Christmas Again: Renewing the Holiday DCOM with Heart

Disney Channel’s ‘Christmas Again’

Today marks a momentous occasion in Disney Channel history: the debut of the fourth-ever Christmas DCOM. Christmas Again is the first holiday Disney Channel Original Movie in 10 years. Good Luck Charlie: It’s Christmas! premiered on December 2, 2011. That came a decade after ‘Twas the Night (2001) and The Ultimate Christmas Present (2000). There was also one DCOM in the early 2000s that included a celebration of Hanukkah: Full-Court Miracle (2003).

There’s an excellent repository of holiday episodes among Disney Channel series, but a Christmas DCOM is rare. Christmas Again is directed by Andy Fickman and stars Scarlett Estevez as Rowena, a young girl who lives with her mom and sister and is adjusting to a new family structure after her parents’ divorce. It’s their first big blended Christmas, and Rowena isn’t taking it well. Her parents choose to celebrate the holiday together and include the dad’s new family. Rowena’s soon-to-be stepbrother, Louie, is a pest (at first). Her soon-to-be stepmother, Diane, bakes kale cookies. Ro is impatient with her flatulent grandparents, her aspiring comedian Guncle who gets in the way of her TV time, and her dad’s preoccupation with that darn Louie. To her mother’s horror, Rowena’s mishaps turn into absolute mayhem, taking down both the Christmas decorations and everyone’s moods. Thus the fateful wish to have another chance at her Christmas.

The next morning, Ro starts to realize that she is, indeed, stuck in a Yuletide time loop. After reckoning with her “Groundhog Day” fate, she’s pleased to discover that her actions seemingly have no consequences. Ro takes a leaf out of Kevin McCallister’s book and orders herself a stretch limo for a perfect day of sledding and a trip to Chicago’s Navy Pier. For the next couple of days, she tries to prove the time warp to her family, to no avail. Then she travels by limo to watch her favorite hockey team play. After the match, Ro sees a couple winning a candy cane counting contest. The grand prize is a thousand dollars, and Ro wants that dough, so she makes sure to go back to the rink to win big the next day. I love this part because it’s such a sweet nod to one of my favorite Erik von Detten movies, Christmas Every Day (1996) — except that EVD is guessing the amount of gumballs.

Chicago lovers will also appreciate Rowena’s museum-going scene, highlighting the gorgeous “Christmas Around the World” attraction at the Museum of Science and Industry. She even goes to the top of the Hancock tower and summons up the courage (after a few days) to tip out onto the glass platform. I’ll admit that I didn’t keep count of how many times Ro relives Christmas Day, but it’s a lot. And I really didn’t mind! It’s interesting to see what an 11-year-old will do with so many chances to curate the holiday of her dreams.

The sad part is that Ro’s family doesn’t seem to notice she’s missing while she’s on her jaunts through Chicagoland. On the bright side, every single Christmas involves an interaction between Rowena and Santa — he’s the limo driver, the hockey concessions vendor, and the voice of wisdom for a misunderstood little girl. “Families change, but what’s important is, you’re all still together on Christmas,” Santa says. He tells Ro that she’s missing out on new family memories, but she gets the wrong idea and attempts to get her parents back together. This, too, doesn’t work. As a ’90s kid, I can appreciate a movie where everything has to get messy before it can be fixed. Ro cuts off the power and clogs up the garbage disposal to turn her father into a hunky handyman. She makes the rest of the family disappear to get her parents alone together, fitting them in matching gingerbread sweaters and dangling mistletoe over their heads. Rowena’s parents come clean to tell her that her dad is remarrying and Louie and Diane will officially become part of her family.

Scarlett Estevez shows great range as a young actress, sending her character into a convincing, bed-headed depression over her changing familial structure. “I don’t believe in Christmas,” she declares to her relatives. Ro is inconsolable until her older sister, Gabby, offers some perspective, remembering how much their parents used to fight. Gabby then points out that she wasn’t too excited to get a baby sister at first, but she gave Ro a chance. Boom. Christmas transformed. And Rowena makes it the best one yet by hiring a mariachi band. In her last rounds of December 25th, Ro attempts to help people in the neighborhood by learning Judo, body-slamming a bully, and making sure another neighbor doesn’t drop her eggs. There’s also her savvy move to save a proposal at the Winter Fest, and her sweet gift to two more neighbors: their lost cat and two new kittens. Just when I think the beautiful round of “Silent Night” in Spanish signals the end, Rowena continues her good deeds and endears herself to her family even more.

For all her kindness, the neighbors bestow gifts on Rowena, turning her warm family gathering into a community party that genuinely filled my heart with joy. In a cute turn of events, two of Ro’s new friends bring along their single dad, who has “a moment” with Ro’s mom.

“Here we all are, together, and I’ve never been happier,” Ro tells the whole family at the end. I’m a sucker for Christmas carols, so “Silver Bells” brought a big smile to my face. Actually, I smiled a lot during this movie. I’m a 27-year-old with no kids, but this is truly one of the best “new” Christmas movies I’ve seen in a long time. If I had children, they would be watching this with me.

I’m glad to see the DCOM legacy continuing in this decade, especially when that means Christmastide DCOMs are back! I can’t help but consider that while Rowena is a couple years younger than Allie from The Ultimate Christmas Present, some things never change. Whether it’s Ro trying to escape into the perfect Christmas Day, or Allie just trying to use a weather machine to get snowed in and avoid writing a paper, the tween DCOM protagonist can speak to us from age to age.

The Search for the First Disney Channel Original Series

If this is your first time visiting my website, welcome! If you’re not new, welcome back! I’m a Disney Channel historian and a ’90s baby. I recently made a short video discussing the inaugural DCOM (feel free to watch it here and let me know what you consider to be the first Disney Channel Original Movie). Some say it’s Under Wraps (1997), some say it’s Northern Lights (1997), and others say it’s the Disney Channel Premiere Film Tiger Town (1983) — none of these are on Disney+, I’m afraid.

Today, I’m asking a similar question. What was the very first Disney Channel Original Series? I haven’t met a single person who uses “DCOS” as an acronym in the way that we instantly recognize “DCOM.” However, the phrase “Disney Channel Original Series” still rings a bell for most fans. I decided to ask my trusty Internet friends what they thought Disney Channel’s first original series was. Altogether, I received five different titles: Welcome to Pooh Corner, The All New Mickey Mouse Club, The Famous Jett Jackson, Even Stevens, and That’s So Raven. A great list that goes from the Disney Channel launch in 1983 to the That’s So Raven premiere in 2003.

I’m not surprised that a 20-year span arose from my question. In those two decades, the channel was rebranded (more than once) and underwent several transformations in programming. Welcome to Pooh Corner would make a lot of sense as the first “Disney Channel Original Series,” since it took classic Disney characters, turned them into life-size puppets, and gave them completely new stories. Per the first issue of The Disney Channel Magazine, Welcome to Pooh Corner was the third-ever series to air on the channel. First was Good Morning, Mickey!, and second was Mousercise. I wouldn’t classify Good Morning, Mickey! as the initial Disney Channel original series because it was a compilation of pre-existing Disney animations (the “Three Little Pigs” short, for example). Mousercise was pretty original, taking inspiration from a Walt Disney Records album and adding in a full-on ’80s aerobic exercise instructor, the late Kellyn Plasschaert. Below is a portion of the schedule from the channel’s very first month, beginning with the April 18 premiere date, from The Disney Channel Magazine.

Portion of April 1983 schedule from Disney Channel Magazine

The All New Mickey Mouse Club is one of the Disney Channel’s most recognizable programs from its era (1989-1994/1995, depending on who you ask). Like Kids Incorporated, it was a debut for eventual pop icons and actors. By that point, a handful of other “original” series had aired, but the MMC still stands out for its talent.

Let’s come back to The Famous Jett Jackson and turn now to Even Stevens. Premiering in 2000, Even Stevens predated Lizzie McGuire in presenting a sparring brother-sister duo with reasonable parents and just the right blend of hilarity and sensitivity. Ren and Louis (and Donnie) were very different from Lizzie and Matt — as Louis and Ren locked horns and learned lessons, the Stevens family maintained a zaniness that can’t be replicated; the McGuires had their own quirks, particularly with Lizzie’s animated alter-ego revealing her innermost thoughts. These original Zoog Disney shows ushered in an era, bridged a gap, and literally kicked off a new century.

That takes us to Raven-Symoné, the shining star of That’s So Raven. She’s a comic genius who brought decades of entertainment industry experience to her Disney Channel role as Raven Baxter. When That’s So Raven premiered, the channel was establishing its new identity with another rebrand, bidding farewell to the Zoogs and hello to the wand IDs. Raven’s show was the first original multi-cam sitcom the Disney Channel had offered in a long time. (I know they presented one season of Good Morning, Miss Bliss in the late ’80s before it became Saved by the Bell on NBC.)

Google might direct you to Good Morning, Mickey! when you ask it what the first “Disney Channel Original Series” is. You’ll probably also stumble upon Flash Forward, not to be confused with the 2009-2010 ABC drama. Entertainment Weekly classified the Disney Channel Flash Forward show as the first “under the originals banner.” Another gem unavailable for streaming, Disney’s Flash Forward has a complicated airdate history that I can explain in three parts, for now. Part one: It quietly aired on the channel in 1995, at least on December 24, per archived schedules from the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune. A 1995 archived Toronto Star article featured Flash Forward because it was a Canadian production by Atlantis Films, “in association with Family Channel and The Disney Channel.” At the time, the series was described as a pilot awaiting pick-up. Part two: ABC aired Flash Forward on Saturdays in fall 1996, per the Los Angeles Times, which simply mentioned that it’s about “two 13-year-olds who have been best friends since birth.” I’ve not seen the “Disney Channel Original Series” language used for this show in any ’90s print news sources, but I’m also missing a copy of The Disney Channel Magazine that features the Flash Forward leads, Ben Foster and Jewel Staite, on its cover. Part three: Flash Forward aired on the Disney Channel as part of a New Year’s Eve marathon to ring in 1997 and then became part of the channel’s lineup. Capitalizing on the show’s title, Disney Channel called the event a “New Year’s Eve Flashback Party.” I’m all for retro TV in its many forms, but these other shows on the marathon schedule were a bit of a surprise: Our Miss Brooks, Gidget, Room 222, and Square Pegs. The idea was a countdown of “Decade by Decade Teen TV.”

