Wednesday, 25 April 2012

My BotCon 2012 adventure - it has begun

For those following my last two posts about this year's trip to BotCon... well... I made it.

I survived the 2 flights to Dallas, without any significant discomfort from my surgery.
Since my rambling can get a bit lengthy, I'll keep all the non-TFs journal of events on this blog, and just have the actual Transformers stuff on the Ozformers TRANSFORMERS forum.

And yes, with an anticipated food theme this year... here's a "small" sample (my first meal in Dallas)...

But that's later.

First, a quick recap.
Tuesday 6th December - Booked hotel room for 7 nights, not expecting to do much outside of the convention in Dallas.
Monday 2nd January - Rebooked hotel at cheaper convention rate (due to cut-off for charging deposits prompting cancellations, freeing up the cheaper rooms)
Saturday 7th January - Registered for the full (Golden Ticket) package.
Thursday 16th February -Booked flights & Insurance. Shortened trip to 6 nights, so adjusted hotel reservation to match.

Tuesday 17th April - Admitted to Hospital with appendicitis. (less than one week until departure)
Wednesday 18th April - Appendix removed.
Thursday 19th April - No complications, so was released from Hospital, to recover at home (not well enough to go out and do last-minute errands for the trip, or even sure if I would be right to go).
Friday 20th April - Phone up travel agent to see if Insurance will cover any problems while on the trip, or if the airline will allow me to fly (or if I have to declare it). Paid extra to allow Insurance to cover it, and the Airline cut-off for Appendectomy is 4 days (my flight would be 5 1/2 days since the surgery).

Monday 23th April - Had to decide today if I felt well enough to go Tuesday morning, plus, had to do about a dozen things before the flight, that I would have done during the previous week if the Appendix hadn't been a factor. Things like banks, chemist, Post Office, new Camera (to go with the new computer bought in March for the Toy Fair), license renewal, pay a couple bills, go to JayJays (for competition items), washing of clothes, downloading the second season episodes of TFPrime (to watch during the flight, in case they showed us a new episode at BotCon, and I would be caught up to make sense of it), and sorting out Vodafone again for messing up my billings.
Due to having so much to cram into this last day and a half, the planned 6 hours sleep that night ended up being no sleep at all.
It didn't help that it was taking longer than expected to set up my new computer (I never got around to it since I bought it), or that a friend I hadn't spoken to for a long time (Jimmy) decided to call up that night... which ended up lasting 3 hours (mostly business related).

As such, when I had just about everything done and got myself cleaned up (and packed) and ready to go to the airport, I was running out of time.
The flight was 10.30am (Tuesday 24th April), so to cover 60-90 minutes check-in (I wanted to get there early to reserve an aisle seat, to make it easier to keep mobile to avoid clots - the one risk the doctors told me about when flying so close to surgery), plus the 30-50 minutes of travel time (and traffic at that time of morning on a weekday), it was 8.30am before I was ready to call for a taxi.
I dialed, and was on hold for about 5 minutes... I figured that if it was going to take this long just to call for a taxi, I was likely to be waiting a while for the next available one to arrive. I was already out of time... I had to leave within 10 minutes or risk missing my flight. (I had a timetable to work to in order to get to the airport in time, so despite the 3 hours of unplanned phonecall, I had made up 2 hours, but now the hour buffer I gave myself, was now gone)

Fortunately for me, Jimmy had offered several times the night before, to drive me to the airport (and luckily was only staying about 2-3 Ks away).  I had knocked him back because it was a pretty big round trip just for me.  But since he was partly to blame for my lateness with the 3-hour call (I knnow, I could have hung up, but most of it was too important to wait until I got back from America)... I rang his number and hoped that he answered.
It rang for a while, so I was worried that I would have to retry the taxi number again and just have to wait for a cab... but then he answered, half asleep.
I was too stressed out to feel bad about waking him up, and besides, no matter how short his sleep was, mine was shorter.
I asked him, 'you know how you were begging to take me to the airport... well, um, how soon can you get over here?"
He said about 5-10 minutes, and after explaining to him that I was kinda screwed, and close to missing my flight, he was on his way over.

That was the longest 14 minutes, waiting outside my place for him... and then, as per most BotCons it seems, I was rushing to the airport, with so much adrenaline in my system, it felt like I had consumed 6 cups of strong coffee.
I was so worried about missing the flight, I didn't even think about what sort of stress I had put on my (internal) surgical wounds, by not having any rest for such a long period of hours, as well as the "strain" all that stress must have been.

