Saturday, September 16, 2023

A Most Magical Vacation

Over the last year, I've found myself struggling a lot with my mental health.  Part of this, I've come to recognize, is due to my job.  While I've mostly enjoyed it, it's also sapping my energy.  One of the best indications of this, in my opinion, is how much writing I'm getting done.  I haven't done a single one of my essays in over a year, and even the e-mails I exchange with my writing partners had started to feel like a chore rather than a hobby.

So I did what a lot of people dream of doing: I quit my job and I decided to take a week-long vacation.

This wasn't a spur-of-the-moment thing, mind you.  I had planned this vacation for months, and I had very specific goals for it.  See, Disney announced back in April that they were going to put on Rogers: The Musical (as originally seen in the show Hawkeye).  The thirty-minute, one-act musical was only going to run for two months, but I was committed to seeing it live.

So I bought myself a three-day ticket to Disneyland and prepared myself for a trip to the Happiest Place on Earth.

I had planned out my trip with the precision of a small-scale military campaign.  I was already going to Los Angeles in August for Labyrinth of Jareth, so I got my ticket for the three days prior to Labyrinth.  I got a hotel within walking distance of the park, and drove overnight from the Bay to get to the park early.  I hadn't been to Disney since about 2017, and I wanted to make the most of my three-day pass.  I was also going in with the expectation that I was not the only Marvel fanboy making a Rogers: The Musical pilgrimage, and that I was going to have to be wily if I wanted to make sure I got into the theater.

Here's how it went:

Day One

Having hit the road in the wee hours of the morning, I stumbled into the park bright and early to meet my friend, Ron.  Ron is a professional Santa and a Disneyland connoisseur, so I figured he'd have some advice for me about how to ensure I got in to see Rogers.  

For those not in the know, there are actually multiple parks at Disneyland.  There's Disneyland proper, and then California Adventure, which is where the Hyperion theater is located, as well as the pier and a few of the bigger rides (like the Incredi-Coaster, formerly California Screamin', and the Guardians of the Galaxy ride, formally Tower of Terror).  I had a "Park Hopper" ticket to be able to gain entrance to both parks, but my plan was to begin the first two days in California Adventure to hedge my bets about getting in to see Rogers.

When I arrived and downloaded the Disney app, I discovered I couldn't join the "virtual queue" to get into Rogers just yet.  So I set out to find some $5 coffee and check out a ride.  The first one I rode was called Soarin' Around the World, which I knew nothing about, except that there was literally no line at all at 9:30 a.m.  It turns out Soarin' is a flight simulator, and at the beginning, there's a number of warnings that if you don't like heights then you might not like Soarin'.

I have no particular issue with heights, but let me tell you something: Soarin' scared the shit out of me.  I jumped at least three times, and actually teared up a little, too, because it was a spectacular ride.  The kind of ride that completely justifies the title "Imagineer."  Despite not actually being a "ride" so much as a 5D movie, there is every indication you are flying, and I left it feeling like my vacation was off to a very, very good start, because that ride alone justified the cost of the park entry.

I met up with Ron, who showed me how to join the virtual queue for Rogers.  I refreshed it every few seconds until it opened, and slammed that button so hard I practically left an indentation in my phone.  Confirmed for the very first showing, I charged off with purpose to go see the musical.


Seated in the second row of the mezzanine, with a nice view of the stage, I prepared to be wowed.

Rogers: The Musical is no longer playing at Disneyland, but if you'd like to be wowed, you can go ahead and watch it here:

My viewing of it was particularly special, though, because halfway through the Battle of New York, during Loki's arrival, they overdid the pyrotechnics, filled the theater with smoke, and had to evacuate.  I will admit, I initially thought this was some kind of planned trick by Loki, because of how calmly and smoothly everyone reacted.  It wasn't until I was standing outside of the theater that I realized I'd just seen a rare Disney Oopsie.