December 1996/January 1997 cover of The Disney Channel Magazine featuring Jewel Staite and Ben Foster

On that note, let’s end our travels in the late 1990s. I’m glad my friend sent in The Famous Jett Jackson as an answer to the “original” question. The late Lee Thompson Young was a Disney Channel legend in his own right. His series first aired in 1998, and Young portrayed a teen actor who moves away from Los Angeles to have a more normal life with his father in North Carolina. The Famous Jett Jackson is (sadly) unavailable on Disney’s streaming platform, but So Weird is available. I was not watching So Weird during its first run, and I’m not sure too many other five and six-year-olds were, either. But I absolutely love it now. Fi Phillips (Cara DeLizia) and, later, Annie Thelen (Alexz Johnson) are teen girls who attract paranormal forces. The writing is so good, the acting so convincing, that this series defies genre for me. I’ve seen it associated with sci-fi, horror, and drama, but it’s so nuanced. As I searched through news archives, I found a December 1998 ad in The Star Press of Muncie, Indiana. Once again, the Disney Channel was gearing up for a new year of programming. The Famous Jett Jackson was described as “a new action-adventure series.” Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century would air for the first time as the out-of-this-world DCOM we all know it to be. Then we have So Weird: “A new Disney Channel original series…”

News clipping from The Star Press, December 1998

Could So Weird be the first series on the network to get that title in print? What about on television, in Disney Channel promos? A quick YouTube search brought me to a commercial for The Jersey (premiered in 1999), and those same words were uttered: “a new Disney Channel original series.” Ah! And here it’s said again in a promo for So Weird! Is 1999 the magical year? Is that the point in time when other existing shows retroactively became “Disney Channel Original Series?” Or is there some mention of Flash Forward with that exact title that I’ve not yet uncovered? I’m excited to find out, and I think it’s a somewhat important distinction to make. Whatever the answer is, I love these shows, and I love sharing memories with fellow Disney Channel viewers! Thanks for reading, and please share your Disney Channel thoughts with me anytime.

Our Undying Love for Halloween on the Disney Channel

All through October (okay, maybe earlier than that), millennials like me start posting about fall and Halloween on social media. For many of us, this season is the best for nostalgia. We share our childhood memories of the pumpkin patch, trick-or-treating, eating candy, and most importantly, watching Disney Channel’s classic Halloween lineup.

Disney Halloween memories

Programming for Halloween has taken many shapes throughout the channel’s history. In decades past, we’ve seen the Monster Bash, Fresh Fright-Dayz, Hauntoberfest, Week of Witches, Monstober, Wiz-tober, and other spooky titles for marathons and themed blocks. When I posted some stills from old Disney Channel Halloween commercials, my Instagram friends responded quickly.

“I miss these days !!!” “the best time of the year!!” “oh how i want to go back in time,” a few commenters wrote. Another said their favorite memory from Disney Channel Halloween was: “Watching Halloweentown and thinking the marshmallow spiders in the cocoa were the coolest thing ever.”

Even before the years of Halloweentown — aka Best Halloween Movie Franchise Ever — people loved the Disney Channel’s autumnal slate. Some remember Mickey Mouse cartoons and Disney’s Halloween Treat airing in the 1980s and early ’90s.

Why do we love Disney Channel Halloween so much? What is it about this programming season that has swept us up into such a nostalgic reverie? I have a theory about this, and it might resonate with you, too.

I believe the Disney Channel’s spooky episodes and movies have done something powerful: 1. They’ve installed themselves in our brains because they are memorable! We can visualize distinct scenes or lines, or even the commercials we saw all the time advertising our favorite television events. 2. We pair those DCOMs and special episodes with our surroundings. Perhaps we can still imagine we’re in our childhood homes, parked in front of the TV, a few fall decorations in the background. We might associate our youthful television schedules with other seasonal events. Did you watch The Suite Life of Zack & Cody’s “The Ghost in Suite 613” before going to a Halloween party? Did you see Even Stevens’ “A Very Scary Story” or Lizzie McGuire’s “Night of the Day of the Dead” after an evening of trick-or-treating in your neighborhood? Maybe you went to a fall festival, like I did for many years, and then settled in for an airing of “Don’t Have a Cow” (That’s So Raven) or a classic Halloweentown marathon.

Disney knows we still care. Why do you think they curate an entire Halloween page for us on Disney+? Streaming allows us to dive into a treasure trove of memories (so long as movies don’t disappear from our services…but that’s a tale for another day). We must watch Marnie learn she’s a witch, discover TRAPA, and host Halloweentown exchange students — it’s tradition! Whether you’re on The Scream Team or you’re ready to be terrified by Don’t Look Under the Bed, there’s no denying the Halloween DCOM dynasty. And let’s not forget that the Disney Channel introduced most of us to Hocus Pocus and a pre-Lizzie Hilary Duff in Casper Meets Wendy, even though neither of those films debuted on the channel (the former was theatrical, the latter was straight-to-video).

Let’s take a look at the Disney+ Halloween section for 2021. While many of the films listed are clearly related to Halloween, there are also non-Halloween DCOMs with spooky vibes: the Descendants franchise, the Zombies franchise, Wizards of Waverly Place: The Movie, and Upside-Down Magic, for example. Though these movies aren’t commemorative of October 31st, they evoke the Disney Channel Halloween spirit with magic and fantasy. But get this: there are entire series recommended for Halloween viewing, with Secrets of Sulfur Springs being the most recent selection. Deadline describes this show’s genre as “time-travel mystery-adventure.” Another is The Evermoor Chronicles, a mystery series that came out of Disney Channel UK in the 2010s. Backing up a few years, Wizards of Waverly Place is also lined up as a “Halloween” program, right next to its DCOM. Makes sense…wizards, werewolves, and vampires all graced the Waverly Sub Station. Animated offerings are sprinkled in there, such as Gravity Falls, The Owl House, The Ghost and Molly McGee, and Disney Jr.’s Vampirina (obviously those last two would make the cut for streaming “scaries”).

Left: Wizards of Waverly Place, Right: So Weird

One more puzzle piece I’d like to highlight from this D+ perusal: So Weird. Admittedly, my kid memories of So Weird are fuzzy — but don’t fault me; I wasn’t even five years old when it first aired. As an adult, I’ve approached this one like a chilly swimming pool. I’d dip my toes in here and there until finally taking the plunge. Now, I’m committed to this fascinating show. In case you’ve never seen it, So Weird is a sci-fi half-hour filled with paranormal activity, helmed by Cara DeLizia as Fi for the first two seasons. With the show’s titular website, Fi is an Internet pioneer who investigates her otherworldly experiences while on tour with her musician mom. In 2012, Cameron White wrote about the series on the website “This Was Television.” He astutely said, “Supernatural-themed shows like SupernaturalBuffy the Vampire Slayer, and So Weird tend to do well by mining plenty of humor out of the fact that, for the characters on those shows, every day is Halloween.”

 I love that idea. Even when it’s not Halloween, the Disney Channel has a corner on the spooky/supernatural/magical market of kids’ programming. It was in once the subtle edges of So Weird, the psychic visions on That’s So Raven, then the wizards, zombies, villains, aliens, time travelers, legends, and heroes. But back to the autumn wonders of the Disney Channel.

Frankly, I am passionate about this season because I crave the comfort that it brings. Fall alone is so satisfying to me, and my Disney Channel memories make it even better. I’m no psychologist, but there’s something cozy about grabbing your blanket and eating your candy and getting just a little scared of what’s on the screen. Even once I was past the age of trick-or-treating, I would still tune into “scary” movies and shows, whether it be the Halloweentown franchise, Phantom of the Megaplex, Twitches, or any number of episodes that I still love. The whole spectacle is the perfect dose of suspense and enchantment that I look forward to every year.

As I continue with my Disney Channel research, I think about the behind-the-scenes side of programming. I’ve been able to thank some of the writers, directors, and executives that made our annual Halloween marathons so special. It’s not one individual episode or movie that we remember; it’s a kaleidoscope of familiar stories that we revisit for decades.

I’m glad nostalgic creators are exchanging memories and snapshots from childhood — especially with that Halloween glow. We remember. There are times when we rewatch these programs and see things through childlike eyes. I think that’s beautiful. I think it’s something to celebrate anytime, year after year.

Stars Hollow Girl of 2017

In 2017, I moved to New England, but not just any place in New England. I lived in New Haven, Connecticut for two years to study at Yale. While I was there, I had a Gilmore Girls activity list of sorts running through my mind.

A little piece of Washington Depot, CT

The list encompassed two of the show’s most important worlds: Stars Hollow and Yale. I’m going to discuss the former first. As fans know, Amy Sherman-Palladino stayed at the Mayflower Inn & Spa in Washington, Connecticut, where she gathered inspiration for Stars Hollow.

Washington is next to Washington Depot, and those two towns became a weekend sanctuary for me while I lived in Connecticut. My husband and I would take the leisurely hour ride every few months or so, and we always went home a little happier.

My very first time at the Hickory Stick

At first, I wanted to see anything that could have inspired the components of Rory’s fictional hometown. And I did! Marty’s supposedly was like Luke’s, and the Hickory Stick Bookshop was right around the corner. Our very first trip to the town, we walked right into a special community event at the bookstore, and I won a goodie bag! Then there was the local hardware store, right across from a market with a facade very similar to Doose’s, and you can’t forget the town hall! Though not everything looks identical to what the Warner Brothers lot created for the series, there are certainly some resemblances here and there.

My sister in front of the Hickory Stick entrance

When Gilmore Girls debuted in 2000, I was in the first grade. As its last episode aired, I was finishing seventh grade. I’d say I was basically too young to appreciate or understand the show during its original run. It wasn’t really on my radar during those years. Even in high school, I don’t remember any of my friends talking about it or watching reruns. Finally, in college, one of my best friends introduced me to the land of Stars Hollow via the classic DVD boxed set. I was hooked and watched the entire series rather quickly.

That’s why I was determined to do what Rory did while I had the privilege of living in beautiful New England. The CW hour drama was certainly what got me on the road for quaint Connecticut adventures.

But over time, these trips became special because of Washington/Washington Depot itself. We found our favorite spot to eat at (The Pantry), we always loved browsing at the Hickory Stick, and we had fun walking around the small main area of stores, especially during nice fall weather. One of my favorite purchases at the local gift shop was a cute little winter hat that I still wear (I went from Connecticut to Michigan).

