February 12, 2016

Universal vs. Disney: Round One

Editor's note: As promised, here is a Universal Orlando trip report from my good friend and great photographer Len Yokoyama. It's just the beginning as Len compares Disney to Universal- and comes up with some surprising and very astute findings. Read and enjoy this article from my bro!
Aloha from Hawaii! Before I start my trip report to Universal Studios Orlando this past Christmas, I wanted to give you a bit of a background on me (this is the tedious part so hang in there). I’ve been an avid follower of Mark’s blog for the last few years. His combination of “insightful” writing, Disney park info, and a strong love for Christ quickly made his postings must read material (even Mr. Taft's occasional musings on The Carpenters gave me a better appreciation of their music). Over time, I began commenting on Mark’s various columns, and we slowly struck up a conversation via email. This communication turned into a solid friendship which led up to Mark asking if I would like to do a guess report about my Orlando vacation.  Yes, if this Universal report doesn’t raise pitchforks and force Mark to shut down his blog, I will be back with a painfully longer article on my Walt Disney World experiences. So without further adieu, here we go….

Portoftino Bay.

Surviving 2 stopovers and a day’s worth of flying, we immediately headed to Universal after dropping our luggage off at Portofino. With my trusty Nikon D810 and a bag of heavy lenses in tow, we headed straight for Diagon Alley. Now, I’ve always had an appreciation of Universal parks even though my passion (and wallet) belongs to Disney. I adjust my expectation levels when going there and just enjoy their mish-mash collection of movie / entertainment properties. Make no mistake, the two areas that Disney absolutely blows away Universal (to me anyway) are in the areas of licenses and immersive theming. While I’ll always have soft spots for ET, Jaws, and Jurassic Park, these properties are no match for Disney’s stable of characters and movies (and with the acquisitions of Pixar, Marvel, and Star Wars over the years…let’s face it…Universal is Curious George trying to go toe to toe with King Kong). Disney does a stellar job of keeping their licenses fresh and at the center of pop culture heat. And with Disney’s acquisition of Marvel, you wonder how much incentive Universal has to keep investing big bucks into that super-hero license. 

 JK Rowling’s characters are literally the answer to their prayers. With a hefty fan base and new movies on the horizon, the Potterverse remains relevant and in demand. The crowds at both Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade supports this theory. The stores were packed to the gill and lines at the ride attractions and restaurants were ghastly. A huge part of it is due to Universal sparing no expense in building these additions to the theme park. Hogsmeade holds its own against any section at the Disney parks, and Diagon Alley quite easily surpasses a good number of them. The attention to theming and detail is outstanding, and like the best of Disney, the Potter areas are extremely photogenic (especially at night). You can’t take a bad photo there!  One of the negative aspects at Universal’s parks (for me) is the heavy reliance on  motion simulator rides. I had my first taste via Star Tours and left the ride with a headache. Back to the Future confirmed my inability to enjoy these type of attractions. Fortunately Harry Potter and Escape from Gringotts is more of a traditional attraction with some actual forward motion. It does use some of the motion simulation technology, but the mix was enough for me to make it through, and enjoy the overall experience. The 3D is cutting edge, reminding me of the classic Terminator 3D show (I still remember being blown away by the visuals on that Cameron classic). I took a pass on Forbidden Journey since my wife said I would surely get queasy.

 Lions and tigers and dragons, oh my!

