10.31.2010

New Fears at The Old Haunt


When I visited the Haunted Mansion on October 4th, I didn't realize I would be one of the last who got to see the infamous tombstones that align the queue outside of the Mansion. When I returned just a few days later, walls were up along the queue blocking the tombstones. By this point, the Twitterverse and Blogosphere were already lit up by mortified souls, with rumors of an "interactive queue" to replace these legendary tombstones. Why tinker with something perfectly in theme with the attraction while also a long-standing tribute to Imagineers?


Sadly it seems in keeping with the odd dichotomy that is the Haunted Mansion in Walt Disney World. The attraction has largely stayed true to its origins, a cornerstone of the Magic Kingdom that continues to delight fans new and old for almost 40 years now. When they've done a refurbishment, like the recent one done a few years ago, it was only to enhance the pre-existing effects. It's not like they integrated Eddie Murphy into the storyline!


However, the tombstone removal points towards a need for unnecessary meddling by the current regime. In the old days, part of the experience in the queue was the fear of the unknown that awaited inside. With the gothic mansion looming overhead, and the sound effects luring guests in, the patience on line only lent itself to the haunted theme. Are we so distracted now that we need to be entertained by some interactive games that have already proven to be mediocre enhancements elsewhere? There used to be interactivity in the Haunted Mansion queues: the cast.


Which brings me to my next, sad point. I can still recall my Dad's delight with how dry and spooky the cast members were when my family visited regularly in the '80s and early '90s and it became a highlight for me. "Please drag your bodies to the dead center of the room," a cast member would exclaim with sinister dryness. Outside, the cast were an extension of the fear of what horrors awaited inside. But this seems to have gone completely by the wayside, replaced by cast members who, while still helpful and professional, seem to have traded in the act for a requisite role as an employee going through the motions. I thought the whole point of calling them "cast" members was to imply that they were part of the experience. The problem is that them seemed more likely part of the cast of Clerks than the Haunted Mansion. I assure you, we're haunted.


This all unfortunately undermines what is still a very vital and brilliant Walt Disney World experience. The Haunted Mansion has been there since Day 1 and as I mentioned earlier, is still very much the same ride as it has always been. You can't say that about Space Mountain or Pirates of the Caribbean or it's a small world. It epitomizes what Walt Disney World has always been to me: an experience that transcends carnival rides and amusement parks. As a child, I was horrified at the prospect of a haunted mansion simply because I only ever knew them to be an attraction who's sole purpose was to scare the living daylights out of its visitors. But as we all know, Marc Davis wouldn't have it that way. As a kid, I got over those initial fears and couldn't wait to revisit the Haunted Mansion. Now that's not to say that it gave me no fear…but it gave me enough delight to overcome those fears.


The Haunted Mansion became one of the most anticipated experiences on my recent trip as it had been a long five years since I enjoyed the attraction. As is requisite for certain rides, I made sure to experience the Haunted Mansion both in the daytime and at night. There isn't a whole lot to say here that hasn't been covered ad infinitum. It is very much still the attraction I have loved for nearly 30 years.


I also found the enhanced effects to be perfectly in spirit (pun intended) with the origins of the attraction. The ride felt sharper and enhanced, as if I had traded up from VHS all the way to Blu Ray. The more significant enhancements were wonderful and increased the supernatural quotient nicely. And Paul Frees, as the Ghost Host, has never sounded better.


Will the Pet Cemetery be replaced by a Dead Princess meet-and-greet?


Recent history has shown that no attraction is completely free from major refurbishment so in some ways we are lucky to have Frees still narrating and the rooms at the Haunted Mansion still telling the same storyline. Certainly in the grand scheme of things, the lack of cast charisma and the queue meddling won't affect the actual ride experience. But they were always a very enjoyable extension of that experience and its frustrating to see these things changed or dumbed down.


Why tinker with something just to tinker? There's a reason why lines still happily form outside the old haunt. The substance of the original ride was so perfect that it never needed changing, from the front gate to the exit. Apparently some foolish mortals felt otherwise.

10.24.2010

Fabled Tables: Tales of Food and Wine, Volume 3


Epcot's International Food & Wine Festival offers a lot of marketplaces for countries not often represented even by the most ethnically-diverse areas of America. Whereas at some marketplaces, you can sample foods you may have had elsewhere or simply know of, many of them offer treats people have never heard of. It was fun mixing in the tried and true with the varied and new.


SOUTH AFRICA

While I didn't have the capacity to try any of the food offerings at South Africa, Mrs. Disney Folly thoroughly enjoyed the La Capra Sauvignon Blanc. Perhaps the one she enjoyed the most outside of New Zealand.


SINGAPORE

My wife has an allergy to wheat but was able to swap in Jasmine Rice and Curry for the Singapore Noodle Salad in the Shrimp Cake offering, which was indicative of the type of helpfulness we were accommodated by Disney cast members. The shrimp was perfectly cooked and very tasty. The rice made a perfect complement to the dish.


Singapore's Shrimp Cake with a Jasmine Rice side substitute

AUSTRALIA

The much-hyped Grilled Lamb Chop with Roasted Potato Salad at the Australia marketplace didn't fully live up to my expectations. The lamb had great flavor to it but was more fat than meat (and I say this as a connoisseur of lamb!) Also the potato salad just tasted like someone left roaster potatoes to the cold.

