The Happiest Puzzlers on Earth

This is the in-depth story of how our team won the Shinteki Field Trip Disneyland puzzle hunt on November 8th 2014. When I wrote this blog post in Word, I put all the spoiler-specific information in white font, but it seems you can't do that in Squarespace. So be forewarned: here there be explicit and specific answers to puzzles in Shinteki's Field Trip Disneyland.

Tammy picked me up and we carpooled from the west side to Anaheim where she parked her magical car on the ground floor and plugged it in. I got breakfast at La Brea bakery and we entered the park. We visited check-in where Linda and Brent welcomed us. Shortly thereafter, Marc and Balki, the other half of our team (named “Tammyles”) met us at the appointed spot. Marc saw a friend who had traveled from out of town for the hunt, and though there were many other puzzle hunters who we knew and occasionally saw roaming the park over the course of the day, some of them – like my good friend Elissa – I never spotted once, despite the fact that we were surely within 30 feet of each other more than once during the day. A bit of randomness, a bit of tunnel vision.

When we all checked in, we got a binder and name badges. Tammy knows the park extremely well and has been a season passholder for many years. I know the park quite well too. Marc and Balki had never been to Disneyland before. Marc and Tammy have a lot of experience in puzzle hunts, and I have a lot of experience too, and Balki had never done one before. Our combined talents were formidable, and best of all everyone on the team had a simply splendid personality. This is so important when you spend a whole, long day with your team occasionally butting your head against knotty and even frustrating problems.

For no particular reason, we picked Adventure Land to attack first, beginning our adventure at the Enchanted Tiki Room, where we solved two puzzles. I quite like starting a visit to Disneyland at this attraction, and it was a good choice on this day too. We loved the discovery about the rhymes and the pictures in the waiting area puzzle: the cast member there wanted to know what we were doing and offered to help, but we had to nicely explain that her guidance was of limited value. She was impressed when she saw the answer though. Our puzzle had a series of pictures; we realized that the pictures were words that occurred at the ends of lines in the rhyming couplets found around the waiting area, each rhyme associated with a name that we indexed to extract the solution word.

Marc solved the Jungle Cruise puzzle on the walk from the Main Street train station with a bit of help (I anagrammed the 9-letter P word in my head: GASP SNEER to PASSENGER). This was the first of a number of instances where, in Tammy’s words, “Marc breathed on a puzzle and solved it.”

We walked up and through Tarzan’s Treehouse and solved the puzzle there; while aloft in the treetops, Tammy informed us that one puzzle in the binder was a photo scavenger hunt and furthermore that one of the tableaux we had to re-create was partway across the Tarzan rope bridge. We got a family to take a picture of us and returned to ground level. This was an early instance (one of several) where knowing the park and the Disney characters benefitted us: the fact that the Tarzan attraction was repurposed from the Swiss Family Robinson treehouse factored into the puzzle’s solution.

At this point, before we moved on to New Orleans Square, we made a game-changing decision. It affected everything we did that day. We sat down and looked at the whole binder from start to finish. We got familiar with the “Anywhere” and the “Somewhere” chapters and delegated them. Marc and Balki were responsible for looking for the different styles and fonts on the trash and recycling cans throughout the park. This was a big job and often Tammy and I would say, “Where are those guys? Oh they probably got hung up looking at trash.” But they were very attentive and they did a great job. Looking at trash. Tammy took charge of the photo scavenger hunt list and the pin trading (which she does for fun on visit to the park anyhow) and I captained the word-swapping puzzle. Balki also helped remind me to approach other teams and strangers for information: “Go ahead, Mr. Gregarious!” Balki also played the part of Captain of Competitiveness, always humorously suggesting opportunities to sweep the knees of the other teams.

We burned through a lot of the “Anywhere” puzzles in the early part of the day. This included, among other things, me doing the double acrostic in flickering torch light while walking through the uneven pavement in the long indoor queue at the Indiana Jones attraction. Knowing what I do about the rooms in which Indy speaks, I bet I could have solved the puzzle without riding, but was glad that Marc and Balki got to experience it, and was pleased with the solution words. Among many misdirects, the puzzle solved to AUTO RACE BLANK FIVE HUNDRED, to which the answer of course was “Indy.”

Reading the Forbidden Eye code, like the Star Wars code, was a matter of squinting at it until you saw the Matrix. Marc and Tammy were good at that. The Star Wars was even harder to make progress with until you realized what was peculiar about the syntax. It was written in the style of Yoda. But when we did read it, Tammy was able to answer the trivia question based on her knowledge of the ride without us having to go on Star Tours.

