By Jackie Burrell CONTRA COSTA TIMES
LISA CARRIER'S FIRST foray on an online Disney vacation chat site was supposed to result in travel tips. She never expected it would yield friendship, too.
What began as online chatter has evolved into a tight-knit group of 14 travel buddies who rendezvous at Disneyland twice a year, celebrate birthdays in British Columbia or Oregon and take spontaneous road trips together.
There are 24-year-olds and fortysomethings, men and women, attorneys, graphic artists and stay-at-home moms. They hail from California, Texas, Arizona and British Columbia. Some have children. Some are single. And every one of them, at some point, went online at LaughingPlace.com, a Disney fan site whose vibrant discussion boards yield the latest on Disneyland hotels, restaurants and rides.
"I never expected to find my best friends this way, but I did," says Carrier, a district service center manager in Livermore who joined the group several ago.
The group acts as impromptu Frommer's Guide for one another, sharing travel journals and photographs on private Web pages and helping plan each other's vacations. They e-mail almost daily, and get together for birthdays. Who are these people?
But that initial meeting was a tad fraught. This was, after all, an Internet friendship. Everyone's heard the scary stories.
Carrier's first off-line encounter with Antioch resident Sue Pesko and her friends was on Main Street, Disneyland. No commitment, no obligation, just a quick "hello" on the safest street on the planet.
"I was very nervous," Carrier confesses now. "But that was it. We were all there four or five days, and we were together the whole time. Pretty soon we were traveling to see each other."
Fremont graphic designer Jeff Schinkel's first meeting was at a Pleasanton park.
"It was a little nerve-racking," he says, laughing at the recollection. "But we all turned up, and nobody had any weapons. Everyone was fine, and it just grew from there."
Schinkel's wife, Terri, and their children meshed with the group, too -- so much so, that he invited them all to his family's 40th annual Unfamily Picnic in Pescadero last year. Much to Schinkel's delight, 10 of them came. The question then was, how to introduce the group to his relatives?
"That was kind of funny," he says. "'These are my Internet friends?' That would freak everybody out right away. 'We're in a Disney club together' is only mildly less geeky."
But everyone liked one another, labels or not. And it was a chance for Schinkel's children to see their "Disney club" friends again. Mystery trip
Next, when the Bay Area contingent -- Carrier, Pesko, Schinkel and Lodi graphic designer Jason Tracewell -- offered to host a whirlwind trip to Northern California, the rest of the group was totally on board, even though the itinerary had been kept completely under wraps.
The Bay Area crew had planned a "Golden Dream Vacation" that would showcase Northern California's splendors, but they refused to divulge any details beyond the basics: book plane tickets to San Francisco for mid-March, pack $258, a sense of adventure -- and a good deal of trust.
A few mysterious clues arrived by mail: a Golden Gate Bridge postcard, a toy crab, a corkscrew and a flashlight. Later, the mail brought sweatshirts and duffel bags emblazoned with a trip logo created by Tracewell and Schinkel.
"They trusted us big-time," says Tracewell.
The group toured San Francisco, tasted wines in Livermore and traipsed Yosemite's famous valley. They toured missions, nibbled chocolate and dabbled in Monterey's tide pools. And they slept, well, everywhere. Pesko's and Carrier's residences, filled with air-beds and sleepings bags, became home base.
"Wednesday morning, we took the final people to the airport, did a high-five and collapsed," says Pesko. "I think everyone wants to go to Las Vegas next. We're playing with ideas already."
And they'll always have Disneyland, that magical place where Tinkerbell soars, Dumbo flies and friends congregate every day -- a place so magical that when Schinkel couldn't join the group on one trip, Pesko took him anyway.
"Sue had a picture of me and she put my head on a stick," Schinkel says with a fond laugh. "Every time there was a group photo, there was me on a stick. I got a picture with Mickey Mouse, too."
Reach Jackie Burrell at 925-977-8568 or [email protected]
. MAD FOR DISNEY "GOLDEN DREAMS" IN THE BAY AREA
• Disney area hotels: Pesko calls the Grand Californian Hotel and Spa (1600 S. Disneyland Drive, Anaheim) the "ultimate Disney hotel." Located on Disney property, the hotel is walking distance to both Disneyland and California Adventure parks. Standard rooms are $280 and up. For information and reservations, call 714-956-6425.
Other favorites near Disneyland: Embassy Suites, $143 and up, 3100 E. Frontera, 714-632-1221; and Best Western Park Place Inn, $89 and up, 1544 S. Harbor Blvd., 714-776-4800.
• Disneyland restaurants: Inside Disneyland, the group always eats at the venerable, 50-year-old Plaza Inn and the Carnation Cafe at least once, and Tortilla Joe's is a favorite, says Carrier.
• Trip planning: LaughingPlace.com, a Disneyland fan site that includes travel planning guides and discussion boards, where visitors can swap insider tips on hotels, restaurants and whether to ride Indy or Pirates of the Caribbean first. (Answer: Indy) MAD FOR DISNEY "GOLDEN DREAMS" IN THE BAY AREA
The Bay Area foursome introduced their friends to the delights of the region in a five-day whirlwind tour that ranged from vineyards and chocolate to hippies and Half Dome. Here's how to entertain your out-of-town guests:
DAY 1: SAN FRANCISCO -- 31/2-hour guided bus tour of the city, followed by a Bay cruise. Dinner at the Fairmont's Tonga Room, then a cable car ride down to the Embarcadero.
DAY 2: WINE TASTING AND YOSEMITE -- Winery tour and wine tasting at Livermore's Wente Vineyards, then on to Yosemite, with lodging at Curry Village. Dinner at the Mountain Room at Yosemite Lodge, followed by board games and a blind wine tasting of Wente wines in the community room at Curry Village.
DAY 3: YOSEMITE -- Breakfast in Curry Village and sightseeing in the majestic valley before returning to the Bay Area.
DAY 4: SAN JUAN BAUTISTA AND MONTEREY -- Tour of Mission San Juan Bautista, lunch at the Monterey wharf, then a driving tour down to Asilomar. Tide pools, beach walks, and 17-mile drive in Carmel, before heading back to home base.
DAY 5: OAKLAND AND SAN FRANCISCO -- Lunch at Oakland's Jack London Square, walking tour of San Francisco's Haight, Castro and Ghirardelli Square. A show at the Marines Memorial Theatre and dinner at a cozy Italian restaurant in North Beach. MAD FOR DISNEY "GOLDEN DREAMS" IN THE BAY AREA
• WHO: Sue Pesko, Lisa Carrier, Jeff Schinkel, Jason Tracewell and their friends
• LIVE IN: Antioch, Livermore, Fremont, Lodi and across the United States and Canada
• SNAPSHOT: An online group of travel buddies