The Lamington dessert dish was a chocolate-covered butter cake. What they don't tell you is that the chocolate is covered with coconut. You'd think this would be advertised as many people are not a fan of shredded coconut. The cake texture was indeed buttery and heavy, but ultimately the cake was undone by the overuse of coconut.


BELGIUM

While it seemed the waffles and the beer were the obvious favorites at the Belgium marketplace (a Food and Wine rookie), I went for a lighter fare in the Steamed Mussels with Roasted Garlic Cream. Mussels are typically prepared in a plainer fashion or with the requisite marinara sauce so I was impressed with the garlic cream preparation. It added a little substance to an otherwise quick and light bite. Smartly, the mussels came with a slice of garlic bread to dip in the leftover sauce.

I also liked the Belgium marketplace layout. The stand was set off from the World Showcase walkway and surrounded by low tables and chairs (not the typical high, standing tables around the lagoon). The area had a lot of space and room to breathe.


FRANCE

France provided one of the absolute foodie highlights for me my entire trip with the Braised Short Ribs in Cabernet with Mashed Potatoes. When I was handed what looked like some sort of cake, I corrected the cast member about my order, which they reiterated the dish in fact was. The short ribs were actually housed inside of the mashed potatoes. The cabernet marinade gave both a deep tasty flavor and the presentation made the dish a joy to eat. It was also quite filling. Even a few weeks later, I can still recall the memory of sitting in a crowded French square enjoying this newfound favorite dish.


Braised Short Ribs in Cabernet with Mashed Potatoes, a Disney Folly favorite!

10.18.2010

Pixel Hollow: A spire to great heights...


Being at the parks in the early hours with an October sky overhead created a lot of light and shadow issues with pictures during my recent trip. A lot of buildings and scenery were difficult to photograph at certain angles until later in the day. Unfortunately you had then trade sunlight issues for crowds. One trick I like to do is to get the sun behind an object and utilize it to my advantage as I did here. It's mostly overwrought symbolism but it works for me. The spiritual part of me can look at this and say it's Walt keeping an eye on his World. And the practical part of me can continue to applaud the Imagineers who constructed this beautiful land and all of its wonderful buildings, allowing us to take photographs that can mean so many things to every one of us.



10.14.2010

Fabled Tables: Tales of Food and Wine, Volume 2

The Mexico marketplace stands astride the iconic pyramid of the Mexico pavilion.


Epcot's International Food & Wine Festival provides marketplaces for countries who are not only foreign to World Showcase, but those who have had a home at Epcot for years. That said, there are surprising tastes to be found at all. I actually took in the following three countries as a sort of appetizer run before lunch at Via Napoli. One of the best things about this Festival is that while having a taco, pork dumplings and a lettuce wrap before pizza might get me shunned from my Italian family, it was perfectly in keeping with the spirit of the Food & Wine Festival!


MEXICO

There is no shortage of restaurants representing Mexican cuisine at Epcot, with one counter service and two table service restaurants, including one (San Angel Inn) which I dined at during our recent trip. That said, the fare represented at their kiosk at the Food & Wine Festival still offered a nice change of pace from the various aforementioned options.

The Taco de Chilorio was a filling and flavorful taco. A flour tortilla (soft and unwrapped) is filled with slow-cooked, marinated pork topped with an avocado sauce and red onions. Though a tricky dish to navigate whilst parked off the World Showcase walkway without a table, the taco was one of the more surprising items that I sampled during my trip. (And that is coming from an area of America with no shortage of authentic Mexican cuisine!)

My wife and I also shared the Conga Fruit Punch, a non-alcoholic frozen drink containing pineapple and orange flavoring. This drink was a particularly successful refreshment on one of the more hotter days of our trip. As someone who has cut out a lot of artificially-sweetened drinks in his diet, I was particularly impressed with the moderate amount of sweetness in the drink. Definitely a nice departure from the usual beverages and certainly a good respite for those seeking a mixed drink without the alcohol.


Pork dumplings


CHINA

I had originally planned on skipping China as I was mostly intent on sampling more exotic foods at the Festival. That said, I've never been one to pass up a good dumpling. Though, they're calling it by the more trending name, the Pork pot sticker. Though typically an appetizer, two pork dumplings are actually a pretty hearty dish. These were very tasty and an accessible treat for most people.


South Korea's Lettuce Wrap with Roasted Pork and Kimchi Slaw

SOUTH KOREA

South Korea is one of the debuts at this year's Food and Wine Festival. Of course, it was my first Festival so every kiosk was making its debut with me. I can happily report that it is nevertheless a great addition. Having had my fair share of ribs, short or otherwise, I skipped the tempting Barbecue Short Rib and went for the Lettuce Wraps with Roast Pork and Kimchi Slaw. If you are a connoisseur of well-cooked pork, I highly recommend this dish. For the uninitiated, Kimchi is a sort of pickled vegetable slaw. It's an incredibly popular Korean recipe and their most common side-dish. Fret not, while tasty and exotic, it's not a flavor that will turn off those easy scared by far off lands! (Though I do recommend you really try to situation yourself at a table for this dish as it's a tough one to tackle on the go.) This is another hearty and eclectic dish, with a subtle spicy kick.


And that's a Wrap!