I bought a hat, Jack bought the Charlie Brown Christmas CD

Even once you leave Washington/Depot to head back toward New Haven, you’ll find plenty of other roadside pleasantries, especially if you’re into antiquing. The truth is, there are a TON of towns all over the state that will give you Stars Hollow vibes. Try Guilford, where you’ll see a true town green surrounded by restaurants, local stores, and a buzzing food center. Keep going along the shoreline and you’ll find more gems. In Essex, you can eat at The Griswold, one of America’s oldest inns, and visit the Connecticut River Museum during the holidays for the best display of trains. You’ll find small-town charm in Chester, Madison, Old Lyme, and countless other destinations.

The special thing about my time in Connecticut is that it blends my television nostalgia with my real-life memories. 2017 feels miles away, but also like yesterday. When I look back on that time, nostalgia takes on many layers. I feel happiness for the good memories that I made, but I also feel sadness for the fact that an entire chapter of my life came and went so quickly.

Stars Hollow was important because it was the heart of Gilmore Girls. Yale became a second home for Rory, and Hartford was (somewhat reluctantly) another destination for her and Lorelai. Jack worked in Hartford while I was in school. While some neighborhoods there, and in West Hartford, will remind you of Emily and Richard Gilmore’s house, much of the city of Hartford will not remind you of their lavish dwelling at all. There’s a stark contrast between the poorer sectors and the wealthier neighborhoods. At our church, people from all over the area worshipped together.

My studies were also religious. At Yale Divinity School and the Institute of Sacred Music, I earned a Master of Arts in Religion and Music. You might remember Rory referencing “the Sterling Divinity Quadrangle” aka the quad? Here it is:

Marquand Chapel, Yale Divinity School

My program of study was concentrated “up the hill” and about a half-hour’s walk from the downtown buildings of Yale College and other graduate/professional programs. I also took several courses downtown, studied at the main library, and sang in concerts at one of Yale’s most well-known venues, Woolsey Hall.

Our first Thanksgiving there, my parents and sister came to visit, as well as Jack’s twin sisters. We saw a ton of Gilmore Girls staples, including Rory’s residence, Branford Hall, which isn’t too far from that lucky toe at Old Campus.

Branford College sign
Mom, me, my sister, my dad
I love this photo of my sister!
Jack’s sisters and mine, rubbing that lucky foot on Theodore Dwight Woolsey

The thing about Yale is, you can live there for multiple years and not see everything. There are a few museums I never went to, libraries I (so sadly) didn’t check out, and other little secrets throughout the historic campus that I missed. For all that I never saw, I still got to experience so many incredible things. Maybe sometime I’ll share my tours of the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, or the medical school, the law school, the main library, or my favorite coffee shop and bookstore, Atticus. (You see that there are a lot of books involved here…)

Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for more on the blog and on Instagram!

A Conversation with Gio Johnson

I am so excited to share my conversation with Gio Johnson, a Chicago-based actor and content creator. You’ve watched him on Chicago Fire. You’ve seen him tearin’ it up on TikTok with his insightful videos. If you’re getting into the entertainment industry, you should definitely check out his work with GS Acting Workshops. In this interview, we discuss Gio’s path as an actor, the centrality of his faith, the television shows that inspired him (including Disney versus Nickelodeon), and the importance of telling stories authentically on screen.

Photo courtesy of Gio Johnson

So, you grew up in Chicago, right?

Yep, born and raised in the South Side of Chicago.

I was reading a little bit about you, and you’ve been acting for a long time. I read that you were on NBC when you were six, that’s pretty cool.

My aunt, she’s always been involved in stuff. She was a librarian – she was a branch manager – and we were like, ‘Why do you always get all the cool stuff? You’re a librarian; that’s not supposed to be cool.’ She was working, so I guess this one kind of connects: Librarian, and the event I was in this commercial for was the Book-a-thon. I called her and asked her if she had some kids, we got pulled out of school, me and my cousin (her daughter). We really didn’t know what we were going to do. My other aunt took us down that day to the studio, and they were like, ‘You guys are going to be in a commercial.’ And we’re like, ‘Oh, okay.’ That was my first taste of what it was like to be on set, and I was like, ‘Oh, I love this!’

Have you stayed in Chicago, or did you go out to LA at a point in time?

I travel back and forth to LA and Atlanta a lot, but for the most part, I’ve stayed in Chicago. My actual career didn’t take off until I was older because my mom…she was a teacher, and she didn’t know anything about being in the industry. My dad was in and out and he had no idea about being in the industry, either. And so I started off when I was younger, I took dance classes. I took tap, I took hip-hop, I took ballet, I think I did jazz for a semester.

I loved the entertainment part, but dance wasn’t my passion. I like dancing, it’s cool, I still will dance, I still will break out in a little two-step here and there … but something’s missing. And, when I did the commercial, that’s when I was like, ‘Oh, that’s it. I wanna act.’ I like the idea of becoming somebody else and telling these stories.

And so, when I started my, you know, the small steps of your career, I was in high school. I was supposed to be studying for, I think, SATs, and I was going to a drama club down the street from my house at this arts center. Ended up telling my mom, ‘Hey, we have a show this weekend.’ So I’m expecting just my mom to show up to come and support me. And end of the show, I see this whole row of my family standing up and clapping. They were just very supportive, and that’s what gave me the drive to keep going, like, I have a bunch of people behind me that support me and think I can do this.

So, I continued doing theatre, eventually got an agent on my own. Was working with them for maybe two, three years before I finally got my big break, which was Chicago Fire. That was crazy; here’s a funny story about that. I don’t know if I’ve even told this story on a public platform, but I originally went in for another character, and so, I worked extremely hard on that character. Sometimes you just know things, you just know something different is gonna happen. I walked out of the room and I was like, ‘I feel like I’m going to get a callback, but for a different character. The audition room was in this building at Cinespace in Chicago, which is our studio here. And my agent’s office is like, three floors down. So I go down to my agent’s office and tell her, ‘Hey, I think the audition was good, I’m just not sure I’m gonna get the callback. I feel like they might call me back for a different character. And literally, as I’m about to leave out, she gets the email and says, ‘They wanna see you tomorrow, but for this character,’ which was Akeil, the character I ended up playing. I was like, ‘See, I told you. I knew, I just felt it.’

Weird thing — for the audition, there were no lines. It was just breathing, because Akeil gets shot in the episode, and he’s slowly passing away, and the whole thing is, they’re trying to get them to save his life, so they were like, okay, we’re going to tell you, ‘Okay, this is the stage that you’re at now. Now you’re at this stage, now you’re, like, fading away.’ I went home and I was like, ‘What do I do?’ Practicing breathing, I had to Google someone who was going through these things and what it would look like, and just took it into the room the next day and I was like, ‘Okay, I think I got it.’ Yeah, so that’s how I booked Chicago Fire.

Screen Shot 2021-09-16 at 6.29.26 PM
Gio Johnson as Akeil on Chicago Fire

You did your research, you and got that part!

Yeah, you gotta do your research, people. It’s not just about saying the words, it’s really embodying the character. I had to know what it was like to die.

I watched some of your scenes, and you were on the show before that, too, right? As a gunshot victim?

Yes, I keep getting shot on that show! That one was weird, too. I got a call from a friend to come in to be an extra, and then it kind of spiraled into that featured part there, where they were like, ‘The extras are getting paid this much.’ And I came in and they were like, ‘Hey, the directors want to see you for this gunshot victim.’

I’m not thinking anything of it at this point. I was like, ‘Okay, sure.’ I’m thinking it’s gonna be something simple, and it comes down to me and one other guy, and they end up picking me before I’m even out the building, I’m getting the call. They were like, ‘We need you to go do a makeup test, today.’ So I go, and that was my first time being on a big set in the lot. They were shooting on location at a hospital, and they literally had to do a prosthetic…this was the first time I got done everything from my nose all the way down to my chest. So when they stick the pen in there, it’s not me. It’s a dummy that looks just like me, which is weird when you’re on set. You’re like, ‘This is me, but it’s not me, but it looks just like it.’

I figured that; I was like, how did they make it so real? It looks like you’re getting punctured there.

My little cousin who watched it, she freaked out; she was like, ‘Are you okay?’

But how cool to be on that show twice! When they’re shooting, do you see it around if you happen to be out and about when they’re on location?

From time to time, because they shoot everywhere in Chicago, especially the Chicago shows – you have Fire, Med, and PD all shooting here – so unless you stay in the house for the rest of your life, the chances of you not seeing them are very slim. You’re going to, at some point, at least once a year, see one of these shows, or even The Chi, or Shameless when it was shooting here, or Empire when it was here. We have so many shows within the past ten years that have made Chicago their home to shoot, even if the actual setting wasn’t Chicago, like Empire – the setting was New York, but they used Chicago. Yeah, it’s really dope, and we have new shows. The 4400 is coming here, what else, there’s a couple others coming here. We have a new Amazon show coming here… There are just so many, and Chicago is just expanding its studio now, so I’m excited to see what else we bring here.

Lots to audition for. That’s great!

Yes, the auditions are picking up!

Awesome! So, can you speak to some of the differences from the scene in LA, which I’ve observed a little bit, versus Chicago, versus Atlanta, from your experience.

So, with Chicago, it’s more of, like, we’re so serious and gritty about it, because we’re big on theatre here, too, kind of like New York. I came from theatre, a lot of people from Chicago are either coming from a theatre background, or they just left a performing arts college or university. Columbia is here, so that competition is a little bit, like, it’s smaller than LA, but it’s also a little bit more hard-core because it’s not some random person out here chasing a dream. No, we’re working for this. We mean it. Whereas in LA, people just get up and leave: ‘I have a dream, I want to be a star,’ and this is no knock to anyone that does it. The bigger thing with LA is, it’s a much bigger pool. The networking is ten times more important there, it’s who you know, and winning the room. Always winning the room, but in LA it’s even more important because you never know where your next opportunity can come from.

