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.