Saturday, December 7, 2013

America's Children's Holiday Parade in Oakland

     The East Coast has its Macy's Day Parade, but here in the Bay Area, we have the annual America's Children's Holiday Parade in Oakland. Like New York, our parade is also broadcast on TV (PBS), has giant balloons, and boasts the famous Tap Dancing Christmas Trees who have performed in the Macy's Day Parade but have their origin and base of operations in Alameda, CA.
     This is the perfect activity to take children to, but adults seem to enjoy it just as much as the kids. The parade usually happens in early December, this year on December 7th, and is always on a Saturday. This year, the parade started at 2 pm.
     One of my favorite parts of the parade is when the horses come prancing through because that's something children in the Bay Area don't often see, and the looks on their faces are priceless. This year, one of the riders stopped on the sidelines and let the children pet his horse. A few were brave enough to do so, more just sat in terrified awe, happy to look and not touch.
      Of course, children's favorites include popular TV and book characters like Garfield, Caillou, Maisy, Cat in the Hat, Skippyjon Jones, and (to my sister's delight) Tacky the Penguin. And then, of course, there are the balloons. It's hilarious watching the handlers maneuver them through the often windy, street-sign studded streets, and the kids are just amazed by their size.
     There's also many chances for Bay Area residents to show some local school pride when their city marching bands, dance teams, and cheer squads come through. Most of the instruments are decked with decorations. One tuba this year wore a wreath, some were wrapped in wrapping paper, many had bows. And the performances are always fantastic.
     My favorite group, however, is the 501st Legion of Storm Troopers, a group of Star Wars characters so authentic you'll do a double take. As they pass, it's the parents' turn to transform into little children, waving frantically, uttering "ooooohs" and "aaaaahs," and sometimes clapping or jumping up and down with uncontrollable fan euphoria. Last year, one of the storm troopers was carrying Yoda in a backpack, and Darth Vader's vehicle was more elaborate, but this group never ceases to amaze.
     You also don't want to miss the miniature BART and AC Transit vehicles that make public transportation a little more endearing for at least 20 minutes. This year, there was also a wonderful Scottish Highland Prince Charles Pipe Band I hope to see again in the upcoming years. And, best of all, their are plenty of cotton candy vendors walking the route. Nothing says "reliving childhood" like a gentle cloud of pure sugar. Hey, it's the holidays.
     Now for tips to make the parade as stress-free as possible. First, avoid AC Transit AT ALL COSTS. All the websites encourage parade goers to use AC Transit, but you will regret this choice. Because I don't live close to the BART anymore, my sister and I took the bus this year. The bus, which all the websites told us would take us directly to the parade, actually dumped everyone off on 6th and Washington. So we all had to walk eight more blocks to reach the parade route. After the parade, we had to walk to Castro Street to pick up the diverted 51A, another five block trek.
     Plus, no one seemed to know what the bus route changes were for the day, not even the bus drivers. We asked one bus driver where to catch the 51A to the Fruitvale BART, and he directed us to an AC Transit official, who was fielding a complaint from a rider who said there were no postings anywhere about a changed route for the day. Then, when we got on the bus, our bus driver drove in a circle before having to ask a passenger how to get to 7th Street. AC Transit hadn't given her an accurate route map. There seemed to have been no planning, or at least no communication between AC Transit, its drivers, and riders. There were crowds of confused, disgruntled passengers running back and forth trying to find their regular buses.
     That being said, driving can be stressful because of the parking situation. A lot of streets are closed for the parade, and parking can be a pain. Plus, with the increase in car thefts and break ins in the Bay Area, leaving your car can be nerve wracking. However, if you have to choose between driving and AC Transit, I would choose driving. Even paying more for a cab is worth it, if you have that option.
    The best transportation choice by far is BART, as long as you live close enough to a station or can leave your car at a reliable, safe station. BART drops you off in the heart of the parade route with no walking (unless you want the perfect spot). The best stop if you're taking BART is 12th Street although 19th will also drop you on the parade route.
     Keep in mind that bathrooms are few and far between. Most of the businesses that have a bathroom require a code or key to use it, and the lines can be annoying. Last year, the city provided portable toilets, but they were DISGUSTING. So go to the bathroom before and have a bathroom in mind, just in case.
     Also, dress warmly, and by warmly, I mean dress as if you're on an excursion to the North Pole. Last year, I had to run into Rite Aid and buy extra blankets because we were freezing. This year, we had coats, hats, and scarves on, and we still froze. Pack extra layers and blankets.
     The nice thing is you don't really have to worry about getting to the parade early for seats. This year, most people arrived right at the start of the parade, and there were still plenty of good seats. Also, consider eating at a local restaurant or cafĂ© to support the local businesses before or after the parade, but remember to tip big because workers have had to deal with rush after rush all day (especially in coffee houses).
     Below, you can peruse photos from last year and this year's parade. You can also visit the official parade website for more info: And don't forget to check out the Tap Dancing Christmas Trees' website,, for their history and events.

