12.16.2009

Roy E. Disney Sails Away


At face value, Roy E. Disney was such a strong connection to his uncle Walt, due to his striking resemblance to the man who created the magic. And he was a Disney, one of the few left that was a presence in the company. So even for those of us born long after Walt's death, we had this connection to the past in Roy. For a company that has grown to a massive behemoth, it was important to have something that felt more close to the heart. But beneath the charming and familiar exterior was a powerful man who helped shape the Disney company as it is today (and save it from potential ruin) and took a page from his uncle's book by helping to revitalize the company's animation department in the mid 1980s.

Unfortunately, today we lost our friend Roy E. Disney to cancer. It won't be the lead news story nor will it rank high among the tabloid-friendly deaths that have plagued the entertainment industry this year. But the impact of his death will be felt by a lot of people, because the impact of his LIFE was felt by so many people, most of whom never realized who he was or why he was so important.

Roy E. Disney was born in January 1930 to Walt's brother Roy O. and his wife Edna. After college, he joined the company as an assistant director and producer on Disney's True-Life Adventure series, an Academy Award-winning series of nature documentaries. Roy would notably depart the company in the late '70s due to issues with the corporate climate but maintained a seat at the board of directors which he would eventually leverage in his battle to Save Disney in the early '80s. This led to the ousting of CEO, and Walt's son-in-law, Ron Miller and the hiring of Michael Eisner and Frank Wells. Even though Walt Disney World, including its new second park EPCOT Center, had joined Disneyland in increasing the company's foothold in theme parks, there were still threats of hostile takeover and dwindling relevance in the very thing that launched the company--animation.

Roy Disney's efforts helped push the company in the right direction, which was no more evident than with the animation department, which he would head up. With the release of The Little Mermaid in 1989, the Disney Studios would enter a ten-year artistic renaissance which included hit films The Lion King, Aladdin and Oscar-nominated Beauty and the Beast. Accompanied by leaps and bounds made in the company's business dealings, as well as continued theme park growth, the renaissance in animation helped re-establish Disney's identity.

Ironically, Roy would wield another war against a CEO and one that he himself helped install! But in those 20 years since the company's renaissance, Disney had grown a little too corporate to Roy's liking. He took issue with what he saw was becoming a "soul-less" conglomerate while allowing the animation wing to once again fall in popularity and failure in theme park business. Perhaps the biggest issue though was Eisner's well-publicized dealings with Pixar, whose partnership with Disney had run out and was now looking for a bigger piece of what was an incredibly successful pie. Eisner scoffed and could never recover. Roy's efforts once again helped reshape Disney's executive structure

I never met the man but by all accounts he seems like the ultimate paradox: a beacon of whimsical, artistic family entertainment...who would put up as big a fight as needed to make sure Disney got back on track. If he had lived another 5 years, we may have eventually seen him get punchy again given Disney corporate's recent string of tradition-espousing, cutthroat maneuvers (i.e. supplanting a veteran of Disney AND Hollywood with the guy who brought us Hannah Montana). But he seems to have left the animation department, both 3D and 2D, in great hands with John Lasseter and Ed Catmull.

Roy was also an avid competitive sailor, something he was very successful at. It seems perhaps a little corny to make a reference to a great man sailing away into the sunset and over the horizon, into the great beyond. Almost like the type of imagery you might see in a classic Disney animated film. So maybe it's poignant. Either way, the Walt Disney Company is significantly less Disney now that Roy E. Disney has passed away.

10.16.2009

You've Got a Friend in 3D

While Pixar has been a pioneer in animated films for almost 15 years, 3D technology is something it can't stake claim to inventing or even reinventing. 3D has been around for eons and even its latest iteration has already been utilized by both animated films and live action movies. But the studio was wise to utilize the technology while also continuing its ongoing reign in animation.

Disney Digital 3-D has become more and more commonplace in not only Disney's animated films, but also some of its live action fare. Up was Disney-Pixar's first film foray into 3D, and one that I regrettably missed. In advance of their second offering, Toy Story 3, next summer, the studio went back into the series to offer up a double-feature of Toy Story and Toy Story 2 which is in a limited run (that actually has been extended).

Because neither movie was made with 3D in mind, there aren't many effects that purposely lend themselves to 3D. For the most part, Pixar has utilized the technology to add depth and vibrancy to movies that already had a large dose of it. However, those attributes are amplified significantly by the 3D rendering. Sure there are some "coming atcha!" scenes that translated nicely but there weren't any gags already in place to exploit the technology and forcefeeding those into the films would have undermined movies that delivered as much subtlety and nuance as they did razzle and dazzle.

And that is largely where 3D filmmaking is going. Last year I saw the U23D presentation which expertly mixed purposeful three-dimensionality with more immersive depth enhancement. The movie sought more to put you on stage than to just throw things at the viewer. Also, the preview for Disney and Robert Zemeckis' take on The Christmas Carol really showcased how well this film utilized every fiber of 3D technology and could end up being the best use of if yet. Clearly, filmmakers have finally found a way to resurrect the technology in a way that enhances the art. Since Pixar has never been about overt gags anyway, typically eschewing those for both story and the advancement of their art, it only makes sense that they would continue to let the stories do the talking.

As far as the movies go, there isn't a lot to be said here that hasn't been said in the many years since both first arrived on-screen. The movies really looked amazing on the big screen again, with enhancement that really made the movies seem fresh again. (Though back-to-back, it's evident how much the original animation technology improved from film to film.) With high definition televisions and Blu Ray technology invading homes, it's becoming more difficult for movie theaters to compete when it comes to visual clarity and vibrancy. 3D technology looks to be their best bet for reeling audiences in. (I would not have even considered going to see a 2D double-feature of these movies.) It also dawned on me that the sequence in Toy Story 2 where Woody attempts to retrieve his detached arm from a sleepy Al's pocket may very well be a landmark sequence in the history of animation. The detail of Al's skin and beard, and the cheese puffs, along with the framing, camera angles and drama of the sequence all add up to a very important moment in film history. So many competing film studios owe their livelihood to sequences like this.

