We were now, of course, paying for our own tickets, so it was not business class any longer, and part of our reason for choosing Christmas 1995 rather than Christmas 1996 for the journey was that our youngest boy would not yet have reached two years of age. Airlines do something terrible to children once they reach two years old: they charge for them at the alarming rate of 67% of the adult fare. Wait another year and three children with a total age of less than fifteen years would cost more to transport than two adults with a total age in excess of sixty years.
After considering the possibilities, we decided that it would be most convenient for us to fly from Hawkes Bay to Auckland, which we duly did, travelling early in the morning and so unfortunately allowing ourselves enough of a day in Auckland for it to be boring, but not enough for us actually to be able to do anything while we were there. By the middle of the afternoon, we had had enough and went off downtown anyway, sitting by the ferry terminal in Quay Street for a while until it was time to go back to the airport. It wasn't the best, but it did break up the day a little.
We checked in for the United flight to Los Angeles with very little problem. One of the advantages of having flown with them so much previously was that we still had so-called Premier membership in Mileage Plus, enabling us to check in at the Business Class counter. This speeded up the process quite considerably, and also allowed us an extra seat. Generally, when a flight is not completely full, Premier members are allocated seats at aisle and window where there are three seats, allowing more space for them. If it happens that they have an infant travelling with them (which surely doesn't happen too often) then they benefit more than most others would. In this respect we were fortunate on three out of the four long flights we were to take on this journey.
To be fair, I have little to say about the flight, as most long-haul flights come to be more and more the same. Food was served, movies were shown and the flight landed in Los Angeles much as you might expect. After United States immigration and customs had done their usual stuff, we were on our way to Anaheim and to the Sheraton Hotel there, to see what was new in one of our favourite stamping grounds, Disneyland.
We were repeating the day, as always happens when you travel from New Zealand to the United States. I suppose that it is the closest one might ever get to the bizarre ideas found in the film Groundhog Day, but we must note that the second time you have a day will be quite different from the first time. For a start, you are at the other side of a wide ocean.
We hadn't been in the hotel long when we set off to Disneyland, where we had been many times before. (probably not many, but certainly rather more than few, if you see what I mean)
Not so much had changed. The main thing was our perceptions. The rides that our boys
wanted to go on were quite different from their requests the last time. Gone were
the requests for Dumbo, here were requests for Big Thunder Mountain.
The only major new attrcation that we could find was Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, truly a spectacular in every sense of the word, with the passengers moving around in fast jeeps underground, with the climax of the trip being a huge ball of granite (fifty tonnes, I believe) rolling towards you unstoppably. Obviously I survived the experience, one of the best things I have seen there. It must have cost an arm and a leg to create this attraction, which will surely attract many first time and return visitors to the place.
On a different level, the canal boat ride through stroy-book land has been improved to such an extent that it is now a ride worth doing, where I might not have recommended it at all before.
Their biggest spectacular is no longer the Main Street Electrical Parade, which is no more, but Fantasmic. Fantasmic had just started when we last visited Disneyland, but seemed to have lengthened by now. Disney have gone to some considerable trouble to improve our experience: the whole area by the Rivers of America has been remodelled to make viewing of the spectacle easier for all, and to allow room. For anybody who doesn't know, it is a multimedia presentation of the fight between good and evil which is found in the imagination. Lasers, fireworks, fires, full sized ships, projections of films onto walls of water: all these and more wonderful effects add up to make a memorable show. But I don't want to go overboard in my praise: this is my story, not a Disney promo.
I was again very grateful for the facility extended to Mileage Plus Premier members to check in at the Business Class desk. The queues at the Business Class desk were bad enough, but those at Economy Class boggled the mind. Los Angeles is indeed a major hub for United! I really can't think of a way to do it any better, however. There must be a limit to the number of check-in desks you can have while your system is still workable. Anyhow, we successfully got to the flight on time and were treated well on the flight back to London. Once again, the details of the flight itself blur with the passage of time, but I have no complaint about the journey. It is perhaps a sad reflection on all of us that we remember bad service and bad experience far better than food service. "You like United? Well, let me tell you about my flight with them when..."
