PASADENA... part 3
(griffin's 2011 BotCon report)
My friend Ian (username - Demonac) was one of the first Australians who was pretty much definitely going this year (with his wife Caroline and child Emilie), so after two previous BotCons of sharing of accommodation and travelling, we started planning early our California Holiday. Some ideas included Disneyland, Vegas, Legoland, San Diego Seaworld, San Diego Zoo, and a trip across the border to Mexico. Some we ended up doing, others we didn't, mostly due to limited amount of time. For me, all things needed to be done before the convention, because there is never a guarantee that I will have money left over after BotCon (and often I dont).
Due to a number of things being located in San Diego, a couple hours
south of Los Angeles, we looked at spending a few days there. Ian found
a great hotel, that was located about middle of the things we had planned,
that had a buffet breakfast included, AND, free internet and free parking.
The only downside was that it was literally in a no-toystore zone. One
of the things I do before each BotCon is research all the toy sources (TRU,
Walmart, Kmart, Target), and do up maps to show any clusters for a more
efficient hunt. I found that there were heaps of stores all around
San Diego, EXCEPT in a 20 kilometer circle that this hotel was located
in the middle of. It was quite bizarre, but with free (all you can
eat) breakfast to slash our food budget, and free internet, we weren't
It soon became obvious that we would need to be doing some driving, with a rental car. Problem was, neither of us had driven in America before, which has you driving on the other side of the road, and in the opposite side of the car itself (with all the controls mirrored to what a person from Australia is instinctively used to). Now, two years ago, my friend Jimmy was at BotCon 2009 and had a hire car. He'd been to America a few times by then, due to his work, and drove like a natural. That inspired me to be able to give it a go... otherwise, I would have been too hesitant to want to risk it.
I also wanted this to be a really great BotCon, toy-wise, so I started a savings plan at the beginning of the year, which had me pay off most of my credit card debt while setting aside $100 per week in a separate account (which amounted to $1100). Between this special BotCon account, my regular savings account, and my credit cards, I ended up having about $10,000 available to spend on accomodation, transport, food, and most importantly, toys. I only spent about half that though, as no matter how much I had available to spend, it still gets to a point when you just don't feel comfortable spending anymore.
Anyway, a couple months before the Convention, I had a bit of "fun"
getting a good deal with my flights. Since I was coordinating my
travel plans with Ian, to at least try to arrive on the same day, I had
been researching the two Australian Airlines QANTAS and V-Australia for
prices and avaiability (I take online quotes to the travel agent, as they
guarantee to be cheaper, and I prefer to have the backing of a 'professional'
to make sure I get everything done right). I prefer QANTAS (for the
flyer points and the in-flight snackbag), and prefer a direct flight in
and out of Brisbane (both airlines have alternating days of direct flights).
At that time, V-Australia was having a half-price sale, and my Travel Agent
was really great and emailed his QANTAS Rep to see if they could match
or come close to that (I was willing to pay an extra couple hundred dollars
if it meant a direct flight on my prefered airline). The QANTAS Rep
emailed him back with price that was 3/4 their normal price, so halway
to meeting the V-Australia price. The Travel Agent put a hold on
that seat for me, which gave me a couple days to think about it before
payment was required. But the next day, the QANTAS website put up half-price
sale fares which covered the days I wanted... It had me wondering if the
QANTAS Rep knew about the impending sale and tried to sucker me into paying
an extra $500 the day before. Full price was about $2200, and the sale
fare was about $1100. If I had taken the QANTAS Rep's offer, I would have
been paying about $1600 and having something extra to complain about this
On a side-note - Ian had been to a Travel Expo in Melbourne that weekend and was able to make a booking for me on V-Australia for about $1000, via Melbourne though. I wasn't too keen on the indirect flight, so went with the Brisbane price for $100 extra... but the funny thing was, at the time I made the final 'half-price' booking, my guy at the Travel Agency had a day off, so someone else there had to make the reservation (I couldn't wait until the next day for him to do it), which meant I ended up with 3 reservations in their National Computer Database at the same time. The next day I went in and got my guy to sort out the mess - delete the unwanted bookings, and take payment for the flight I was wanting. It was the first time in a number of years that I was able to pay for the entire trip (which included the car hire as well), with my own money... If I had paid by credit card, I would have to pay an extra $30-50 fee. It just felt good to not be using Credit, which is someone else's money, and takes time to pay back.