We made sure to sample the Butter Beer after reading rave reviews. They are two versions, the regular and frosty. Go with the frosty…it’s cold and slushy texture reminds me of a margarita sans the alcohol (it also doesn’t seem as sweet as the regular version). Beware when ordering, as counter help will  default you to the souvenir mug which adds $7.00 to the drink price. I almost choked when my wife told me our two drinks were nearly $30.00!!!  We had lunch at Three Broomsticks which was another major showpiece for Universal. The place is large and easily accommodates the crowds waiting to eat. Both the food and service there were top notch, but again, it’s that immersive environment that is the big pay off.  I was particulary impressed with the way Universal runs the dining area. Workers will appoint you a seating area which helps to alleviate the stress of finding someplace to sit. I later found the same method applied at Be Our Guest restaurant, so maybe this is something all the parks are moving towards adapting.  Stage shows are run throughout the day, the three being the Frog Choir, Triwizard Sprit Rally, and Celestina Warbeck and the Singing Banshees. The first two shows are midly entertaining, although I think children will enjoy it the most (especially if they are fans of JK Rowling’s works). Celestina, for me anyway, was a cut above the others due to its song productions, which are both catchy and fun. The crowds rarely tapered off, even during the later part of the evening.  I wanted to hang out long enough for the crowds to exit so I could do some long exposure photography.  My main goal was photographing the dragon above Gringott’s bank. The beast will exhale fire every 10 minutes or so, but getting a shot of it (without being severly overexposed) proved challenging. I probably should have used a neutral density filter or bracketed my shots, but a security guard put a quick end to my picture taking.  She approached me and told me my type of camera was not allowed in the parks. I told her I was not a professional , but she told me it didn’t matter. But since the park was almost closing, she would let me off with a warning.  I found it strange that no one else, security or the gate attendees, made a single peep about my gear. I was shooting like a madman throughout the day and night, but no one even gave me a second look. I think because I was on a tripod, I stood out and attracted the crosshairs of this particular guard.  I have this notion that photos whether bad, good, or great, provide invaluable publicity for amusement parks, or any vacation destination for that matter. I can see if I was selling said pictures and making money off of Universal’s properties, but clearly (as my checkbook will attest to) I’m not.  

Captain, my captain.

Other than the Potter areas, we did get to spend a few hours checking out other areas of Islands of Adventure. I’m a long time comic book fan, so the Marvel portions are fun, if not mind blowing. How much more Universal will want to invest in the Marvel properties is a key question. While I don’t doubt the value of the license, it seems like Universal is also helping to promote their biggest competitor’s wares. It’s a tricky situation with no easy answer, I suspect. The Hulk ride was down for refurbishment, so I assume the Marvel stuff will be around for a while longer.  The Dr. Seuss land is charming, but of little interest to me. I admit that the place is well executed, and it really shines at night. With how much less today’s children are reading, I wonder if many of them know the legacy of the man, let alone his  written works.  The area leading to the Lost Continent area is a mystery to me. While I really love the look and theming (a big part of it having grown up with Ray Harryhausen movies. This places looks like a set from one of his animated classics), it lacks a strong narrative focal point. I recalled the Eight Voyage of Sinbad Stunt show as pretty lackluster back in 2004 so we didn’t even bother this time around. I had thought this area had been closed to provide room for the next Potter attraction, so I was surprised to see it still here.

 Beautiful setting!

It was noontime and lunch was on our minds (or rather stomachs) so we headed to the Mythos Restaurant. One of our friends had heard great reviews about the place, so we decided to give it a shot. The place was booked solid for the next few hours, but we managed to book reservations for dinner.  After a few hours roaming the park (and grabbing a light snack), we headed back and got seated at a big table towards the corner of the restaurant. The theming in Mythos was also a sight to behold. I truly hope they don’t tear down this area in favor of more Potter attractions/lands (although the lack of a big commercial attraction in this area worries me). The menu was interesting, but the one thing that really caught my attention was a Pad Thai Noodle dish. Now being from Hawaii, thai restaurants are as common as McDonald’s or the local 7-11. Asian foods are a major staple of island eating, so we have no shortage of authentic ethnic cuisines. I decided to take a chance and order the dish, even though I had already half expected a disappointing fare. To my total surprise, the thai noodles were incredibly delicious…maybe the best I have ever eaten! If anyone told me I would find the best preparation of Pad Thai noodles in Orlando, I would have called them a buffoon (not really, but it make it sound more dramatic)! Come to think of it, this dinner was one of the highlights of my vacation, and we hadn’t even hit Disney World yet!

Len in the middle (in case you thought otherwise!)

All in all, is Universal Studios Orlando worth shaving off a couple of days from a WDW trip (which was the main focus of our journey)? My answer is an absolute YES! In fact, I wished we had stayed another day or two as we totally missed all the other attractions and area that we enjoyed in the past.  While Disney is still king in the world of theme parks, I give Universal props for the levels of commitment and quality they’ve shown with their latest additions featuring a boy wizard! 

