Thursday, May 22, 2014

Trip to Dallas

About a month ago, my sister called and mentioned that she wanted to attend the Dallas Comic Con at the Dallas Convention Center on her birthday. And personally, I was thrilled; since my dad and sister share the same birthday, we thought it'd be a great event to indulge alongside the collected geekery of thousands of fans, endless aisles of collectors' items and committed cosplay enthusiasts. Unfortunately, our dad was less than elated; we mentioned the exhibit hall full of vendors, the aforementioned die-hard fans, and the science fiction celebrity panels, and he passively agreed to come. To sweeten the deal, we mentioned going to Medieval Times, and his spirits perked a little; he'd never been there but heard a lot of good things about it via Jim Carrey's blockbuster hit The Cable Guy (1996). Please don't watch The Cable Guy to understand that reference; I don't want to be held responsible for wasting anyone's time and money. And since I planned the event, I wanted to visit the Dallas World Aquarium, because I like animals. Initially, I thought there would be too much walking for one day since we planned to attend the aquarium on the same day as comic con, with Medieval Times scheduled on the previous night, but my sister turned down my back-up plan of watching Godzilla in IMAX 3D claiming, and I quote, 'I don't want to watch that, it looks stupid.'

So with a few weeks to spare and majority of my paycheck spent on reservations and tickets, I eagerly awaited our two day, whirlwind trip, and in hindsight, it did not disappoint.

I worked on the previous night, and after a short power nap, my dad arrived at my apartment to follow my sister into Dallas, where he lied and said I could sleep on the ride to the hotel. Admittedly, he doesn't have the best eye sight to watch my sister's car and look out for the cars around him, but he lied and I think he should be held accountable for his actions. Every time I closed my eyes or there was a tired, silent pause, he'd mention one of our many childhood trips across the state. And even throughout my angsty childhood adolescence, I could only recall fond memories of shifting through the sands on the beaches of Galveston or touring through old battleships in Corpus Christi. And despite being the closest and one of the most well-known metropolitans in the country, we hardly ever visited Dallas; maybe it's just a Fort Worth complex. But as the skyline along the horizon slowly developed into skyscrapers and concrete canyons before our very own eyes, it was hard not to view the city as something big and foreign and grand; it was Dallas, and we had arrived.

When we checked into the Hotel Indigo of Dallas, I was kept awake by fumes and excitement. Originally known as the Dallas Hilton, the hotel was built in 1925, and it was the first hotel to bear the Hilton name. Alongside its once proud heritage, it's been renovated and changed ownerships several times withstanding periods of neglect, disarray and the great depression. Currently, it's been restored with quaint rooms, bright pastel colors, and an open bar with friendly service. Also, it was cheap and across the street from a parking garage. Our hotel room had a chic dorm room charm with hardwood floors, a desk, television and two polka dotted couches facing a small coffee table; the adjoining bedroom had its own television and a small bathroom with a shower. In most regards, it was small but pleasant, and for the first few minutes, we shared stories as we finished the Italian cream cake that my sister stashed away from the previous night. We exchanged presents; I bought them both ukuleles with tuners and carrying cases, and my sister instantly started playing with it. Since we had some time before Medieval Times, my sister said that I should take a nap in the bedroom while they practiced with their new toys, and as I closed the bedroom door and laid down on the soft bed, amassed within the several small pillows that accumulated near the head of the bed, my sister continued to play with her ukulele and I couldn't get a minute of sleep. She later said that she tried to soothe me to sleep, which would have sounded cuter if she was like ten or something.

At first we were a little concerned that we wouldn't be able to find Medieval Times so we printed out directions and typed its address into the GPS systems, but it's actually really hard to miss a large white castle with ivy shrouded towers from the highway, and we arrived about an hour early, just as the school and tour buses unloaded in the parking lot. If you're not familiar with Medieval Times, it's a restaurant chain inside a castle-like structure with a medieval-style tournament and customary feast. Also, it's expensive. On the draw bridge, we presented our reservation slips, and we were given a few small cards with our seat numbers and the colors of our knight. Inside, we were presented our color coordinated crowns and ushered into the great hall, which primarily consisted of a large central gift shop with two open bars flanked on either side. We wandered around for a few minutes; some guests waited in line for pictures with the king and princess while others gawked at fully armored suits and weapons that were for sale. Besides looking at the horses through Plexiglas and metal bars, we primarily talked outside in the smoking section next to the falcon pen. The bar offered a wide assortment of mixed drinks, and to my surprise, they had Angry Orchard, my favorite brand of hard apple cider. Believe it or not, hard apple cider tastes best in a cold, overpriced glass goblet, especially if it's blue; I know from experience.