A couple weeks before the Convention, I finally got onto doing the online
Visa Waiver application that everyone from Australia needs to do before
entry to America. I had been putting it off for ages, mostly because as
of this year, there was now a fee in place ($4 for every application, $10
for a successful application). When I finally got onto the website and
filled out all my details, it told me that there was still an existing
registration in the system. I was like, huh?
I had to look for the reference number, and went back to the start to enter it in (under the option to update or edit an existing registration). It turns out that the registration/waiver is valid for 2 years, and mine from last year was the one still in the system. I didn't even have to do anything to it, but I changed the destination details anyway, just to be safe. The best thing was, it meant I didn't have to pay the $14 this year... and if the Convention is before June next year, I won't need to pay for it next year either.
About a week out from the departure date, I found some mail that had arrived about a month ago but was never opened (and lost in a pile of papers). In there was a renewal notice for my driver license... the 5-year license was due to expire two days into my trip, on the 28th. That was not good, as I now needed to fit into my busy schedule, a trip to the Department of Transport. But at least it would be renewed, I would have my photo taken, and a laminated license would be issued that day, for me to use. Unfortunately, that didn't happen, because this was the year that the Department of Transport were starting to issue out licenses with computer chips, which need to be posted out. I was left with a cancelled license (it was no longer valid until the 28th), and a piece of paper with a Department of Transport logo on it saying that my license had been renewed... something anyone could have printed up on a computer. I told Ian to make sure he brought his license with him, as there was a strong possibility that the car rental agency in America wouldn't accept my little piece of paper.
Wednesday... one day to go and it was the usual panic, with a page of
things to do, and very little time to do them all. But I at least this
year I had the day off work on 'departure-eve' to have the whole day to
prepare. I still ended up going to sleep at 2am.
I was in two minds about bothering to go to sleep, considering I had to be up by 6am to be sure I had everything done. I always fear the thought of sleeping through an alarm when needing to catch an early flight, especially with Ian's family relying on me being there (I made all the reservations, and tried to make sure his name was included, but didn't want to test it). Not to mention that we were scheduled to be in San Diego on the first night, so if either of us didn't make it on that day, or had a delay, it would mean a lot of replanning of our itinerary.
So usually I will stay up the whole night if I have an early flight, and either sleep on the plane, or rely on caffeine to keep me going when I arrived in America. But since I had to be driving a car shortly after arriving in America (my first time driving in a foreign country, and everything was reversed, so was a real challenge), I didn't want to be spending 30-something hours without sleep, especially if I had the added difficulty of driving on the opposite side of the car and roads there. It also didn't help that the previous four nights I had only had about 4-5 hours sleep per night.
With two alarm clocks set, I was up by 6am, and had 2 hours to pack (most of it was out ready), get cleaned up, dressed and depart.
My travelling companion Dispensor (who has been with me all around Australia as well as New Zealand and a couple previous BotCons) was already packed with his travel snacks...
...and at 8.35 (half an hour later than I wanted) I was calling for
a taxi to pick me up.
I was running out of time, because this was a weekday, and there could still be peak traffic on the roads. I just had to be hoping that there wasn't any accidents or traffic problems, because the trip to the airport was expected to take about 40 minutes, and I only had about 55 minutes before what I thought was the international check-in cut-off of 90minutes (it was actually 60minutes, which was a good mistake to make),
Amazingly, with the upgraded Gateway motorway and bridge, it only took about 20-25 minutes to get to the International Terminal. It was so fast, I spent longer in the check-in queue.
An interesting note - sometime in the last two years, QANTAS had started allowing for online check-in for international flights. Basically the same as with their domestic flights, you would just arrive and line up at a different counter to drop off any backage and show your passport for your ticket. Since it seemed new and unused, the 'online checkin' line was empty the whole time, which would have meant a speady check-in if I had used it.
As usual with American bound flights, we had mutliple levels of security and screening before being allowed entry to the departure gate area.
I ended up having a whole hour until bording even started (at 10.10am), so tried calling my grandmother to have a chat and let her know my travel plans. She was busy, so I found some snacks and did some toy reviews on my computer.
On board, the plane was about a third empty, which left a couple seats
empty between me and the other passenger in the central block of four seats
on my row.