Between the films, there was a cute 10-minute intermission that treated viewers who stuck around with trivia, bonus clips, and other odds and ends, all narrated by the characters. Some of this stuff has been available on DVD special features but was still a clever way to keep people engaged. And a trailer for Toy Story 3 played at the front end, clearly pointing towards another highly-anticipated Pixar event. (Based on how well-received stylized affairs like WALL-E and Up were, the third Toy Story film is a lock for big success next summer.)

While Pixar has dazzled both critically and artistically with every film they've released since the first Toy Story, and introduced a pantheon of characters that would've made Uncle Walt proud, for many there remains no more cherished a duo of icons than Woody and Buzz. Finding Nemo can speak to the love that young parents, the kind who were barely adults when Toy Story came out, have for their newborn families. WALL-E reminded us all to cherish everything from the ground we walk on to the loves of our lives. And Up recently went to the opposite end of the spectrum by focusing on a hero in the twilight of his life.

But the Toy Story films remind us about the purest of emotional connections: friendship. And by using toys as the protagonists of the story, the films created a deeper connection for many of us because it taps into that pure joy every child has for their playthings. Whether it is reminding us of our own wide-eyed youthful innocence or the connection we now make watching our own children grow before our eyes. And with good distance now between now and the release of that first Toy Story film, we are starting to see these Pixar films gain some serious nostalgic impact, much how the Disney Renaissance era films have had the last 10 years.

When I was younger, a few of my earliest toys were discarded at some point. Shortly after, I made a vow to not let that happen again. So when sports and girls started shoving aside G.I. Joes and Transformers, I made sure they didn't go far. In fact, some now adorn the mantles of my man cave, as not only a full embrace of my youth, but also an acknowledgement and acceptance of my enjoyment of these things even as I contemplate career issues and mortgage payments.

Now I have a confession to make. Some of those old toys are still in storage, in my in-laws basement. They have been gradually making their way to my house with each trip down. Buzz Lightyear and Woody are sadly stashed away in one of those bins, a cruel and ironic fate that perhaps marked a certain defeat of my own innocence a few years ago. Anybody who knows me could tell you that even after 35 years, I'm one of the last people to ditch childhood nostalgia. (I mean, I run a website about Disney and another about the '80s!) But as we grow, we are victims of things as varying as perception, semantics and real estate.

So as if it is the plot of one of their many adventures (of course, when we aren't watching), I am going to make sure they find their way back home, and into the great wide open. Not only as my friends, but hopefully to one day have a friend in my own children.

9.13.2009

Tales of Folly from D23


The inaugural D23 Expo turned out to be amazing convention based on reports that came from California over the weekend. For those of us who did not get to fly to Anaheim for the convention, we huddled around Twitter and Facebook reports gawking at the neverending list of surprises, gifts, and just the shear volume of talent assembled at the convention. (I wonder how many naysayers are still screaming about the ridiculous yearly membership fees for D23?) Perhaps one day there may end up being a folly among the announcements, but for now, the future looks bright.

The first few days of the convention focused on company and movie news, and other presentations with some big names stopping in to help promote their collaborations including (but not limited to) John Travolta, Nicolas Cage, Miley Cyrus, Tim Burton and Robert Zemeckis. The latter two directors were there to promote a few highly-anticipated films such as Alice in Wonderland, A Christmas Carol and an update of The Beatles' Yellow Submarine. Johnny Depp even showed up in full Captain Jack Sparrow costuming to promote a 2011 release of the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean film (On Stranger Tides). Clearly Disney was taking a cue from the San Diego ComiCon, which in recent years has become a successful way for studios to connect to a fervent fanbase, generating interest for movies long before the usual promotional machines kick up.



The weekend also included extended looks at the upcoming Princess and the Frog animated film, announcements of film projects such as a new Winnie the Pooh feature and the Cheapest Muppet Movie Ever Made, and updates to previously-announced features such as Toy Story 3, The Bear and the Bow, Rapunzel and Cars 2.

All hands were on deck at the convention as Disney animators, storytellers, Imagineers, Legends and executives were all part of the show. Between Walt Disney Pictures, Walt Disney Animation Studios and Pixar, the next few years look chock full of some very exciting films, animated, live-action and a mix of the two! Business-side, it's clear that Disney has plenty of profit to look forward to, with a number of films with franchise potential and a lot of family entertainment. Admittedly, it may not all be my cup of tea, but it's exciting to see that the studios are collaborating with both mainstream hit-makers and critically-acclaimed artists. And Bob Iger seems to be leading the entire company towards a greater connect with fans, as seen by the obvious success and presence of the D23 Expo.

Perhaps the biggest news to come from the expo was the announcement of the Fantasyland expansion coming to the Magic Kingdom in 2012 and 2013. Though rumored over the summer, this was Disney's first official unveiling of plans and news about the expansion. The expansion will serve to create mini themed-areas based on the Disney Princesses, as well as a Pixie Hollow section based on the Fairies franchise. The plans call for immersive experiences with the Princesses based on settings from the movies, such as Sleeping Beauty's cottage, a country chateau with Cinderella, and Belle's villa. Additionally, Beast's castle will be home to the Be Our Guest Restaurant, a much-needed eatery for the restaurant-deficient Magic Kingdom. There are also plans for Gaston's Tavern. (Total details are still pretty vague at this point and the plans seem to imply that there may be smaller aspects at each of the lands to fill in all the spaces between). Additionally, Dumbo is growing in size to include an interactive three-ring circus tent. Phew.