We moved on to New Orleans Square puzzles and solved the Haunted Mansion puzzle from the café where we read through the binder. I’d seen the mechanism before, but didn’t see the importance of the partial answer until we entered it into Clue Keeper, and then we all got a big happy gasp when we realized what we had to do next. Answers to multiple choice questions spelled out NOW BE A KID, which Clue Keeper registered as a partial solve. When you went back and answered the same questions as though you were naïve about the technology in the mansion, you got the puzzle’s true solution. And the Pirates of the Caribbean ride-through puzzle was a good example of something fun that enhanced but did not distract from the ride: you had a list of events that take place over the course of the ride and you had to note what order they occurred in and whether they were to the port or starboard of your boat. Marc correctly intuited that it was a binary puzzle, but that didn’t stop me from insisting that it would be first and last letters of lines. I was wrong. The pirate anagrams were of course outstandingly good.

The honeycomb Pooh puzzle was a tough one for us: we had to visit some place in the park that I didn’t think we’d have had to go (a gift shop), but then again I’m not very familiar with Critter Country. If the Country Bears are gone, then so am I.

This land was where two of our best triumphs took place, in the sense that we could intuit or shortcut answers without going on rides. Normally when visiting Disneyland you don’t try to find ways of getting out of going on rides, but we were feeling bullish on our chances of sweeping the day so we wanted to be efficient with time. This included, at my suggestion, making Tom Sawyer’s Island a low priority due to the hassle involved in getting there.

Anyway, the morse code/ternary puzzle directed us to the tableau at the end of Splash Mountain and asked us a specific question about what could be seen there. I’ve been on that ride scores of times but didn’t know the answer to the question. I asked the cast members at the front and exit the question and they didn’t know. I asked every cast member I could find on the walk to Main Street. Then I started asking guests wearing pins, figuring that they would know a lot of Disney trivia but none of them knew the answer either. A nice couple dressed as Steampunk Mickey and Minnie said, “We’re about to go on that ride” and I asked them to text me the answer. I gave them my number and they held up their end of the bargain. A win!

Rather than ride The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, which was broken physically and also in the sense that I didn’t want to ride it, we guessed the answer based on the mechanism of the puzzle and the names of Pooh bear’s friends. The puzzle was based on double letters and the partial solution indicated that the answer referred to three of Pooh’s friends who were standing in a particular place at one point of the ride. Since Rabbit, Eeyore, and Tigger all have double letters, we guessed the answer was BEG. Our guess was verified by Cluekeeper. Another win!

Cluekeeper, as always, was perfect all day long. What an amazing interface. It’s also helpful for me as I try to reconstruct the events of the day for this blog.

The Anywhere word-exchange puzzle was 20 blanks and 2 words. Each team had a different 2 words, so you had to be on the lookout for other teams and ask them to swap. For many of the teams we approached early in the day, they didn’t know they had 2 words or even what the puzzle was: they hadn’t read the whole binder like we did. But by later in the day some teams had nearly all the words so there was room for more negotiating in the exchanges. One team demonstrated a bit of poor sportsmanship by demanding many words in exchange for a few we didn’t have, but we politely demurred and removed ourselves from the situation.

There were about 3 words that had not been provided to any team: the only way to get those was to ask a Game Control member during one of a few windows of opportunity over the course of the day. One such was around this time in Fantasy Land, and when we got the word we also got to play a bonus anagram game, where we looked at cards and had to unscramble the names of notable Disney Characters. We did better than all but 1 of the teams and got one point less than the highest possible score. At the time we played, I got the last anagram for our team before time ran out and pushed us into the high score up to that point. I am not your guy for binary puzzles or for mentally rotating things to determine solutions, but give me an anagram and I punch above my weight.

 We finished out Fantasy Land, including the answer to the double acrostic I’d been working on all day. It was an answer word that Tammy knew based on her familiarity with the movie but we had to enter the attraction to confirm it. Tammy breathed on Casey Jones and got it right: I helped by identifying where the monkeys were relative to the caboose.

 The Princess Binaries was an amazing, cool puzzle based on a naturally occurring artifact and it was a lot of fun to untangle (no pun intended). We intuited the answer with about half the letters solved, and the confirmation built into the text of the puzzle encouraged us to enter it into ClueKeeper. Another right answer.

 It took even less legwork to solve Snow White, as it happened. We all agreed that it was going to be difficult to stay oriented in the ride. Marc mused aloud if there might be a way to sniff out the correct path… and then he uttered the phrase out loud as simply as if it were just printed normally on the page. We all cracked up. It was another breathe-solve for Marc. We still went on the ride, and got a new thrill when we discovered the surprise the game makers had left for us. Such a fun memory. The correct path through the jumble of letters printed on the page was marked with blacklight ink, so as soon as you entered the ride the answer was basically provided for you.

