6.12.2010

Disney's Folio: Project Future


"My fun is working on a project and solving the problems." - Walt Disney


In most accounts of Disney's sojourn to Florida and the development of the company's second park, we hear about Walt Disney's desire to expand to an area with all of the lessons he learned from Disneyland's creation. The stories will detail the covert flights over Florida, the sneaky real estate deals and the sudden announcement that Disney was coming to Florida. Then sadly Walt dies before ground is broken. His brother Roy keeps the project moving forward and Walt Disney World opens in 1971. Walt's EPCOT concept is tweaked by Imagineers from his original "community of the future" idea to the forward-thinking and globally-inspired theme park that we know of today.


But that is a very broad generalization of how Disney came to Florida, typically used for encyclopedic introductions or brief summaries in much larger tomes about Walt Disney World. In Project Future: The Inside Story Behind The Creation of Disney World, author Chad Denver Emerson rectifies that with an exhaustive look at the entire process from Walt's first dreams of the project to the last contracts are signed and the shovels finally hit dirt.


Emerson benefits from focus on the research, analysis and legal wrangling of the project, and keeps to a timeline specifically prior to the opening of Walt Disney World. He isn't trying to tell a grand story for the tourism industry; this is very much a historical account of Disney's foray into Florida.


Project Future starts by detailing Disney's quest eastward for new park locations (and in some variations, not necessarily for what would become Walt Disney World) including Niagara Falls, Kansas City and St. Louis. Eventually the quest heads to Florida and specifically the Orlando area. It really is fascinating reading about the culture of the state at the time. (Especially later on when there's actual debate about the tax benefits of Disney's presence in Florida!) Casual fans might retroactively think that Disney World fit into a perfect location, primed for the lay of this new land. However, that location came to be what it is today largely because of Disney's presence and as such the infrastructure and landscape had to be largely reconfigured to be what is today.


The meat of the book focuses on the spy-like maneuvers the Disney company took to acquire the land needed to fit their proposed project. This included the use of aliases and dummy corporations to avoid the sort of premium that would've been put on properties if Disney was known to be the buyer. The process was a lot more complex, as detailed here, than those aforementioned anecdotal tales often let on.


At the same time, Disney had to contend with sensitive government dealings and the delicate nature of bringing their vision to what was largely a swamp. Project Future features in-depth discussions about the installation of the Reedy Creek Improvement District, the governing jurisdiction of the land that Walt Disney World occupies. (Of note: this isn't a Disney-endorsed book and Emerson unfortunately did not have access to Disney's archives. However, he utilized many other reliable sources, including former Disney executives.)


While some may find the book a little dry and lacking pixie dust, Emerson clearly makes great compromises with often complex concepts to make them a little easier to digest for the uninitiated. Still, you'll find a lot of legal goings-on, and not necessarily on a level as compelling as a John Grisham thriller. This was a harsh reality of getting Walt Disney World built as Disney had so many different variables to deal with than they had in getting Disneyland built. The book checks in at under 200 pages though it lacks any photographs or blueprints from the project (in an attempt to keep the cost of the book down). Also, at times (specifically the legal challenges near the end of the book) it is still difficult to wrap your head around the wild details involved in all the lawsuits, land improvements and tax discussions.


Disney has always been hesitant to pull the veil off much of what Emerson discusses here, likely because they have always felt their target audience was only casually interested in the nitty gritty details behind the creation of Walt Disney World. However, that thinking tends to overlook a large segment of Disney's most ardent fans. (You know the ones who run blogs and scour the internet for up-to-the-minute construction photos of the Fantasyland expansion!) Chad Emerson's Project Future nicely fills in that void for those of us looking for more of the real story.


Details about the book, along with timelines and key player information that is featured in the book's appendix, are featured at www.projectfuturebook.com.


6.06.2010

The Secrets, Stories and Magic Behind the Scenes of Disney Parks

As we all know, Disney theme parks have a fairly large presence on The Travel Channel, where they are frequently featured in specials highlighting different facets of the theme parks, from behind-the-scenes looks to episodes highlighting Disney's best thrill rides. Unless you're still living in the dark ages of VHS, most Disney fans have clogged up their digital recorders with these episodes. However, if you're like me and ended up changing cable providers, you lost your DVR library and had to start from scratch. Lightship Entertainment's Disney Parks DVD series goes a long way towards finally clearing up some DVR space and putting these episodes in proper perspective.


Disney Parks: The Secrets, Stories and Magic Behind the Scenes comes in three different configurations: a one-disc DVD featuring two Behind the Scenes episodes, a two-disc Blu Ray/DVD combo featuring three episodes, and a six-disc DVD set featuring all six episodes available. It is pointless to even consider the one-disc set as you can get the six-pack on Amazon for only $7 more. However, Blu Ray viewers will have to double-dip if they want the full set. Only three of the episodes were filmed in high definition. The only way to get the other three standard definition episodes is to buy the complete set. So you'll end up with three extraneous episodes in standard definition. Thankfully the prices on both sets were low enough to justify the double dip but it's still a bit wasteful.