The Magic Kingdom's Fantasyland concept always fell flat with me. The architecture is very uninspired; perhaps it worked back in the '70s but now it looks incredibly outdated or just cheap. In comparison, Disneyland's treatment of Fantasyland is far superior in architecture and more fully realized with bigger spaces and more rides. The crime of it all is that Walt Disney World has had the space to expand, even in smaller phases. But so much of the land they are now expanding to was filled with meet-and-greets and the inexplicable contraction of the Fantasyland's largest ride (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea). I know that Mickey's Toontown Fair had appeal for families with young children but it has provided nothing for me as an adult but a place to completely skip past in an effort to maximize the more appealing rides in the rest of the park. So I'm not going to be one to shed a tear for the land's merging with a larger Fantasyland.

Fantasyland often has the longest lines, particularly at it's a small world and Peter Pan's Flight, which creates a very large volume of guests in a concentrated area. If anything, the plans for the Fantasyland expansion certainly look like they'll only add even more volume to the area. However, dispersing crowds into all of these new sub-areas should help alleviate flow. (Though I imagine in its initial opening, the entire area is going to be difficult to navigate as crowds will be heavy.)

Though it remains to be seen how this will affect Disney as a business decision, it at least seems an extremely savvy choice. They've had the Princesses line for young girls for many years now so not only might these areas appeal to those girls as they've grown up, but will just provide more reason for the uninitiated. And I can attest that a great way to hook young families is appealing to the parents' own fandom of The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin. These were the movies of my generation, the now dominant target demographic for vacationers, so it won't just be the young sons and daughters anxious to see Beast's castle, but even thirtysomethings who grew up with the movie and have wanted to see Disney start giving its second animated renaissance the same architectural and ride treatment that the original masterpieces have had for years.

For me, looking at the artist's rendering of the expansion gave me a real sense of excitement that I haven't had for WDW since Animal Kingdom's opening. For years, Disney has been mostly developing new rides to replace existing rides or to fit into undeveloped areas. I don't deny that these are sometimes enough to generate enough desire to return to the parks to see the new buzz (or as the case may be, the new Buzz). It has been quite a while since the company has significantly renovated or expanded an entire land. And it's certainly been longer since that could be said for the Magic Kingom (since the Tomorrowland renovations were mostly visual, the last I can think of would've been the addition of the Mountains to Frontierland).

The rendering is beautiful and epic. (It is obviously still subject to change whether it be from economic concerns or practical issues that might arise with ride or structure development.) It really looks like the Disney Imagineers were able to finally let loose on the Fantasyland concept, even if it is in keeping with the company's Princesses and Fairies marketing efforts. The addition of the castle wall, along with the designs of The Little Mermaid attraction and the Beauty and the Beast area are remarkable, appealing to both children and we older Disney fans. I personally haven't felt a reason to linger too long in Fantasyland in my last few visits; it became a mostly surgical operation, darting to preferred rides while mostly avoiding anything with a long line. (As mentioned earlier, the land's architecture, other than a few areas and the castle, doesn't leave a lot of reason to gawk at structures or happily get caught in a 40-minute long queue.


Artist's rendering of new Little Mermaid attraction in expanded Fantasyland

While I'm hoping to get to Walt Disney World in 2010, perhaps getting one last visit in before starting my own family, I'm already getting excited about bringing that family to a whole new land of fantasy later in the decade.

In other long awaited news, it was announced that Star Tours would finally get an upgrade in 2011 (in both Disneyland and Disney's Hollywood Studios). The ride will upgrade to 3D technology along with new film of the vast collection of Star Wars planet locales. The preview video (as seen below) indicates that the Podracing on Tatooine (from Episode I) will be featured but some literature suggests that the ride will also visit other locales (as has always been hoped given the story concept of Star Tours).

The execution of this upgrade obviously remains to be seen. The ride has lost a bit of its luster in recent years, even to the notoriously die-hard Star Wars enthusiasts. There's only so much of the same Death Star trench seen once could take, especially in increasingly outdated vehicle technology. However, the Star Wars franchise remains popular and relevant, with an animated series entering its second season, a live-action TV series looming, and the consistent lure of the popular merchandising. (The ride pre-dates the prequels so now has twice as many movie locales and action sequences to tap into.) For many, including myself, the only change I've ever wanted to see was the ability to explore other realms of the Star Wars mythos. So I hope it's not confined to just the Podrace sequence but hopefully sequences from Hoth, Endor, Naboo, and Geonosis (as well as the many space battles from the original and prequel trilogies).



One can only assume that this is an indication that the relationship between Disney and George Lucas remains a happy relationship. Whether this will have any affect on updating the Indiana Jones Stunt Spectactular remains to be seen. (As successful as the recent Indiana Jones movie was, I don't know that it necessarily featured enough iconic segments to warrant highlighting over those iconic scenes currently reenacted at the show.)

Disney's California Adventure's upgrades were also given updates, though the details of these have been widely reported for a few years now.

Much thanks for DisneyPictures, DisneyParks and Lou Mongello's Twitter feeds which were updated throughout the entire expo and were my source for all the news coming out of Anaheim.

8.31.2009

Tales of Folly (August 31, 2009)

In an otherwise slow news morning, many woke up to the big news of Disney's purchase of Marvel Entertainment, the home of such superheroes as Spider-Man, the Hulk, Captain America and the X-Men. The exact details of the purchase have not yet been released but the sale has been reported at $4 billion. Given Marvel Studios' recent fortunes with the popularity of Iron Man and the announcement of similar approaches to their stable of Avengers such as Thor and Captain America to come in the next few years, the purchase would appear to be largely influenced by the cinematic success of Marvel's character, not their print origins.