Before long, the arena doors opened, and we were ushered to our seats in the front row near the center of the arena. And whether or not you’re a fan of the show, you have to admit that it’s quite a production. Within the opening minutes, the stadium became dark and mist brewed along the arena floor before a large white stallion frolicked along the ring as the narrator explained the event’s prestigious backstory. They introduced the king and princess, and we cheered as the strong, noble knights trotted to their respected colored sections. We were in the black and white knight’s section, and I don’t want to seem racist or historically inaccurate, but our knight was black, and I think all black knights are bad asses. Throughout the beginning of the event, the horses stole the show with their grace and poise as they trampled through the mist covered arena, performing gallant trots and ambitious leaps across the air. Next the falcon displayed his guile as he swooped through the audience, and I could literally feel the breath of his wings as he whipped past my head. As the event felt like it was slowly winding down, a thin black net descended around the arena, and shit got real. After the soft preview of the knights lancing metal rings and a friendly relay on horseback, the tournament ended with jousting and a combination of melee weapons from swords, axes and flails. Unfortunately, we all kind of knew it was rigged, and despite the hard blows and several sparks clashing from sword to sword, it all felt like a heavily staged wrestling match with weapons. And despite how hard a certain group cheered for their knight (the middle school band section literally screamed and chanted for the blue knight to get up and keep fighting), we all kind of knew it wasn’t going to happen. Ultimately, it was a great show, especially when you consider that they perform twice a day, and despite being staged, they held nothing back; you could hear every lance shatter throughout the jousting event and feel every hard blow deflected from a knights’ shield. It was full contact, and after the event, I’m sure they left several kids dreaming to be knights someday.

Also, the food was great. It was all finger food, and I accidently lost my napkin midway through the program so I felt a little disgusting until they handed out moist towelettes at the very end, but that's hardly their fault. And they apparently had an alternative vegetarian menu, which was probably just more soup, bread and potatoes, but it’s good that it’s an option; I’m sure most vegetarians would have just starved in the real medieval times.

Afterwards, I was pooped, and after a few beers we were off to bed. According to the confirmation email, Travelocity claimed that the hotel would provide three beds, whether standard beds with mattresses or pullout beds from couches. Fortunately, our room came with one standard bed and two pullout beds; unfortunately, there wasn’t enough space in the hotel room to pullout both beds at the same time. But there were two of them; I’ll give them that. And even as I laid on my fairly comfortable couch that could be a bed but for the sake of space remained a couch, I still couldn’t sleep. Around 2:00am we turned off the television after watching halfway through Jerry Maguire and around 6:30am the sun came up. Instead of closing the blinds and going back to bed like a sane, rational person, my dad started singing happy birthday to himself until we eventually turned on the television and watched About a Boy until my sister woke up around 11:00am. It was bound to be a long day.

Located in the West End Historic District of Downtown Dallas, the Dallas World Aquarium houses an eclectic variety of animals inside a renovated warehouse built in 1924. Despite its compact, one block perimeter, the aquarium offered the best indoor ecological experience I’ve ever seen with its lush flora and wide selection of animals from free roaming birds on tree tops to creatures dwelling beneath the bottom of the oceans; even the pathway leading into the ticket counter had kids running and bustling about to see the different types of birds and mammals. And there were a lot of kids. For some reason, I usually underestimate the amount of children that will hysterically run amuck through large zoos and museums, but at the time, I figured the aquarium wouldn’t be busy since it was a school day. Unfortunately, I didn’t take account for field trips. There must have been at least five different field trips at the aquarium that day, and despite all of its greatness, I’m sure the aquarium’s entrance would have been disorienting without the swarm of children. After you pay for the tickets, you’re given a map, and I think the best thing to do with the map would be to not look at it until you’re out of the aquarium. With its multi-level pathways, colorful pictures and detailed descriptions of several different animals, the map works best as a free souvenir, something for the kids to look at on the way home. Start from the top and work your way down, go slow and loop back if you miss anything; in the canopy, there’s really only one pathway, and it slowly descends onto the ground floor and weaves into the depths of the aquarium’s large fish tanks. Also, there are penguins; don’t miss the penguins.