 Thanks, Len, for a great report and a solid beginning to a series we will all look forward to reading!
Your photographs are amazing, too. (Maybe my captions not so much!)
(Photographs copyright Len Yokoyama.)

February 11, 2016

Design Detail: Snow White's Scary Adventures

Walt Disney had to make concessions to get Disneyland opened on time and within budget. Tomorrowland took a hit and was covered with banners and flags. Frontierland and Adventureland were relatively complete as was Main Street U.S.A.  

Adults and kids alike loved Fantasyland, but little did park guests know Walt really wanted a different style for the area. Instead of a medieval looking castle courtyard, his heart was really set on taking visitors into the European villages that inspired so many of his animated films. This area would find new additions, but the overall look would stay the same for over 25 years.

When Disneyland's lovely New Fantasyland eventually made its debut in 1983, everything seemed to be totally redone, It's a Small World aside. Putting the great Imagineer Tony Baxter in charge of a remodel this large was not quite a risk. I mean, the guy had totally just nailed it with Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. His star was on the rise.

The re-Imagineering of Fantasyland meant the exterior buildings took on a new charm as Walt's original vision was realized. The interiors of the dark rides were changed as well. As a special incentive to visit, a new dark ride Pinocchio's Daring Adventures opened as well.

It had long been an issue for Disney and the little kids that Snow White's Adventures was scarier than what guests would grasp while waiting in line. The new exterior took care of that! With the change, the "scary" part was added to the title but the building itself communicated this attraction wasn't focused on the cute Seven Dwarfs.

Entering the queue, guests notice the evil Queen peering out through the curtains of the turret window above. The pathways takes guests deeper and deeper into the darkness until its time to board the ride vehicle. Then the real scary fun begins.

That Disney Imagineers would place this much detail into the exterior of a smaller scale attraction tells us much about the show standards of the past and what differentiated Disney from its competitors- a place that kept them the leader in themed entertainment until Harry Potter arrived at Universal that is.

(Photograph copyright Mark Taft.)

February 9, 2016

Frozen Comes to Broadway

Yes, it is true. Beginning Spring of 2018, the smash animated movie will be turned into a Broadway production with additional music and lyrics by the husband and wife duo that created it all.

With Frozen coming to California Adventure this summer and an Epcot attraction to the Norway pavilion this Spring, the end of it all is not in sight.

(Art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

February 8, 2016

California Adventure at 15: Now & Then

Disney California Adventure park hits Fifteen Years. What a very strange, strange, journey it has been! Never before has a Disney park created such a stir among the company's loyal fan base of theme park enthusiasts. Nor has a Disney park ever gone through so much change. 

The original California Adventure souvenir map.

Inside the park guide map.
Revealing a small park with a mix of well designed elements
among a slew of cheap off the shelf attractions and re-run films.

Although there was the expected amount of Disney marketing and fanfare at the grand opening in 2001, the collective thud heard from the media and visitors in response to the ill-conceived park was just as thunderous. How could they pass this park off as a high Disney quality, and how could they place this disaster right next door to Walt Disney's beloved original kingdom? What were they thinking?

One of the most interesting but very different
parts of the park: the old entrance

Charmless Disney store just inside the gates.

Even after all these years of park visits, the first visit to any new Disney park exciting. What have the Imagineers have cooked up? New attractions, new themes, now places to eat and shop. With a California theme, I truly wanted the best, but with all the media's negative reviews, I braced for the worst. Something I'd soon experience for myself.  

Buying our tickets the night before, we were ready at the gate for opening time.  Peering through the gates, it all looked so bland. My worst fears would soon be realized. If the grand "opening act" to the park was this ordinary, what else had they done? As I soon discovered, the park itself was a half-baked Disney park: part a retread of other Disney attractions from Florida, too many films, and a large dose of carnival rides. Had Disney learned anything from 45 years in the theme park business? Did they just take guests' loyalty for granted now? 

The California Zephr. One of my favorite places once inside.

