January 2023 Part Three (Jan 16-Jan 18)

January 16 – Magic!

To be perfectly honest, today was one of the big highlights of the trip, something I had been looking forward to with much anticipation. Today was the day Troy was coming to get me and we were going to Disneyland!

We’d discussed this over the past few months, me explaining I really wanted to see Star Wars and Avengers stuff and anything else would be a bonus. He agreed. We decided on getting a 1-day, park hopper pass (the two things were in different parks) and then we figured that the 17th of January, the day after the MLK holiday, would be ideal (and also, the least expensive) day to go.

Of course, once we knew the dates, I contacted a few friends to see if there was anything else we could do. For example, Troy had never been to the Magic Castle, so I called my friend Michael, who’s a member, and asked if he was free to join us. He was. So we made plans.

And now the day was finally here!

Troy showed up around 8am in his blue Tesla, which he’s named Clair (for “Clair Blue Skies”). While I’d driven in a Tesla before, this was going to be a much longer road trip and I was going to learn all about the ins and outs. First things first, though, was that as we turned onto Decatur, the nearest major street to the folks’ place, Troy gunned it and I got to experience the much-vaunted acceleration of these electric cars.

“Everyone gets one of those,” Troy explained. “That was yours.” And while, yes, there were a few times we had to give it a little juice to get past someone, we never again did the crazy speed thing, which was fine with me. Safety first, yes?

One of the things I did learn quickly about the Tesla, though is how the charging works. As we drove, Troy explained the system and showed me the maps with the charging stations noted and how he calculated how far we could go on the current (heh heh) charge…all of which led to us stopping at State line for breakfast and a top-up and then again in Baker for another push which would take us all the way into Victorville.

Victorville and not Barstow, because we were going to stop and meet my friend Jennifer for lunch in Victorville. Our timing was perfect and not only did we get to see Jennifer, but her mom, Lois, had come along as well. The last time I saw her mom was when I first met Jennifer, which was when we both graduated with our master’s degrees and she was sitting near me in the auditorium. Since then, though, we’d become Facebook friends, and she had adopted Monki as an adopted grandchild she could make dresses and hair ties for. So it was a pleasure to see her in person and thank her for everything.

They showed up just as the car was finishing its charge so we followed them to a local eatery and the four of us had a great lunch while chatting. I just want to mention here that I had the largest Cobb Salad I’ve ever had in my entire life. Jennifer got the same thing and neither of us finished.

Saying our good-byes (and making tentative plans to see them again on our return trip) we headed down into LA. Knowing we were going to the Castle that night, and that we’d have to change clothes since the Castle has a dress code, we debated the merits of going directly there or trying to get to the hotel first. The hotel won out (rightfully) so we drove down to Anaheim to change clothes and drop our bags.

Just a quick side note about the dress code. I’m fine with a button down shirt and tie and coat, but slacks and shoes are bigger problem in general. Before I left home I checked the slacks I owned and yes, had a pair or two which fit (I never wear them, I always wear jeans) but my nice shoes had given up the ghost a while ago, with holes in the souls, and while I probably would have kept them “just in case,” the smarter Rasa had chucked them in the bin. All of which is to say I left Lithuania without a pair of suitable shoes, thinking I could get a cheap pair in America. Instead, dad had a pair I could borrow, which were only three sizes too big! But for the night, I figured it would be fine (and it was, no suspense, this isn’t foreshadowing or anything, no problems with the shoes at all, just a funny story that I felt like I was wearing swim fins all night long).

Anyway, we got changed, again charged the car, and headed up into Hollywood to meet Michael.

Inside the club, we were standing in the lobby when the door opened to let in a group of guests. There were three who were clumped together, a family unit, all wearing masks. The woman in the lead had gray hair and looked a lot like Jamie Lee Curtis, at least from the eyes. This wouldn’t have been surprising as the Magic Castle often attracts a-list celebrities. What was surprising was when she saw me and her eyes widened. She started pointing and took down her mask so I could see her face.

Turns out it was my dear friends Peggy and Willie Etra and their daughter Anna Rose. It was Willie’s birthday and this was a surprise for him coming to the Castle, where they’d never been. When I lived in LA, Willie was the musical director at the Groundlings and I had basically adopted him as a big brother. And while I’ve obviously kept up with them online, the last time I saw the two of them was when I was back in Vegas in August of 2016 and Peggy was performing in Puppet Up at the Venetian and I got to have dinner with them and interview them for a piece on the show. Now here they were! And Anna Rose I literally hadn’t seen since I babysat her when she was an infant.