So there’s a lot more of having to network and be at the parties, and be schmoozing with the who’s whos and the what’s whats. And then Atlanta is really just building up, but it’s more so for African Americans and people of color, which I think is really dope because that’s kind of the culture down there. It’s a very cultural movement like, everything of Black arts and music and fashion, which is really dope. So you have the Tyler Perrys down there, you have BET shooting a lot of their stuff down there. A lot of people use Tyler Perry’s lot. They’re filming Black Panther 2 right now and they’re back at Tyler Perry studios. They did Coming 2 America, the new one, there, they did Bad Boys 3 there. All of these huge movies are going to Tyler Perry. That studio, if you ever get a chance to go down there, it’s huge. It’s gigantic. And he has exact replicas of these famous houses, the White House, and all these things, right there on the lot. So it’s beneficial. Why go anywhere else? It’s like, if I’m shooting a period piece, I know Tyler has it. If I’m shooting a White House drama, I know Tyler has it. If I just need to do something where I’m sitting on my best friend’s front porch, there are millions of set houses over here that Tyler has. And I think he’s been smart in getting it down to a formula, and it’s a little cheaper to shoot in Atlanta, so there’s that benefit as well, because film is expensive.

So, one of the first things I saw you doing on social media was one of your Disney TikToks, which, as you know, I absolutely love those. And I’m curious, as we’re firmly into this whole other sphere of acting and entertaining with social media, how did some of those ideas come to you, to make those cool videos?

Gio Johnson TikTok-September 2021

So, I started off doing social media back when Vine was around, that was like 10 years ago now. Gosh, I’m old! What I realized with Vine is, I had a niche to be funny, but I needed to find a solid thing.

I love TV, movies, and nostalgia. I love things that bring people back to a happier place, but I also like to shake the table a little bit, so the Disney princess thing is something I’ve talked about for a long time, of why they can be problematic. Even though we love our Disney princesses, we love our heroes, we even love the villains. So, it was just this funny take I had on the problematic things in Disney movies, and I really didn’t have an idea to do a series. I was talking to a friend about why Ariel was problematic in The Little Mermaid, ‘cause she told me her daughter’s favorite was Ariel, and I was like, ‘No, Ariel’s a bad example.’ She was like ‘Why,’ and I go into my whole spiel about it. I was like ‘I’m gonna do a TikTok about this.’ I love Disney, BUT. And people were like, ‘Please do more. Do this movie, do this movie.’ So, the next one I threw up was The Princess and the Frog. Little Mermaid did okay, but the Princess and the Frog one just took off overnight. … When I went to bed it was maybe at 800 likes, I woke up the next morning, it was at, like, 19,000 likes. I don’t even know how many comments. I could not keep up.

I was like, let me keep this going, because people love it. And some people get offended when you talk about their childhood, some people were entertained. Some people were like, ‘Oh my God , I never thought about it like that.’ Another person was like, ‘Oh my gosh, now my kids can’t watch Disney princesses.’ I was like, ‘No, still let them enjoy it, still have that connection with them, but just be aware, they should probably not aspire to be exactly like them.’ There are still good qualities, but, you know.

That’s a good approach to say, ‘I love Disney, BUT.’ The Cinderella one, I think you call her Cindy, and that just cracks me up.

People loved that, they loved that I called her Cindy. And I don’t even know where that, like, sometimes when I do it, I grab a bunch of pictures from the movie, so usually what you guys see in the background are just the ones that flow with whatever I’m talking about, but I usually download like 20 different screenshots from the movie, like ‘Let’s talk about this and this and now this.’

I never really structure them; I just have fun, and I think that’s the best way to do it. So that it’s genuine and it doesn’t seem like I’m trying too hard, and the people connect with it.

Click here for Gio’s TikTok!

Gio Johnson TikTok with “Cindy”

And how true do you find this idea or mentality now, that what an actor is doing on social media really matters or can really contribute to your success outside of social media?

I think there’s benefits to it. I don’t think it’s necessary, but because we are in such a social media-driven world, it does help. Because a lot of brands and companies are more  willing to take a chance on the guy that already has a fanbase and will bring in the numbers than somebody who they have to build up to be a brand. Which, then in turn, kind of sucks for people who really love the craft, like me. I’m not saying I’m the next Denzel — don’t misquote me, guys.

But I know that I’m talented, I do know that. I know that I’m good at what I do. I’ve taken my classes, I’ve studied, I work on my craft every day, so it kind of sucks when I see someone who gets a role, not because they’re good or a great actor, but just because they have more followers than me, and I’m like, ‘This guy sucks! He just has 500,000 followers or 5 million, whatever the case may be, but he sucks as an actor.’ A 60-second clip is cool of you doing a goofy little stunt or falling over or making a joke, but actually being able to carry a story, and interact with these other characters, and have the ups and downs and emotions, that’s a whole ‘nother ball game. And I don’t think that the studios…I know they realize it, but I don’t think they really think about those things. Now that we’ve done this based on the numbers, is this person going to be able to sustain? What if you want to do a sequel, and all the reviews are that this guy sucks? … You really should pull on the people who have put in the work and the time.

Definitely. Before we talk about some shows and sitcoms, I’ve noticed that you’ve been active in a Christian community of actors. So I’m curious about what that has been like, how that’s helpful, and even what some of the challenges are of being a Christian in the entertainment industry.

This is a good one. I love God over everything. I do believe that entertainment and acting is a way to help spread the message of God. God is a creative, and so, arts, writing, acting, directing, all that is a part of being creative. I think we can entertain, yet edify. So having a good community of people that believe, just like you, is a great motivation because the industry is full of so much darkness and people who don’t believe in God, or want to push different agendas, so being around people that are like-minded, it definitely gives you hope that you can make a difference and an impact and reach people that you would normally not be able to reach, by doing the thing that you love.

Sometimes, I know when God is like, ‘This one’s not for you.’ It’s getting that big audition or that show that you’ve been praying for, but that role just doesn’t align with your views or how you would want to represent God. So, you just have to take that step back and realize that whatever is for you is gonna be for you. I definitely believe that if God orchestrated my path and whatever he has for me is gonna better for me than this one missed opportunity – it’s not really a missed opportunity, it’s just me passing it on to whoever it’s meant for.

The first thing we learned about God in the Bible is that he’s a creator, he’s a creative, he’s the greatest one.

Photo courtesy of Gio Johnson

I want to get to the genesis of these conversations inspired by the Child Star Chat [a group that meets for regular discussions on childhood stardom]. About not just Black sitcoms, but television or movies in general that have had such an impact on you as a person, an actor. The way I like to think about it is, there are certain shows. When I see them again, I can kind of go back to the youngest self that I was watching them, and feel like I’m back in that mold.

There’s so many. I was a TV kid, so much, like I was the kid that would sit there and watch something over and over and be able to repeat it. That’s probably where my acting bug started. Vividly, I can remember watching Power Rangers. I can vividly remember always wanting to be the black ranger. He looked like me, he dances, he does this cool hip-hop/karate thing. I forgot what it was called, but Walter E. Jones, I was like, ‘I wanna be that dude.’ I was the black ranger for probably two or three Halloweens in a row. Like, that’s how much I loved it. I still have Power Rangers toys in my closet over here. That was one of the shows.

Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, I loved Will Smith since I was a kid, still do. One of the nicest celebs I ever got the chance to meet. But I loved the Fresh Prince. I love that he was just loud and spontaneous and wild. And there were levels to it; I definitely understand it and love it even more now that I’m an adult and [can] understand it in full. As a kid, I just loved Will’s energy.

Famous Jett Jackson. That show was groundbreaking. That was the first Disney Channel show with a Black lead. With a positive representation of Black family, showing this young man in a strong, positive light taking care of his family, his friends. They never made him arrogant, they never made him cocky, and if he did have those moments, they brought it full circle where he humbled himself, and he was brought back to a place of understanding that this is all a blessing. I love that. I always say, it was Hannah Montana before Hannah Montana.

I say the same thing, and it’s so true. I’ve just started watching some of those episodes since I was a little bit on the younger side for that. I’ve started in on The Jersey, of course. Our friend, Jermaine, is incredibly talented on that show.

That’s another one. Man, that whole era. I think that was just a sweet spot for Disney, and I actually think it was a turning point for them of understanding, people want real stories. So during that time, if you really think about it, The Jersey was probably the most fantasy-driven thing that they had, but you still dealt with real-life things, like relationships and school and bullying, and all these other things, and insecurities. Them jumping into the bodies of the athletes is what gave them their confidence and what helped them do these things. You saw it from the perspective of these people that we all looked up to at that time.

The other dope thing with something like Jett Jackson was, it made me feel, ‘Oh, I can do this.’ There’s a guy on TV that looks like me, he’s living a normal life. He’s going to school. He’s starring in this TV show. He still gets to kick it with his friends, he still gets to be around his family, this is a possible thing for me. And Lee Thompson Young, God, RIP, rest his soul, was just such a talent. The kid was doing his own stunts. He was a hero. I was Silverstone for two Halloweens, too, I believe. I went downstairs and got one of my grandad’s old belts and made it into the Silverstone utility belt, and I had this little foil watch for his laser shooter where he talked to Artemis. Yeah, I love that show.

The first of that era, before the sitcom scene, that I explored was In a Heartbeat.

I almost forgot about In a Heartbeat, which was from Canada, starred a young Lauren Collins, who most people know as Paige Michalchuck from Degrassi.

Funny how all of that comes around later.

Everything, it all comes full circle. I almost forgot about In a Heartbeat. That was a much darker show than what you would have expected to see on Disney Channel.

That was just a time when they were into real life, a lot of real-life things. Even Lizzie McGuire, very real-life… Even Stevens, it was comical, but we still dealt with real-life things. It wasn’t until you started getting into the That’s So Ravens and everything else where it became a fantasy time.

Even So Weird was a darker show. It was a sci-fi show; it used to give me nightmares. That’s on the Disney side.

For Nickelodeon (because you know I can’t forget my Nick people, they will fight me!), definitely All That, Kenan & Kel from the jump, and Angelique Bates. I’m always going to give my girl, Angelique, her flowers. I love you, Angelique! But Kenan & Kel, those guys, it’s almost like the producers knew from the beginning. You know how they say we have industry plants? Kenan and Kel, they almost knew, like the chemistry they had together, whenever they hit the screen together, it was unmatched. I don’t care if it was Ed and Lester Oaks, Construction Worker, I don’t care if it was Superdude and the Milkman, whenever they got together, the scene was going to be ten times better. Clavis and Mavis, anytime. So it was a no-brainer to make the Kenan & Kel show, eventually, because they were All That at one point. Not throwing shade at anyone else on the cast, everyone on there was hilarious, but Kenan and Kel, when they were together, it was magic. I love the Kenan & Kel show.

