If there is one thing I know about my 15year-old son, it's that he doesn't have an 'off' switch. So who better to go with on a whirlwind tour of theme parks in Southern California?
In five days, we took in Universal Studios, Six Flags, Sea World and California Adventure/Disneyland. On our one day off, we jostled with thousands of other tourists along Hollywood Boulevard's Walk of Fame, took pictures of ourselves holding up the Hollywood sign, went surfing at Venice beach (well, he surfed, I watched) and rode the roller coaster on the Santa Monica pier (again, he rode, I watched.)
Now, one may ask, what parent in her right mind would subject herself to that kind of itinerary?
It's a valid question. Suffice it to say, a short jaunt to Six Flags, LA (Mecca for roller coaster worshippers like my son) grew arms and legs.
In the end, three very different agendas - my son's desire to ride some of the biggest, fastest, most stomach-churning rides on the planet, California Tourism's desire to promote their billion dollar attractions and my desire to connect with my adolescent son - merged into one hair-raising, nerve-wracking, wonderful trip.
I sensed we were off to a high-voltage start when the sub-compact car I was attempting to rent for the week couldn't be found, so the Avis car rental guy waved us over from across the parking lot, handed me some keys and said, "Y'all just take this one" - a red Mustang, no less.
While I fretted about poor sight lines and excessive gas consumption, my son immediately assumed the position of a young man in a hot car - knees and elbows out, shades on.
He took control of the radio dial as I fussed with the GPS. Soon we were cruising down Fairfax Avenue to our hotel, the Farmer's Daughter, in the centre of LA, across the street from one the oldest farmer's markets in California and a 10-minute drive into the heart of West Hollywood. The Farmer's Daughter is a quaint, casual place with friendly service. The Farmer's Market, which is just across the street, is a great place to fill up on supplies for a day of sight seeing. It has hundreds of food stalls and eateries - a bit like Granville's Market but a little less glossy.
DAY 1: UNIVERSAL STUDIOS
After checking in and grabbing lunch at the market, we were back in the "red rocket," heading to Universal Studios.
As we walked in, I noticed that the regular day passes were $80 while Front of Line passes went for $129. I shook my head at the thought of someone spending that kind of money just for VIP status. However, after waiting two hours, that's right, two full hours, in a line-up for the new Transformer ride, the idea didn't seem so ridiculous. To be fair, that was by far the longest line as its Universal Studio's newest ride.
What is cool about this, and many of the Universal Studio rides, is its movie quality.
While your little vehicle is going this way and that, most of the sensation of flying through the air comes from the 3D visuals.
In the case of the Transformer ride, the vehicles are modelled after an Autobot, which you become. The ride begins with you moving out of the loading station only to witness Ravage (bad Transformer) grabbing the canister that contains the AllSpark (what Transformers are always fighting over.) You suddenly spin around to see Bumblebee (good Transformer) fighting Sideways (bad Transformer.) Before you know it, you've been handed the Allspark and the fate of the world depends on you whisking through the heat of battle to bring the AllSpark to safety - Optimus Prime is counting on you.
The ride, which opened May 2012, reportedly cost $100 million to build. And, indeed, it is a blast, although it's over in a flash. (Did I mention the two-hour wait?) But here's the trick - timing.
As most reasonable folks were heading home around 7 on a Monday night, my son and I were just getting started. From then until closing at 10 p.m., we didn't stand in another line for more than 15 minutes. We took in the Jurassic Park ride, The Simpsons ride and Revenge of the Mummy. Being a Donkey fan, my favourite was the Shrek attraction. To call it a ride would be a stretch. Basically, you're just in a movie theatre in a chair that jostles around, but it's a funny story line and the characters are great.
Back at the hotel that night, with the room spinning, I wondered how I was gong to make it through the week. Then, in the darkness, I heard my son say, "That was awesome. Thanks a lot, Mom." Hmm, I'll make it.
DAY 2: HOLLYWOOD, SANTA MONICA
The next morning, I couldn't so much as look at a ride, so we spent the day walking the Walk of Fame and trying to get as close as we could to the Hollywood sign. Around 5 p.m., right in the thick of rush hour, we struck out for Venice Beach. Granted, we live by the ocean here in Richmond, but there's nothing like the warm, open waters of Southern California. An hour of body surfing and I felt completely rejuvenated. My son was able to rent a surfboard for an hour at one of the stalls.