 We gathered all the data needed to solve the deck of cards puzzle: it was a good thing we had players of both sexes on our team. Yay diversity! We really struggled with decoding the 4 instructions for dismissing cards. We fought with that one a bunch while we stood in line for It’s a Small World, and while Balki and Marc were trying to tough that one out, I was also struggling with the puzzle that was partly in Spanish. I conferred with the family standing in front of us in line; they were fluent in English and Spanish, but we still had to kind of go on a hunch. It was a IGIBIDGI situation (I get it but I don’t get it). Once we realized how it fit in with the other answers in the meta for this group of Anywheres, we corrected a couple letters we had wrong (we think… still not sure) and pulled out an answer.

 So then we turned the attention back to the playing cards. The particular angle of the sun and the heat at this time, and the length of the line for a ride we didn’t really want to go on all added up to the only time I felt really frustrated all day. But happily just when I felt that emotion I looked at the flavor text again realized what to index. That was a huge relief. It’s a Small World is so slow that Marc and Balki then figured out the whole cards puzzle on the ride while Tammy and I did the Small World counting puzzle.

Small World is 15 minutes long! Plus, there was such a backup of guests disembarking that we came perilously close to missing one of the other windows of opportunity to receive a clue word from GC. We had to bob and weave and race through the crowd where a parade was dispersing. We got it though.

 Somewhere along the way we stopped and got lunch, and this was one of the toughest things we did all day because I am picky and wanted Tammy to keep showing me choices before settling on an option. We had a great lunch at Main Street, at a table juxtaposing another team. We took photos of one another: “a picture of your team at lunch” was one of the items on the photo scavenger hunt, which Tammy had done a great job captaining. I helped: we used my phone after we discovered that the family who photographed us at Tarzan’s Treehouse, using Tammy’s Google phone, had not done it correctly and there was no photo. After that, we took all the pics on my iPhone. Families who attend Disneyland are apparently more proficient with Apple technology than with Google products.

We backtracked to Mickey’s Toontown because we knew it would close early. While at the gates we got the last of the exchange words needed and then solved that whole puzzle, which was a really impressive use of the words. The same 20 words were used as a before-and-after clue, a binary clue, and a first-and-last-letter clue, which spelled out the message EARLY SPACE WOMAN SALLY, leading to the solution RIDE, which was part of the larger solution “STAR WARS RIDE,” and the ultimate answer “Star Tours”. Doing the Mickey house walk-through was fun, and we ran into Clavis Cryptica’s team which was a thrill, cause she’s a puzzle celebrity! I remembered a bunch of the license plates in the Roger Rabbit wait queue before we got there and although we still had to go inside and get the rest plus more to solve, but I did make my team laugh by guessing the rebuses we were about to see.

Tomorrow Land was in our future. Tammy’s favorite ride is Buzz Lightyear and despite strategizing how to maximize score we did not get the bonus for this. A cheerful cast member gave us some completely wrong information about the points symbols on the attraction, but Tammy’s memory helped us get it right. The naturally indexed word painted on the wall was a very impressive find by the Shinteki team. It wasn’t until later that we returned and did Space Mountain: our one and only FastPass for the day. Marc recused himself from solving and thrilled to the ride while Tammy, Balki and I chanted out loud, counting together until the car turned left. The instructions told us to strategize prior to riding and we determined that since only 5 of the 22 turns were left, we could create a sequence of 5 numbers (easy to remember) by counting up and restarting at 1 every time there was a new left turn. This worked great and was a fun way to add a new twist to ride an already premium attraction. We were pretty silly, chanting and counting out loud on the ride, but I doubt the other guests noticed. We celebrated getting the correct answer to this difficult puzzle with pizza from Red Rockett’s Pizza Port, one of my favorite places to eat in the park.

Now it was getting dark and we were nearly out of time but we still had two lands left: Frontierland and Main Street. We couldn’t finish Frontierland because we had left Tom Sawyer’s Island for too late in the day: the final boat had already departed. This was partly because, as I mentioned, I didn’t think it was that important to go to TSI (I never thought we were going to sweep the binder) and so didn’t bring it up, but also because we had remembered the time wrong of the last departure (even though Shinteki put it in our binders). Tammy was really surprised by this: getting a detail like that wrong, or allowing a cutoff to slip by her, is not very Tammy-like. So I think she was a bit flummoxed, but we focused on the puzzles we could still solve.

At one point, earlier in the day, I used the bathroom in New Orleans Square and while I was gone the team solved the train/Morse code puzzle. I used the bathroom in Frontierland too and when I came back my team told me I had to do the shooting gallery game. I don’t know what made them think I’d be right for it – Laurel is a better shot than I am, as I learned when we went out in the desert to shoot off guns (another story for another time) – but I think that gallery must be really easy because I hit everything I aimed at the first try. One of the signals wasn’t working, but we had enough letters to fill in the blanks mentally and get the solution. Now I can claim to be the best marksman on the best puzzle hunt team at Shinteki Field Trip Disneyland.