Snick was elite. I loved Cousin Skeeter, Cousin Skeeter was amazing. Young Meagan Good was one of my first TV crushes. What’s up, Meg? And then, I don’t know if you were on Child Star Chat when I talked about how my love for being behind the camera came from Taina. On Taina, there was a character named Lamar Johnson, and he was a filmmaker, and I’d never seen a young Black guy who was into making film. And he had his little camcorder, and he would go around and make his own films, and I was like, ‘You can do that?’ So after watching the first season of Taina, I saved up money from doing things around the house, dog-walking, shoveling snow, everything, and I went and bought my first camcorder because of Chris Knowings playing Lamar Johnson on Taina.

When did everyone in our group [Child Star Chat], when did all of you guys get connected in this way and start having dialogue as actors?

That’s a good question, I’m trying to figure out how it happened. I know part of it started because of me, this is not me trying to take credit. So me and LaTangela [Newsome] had been connected on social media for some years now, so we would just talk on and off. I did a show during quarantine last year called The Kickback.

I interviewed Giovonnie [Samuels]. This was before I was working for her. I also interviewed Gary L. Gray, and when Clubhouse came about — I’m trying to figure out how I connected with everybody and it came together like this. I know we did an All That reunion room. And I kind of just stayed in contact with a lot of them, and we were talking, and when I went to Atlanta for my actors’ conference that I did with GSAW (our Pilot Season Power Weekend), met up with LaTangela…

Instagram/Gio Johnson

So it kind of all happened organically.

We’re still in the process of filming a secret project right now … It’s a reality project, but you really get to see and hear their hearts. I think we all know, and I think within the past few years it’s become a bigger thing, and a bigger topic, the fact that child stars, especially back in that era, did not get the best treatment. And so, hearing these stories, even being on set sometimes, my heart would be like, ‘Oh my gosh.’ And it sucks when you’re doing what you love, but then you feel like you’re being taken advantage of, or you feel like you can’t do it without the stress or the worry. Doing what you love should not feel like a burden. Or, you shouldn’t feel anxiety to do it.

I’m glad that these stories are being told because it’s not only therapeutic and beneficial for them to get these stories out there. They’re also gonna help other people who have been in their positions or currently are. Of having the knowledge and the wisdom and letting them know it’s okay to speak up. It’s okay. You’re not alone, you’re not the only one who has gone through or is going through these things, and you deserve better. Your talent should not be taken advantage of. You should be able to perform, and do what you do happily and in peace, and not have to worry about the powers that be making you feel a certain type of way because they have the money or the power or the access. That’s not fair.

It sounds like you’re really well-suited to work with the kids in the program that you guys are running. I’m sure starting out, it can be really scary.

Oh yeah. When we did our kids’ conference, that was one thing I was excited about. To not only be able to pour into them, the whole thing about GSAW (GS Acting Workshops) is, with kids or adults, we don’t only want to give you the skills for the business; we want to teach you the business side of it. It’s called ‘the biz’ for a reason, but most people just get the acting classes and none of the behind-the-scenes work of this is what you need to do, this is what you should look for, this is what your contract should look like… red flags on set. We try to give that to them because it’s not only scary as a child, but it’s more dangerous for a parent who has no knowledge. … (There are some people who throw their children into the spotlight because they know that it can be a check.) But some people just really want to support their kids’ dreams, and they know their kids love it, so if you’re ignorant to it, you will take whatever deal comes your way. And it’s sad, and it’s so scary that you can damage a child with a dream that early on that they’d not want to do anything else, or be scared to step back into doing what they love, so if we can cut those corners early on, I’m all for it. I say all the time, I grew up around a lot of people in the industry, even though I wasn’t acting.

I had a lot of friends who were in movies and commercials and TV shows, so I kind of saw a lot of things, I saw what it’s like to be out in public…and someone notices you and you’re like, ‘But not right now.’ You just want your privacy. So, I get it, it’s even scary for someone who’s a little kid and going like, ‘What is happening?’

Gio and I further discussed the intersection of fame and fandom. It can be hard for fans to understand that they don’t have instant access to their favorite actors. This especially comes through in public situations where a fan is likely to want a photo with the celeb they’ve encountered. I often think about the delicate balance of appreciation, connection, respect, and privacy that should mutually exist between viewers and actors. Both Gio and I appreciate Raven’s approach to fan encounters, which she discussed on Jaleel White’s Ever After podcast.

We closed our conversation with a few more reflections on television, film, and representation.

Some of Gio’s favorite shows (Famous Jett Jackson, Power Rangers, Kenan & Kel, Fresh Prince, Gullah Gullah Island, and Taina)

One of the things that’s interested me is when we touch on diversity in television and sitcoms [in our Child Star Chat]. Nickelodeon has this incredible lineage of Black-led sitcoms, Disney Channel has theirs as well, but to compare the two at different eras is interesting.

Nick in the 90s was very driven by urban culture. Definitely driven by Black culture, from the fashion to the music…which I think was a good thing because for the most part, it didn’t feel like they were pandering because they had a great balance. You had shows like My Brother and Me, which only lasted a season, but great show, great sitcom. Then I can also parallel that with Pete and Pete. But then you had Clarissa Explains it All, then I can parallel that with All That, for every one or the other, there was something there. Having Black characters in their sitcom, shows like Hey Dude, I felt like they were good representations of themselves and not a caricature of Black culture.

I think Nick was very conscious of that, I think they were a little bit more in tune with that. I talk all the time about how a lot of the musical guests on All That probably should not have been there for a kids’ show. NWA was there. I’m like, what is Ice Cube doing on All That in the 90s? Coolio – why was Coolio on All That? But that’s what was cool. That’s what kids were trying to listen to, so they were meeting kids where they were at. All the way back to even like, Nick Arcade…there was a great balance of representation on Nickelodeon.

So Nickelodeon was a channel where I could always turn it on and see myself, I could see someone that looked like me. Not as much on Disney, which is unfortunate, because there’s a lot of shows on Disney that people would tell me, ‘Oh, you don’t remember this show?!’ I was like, ‘No.’ It wasn’t until the last 10 or 15 years that I even knew about the resurgence of The Mickey Mouse Club with Christina, Britney, Justin, JC, Ryan Gosling. I knew nothing about that Mickey Mouse Club, and it’s probably because at that young age, I was not watching it because I wasn’t attracted to that. I was probably attracted more to the shows on Nick that had representation of me. Or I was watching Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers or things like that. When you look for something that looks like you, a lot of other things become out of sight, out of mind.

I’ve seen the shows now, but at that age and that time, I was not watching it. I remember learning about Kids Incorporated when I was maybe in like 8th grade or a freshman. Someone was like, ‘You don’t remember Kids Incorporated?’ And I was like, ‘No. I don’t.’ I was like, ‘Do you know My Brother and Me?’ They’re like, ‘What’s that?’ I was like, ‘Okay, you think I’m weird, now I think you’re weird.’

It’s so raw at that age, it’s just what you’re going home and watching on TV because you identify with that.

I think another good one [is] Gullah Gullah Island. Watching Gullah Gullah Island, I wasn’t thinking ‘I’m watching it because I’m looking at someone who looks like me.’ I just liked it. It’s a great show. When you get older, you’re like, oh, I was watching things that I felt like I could relate to with people that looked like me. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, but I do want people to just always be aware of those things because media and television are one of the biggest forms where people who are not in the reachable bases of other cultures, learn about other cultures. So, if we’re not portrayed properly, you know, that’s the only insight that they have of, if they’ve never met someone of Latin descent or Chinese descent. If we are posting these stereotypes or things that don’t represent a culture in full, we don’t really know people, and that’s the only thing we can go off of. It’s like if you were to go into a history class and they only taught you x amount of history, then your perception of America or the world itself is just off…

I think we’ve gotten so much better with that in some ways. I do like that the representation is expanding, but I want to make sure that when we’re telling our stories, someone from that background is telling that story. It would have been weird if Crazy Rich Asians was directed by someone of Indian descent. … You need someone that directly connects to the culture to direct this movie. I think, now that we’re getting to a point where people are able to fully tell their stories, not just ‘I wrote the script and bring it to the studio and you do whatever you want with it.’ No, we have the full control. I’m writing it, and I have someone that I can relate to, that looks like me, to direct this story. If you were to bring me your story and say, ‘Hey Gio, can you direct a movie about my life?’ I’d probably be like, ‘I don’t understand it. No.’ I’m sure it’s a beautiful story, but I would not be able to relate to it like someone who grew up through your eyes. And I would want your story to be told as true and as raw and as genuine as possible, and for that to be done, you need a director who can relate to you on a full scale.

In tying it back around, I think Nick kind of had a good view on that to a certain extent. And I think Disney eventually, and now, is catching that train. I think they’re doing well. One of the shows I saw recently that my little cousins love is KC Undercover. I think, great representation there. And there’s another show that Marsai Martin has coming out on Disney that I think is going to be amazing. Three young Black girls. I’ve never seen three young girls, Black young girls, lead a show on Disney Channel. So I think that’s gonna be amazing. I just hope this continues for all cultures. I wanna see more Asian-American or Asian-influenced/led shows, Indian, Latinx, all cultures represented, because we all have stories to tell. And they’re all funny or dramatic or witty, and I wanna see them all.

And not just one narrative for every culture or background.

Yeah, we can be superheroes. We can be doctors. We can be lawyers, we can be all of these things. We can do a Western, you know. There’s a Black Western on Netflix right now. … Let me out the box. As an actor, that’s our playground. Let me play! It’s adult make-believe. Let me become these things, you know?

So, stop putting us in a box to be these typical everyday things that we are so much more than. We are not a monolith. We’re so much more. Let me play! I want to be Powerline one day. Let me be Powerline.

I’d like to thank Gio for hanging out with me on Zoom for this conversation. We first met some months ago on a Zoom birthday party, and I’m proud to call him one of my cool Internet friends. You can find Gio on Instagram, TikTok, and Twitter.

My California Adventure: Part III

I was a little anxious about Los Angeles. What would it feel like to be in the center of the entertainment industry, this mystical place where the stars lived? I’d spent my lifetime watching things on television that were made in Los Angeles. Before I had even learned the 50 United States, I was consuming a bevy of content created in California. Something about Hollywood seemed like a fantasy, like it was this bubble that couldn’t actually be real.

When I was eight, I went to San Diego during the summer with my family. If I had understood how close I was to the place where my favorite Disney Channel shows were made, I’m sure I would have begged my parents to drive me and my sister through Hollywood. However, all I knew was that I got to go to the beach, the zoo, and the other Sea World (I’m from Florida).