Still, most of Marvel's iconic characters were licensed to other film studios in deals made prior to the purchase. Spider-Man resides at Sony, where two sequels are reportedly being developed. The X-Men and Fantastic Four (as well as associated characters such as Wolverine, Deadpool, and the Silver Surfer) are under contract with 20th Century Fox. Marvel Studios self-produced Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk but did so through distribution deals with Paramount and Universal Studios, respectively. It's not likely that these studios would look to be bought out of their deals given the fiscal reward awaiting them in sequels. That could mean that Disney would have to wait until those deals run their course before the characters return to Walt Disney Pictures. (Though at that point, they would run the risk of superhero burnout.)

That being said, Marvel's characters still have an appeal in all aspects of licensing, including toys, video games, cartoons and various merchandising. (And theoretically they would still have a part of the profit from the movies made in those aforementioned deals.) But what of where it all started, the comic books?

The comic book community is responding with requisite worry and concern, mostly based on stereotypical response to Disney's oft-referenced values. Many fans seem to think that Disney is suddenly going to force its values into Marvel's fictional world, rendering a lot of the grit and edge moot. Many seem to forget that Disney has owned Miramax Pictures, home to Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill, among other R-rated fare. Still, the comic book industry has always fought a certain image problem as many still see it as a child's medium when in reality it is dominated by a fervent, adult fanbase. Would Disney risk alienating that core fanbase? Nobody really knows.

Like the aforementioned film deals, there is some buzz about what this means for Universal Studio's Islands of Adventure, where Marvel Super Hero Island has been wowing guests for years. There hasn't been any confirmation about how this will affect that deal, though I would imagine its most likely that the characters would stay there until the deal runs out. It may hurt Universal to essentially promote characters that are now owned by their rival theme park, but they would run the risk of losing some of their most popular attractions. Not to mention, Universal Studios has been home to franchises produced by rival film studios (most notably, Terminator and Harry Potter).

It can be anywhere from fun to frustrating to theorize what this means but it may be tough for anyone to really grasp the answer to that, even as noted Disney and Marvel executives start releasing statements and details.

As a fan of both companies, I do have some concern about too much corporate synergy. It worked for Pixar's characters because they were always created with Disney influence. However, I don't know that I'd want to see Spider-Man marching down Main Street, U.S.A. in a parade. And while my beliefs are this won't happen, I would have a lot of concern if Disney stuck their noses into Marvel Studios' business, especially given how hard Marvel has strived to free themselves from the type of studio interference that has undermined the quality of their franchises at other studios. (Marvel is trying to create a synergistic film world that mirrors the comic books allowing characters to intercross films.) I guess if nothing else it will be interesting to keep an eye on this new relationship.

8.09.2009

Celebrating Forty Years of Foolish Mortals and Grim Grinning Ghosts

Photo courtesy of Disneyland

On August 9th, 1969, the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland made its much anticipated, long-awaited "soft" opening much to the delight of fans who had seen the antebellum mansion looming over New Orleans Square since 1963 with promise of fright that awaited inside. But the ghost host denied entry for years. (The delay was only partially due to imagineering changes, and mostly because Disney focused a lot of its attention on their famed exhibits at the New York World's Fair in 1964-1965). Sadly, shortly after the Fair, Walt himself passed on before seeing projects, particularly two so closely associated with him, open to the masses. (Walt's presentations on TV helped hype the opening of the Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean.) To this day, the Haunted Mansion continues as one of Disney's most iconic and beloved rides.


In my only trip to Disneyland, the Haunted Mansion was sadly closed for renovations which was a major letdown for me as this was one of my most anticipated ventures. I have always loved the Walt Disney World version and loved enjoyed checking out the flagship versions of all the attractions shared by both parks. Alas, I'll have to "hurry back" to the old haunt in the future.

The attraction would officially open on August 12, 1969, which also happens to be the day my brother was born! So a Happy 40th birthday from one foolish mortal to another, and a Scary Birthday to Disney's Haunted Mansion. (Cue the evil laughter.)

8.08.2009

Pixel Hollow: Magical Gateways


This isn’t a revelatory photograph but I like the clumsy symbolism of the ancient torii gate (in front of the Japan pavilion at Epcot) looking towards the futuristic Spaceship Earth. Even at the rather na├»ve age of 17, I was keen on the Disney Imagineers’ skill in not only designing individual attractions or pavilions, but how they framed them with the rest of the parks.

My affinity for Japanese culture probably had its very minimal beginnings here as it was one of my favorite pavilions, probably dazzling my imagination with thoughts of ninjas or samurai. However, it would be another decade before I truly came to appreciate the Japanese dining experience (i.e. hibachi, tempura and sushi). Perhaps I should bring this picture with me to Sushi Boy!

7.27.2009

The Lefts and Rights of Passage

Some Disney tipsters insist that if given the option at a Disney theme park attraction of two separate lines, most people will veer to the right as most are generally right-handed and it’s a psychological instinct to stay to that side. Therefore if you're looking to get through the line quicker, you should choose the left side. I don't know if that's ever been officially supported nor can I even use myself as a test since despite being right-handed, I defer to my left on almost everything other than writing. But it raises an even bigger question on a larger scale…which direction are we inclined to go when visiting Disney theme parks? Are people more inclined to go to the left or the right inMagic Kingdom, Epcot, etc.? In this case, going to the left would follow the natural clockwise progression of a circle whereas going to the right would run counter-clockwise but would appeal to the vast majority’s handedness. However, I don't know that human nature is so in tune with the circular notion of a clock. After all, in America we drive around traffic circles counter-clockwise and sit on the left side of the car!


Does this ancient map hold the key to going left vs. right?


The Magic Kingdom is Disney’s second theme park and is based on the popular layout of Disneyland, which if you didn't know, I'd be shocked that you're reading this blog. While there are certainly enough differences in the two, the basic concept places most of the lands in exactly the same locations around the hub. Since my first visit at 8-years-old, I cannot recall ever visiting and going towards Fantasyland or Tomorrowland first. Walking down Main Street, U.S.A., we would always take that first left into Adventureland. Starting at the Jungle Cruise, our vacations would almost always move clockwise until we left Tomorrowland. Of course, in the early days, my family would head back to the resort at lunch for a dip in the pool and some relaxation before returning to the park at lunch. The next few years with Epcot, we’d even balance the two sometimes alternating. It wasn’t until some later, truncated visits, where my friends and I started moving at quicker paces to fit in as much as possible. Sure we were returning the next day or later in the week, but that just meant riding Big Thunder Mountain or Pirates of the Caribbean multiple times!



