Tuesday, 6 September 2011

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Camping at the San Diego Zoo

Our family is not exactly the outdoorsy type.  Wait a minute, that's how I started yesterday's post.  Truth be told I could probably start everything that I write with that statement as it's almost become the calling card for our family.  People who only know us very casually, know that we don't camp.  We'll come and hang out at the campground, sit around the fire, and enjoy some time with friends, but at the end of the day, we're going back to the Hyatt, and we'll see you again after the buffet breakfast in the morning.  It's our rule of non-camping, but to every rule, there must be an exception.

Ours was a chance to camp overnight inside the San Diego Zoo.  It's called Critter Camp Out, and it's an absolute dream scenario for my girls who are complete animal freaks.  In short, you come to the zoo in the evening for a private tour, a chance to feed some of the animals, and to go on a "Night Prowl" after the zoo closes. It's every bit as cool as it sounds, with the only drawback being that you have to camp overnight in the zoo (I checked, there was no "return to your hotel then come back early" option.) As much fun as the other activities sounded, the camping was almost a deal-breaker for us.  Eventually though, we decided that it was an experience we had to have, so we signed up and went for it.

Sort of.  While I am a believer in "Just Do It", I'm also a believer in having a backup plan.  Just in case things didn't go as planned, we booked a hotel room for the night.  Have you ever noticed that when you really don't need a great view, you always get one? We got a fantastic room at the Manchester Grand Hyatt looking out over San Diego Bay. This wasn't going to make it any easier to stay the night in the zoo.  On the other hand, the room would be way too small for all five of us (at least we didn't get upgraded to a suite) so it's best use would be as a place to leave our luggage while we all took just enough stuff for the one night.  It also solved another problem for us, as only our kids were traveling with pillows.  Ever wonder how many hotel pillows can fit in a suitcase?  The answer is five.

The suitcases view from the Manchester Grand Hyatt

So we rolled off to the zoo with our night bags and our suitcase full of pillows.  You drop your stuff off with some employees in the zoo parking lot and they make sure your stuff gets to the campsite for you.  I'm pretty sure I could see their eyes rolling when we showed up for a camp out with a suitcase.  I can only imagine their reaction if they'd known what was in the suitcase.  I think they might have gotten a hint when one guy lifted the suitcase into the back of his pickup and it almost sailed right over the cab of the truck. 

We went in and did the first part of the program (I'll tell you about the program another time.  Suffice to say, it's fantastic and if you can work it in to your visit I highly recommend you do so.) then made our way to the campsite for dinner.  Buffets we can do, and although the food had a distinct "camping" feel to it (hot dogs, hamburgers, mac n' cheese, etc...) we put on our "roughing it" attitudes and loaded up our plates.  We even tried the freeze dried cricket legs when they came around.  It felt like we were on Survivor!

After dinner came time to figure out the tent.  It seems fairly basic when you look at it.  Lay out the five sleeping bags (which we had to go to Target to buy as we've never needed any) and throw a pillow at the top of each one.  Simple right?  The problem is, we didn't leave any room in the tent for any of our other stuff (like the empty suitcase).  A couple of revamps later and we had about half of the stuff in the tent with very little prospect of getting anything else in.  We decided that it was July in San Diego, and the odds of anything getting rained on were pretty slim.  Besides, it was already pretty crowded in the tent and it was possible that somebody (and by "somebody" we all know they mean me) might have to sleep outside the tent anyways, so that person (still me) might want something to make a bed out of.

Yup, we really did bring a suitcase with us camping.
We went and did the night prowl (best part of the program) then came back to make S'mores.  Here's something else we're good at.  Maybe we really are meant to be campers and we just didn't know it!  This camping confidence was shattered fairly quickly though once the campfire was put out.  Real campers know to bring a flashlight with them when camping.  The five of us looked a little out of place using our iPhones to find our way back to the tent. 

The actual sleeping in the tent reminded me of why I hate camping.  Five people (and eight pillows) jammed in a tent trying to get comfortable enough to sleep.  I now understand why drinking is so synonymous with camping.  It would be a lot easier to just pass out and wake up in the morning than to actually get a decent amount of sleep in a tent, which is weird because I've never been in a quieter place in my life.  I think you're supposed to find the quiet relaxing, but instead I just found every noise amplified.  It didn't help that while on the night prowl our guide told us a story about the cheetah escaping from it's cage and nobody ever figuring out how he did it.  Do you know what sounds exactly like a cheetah lurking outside your tent in the middle of the night?  Everything.

Somehow we managed to survive the night, although we all looked pretty tired in the morning.  We had our breakfast buffet with the elephants, and then it was time to head out.  We staggered back to the Grand Hyatt where fortunately our bags had a late checkout on the room. This gave us time to put all the pillows back and catch a few more winks of sleep without having to worry (too much) about cheetahs on the loose.

So now I can say that I've been camping.  Sure I didn't set up or take down my own tent, cook my own food, or carry my own gear, but I slept outside, and I'm pretty sure that's all it takes to be called camping.  It was a fun experience and there were certainly some lessons learned.  For instance, next time I'm booking a room for the suitcases, I'm requesting a room with two queen beds so we can get twice as many pillows!





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