10.10.2010

Fabled Tables: Tales of Food and Wine, Volume 1

The Food & Wine Festival cake display outside of Wonders of Life.


Disney's Folly visited the Epcot International Food & Wine Festival this year for the first time. The festival celebrated its 15th anniversary with its usual assortment of marketplaces, demonstrations, seminars and other experiences. For me, though, it was an inaugural experience, not only for the festival but for visiting Walt Disney World outside of the summer months. Here is the first volume of my recollections of the festival.

For years, I'd heard what I could only imagine were tall tales of a familiar land in central Florida expanded to include kiosks serving beer, wine and assorted foots, as an accompaniment to pre-existing country pavilions. Epcot's International Food & Wine Festival has been going for 15 years strong but for most of that time, I was largely unaware of the joys contained within.

However, this year I knew that my planned trip to Walt Disney World would coincide with the Festival, something I'd been hoping to do for a few years now. I strategically booked reservations at an Epcot resort, the outstanding Yacht Club Resort, so we could be a mere stroll away from Epcot.

Hype and anticipation soon gave way to shock, and not necessarily the good kind. Arriving at Epcot early Saturday evening, we were met with a weekend crowd significantly sauced on hops, barley and fermented grapes. What have they done to my Epcot?! Awe-struck families galloping through World Showcase were replaced with overdressed hipsters and stumbling bumbling drunks.

Thankfully we realized this was more a byproduct of timing than anything else. Sure, the week would bring its collection of characters, but my wife and I navigated the Festival more adeptly on the weekdays, sampling a fair share of foods and a little bit of wine. (I am not a wine drinker.)


CHILE

We recently visited Costa Rica and had the opportunity to sample amazing shrimp ceviche. The shrimp ceviche dish at the Chile marketplace was tasty, but not quite as good as what I've had before. A little heavy on the onions and not tangy enough. Also, the shrimp was slightly overcooked.

My wife sampled the Concha y Toro Casillero del Diablo Sauvignon Blanc, and enjoyed it. However, she found it a step below some of the other Sauvignon Blanc wines.

Shrimp ceviche from Chile


BRAZIL

Brazil offered an interesting item in its grilled pork skewer with Farofa. Farofa is a toasted manioc flour mixture. The pork skewer is rolled in the flour turning it pale, not unlike the look of poultry when dredged in household white flour. The taste was very diverse, with the Farofa created a dry, crumbly exterior around the juicy, tasty pork inside. One of the more eclectic samplings I had at the Festival.

Brazil's Grilled Pork skewer dredged with Farofa and my camera flash.

Also on tap was the shrimp stew with coconut and lime. The stew had a very tropical flavor, and topped white rice quite well. The shrimp was also cooked effectively. Definitely a dish that would make well as a full meal.


ARGENTINA

Argentina provided one of the most dynamic dishes of my whole trip, the grilled beef skewer with chimichurri sauce and boniato puree. This was clearly a favorite dish among those I spoke with at the Festival and for good reason. The chimichurri sauce has a strong zest to it, in large part due to the seasonings and vinegar used to make the sauce. However it combined well with the beef and boniato puree. (Boniato is a sweet potato, though more related to the white potato than the orange yam.)

9.27.2010

Disney's Folio: Two Guys Named Joe

It could be argued that no studio hosts a larger volume of famous personnel than Walt Disney Studios, and that is just talking about the Animation side of things. Sure, Pixar certainly added to that fame with its talented, award-winning and yet affable and ever-present crew. But you could still remove them from the equation and be left with a good number of famous names from the executives all the way down to the artists. This is perhaps best exemplified by Walt's Nine Old Men, distinguished and legendary animators, directors and eventual Imagineers, whose work not only defined the visuals of almost all of Disney's beloved early animated features but also its theme parks.


But the best ideas didn't always come from a Marc Davis or an Andrew Stanton or even Walt himself. John Canemaker's Two Guys Named Joe takes a look at two often-unheralded legends at Disney and Pixar Studios, who were at the core of many of those same aforementioned beloved animated features, from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves all the way to WALL-E.


The Two Guys Named Joe are in fact Joe Ranft and Joe Grant. The irony of the title is that these are hardly your ordinary average Joes. Canemaker, a renowned animation historian himself, meticulously details the course of their lives and careers, both of which show that these were two of the most creative minds to ever walk Disney's halls. However, beyond those blue sky imaginations and boundless creativity, Grant and Ranft were divergent personalities, flawed in their own ways and who overcame their share of roadblocks in life and their careers.


Ranft's half of the book is very much a tribute to the art of storytelling and storyboarding. I always knew Ranft was a veritable wizard of storyboarding but I didn't realize his reach was so long and legendary. For a significant period of time, his craft was influencing Disney, Pixar and Tim Burton's Skellington Productions all at the same time. He maintained those relationships to the end, even after he became a full-time Pixar employee. That speaks volumes about the loyalty his colleagues felt towards him and how much his love for the art reciprocated.


Ranft had the unique perspective of having worked at Disney during it's lean, tumultuous pre-Renaissance era, and he was very often the casualty of that era's conflicted leadership. Canemaker and his sources don't pull any punches in describing the frustration at the studio, and specifically in Ranft's career at that point. (Interestingly enough, we later read that Grant had similar creative frustrations during his early years at the studio.)