2012 Parade:

2013 Parade:

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Great Dickens Christmas Fair

     Every year, a healthy dose of Christmas magic and a whole lot of fabric transform Cow Palace in San Francisco into Victorian London, and I do mean transform. The more than 120,000 square foot space is turned into London neighborhoods, complete with shops, eateries, and entertainment.
     You can stay in the family friendly side of town, where you can join in a Victorian dance, play parlor games, watch Pinocchio on stage, ride the carousel, and visit Father Christmas. Or you can wander over to the dodgy side of town where you can mingle with the edgy characters of the London Docks and Mad Sal's Ale House. Enjoy the hearty singing and playing on the dockside stage or watch the ladies of the notorious Le CanCan Bijou.
     In your wanderings, you'll meet quite a few of the over 700 actors in authentic Victorian costumes going about their daily Victorian London lives, and you might be lucky enough to interact with some of Dickens' most beloved characters. This Christmas wonderland is, after all, the Great Dickens Christmas Fair. And trust me, you've never seen Christmas like this before.
     This year, I visited the fair on opening day (a Saturday), although the fair runs for five weekends from November 23 to December 22 from 10 am to 7 pm. If you are the penny pincher of your family, you'll definitely want to go to the fair sooner rather than later because the price of tickets increases as Christmas gets closer. And this fair ain't cheap. Adult tickets for the first three weekends cost $25 a piece, children (5-12) cost $12.00. If you enter the fair after 4 pm, the reduced "twilight" tickets will set you back $13 for an adult ticket and $8 for a child. You can also save a few bucks by printing the tickets from the website before the fair starts. Parking is $10 and fills up quickly.
     The high ticket price is definitely worth it because the whole event is an interactive experience (and everything looks authentic), and the prices inside the fair for food, drinks, and souvenirs are fairly cheap. When you enter the fair, you become a player in the story. Actors will talk to you, ask you to dance, and tell you stories. If you are a reserved, shy person, this fair might scare the Christmas spirit right out of you. But if you swallow those jitters and join the performance, you will have the time of your brief Victorian life.
     Being the reserved, shy person myself, I was a little overwhelmed by the energy of the first. On our way to the gate, my sister and I passed a group of chimney sweeps who gladly stopped to chat and pose for pictures. Their investment in their characters helped me overcome a little of my own stage fright and broke the ice. Once I entered the fair, I only had room for "WOW."
     As I wandered through the London neighborhoods (including the Grand Concourse, Grenadier's Gate, Pickwick Place, Bellringer's Row, Cratchit's Yard, Tinsley Green, Fish Street, Hollyberry Park, Golden Square, Nickelby Road, Mincing Lane, Petticoat, Lane, Maiden Lane, Fagin Alley, the London Docks, and Ale House Alley), I was amazed by the actors shopping, chatting, eating, drinking, and in some cases, mumbling. A drunkard (acting not actual) stumbled along in front of us. Another chimney sweep stopped for a photo and a few jokes with us. We saw Scrooge berating a group of gentlemen. We were haunted by Jacob Marley's ghost and impressed by his heavy chains. We saw the Christmas ghosts passing through the crowd like a dream. Again and again, I was surprised to be addressed by these actors and included in the drama.