We stood in line for Thunder Mountain, tried to reason through the tunnels problem without riding it, but then determined that we only needed to know how long 3 of the tunnels were, and exited the ride with 2 more correct answers and only 1 land left.

On Main Street, we solved the want ads and the checkers puzzle easily before getting a little hung up on the index puzzle, which is funny because it was one of the few where they told you exactly what you needed to do to solve, but by that point it was nearing the end of a long day and we were a bit mentally frazzled.

This meant there was only one puzzle left in the whole park for us to solve and, somewhat fittingly I think, it was the central hub. We were struggling to figure out what was going on until Marc realized that “Two Flags” was a semaphore reference. Even then we were struggling a bit, but we fought fatigue to come up with an answer and, as a few letters emerged from our work, I blurted out a guess to the Walt-related solution: CRYOGENICS. Clue Keeper made it official. We high-fived and went back to Frontierland to meet Game Control.

“You crushed it!” Brent told us when we arrived. “You’ve been crushing it all day. But you’ve done some of these before.” This was directed to me. “No I haven’t,” I said. “You didn’t do any of the previous iterations of the Field Trip?” No. “Then you’re REALLY crushing it!”

Here’s where the waiting game began: we had completed every puzzle in the binder but had 75 minutes left. Which meant some of the other teams could close the gap: especially the ones who had been to Tom Sawyer’s Island! We bit our nails. Marc and Balki had to drive back to LA, so Tammy and I sat there and gabbed with GC while other teams arrived, checked in, played the anagram game if they hadn’t done so already, and departed to solve more. We fidgeted.

We hadn’t gotten the bonus for Buzz Lightyear because our scores weren’t that great. We got the second-highest score for anagrams possible, but 1-2 teams had gotten the last and final point. So we were in pretty solid shape, but there was a lot of puzzle solving talent on the teams that were still in competition.

Another puzzle in which we had received the maximum points was the pin trading. This was all Tammy’s doing. She does pin trading for fun anyway, and skillfully used her knowledge and exchanges to get us three pins that were all blue, all round, and all had hidden Mickeys. Maximum points. We’d also swept the photo scavenger hunt, even though my camera battery was at less than 10%, but it was enough to show to Linda and get full credit.

At the finish line, with some time to spare, I had the chance to review some Anywhere puzzles I hadn’t seen before. Someone had solved the Toy Story jokes puzzle without my ever having seen it, but I did observe that I knew most of the punchlines without having to do the letter-substitution code. Marc and Balki figured out the Halloween=Christmas puzzle, which they explained to me, and I still don’t understand. The Pixar re-mix puzzle was a lot of fun, though we were stuck until we figured out that the answer was FACE CARDS and not CARD NAMES (same number of letters).

Anyway, although the second place team got us sweating, when time ran out, we were the champions! Considering that the second place team included the mastermind behind the Washington Post Hunt, Tammy and I felt quite proud of our accomplishment. Turned out not going to Tom Sawyer’s Island was the right choice all along! We had plenty of time to agonize over that decision, but it turned out for the best. One funny thing is that the only Sudoku puzzle of the whole day was on the island, so Tammy never got to solve it. She is the reigning US Sudoku champ. Irony? Maybe.

While biding our time at the finish line, Linda told me some great stories from the old days of hunts at Stanford, and we also learned that there had been several iterations of this hunt before, though this was the first one with Clue Keeper. The introduction of the app explained how we were able to solve it all within the time constraint, which had never been possible before, and indeed we had been told in the morning that no team would solve every puzzle. What really helped us win though was the New Orleans Square strategy session where we read through the whole binder. As a real-life treasure hunter told me before I began the “National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets,” “Don’t confuse motion with progress.”

In the above photo, notice Tammy's Google Glass and us being photo bombed by the cast member who works at the petting zoo. Did you know Disneyland had a petting zoo? I didn't.

There was so much laughter, good sportsmanship, wonder, and Disney magic this day. It was a wonderful hunt and one I’ll remember for a long time. I feel like a heel because I now realize I will probably never get around to blogging about the Shinteki Decathlon I did earlier this year. I’m so fortunate because I got to do TWO Shinteki games in 2014, and in a way I feel like it’s the least I can do to blog about them, as my way of saying thanks for the hard work GC does to create the games. They put so much effort into it – I can’t imagine how many hours it takes – and even though I have spent several nights, spread out over weeks, writing this blog post, it is a drop in the ocean compared to what Shinteki did to create the games, and I feel like it’s appropriate to return with an in-kind tribute, but this might be the only one I have in me. I consider myself very lucky to have good puzzle-solving (and solution-breathing) friends who play with me, and that I live in a world with wonderful groups like Shinteki who are so good to us puzzle-hungry maniacs. Cheers to all the maniacs. Zip-a-dee-lady!