August 23, 2013

Birthday surprise makes Disneyland visit special

Posted in Between Us column, Dining, Entertainment, Travel at 12:30 am by dinaheng

You can celebrate all kinds of special occasions at Disneyland. People go to commemorate wedding anniversaries, first job, first baby, you name it, and the folks at the park will do their best to help you celebrate.

When my dear friends Lesley and Shane decided to come to Los Angeles for a visit, the dates turned out to be the week of Lesley’s birthday, so Shane and I conspired to create a Disney experience fit for… well, a grown-up princess. Dinah Eng

This is a couple, after all, who spent their honeymoon at Disneyland, and over the years, have tried to bring their two children, Mikhaila, 12, and Ben, 8, to the park as often as possible. We told Lesley that we’d be going to Disneyland for the day and staying overnight in the area, but didn’t tell her that the folks at Disneyland had arranged for that stay to be at the Grand Californian Hotel & Spa.

When we drove up to the entrance of the elegant hotel, designed as an homage to the Arts and Crafts era, Lesley was shocked. As Shane parked the car, we checked into the stunning hotel that has its own entrance to Disney California Adventure Park, the sister park to Disneyland, and Downtown Disney. Walking into the lobby, which features a massive fireplace, natural cherry wood floors with ebony and mahogany accents, and wood columns and walls of African mahogany veneer, is like walking into a grand lodge from another age.

As soon as we told the clerk we were celebrating Lesley’s birthday, he made her a personalized birthday button to wear, “so that everyone here will know to wish you a happy birthday.” Talk about being made to feel special…

Disney's Grand Californian Hotel & Spa lobby.  Photo courtesy of Disney.

Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel & Spa lobby. Photo courtesy of Disney.

The kids, of course, couldn’t wait to get into Disneyland. A few hours later, after going on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, Lesley and I sat in New Orleans Square as Shane took the kids to climb Tarzan’s Treehouse.

“We got married in October 1993, and we were working two jobs,” Lesley recalled. “Shane was working at a process engineering company, and I was at a newspaper in Arizona. On the weekends, we’d clean the offices he worked at. It was a year after the wedding, when we’d saved enough to go on vacation, that we decided to take a delayed honeymoon. We both wanted to go to Disneyland. You come here, and everybody’s smiling. All you have to do is have fun, and eat good things.”

As the years went by, Disneyland became a vacation destination with the children whenever possible. The two use Disney-branded credit cards to take advantage of the loyalty rewards, even when, as Shane jokingly told a customer service rep on the phone, “It’s humiliating to have Tinkerbell on my card.” The rep immediately asked, “So do you want Woody and Buzz?”

That evening, we had dinner at Cafe Orléans, which offers everything from a Monte Cristo Sandwich to a Seafood Herb Crepe in a casual setting.  Dinner entreés range from $15.49 to $19.49 for adults, with a kids’ menu under $9. After a satisfying meal, Lesley was surprised with a birthday cake, topped with a piece of white chocolate, embossed with Mickey Mouse (prices start at $52), and the kids each received a mini-birthday cake ($15), which came in a Disney Princess Jewelry Box and a Disney Pirate Treasure Chest.

“When you make a reservation at any of our table service restaurants, you can order a cake, as well as through hotel room service,” explained Karlos Siqueiros, food and beverage concept development manager for Walt Disney Parks and Resorts U.S. “If you celebrate at Ariel’s Grotto, you may be surrounded by princesses, and there’s a mix of characters who’ll celebrate with you at Goofy’s Kitchen.”

Siqueiros, whose department is responsible for designing all the food novelty items in the park (think Dumbo or R2D2 as a popcorn bucket), says Disneyland has fulfilled many different birthday requests over the years.

There was the 84-year-old woman who got a meet-and-greet with Cinderella, her favorite princess, or the little boys who want to meet Buzz Lightyear. One year, a child got to ride in a fire truck down Main Street with Mickey, through the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

“Birthdays here are about being a kid, no matter your age,” says Siqueiros, who celebrates with his wife and kids at the park every year. “When I turned 50, the goal was to do 50 things in one day, and we did it. Birthdays are a way to celebrate people, to say to them, ‘The best thing that happened today was that you were born.’ ”

Lesley's birthday dinner at Disneyland's Cafe Orleans.

Lesley’s birthday dinner at Disneyland’s Cafe Orleans.

While a day at the park may mean tired, achy feet from standing in lines and running from one ride or live show to the next attraction, Shane says it’s all worth it to share moments of joy and wonder with the family.

“It’s a part of our family history to come to Disneyland,” he says. “It’s having a whole day of adventure with the kids. When they’re really young, it’s about chasing down the autographs with all the characters. Then it was how many times we could go on a ride. There was a Pixar Parade where the floats would shoot Nerf balls, and we collected them. Our rule was that we’d have to give away half of what we picked up to other kids who didn’t get one.”