Off to Pym's Test Kitchen!  Unlike the main park, California Adventure has alcohol, and Pym's sells beer.  I grabbed my lunch and some beer, which came in a fun little beaker.  I wasn't sure if it was meant to be a souvenir cup or not (the price of it implied maybe, but then again, everything at Disney is a bit expensive), and considered stuffing it into my bag, but Captain America was nearby and I couldn't justify stealing in front of him, so I went to ask the guy at the counter if I was allowed to keep the cup.

He informed me that he liked my tattoo, and filled up my glass for me.

"Oh, it's free refills?" I asked.

"No," he said.

I decided to spend the rest of the day exploring Avengers Campus.  There were more showings of Rogers, but since I had a three-day pass and had found the virtual queue very easy to use, I figured I'd see it again the next day.

Avengers Campus was great, if only because you couldn't walk three feet without bumping into Black Panther.  I fist-bumped Spider-Man, snapped some pictures of Thor, and belatedly realized I had forgotten to pack sunscreen.  The day warmed up to the nineties, threatening to move into the triple-digits, and I made my way over to the Grizzly River Run.  I was not alone in my idea; the line was over an hour long.

I asked a helpful Disney employee if there were lockers for bags, because I didn't want to get my phone wet.  The helpful Disney employee informed me there were lockers, but that after two hours, you had to pay a dollar.  She said this with the tone that implied a lot of people got mad at her for this news.

"Oh no, I'll have to pay, what, a dollar?  That's the best deal in the park!" I told her.  She laughed with the kind of relief a service employee has when you tell them that it's fine if your coupon is expired.

I went to the lockers but found that every single one was already in use.  When I returned to the line, I discovered that the wait time was now 110 minutes.

"Hey, what happened?" asked the helpful Disney employee as I got into the line with my bag.

I shrugged.  "All the lockers were taken.  It's fine.  If my phone gets wet, that just means I'll get to get a new phone, right?"

She laughed, told me she liked my attitude, and then said, "Y'know what?  You're in the Lightning Lane go.  Go ahead. " She shooed me through the line, putting me onto the ride with functionally zero wait time.

My thrill was short-lived, as the over-burdened ride stopped halfway through, leaving me and five other people stranded on an innertube on an incline with no shade.  My second Disney Oopsie of the day!

The helpful Disney employee huffed up the hill with a bunch of umbrellas for us, apologizing profusely.  We all reassured her that this was fine, and when the ride started up again, we had a fine time (and were allowed to get back on a second time, with no wait!)

Feeling fairly overwhelmed with my day already, I spent the better part of the afternoon at the California Adventure winery, reading a book and sipping on champagne.  Near the end of the day I went down to the pier to enjoy a few more rides, feeling that Disney had, so far, lived up to my expectations 100%.  


Little did I know it was only going to get better.

Day Two

My second day dawned with a second opportunity to see Rogers: The Musical.  As I entered the park and had my bag searched, one of the security guards chuckled at my contents, which once again included no sunscreen and was mostly just a book.  

"What, Disneyland isn't entertaining enough for you?" he teased.

What can I say?  There's always waiting in line.  Or so I've heard.  On Tuesday, I had never waited for more than ten minutes.

With the opinion that you don't mess with success, I once again went in early, rode Soarin' (again, no line), and then grabbed a hot dog and sat on the curb outside of the theater reading Winter Soldier: Cold Front.

I was first in line this time, and got a front-row seat on the mezzanine.  I watched the whole musical, and left it with a spring in my step.  I wandered around the Campus a bit more, and grabbed some champagne, but having already ridden all the rides, decided it was time to go over to the main park and enjoy It's A Small World, which has some incredible Cold War history behind it and felt fitting after finishing Winter Soldier: Cold Front.

