My wife and I had a few days to take off, so we planned a quick excursion to the Long Beach area. Deciding not to make the trip too exclusive, we invited our kids along. It was early July, they were out of school for the summer, and we figured spending a few warm days closer to the ocean could help kick their summer doldrums.
When you think of California, what comes to mind? For a seasoned traveler, thoughts range from fine dining in Napa Valley to a scenic drive and adventurous hiking along the Pacific Coast Highway. But for a family of six off on a quick getaway, the big three stand out: ocean, theme parks, and tourist attractions.
So that’s what we did: Seal Beach, Universal Studios, and the Queen Mary ocean liner. In California, even staying on the road often traveled is pretty awesome.
Seal Beach (http://www.sealbeachca.gov/) is a coastal town in Orange County of about 24,000 people and boasts the second longest wooden pier in California. We loved that pier. While walking its length and looking out into the Pacific Ocean is rewarding, the real reason I liked the pier was to watch and listen to the waves slam against the pylons and concrete base, crashing and flowing around the structure. We set up our spot on the beach and ventured out into the ocean, getting more comfortable with the waves and the water, all the while being distracted by breakers seeking new ways to curl around the legs of the pier.
Those were the same breakers we tried to body surf on. Horribly at first, but with the help of a local beach-goer, I started to get the sense of exactly when to start swimming and just when to push my body against the crest of the wave. I wouldn’t call myself good, but I think I was getting the hang of it.
Directly across from the Seal Beach Pier lies the shopping district of Main Street. Within the space of just three short blocks, there are 49 gift shops, 6 art galleries, 4 antique stores and 24 restaurants. It’s a lot of California packed into a little bitty space. After swimming for a few hours and relaxing on the soft sand of the beach, hunger finally drove us away from the water and into this small collection of Seal Beach memories.
For lunch, we found our options of everything from seafood to sandwiches, BBQ to burritos. What finally pulled us in was a small pizzeria. With room barely large enough for the few dining tables, the smell emanating from the kitchen and the constant stream of customers convinced us this was a place proven to attract even the locals.
We were not disappointed.
A Slice of New York Pizza (http://www.thebestsliceofnewyork.com/Seal_Beach.php) serves a true New York style pizza, with a wide variety of choices sold by the pie or by the slice. You can also sink your teeth into your own calzone or stromboli, but we chose the ubiquitous Margherita pie and our girls favorite, the traditional cheese pizza. I don’t think you could go wrong with any of the selections, but after a day of swimming and sunning, these pies were the most delicious slices of heaven we could have found. Even the girls didn’t hesitate to reach for their share of the Margherita pizza.
We ate our fill and ventured back out onto the street to wait for our shuttle back to the hotel. With time to spare, we wandered into many of the unique gift stores. Amid the eclectic collections of wares, some gawky, some typical, and some funny but useless, we found beautiful creations made of shells and glass items pulled from the water. Buying these souvenirs made for a good finish to our first day of fun and sun.
The next day, we headed off to Universal Studios Hollywood (http://www.universalstudioshollywood.com/). It was a bit of a drive from our hotel in Long Beach, about an hour each way, but to keep it interesting, our shuttle driver provided a self-proclaimed “tour of the stars” through downtown Hollywood. She told us that driving through the city actually made the trip shorter, rather than being caught on the infamously crowded freeways of Southern California. And who doesn’t like to see Justin Timberlake’s house or the Grauman’s Chinese Theater forecourt of famous footprints from the window of a moving SUV?
Even though we couldn’t take the time to experience the real Hollywood, the pseudo-tour did make the drive more enjoyable. Being an entertainment industry die-hard, our oldest son Brandon couldn’t get enough. He was so excited to see the buildings of the famous Laugh Factory, the Kodak Theatre, and Madame Tussaud’s wax museum, the names of which he’d heard about and grown to love through his high school drama classes.
