Our foreign exchange student, a girl from Slovakia, arrived in January, just a few days before the second semester started at her high school, and she has to leave the country one week after it ends. This left only Spring Break to squeeze in as many American experiences as possible — within a reasonable geographic range.
Monday afternoon and evening: Squeeze in an evening at Disneyland. With a Southern California CityPASS, we had three days between Disneyland and California Adventure, one day at Universal Studios and one day at SeaWorld, and we didn’t have that much time to take advantage of all those things, so we spent the afternoon and evening ride hopping at Disneyland.
Tuesday: We headed out of Anaheim and toward downtown Los Angeles. For a few hours in the morning/early afternoon we did a self-guided tour of UCLA so our student could see what a big American college looks like. We talked about student life, picked up a new student booklet, browsed the bookstore and ate a light lunch on campus. In the afternoon, we went to the walk of stars and Kodak Theater, and we shot photos of the Hollywood sign (which, if you’ve never seen it, is mighty disappointing; it’s about a million miles away from anywhere). We had bought tickets to an LA Lakers game, so we spent the evening snacking on stadium food and cheering on Kobe Bryant (at least our student did; we just sucked in basketball culture, which is surprisingly calm and quiet in comparison to other sports).
Wednesday: We got up and out the door relatively early so we could have breakfast with the Disney characters. Our student is 17 and we’re both adults, but this was by far one of the highlights of the trip. What is more American than hugging Minnie Mouse? (Mickey skipped breakfast.) The bulk of the day was spent at California Adventure, which is a pretty standard amusement park, but there were a few worthwhile rides like “Soarin’ Over California,” which offers a good overview of the state. That evening we slipped back over to Disney for a couple more hours for a final toast to the Happiest Place on Earth.
Thursday: Off to Universal Studios, where magic is made for the big screen. My husband and I take U.S.-made movies for granted, so we actually had to explain a fair number of films to our student. The back lots tour offered a fun perspective on some of the most famous movies made in California, and the things that our student recognized got huge ooohs and aaahs. Admittedly, Universal Studios is feeling a bit dated because so many of the attractions are 3D movies, which aren’t spectacular anymore, but film culture is a big part of Americana, so that aspect of the experience was worthwhile.
Friday: We left Los Angeles and headed south toward San Diego, home to SeaWorld. The concept of SeaWorld is an American one, and the institution has always done great things for research and education related to marine life, but I’d say it’s definitely gone downhill since I was last there (at the one in Florida almost 15 years ago). Education doesn’t seem to be the main focus anymore; entertainment is. Whereas trainers used to talk about the animals during shows, now there is no interaction with the audience. In fact, during the dolphin show, there are “scenes” where the dolphins don’t even make an appearance and instead it’s turned into a Cirque du Soleil-esque façade. So while SeaWorld, in my opinion, should have been an accurate slice of Americana, it fell flat.
Saturday morning: We had to be home by Saturday evening, so we spent the morning walking through the sand and along the boardwalk at Mission Beach. Our foreign exchange student had never been to the ocean before, so this was a big first for her, but it’s also a good representation of stereotypical California. Even though it was a bit chilly, bikes were cruising down the boardwalk, surfers were thick in the waves and families had umbrellas propped along the beach. Walking through the Mission Beach carnival area, we were able to show her what an old-school boardwalk looked like. No funnel cake or cotton candy was consumed.
And that’s it: Our mad dash into sharing a small piece of the United States and American culture. If you had five days to showcase the character, culture and history of the United States, what would you do? Where would you go?
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