Reading the sections revolving around the making of Cars makes me think of the movie in a different light. I always understood how much of a labor of love the project was for John Lasseter and respected his work in getting the film made. Whether or not you were a fan of the story or the performances, you certainly couldn't deny the pride and craft of the film. Now learning how much involvement Joe Ranft had makes me think of the film with added poignancy.


Joe Grant and Joe Ranft


Even if you don't know the name Joe Grant, there is no doubt that you know his work. From character design to story development, Grant was a driving creative force behind films such as Dumbo, Fantasia, Pinocchio, and Lady and the Tramp, and would later make key contributions to Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King, among others. Grant was one of Walt's key story guys


At the Character Model Department, Grant worked in a unique position which would garner some criticisms from colleagues. His (and colleague Dick Huemer's) success and certain freedoms they had at the Model Department irked those in Animation, a situation only exacerbated by their resistance to joining the animation strike in 1941. Grant also made some questionable maneuvers that didn't help his cause politically in the company, and with Walt. That said, there has never been a shortage of criticisms of the mood swings of Walt himself, no less his Nine Old Men. In fact, Grant himself had a long-standing feud with Ward Kimball, which the latter held to the bitter end.


As Grant seemed to take on the role of pariah, it might be easy to subscribe to those criticisms of him (however legitimate or illegitimate they may be) but there is no mistaking that the art he pushed for was on another playing level and seemed superior to what the studio was producing at the time. Canemaker shows that Grant was delivering innovative and artistic concepts at a time where Walt's attention was evolving from movies into TV and theme parks. As such, commerce often won out over art.


After Grant departed for greener pastures in 1949, he returned 40 years later right as the Disney Renaissance was lifting off. It's particularly enjoyable to read this familiar yet almost new personality of his in his elder years. A fearless, forward man who never stopped trying to improve a concept, Grant would walk into anybody's office to deliver an idea. I'm almost certain when you're done reading about the latter era of Joe Grant's career, you will admire his pluckiness amidst an atmosphere growing more and more corporate by the minute. Sadly, there aren't many characters like that anymore, in any industry.


Canemaker utilizes a vast collection of interviews, recollections, and quotes to help fill in the stories of his subjects, an especially admirable feat when you consider that Joe Grant's story began over 100 years ago. However, he never gets too heavy-handed in his storytelling, even when discussing Ranft's untimely death or the fountain of boundless youth that Grant seemed to drink from towards the twilight of his life. Canemaker recognizes the poignancy of the stories being told and, like a good historian, lets those stories unfold naturally and unadorned with overplayed sentiment or the syrupy


The book is surprisingly blunt and is certainly not sprinkled with pixie dust. Canemaker utilizes often-uncensored quotes and paints honest portraits of his subjects. This is often quite indicting of the Disney corporate culture as there is much criticism of how it intruded on the art itself. While this is mostly prevalent in the pre-Renaissance era of Disney animation, you'd be surprised at how much even Walt himself seemed to run off-track and missed out on a wealth of inspired ideas. On the other hand, the literal painting (and drawing) is a revelation in this book. Old photographs, storyboards, character designs and illustrations accompany the the words in very vivid detail. And many of these illustrations are not just of Disney characters or stories; many are caricatures of the artists drawn by themselves or of their colleagues. (I particularly enjoyed the extensive representation by John Musker, better known for his Renaissance-era directing.)


In telling the stories of Ranft and Grant, Canemaker has also provided a study on the art of storytelling in animation, whether it be through storyboarding, character designs, or getting to the core of a good story. Going all the way back to Snow White, there have been very few animated features that truly succeeded on every level without some great sense of story. In recent years, we've marveled at Pixar's uncanny storytelling craft while bemoaned Disney's own seeming aversion to it. Perhaps they should make Two Guys Named Joe essential reading among Disney executives!



9.02.2010

A Match Made In...


On a recent trip to my parents’ house, I discovered a cigar box full of old Walt Disney World matchbooks and matchboxes that my parents had collected during our trips in the ‘80s and early ‘90s. During every trip, my family would grab these for novelty’s sake and to perhaps light a cigar or two. Unbelievably they have lasted the 20-25 years since those trips. My family doesn't have as many souvenirs from those trips as I would've enjoyed, but I found these to be uniquely fascinating little mementos with an interesting story.

Disney matches aren’t your typical collectors' items and I doubt would fetch much on eBay, but it’s amazing how something as innocuous as a matchbook could be such a relevant window into the past. I have little use for matches, but they were an extension of hotels and restaurants at the time. And Disney of course branded them appropriately. It was as much a part of the theming as everything else Disney did. As such, they offer quite a compelling window to the history of many famous Disney locations. I don’t mean to overload on pixie dust, but I truly felt the rush of nostalgia looking through these matchbooks. You can easily transport yourself to the old branding and style of the Polynesian and Contemporary Resorts during their ‘80s heyday.

It’s also a curious look at a time not long ago where smoking was encouraged even in a theme park! Nowadays you won’t find many matchbooks anywhere as laws prohibit many establishments from allowing smoking inside their buildings. I imagine it was decided that matchbooks would only encourage guests to skirt these laws and there no longer was a reason to give visitors fire-starting instruments. Also, overall safety concerns are much stricter than they were 20 years ago so leaving an implement of potential destruction so easily accessible is simply not going to happen in a family-friendly theme park, and certainly not in this post-9/11 world.

