Part 4 - Tow Trucks, Bees, Rhinos, Giraffe's and a Hilton.
After a mediocre nights sleep, we ordered room service breakfast so we could finish packing. I should have realized it was a bad omen when they were out of smoked salmon.
Our plan for the morning was to pack up, grab a cab to the local Avis depot, pick up a rental car and head for the San Diego Wild Animal park, where we had a 1:00 PM 3 hour photo caravan scheduled. The first part of the plan went fine. It was about a 30 minute drive to the park area, but when we pulled off the highway and turned at a light, the car shuddered as it tried valiantly to get back into gear. When it did it again at the next turn, and the dashboard started to light up like an early Christmas tree, I knew we had a problem. The GPS said we were less than a mile from the park, so I nursed the car there, telling the parking attendant that I would be calling Avis, she indicated no problem.
I found a parking spot in the lot and called the Avis road service number, waited on hold for 10 minutes, explained the problem and was told a new car would be there in about 45 mins. I was happy with that (at this time it was just after 10:00 AM), we went to the entrance, got our tickets, checked into our tour and explored the front of the park. Beautiful park, totally different atmosphere than the zoo. We saw an armadillo display with his keeper and looked at some of the closer exhibits, then I left the wife in the park with our bags (once we found a place without bees, they were EVERYWHERE. I don't like bees. Not at all. They creep me out. Omen #2.)
10:50, I am back at the car. No tow truck. Talk to a park security guy driving around the lots, he indicated the gate had advised them of the situation and he sent the location of my car out to everyone in case they saw one. At 11:00, my phone rings, its an automated message from Avis asking if service has been performed yet. I hit no, wait another 10 mins on hold, and find out that the first agent gave me wrong info, it was going to take the driver 45 mins to GET the car and another 45-60 to get there, so I shouldn't have expected them until around 12. Grumble, run back to the park, and Pam and I went to check out the Condor ridge area (with a detour to see BABY ELEPHANT! I mean when you see a sign with BABY ELEPHANT and an arrow, you kind of have to go that way!) Condor ridge gave you a great view, and an inquisitive bighorn came down to check us out as well. Then, it was time to run back to the car. Again. Remember, I was full blown sick with a cold at this point too. More bees at the car, but no tow truck.
Phone rings again. Avis automated. No. Wait 10 mins. Now I am pissed. Avis calls the tow company. Driver can't find the SAN DIEGO WILD ANIMAL PARK. Hasn't tried to call me or anything, they had my cell. I'm yelling at Avis, Avis is yelling at tow company. Driver finally calls, he's lost and speaks almost no english, has no GPS and no clue. It's now 12:30. Remember, I have a very expensive tour at 1:00, I am sick, and have not had lunch yet. I EXPLODE on this poor driver, who pulls into a random driveway where there are people. He hands his phone to the nice people, I explain the situation, they draw him a MAP, he arrives at car, escorted by park security at 12:50 and apologies profusely as I am literally moving suitcases from car to car and praying I didn't miss anything while he is still taking it off the truck. 12:57, I am tearing pell mell back through the lot (that lot is not so small), racing back through the entrance and to the tour spot just in time to be the last one on the truck, gasping for breath. Thank god they had water on the truck.
There was a quick safety briefing, then we were off. A couple of notes about the park. The Wild Animal park is HUGE, and only about 1/3 of it is open via walking. Another section is only visible via a tram tour or other tours, and a huge section only visible by the photo caravans. There are two caravans, Africa and Asia, or you can do a combined trip like we did.
There's not a lot to describe about the caravans themselves. You are in the back of a large flatbed truck, with benches, wooden railings and a cover. You have a driver in the front and a guide in back with you. The truck drives a preset route through a number of enclosures, trying to get as close to the animals as possible while your guide tells you about them.
You do get very close to some of the animals, especially giraffes and rhinos. The antelopes and bison couldn't really care less about you unless you have food for them. One animal I have to note was Nala. Nala is a 30 year+ old white rhino and apparently one of 7 of that breed left in the world. She was a very gentle sort with her trainer, and sadly she is sterile. It was definitely odd to look at an animal and realize you can count every other one like her in the world on less than the fingers on your hands.
We drove around for about an hour before taking a break. They provided drinks and snacks (all I had to eat since breakfast) and then we headed off to the rest of Africa and Asia sections (we did E africa first, the S africa and Asia. In the Asian section we had to the opportunity to feed Giraffes and Rhinos, both of whom came right up to the truck. You weren't allowed to pet the giraffes, but you REALLY REALLY wanted too. A cool sight was two brother giraffes play fighting, or 'necking'. Finally, we headed back to the park.
Now, the caravan was nice, but after a while it seemed very repetitive. Look, more giraffes. Rhinos.. Antelopes. More rhinos. Boks, which look like antelopes. Giraffes. You get the idea. In hindsight, I think just doing the Asian side would be sufficient.
Also, by the time the tour was over, the park was closing in 45 mins. I was totally wiped from the morning and the cold, so we ended up not exploring the areas we had not been able to cover earlier. Instead, I polished off a large bottle of water and we headed back to the car, since we had a 2 hour drive to the LA area at best.
I was planning to get food on the way, I forgot CA doesn't believe in rest stops and I didn't want to get off the highway in areas I didn't know, so I ended up just pushing myself and driving straight through. We only hit brutal traffic for the last 10 miles or so, took about 2 3/4 hours.
Then, when we tried to get to the hotel, the road was blocked for Universal's Halloween event. The driveway to the hotel was RIGHT there but they wouldn't let us turn (I was THIS close to running the guy over). We had to get back on the highway, loop around and go a longer way, adding 20 mins to the drive. When we got there, suddenly Valet parking was a much better option, as was a bellman.
At this point, we had our first plus of the day, they upgraded my points stay to a very nice huge alcove room and there were some nice in the room. I can't say enough about the Hilton Universal staff, from the valet up they were all extremely nice and professional.
We ordered room service for dinner (yay for Ultimate Chicken Soup Bowl - it was huge and again, service was excellent. Finally, we hit the sack. Our VIP tour was at 10 the next morning so at least we could sleep in.
A followup on the Avis story: They did a lot to win me back yesterday. I had planned to write them concerning the above, but the online form didn't really seem to fit, and I kept forgetting to call to get a better email address. I finally called yesterday. I explained to the nice lady on the phone that I wanted a direct email to report a problem and she gave me one, then said some magic words. "I'll be happy to listen to you and see what we can do about your problem." And she meant it. I explained the whole story to her and she indicated that she would contact the CA region to have the tow processed reviewed, at the very least so that every contracted driver has a GPS. Then she asked what Avis could do for me. Since we lost most of the non-tour day at the park, I requested Avis refund me the cost of our park tickets (not the tour) and she put in a request for that, she said if approved it will take 3-6 weeks. We'll see what happens but her demeanor and concern really made me feel better.