The weirdest thing is that if I had more time they were definitely on my list of people I wanted to see while I was in the country. Troy, of course, immediately texted Katie: “what a surprise, Jaq just ran into people he knows.”

I made introductions and we all chatted and caught up while waiting for Doc Docherty in the Close-up show then left them to their dinner while we also grabbed something to eat. We caught Bruce Kalver’s show in the Parlor and then Michael asked us if we wanted to see the main show…because he had gotten invited to a private show and would we like to tag along.

Of course we would.

Before that happened, though, I was able to show Troy around the building, and Michael introduced us around. We saw Adam Wylie doing a bar show downstairs and then it was time to see the private event. It seemed that Brian Markenson brought in the casts of the touring shows (playing down the street at places like the Pantages) on their nights off to let them experience the magic a little instead of always providing it. Tonight’s troupe was the touring cast of Mean Girls and let me tell you, they were an amazing audience. We’d actually been seeing them all night long, especially Shannon (don’t know the spelling) who was active in almost every show we were at. She was fabulous!

Brian and another magician named Jeff Taylor each did 25± minute sets in a small area downstairs and it was incredible. Yes, all the magicians we saw that night were good, but there was just something about the energy of a group of performers watching another performer at the top of their game do what they do. Truly spectacular!

By that point, though, we were done for the night. It had been a long day and we knew there was a long day ahead. We said good night and thank you to Michael (and I say again, “Thank you, sir!”) and headed back down to Anaheim.

Our day at the Happiest Place on Earth was fast approaching!

January 17 – Star-Vengers…and beyond!!

Today was the day! The first thing on our agenda was getting to the park and hitting up the Black Spire Outpost on Batuu at Galaxy’s Edge (or, in other words, Star Wars Land). This area was located in Disneyland, so that’s where we had our initial park reservation. The way Disneyland works these days is you have to have a reservation for whichever park you want to go to and if you have a park hopper, you can’t go to the second park until after 1pm so we had decided to start at Disney and go from there.

The horror stories of waiting in line for hours to ride “Rise of the Resistance” were prevalent enough that pretty much everyone I told I was going to Disneyland to see it had some sort of advice on how to ensure we got on the ride. This had us fairly well nervous as we walked the little more than a mile or so (±1.5km) to the park entrance. We headed right for Batuu and found the line for the ride, which, according to employees, was light this morning at only a 90-minute wait. Dutifully, we joined the queue.

While we waited we discussed the advantages of buying a “Genie Pass,” basically the new version of the “Fast Pass” only operated on a phone app (and thank god for Disney park Wi-Fi) and with bonus features. At $25, it originally seemed like an extravagance when I booked the tickets, but now, after seeing the prices of everything else, $25 didn’t really feel like all that much. The advantage would be that we could book our “Lightning Pass” for one ride while going “stand-by” on another, and by checking wait times on the app, we could really maximize our day.

So we bit the bullet and bought the upgrade.

That was when we discovered that “Rise of the Resistance” was a premium (the only one I think) and we’d have to fork over another $25 for a one-time line pass. Screw it, enough was enough and we just stood in line.

Troy, however, is a master of data and decided to time the line anyway, just see if the old Disney cheat of over-estimating wait times was still in effect. Turns out, it was. From the time we entered the queue until we were finished was less than an hour, and the ride itself is about 20 minutes, so it was all good!

And the ride? Absolutely amazing! Yes, if you think about it too much you can figure out most of it, but don’t do that. Just enjoy it. Also, this is another ride like “Jungle Cruise,” where the cast members are allowed a little leeway. In this case, they are playing Imperial soldiers who have just captured rebel spies (you, the riders) and they get to treat you like prisoners. If you’re having a bad day at work, this would be the perfect position for you.

After successfully fending off the Empire, still on Batuu, we figured that flying in the Millennium Falcon was our next choice. Again, the line was overestimated and there weren’t many people anyway, so we just went for it. In this ride, groups of six are brought in to fly the Falcon on a “Smuggler’s Run,” with pairs assigned to pilot, shoot, and repair the ship as you go through the ride. Troy and I got to be pilots, which, to be fair, is really the best job. Before you get into the cockpit, though, you get to spend time in the Falcon herself. It is SO cool. If someone had told 9 year old me I would one day be sitting in the same place Chewbacca and C-3PO played chess, I would have laughed at them. Yet here I was.

When we landed, both Troy and I were grinning like idiots. Speaking for myself, I think I held onto that grin all day. I still have it. No matter what else we did, and we did lots as you’ll see, we had accomplished 75% of our stated goal for coming within 90 minutes and it was brilliant!