And then, there’s the Matterhorn, a roller coaster ride not for the faint of heart.

The day after Thanksgiving 2008, an errant golf ball hit Mikhaila on the side of her head above the temple. A doctor in an urgent care center said the little girl’s eyes were dilating, so nothing was wrong. But Lesley’s intuition said otherwise, so they took her to a hospital emergency room.

“The doctor there said Mikhaila was fine, and he would not recommend that insurance cover a brain scan,” Lesley says. “I said I don’t care, we’ll pay for it. So they took a scan, and the doctor came to us to apologize, and said at that point, her condition was probably fatal. Her head was full of blood. By then, we’d whittled away three hours, and she was dying the whole time.”

An emergency helicopter took the little girl away to a trauma center, with the parents racing by car to follow. Mikhaila was diagnosed with an epidural hematoma (the same condition that killed actress Natasha Richardson after a skiing accident in 2009).

“Fortunately, one of the best neurosurgeons in the West was on call, and that probably saved her life,” Lesley says. “They cut the top of her skull off, got the blood out, and secured her head with metal. A year later, they took most of the metal out. Everything was too much for her at first — having a shaved head, sensitivity to noise, dizziness and nausea from fast motions — but she was determined to lick it. Now, the headaches have ebbed, and we just watch her carefully.”

As Mikhaila recovered, her parents decided a trip to Disneyland would lift her spirits.

“After her injury, she asked to get back on the Matterhorn, which was a big healing moment,” Shane says. “We wanted her to know she’s still the same little girl, and would  go on to have adventures in her life. It was a big confidence thing for her to ride the Matterhorn again, and we did it six times in a row.”

After dinner, we headed back to the Grand Californian Hotel to freshen up before catching the “World of Color” nighttime water and light show in California Adventure Park. Walking into the room, the kids were delighted to find chocolates on the bed, and a “Giant Sequoia” seed germination kit. Not only that, there was a huge Disney birthday gift basket for Lesley.

The kids, who wanted to stay up, talked Shane into doing another hour of rides before the park closed. So the three of them took off, while Lesley and I relaxed at the hotel. Before long, Lesley’s phone rang. Shane told her to go out on their room balcony, and watch the track below. It was pitch dark, and as the monorail rushed by below, we could see hands waving out of an open window and heard yells of “Hi, Mom!” below.

When everyone re-grouped, it was nearly midnight. One of the nice things about being a Disney hotel guest is you can get into the parks for select attractions an hour earlier than the general public. So Lesley and Shane agreed to get up early, if the kids would go to bed — immediately.

At 7 a.m., Mikhaila dragged Lesley off to Disneyland. Shane resisted Ben’s tugs to leave until about 8:15 a.m.  Me, I just slept in and met them later. The rest of the day zoomed by as we took in Disneyland’s newest show, “Mickey and the Magical Map,” rode “Star Tours” in Tomorrowland, and headed back to California Adventure Park for “Soaring Over California.”

Before leaving the Happiest Place on Earth, we had to do one last thing. We stopped at the pavement between the entrances to Disneyland and California Adventure Park to search for a brick paver that Lesley had bought as a Christmas gift for Shane in 2006, engraved with their family name.

Family's paver found at Disneyland.

Family’s paver found at Disneyland.

I volunteered to take a photo of the family with their brick, and they promptly laid down on the ground, with their heads surrounding their little piece of Disneyland. Now that’s a birthday picture they’ll never forget.

For information on how to celebrate birthdays at Disneyland, check out


August 8, 2013

Dance visionary finds spirituality in her art

Posted in Between Us column, Entertainment, Spirituality at 5:39 am by dinaheng

Joy, sorrow, anger, pride… whatever emotion you can think of, has been choreographed by Lula Washington.

Washington, the founder and artistic director of the Lula Washington Dance Theatre, is a leader in the world of movement, creating a repertoire company that performs experimental works and taps into the spirit of African-American dance. In 1983, she    started her own dance school, offering low cost and free dance classes to neighborhood children through an after-school program called “I Do Dance, Not Drugs!” in Los Angeles.Dinah Eng

The choreographer, known for fusing African and Afro-Haitian dance styles, will bring her magic to “An Evening of Dance: Complexions Contemporary Ballet and Lula Washington Dance Theatre” this Saturday, Aug. 10 in the Ford Theatre’s Inaugural Zev Yaroslavsky Signature Series, benefitting the Ford Theatre Foundation.

The Ford Theatre, owned and operated by the County of Los Angeles, offers a diverse slate of programming, which has been championed by L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky.

“Zev raised funds to renovate the Ford, and my husband was talking to him about his connection to art,” Washington says. “Zev said when he was younger, he had a job turning the page for the conductor, and whenever he looked up, he could see the ballet on stage.”

So Washington created a tribute called “Turn the Page,” which will premiere Saturday night.

Lula Washington.  Photo by Frances Dowdy.

Lula Washington. Photo by Frances Dowdy.