Along with the shops, there is a good-sized skateboard park where some youth have clearly spent a lot of time. Most looked to be in their 20s. As a nervous mother, I found it hard to even watch their tricks.
By this point, the wind had come up and the sun had gone down. It was time to head back to the hotel, but Santa Monica Pier is right on the way - what's one more roller coaster? The Pier has an old-fashioned feel, with its wooden walkway and penny arcade. The roller coaster and other attractions are all trimmed in neon, which reflects on the water at night, making a charming visual treat.
DAY 3: Six Flags
Finally, Six Flags! The impetus of the whole trip was to go to Six Flags. This is a roller coaster extravaganza.
There are Six Flag theme parks across the U.S and one in Canada, but Six Flags in Valencia (a suburb north of LA) is one of the biggest. It's also home to the latest insane attraction, The Drop of Doom. Based on Superman's nemesis Lex Luther, it's a 400foot drop that gives you about three seconds of free fall. Now, three seconds might not sound like much - and it's not if you're brushing your teeth. But free falling is quite another mater. I wouldn't necessarily do it again, but I have to admit, it's quite a sensation. Of course, my son loved it.
Apart from Drop of Doom, Six Flags is mainly about roller coasters based on comic book characters - Batman, the Green Hornet, etc. But these aren't your everyday fairground roller coasters. The speed and flips are incredible. This is the place for ardent thrill-seekers who don't have issues with vertigo. Most of the guests appeared to be in the adolescent, young adult range.
The trick we learned here was not just about timing but also about the "single rider line." Although I did the Drop of Doom, there was no way I could keep up with a 15year-old. So, as a single rider, he'd cut his wait down to a third. We started to do this even if we were both going on the ride. We didn't always sit side by side but would usually be in the same group of cars.
One thing I was less impressed with was the fact you couldn't bring in any of your own food. Given the line-ups and prices, this seems a bit tight.
DAY 4: SEA WORLD
Of the four theme parks, Sea World was the one I thought I might give a miss because of the two-hour drive to San Diego. I'm so glad we didn't. It was my favourite of all the parks. The dolphin and whale shows are remarkable. At this point, I wished we had my 12-year-old daughter with us. She would have been enchanted by the connection between the performers - human and otherwise.
Among the exhibits, the shark pool was a highlight. You walk through a clear tube that runs along the floor of the pool, while sharks swim above. Looking at them from below, one can't help be awestruck by those terrifying jaws.
The penguin exhibit is also fascinating.
I'm aware many environmentalists are critical of Sea World. And in comparison to facilities like the Vancouver Aquarium, Sea World is more about entertainment than ecology. However, it also promotes education. Everywhere you turn there is literature about habitat protection.
DAY 5: CALIFORNIA ADVENTURE/ DISNEYLAND
At this point, I suggested ditching our last assignment. California Tourism was hoping to get coverage on its latest attraction, Cars Land, inspired by the 2006 film, Cars. It was built as part of Disney California Adventure Park's $1.1 billion expansion. But, we had to catch a plane home and had already covered a fair bit. I thought it reasonable to flake out on a beach for the last day - not so my son.
"I can't be in LA with a pass for Disneyland and not go." With that, it was back in the red rocket, bombing down the I5 heading for Anaheim's California Adventure/Disneyland.
There is something surreal about the place. Of course, post modern theorists have had a hay day critiquing its sense pastiche. All I can add is that it's enticing but a bit bizarre living in a world of facades. As with the movie, Cars Land takes visitors back in time to an idealized reality. (A reality where there is no pesky Suzuki Foundation drawing our attention to the damaging consequences our love affair with cars.)
Radiator Springs Racers ride is the highlight. There you race others riders through hairpin turns and steep banks. It's a good ride for speed demons who don't want the stomach-flipping sensation of a roller coaster.
Finally, it was time to climb back into our real sports car and head for the airport and our flight home. This was definitely not one of our greener vacations, but it went a long way to replenish a frayed connection. He had a blast and, for me, all that time spent in traffic and line-ups was time together - arguing over the radio, shouting GPS directions, recounting old South Park episodes - together.
When it comes to hair-raising, rollercoaster rides, neither theme parks nor LA freeways can rival parenting through adolescence. But there are similarities between roller coasters and parenting, namely: The steering wheel is pretty much token; the deeper you breathe the less nauseous you feel, the ride will probably end safely, and, finally, you've been blessed with a thrill of a lifetime, so enjoy it because it's over in a flash.
If you go: Check out the Visit California website at http: //www.visitcalifornia.com/