Going via the recently finished toll road, Jimmy was able too get me to the airport in 25 minutes (without speeding either). It meant that by the time I got to through the queue and checked in about 10 minutes later, it was 9.20am - which was only 15 minutes before cut-off.

Then the drowsiness started kicking in, now that the Adrenaline levels were coming back down (now that I was safe). 
I bought a couple items from Red Rooster for Breakfast (I only had time to grab 3 donuts on Monday while out, so this was the first "real" food for about 36 hours. Between the lack of food and lack of sleep, plus the stress, I was now even more worried that I would start getting worse during the 18 hours of traveling.
Fortunately that didn't happen.

I got to the gate and ate my breakfast. I pulled out my new camera, and decided to test it out while waiting for the boarding to start.
For one of those compact, pocket cameras, it has an amazing level of zoom and resolution to it - 20x zoom, and 12 Mpixels... 
Here's one photo I took.

This new camera allowed me to be able to zoom in on the tiniest details like a magnifying glass, and the images were super clear.... enough to read the name of this plane as being "City of Perth" (QANTAS 747's are named after Australian Cities), a city I lived in for several years when I was a kid. It's where I was living when I first got into Transformers, way back in the 80s.

We left on time, and since the plane was about a 1/4 empty, I not only had an aisle seat, but had a spare seat next to me as well, to really stretch out with.

As per usual, the "dinner" is served within the first 3 hours, and breakfast is served in the last 2 hours.

This was one of the dinner choices... I shoulda gone with the chicken.

It is supposed to be a 3-cheese ravioli with mushroom sauce.

And that wasn't the only disappointing thing with this flight.
Another thing was that the personal entertainment systems were on the older "loop" format (several channels play at the same time and just repeat themselves throughout the flight - compared to the newer format of selecting the movies and TV shows you want, and you have them sent to your unit to watch at your leisure). This was corrected about 4 hours into the flight, so for half the flight I was able to watch some programs that I wanted)
A third disappointing thin was finding out that QANTAS had discontinued the snack-bag since the last time I flew with them to America (last year I think). This was one thing that remained the deciding factor between QANTAS and V-Australia, because after the first meal service, they would hand out to everyone a bag of snacks... to munch on in your own time over the next 9 hours.
Between that lost frill, and the meals looking cheaper than usual (and less filling than ever), international flights now will just be with whichever one is cheaper.

I think, to make up for no snack pack, they came around the plane several times with different food items, some of which I missed because I was asleep (but was woken up while they were further down the aisle... I wasn't too fussed, so didn't bother chasing up the tiny snacks.
I watched  a move (the latest Mission Impossible movie) and some TV shows (Curb Your Enthusiasm, a Great (comedy) Debate, and Megafactories (it was about Lego, which was really interesting and was only produced last year).

After 3 bottles of water and a fair bit of walking around on the flight, breakfast was served as we hit dawn (we were flying against the rotation of the Earth, so day and night are only about 7 hours each).
I selected the hot breakfast, and doesn't it just look yummy, all dried out and shriveled...

We landed at LA at about 6.45am (their time - which was quarter to midnight back in Brisbane, just 15 minutes before Anzac day began in those eastern states.

I do want to mention, well, praise the pilot, for the amazingly smooth landing.  Normally those 747s thump or bounce on the tarmac when their rear wheels first make contact, but this one didn't even make a wobble... he glided it in and soon as we were on the ground, the only force felt was from the reverse thrust of the engines. I was really impressed.

Once off the plane, I lined up at Customs, waiting to be processed... and you know what I now remembered?
(of all the many months, weeks, or even days beforehand, this one thing had totally slipped my mind as if my brain had purposefully blocked it out)
The online Visa-waiver registration.
My mind was completely blank.
Did I ever end up checking it, and was it still valid?
I remembered that last year I didn't have to renew it, because it had enough time left on it to cover BotCon 2011... but surely I would have checked it's expiry date sometime in the last 5 months that the date of this BotCon was known.
I just couldn't remember if I ever did.