The answer was that the suits and designers wanted a money maker but has tossed out everything that made the Magic Kingdom parks so beloved. The stores lining the entry street screamed "hip and trendy" and oh so ordinary. Corrugated steel sides, splashy neon, but no substance or charm to be found. Ahead was the gilded sun and a fountain. Although I found the sun sculpture to be pleasant, I could not believe this was supposed to be the landmark icon for the new park.  I hoped for the best as I turned tight into Condor Flats, looking forward to the park's centerpiece attraction Soarin' Over California.

The beautiful but stationary California Zephyr was right around the bend. It did not go anywhere (a problem for many of the interesting pieces of the park that look like they should move), but the shops inside seemed rather inviting- especially compared to the entrance mall. I knew the train and its outdoor cafe tables would be a spot for exploration later.

At first a desert, now a mountain airstrip.

I just knew I would like the aviation focus and feel of Condor Flats. The high desert landscape had never been done before in a Disney park, and I was curious to see how they pulled it off. (At night, I really enjoyed the airstrip lights on the ground. A cool bit of theming that did not have to be there.) Plus, what's not to like about a flying attraction? 

Soarin' Over California- wow- an enduring favorite from the first ride. It got me a bit choked up as I flew over my home state.  The score, the sequences filmed, the scents and the gentle but thrilling flight simulation make it so much more than Star Tours. In a park with so little to offer, I ranked Soarin' among the top "E Ticket" attractions of the resort and of the opening day roster, I saw it as the top attraction in the little park. Based on the many reviews of the park, I discovered I was not alone.

GRR, somedays brr...

It was time to move on, and with the weather getting warmer, I was ready for a ride on Grizzly River. Clearly, this wooded section of the park was one of its most beautiful areas...and also the one with the views from the pricey Grand Californian Resort. Geysers, waterfalls, dense forests and great hidden paths to explore gave this very faithful representation of Northern California geography to a park that was very Southern California centric. A very nice change of pace. After the ride, I headed into what looked like San Francisco.

This short little street contained absolutely nothing. Zero, Zilch. What a waste. Speaking of waste, there were restrooms but no shops, restaurants or attractions. It just seemed to be tossed in there because the designers did not know what to do to transition from the forest to a beachside pier. And why was the Golden Gate Bridge at the front of the park and the bay at the back? A lost opportunity and also a nagging reminder that this was a bargain basement Imagineered theme park.

New heights in Imagineering for this park!

California Screamin' is an excellent roller coaster, but a carnival theme is a poor excuse for any land in any Disney park. Enough said.

From ugly to uglier...

Superstar Limo: The strangest attraction to ever make a Disney park.
It represented everything wrong with California Adventure.
Thankfully short-lived.

One of my favorite earlier photographs of the park.

What did I see that I liked in this patchwork quilt of a park? Well, the short-lived Eureka was a great parade. From the use of creative puppets of sorts to trampolines, roller skates and pogo sticks, it was a high energy presentation but it failed with its oh so trendy theme song.  

Animation was also terrific, but a great mid-level attraction does not a great park make. I left the park after about 4 hours (certainly a record), and went straight to Guests Services to complain. Apparently I was not alone in this either.

The park bombed plain and simple. The press was bad, and even The Simpsons got into the act, parodying the park on television. Crowds stayed away in droves, and even the later addition of a very truncated Twilight Zone Tower of Terror did not bring in the desired crowds. 

A new plan and a new map!

Thankfully, one of the smartest things new CEO Robert Iger did was announce an unprecedented re-Imagineering of the park in an multi-year plan. A desperate and wise move indeed!

World of Color construction.

After the construction dust cleared, I ventured into the park again. I've got to say, now, 15 years later, California Adventure has become one of my favorite Disney parks! All it took was well over a billion dollars and a large chunk of humility followed by a dose of creativity. Going back to what made Disney parks unique in the first place. Giving guests an experience they couldn't get anywhere else.

A Mermaid surfaces. 

How to fix a broken park, a product that damages the reputation of a company known for excellence? Start all over. And so they did.