I would have stretched out a bit if Dispensor hadn't made himself comfortable, sleeping the entire flight.
We departed on time at 11am, getting there about 30 minutes before our scheduled arrival time of 7am (which was still Thursday morning in LA, due to crossing the Dateline). While waiting for Ian at our designated rendavous point I looked at all the other flights from Australia for that morning, and saw that out of the 7 flights on the arrivals board from AUS and NZ via QANTAS and V-AUSTRALIA the only one that arrived late was Ians.
There wasn't a lot to watch this year on the QANTAS in-flight personal entertainment system, so just watched Tron Legacy (as a fan of Tron, this was a let down) and the Narnia - Voyage of the Dawn Treader (damn that was boring), plus one of those Melbourne Comedy Debates... while I was eating dinner, which became a choking hazard.
It kept my mind off the food though, which was pretty shocking.
Their meals are usually pretty good, even for economy class (and I like the idea of not having to prepare or clean up after a meal), so this one was disappointing. It was meant to be a portugese style beef dish, but ended up looking like baked beans in gravy with a solidified 'rock' of rice.
Breakfast wasn't too inspiring either, but tasted better than it looked.
I had a pretty quick passage through customs... despite testing their
sense of humour (not a good thing to do). You see, Customs of any country
are a no-joke zone... it's not worth the risk of being deported or arrested
for doing or saying something that could be mis-interpretted, or assumed
to be done to distract or hide something illegal. Especially in America,
which now has the ability to lock away someone forever on the suspicion
So I was waiting in line to be processed, and read one of the signs that told us what the processing procedure was going to be - right thumb scanned, right fingers scanned, left thumb scanned, left fingers scanned, head-shot photo taken. Simple enough, and it meant I knew what was expected when it was my turn. I went to the next available counter and at the guy's direction I placed my right thumb on the scanner. He then said to do my left thumb next, and after that, he said look at the camera for my photo. Once that was done, I asked him - 'what about my fingers?' He said it wasn't necessary. Now, me being the smartass that I am, I just couldn't resist it... I replied with - 'well, if I'd known that, I could have left my fingers at home'. Lucky for me, he smirked a bit, stamped my passport, and let me go to collect my luggage.
Lucky I wasn't asked if I had anything to declare... as I might have answered with, 'only my love for this great nation', just for a laugh.
Now, I'm sure I've said this before, but it just amazes me every year how there is not one white or black guy working for US Customs at LAX... It feels like I'd landed in Mexico, not America. Every single person in the Customs hall, was Latino. Sure, there is a large proportion of them in Los Angeles, but to not have a single white guy or even black guy working there? What is with that?
Outside the Customs area, I checked the arrivals board, only to see
that my flight was really early, and Ian's flight was really late (which
was a waste being early). I ended up with a couple hours to kill, and nowhere
to go. I really wanted something to eat too, as I'd been dietting for a
few days before my flight (to lose some weight before the junkfood bingeing
began, and meant less chance of having to use any public toilets or even
the airplane toilets during the 20+ hours of travelling before checking
into the first hotel each year). I remembered that the International
terminal didn't have anything worthwile, and I wouldn't be able to get
into any of the Domestic terminals without a bording pass, so I thought
about maybe getting a cab ride to a nearby fast food joint. The estimated
cost ruled that out, so I wandered over to the nearest Domestic Terminal
to see if they had any food vendors in the checkin or baggage claim areas.
They didn't, so I went back to the check-in level of the International
terminal to see if they had anything. Since it had been two years since
I had used this terminal, they had done some renovations a couple years
back, and now there were some small stores there. And better still, they
before the security checkpoint, so I could access them. It was just a pity
that there wasn't anything substantial to eat that was open at that time
of morning (McDonalds was there and open, but I havent bought anything
from a McDonalds for 11 years now, so wasn't breaking that record, no matter
how hungry I was). I found at a coffee shop a pastry called a 'Bear
Claw', and had to try it (after many years of hearing the word on TV
shows, and didn't know what it was), plus some unsual salty snacks from
a newsagent (which weren't very tasty). But surprise surprise, I
found a toyshop among these Airport stores. And even more surprising, I
found a couple of Transformers toys that were not only not released in
Australia, but were ones I didn't have. I was in America for less
than an hour and I had already bought my first Transformers toys for this
trip.. Prices of toys in airports are usually twice retail, but since Australian
retail prices are about double as well, these American Airport prices were
about what I would pay back home, so was okay for me. The toys I
bought were - Speed Stars Stealth Force Leadfoot (RtS version with a Rubsign
for US$19) and RPMs (not Speed Stars) Minivehicles 2-pack Sideswipe Vs
I was actually really excited. Despite the food issue and having to wait a couple hours for Ian's family, this was a Transformers adventure for me, and I had already found some toys 'hidden' in a location I wouldn't ordinarily expect to find them.