This was suddenly looking like it was going to be my shortest BotCon trip, ever.
If I had indeed never checked it in the last five months to know that it was okay, or if it needed renewing, chances are that they would send me back home on the next plane. (or at the very least, have me go off somewhere to be processed, and then miss my LA-Dallas flight, which was now less than 2 hours from departing).

It didn't help that the queue I was in, was moving the slowest of all the queues.
When I got to the counter, and was asked all the usual questions, plus all the usual scanning, he stamped my passport and waved me through. So either it wasn't checked, or it was still valid. (it wasn't until later that day at the hotel, did I find out that it was still valid until June).

I grabbed my bag from the carousel and proceeded to wait in yet another long, slow moving queue.
(all three years that I didn't have connecting flights, and didn't need to be anywhere in a hurry, I was processed and out of the airport without any delays)

It was now 7.20am, and I wasn't even sure what the cut-off for check-in (or bag-drop) was for American Airlines... with their more intense security screening, they might have more than the 30 minutes that Australian airlines have.

But before I could go over to Terminal 4, I wanted to go upstairs to the Departure level of the International Terminal, to check out the toystore that yielded Transformers surprises last year (a couple that I wanted, that weren't released in Australia). When I got there, it was still being opened up, so I popped next door to the newsagent to grab a couple snacks (to sample some unique foods, and to have something to eat on the next flight if I ran out of time to get Burger King (called Hungry Jacks in Australia) - yes, as disturbing as it may sound, I already knew from previous years that Terminal 4 (that houses American Airlines) has a BK outlet.
So the snack items I bought from the newsagent were, Pretzel M&Ms (one of my favourite varietys),Pizza stuffed Cracker tubes (very delicious - I had a different flavour last year from here, but this one was heaps nicer), and cheese bugles (cone shaped corn snacks - Woolies recently introduced them in their "Select" generic packaging last year, and is very "American" - look for them in the chips aisle next time you're at Woolies).

So I went back to the toystore now that it was open, and rushed straight down to the back to see what TFs they had this time.  Unfortunately it was just the first 3 waves of DotM Commander class (I need Dark Sentinel from Wave 4, so just missed out), and they had a couple of the Speed Stars Steath Force gimmick toys.
Damn... nothing this year.

So I walked (hobbled) as fast as I could over to Terminal 4 (which is luckily next to the International Terminal), and found that I only had to get my bag tagged, as the ticket QANTAS issued me back in Brisbane, is now accepted by their scanners (in the past, they would need to print up their own ticket).
That was good and quick, allowing me to go straight up to the Security screening point.
(last year, this was the terminal for Brisbane QANTAS flights, but since then, they had converted their check-in desks into self-serve & bag-drop stations - similar to what QANTAS have done now in most Australian Airports (if not, all by now. Instead of a staff of 6-8 to do everything, they only have 2-3 supervising and assisting now)

Getting through security took a while (as expected), and after reading about how the body scanners can't pick up solid (metal) objects that are on the side of a body, I was now rather disturbed to see them putting some people through the metal detector and some through the body scanner, but not both.
I was put through the body scanner, and asked to have my hands above my head (which was difficult to do at the moment).  I asked the person giving me directions, if the body scanner is also a metal detector, and he seemed rather unsure at first, but then said that it wasn't, but that it would see the metal on the scan... I didn't want to risk being detained with such little time left before my flight left, so didn't probe it further (I wanted to ask if it was true that it can't pick up dark (metal) objects that are on the sides of a body - where it also dark). If they have the same thing at the Dallas airport on the way home, I'll ask there, as I should have about 6 hours to fill... to stir up all sorts of trouble. :p

I rushed over to the departure gate to see that boarding had already started. Since it was 8.05am, and the flight was still 30 minutes from departure, I figured that I still had about 10-15 minutes left before they might start giving away seats to those on Standby (people who show up on the day to get on the next available flight - as all flights may have been booked out, but you can still end up having people not showing up, which are seats that the airline would still want to fill).
So I walked down to the Burger King, to be confronted with a queue of about 30 people.  It was moving, but not fast enough to place an order (for several burgers), and wait to have it prepared, within the 10 minutes I had left.
I headed back to the Departure Gate, and went up to the service desk to see what group I was in (they were boarding by groups, which are the segments of the plane, to make it quicker to board). As I was waiting behind a guy that appeared to be served by the lady behind the counter, a girl in here early 20s walks straight past me and the lady starts serving her instead.
I was like... what, am I suddenly invisible again... because this seems to happen an awful lot for someone of my huge size.
The girl was served and the lady went over to the gate doorway for half a minute.  When she came back she started attending to the guy that was already there before asking me what I wanted.
Gee... how rude.