     Of course, my shy side did intervene when we stopped at Fezziwig's Dance Party to watch the English country dancing, waltzing, and polka. Actors left the floor to ask us to waltz and polka, and I had to draw the line on participation, unwilling to try the dances with such a large crowd of onlookers. However, I greatly enjoyed seeing a young boy (around 7 years old) excitedly take the hand of a fair lady and rush onto the dance floor to be swung around in the polka.
     In the dodgy part of town, a handsome gentleman tried to sell us corsets and talk us into some daring pictures wearing them (we politely declined). Near the London Docks, a woman asked us to help her find her hat pin and to see her show later in the day. And everywhere we went, we were wished a "Happy Christmas." To take a break from the energy of the streets, we ducked into the Victoria & Albert Music Hall to watch Pinocchio. Seated next to us was a gentleman in top hat and coat.
     There are also a lot of food vendors at the fair with traditional English delights. If you visit one of the many pubs and ale houses, you can get a hot toddy, buttered rum, Irish coffee, scotch and soda, mimosa, spiced cider, and more. There's a Roasting Beef Inne where you can get a roast beef sandwich, crepes, or a steak and potatoes pasty. The Tippling Toad offers a larger, fancier dinner, including pumpkin pie. You can get banger sausages at Mr. Barker's Bangers and meat pies at Heritage Meat Pies. You can also visit Mr. Punch's Pasta, Acropolis Greek Food, and HMS Fish & Chips.
     If you want a snack rather than a meal, you can get roasted chestnuts, cinnamon almonds, and popcorn at little street vendors. For sweets or caffeine, you can visit MacClaren's Cookies & Milk, Mr. Brown's Fine Coffee and Teas, Cuthbert's Tea Shoppe, Confounding Confections, Bramosia Fine Chocolates & Candies, and 2 English Ladies.
     There's also plenty of shopping. You can buy clothes, jewelry, gifts, tankards, cups, violins, candles, pewter figurines, scarves, Christmas ornaments, soaps, perfume, books, ceramic and glass items, and much more.
     When it comes to entertainment, you can see performances of scenes from Dickens' novels, stomp to bands, watch dances, listen to carolers, see scientists and inventors discussing curiosities like electric-powered lanterns, visit Father Christmas, and more. People-watching is not only encouraged at this fair, it's expected. The actors, after all, didn't get all dressed up for nothing. Go to this fair with plenty of energy because you'll need every last drop. Visit the fair's website for more info:
     According to their website, the Great Dickens Christmas Fair has been a "Bay Area tradition since 1970." If you live in San Francisco, you may have had the pleasure of seeing actors in full Victorian outfit riding the BART to or from the fair, although everyone who attends is encouraged to dress up. San Francisco has a gift for getting in character. It can be Gotham City or London, and it celebrates the kid inside. This fair forces the Christmas spirit upon you, even if you're a Scrooge. If you visit the Bay Area during the holidays, this fair is definitely a miss-me-not.