Over time, the Disney Travel Channel specials can get a bit corny and repetitive. And for hard core fans, they're often preaching to a different choir (i.e. those with less knowledge of the parks). But let's face it, the channel is a cog in the tourism machine and as such does its job as travel propaganda. Disney fans have typically come to grips with this and view these specials for what they are: the rare glimpse of Disney theme parks on our television screens!

Please note that the first three discs here are available in both Blu Ray and standard definition DVDs; the last three are only available in standard definition. I have reviewed the best presentation available for each special.


Disneyland Resort: Behind the Scenes

The best of the Blu Ray episodes, this Behind the Scenes special is breathtaking in high definition. The episode gives a brief overview of Disneyland's history before embarking on the here and now, with in-depth looks at the Sleeping Beauty Castle walkthrough, the Matterhorn Bobsleds, Soarin' and other rides. Also included are looks at the technology behind improving the submarines, the ride technology of the Indiana Jones Adventure, the 4D technology of Toy Story Midway Mania, and the currently ongoing DCA expansion. The episode features interview segments with Imagineers, including Tony Baxter, Marty Sklar and John Lasseter.

Bonus: Extra segments for this feature include a brief look at Walt Disney's apartment above the Disneyland Fire Dept. on Main Street and a look at the King Arthur Carousel. Each of the extras only lasts a little over one minute long.


Undiscovered Disney Parks

Undiscovered Disney Parks actually takes a look at some of the lesser known experiences to be found at Disneyland Resort and Walt Disney World. These include DisneyQuest, parasailing, Richard Petty Driving Experience, Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach, and VIP tours. The disc also takes a look inside Club 33, and the Dream Suites in Disneyland and the Magic Kingdom. For many, a lot of this information might not seem all that undiscovered. (Nothing discussed here was unheard of to me.) But it is a good sampling of some of the fringe attractions to be found on either coast and would be a helpful tool to the uninitiated and those looking for someone beyond the usual experiences. (Though qualifying the water parks as "undiscovered" is quite debatable.) Not my favorite of the set since I'm not a fan of race cars or DisneyQuest, but a lot of the scenery footage and the clips from inside the Dream Suites and Club 33 are exquisitely filmed. And as I mentioned earlier, the disc gives a great sampling of activities that the casual or uninitiated guest may not have ever heard of.

Bonus: The Undiscovered extras don't focus on a specific activity like the other discs, but instead take a look at overall topics. The first is What's New at the Walt Disney's Resort Hotels. This segment includes some quick glimpses inside some of the resorts, along with some of those hotels' top amenities. There is also a brief segment offering Tips for Travelers such as Extra Magic Hours and Disney's Magical Express.


Ultimate Walt Disney World

As the title suggest, this episode details the ultimate thrills to be found at Walt Disney World, including Mission: SPACE, Expedition Everest, Test Track, Splash Mountain, Summit Plummet, and many obvious others. As such, we get a lot of high definition footage of some of WDW's best rides. Unfortunately, a lot of those rides are in the dark so if you're watching on Blu Ray, wait for the Space Mountain segment to see how well your HDTV displays black! Having seen the episode on the Travel Channel already, I paid particular attention to seeing the theme parks in high definition and the episode nicely gives you a fair share of wide shots of many park icons. The episode also does a nice job delivery clips along with a good dose of behind the scenes information, interspersing reactions from guests with interviews of Disney Imagineers, executives, and travel writers.

Bonus: The disc offers two extras not originally aired with the episode. This includes segments for Goofy's Barnstormer and Catastrophe Canyon. Not really the "ultimate" thrills I think of when visiting WDW.


Walt Disney World: Behind the Scenes

Much like Disneyland: Behind the Scenes, this special looks at how the magic happens. It includes a lot of footage of Walt's discussions about the project and well-known "secrets" like the utilidors, forced-perspective, and ride technologies. Much of this is repetitive of the other specials. I also found the presentation to be a little more candy-coated and hyperbolic than usual. In one segment, the narration outwardly suggest that Epcot's popularity was down until Test Track came along, an obvious skewing of that theme park's history. Additionally, despite the Blu Ray player's upscaling of the standard definition disc, the quality of the film was still subpar enough (and not in widescreen format) to detract greatly, especially in comparison with the high definition specials.

Bonus: The bonus features take a look at more recent developments in Walt Disney World: Stitch's Great Escape and improvements to the Haunted Mansion.


Disney Cruise Line

The only special on the set focusing outside the Disney theme parks is Disney Cruise Line. This episode compiles construction footage of Disney cruise ships along with full boat tours of the Disney Wonder and the Disney Magic and interview footage with Disney cruise specialists. The footage of the boat construction is pretty remarkable, especially given the complex nature of their completion. However, if you're like me and not very interested in a Disney cruise, you may find this episode stale. That said, I did find some of the glimpses of the latest ship, the Disney Dream, to be pretty alluring. (Featured in the Bonus section.)


