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?


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.


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.


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.