Immigration at Heathrow isn't much fun either, unless, of course, you are British or a European Community citizen. The New Zealanders and Australians I mix with on a daily basis lament this state of affairs, remembering when it was the Commonwealth who got the special treatment. Our youngest boy is privileged in carrying both a New Zealand and a British passport, so that he will not be troubled at all at either end of the journey.
There was one unescapable fact on arrival in England. It was freezing cold. There was snow on the ground. Having come from New Zealand summer and California winter, the shock was considerable. We had carefully planned our route up to Merseyside, where we were spending Christmas and the New Year, which was a new route for us. Previously, we had always travelled into Central London to pick up the train form there to the North, but with lots of luggae and three children, we wanted to try something a little easier. We decided that we would use the Railair coach to Reading Station, from which we would pick up a cross-country train. So it was that we were out in the cold, outside Terminal 3, waiting for the coach. It soon arrived and we paid for our tickets and set off, through the gloom of the pre-dawn and the sunrise, noting all the way the snow and cold as we travelled through the Thames Valley.
At Reading Station we had to negotiate the problem of getting our luggage up from street level to platform level without leaving it unattended at any stage while trying to keep warm. This was not easy. However, we were back in our original homeland, able to see shops we had not seen for years, such as the Croissant Shop which always does a good trade at the stations.
A helpful booking clerk was not keen to sell us the tickets we wanted, two adult and two child returns from Reading to Liverpool, pointing out that on that journey alone. it would be worth purchasing a family railcard and reduced tickets. We did that. It did indeed work out cheaper and would save even more money when my wife took our first son on a trip to Birmingham later in the holiday, to visit the city of his birth.
It was still very cold as we boarded the train, which would carry us most of the way home. We travelled north through many cities I knew well from of old, though they were not coming in the order I was used to hearing them. Not long after we started, we were in Oxford, the City of Dreaming Spires, where I had been resident for just one year. An hour and a half further and we were in Birmingham, which had been home for six and a half years, most of which you will have read about if you have got this far. Our son look out at the cold of the Midlands, fascinated to know that this had once upon a time been his home. I was still recovering from the shock of the prices of almost every commodity to be found. Truly, the currency of your remuneration affects the perception of prices in another land. Many of the travel magazines urge you not to remark on how low prices seem when you are in developing countries: the locals will not agree with you. The converse also holds true, though I would not fream of describing New Zealand as a developing country. All the same, I hark back to the earlier years when my pay-check was in sterling and I thought New Zealand was cheap. Still, some things are free.
We were to change trains at Stafford station, leaving the first train to continue to Manchester, while we were to pick up the train for Liverpool. The snow lay deep and crisp and even as we arrived at Stafford. This was an opportunity that our boys had never had before. It was snow, and that meant snowballs. The railway staff, unusually, helped us with our baggage, transferring us between platforms. It was only a few minutes to wait, but the magical expressions on my sons' faces was something I won't forget. Brought up in tropical paradise, they had never encountered real snow before, but it was not long before snowballing seemed to be second nature to them. Balls were gathered and thrown, then more snow picked up and made into balls, the process repeated until it was time to board. After that, Crewe, Runcorn and Liverpool Lime Street, familiar names. From there, it was a short hop over (or rather, under) the river to the house that would be home for us for the holidays.
It took a few days before we recovered from the jet-lag and the cold: in fact, I am not sure that we did. We were blessed with a family Christmas, such as we had not had for some years. It snowed! Overnight between Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, snow fell, meaning that we were able to celebrate a white Christmas, a pleasure not afforded to many in New Zealand. We celebrated with my parents and cousin, with my wife's parents and with our three sons. All in all, there were eleven of us on Christmas Day, but despite that, it was a good day. As we ventured round and about, the snow continued to New Year's Eve.