A matchbox for the Tobacconist shop on Main Street, U.S.A. is a particularly telling souvenir and window to a vastly different time. For years, this shop adorned the main thoroughfare from the entrance of Magic Kingdom. It sold cigarettes, tobacco and other related smoking accessories. All at a park named after a man who passed at an early age….of lung cancer!! Obviously these were different times. Many of you may recall flying to Orlando aboard airplanes filled with smoke and visiting Disney hotels, theme parks and restaurants with large smoking areas. Thankfully the times changed. People started valuing oxygen once again and the Tobacconist gave way to plush. (As much as the Tobacconist is an almost quaint throwback to an earlier era, there's no doubt in my mind it doesn't belong in a family theme park.)

In this day and age of merchandise saturating and branding of almost every item imaginable (i.e. Mickey Mouse waffle-maker), it may be hard for some to recall a time when it took a lot just to get to Walt Disney World and as such, you didn't get to leave with a lot beyond those amazing memories. You had to use your imagination to connect to those memories as I have often detailed in past reviews of many of Disney's pictorial souvenirs and books. But something like a postcard or a matchbox was also a fun little keepsake and a prompt for the brain to transport to the Gulf Coast Room, the Polynesian Village Resort, and other long forgotten memories.


8.24.2010

Pixel Hollow: Postcards from the future


One of the last remaining keepsakes from my first visit to EPCOT Center in 1984 is this postcard of Spaceship Earth. It's the lone survivor of a set of Future World postcards that were once prized souvenirs and wall decorations which eventually got lost in the many transitions of life's mature movements.


As a 10-year-old, I was in complete awe of the progressive architecture of EPCOT's Future World section. (As much as I enjoyed World Showcase then, it would take me many years to appreciate it at the same level.) These were remarkable sights to be seen during those times, and some of these buildings are still quite astonishing even in a modern context. And there was something particularly transcendent about visiting Future World amidst the colorful skies of dusk and summer in Florida.


Many take postcards for granted in this day and age as they've become an irrelevant form of communication, as friends from afar can instantly communicate the joys of their vacation with picture messaging, Tweets and e-mails. But Disney postcards were always more than just a way to write to friends and family; they were photographic souvenirs that captured a moment in Walt Disney World's time, however short it might be. (And the postcard designs would change quite periodically.) And for many they were miniature windows into a world of the future where we visited in the past, a capture of an experience engrained in our memories and that we'd yearn to return to. Now I can go on YouTube, blogs and message boards to get daily views of the parks, but back in the '80s, we had postcards and a journey into imagination.


(Yes, that's my old home address on the back of the postcard. I'm far removed from that address so you won't get far if you try finding me there!)

8.22.2010

Disney's Hollywood Studios: A Boulevard of Broken Dreams

Back in 1991, my family visited Walt Disney World for our fifth time in under 10 years. It had become a pretty standard affair of visiting the Magic Kingdom and EPCOT Center up until that point, but this time around there was a third park opening, Disney-MGM Studios. This new park celebrated "a Hollywood that never was - and always will be." As beloved as the Magic Kingdom and EPCOT were, we had had three trips with both and were excited for new adventures to fill the requisite week long stay.


It may be hard to believe now, and revisionist history tends to project raised eyebrows towards Michael Eisner all the way back then, but Disney-MGM Studios was a highly-popular experience when it first opened. With franchises like Star Wars and Indiana Jones, keen architectural representations of old Hollywood, and a mix of shows, rides and a lengthy backlot tour amidst an actual "working studio", the new theme park was an overwhelming hit. In 1994, the park expanded off of Hollywood Boulevard with a Sunset Boulevard strip which led to The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, still one of Disney's finest attractions, inside and out. Walt Disney World itself was expanding its horizons significantly with this third theme park, new hotels and other ancillary experiences such as Typhoon Lagoon.


But like an aging actress who turns to Botox and plastic surgery in her twilight years, (the now) Disney's Hollywood Studios has not aged gracefully. They inexplicably placed a gigantic Sorcerer's hat at the center of the park, right in front of the period-proper replica of Grauman's Chinese Theatre. (The hat would eventually replace the Earful Tower as the park's icon.) Because when you think of Hollywood, you think of a giant sorcerer's hat! The hat, along with the opening of Sunset Boulevard, helped cover up the great Hidden Mickey at the center of the park (and only visible from above, and in maps). The backlot tour became more and more compressed, especially once production work actually stopped at the Studios. Many key rides started showing wear and tear, and while new attractions like Toy Story Mania and Rock 'n' Roller Coaster have been popular new entries, popular NEW experiences were few and far between.


A walk down Hollywood Boulevard in 1991 and in 2001 (and presently).

One of the biggest complaints for guests is that so much of what's to do at Disney's Hollywood Studios are shows, which can have long waits and even longer showtimes. This is all topped off with Fantasmic!, which can eat away at hours of your time while waiting (and you run the risk of the whole thing being called off anyway due to weather). At the end of the day, you're going to rack up much fewer experiences than you would at the Magic Kingdom and few will be as exciting. Additionally, the Studio Backlot Tour, stunt shows and other live performances aren't exactly repeat-visit experiences. "Daddy, can we go look at all those houses from television shows I have never seen!" wasn't exactly the type of thing often overheard around the Studios.