“What the page meant is different for every dancer on stage,” she says. “I’m inspired by things that happen globally, and in my community, and do works from my thoughts and feelings about it. As I was working with this piece, the Trayvon Martin verdict happened. I couldn’t let it go without being addressed.

“Some people were distressed and angered, and took to the streets to march to show their dissatisfaction. For many people, and from my point of view, here again was another injustice done to an African American. My creative release was part of ‘Turn the Page.’”

The woman who choreographed Disney’s “The LIttle Mermaid” movie and created the cultural/ritual movements and various sequences in James Cameron’s movie “Avatar,” says dance is a spiritual art form.

“You go through emotions, your body is twisted and turned, and your sweat is left on the dance floor,” Washington says. “It’s therapeutic and has a natural, healing power, and is prayerful. What I love about dance is that it allows the shyest person to express themselves through movement.

“I think there’s movement with everyone from the tiniest to the oldest, as long as there’s the will to move. So many people are shy to dance because they’re afraid of looking silly and what people will think. But those of us who love it don’t care. You need to move to have longevity. It’s just joyous.”

Dancers with the Lula Washington Dance Theatre. Photo by Ian Foxx.

Dancers with the Lula Washington Dance Theatre. Photo by Ian Foxx.

August 1, 2013

Wiggles return with new cast members

Posted in Between Us column, Entertainment at 5:49 pm by dinaheng

The Wiggles are back!

The world’s most famous rock band for youngsters are returning to the United States and Canada this month with a new album/DVD, a new TV show, and new cast members — including the group’s first female Wiggle. The tour, which opens August 17 in Philadelphia, runs through October 6, ending in Washington, D.C.

After 21 years together, the Australian group decided to change its lineup last May, leaving Anthony Field (Blue Wiggle), the only remaining original member in the new cast. Joining Field are Simon Pryce (Red Wiggle), Lachlan “Lachy” Gillespie (Purple Wiggle) and Emma Watkins (Yellow Wiggle).Dinah Eng

“Greg Page (Yellow Wiggle) and Murray Cook (Red Wiggle) wanted to spend more time with their families,” explains Field. “Jeff Fatt (Purple Wiggle) has a bit of a health problem and had a pacemaker put in last year. The guys can’t get on the road anymore. But Jeff’ll come down to the studio and play the keyboard. Murray’s in the office all the time, and is good with advice, and Greg will help out, too.”

Sam Moran, who replaced Page for six years when Page had health problems, is now doing his own show for NickJr, “Play Along With Sam.”

Field says that for new audiences, the current cast members are The Wiggles. “I’m just the old fella,” he says, adding that the change was a truly emotional decision for the gang.

“It was sad and lovely to be together as the original group last year,” Field notes. “But the transition’s been wonderful. The new cast started touring Australia and playing for very isolated communities, and received a wonderful reaction. I think the parents enjoy seeing one of the original group still there.”

Each of the the three next generation Wiggles are experienced members of The Wiggles’ empire. Pryce, who was Ringo the Ringmaster in the 2011 Wiggles shows, has been doing back-up vocals for the group’s CDs for 10 years. Gillespie has played Captain Feathersword in the Dorothy the Dinosaur Traveling Show since 2009, then joined The Wiggles tour, playing both a Wiggly Dancer and Wags the Dog. Watkins started with The Wiggles three years ago, performing as Fairy Larissa, Dorothy the Dinosaur, Wags the Dog, and a Wiggly Dancer.

The Wiggles release new album and DVD, titled "Taking Off!" Photo courtesy of The Wiggles.

The Wiggles release new album and DVD, titled “Taking Off!” Photo courtesy of The Wiggles.

“Becoming a Wiggle is just the most unbelievable opportunity,” says Watkins, who is now the first female Wiggle. “Last year, we toured with the original Wiggles, and learned so much. We were Wiggles-in-training for eight months, and learned new songs and dances every day.”

Watkins’ character wears the yellow Wiggle shirt, a black skirt and bows in her hair. She says it’s exciting to see many girls in the audience, emulating her look with big yellow bows in their hair and on their shoes.

“Being the first girl Wiggle is fantastic,” Watkins says. “I play the drums, and most of the vocals are shared between Simon, Lachy and myself, which gives a new (three-part harmony) sound to The Wiggles.”

The group’s first CD and DVD, entitled “Taking Off!,” have been released, and a new TV series, “Ready, Steady, Wiggle!” premieres on Sprout on August 19.
Known for songs that promote health and self-esteem in children, two of the group’s founders (Field and Cook) originally met while studying early childhood development.

“We’ve all been given the opportunity to write new songs, and we’ve been collaborating together,” Watkins says. “The original Wiggles are the directors and the creative thinkers of the company. They’ve all been in the studio, and will continue to write songs.”

As Field puts it, “Change is a great thing, as long as it fits with the original ethos, and I think this does.”

For tour schedule and more information, check out