On the top floor, we immediately became immersed in the lush green hues of varied plants and trees and felt overwhelmed by the manmade waterfall that rushed onto the small river several flights below; there were free roaming birds and monkeys on tree tops and large, bloated manatees and two slowly hanging sloths. Everything felt active and alive, and every inch of the aquarium possessed something unique and fascinating if you just took the time to look for it. Except at the giant otter enclosure. Admittedly, my sister and I are otter enthusiasts, and they’re easily one of our favorite animals at the zoo. Unfortunately, we could not find the giant otter; we dipped our heads below the water tank and scoured the land for any hiding places. After a few minutes, we moved along to the fish exhibit and ventured through the shark infested aquarium tunnel and past the island of small and often sleepy penguins, but before we left aquarium, we needed to see the otter. The enclosure still appeared empty on our second attempt, and after a while, we walked up a different level in hopes of seeing him at a different angle. And right when we were peered down at his enclosure, we saw him swimming about in the water pool. We rushed down as fast as we could, just in time to see him pace a few more laps as we frantically tried to take pictures of him, but he just refused to stay still. After a while, our venture was complete and we thoroughly explored the Dallas World Aquarium, including the gift shop. Zoos and museums have the best gift shops. And they even had a nice, little restaurant where my dad consumed a tall glass of margarita and proclaimed that he could drink and look out over the forest all day long.

With just a couple hours before Comic Con opened, we were exhausted and retreated back to the hotel room to refresh ourselves with coffee and indolence. And after we spent a few minutes sprawled out on the couch, basking in the small pleasantries of idleness and air conditioning, we were off to our next adventure.

If you're unfamiliar with the Dallas Comic Con, it's the three day event that celebrates the vast facets of science fiction from comic book creators to actors from well-known science fiction movies and television shows. Since its creation, the convention has been held at smaller venues throughout the metroplex, but with its recent change in management, it was the first time the event was held at the Dallas Convention Center. Top billings for this year's event included Stan Lee, William Shatner, and several cast members from Firefly, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and The Walking Dead. And from the moment that we heard about it, my sister and I were stoked. Unfortunately, my sister could only attend one day, and we were slightly disappointed with the limited panels and Q & A sessions held on its opening day, with the assumption that most fans attended the event on Saturday and Sunday. Still, it was the first time at a science fiction convention, and we were excited about the prospect of it being unexpected, and it did not disappoint.

Since we weren't familiar about where to park or enter the convention center, we primarily relied on the small herd of fans wearing science fiction t-shirts and guests dressed as zombies. Clearly if you're dressed as a zombie, you have to have some general idea on where you're going; it's not like they were going to go grocery shopping or meeting a few friends at a coffee shop. As we crossed the street and headed up the elevator, I thought our vague little plan was working; we past a few standard super heroes and batman clad in a wedding dress, which signified that we plainly had the right building, but we still didn't know where we going. Unfortunately, it wasn't a perfect plan; after following the crowd to the exhibit hall, we were told at the door to retrieve our wrist bands at the ticket hall after we presented our advance tickets. And it was slightly embarrassing and didn't bode well for my confidence, but I felt a little better after a few more people were turned away at the door with the same issue. Before the convention, my sister mentioned splitting up and exploring the convention hall on our own, and initially, it sounded like a great idea, except it probably meant that I would be stuck with our dad since he didn't even want to attend the event in the first place. For the record, I love my dad, and we've had some great adventures, but I've been in enough events with him to know that he's not the most organized tourist, and I didn't want him short selling the event if he just walked down the same aisle for an hour.