The first steps towards adventure! Photo Credit: Beaster725


My mind is etched with memories so vivid that I can see the reveal of many of the Magic Kindgom’s lands, rides and icons from only specific vantage points. We always came up to Space Mountain after passing the Indy Speedway on the left. Big Thunder Mountain (and later Splash Mountain) was always revealed after rounding that corner by El Pirata y el Perico. We approached the Haunted Mansion after passing the Rivers of America on the left. In those rare times where we’ve gone against the grain due to FastPass or late-day zigzagging back to favorites, I become virtually disoriented approaching from different angles. (Oddly enough, though, I can see Pirates of the Caribbean from both approaches as our family’s love for the ride often took us there from any angle.) I don’t know if it’s because of the combination of great theming and balance of adventurous rides in both Adventureland and Frontierland, or if it’s just some internal inclination to move clockwise around the hub.


Epcot is a slightly trickier layout to analyze. Its figure-eight layout actually creates an anomaly on the hub-and-spoke design. In Future World, you branch out from the Innoventions Plaza into East and West mini-hubs allowing you to easily branch directly to all of the pavilions on either side. However, it doesn't make for a smooth circular path around the pavilions. You could certainly attempt this but it makes for an awkward flow since neither Universe of Energy nor The Seas are exactly the type of attractions that warrant immediate visiting. Additionally, the proximity of the pavilions to each other lends itself to a zig-zag approach when FastPass strategizing Mission: SPACE and Soarin’.


For many years, we'd kick off at Spaceship Earth before heading, of course, left towards Horizons and World of Motion, a must-see tandem during their heyday. We’d eventually make our way across the central promenade to Journey Into Imagination, then onto The Land and the Living Seas, basically going in order of ride and pavilion preference. The older iteration of Universe of Energy fit in there somewhere but my access to those memories is restricted as I tend to get aches in my feet and pass-out for 45 minutes upon remembering.



The first country to see in World Showcase. Photo Credit: Jason Pratt


In World Showcase there is no hub unless you don’t mind swimming into the middle of Showcase Lagoon, which does not have a partners statue or wait time board. Other than taking a boat across the lagoon, you have to either go clockwise or counterclock wise. In my many years of visiting Epcot, I don’t think I’ve ever once started in Canada and went around counterclockwise. The concept of even doing this is inconceivable to me. In my mind, that is the natural flow of World Showcase, supported by the disparate groups of people I’ve gone to Epcot with. Yet certainly there are guests who do so, roaming until they end in Mexico. How? Yo no se.


Because of the lagoon, World Showcase might be the hardest Disney land or park to hop around. Even with dining reservations, it’s typically smart to keep moving forward or backward. Best to plot out the timing of your circular travels so that you arrive in that country right on time for your meal. Your feet will not last long if you go right from the United Kingdom to Norway and then onto to Japan.


Disney’s Hollywood Studios has the most unconventional layout of Disney theme parks, skewing from the hub-and-spoke format in deference to a more studios-themed layout. Also, the “lands’ are likely the least associated of all the theme parks. I don’t know many people who plot out their trip to the Studios via lands the way they would say Future World East, Frontierland or Africa.

My first trip to the Studios, back when the Disney was suffixed with MGM instead of Hollywood, there really was nowhere to go but left. Here awaited the Indiana Jones Stunt Spectacular and Star Tours whereas heading the other direction off Hollywood Boulevard led you to a Backlot Tour through costuming! Needless to say, we could not make that left hook any faster. Of course, soon thereafter Sunset Boulevard would open which finally gave the right side its due with The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror awaiting at the end of the boulevard. Not only was this now the definitive ride of Disney-MGM Studios, but it was (and still is) one of most highly-anticipated of attractions at Walt Disney World, certainly the type of ride you'd want to beat the lines to. And yet, in my trips since then, we've almost always gone to the left first. It could be that the two-fer of Tower of Terror and the Rock 'n' Roller Coaster is best saved for a more settled stomach and not one still carrying around breakfast. Also, better to time your trip down Sunset Boulevard when the usual afternoon thunderstorm arrives. That type of nature makes for great background scenery in the Twilight Zone.



Echo Lake at Disney's Hollywood Studios. Photo Credit: steve-stevens


Thereafter the park becomes difficult to navigate in a strict clockwise fashion as there are not only so many corridors to intersect "lands" but so much of your visit is dictated by showtimes. It truly is the park most conducive to zigzagging. It may also be Disney’s poorest park layout as well as my poorest example of the left-leaning theory. My disinterest in the Lights, Motors, Action! stunt show and the growing irrelevance of the dwindling backlot tour makes much of the back end of DHS an area I’d be likely to skip (if not for Toy Story Mania) in my next visit. That said, I’m taking that first left and not stopping until I find the AT-AT.


My only visits to Animal Kingdom were before the completion of Expedition Everest so the East side of the park didn’t lend itself to immediacy the way the northwestern part did. Not only is the Kilimanjaro Safari one of the top E-ticket attractions at Animal Kingdom, it also has the added aspect of being a more appropriate ride at certain hours given the animals' social behavior.


So why skip Camp Minnie-Mickey, the first of the lands to the left? Well for one there isn't much there to see, especially for adults. (And the Festival of the Lion King is probably better to catch later on after you hit the big rides.) But it's also oddly located. When you first cross that bridge and land on Discovery Island, your inclination is to keep heading forward and past the Tree of Life. Camp Minnie-Mickey is tucked away in the direction of the exit to the park you just entered!