We spent some time wandering through the outpost and I sent a message to Monki asking her if she wanted anything. She did, but didn’t know what, so she asked me to send pictures. There was obviously too much to send so I just took one picture of some plushies and she decided on a Princess Leia doll (“the girl with the white dress”). I got it, said goodnight to her and we continued.

Using our Lightning Lane powers, we booked a time for Big Thunder Mountain and decided to grab a bite for late breakfast, early lunch before it came due. But here’s the problem with Disney: There’s always something else to do. As we were walking towards New Orleans Square, the wait time for “Pirates” was listed as 15 minutes. How could we refuse?

Stepping off the ride, we were right by The French Market Cafe so we grabbed some spicy po’boys before heading off to ride Big Thunder Mountain. This was followed by the Nightmare Before Christmas themed Haunted Mansion, which I’m not sure I’d ever seen before and then we decided to risk Splash Mountain.

We realized that we had picked a great day to come. There were much smaller crowds and the weather was perfect – sunny and not too hot. And we were having a great time just hanging out and talking. Theoretically, we were supposed to be talking about writing but I think talking about life is talking about writing. So yeah, we went on Splash Mountain. And there are signs everywhere explaining you “may get wet.”

Heed those words my child!

By the time we got off the mountain, we were both soaked. As long as we were already wet, we booked a Lightning Lane ticket for Matterhorn and quickly rode that, seeing the incredibly lifelike animatronic yeti (which, evidently, has been in place for nearly a decade, but was new to me, so…)

And we still had time before we could pop over to Disney California Adventure to see the Avengers stuff.

Back to the hotel for a change of shoes and socks then, and to drop off the Princess Leia doll.

Back in the park, it was time to see what all the MCU fuss was about. Last time I had been here was 5 1/2 years earlier and they had a police precinct facade up, welcoming Captain America. Now, though, there was a whole area for Avengers adventuring. Needless to say, I was excited.

Our first stop was the rethemed “Tower of Terror,” now known as “Guardians of the Galaxy: Mission Breakout.” I’m not sure, I but I think it was more intense than the original.

Yes, we went on it. Yes, we enjoyed it. Yes, neither of us had any desire to go on it again.

We booked a Lightning Lane ticket for WEB Slingers and then just spent some time exploring the “Avengers Campus.” We saw a couple of character shows, oohed and awed at all the cool details and had a Shawarma for lunch. We also had our picture taken.

One of the other added bonuses for the Genie Pass is that it includes the photo pass. I’ve gotten this before, in Paris, but there, the Disney photogs are doing the character interactions or you can get the ride photos. Here, they had photographers set up at all the key locations to capture the shots everyone really wants to get. I took full advantage of this, getting a picture anytime I saw a cast member with a camera (much to Troy’s annoyance, I’m sure, since I kept dragging him into the pictures).

WEB Slingers is a ride like the “Midway Mania” over on Pixar Pier, but done using a gesture system, thwipping your hands like Spider-Man. It’s hard and fun and we would have done it a second time if the line hadn’t been crazy long.

We also hit up the “Soaring” ride. Soaring is a staple, opening with the park. But back then, it was “Soaring over California” where the ride would take you through various CA sights and sounds (and smells – they would pump in pine or citrus at appropriate moments). Now, it’s “Soaring over the World” and you get to feel like you’re flying over a number of world landmarks and once-in-a-lifetime scenes, like the elephants in the savannah (which also includes the smells of dirt and dried grass).

We ended with a dinner at Pym’s Test Kitchen and I got my sole souvenir of the day in the form of a beaker filled with an adult beverage (recommended by my friend Ailsa, who had been following my FB posts).

We headed back to the hotel where we could watch the park’s fireworks from the window in the room and pronounced the day a raging success!

January 18 – Back to Reality…

Wednesday morning we were off south to have breakfast with my friend Nancy and her daughter Nicolette. But not before we had a little conversation with the front desk at check out. The rooms were nice enough, but they had neglected to tell Troy when he was booking that they were under construction. When we had returned to change socks the day before, there was no water in the room. In the end, they comped the parking, which was a $60 savings over the three days we were there.

I’ve known Nancy since the Groundling Days and when I knew I was coming to Disney, she was one of my first phone calls. I hadn’t seen her since the last time we were all in America and (since she works for Disney) she facilitated taking Monki on her first Disneyland experience. And the first time I had met Nicolette was when she was touring Europe and used our place as a base of operations. Needless to say… a good friend!