And as we entered the exhibition hall, with his several rows of booths and comics and action figures and collectors' items and cosplay groups and comic book artists and literal towers of science fiction themed t-shirts, I was overwhelmed. Despite being a soft open, with majority of the crowds and attractions to come over the weekend, there were enough cosplay enthusiasts to keep my head whirling and eyes attentive for the next fictional personnel to brush past my shoulder. It's so rare to attend an event where every square inch of the floor possessed something valuable; down one aisle, you could spend hours digging through troves of comic books and boxed action figures and t-shirts, and you'd still be surprised and excited about what you would find in the next booth. In a void, an iron man hoodie qualifies as something special and unique, but at the convention, it's lined up near a batman hoodie and a Chewbacca hoodie and superman bathrobe and a star trek bathrobe, and the list continued until you turned away or stopped counting.

That being said, I didn't buy anything. Through the organized disarray, my sister purchased a few things from Cyanide & Happiness, including a personal, and completely disturbing, drawing from the artists, a few science fiction medical patches, and a small Doctor Who tote bag, because there was apparently a trust between venders to not give away free plastic bags with every purchase. It's a conspiracy; someone really needs to look into it. And my dad bought a samurai sword, because that's a thing. Personally, I'm an indecisive buyer, and I feel more comfortable spending money on someone else instead of myself. In hindsight, a cheap light saber seemed extremely impractical at the time, but it would have been a pretty bad ass flashlight, and I could always use more Pokemon plushies.

On the lower level of the convention hall, removed from the bustling venders and sales booths, rested the autograph section, filled with actors and actresses supporting their own legions of die-hard fans in single filed lines. A few celebrities were missing since it was the first day of the convention, but there were still several cast members from Firefly, Star Trek: The Next Generation and The Walking Dead in attendance. I am a huge Firefly fan and immediately wanted to get all of their autographs, but since their lines were pretty long, we perused through the crowds and worked our way around. Our first autograph started with a debate. Near the back of the autograph section, Christopher Lloyd, best known for his role as Dr. Emmett Brown on the Back to the Future series, complacently sat with a fairly modest line. As others took pictures of him from a distance, careful not to impede on the autograph only section, it occurred to us that Lloyd was pretty old and probably wouldn't continue the comic con circuit forever. And even though we weren't die-hard fans and each autograph cost somewhere between $40 to $60, it sounded like a solid investment; I don't want to sound mean, but ebay will exist long after he retires.

After we tested the waters, we continued to the cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation and patiently waited for LeVar Burton's signature, best known for his portrayal of Geordi La Forge from Star Trek: The Next Generation and the host of Reading Rainbow. As we picked out a photo for him to sign, we overheard Burton strike up a conversation with the little girl in front of us, who was an avid Reading Rainbow fan. She'd recently finished writing a book, and she was describing all of the characters and backstories while her mother politely tried to move her along. Meanwhile, Burton carefully listened and asked her questions about the plot and title. I'm not a fan of celebrities charging their fans for their autographs, but you just know that he created an experience that she will never forget and inspired her to keep reading and writing.And I would gladly support any actor who's willing to make someone's day and leave their fans feeling happy about themselves.

Afterwards, we waited in line for autographs from Jewel Staite, Adam Baldwin and Sean Maher, best known for their roles on Firefly as Kaylee, Jayne and Simon. Easily a fan favorite, Jewel Staites had the longest line out of the three with some fans carrying pictures, paintings and banners for her to sign. While my sister temporarily left to retrieve an autograph from Sean Maher, my dad made a few passive remarks about the people in line; some lugged around carts full of collectors' items and adorn fan made Firefly vests and brown coat patches. And I realized that I was proud to be in line with them. On the surface, Firefly was a television series that lasted one season more than ten years ago, but the series still prevailed through the support of its fans, and I found myself in the rare situation where not only did everyone know about Firefly, but they deeply cared about its characters and the future of its cast members. I was in a line full of nerds; a passionate group of people who were willing to be knowledgeable about trivial, even fictional things, and they were comfortable enough with themselves to be excited and committed to something despite the fret of judgment or scrutiny. My sister's a paramedic, and at one of the booths, she managed to find one of the fictional medical badges that was used during an episodes where the crew posed as paramedics to rob a government hospital. She asked the three cast members to sign it, which they all graciously did. And after Adam Baldwin signed it, he quoted one obscure line from that episode in his character's low, gruffy voice, "We applied the cortical electrodes but were unable to get a neural reaction ... or something." And it made me realize how much he cared about the show and the support of its fans.

I had a great time with dad and sister; it was an experience that I will never forget, and I'm glad that I could share those memories with them.

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