Much like Tower of Terror, I might still be inclined to build up to Expedition Everest and start off in the architectural wonder of Africa and the serenity of spending your morning with the wild life. Better to seek out the Yeti with a more settled stomach.


When I visited Disneyland in 2006, I first arrived during an early opening where only select lands were open which precluded me from heading to Adventureland on the left as per my internal compass. This meant a very unfamiliar passage around the clock backwards in a park not quite my own. I went against all that is logical to me and visited Tomorrowland first and took Space Mountain as my first ride. (On an empty stomach!) Typically in visits to WDW, Space Mountain was a late day ride, an almost mythical journey that would only let you in once you believed all the other magic first (this is of course, in the later years when I was no longer scared to ride it). And throttling through space is not necessarily the way you want to start your day, lest your equilibrium be thrown askew and make for a suddenly dizzying flight with Peter Pan shortly thereafter! Nevertheless, I survived the experience and continued on to Fantasyland to visit another mountain, the Matterhorn. The benefit of riding two of Disneyland’s most popular attractions quite quickly certainly outweighed the foreign counterclockwise experience. Once the rest of park opened, I crossed the hub and into the arms and torches of the familiar Adventureland. (In subsequent days, I slipped right back into routine winding the clock from 9 onward.)


When I crossed the promenade into Disney’s California Adventure, I also made the rare right turn to ensnare a short wait time on Soarin’ and perhaps grab a FastPass or early ride on Grizzly River Run. While the former was a success, I could not climb the latter as it was closed for renovations that day. Alas, I would not be getting soaked on a chilly February morning. Perhaps it was for the best. I rounded the run and headed back to the Hollywood Pictures Backlot.



The Hollywood Pictures Backlot at DCA. Photo Credit: California Bear


DCA, similar to Hollywood Studios, is a little difficult to navigate as per the usual hub-and-spoke passage. Grizzly Peak and Paradise Bay create more natural areas to circulate than the areas of DHS. However, the Backlot and parts of a bug’s land are dead-ended leaving you no other way to get out but the way you came in. With The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, the underrated Mike and Sully to the Rescue and the agelessly-appealing Muppet*Vision 3D in the Backlot, there is much to draw you to the left upon entering the park. While I don’t chagrin DCA the way popular opinion does, it definitely isn’t a park with anywhere near the drawing power of its older sibling across the way. This is mostly due to the fact that Paradise Pier doesn’t do much for a visitor from New Jersey, a mecca for the types of rides and feel that the land succeeds at portraying, which is always what I sought Disney as an alternative for.


Go West, young man? Errr, maybe. Unlike Disneyland, which despite being different than WDW, still is very much the same in basic hub-and-spoke layout, I cannot forge a proper left vs. right analysis of DCA with just one trip there. With an expansion on the way, I pledge to return and see where my internal compass takes me. Though right now, I'd probably be inclined to head to the left, because it really has never let me down.


What say you, dear reader(s)? Does your compass lead your left or do you counter the natural direction of a clock? Or do you think there’s really no pattern and this is just all just whimsical nonsense?



7.09.2009

Mickey Mouse Watchtower: Gateways and Kingdoms

For anyone who’s ever been to both the Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World and the flagship kingdom in Disneyland, it’s always fun to compare attractions, architecture or entertainment that is shared in both parks. Many even have an impassioned stance about “their” park but I choose to respect both interpretations. To me, I like to use “All Along the Watchtower” as a metaphor. The song, originally written and performed by Bob Dylan, was popularized by Jimi Hendrix’s interpretation. Whether you like either artist or their version of their song, you cannot deny their impact on popular music. And you wouldn’t find many rock critics saying one is inferior to the other. There is a place for both. And that was my feeling after seeing both parks. I could compare and contrast all I wanted, but ultimately I thought both kingdoms to be magical. With Mickey Mouse Watchtower, I'm going to talk about those common experiences side by side and try to be objective when weighing the better of the two.

I thought it would be great to kick-off this series the way any guest would start their vacation with Disney—the arrival at the park, the very unveiling of the magic. To me, some of the best memories come before you’re even halfway down Main Street, U.S.A.


Photo Credit: Joe Penniston


Arriving at Disneyland and Walt Disney World are two distinct experiences that have been detailed for many years in describing the isolated expansiveness of the latter in contrast to the former’s placement amidst encroaching city development. You know the story by now: Walt purchased the real estate in Florida under dummy corporations to avoid an increase in land value (that would come with the prospect of a theme park opening in central Florida). But he was buying more land than the company ever planned on using, in part to harbor all his visions (i.e. the original EPCOT) and also to keep away the same type of leeches who surrounded his first kingdom in Anaheim. As such, the very first sights you see at each resort are vastly different than each other.


At the Walt Disney World resort today, you know what to expect as the highway signs point you along your way. You crane your neck to see certain park icons or hotels looming over tall trees, whether it is the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, Spaceship Earth or the top of Typhoon Lagoon’s Mount Mayday. On certain roads, you are joined by monorail tracks sending guests to and fro Epcot. But when it was just the Magic Kingdom, the magic was very much a shrouded mystery, tucked far back on the property.


I first visited Walt Disney World in 1982 and was thus able to experience visiting the resort before its first wave of significant expansion. At that point, our first glimpse of the magic was the spires of Cinderella’s Castle and Space Mountain across Seven Seas Lagoon from our hotel, the Polynesian Resort. It was almost like we had actually visited a kingdom, relegated to our quarters within distant view of the castle, awaiting our trip to see the king. That king was Mickey Mouse and we were transported not by horse but by a futuristic monorail. Every step of the way unveiled more of the magic before you were fully immersed in it, walking down that monorail platform to the entrance way, perhaps catching your first glimpse of a character (in the days when they were allowed to roam free). The anxiousness of getting through the line and gate and underneath the railroad station.