The park isn't treated as slap-dash at Disney's California Adventure, but it has shown signs of losing any remnants of continuity it once had and some rumored ideas for expansion would certainly exacerbate that situation if not controlled effectively. It is still home to a good number of popular attractions, but unfortunately not a lot else. In planning my next visit to Walt Disney World this October, I recently had to adjust my anticipation for taking one last ride on Star Tours since that ride will have already closed for refurbishment in September. Additionally, it was announced that One Man's Dream will also be closed for refurbishment during that time. Sure, I'm eager to experience Toy Story Mania for the first time, am always excited for a few plummets on the Tower of Terror, and will always find time for my old friends the Muppets, but I don't know that there's a whole lot else worth visiting.


Don't get me wrong, I am one for appreciating my surroundings too, especially as I've grown older. So I'll take slower walks down the Boulevards and spend more times outside some of the attractions, taking in the architecture and imagineering. But that will only get you so far. There used to be a complaint that Animal Kingdom was a half-day park, largely due to the hyperactive guest, itching to get from one ride to the next and having no interest in what has become one Disney's finest architectural achievements. Even as of my last trip years ago, we had already started ranking Animal Kingdom above the Studios. Now i think it's safe to say the only half-day park left at Walt Disney World is Hollywood Studios.


Is it too late to save DHS from dwindling relevance and quality? No, and it never is for any of the shortcomings you might find in any of Florida's parks. That said, it would likely take a larger influx of money and proper management to get the park back on track, and I don't know when or if Disney would be willing to invest the time and money in doing so. However DHS certainly needs it, moreso than Magic Kingdom needed a Fantasyland expansion, and more than Epcot needs in Future World. (Those two parks, as much updating as they might need, still have a whole lot more going FOR them than their younger sister park.)


Most rumors about fixing up Disney's Hollywood Studios center around the backlot area, as it is largely irrelevant now that there are no productions being filmed at the Studios. There are a large number of buildings in the western section of DHS that take up prime expansion real estate. Given this area's proximity to Pixar Place, the most rumored idea is a rollercoaster themed to Monsters, Inc. Had Disney had the forethought, they could've effectively introduced other Pixar concepts that have invaded other theme parks, sometimes in ways that don't particularly make sense for the theme of a particular land (i.e. the Laugh Floor in Tomorrowland). That said, there are still franchises like The Incredibles, Up, and WALL-E which could all present other opportunities for Pixar Place.


What this thought also does is really promote a concept that would work in expanding the Studios significantly while maintaing some sort of Hollywood/studio identity. Pixar Place is specifically modeled after Pixar's headquarters in Emeryville, California, a logical extension of what DHS is supposed to be. The architecture in the Monsters, Inc. movie was square enough to fit smartly into the studios setting and other rides, if done right, might not necessitate the most extravagant exterior architecture. All of the aforementioned Pixar films took place (if not entirely, at some point) in urban environments, which could make it easer architecturally to introduce those concepts onto the grounds. (Let a dark ride transports the guests to Syndrome's island, Paradise Falls, or outer space.)


Taking that concept one step further are recent rumors that Disney Imagineering is looking into perhaps expanding on their relationship with George Lucas in a way to compete with Universal Studio's popular Wizarding World of Harry Potter. It's a totally logical move as the brand has many more years of legacy under its belt and is iconic enough to probably justify its own theme park. There is real estate to the south-eastern section of the theme park, right near Star Tours for a logical extension of this experience. They could certainly call it Lucasfilm in keeping with the Studios theme (and given Indiana Jones' presence nearby). However, I don't know that anyone would mind if they eschewed the total studios theming and went beyond blue sky into outer space. (Perhaps The Star Wars Galaxy?) As a Star Wars fan, I could probably spend a week of blog posts discussing ideas for rides, shows, shops and dining experiences that would make perfect sense. But my wife reads this blog, and I don't want her to have second thoughts about marrying me.


Certainly you cannot start any Lucasfilm/Star Wars Galaxy idea off without putting the cantina from A New Hope right in the middle of your experience. With its place on the oft-visited Star Wars planet Tatooine, it's a logical place to start theming and would give the Three Broomsticks a run for its money. It could be a great mix of theming, dining/refreshment and entertainment as characters and performers could be mixed in with guests at the Cantina. Hogwarts has its castle so why can't this new land have a Death Star, a perfect setting for a combination walk-through and dark ride (perhaps escaping the explosion)? And there are any number of locales from the many planets of the Star Wars universe that would make for great entertainment, themed dining and dark ride experiences.


Around the corner, the Muppet*Vision 3D hosts characters almost as beloved as Disney's own, but who haven't always had the best promotional treatment. The franchise is still alive, with an anticipated new film coming out next year and some incredibly popular viral video releases the last few years. The Muppets could certainly play host to their own land (Henson's Place?) and can you tell me how to get to Sesame Street? I can tell you it's in New York, which is represented by New York St. right by Muppet*Vision. I don't know if there are rights issues with the Sesame Street characters or not, but it's a logical meeting point as the ideals of that show and the creations of Jim Henson intersect perfectly with what Disney has always stood for. (At least before it became a factory for future underwear protesters.) If not, there are enough Muppet experiences to fill a smaller chunk of the park and certainly be more entertaining than a Honey I Shrunk the Kids Movie Set Adventure.