Now that I think of it, that was the same departure gate I had to use last year, to board the QANTAS flight back to Brisbane, only this time I was using it for a domestic flight in the other direction.

There were a few delays in taking, making it even more uncomfortable for me, who was squished between two big guys in a row of three seats.
Every extra second was like torture.

I watched a couple episodes of TFprime on my computer to fill in some of the time, and somehow managed to get about an hour of sleep as well (musta been really tired, considering the awkward posture I was in),

Arriving at Dallas 3 hours later, it was 1.45pm in Texas - which is minus 15 hours from Brisbane tim (or add 9 hours, but be aware of the date being behind us if you are adding numbers).

I wandered around the airport a bit first to see if there was anything interesting to eat, but didn't find anything quick and convenient except McDonalds, which I don't eat.

I went and grabbed my bag, checked out an ATM to withdraw some spending money (I will only end up having about $1200 to spend this year, so have to be careful with how easily I use it before the convention.
By the time I got outside and found where the Shuttle Busses stop, it was already about 2.30pm... and suddenly I was overcome with hayfever.
This was really weird, because it was happening so fast. After another 10 minutes waiting out the front of the airport, my eyes were all irritated and I was sneezing.
Without medication (antihistamine) the only thing I could do was to not breath through the nose, to stop more of the dust or pollen affecting em,
The next shuttle bus finally showed up (I didn't pre-book a seat because I didn't think about when I was booking my flights, and didn't remember it in the last week before I left).
It didn't matter though, as it was just a couple dollars more, which was still half as much as the Taxi Fare was estimate to be.

Picking up several other people from other terminals, I was into the hotel by 4pm (it was still Tuesday here), checked in and went up to my room (on the 5th floor - I was asked if I preferred a high or low floor. As much as a good view would have been nice, being closer to the ground floor makes it quicker to go to and from the convention in a hurry.

This is what the Hyatt Regency looks like on the outside. (click on it to see it full-size)
The map of the lower levels, which will be used for the BotCon convention (the big hall on the lowest level for the Dealer Room, the Reunion hall on the Lobby level for the Panels/Presentations/Hall-of-Fame, and the third floor for the Custom Class).

This was a sign already up in the lobby, that attracted my attention when walking through the entrance.
The 5th floor, with my room as the green dot - which was difficult to find, because that last wing that curves around from room 581, feels like a late addition to the hotel, because it is separated from all of the rest of that map by two fire doors and emergency stairway between them.
If you go up the wrong elevator (which I did), there is no signage to say where the rooms from 81 upwards are located. I had to ask someone, and was then led through the entire maze to where my room was.

The other bit of mis-information I got from the front desk was when I asked where the "convention center" is.  I was told that it was four blocks away... which it is, BUT, as you can see in the map above (which I didn't work out until later), the meeting rooms and halls in the hotel itself IS the "convention center" - it's just that the staff there don't refer to it as one.
So if people coming for a convention, ask for a convention center (that is usually attached to the BotCon hotel), you could end up getting directions to the Dallas Convention Centre 4 blocks away.

Inside my room, with my traveling companion (Dispensor) already escaping from my luggage.
View from my room of the train station and the outskirts of the CBD (which is over to the left).
And to the right, looking at the front of the hotel, with the "Reunion Tower" chuppa chup, towering over it.
I filled in the rest of my first day with a trip to the Book Depository Museum, Dinner at a BBQ Pit (where that first photo comes from), and the JFK memorial... but those pics and details will have to wait until I get at least 4 hours sleep.
It's already taken me 5 hours processing all the photos I took so far, and writing up this during bouts of nodding off... and then retyping the jumbled mix of letters.
I got so caught up in writing this up, it's already dawn here now (it just passed 8am).
After I get some sleep, today doesn't have much planned, as I rechecked where the closest Department/toy stores are to this hotel, and there's only one within 10 Kms... it's just a Walmart, so if there isn't a bus or train near it (from here), I might get a taxi if I feel desperate enough. But now that it is Wednesday, chances are, it has already been cleaned out of anything interesting already (by those who arrived Monday and Tuesday for Today's events).
Back soon...

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