We are often told about how the Imagineers set up a guest’s experience entering the park, with the preview posters, the story in Main Street, U.S.A.’s architecture and then finally the reveal of the castle (whether it be Sleeping Beauty’s or Cinderella’s). But we don’t hear enough about the imagineering of the entire resort as part of the show. The hotels, the transportation, and the general lay of the land are all part of the experience, whether you’re a young child or an aging adult. My first four stays (during impressionable years) at WDW all took place along the monorail loop which built a foundation for this vacation experience.


Photo Credit: Athena1970

That included the walk through the hotel grounds to the monorail station, catching glimpse of all the architecture and theming of the resort as you hurry towards the destination. There is something nostalgic now about those monorail station waits, especially in comparison to the uninspired, tortuous bus-station waits one must endure at most of the resorts today. Then you’re on the memorable loop with the unforgettable Jack Wagner spiel and views of Seven Seas Lagoon, before finally arriving and rushing down the ramp to the gates of Magic Kingdom.


Off the monorail and towards the MK gates! Photo Credit: Joe Shlabotnik


(In my recent trips to the World, hotel stays were distant from the parks, only reachable via bus or rental car. Sure, I was happy just to be there at all but the lodging loses quite a bit of luster when you’re forced to utilize the type of transportation you would take commuting to your job!)


In the 27 years since my first visit, I’ve exhibited significant physical and internal growth and seen life grow into the complex challenge that adulthood brings you. But in that time, the heightened, eager anticipation of arriving at Disney World has not changed. The only difference now is the size of the ticket and camera that I’m eagerly grasping for. As jaded as I might be at any given moment in life, when I’m getting off that monorail, I’m practically yearning to just sprint through the gates and on towards Adventureland. It’s as inexplicable to me as it is to naysayers, but a long time ago I chose not to question this type of nostalgia and rather embrace it vividly. This is why our collective fandom flourishes on the Internet; because many of you know exactly what I'm talking about, making me feel slightly less strange.


Outside of Mickey and Friends Parking. Photo Credit: DTrigger05


Disneyland may not have the same mysterious, expansive borders but arriving there was just as wonderful. I distinctly recall waking up early, the happy result of the previous day’s jet lag. With my wife elsewhere on business, I ventured North on the 5 in a rental car, to the sounds of a Golden State-themed mix CD I had created for the trip. It was colder than I had expected in Southern California. I had my directions on the passenger seat and headed to Disneyland for the first time. The year was 2006 and I was 8 years old again inside the body of a 31-year-old.


How thrilling it was to be driving along a California highway with all the typical city sights lining either side of the road and then suddenly catch a glimpse of the Tower of Terror and Space Mountain rising above the Anaheim skyline. Unlike the subtle slow unveiling of its younger Floridian sister, Disneyland just suddenly emerges from the cityscape. I pulled off my exit with childlike glee and made my way to the Mickey and Friends parking garage, with a quick tram ride to the entrance plaza. I knew I was arriving much earlier than the park opened but felt that it would give me time to check out the entrance plaza and a bit of Downtown Disney. However, it turned out that this particular day was an early opening so I was able to get into the park right away.


A view of the plaza outside of DCA and Disneyland. Photo Credit: Loren Javier

My early entrance allowed me to take some fairly clean photographs of the castle, the Matterhorn, Space Mountain and the partners statue (a picture which acts as part of the banner of this website). It also allowed me to get some popular rides out of the way before the morning rush arrived. Not only did I have immense joy in seeing this park for the first time, but I felt like a kid in an abandoned candy shop. (Such was the benefit of visiting Disneyland on a Thursday in February.) But as big a memory as my arrival inside of the park is, that whole experience of getting there is equally as strong for me.


The first thing I saw after entering the gates of Disneyland.


While I can’t speak from experience on all manners of arrival, I assume for many guests, they arrived within clear view of the resort, whether via nearby lodging or the three official hotels. I don’t know if the monorail loop had the same effect. When I rode it, I certainly appreciated the inherent majesty and history behind the transportation line but it’s simply not presented with the same intentions as the Disney World line, mostly due to both the lack of great distance between the park and the hotels, but also the line’s intention as more novelty than practical transportation.


It’s almost impossible not to compare the kingdoms but I never quite understood the need to debate them as if one was far superior (or inferior). When I was younger, I distinctly recall reading about Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Forbidden Eye and feeling like I had to get there to see it. As I got older and started becoming more immersed in the history behind not only Walt himself but his theme parks, I knew that I’d have to one day check out Disneyland. And when I visited, even having variations of many of the rides and the Kingdom itself, I still had that feeling of wide-eyed excitement as I approached the park. Now in retrospect, as much as I can make comparisons and judgments, I not only have a sense of nostalgia for Disneyland but I would love to return there, even if that desire isn’t as frequent as the one I have for Disney World.


As far as arrivals, visiting Disneyland showed me that the nostalgia of the Disney vacation experience can supersede those moments just within the resorts and reach into every facet of your vacation. My Disneyland experience broke through the insulated barriers of previous Disney World experiences and entailed the type of adult responsibilities that were invisible in my childhood visits. Only three years later, I can look back at something as pedestrian as a rental car trip on a freeway as part of wonderful nostalgia. Yeah, the destination is what it was all about and if Disneyland or Walt Disney World weren't such wonderful places, all that other stuff would've disappeared in our minds. But when I long for my return to either park, I daydream of the entire experience and one of those strongest visions is seeing myself on that monorail approaching the Magic Kingdom station or driving that rental car into Mickey and Friends parking garage. Because like in real life, they are portals to experiences that never stop fueling the imagination.