I could also sit here and tell you that I'd tear down the disappointing Lights, Motor, Action! Extreme Stunt Show and find something more interesting to take up its valuable space, but I recognize that might not happen soon. However, right behind it still lies Catastrophe Canyon, the now-predictable finale to a tepid backlot tour. Perhaps it's time for some other new experience, not once that includes stunts or people singing, but some new ride concept that would make sense for Hollywood, whether it be franchise-based like Twilight Zone Tower of Terror or a more comprehensive take on Hollywood like the Great Movie Ride. Or perhaps Disney can pay respect to its own place in animation and film history.


The Tower of Terror remains one of the few must-see experiences at DHS.


Make no mistake, Disney's Hollywood Studios is an idea that can still work. I firmly believe it's far from being a theme park that needs to be torn down or completely ignored. It plays hosts to some of Walt Disney World's best themed experiences and its concept lends itself to making great connections with outside franchises, much like Universal Studios has recently done with the Harry Potter series. But it clearly needs expansion or some reconfiguring of failed concepts. It's inexplicable that Disney has replaced some legendary rides and attractions in all of its parks and yet clings desperately to the Backlot Studio Tour. Let it go. Hollywood of all towns is about staying relevant and being at the forefront of the next big thing.


It's time for Disney to give this aging starlet her comeback role. Give her a make-over, line her up with a brave director, pair her with a witty talented youngster and put money into an epic production. Then maybe we can finally say "Hooray" for Disney's Hollywood Studios.


8.15.2010

First and Last Tours to Endor


The Twitterverse and blogosphere were particularly aflutter this weekend with reports from Disney's Hollywood Studios and the Last Tour to Endor promotion being held in conjunction with the Star Wars convention Celebration V. In the next few weeks, guests at DHS will have the last chance to ride Star Tours in its current iteration. The famous Star Wars-themed ride will shutter its blast doors for a major refurbishment, updating both the ride systems and presentation, and the storyline of the ride, which will purportedly take place now in the time between the prequel and original trilogies. (The flagship Disneyland version of the ride already closed in July.) Star Wars is still very popular right now and both Disney and Lucasfilm are only looking to enhance the ride in an attempt to bring it up to today's standards and in line with the much larger universe of Star Wars shorelines. Sadly I will miss taking my last trip on Star Tours by less than a month and hardly realized that the last time I rode it would be the last time I was riding that version.


Photo courtesy of Christian and Amy, my friends on location at DHS right now!


It's hard to view Star Tours' cultural relevance through modern day lenses given everything that has happened in both the real world and the world of Star Wars fandom since the ride first opened in 1987 (and 1989 in Walt Disney World). After Return of the Jedi came and went, Star Wars largely retreated from the forefront of entertainment. At the same time, a generation of kids who grew up with the trilogy had become more interested in up-and-coming franchises like G.I. Joe and the Transformers, whose onslaught of toys filled the shelves that Star Wars left behind. Don't be mistaken, the love for Star Wars never died, especially with the arrival of the age of home video. But like anything else, it eventually had to go into hypersleep after so many years at the top.


In the real world, the '90s would bring about both the advent of the Internet and an ever-increasing video game industry. It also brought about a very reverent nostalgia for the 1980s. Eventually Star Wars regained a foothold in the modern era as its fandom found an online community in a vast number of websites. Fans also found excitement in a new generation of CD-ROM video games and an expanded universe popularized by Timothy Zahn's Thrawn Trilogy of books. Of course, they could also fly to Anaheim or Orlando and experience an exciting new theme park technology putting them right in the Death Star trenches.


That's where I came in. In our first trip to Disney-MGM Studios in 1991, it had then been 8 long years since I had anything new to experience with the Star Wars saga. Even though I was 17 at the time, I was still very much younger at heart. Disney-MGM was also still fairly new and this was our first visit, and when my family got there, there wasn't much doubt which ride we were headed to first.


I remember coming around the bend and seeing the giant AT-AT staring down at me amidst the Ewok village. My four previous visits to Walt Disney World certainly readied me for the type of imagineering the Star Wars universe would get and I wasn't disappointed. The relationship between Disney and Lucas was a match made in heaven, or on Hoth. The genius architectural minds of Disney playing in George Lucas' sandbox (long before Anakin sadly revealed to us his distaste for sand). The tour itself was nostalgic, humorous and downright thrilling. It was the first time I had ever been on a motion-simulator ride and it was an exciting journey. I can't tell you how many times we got off that ride and got right back on. To this day, I still think this it was epitomized the Disney experience to me as a kid and will always stand tall amongst my favorite Star Wars-related memories.



Exiting the ride into a gift shop full of Star Wars merchandise. Everything you could imagine! In fact, one of the things i did pick up on the way out was Heir to the Empire, Timothy Zahn's first Star Wars book. I came to Orlando that year with only with a few boxes full of nostalgia in my attic but I left with all these new stories and limitless horizons for Star Wars to fill all over again. (How many of you talked with friends or family about how cool it would be if they ever went to Hoth?)