So almost two decades later, I was back in California. Part one of the trip took us to the Bay Area; part two took us to the Central Coast and down the Pacific Coast Highway. I’ve been writing about television for a few years now, so I was overwhelmed-slash-excited by all the things I’d get to see in Los Angeles. This showbiz voyage began with “the happiest place on Earth,” Disneyland.

Still wondering why Goofy gets clothes and Pluto doesn’t.

I’ve been to every Disney World park except for Animal Kingdom. Magic Kingdom, EPCOT, MGM/Hollywood Studios, Blizzard Beach, Typhoon Lagoon — I love them all, especially EPCOT. I had been told that Disneyland would be smaller, and it was. Even though it was manageable in size, it was impossible to see everything since I’d ambitiously gone with the one-day park-hopper ticket. We still had a blast. The first half of our day in the heat of the sun was spent at Disneyland itself. We gravitated towards the familiar things from our Florida experience, like Pirates, Space Mountain, Splash Mountain, and the teacups for me.

We got the coveted Dole Whips and ate even more ice cream-like substances once we walked over to California Adventure. We were intrigued by this park after watching YouTube videos about how it, apparently, used to be terrible. The only downside was that a few fun-looking rides were closed. We also got stuck on the Little Mermaid ride. There was still plenty to do as the day continued, and the highlights for me were Soarin’ (a ride we’ve previously experienced at EPCOT) and the Animators’ Workshop, which felt so 90s and made me happy.

Disney California Adventure Animators’ Workshop

We took the advice of the great David Studebaker (more about him later) and ended our day back at Disneyland. That gave us just enough time to ride my all-time favorite attraction, It’s a Small World. The mixture of nostalgia, colorful decorations, and smiling, singing children nearly made me cry. After that, we were in a prime spot to watch the fireworks show. I’ll never forget it.

Exterior of It’s a Small World ride

The next morning (Tuesday), we checked out of our Anaheim hotel and went to Seal Beach, another great recommendation, and it wasn’t crowded. Swimming in the Pacific Ocean was electrifying. Blue water, bright sunshine, and waves just right for body-surfing. I knew I’d be in the ocean again before the trip was over. After a quick lunch, we made the drive through LA proper and checked into our West Hollywood hotel. It was time to meet one of my Internet friends in person!

Jordan Holtzer from The Relunchables podcast was one of the first people I met in the online nostalgia community. After hearing his podcast in 2020, I just had to introduce myself and compliment him on his DCOM analysis. It was fun to get to know him, appear on his show, and work on a couple of other projects with him (you can read our DCOM ranking here). Jack and I had dinner with Jordan and his wonderful girlfriend, Talia. We loved talking with them and enjoyed hearing what it’s like to actually live in LA. I was sad when the evening came to an end. There’s nothing like putting a face to a friend in real life after calls and emails from afar.

It was hard to believe our first day in LA had come and gone just like that, but we discovered something about this trip in general, regarding time: it passes by more quickly when you have to spend a lot of it in a car. In San Francisco, we had walked all over the city and saw so much that we would have missed if we’d been driving everywhere. In LA, most destinations required driving and lots of traffic. However, I did enjoy a spontaneous walk the next morning.

I realized I had left one of my favorite pairs of shorts way back at the hotel in Anaheim. Jack was nice enough to drive back there to retrieve them, so I stayed in West Hollywood and had a leisurely morning. I decided to walk to Sunset Boulevard, just around the corner. I wound up by some shops and restaurants and stopped in at Book Soup. I had no idea what sacred ground I walked on. Book Soup was a hot spot for signings, and while I didn’t see any famous authors, I fell in love with the store’s television and film sections, but the whole place was grand. I bought two books that were previously signed by the authors! The 2000s Made Me Gay is an essay collection about the media that informed its author’s life and understanding of her sexuality. I first found out about this book (and its entire chapter involving Disney Channel Original Movies) on Instagram, thanks to Podcast from Planet Weird. The other book I bought was Honky in the House, a memoir by Jay Moriarty, a writer and executive producer of The Jeffersons. The author’s account of building his career in LA beginning in the 1960s is enthralling, and his work on one of television’s longest-running sitcoms impacted viewers in powerful ways.

My timing at Book Soup was perfect, since I was wrapping up my shopping as Jack was arriving back from Anaheim. We were pretty hungry, so we stopped at some healthy place in Toluca Lake for salads. That was a good decision, because after a glorious stop at The Brady Bunch house and a failed attempt at vlogging the Boy Meets World high school (schoolchildren were out front), we survived the Hollywood sign hike. It was laborious, but worth the photos, I’d say.

The Brady Bunch house

After all that, I was determined to swim in the Pacific Ocean again, and both of us were ready for more food. We opted for Malibu since Jordan had recommended Malibu Seafood. It was the perfect spot, and our food was absolutely delicious. Of course, it was getting darker and colder by the time we were done, so I nixed the swimming and just walked along the shore for awhile.

Thursday was a big day. I still wanted to take a dip, so I dragged Jack to Santa Monica this time. Before getting in the water, I documented that I was at the site of Lilly’s birthday party from Hannah Montana: The Movie. Can’t help but think of that film when I see the ferris wheel. The swim was a great start to the day, and I’ve decided I like Santa Monica.

Beach day at Santa Monica

Next up was our outing with the famous David Studebaker and his son, Matthew. David is a hilarious comedian and hosts The Unofficial Disney Tonight Show, which you can listen to or watch on YouTube. He has been an Internet friend since January 2021, when I discovered his show on Instagram just in time to tune in for the first live Zoom event! I even won David’s book, Lone Star Lance, which you can purchase here. I kept in touch with David and the show and appeared on the program to play trivia live for my birthday in July! I had told David about the trip right away since he lives in LA but has also lived in San Francisco. He was so kind to give us recommendations and answer questions about both areas.

A beautiful day at Griffith Park

We caught up with David and Matthew at the Travel Town Railroad at Griffith Park. It was so sweet to see Matthew toddle around and say “train! train!” throughout the morning. Jack is also a huge fan of trains and still has a love for Thomas the Tank Engine. The four of us even got to take a train ride together. Meeting in person was the best, and it made me sad that we live so far away from our friends. David sent us on our way and, of course, told us about a fantastic Italian restaurant that was en route to our next big event: the Warner Brothers studio tour.

The Walton family church

I wasn’t sure what to expect with the WB tour. There were so many moving parts to this vacation that I must have been subconsciously relieved to have a few pre-planned hours. The entire afternoon couldn’t have gone better. We walked around the lobby, entered the exhibit leading to the tour, and got in line. Our tour guide was the best. She decided Jack and I looked like nice people and invited us to sit up front with her on the giant golf cart. 🙂 I was thrilled to ride around and see as many sets as we could. One of my favorite spots was the Midwest Lot with all its Gilmore Girls and The Waltons history. The Friends fountain was also exciting. Since Ellen was on hiatus at the time, we even got to check out her show’s soundstage. I loved the whole experience so much that I wished I could stay and see production in action. When we were led back inside for the final, more free-flowing portion, we took our time and had a conversation with another knowledgeable WB guide. From Central Perk to Harry Potter and superheroes, there was so much more to see before exiting the self-guided area.

Next up was another round of film/TV houses! I successfully saw the Nefler mansion from Troop Beverly Hills (my favorite movie). It was most fulfilling to see the Even Stevens house and the Lizzie McGuire house after two decades as a fan of these shows. It’s an out-of-body experience to look at something like that across the street instead of through a TV screen. I loved vlogging these for Instagram. I think the Even Stevens abode looks a bit more inviting when all is said and done. Jack was a good sport about the home tours, but we were both getting hungry. We found a semi-casual Italian place in Beverly Hills that didn’t disapprove of my overalls, and we walked around Rodeo Drive in awe of the lights and the glitzy storefronts. Phyllis Nefler from Troop Beverly Hills would approve.

Cruising around Beverly Hills
The Stevens family home
The McGuire family home

The next day was, sadly, our last full day in the Golden State. We enjoyed one more leisurely breakfast and checked out of our West Hollywood hotel. The timing was just right for a visit to the Hollywood Walk of Fame, a spot I’d written about but couldn’t quite picture in my mind exactly as it is in real life. It’s another piece of history that continues to attract tourists every single day.

Our lunch that afternoon was with none other than Dennis Rinsler, who, with Marc Warren, wrote and executive produced some of the sitcoms that I love the most. Full House, Even Stevens, and That’s So Raven, to name only a few. Wouldn’t it be something to sit in the writers’ room and watch these heartwarming scripts in the making? Dennis was the first executive producer I ever interviewed. He has always been so supportive of my work as a television historian and entertainment journalist. I’ve learned a great deal from Dennis, and spending time with him in person was such a gift. Speaking of gifts, he gave me an original Even Stevens fleece he had saved from the show days. It made me feel like a member of the family, and I’ll treasure it forever. As we said our goodbyes and walked off, I shouted after Dennis, “Thanks again for my childhood!” It’s such a true statement.

Me and my friend, Dennis

The afternoon was filling up quickly. We loved our time at the Getty Museum, yet another thing on this trip that you have to see to believe. After that architectural marvel, we squeezed in a drive up to Griffith Observatory. Those folks need a better traffic system, but it was all worth it for that view — I can’t remember the last time I stood somewhere so beautiful and watched the sun set, moment by moment. Finally, we had a quick dinner at a neighborhood place and then drove to our airport hotel for a few hours of sleep before an early flight.

It felt strange to leave Los Angeles. After all the anticipation and preparation, it was time to go back to Michigan. Looking back on it, the pillars of the vacation were planned ahead: flights, hotels, tickets to major attractions. And of course, I had ideas of what I wanted to see. But we managed to find a healthy amount of spontaneity in our dining choices, the structure of our days, and the little things we happened to notice along the way. LA is still mysterious to me. Some of the most famous people in the world live there. Some of the best entertainment of all time was made there. I can’t wait to go back and learn more about this fascinating place, and I wouldn’t mind more time with the ocean or the mountains, either.

Thank you for reading about my California adventure! If you would like to join my email list, you can sign up here. It’s easy!

My California Adventure: Part II

There’s the road trip you take down a well-worn path—to see family or friends, or perhaps to visit a place that has become familiar to you over time. Then…there’s the road trip you’ve never taken before.

I’m glad to know both. As July turned to August, I traveled on a new path. As I said in the previous chapter, I woke up in San Francisco on July 31. By the end of August 1, I was somewhere else entirely.