Breakfast was at a place called Stacks, conveniently located across from a charging station and was some delicious food. And so much, none of us could finish it. Again, I was reminded of the portion sizes in the US and how different it was from back in LT. During the course of our conversation, I told them about my new project and that I had gotten a teleprompter. Nicolette mentioned she had recently become ordained in order to perform weddings but that having a teleprompter would be cool. Thus, “Ordained, with teleprompter” became the go-to business card phrasing.

Taking our leave, we headed back towards Vegas, stopping again in Victorville to have a coffee with Jennifer and were joined by her friend Isaac, an actor who had spent time with a theatre troupe near where Troy lives in Arizona. Naturally, the talk centered around travel and theatre and all sorts of cool things like that. When the car was charged up, we said our goodbyes and continued our journey. In a reverse of the start of the trip, we again stopped in Baker, but this time we walked down to Alien Fresh Jerky, a shop that started as a roadside stand selling dried meats and was now a tourist destination and building a hotel in what was ostensibly a ghost town.

By the time we got back to the folks’ house, they were ready to go out for dinner so Troy and I joined them. Off we went to Jerry’s Nugget where we met up with Faye’s family and Uncle Brian, my mom’s brother.

With the end of dinner, it was also time to say bye to Troy. It really was an amazing 60 or so hours and I just want to extend a huge thank you for coming to get me and indulging me in that adventure.

January 19-20 – Good-byes…

Thursday was my last day in Vegas and started rather early when I woke up in the middle of the night to be sick. Don’t know why, but there I was, bent double over the toilet. I got rid of whatever was making me feel ill and went back to bed for a while.

In the morning, mom once again had her meeting and then she and I went off to the credit union – this was becoming a regular Thursday thing. This time, I finally met Stephanie, who has been taking care of my account since the folks moved to this institution. We worked out a couple of financial things and she joked with me about my screen name – Captain Jaq.

“That certainly marks you as a certain age,” she said.

I laughed. Mom had no clue what we were talking about.

I explained about the Billy Joel song. Stephanie and I shared a knowing nod. Then I was able to deposit all my remaining American currency and we were good to go. Interestingly, ever since Covid, most places have been going contactless and the US was no exception. When we were in the UK last summer, there were places (like Paultons Park) which wouldn’t take cash at all and here, even at places like Disney, using cash was the outlier, causing a break in the routine (remember those old Visa commercials about how much smoother things went when you used plastic?). So now I was bereft of cash and ready to head back to Europe.

The one thing I hadn’t done was have an Arby’s sandwich. Back home I don’t get all that much fast food and what we have consist of McDonalds and Burger King so as long as I was on vacation, I wanted to have a taste of the decadence I had fond nostalgia for. Turns out, there was an Arby’s just down the street from the Credit Union so mom and I stopped there for a quick bite. Imagine my surprise when I discovered they no longer served potato cakes. You really can’t go home again.

Then it was back home to try and get everything into the two suitcases I had allotted. I had to make some hard choices about what to take and what to leave behind (including some comics I really wanted to bring back, but they would have to wait). Eventually, I did it. And got them underweight as well.

I didn’t have much else to do the rest of the afternoon, so mom and dad asked if I’d like to join them at lunch with several of their friends, including Ronnie Fox, who I play Words with Friends with on a daily basis. While it would be nice to meet them, it really wasn’t my scene. But then, when I asked where lunch was, it turned out it was around the corner from my friend Jim, who I was supposed to meat with earlier in the visit but timing was bad and it never happened. I sent him a quick text and sure enough he could make it! So I went with and got to meet the friends and then was able to sit and have a great conversation about the university and a catch up on old friends from the MFA program (which is where I met Jim). Everything works out. Also, I need to mention, Jim gave me a great compliment earlier in the week. When I posted a picture of me standing outside the T-Mobile Arena celebrating the Golden Knights Victory, Jim posted that “I’d rather watch paint dry, but your capacity to enjoy absolutely everything is infectious.” I’ll take that!

We headed home, grabbed the bags and then it was off to the airport (which was made slightly more complicated due to the closure of Tropicana for an 18-36 month widening to handle more traffic for the major league sports teams present and allegedly coming).

At the airport, curbside drop-off, things got unexpectedly emotional as I said good-bye. Mom cried and I cried and dad was outwardly stoic. We hugged and kissed and I headed in.

The flight itself was uneventful (thankfully) and I landed in London late afternoon on Friday. International flights certainly mess with your sense of time. I made one mistake on the trains, causing myself some extra grief trying to manage two heavy bags up and down elevators, but in the end, I made it back to Lin’s place where I gave her presents and told her all about my trip.

Then bed. I had no idea what was planned for the next week, but I figured I’d need some sleep for it.

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