7.03.2009

Fabled Tables: The Bengal and The Gumbo

When I visited Disneyland for the first time in winter 2006, I made my first morning ventures alone as my wife was in Anaheim on business (which conveniently provided room and board for the long weekend). This allowed me to not only move at my own pace but to also take some great liberties with my eating options. Of course, I did my homework and printed out menus from AllEars.net to plan my attack. My first day in Disneyland had me hungry for lunch sooner than I expected and with menus in mind, I headed towards Adventureland and New Orleans Square.


I had been awaiting the day’s opening of the Bengal Barbecue which seemed to be operating on some sort of delay, so I busied myself with picture-taking, strolls through the Square and ventures into Frontierland and Critter Country. I finally decided to check out the Royal Street Veranda as hunger persisted. Guests were walking away from the counter with something that looked quite interesting and tasty so I decided to give it a try. I had never tried gumbo before I walked into New Orleans Square and was feeling caught up in the spirit. Also, it was a brisk late January day which made the prospect of hot soup a little more palatable than one might imagine for Southern California.


Photo Credit: Loren Javier


The Royal Street Veranda prepares their steak gumbo in a sourdough bread bowl. I knew of this popular preparation of certain hearty soups but had never tried it this way. Not only was the gumbo a delightful taste, but the actual act of eating it was just as enjoyable. The gumbo “broth” soaked the bread bowl which elevated the concept of bread with soup to a whole new level for me. The gumbo has just the right kick, the type of Cajun spice you expect. (The Royal Street Veranda also offers vegetable gumbo and clam chowder in the breadbowls as well as New Orleans fritters.)



Photo credit: KateMonkey


Needless to say, they finally opened up Bengal Barbecue later that day and I was able to get my hands on the bacon-wrapped asparagus Safari Skewer, One of a long line of foods that taste amazing with bacon wrapped around it! I also partook in the Bengal Beef skewer, an equally tasty treat. But nothing could beat the Safari Skewer for me. I had only recently discovered asparagus as that rare appetizing green vegetable so sorely missing in my life. And you know the best way to eat your greens is to wrap fat around them! I could eat a dozen skewers if given the time and money. They made for the perfect light snack, allowing for sampling of other foods and keeping the appetite for dinnertime.



Photo credit: Brave Heart


The next day, I again revisited the park alone, this time making my way to Disney’s California Adventure. With gumbo and skewers behind me, I had every intention of sampling DCA’s fare but their lunch options were simply not as tempting. So I hopped over to Disneyland and went for the one-two punch, picking up a Safari Skewer as an appetizer for another round of gumbo. They were just as good the second time around and I had no regret for repeating this lunch option (despite my limited time in Disneyland).


When I finally returned to the park with my wife in tow, I was able to lure her to join me in one more round of Safari Skewers. She soon understood what all my crowing was about, enjoying the skewers herself, which is particularly funny now as she’s the epitome of nutrition and health, and hasn’t touched bacon in years!


While we could go on to enjoy the Royal Street Veranda’s neighbors, the French Market and the Blue Bayou, as well as a fine dining experience at the now defunct Vineyard Room over at DCA, I still cherished the tastes and experience of these unique counter services. Disney theme parks are often full of clones of basic, unimaginative American fare so it’s nice when you can find a lunch stand that serves something distinctive and unavailable elsewhere in that park or resort. Ultimately, you’re going to get a finer dining experience at a table service restaurant with theme and presentation adding to your appreciation of a high quality meal. But as is often the case with Disney theme parks, sometimes it’s those little pleasures that define our memories of a given day or trip. For me, two of those little pleasures are the Royal Street Veranda and Bengal Barbecue. I don’t know when I’ll ever get back to Disneyland but I know where I’ll be eating lunch when I do!


Eventually, I returned home eager to find out more about gumbo. I’ve found that restaurants all have distinct versions of gumbo, many of which left something to be desired. I still haven’t found that perfect match. Believe it or not, I have found the best substitute to be Chunky soup’s Chicken and Sausage Gumbo, which I promptly pour into a sourdough bread bowl from any bakery, imagining myself looking out towards the Rivers of America and plotting to head back around the corner to see some pirates.

7.02.2009

Tales of Folly (July 2, 2009)

Last week, Up became the top grossing summer movie so far, overtaking Star Trek. The Disney-Pixar hit, which as of Wednesday had taken in $256 million, has the Transformers sequel instantly on its balloon trail and will likely fall from that top spot by the weekend, especially with the new Ice Age movie looking to steal Disney’s family audience. At this point, Up will likely be among the top 3 summer earners when all is said and done with only wizards and stereotype-enforcing robots in its way.

. . . . .

Disney has announced a plan to invest $452 million to expand its Hong Kong Disneyland, which will include three new lands built over five years. The park has had attendance issues, largely believed to be the result of the lack of size and diversity (the other five global Disney parks include at least one other separate park). No word on whether Stitch's SuperSonic Celebration will be heading overseas to the more temperate climate found in Hong Kong.

. . . . .

The Little Mermaid will end its short run on Broadway on August 30. The musical will pick up its fins and head out on an as-yet-specified national tour. The musical ends its run after only 685 Broadway performances, a low number in comparison to The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast. Disney cited fiscal responsibility as one of the reasons to take the show on the road. The Little Mermaid seemed to appeal successfully to fans of the movie and families, but did not translate well with the fastidious Broadway crowd, who apparently prefer ABBA songs over Menken/Ashman.

. . . . .

The Hall of Presidents in Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom is officially reopening this weekend, in time for the celebration of our country's independence and its desire to visit beaches and watch fireworks, with the unveiling of the 44th President of the United States of America, Barrack Obama. Disney calls the President Obama audio-anamotronic "the most dynamic figure Disney has ever created."

. . . . .

Lastly, RIP Dinosaur Jack. The Sunglass Shack, featuring the large, green bespectacled dinosaur rising above crowds, was recently removed as construction continues at Disney's California Adventure, specifically on the lagoon for the upcoming Wonderful World of Color show. That's one less tacky icon taking up residence at Paradise Pier.