Since it was a Wednesday and I was a single rider, I found myself escorted to the front of every other line, and in quick succession managed to knock out all the major attractions: Thunder Mountain Railroad, the Matterhorn, and literally everything in Fantasy Land.  As the sun dipped toward the horizon, I decided to check out Galaxy's Edge.  This was the only area of the Disneyland I had no real interest in, but a few friends had told me I should check it out.  I'm not a big Star Wars guy but I do love world-building, and the moment I entered Galaxy's Edge, my jaw was on the floor.  It was a completely immersive and otherworldly area, and it also had the only bar in the park, which featured some incredible drinks and a robot D.J.

I rode the new Galaxy Edge ride, a trackless drop ride with some of the coolest line management features I've ever experienced.  The ride is functionally split into segments that integrates a lot of the "waiting" aspects of the ride into the story, so that a one-hour wait feels like it's only twenty minutes.

Instead of trying to describe it, I recommend checking out this video, or, better yet, experiencing it yourself, if you can. 

Day Three

I had gotten most of my Disneying in on the first two days, so I began Day Three in the main park, with a brunch in New Orleans square.  The only thing left on my list was Haunted Mansion, but it was closed.  This mild disappointment was offset by a delightful journey on Jungle Cruise and the Indiana Jones rides.

Feeling completely content with how I'd spent my time, I went back over to California Adventure in the evening to drink some wine and relax for the last few hours I had in the park.  A random family cut in front of me in the line for drinks, and I must have sighed, mostly just out of being tired.  But it was enough for a guy at the front of the line to take notice and gesture for me to join him.

"Come here, brother, come on up.  Let me buy you a drink," he insisted.

"No, no, that's okay, you don't have to do that," I said.

He flashed a badge at me like he was a CIA agent.  Only he wasn't a CIA agent.  He was a fuckin' Imagineer.  "No, seriously, it's on the house," he said.

We grabbed a few beers and he asked me if there were any rides I hadn't gone on yet.  I admitted I hadn't been on the Guardians of the Galaxy one yet.  I'm actually not a very big fan of drop rides, and thoeugh I'd been on it back when it opened in 2016 or 2017, I was nervous about going again.  My new friend, Scott, slung an arm around me and marched me over to the ride.  The two of us rode it together, and when I got off, we swung back to the winery for another round of drinks and then went to ride Cars.  In my final hours at Disney, Scott decided I was a one-man focus group, and walked me through the park, chatting about the various rides he'd worked on (including the trackless Galaxy's Edge ride!) and keeping my cup filled with way more beer than I had any business drinking.

Initially I thought Scott was just being nice because a family had cut in front of me in line (not a big deal, honestly), but we ended up spending hours together, and we swapped numbers.  I'd made an actual friend, and it rounded out the end of my Disney trip perfectly.  Because what's more magical than friendship, after all?

The day ended, as all Disney days do, with fireworks, which felt very appropriate.  Disney prides itself on being "The Happiest Place on Earth" and my experience was wholly magical.  Even the hiccups felt special, and though my expectations were very high to begin with, I still had them blown out of the water.  I felt like every time I bumped into a character or employee, they had a vested interest in me personally, and at the end of the three days, I was completely enchanted.

Speaking of enchanted... 

The Labyrinth

Once I was done with my three days at Disney, I hoofed my way off to Los Angeles for the annual Labyrinth of Jareth Ball.  As in years prior, I was Ampelos, the satyr lover of Dionysus, and this time, I had brought tokens to give out and trade with other guests.  

It was two magical evenings of fantasy and entertainment, and during the day, I went to the Grove to meet up with my friend Chris and watch the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie, and hit up a rooftop pool for some cocktails.

I won't say that Labyrinth paled in comparison to Disney, but I will say that, by Sunday, I was functionally overdosed on the magic and was ready to go home.

And I didn't have much choice in the matter, because a massive tropical storm made landfall on Los Angeles on Sunday, and I had to get out of Dodge quickly or risk getting stranded.  For the first hour of driving, it was like piloting a submarine, and I missed a mudslide in the foothills by about ten or fifteen minutes.

But I made it home safely and my overall vacation experience exceeded every expectation I had for it.