You know what happened from there. By the time I took my third trip to Disney-MGM in 1994, we already knew they were planning prequels. From there, classic toy lines filled shelves again (intriguing us now in a collector's capacity), more and more books were released, and greater video games filled our disc trays and cartridge slots. When The Phantom Menace was released, Star Wars was once again very much at the forefront of entertainment and was reaching even more of its fans on every level imaginable. A year after the movie was released, I returned to Walt Disney World for the first time in six years and we got to enjoy Star Wars Weekends and all the sideshow stops and character presence that adjoined good ol' Star Tours. It worked for me and my friends because we were still very much in the throes of prequel-related hype.


Since the new millennium started, the rest of the prequel trilogy was filled out, next generation consoles and improved computer technology upped the ante with covering the vastness of Star Wars' ever-expanding universe. A number of animation television shows centered around The Clone Wars, with a much ballyhooed (though barely detailed) live-action TV show still in the works. Yet, Star Tours still took the same failed mission to Endor year after year.


Star Tours very quickly lost the distinction of being the best flight-simulator ride experience in Florida as it was quickly supplanted by Back to the Future: The Ride and The Amazing Spider-Man Ride. What was once a thrilling out-of-this-world experience started becoming a standard, herky-jerky nostalgia trip. And when guests left the ride, they were entering back into a world where Star Wars dominated the pop cultural horizon as far as the binoculars could see. Star Tours was no longer a tent-pole representation of the best Star Wars had to offer; it was in fact one of its oldest modern experiences badly in need of a tune up.


So they're giving the starspeeder a new shine, gussying up Star Tours with a better ride system, a new storyline and new places to visit, and breaking into the third-dimension. No word yet on exactly which famous Star Wars locales will be visited though Coruscant and Tatooine have been confirmed. I also don't believe that we've heard if the outside of the attraction will be retooled to match the inside storyline or not. The attraction will re-open in the Spring of 2011 so there isn't long to wait. There have also been wild (and certainly unconfirmed) rumors that Disney's Hollywood Studios would expand upon Star Tours (and its neighbor Jedi Training Academy) into a full-fledged Star Wars-land, as a way to compete with Universal Studio's Wizarding World of Harry Potter.


Unfortunately, I don't know that the new Star Tours will ever have the significance that it had when it first opened because of the world we now live in. Photos, trip reports and shaky ride-through videos will give fans from afar an instant experience. And ultimately, Star Wars means something different these days, for better or for worse. The franchise has steadily flooded many markets now for over a decade with no sign of slowing down. As such, there isn't that same yearning we had back in the late 80s and early 90s. It's still a fun experience and my generation has taken to living vicariously throughout the astonishment on their own children's faces just like they once had.


I just know that it will never be the same as it was for a kid who was 5-years-old seeing The Empire Strikes Back in the local movie-theatre and then growing up to experience a theme park ride that made it seem like we were actually in space. When I was young, we used our imagination to help turn a doghouse into the Millennium Falcon and we used the piles of snow at our local schoolyard to create Hoth. Because that's all we had, until Star Tours came along.

7.24.2010

Tales of Folly (July 24, 2010)

At Comic-Con International in San Diego, Patton Oswalt moderated a panel for Tron Legacy, which featured much of the cast and director of the upcoming Walt Disney Pictures film. Eight minutes from the film was screened to the audience and a new trailer was released to the greater public. But at the tail end of the panel, it was announced to almost unanimous shock and surprise that Guillermo Del Toro, the well-known director of the Hellboy films and Pan's Labyrinth would help create a new Haunted Mansion film. (It's not entirely known if he will direct.) Del Toro has a great passion for The Haunted Mansion attraction and was quite emphatic about his attempts to make this movie true to the spirit of the attraction, much to the utter delight of Disney fans. This was evident in his announcement that the Hatbox Ghost would play a prominent role in the film. Del Toro had been previously attached to The Hobbit but left the production due to the chaotic mess at MGM Studios.

. . . . .

Other announcements hot off the press out of San Diego are some official word on long-standing rumors regarding Marvel's The Avengers film. That film, arriving in 2012, will team up many legendary Marvel characters who will by then have had their own spotlight films (Iron Man, Captain America, Thor) along with popular secondary characters that they hope to then spin-off. Joss Whedon, the popular creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly and a critically-acclaimed writer on Astonishing X-Men, outed himself as the official director of the film. And today word came down that Mark Ruffalo was finishing up 11th hour negotiations to take on the mantle of the Hulk, previously played by Ed Norton (with whom Marvel had a notorious falling out last week). Whedon also confirmed that Jeremy Renner (the Oscar-nominated lead in 2009's Best Picture The Hurt Locker) will play Hawkeye, the popular archer and rare un-powered Avenger. Marvel Studios is expected to have most of the cast on hand at their panel tonight.

. . . . .

Disney officially announced a September 10th opening for Via Napoli, the new restaurant at Epcot's Italy pavilion. Via Napoli will be a table service restaurant only, with one menu for both lunch and dinner. Menu and prices were also unveiled and are certainly on the high-end. Apparently Disney has never actually seen how much pizza costs in Naples.

. . . . .

It was recently revealed that Pixar's Brad Bird and screenwriter Michael Arndt (Toy Story 3) were brought in to help contribute to Tron Legacy re-shoots. This is not an entirely rare process, but got a lot of press because of Disney's profile and Pixar's magical touch. It was then revealed this week that Pixar's brain-trust had also been brought in to help with the new Muppets movie in development. No word on whether this means we'll be reduced to tears watching a poignant sequence with Beaker.