I finally met up with Ian and his family at 8.45 (I had arrived at 7am)
and we went straight to the Rental Car shuttlebus pickup point (which I
had scouted out while waiting).
I had actually done up a name card with 'Optimus Prime' on it, to hold up like people do at airports when they are picking up someone they don't know... but when they came up the ramp to the waiting area, they wandered off in the other direction to where I was, without even seeing it. I picked up my bags and chased after them, and directed them to where the shuttle bus would be.
We were taken to the Alamo car rental yard, and after several minutes discussion between the counter lady and her supervisor about my license problem, they let us have the car. It was called a 'Compact', which was an accurate description. It was like a stationwagon had been compressed into something half the size. I don't think I ended up taking any photos of the car, but it was distinctly smaller than cars around it, despite having a (small) storage space behind the row of seating at the back. It was such a small storage/luggage space, that I had to refrain from buying too many toys on the way to the hotel, because our luggage took up most of the space and we didn't have any room for much else.
First thing we did after getting the car was to drive to the nearest department store for a GPS Sat-Nav (which paid for itself in its first day). The first store we went to was a Target, which also had a nice full first wave of Movie Transformers in stock (but as mentioned above, I didn't buy everything at that time, due to lack of space in the car).
The Sat-Nav device was about US$140, which wasn't too bad... and it was only on the flight over that I realised that I should have checked if the one I bought in Australia could have American maps uploaded to it (in case it was a cheaper option). I was worried that a map upload would only be cheap, like $20-50, making my purchase of a second device a waste. But looking online later that day, I saw that it would have cost me US$130 to purchase the American maps to upload. About the same darn price as buying a new one... and it doesn't even matter that I effectively have a spare, because if I lost one, I'd still need to spend the cost of a new one just to upload the maps the other one had.
This was our car. We had a choice between an Asian car and an American car. I figured that if we were going to be driving around in a tiny 'girly' car, we should at least get some respect from the locals for it being an American 'girly' car. You can't really see how small it is, because there aren't any cars next to it, and the doors are open making it look bigger... but it lived up to the name 'compact'.
(photo is from Ian)
Driving in America was, uh, fun... Not only are you sitting in
the other side of the car, but all the controls are swapped over as well,
like the indicator, wipers, gear-stick, pedals and park brake. So while
you're driving around, you instinctively reaching for things on the wrong
side. In our case, it was turning on the wipers quite a few times when
trying to indicate a turn.
But that was the minor problem. The significant difference that could cause an accident was driving on the other side of the road. When pulling out onto a road, or turning a corner, you have to keep reminding yourself what side of the road to stay on, especially if there wasn't any traffic around.
I also had trouble keeping within the lane I was driving. I would start veering over to the right, because when you're driving a car in Australia, you have half a car on your left, making you as the driver, be travelling near the right 'side' of your lane. Now, being on the left hand side of the car as a driver, I would keep drifting to the right, as it felt like I was too far to the left of the lane. Obviously since I now had half the car on my right, drifting over to the next lane on a multi-lane road or highway was not a good thing to be doing. Many a time Ian and I would remind the other that we were drifting too far over.
Another thing to note is that throughout America except New York City, you can turn on a red arrow (left in America), similar to in Victoria (which you can turn right on a red arrow). Apparently it was introduced a few decades ago during the last spike in oil prices, as a cost-cutting measure (less time sitting idle, burning fuel). They also don't have a lot of signage as to the speed limits, so it was great to have the Sat-Nav telling us what the speeds were on most roads (I had it set to Km/hour , but it didn't seem like something that was enforced on the highways though, as we were often the slowest car when sticking to the speed limit... and even when we occasionaly travelled 10-15kms above the speed limit (only on their highways) we were still being over-taken by people.
