observatory! They had lots of fantastic exhibits and the location and building are stunning. We watched the movie in the Nimoy Theater about the addition to the building, saw the Tesla coil, and did lots of exhibits.
Lunch was at By Chloe, where we feasted on our favorites: meatball subs, kale Caesar salad, spinach dip, and pesto pasta. I really wish Chloe Coscarelli would open a new restaurant in Orlando! I love her recipes!
Then we picked up more Ramen Hood to-go for dinner and headed to the Grand Californian. They had recently renovated the rooms, and I love the new design! The orange grove and Chip and Dale theme is really cute and the new bathroom design is very modern. We got lucky with a DVC-side first floor room again (I love the convenience of the first floor and the partial view of the excitement of Paradise Pier from that side of the hotel).
This was the first time that we’ve been that the pool wasn’t closed, it wasn’t raining, or wasn’t freezing–even though it was a little chilly by the time we got there in the late afternoon. We rode the waterslide once, and as soon as I hit the frigid water, I hopped out, and went back to the room to change! Then we spent the rest of the evening lounging around the pool area in the plush recliners. So luxurious!
We watched World of Color from the terrace of the GCH, which is one of the nicest perks of the hotel (in addition to being right next to the parks and of course the lovely ambiance). The terrace is directly above our room (seen below in the pic).
Day 5 – Monday, December 11th
We tried a lot of new things with our park days this visit. First of all, we went to the park that didn’t have extra magic hours (mainly because we wanted to see Mickey and the Magical Map, which was only playing on Monday (not Tues or Wed). So, we started at Disneyland. It was actually a bit less crowded than when there are EMH, and we got to sleep in an extra hour. Win-win. We rope-dropped Peter Pan, but it was still insanely busy. It was nice to finally see the differences in the West Coast version! We saw all our favorite shows and did our favorite rides.
Another change this time was the new MaxPass, which lets you book your Fastpass from your phone instead of physically going to the kiosk. It also includes PhotoPass photos, but that’s not as good of a value as it would be at WDW where they have significantly more PhotoPass opportunities. The MaxPass was great and convenient, but really not necessary, so I wouldn’t do it if I were on a strict budget, or if they raise the price. The great thing was we were able to book a Radiator Springs Racers FP while we were still in DL and then do it on the way out of the park. Unfortunately, that didn’t work out quite as planned, as the line happened to extend out into the street, so we skipped it (but we were able to make another from the room for later that night). We also got physical FastPasses for World of Color, where we watched from the far left side on the tier closest to the water. When we got there, all the great spots were taken, but we were happy with the off-center view from that less crowded spot.
There weren’t as many great vegan options in the park this year as we’d seen in the past. The gumbo’s recipe changed and it wasn’t as good. The beans and rice I’d always enjoyed from Rancho de Zocalo weren’t as good. Lucky Fortune Cookery now only has 1 vegan option, a Thai curry, and I wasn’t in the mood for spicy. The chocolate dipped sorbet is still just as good though!
Day 5 – Tuesday, December 12th
Another big change this time is that we didn’t do back-to-back park days. This was a great change! We spent the day exploring lounges and terraces of the hotel we’d never been to before and rested up from our previous adventures. The gingerbread house of the year had the adorable Chip n Dale theme, and was really cute!
We drove out to Los Angeles for lunch again at Pomegranate. Definitely don’t wait until noon to leave Anaheim because you’ll end up encountering rush hour (that starts around 3pm) on the way back. Next time, we’ll leave by 10 or 11 AM to be back before rush hour. I got the lobster roll this time, and it was amazing. The crab cake sandwich was just as good as before too.
I wasn’t sure what the “cold case” and “hot case” items were, so here’s a pic as an example (although, they’ll change daily/seasonally). Some of the cold case items are really large and a great value as your “side.” We got a 4-hot-item combo to-go. We got turnip gratin, eggplant lasagna, crispy polenta, and roasted rosemary roots. The roots were the best by far.
For dinner, we got takeout from the local Loving Hut. I got a veggie lo mien that was okay.
Day 6 – Wednesday, December 13th
Second park day! We started at DL again, and rode Holiday Haunted Mansion as many times in a row as we possibly could. I’ve found the best strategy for DL is to go first thing in the morning, and then by about noon, head out, because the crowds are absolutely unbearable. Then spend the rest of the day lounging around the resort. Go back at night for the nighttime shows if you can bear the crowds, or if you manage to get a FastPass or two (but beware, the nights are crazy packed).
We got takeout from Thuyen Vien for dinner. It was okay, but I didn’t love it.
We watched World of Color from the bridge going toward Ariel’s Grotto and Paradise Pier. While it’s quite off-center, I really enjoyed the seclusion and quietness of the bridge. I think I’d stick to this spot in the future to avoid the crowds.
Day 7 – Thursday, December 14th
This was our first time doing an evening flight home, and it was great being able to leisurely check out and see some more sights before heading home. After leaving Anaheim, we had lunch again at Stuff I Eat. This time, we changed up our orders and found new favorites! I got the Enchilada Pie (mild, no salsa), and Jacob got the veggie burger, plus, of course, a side of mac n cheese. Have I mentioned how much I love this restaurant?
After lunch, we toured the Getty Museum, which had lovely grounds and lots of wonderful fine art. My favorite exhibit was a European decorative arts display that was basically a history through furniture, and was absolutely fabulous. We enjoyed the museum, and I’d like to visit their other location, the Getty Villa next time I’m in Los Angeles.
We had our traditional farewell to California dinner at Shojin. This time, there was a special appetizer of matsutake mushrooms that we tried, in addition to our usual baked scallop roll. We also tried the purple treasure, which was very good, and of course the new favorite crab cake hand rolls.
The flight back was a JetBlue 320 again, which was really pleasant.