Sunday, October 20, 2013

Half Moon Bay Art & Pumpkin Festival

     It's October, and my favorite Bay Area event celebrating my favorite gourd has arrived. No, I don't mean Halloween. Halloween is for amateurs. I'm talking about the Half Moon Bay Art & Pumpkin Festival. Half Moon Bay, pumpkin capital of the world (or so they claim), is one of the prettiest seaside towns along the coast, and it's made pumpkin-love a specialty as well as an art.
     Each October, for three magical days, Half Moon Bay fills every possible surface with every possible pumpkin product. It will keep you seeing orange all the way through Christmas. If you can only go to one event in the Bay Area, this is the one to choose, especially if you want to eat and see pumpkin everything, want pictures with giant pumpkins, want to shop for great harvest art and crafts, and want to pick out your pumpkins from massive pumpkin patches.
    Let me walk you through my festival strategy so you can get an idea for the best way to approach and enjoy this most gourd-plumping of events. Unless you want to spend hours waiting in traffic trying to get into the festival, get to Half Moon Bay early. My suggestion is to be there by 8 am (yes, even on Sunday).
     Have your camera ready for the drive there because beautiful pumpkin patches pop into view as you wind your way through the forested slopes near Half Moon Bay, and the sight of long stretches of pumpkins with deep green trees behind them is one you'll want to remember and brag about every Halloween.
     When you enter Half Moon Bay, there's a parking lot right before Main Street that will get you the closest to the festival while also allowing you a quick and painless getaway when you're done. Parking is $20 in this lot (don't forget to bring cash), but you'll discover it's worth it when you aren't stuck in a snarl of traffic after you're thoroughly pumpkined out. Also, bring a jacket because it tends to be chilly and foggy in the morning.
    You can warm up and reward yourself for being up so early on a weekend by going to the Pancake Breakfast that benefits the local high school basketball team. This breakfast usually starts at 7 am (though I don't recommend getting there that early because you'll have a long wait for the festival to start) and will set you back $10, but you can eat all the pumpkin pancakes you want. They also have sausage, orange juice, and coffee. AND PUMPKIN PANCAKES.
     The festival begins at 9 am, and there are a ton of great vendors to browse, demonstrations to watch, photo ops to take advantage of, and activities to occupy the kids. Some unique items you can find at this festival are gourd art and decorations, wooden wrist watches, pumpkin jewelry, surf board barrettes and magnets, Bay Area photography and trendy art, pumpkin lavender lotion and pumpkin pie lotion, all sizes of blown glass pumpkins, pumpkin hats, pumpkin candles, and bubble wands.
     You can take your kids to the petting zoo, the haunted house, or to the craft stations. You can also sit and watch Farmer Mike carve intricate designs, scenes, faces, and characters into giant pumpkins. You can seek the wisdom of the year's largest pumpkins, take a picture with the world's largest pumpkin sculpture by artist Peter Hazel, listen to event bands, and browse through the little shops along Main Street (there are two books stores and a feed store that sells baby chicks).
     Then it's lunch time, or second lunch time, or snack time, or grab-as-much-food-for-the-ride-home-as-you-can time. Hey, this event only comes once a year. Here's a partial list of the delicacies you can enjoy at this festival: pumpkin cookies, pumpkin bread, pumpkin fudge, pumpkin ice cream, pumpkin chili, pumpkin churros, pumpkin mac and cheese, pumpkin cheesecake, pumpkin smoothies, and classic pumpkin pie. There are other foods at this event too, but who cares? You're here for pumpkins! The pumpkin ice cream is my favorite.
     Once you finish with the festival, you can stop by the pumpkin patches to pick out your pumpkins, and if you have kids, there are a few more activities to deplete their energy and ensure a peaceful evening: pony rides, train rides, hay rides, corn mazes, haunted houses, and bounce houses.
      But the pumpkin patches are the real whipped cream on top of the pumpkin pie. Pumpkins of every sort, every size, and every type, are everywhere...sigh. Walk among them, visit with them awhile, ask them to share their pumpkin knowledge until the perfect pumpkin invites itself home with you. Don't worry, they have plenty of wheelbarrows if you can't choose just one (or ten).
     If you're a true festival enthusiast, you can attend the Great Pumpkin Parade or the pre-festival pumpkin weigh off. If you have a knack for growing giant pumpkins yourself, or you're looking for a hobby, you can win $25,000 if you enter a pumpkin that sets a new world record. Thad Starr set a new California record last year with his 1,775 pound monster gourd.
     This event is perfect for bringing the family together and getting into the Halloween spirit. You'll have so much fun you might elevate Halloween to your favorite holiday...if you haven't done so already. Visit the festival's website to watch a video about the festival, read up on the festival's history, get more info about festival activities, etc:

And now, feast your eyes and torture your tummy with a picture gallery that spans three years of this beloved celebration:

A festival with official gear? Sh*t just got real.

Farmer Mike preparing to carve...
Voila! The Lorax.

Farmer Mike carving away again...
Bluegrass, folk music, and pumpkin festivals? Of gourd.

World's largest pumpkin sculpture by artist Peter Hazel

Bubble Summoner

Bubbles or Inner-Child Whisperers?
The year's largest pumpkins...not the prettiest, but the biggest.
Pumpkin Ice Cream

Pumpkin Bread

Pumpkin Pancakes
On the hunt. Which one is just right?
Choose one...
Pumpkin Patch
Did I mention the prices? Lotta pumpkin for litta dollar.
The odd patch (my favorite).
Another pumpkin patch...
Treasure in hand, rest time...
Or another train ride.
Yet another pumpkin patch.

Until next year, my beauties...