After having a bit of lunch at that Target's food outlet (every Target
there I've been to has one), we decided to head straight for the Hampton
Inn Hotel at San Diego before doing any more shopping.
We arrived at about 2pm and was able to get a room (checkin was about 4pm I think).
Above is the front of the hotel from their website, and below is our room at the end of the first day of toy hunting (see if you can see Dispensor).
And our view from our window - we were at an intersection of state highways, and next to a Taco Bell.
Below is the map of the greater San Diego area. Our hotel was located
at the 'A', while Legoland was at the '1', and the San Diego Zoo was located
at the '2'.
So once we had offloaded our stuff in the hotel room, the first item
on the agenda for Ian and I was to do some dedicated toy hunting.
Going from my map of shop clusters, we decided to head back up to the north,
to where highway 78 meets highway 5... and it was Ian's turn to drive (for
his first time in America too). It took about 20 minutes, and thanks
to the Sat-Nav, we had no trouble finding the Walmart, Target and ToysRUs
stores that were there.
About 50 toys later, and and a Moon Pie thrown in (another thing I'd heard about and wanted to try - it's just like a Wagon Wheel, without the jam), we picked up some Burger King before heading back to the Hotel by about 6pm. (it was funny paying with a $100 note and having the manager come to check to see if it was a fake - as convenient as it is to have them when carrying a large amount of cash, they are so much of a hassle, due to stores not having change, or questioning their authenticity).
The one thing I like about Burger King in America (their version of Hungry Jacks here), is that their menu is like twice as expansive as ours is. Not only do they have things like the Triple Whopper as a regular menu item, but other items like Steakhouse burger and California Whopper... it made for a rather filling evening of American Junkfood sampling for me.
My first day (only) haul of 55 Transformers toys:
Speed Stars Stealth Force (RtS) basic Leadfoot,
RPMs 2-pack Minivehicles Sideswipe & Wreckloose,
DotM Deluxe wave 1,
DotM Voyager wave 1,
Legion wave 1,
Commander wave 1,
Human Alliance Basics wave 1,
Human Alliance Deluxe wave 1,
Leader wave 1,
Deluxe wave 2 (Barricade, Jolt, Sideswipe only),
Deluxe wave 3 (Nitro Bumblebee, Mudflap only),
Action Sets wave 1,
Action sets wave 2,
Activators wave 1,
Go-Bots wave 1,
Revving Robots wave 1,
Bash-Bots wave 1,
Energon Shock Sword,
TRU excl Scanning Ironhide & Sideswipe,
Speed-Stars Stealth-Force Deluxe (DotM) Big Hoss & Starscream,
Speed-Stars Stealth-Force Cycles Knock-Out & Highwire,
Lights & Sounds Big Bumblebee,
Speed-Stars Minivehicles 2-pack Optimus Vs Desert Long Haul.
Or, all layed out:
It amazes me to think that I bought all those in just one day, outside
of a Transformers Convention. The last time I bought this many toys
in a short space of time was at BotCon 2009, with all the TF2 Movie toys
being available at the Club's store.
It also meant I was already close to breaking my previous record of toys bought during a BotCon adventure (79 in 2009). Taking into account the expected 13 BotCon exclusive toys in a week's time, I only needed another 12 toys in the next 11 days to break that record.
I also worked out that with our over-inflated pricing in Australia, I had saved about $500-700. And if I could get it all back home without posting them, that would be such a huge saving.
It would take me the next 5 days to remove everything from packaging (to condense things enough to drive back to LA on the Monday - remember, we had limited luggage space in the car).
That night after several hours with my toys (me removing them from packaging and Ian test-driving them to find defects and decid on which ones he'd buy for himself) and on the computer (a board Admin's job is never ending), I went to bed at about 12.30. Despite being almost 2 days with very little sleep, I wasn't feeling sleepy... but since the others had gone to bed, tapping on my computer was a bit noisy.
And just like two years ago, the first night was restless for Emilie,
who kept us all away most of the night. I remember still being awake
at about 2.30am, and then waking up again at 4am... and since I still wasn't
feeling sleepy, I decided to get up at that point.
Continue onto Friday May 27th page
Return to main index page for BotCon 2011
OZFORMERS - Australasian Transformers
News and Interaction (our 15th year - longer than any other moderated
BotCon website - The official Collector Club and Convention website (check it out for when and where the next one will be)
Me --> griffin @ otca.com.au