We made it to Universal Studios safely, picked up our Front of the Line passes (which I highly recommend during the summer months when the park is more crowded), and headed off to our first attraction: the House of Horrors. Not realizing that the park hosted a year-long haunted house, I thought it strange to suddenly be in a dark, frightening world of monsters and mayhem. How cool it became though, I quickly learned, to walk with Frankenstein and the Wolfman and see the classical creatures from the scary movies of the past. It turned out to be a great start to immersing ourselves in the movie worlds of Universal. And Brandon may have enjoyed it the most, with the two teenage girls from the group behind us hanging on him and hiding their faces in his arms as they encountered each new surprise. His was the largest grin coming out of the attraction.
Our day at Universal Studios had something for everyone. My girls were so excited to see Scooby Doo, the Minions, Vin Diesel, and so many other characters from the movies and to have their pictures taken with them.
The boys thought it was great to see the sets and scenery from blockbuster hits such as War of the Worlds and Jaws, while my wife and I got a kick out of the Whoville set.
And we all enjoyed the thrill of “riding the movies. “
While theme parks such as Universal may have fewer rollercoasters than other non-themed amusement parks, the overall experience of being immersed into a movie during the ride more than makes up for the number. Whether it’s the surge of speed in complete darkness on the Revenge of the Mummy ride or the quick getaway from a 3D Decepticon on the Transformers ride, you feel as if you are actually part of the imagined world. That is what I enjoy the most. From the moment you first enter the line, to when you step into whatever vehicle will take you on a new adventure, and through the entire attraction, Universal envelops you in their fantasy worlds. You become part of the story. Even when dropping 84 feet to escape the T-Rex from Jurassic Park. Splash.
Our final day was a little more relaxed. We took the chance to sleep in, and then leaving the kids to enjoy the hotel pool, my wife and I took off on our own adventure to the Queen Mary (http://www.queenmary.com/index.php).
Part hotel, part museum, this giant ocean liner is now a historical landmark. I would guess residents of Southern California know all about the Queen Mary – but we didn’t. I had no idea of the history and stories that this grand ship contained.
We started our tour not on the ship, but by going through its neighboring Scorpion submarine. This relic of the Cold War is unchanged from the time of its service in the Russian military. Although I enjoyed seeing it from the inside, climbing through its cramped quarters and even narrower walkways made me realize I never want to spend real time in a submarine. I became more appreciative of those who serve and the lifestyle they must live, which is the ultimate purpose of these floating museums. So the first steps we took on our half-day tour were a success.
Coming out of the tight submarine made the Queen Mary look even larger. We climbed several flights of stairs and started exploring the halls and rooms near the front of the ship, learning the original purpose of each public room and beginning to relive the life of pre-WWII passengers.
After a short self-guided tour, it was time to meet up with our guide for the Ghosts & Legends tour. “Do you believe in ghosts?” the tour description asks. I’m not sure I was convinced the ship is really haunted, but we really enjoyed going down deep into the innards of the Queen Mary, entering the original boiler room and seeing the old and creepy First-Class swimming pool. The lighting (or absence of light) and effects made for a jumpy and entertaining tour. However, the best part was watching the other patrons; we got quite the kick watching a sweet grandmother who I think was more nervous than her toddler granddaughter.
The final tour we took presented to us the story of how the Queen Mary served in WWII. This grand ocean liner played a critical role in the victory of the Allied Forces. Painted stark gray and nicknamed the “Grey Ghost”, the ship carried an almost unbelievable amount of troops. Again, I was impressed and struck by the sacrifice and efforts of so many who fought for and believed in a better future, of which my family and I get to enjoy. At the beginning of the day, I pictured myself climbing on a big ship and just having fun being on something so large. After our educational experience, my perspective changed and I viewed the magnificent ship as something so much more.
Which helped make our California trip a success. We created yet another great memory for our family. We played, we swam, we surfed. And we grew. Closer as a family, deeper in appreciation for all that we have, and more in love with southern California.
“California dreamin’.” And what a dream it is.