The last day of July, the fifth day of our California vacation, was the start of a brand new journey. Jack and I set out for the Pacific Coast Highway. Mind you, this trip was planned in one mere, impressive month. My dad was the first to encourage us to factor in some time to take the scenic drive down Highway 1. He was right.

Some travelers spend many days on the PCH to go from Northern to Southern California (or vice versa). Others start the journey in Oregon. If you’re the passenger, I’d recommend only going south on this drive. That will keep you closest to the ocean views while your driver is stuck focusing on the road.

Moonstone 2
Moonstone Beach in Cambria, CA

We decided to pack as much into a two-day PCH drive as we could.

A friend graciously loaned us his family’s condo in the Monterey Bay area, so we spent one night recuperating there (our legs and feet were still sore from the hills of San Francisco). After getting acquainted with the area, we went to nearby Carmel for dinner. Guess what? We missed the Biebers by one day. I learned that we were in a sacred celebrity getaway spot.

Our meal at Stationæry was kind of prophetic, and not just because that’s a cool name for a restaurant. After I downed my lobster roll, I had the buttermilk panna cotta: “Big Sur honey, streusel, spring fruit,” the description read. We were going to stop at Big Sur the next day — at the very store where our restaurant had purchased the honey!

We were more than satisfied with our first leg of the PCH trip and knew that day two would be much longer, but we were excited. After waking from the most comfortable sleep and gathering up our belongings, we hit the road.

I’m going to warn you right now that there are a few stops on this day of the trip. So if you’re waiting for Mickey Mouse and the Hollywood sign, sit tight until the next installment, please and thank you. If you want to read more about honey and the ocean, proceed.

Nepenthe is a roadside store and restaurant boasting a mountain view to one side and the ocean to the other. It’s literally IN Big Sur. We ate lunch outside, high up, staring at the bold contrast of nature. Yes, we bought one jar of the honey.

Nepenthe
View from lunch at Nepenthe in Big Sur

We didn’t stop again for a few hours, so I used my blue beach towel as a blanket, got cozy, and gazed out the open window. I’m not normally a windows-down person, but this was the ride of all rides for open windows.

I had predetermined that we would stop in Cambria because I wanted olallieberries, and I knew I could get them in this town. An olallieberry is a blackberry-raspberry hybrid (I’m oversimplifying that, so Google it if you’d like). At Linn’s Restaurant, we found a gluten-free olallieberry pie so that Jack, the one with Celiac disease, could partake. The girl with the honey soon added jelly to her collection…

Before the berry bounty, I had Jack stop at Moonstone Beach. I wanted some moonstones, obviously, so I walked along the shore in search of them. This beach stop marked my first brush with Pacific Ocean water since I was eight years old. After staring at beaches for a couple of days, it was electrifying to get out and feel sand and foamy waves right at my feet. Visually, there’s nothing like that streak of sunlight sparkling as it reflects off the water.

moonstones
Moonstone Beach in Cambria, CA

Content with my souvenirs of the day, we attempted one more stop: Solvang. I had previously watched several videos about this Danish town. We were too late to feed the emus, but we walked around for a few minutes before deciding that it was too crowded. It was bittersweet to know that we were right at the halfway point of our vacation. The drive overall was a nice palate cleanser and was rather peaceful.

Somewhere between Santa Barbara and Los Angeles, we grabbed burgers at In-N-Out. Pretty good, I must say. Enough to get us through a bit of traffic before we finally made it to our hotel across the street from…DISNEYLAND.

~to be continued~

The Last Splash: Nostalgic Late Summer Movies We Love

As we reach a time that is so distinctly end-of-summer, it’s normal to have mixed feelings. I remember a couple things about this season growing up: 1. way too many commercials for Rooms to Go furniture sales. 2. those “last hoo-rah” pool parties that didn’t mean a whole lot considering how hot Florida would continue to be for a significant portion of the year.

I live in Michigan now, and I don’t see too many Rooms to Go commercials, but the sentiment remains. The Labor Day blowout, the church/school retreat on a lake, those last few beach trips or pool days before it’s technically not summer anymore.

In the spirit of wrapping up another summer, I’ve compiled a list of movies suited to this season. A lucky seven for your last splash! Though not all of these are Disney films, they’re all on Disney+ at the time of writing.

Aquamarine (2006)

aqua

Hence the title of this listicle, “The Last Splash.” Emma Roberts, JoJo, Sara Paxton, truly the dream team. These ladies brought the best of tween/teen Hollywood with their combined experiences across Nickelodeon, Disney, the music industry, and seemingly random but cool miscellaneous projects (see Emma Roberts’ Nancy Drew movie and Sara Paxton in Darcy’s Wild Life). Roberts and JoJo play Claire and Hailey, respectively, teen besties who live in the Tampa area. The film was shot in Australia, per the Tampa Bay Times. The Times also graded Aquamarine and gave it a C??? Rude. Anyway, Aquamarine (Paxton) graces Hailey and Claire with her presence, and she’s a convincing mermaid. If Claire and Hailey can get hunky Raymond to fall in love with Aqua, she’ll grant the girls a wish, which would be to keep Hailey and her mother from moving to, ironically, Australia. I won’t spoil the ending except to say that there is a “Last Splash” in the development of the story. It’s a fantastic community party with a band that plays “Island in the Sun” so that Aqua and Ray can have an adorable date. 

A Ring of Endless Light (2002)

Merriman a Ring of Endless Light

Also filmed in Australia, A Ring of Endless Light is one of those more serious DCOMs that I happen to love. It’s an adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s book by the same name. The movie stars Mischa Barton as Vicky Austin. She and her siblings are staying with their grandfather for the summer, and Vicky has two incredibly difficult choices for the love of her life: Ryan Merriman as Adam and Jared Padalecki as Zachery. Vicky learns that she can communicate with dolphins while she’s helping Adam with his aquatic research. She has a sunny New England summer and cherishes conversations with her grandfather, but, very sadly, he dies of leukemia. The warm and loving grandpa, portrayed by James Whitmore, always believed in Vicky’s poetry. If you’re looking for an emotional story that will take you through one specific summer in a young woman’s life, spend some time with this film.

The Parent Trap (1998)

Parent Trap 98

The Parent Trap is a staple for a ’90s girl like me, and it’s another summer tale that will carry you through all the feelings. This is the first movie I remember seeing in theaters…I would have just turned 4! I am also a big fan of the original Hayley Mills version, but I often think of Lindsay Lohan’s simply for the comfort of my childhood memories. I saw Lindsay’s movie before I was introduced to Hayley’s classic. The 1998 soundtrack still makes me so happy, but I’ll focus on the whole spectacle here. Even for a kid who didn’t grow up going to sleepaway camp, the girls’ camp scenes are so relatable. This act of the film is the only part with a cast of kids who aren’t Annie or Hallie, so it’s fun to see those interactions before the rest of the summer plays out. You know the story: Annie belongs to Elizabeth James, Hallie belongs to Nick Parker, or as his young girlfriend calls him, Nicky. The James family has a dear butler named Martin while the Parker family has Chessy as their housekeeper. I really want chocolate chip pancakes when I watch this, thanks to Chessy. From the big twin switch-a-roo to Meredith Blake’s mountain adventure to the eventual happy ending, this film never fails to be entertaining or emotionally engaging. All the loose ends must be tied up by summer’s completion, and there’s nothing like that sweet reunion after a rainy goodbye.

College Road Trip (2008)

CollegeRoadTrip

I don’t think this movie gets enough love. It doesn’t take place at the end of the summer, no. However, it’s all about Raven-Symoné’s character, Melanie, embarking on a huge college road trip with her dad (Martin Lawrence) even though she knows she wants to go to Georgetown. In case you forgot, Brenda Song (!) and Margo Harshman (Tawny from Even Stevens !) are in this movie. Oh, and Donny Osmond. Also Lucas Grabeel and Kym Whitley, which is cool! I still remember laughing when I saw this as an eight grader. With all those Disney Channel stars, it was my ideal feature film. It’s so fun to see Raven, right after the end of her hit series, bring her comedic genius to a completely different character. Melanie wants to be a lawyer and desperately desires to have some personal space, even though her dad is set on her attending college close to home. That transition from high school to college is something you don’t usually forget, whether you go far away or stay near family.

High School Musical 2 (2007)

HSM all for 1

You know what’s ironic about HSM 2? It’s a celebration of summer, a commencing of vacation, a departure from school…but it premiered on August 17, 2007. The movie was totally a late-summer release. It might have felt odd to sing “What Time Is It (Summertime)” while going shopping for school supplies. At the same time, the DCOM was a ratings success, with The New York Times then estimating a record-breaking viewership of 17.2 million for premiere night. Nothing could stop the magic of the High School Musical franchise. Not even school. And when you think about it, this movie does stretch over the highs and lows of a summer. In one sitting, we see a whole journey for the Wildcats at the Evans family’s country club. It’s great to watch anytime — it makes sense equally for us to take in the film at the beginning or middle or end of our own summer story, or not during the summer at all! Some say this movie is the greatest of its trilogy, and I can’t argue with that. I love the splashy colors and the music, particularly the break-up epic that is “Gotta Go My Own Way.” So yeah, I’ll be watching this movie pronto.

The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement (2004)

Raven Princess Diaries 2

Like its predecessor, The Princess Diaries 2 was an August release. Like all the other movies on this list, it’s a summer adventure I’ll always love. Even though we say goodbye to San Francisco, we get Mia’s 21st birthday, Raven, Chris Pine, the return of Lilly Moscovitz, and a look at palace life during a beautiful season for Genovia. You probably remember that Mia has to find a husband in 30 days if she wants to become queen. Chris Pine’s Lord Nicholas Devereaux is there to distract Mia from her mission so that he and his family can swoop in for the throne. It doesn’t take long to figure out that Nicholas and Mia are falling in love, even as she goes through the motions of an arranged marriage with someone else. I remember being so excited to continue the story with my favorite characters. In the end, Clarisse and Joe finally get together. Mia gets to take her rightful crown without a husband. It’s the perfect cozy movie to watch as the August sun goes down.