Disney's Animal Kingdom

The only episode on the set to focus on one specific theme park, Disney's Animal Kingdom is one of the best Travel Channel episodes to ever air. That specific focus helps allow for a more in-depth look at the theme park, instead of the usual quick and trivial info. Also, this theme park is unique enough that a lot of the behind the scenes information is more compelling than seeing the 100th explanation of audio-animatronics. It also helps that you get footage of animals that you sometimes miss at the park. Of course, Joe Rohde, the lead designer of Animal Kingdom, is a very prominent interview subject. Rohde has always made an intriguing interview given his unique and upbeat personality. He is joined by other Disney specialists in interview segments that go behind AK attractions like the Kilimanjaro Safari, Expedition Everest and the Tree of Life.

Overall the sets nicely balance well-known information with less obvious segments, all featuring great film footage. The narration has a very Disneyesque pleasant presentation, thankfully never navigating towards some of the annoying extremes that some Disney planning videos have gone to. A nice product for the Disney completist, even if it sometimes dips in quality, and a better product for the casual fan and for families looking for a fun primer before their vacation (or even to help them plan).

Hopefully this series does well enough to justify the release of other specials, specifically the Great Hotels series and many of the specials hosted by the always affable Samantha Brown. Additionally, it was great seeing Disney theme parks in high definition and I hope that Disney recognizes the market for doing something like this either on their own, or in conjunction with companies like Lightship Entertainment.

6.02.2010

Disney's Folio: Walt Disney Imagineering


When I was a kid, I used to daydream about my next trip to Walt Disney World by pouring over books like Disney's EPCOT Center: Creating the New World of Tomorrow, the EPCOT pictorial souvenir from 1982, and the 15th Anniversary Walt Disney World souvenir book from 1986. I got lost in the conceptual artwork, the construction photos and the pictures of park models. At the time, you had nothing but souvenir programs, the rare book, and park maps. There was no Internet with fan communities sharing videos and photographs or blogging construction progress. An 8-year-old's journey into imagination had a lot less help than one has today. All we had were those books and guides to connect our minds back to that happy place in Florida.


I've still been able to keep those connections alive with Disney books and one of the bigger, more profound purchases I first made in adulthood was the Walt Disney Imagineering book, which covered over 40 years of pioneering brainstorms, legendary concepts and modern marvels. But after 15 years of release, there was a lot of catching up to do.


Walt Disney Imagineering: A Behind the Dreams Look at Making More Magic Real maintains a focus on Imagineering projects that have been developed and created since the original Imagineering book’s release in 1996. As such, Hong Kong Disneyland, Tokyo’s DisneySea, Disney’s California Adventure and Disney’s Animal Kingdom all get the largest spotlight of Disney’s various parks and attractions. (Though the very recent development of Walt Disney World’s Fantasyland expansion, which is still years away from opening, is briefly touched upon.) Though new concepts in older parks and resorts sometimes step into that spotlight, the book largely works as a continuation to the previous version and NOT an all encompassing journey through the history of Imagineering.


Unlike the original which broke the Chapters into more creative topics, this version approaches the Imagineering process with a more concise, chronological tour through the minds of the Imagineers and their incredibly complex process. The first chapter, Theory, delves into the creative energy that fuels the Imagineering process, such as stories and research. The second chapter, Tools, looks at the execution of those ideas spotlighting tools like model-making, special effects and the language of color. One concept that I hadn't read of before was the Virtual Model Shop, which is exactly what it sounds like. The book shows a picture of an Imagineer using virtual reality to tour DCA's Cars Land. The book is a bit more freeform in its third chapter, Portfolio, which takes a current look at the people, ideas and projects fueling Imagineering.


The writing can at times be very cookie-cutter, rarely ever going too deep into the process, as it’s meant to cover as many steps in the Imagineering process as possible, with as minimal of a description of each of those steps. That is because they have wisely chosen to fill most of the space of the oversized book with photographs and illustrations, including some very fun gatefolds and fold-outs. But author Melody Malmberg does a good job conveying as much as she can in short passages. And clearly, Disney isn't going to give away all of its trade secrets.


That said, the beauty and glory of this book, much like its predecessor, is the vast array of concept illustrations, blueprints, model photographs and full-color pictures contained within the pages. Some of the material is presented in not only full-page gatefolds but also segmented fold-outs (all nicely protected by feisty tissue paper). One great segment overlaps a semi-opaque full page illustration and then a transparent blueprint over a photograph of Cinderella's Castle. The concept doesn't just support the Imagineering concepts being discussed within the book, but it adds the kind of repeat enjoyability that a book like this thrives off of. (Truly a coffee table book, this Imagineering book is certainly not a one-time read.)


If there was a star of this show, I would have to say it is DisneySea. The companion to Tokyo Disneyland is renowned amongst Disney fans for its uniqueness and architectural wonder, particularly given Tokyo's lack of accessibility for the common domestic Disney fan. The park gets its fair share in this book, especially as one of the pinnacles of Imagineering over the last 15 years.


So perhaps there is still room for my imagination, now progressively taller and grayer, to run free through the pages of a Disney book. Despite the wide variety of technologies available to immerse oneself in almost any Disney park, concept or ride, sometimes the best way to transport that imagination is to stare at a printed map or construction photo for hours. Walt Disney Imagineering: A Behind the Dreams Look at Making More Magic Real is a great addition to your library and to the ongoing discovery of the Disney Imagineer's wild imaginations…and our own.