Cheaper by the Dozen 2 (2005)

Cheaper Featured

I could never leave one of my favorite sequels off the list. This is definitely a Labor Day last-hoorah story. The Bakers actually seem like the “happier, stronger family” they were supposed to be in the first film. But alas, a proper family vacay eludes them. It’s time to head out to Lake Winnetka for a modest cabin and too much quality time. There’s a new twist that, arguably, makes this movie even funnier than the first: the Murtaugh family. Steve Martin pitted against Eugene Levy is a surefire recipe for hilarity. Remember when Levy played an aspiring wedding singer in Father of the Bride? Rewatch that scene. Then watch Cheaper by the Dozen 2. So, the two dads force their families into a classic face-off, just in time for the eldest Baker kid to give birth. Hilary Duff signed on for this one, but it’s really Alyson Stoner’s character, Sarah, who has one of the more compelling arcs in the film, I think. She’s crushing on one of the Murtaugh kids, played by Taylor Lautner. Steve Martin’s interruption of their date is one of the most memorable parts of the movie, but so is the pre-date girl talk where Hilary Duff’s Lorraine does Sarah’s makeup. Additional golden family moments and lake rivalries make for a fun blast from the past.

My California Adventure: Part I

I woke up far too early on July 27, 2021 and finished the last of my packing. It was time for vacation. Just me and my husband, Jack. We braved Spirit Airlines and arrived in Oakland, California just after 9am Pacific time. Still adjusting to the time change, we headed to the town of San Rafael for Sol Food, Puerto Rican cuisine you cannot miss. The restaurant was a short ten minutes from our first destination for the day/night: Mill Valley.

Mill Valley is just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, and it’s your destination for mountain grandeur. Charming, colorful homes dot the twists and turns up and down the hills. I was rejuvenated by a local yoga class (The Studio at Mill Valley, in case you want to try it). Jack and I then hiked through Muir Woods. The Redwoods were the tallest and sweetest-smelling trees we’ve ever experienced.

Scenes among the Redwoods

Exhausted but so excited to be on vacation, we checked in at the Acqua Hotel, a place where you’ll feel at home right away, and got ready for dinner. We made the hour-ish commute to Napa for dinner at a farm. The food was delicious, and we slept well after packing all that into our first day!

We woke up to a beautiful morning and a fantastic breakfast at the hotel before checking out and crossing over the foggy Golden Gate. San Francisco hummed along as we got acquainted with its many neighborhoods…so close together, but so many steps apart! We walked and walked. The first real order of business was lunch. Jack has Celiac disease, but back when he was a kid/before he was diagnosed, he and his family ate sourdough bread at Fisherman’s Wharf. He graciously told me that I must try it, even though he couldn’t have it.

To my delight, I found the current site of the arcade museum from The Princess Diaries, Musée Mécanique. I vlogged my way through the site while Jack played a few games.

Left: Musée Mécanique; Right: Fisherman’s Wharf

Wouldn’t you know, we were a convenient jaunt from Ghirardelli Square! Cute shops, fun atmosphere, and chocolate. I accidentally ordered a $14 ice cream sundae–oops–full of toppings and hot fudge. Hot chocolate for Jack. Somehow, we climbed our way up to Coit Tower after the treats. If you’ve ever seen the season 8 Full House episode where they film around San Francisco (the one where Comet gets lost), then you’ve seen Coit Tower. You’ll find lovely murals inside and breathtaking views both below and atop the tower.

Jack got to have a rare gluten-free deep-dish pizza for dinner. Again, we slept well after a full day. We rose for Full House house day! Which also happened to be our anniversary…which also happened to be the 20th anniversary of The Princess Diaries. This was a huge day for us, so I’ll outline every glorious part:

  • A downtown yoga class (Allison only)
  • Coffee/tea overlooking the bay with the Eric Choate, Director of Music at St. Mary the Virgin.
  • Getting a little lost on a walk from one end of the city to another.
  • Vlogging the Princess Diaries school, which is actually a residential home.
  • Walking to the Full House house for another fun vlog.
  • Touring St. Mary the Virgin–it’s such a warm, peaceful, beautiful church.
  • Walking to the Presidio for the Walt Disney Family Museum!
  • A fabulous anniversary dinner at Monsieur Benjamin (go there if you like French restaurants).

The list above made for one of my favorite days of vacation. It was the first day of several where we got to see a friend. Eric was the only friend who came from “real life” on this trip versus the Internet–he and Jack met at a conference years ago. Throughout the day, I had a blast documenting the places I’d watched on TV since childhood. This excitement continued as I worked my way through film/TV locations for the rest of the trip. The Walt Disney Family Museum was immense. We walked from beginning to end of Walt’s life, seeing years of his family and animation history. The main exhibit was full of curiosities, wonder, enchantment, and realities both joyful and sad.

Left: Me at Full House house; Right: Exterior of Grove High School

The Disneyland of Walt’s Imagination

The next morning was our last full day in San Francisco. We were surprised to find a fantastic barbecue joint while we meandered through more of my TV houses. We saw the Painted Ladies (not in the exact location of the Full House house but seen in many title sequences for the show). I vlogged the That’s So Raven house, which sits on a historic street from the counterculture movement (Ashbury). We met Christopher Keady, the Assistant Director of Music at Grace Cathedral. This was super cool to me since I recently did some research on the Beyoncé mass at this church. Jack even got to play the cathedral organ while we were hanging out with Chris.

Left: Painted Ladies, Right: That’s So Raven house

We headed in the direction of our dinner and stopped to sit on the beach and enjoy the scenery for awhile. With the cooler temperatures dropping even more, we were surprised to see people swimming in the water. We went vegetarian at Greens, a waterfront restaurant where we got farm-to-table food and yet another spectacular view. One more stop after dinner: the Mrs. Doubtfire house. This one didn’t jump out at me as much as my TV houses, even though I love the film. I would watch the movie a couple weeks later to find that 1. the house is painted white in Mrs. Doubtfire. 2. Sally Field’s character, Miranda, says the real address of the home: 2640 Steiner Street.

Mrs. Doubtfire house

Saturday morning was bittersweet. We were nearing the halfway point of our vacation, and it was time to bid San Francisco farewell. But not before breakfast! I scoured the Internet for a place close by with beignets, since I’d seen them advertised on a few menus earlier. This brought an opportunity to ride the MUNI train to a place with beignets and the perfect title: “Just For You Cafe.” It was everything I’d hoped for, and good for us to take the train so we can do that more on the next trip!

We picked up our rental car for the next phase of our vacation, but there was one more thing I had to do. I knew that Mia’s house in The Princess Diaries wasn’t exactly within walking distance of us in San Francisco, so we drove there before moving on. I vlogged for a minute on the quiet street, snapping a picture of what appeared to be Princess Leia and Princess Mia together on a sign at the firehouse.

Princess Mia’s Firehouse

This concludes part one of “My California Adventure.” The next installment will take us through the Pacific Coast Highway before our final chapter in Los Angeles. Thank you for reading, and see you on the Internet! 🙂

What Vacation DCOM Would You Want to Live In?

A couple weeks ago, I let the topic of vacation DCOMs float around in my head. Mostly summer ones, with a bit of spring break thrown in there. Here’s my graphic where I spliced together some images that truly make me happy:

Destination DCOM, if you will. Some of these lucky ducks got to vacation more than once–the Lawrence bros, The Cheetah Girls, the campers at Camp Rock. Others only got one shot at summer fun. Most of the films in the collage have a decidedly cheery temperament. Singing campfire songs by the fire, dancing on the beach, surfing and swimming.

Even the sunny spectacle of High School Musical 2 has a dose of drama, though. “Gotta Go My Own Way” is an epic moment of teen angst that always has me singing along. (I know some of you played “Disney Sing-It” on your Wii consoles.) And the two Cheetah Girls sequels? Plenty of drama between the jet-setting Cheetah sisters on their trips to Barcelona and India. You’ll notice A Ring of Endless Light and Buffalo Dreams on the right. Both have drama for different reasons (fitting in is tough sometimes), but I get so sad when the grandfather passes away in A Ring of Endless Light. It’s pretty special that Mischa Barton’s character, Vicky, can communicate with dolphins. Also, imagine having to choose between Ryan Merriman and Jared Padalecki for a boyfriend!

So back to that title. Which of these movies would I want to live in? As funny as it would be, I wouldn’t want to be stranded with the Stevens family, so The Even Stevens Movie is out. I really need to rewatch the Teen Beach series, but I’m not sure I’d want to jump into a movie that’s also jumping into an old movie…too meta. Rip Girls would be a beautiful, sometimes melancholy, experience in Hawaii. I didn’t include Johnny Tsunami because of all the snow and the school setting, but the sequel is up there. I’m not sure I’d want to be a permanent resident of Johnny Kapahala: Back on Board, even though I liked the film. And I enjoy Wizards, but I don’t have a hefty sentimental attachment to the movie, honestly. I also haven’t quite decided how I feel about living in a magical realm.

If I’m not working on the ranch or jumping ship with the Lawrence brothers, if I’m not singing “This is Me” with Demi Lovato, if I’m not strutting like I mean it with The Cheetah Girls, then what I am doing?

Starstruck. This 2010 DCOM is the vacation I could (temporarily) live in. It’s a spring break film, not summer, but I love it. I might be influenced by the fact that the family lives in Michigan (so do I) and goes on a California vacation (same!).

StarStruck (TV Movie 2010) - Photo Gallery - IMDb

Sara and Jessica Olson are the oil and vinegar sisters of this movie. Sarah is obsessed with Christopher Wilde (Sterling Knight) while Jessica can’t stand him. The fam goes to visit Grandma in Hollywood, and the first night of the trip brings Jessica face to face with that pesky Christopher Wilde. We get this bop:

“There’s somethin’ about the sunshine baby, I’m seeing you in a whole new light!”

And Sterling Knight and Danielle Campbell are so fun to watch as the leads. If you haven’t ever seen Starstruck, I recommend it. I think it’s fun to see how Hollywood portrays itself. A few clicks on IMDb will tell you that lots of DCOMs have been filmed in other countries, like Canada. It’s fun to see a California DCOM once in awhile, I say. Being a tourist for the day, even vicariously through a movie, appeals to me. We get to see the sights of Hollywood, Malibu, and Venice Beach. Grandma’s car is destroyed when it sinks into a pool of mud, and the LA trip is spoiled when Christopher pretends Jessica means nothing to him. But other than that, this is a pretty good vacation. I’ve written about the Hollywood Walk of Fame. I only love the beach more and more as I get older. Seeing stars sounds like a blast. Looks like Starstruck is the place for me.

Starstruck | Disney Movies

If you got to live in a vacation DCOM for any length of time, which one would it be?