Large swaths of the park were engulfed by walls as things began to change. The horrible Golden Dreams film show with Whoopi Goldberg was out. Ariel's attraction was in, adding a touch of whimsy to the old school look at a seaside carnival. The nighttime World of Color show came to the Pier. Enhancements were made to the exteriors of the shops and restaurants. Large ugly hamburgers and cement dinosaurs became charming places to grab a bite. A full transformation was underway.

Walt comes home to a park that needed his presence.

The former hip and edgy park gates and land took on a retro look back to when Walt Disney first arrived in California. Perhaps a bit contrived but desperately needed as well! Gone were the giant postcard tile murals, and in its place were elegant if copycat gates which also greeted guests at Disney's Hollywood Studios in Florida. Providing a foretaste of what was to come, Buena Vista Street would replace the boxy mall look of what was at opening. Imagine what Main Street U.S.A. would become twenty years later, and the former shell of a theme park street became an elegant, warm, and inviting place to begin a new adventure.

For those guests who enter Cars Land from the Wharf,
what a reveal!

In a move that sparked further controversy, alternating fans with excitement and yet surprise, an unused parking lot would become home to Pixar's Cars Land, a single intellectual property based area, the first ever in the States. It had happened at Tokyo Disney Sea when both Mermaid Lagoon and Arabian Coast appeared on the scene, but this would be the first time guests on American soil would find the same plan in action.

The race is on!

The risky move was fully successful! The newest and only Disney  "F Ticket" attraction, Radiator Springs Racers, is now the must-see attraction at the Disneyland Resort and the envy of those on the East Coast. All for good reason. The combination sightseeing, dark ride, and thrill ride attraction excels in all areas. The mountain range alone is some of the most impressive work the Imagineers have ever done. 

Breakfast at Flo's. 

The expensive and lengthy park transformation has finally made Disney California Adventure a Disney worthy theme park worth visiting, changing the guest traffic flow and increasing the numbers of people. 

A new blog version fun map from 2012.

With rumors of more stellar attractions on the way, Anaheim's second Disney park is finally on the road to success as it enters the second half of its second decade.

There are a number of articles on this site that chronicle the transformation of the park through a look at Disney concept art. Take a peek at Bargain Basement Imagineering beginning here.
Part Two is here

Part Three (with the beginning of the park transformation can be found here.

(Photographs copyright Mark Taft. Maps copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

February 6, 2016

Riding El Rio del Tiempo

How would I like to spend the afternoon? Going to EPCOT Center and riding some of the old great attractions of the past: El Rio del Tiempo, Journey into Imagination, Horizons, and World of Motion. That's not to say I don't like Test Track. I do. But like much of what they have done to Walt Disney World, sometimes the replacements are far less exciting and well done than what was there before. 
Don't you agree?

(Photograph copyright The Walt Disney Company)

February 4, 2016

The Legacy of Karen Carpenter

"When I was young, I'd listen to the radio, waiting for my favorite songs."

The opening lines from the Carpenters' hit "Yesterday Once More" seem to ring of days gone by. In fact, it was 33 years ago the world lost the greatest female voice of the seventies and of her generation. On that day, Karen Carpenter passed away, but the very memorable music she crafted with her gifted brother Richard continues to reach new fans every decade since.

Unfortunately, her death from anorexia nervosa overshadowed her art in the earliest years, but the public has moved on to finally first recognizing her as the amazing artist she was- a once in a lifetime vocalist. With brother Richard as arranger, songwriter, producer, and musical partner, the Carpenters were a recording act for all time. 

"Close to You", "We've Only Just Begun", "Rainy Days and Mondays", "Superstar", "Goodbye to Love", "A Song For You", "Top of the World", "Only Yesterday", "Please Mr. Postman", and of course, Karen's favorite "I Need to Be in Love". Playful or serious, these incredible recordings defined music in their time and are still played today. Even as the duo's popularity waned, the least of their best selling albums contained instant classics. Enough hits to fill two full discs of music without a trace of filler. 

Karen's voice was instantly recognizable, the mark of a great artist.  Pure tones without having to scream to make an impact. No studio tricks in order to make you listen. Just talent. Intimate, engaging, richly deep, and sensual. All those wonderful multi-tracked vocals of the brother and sister displayed Richard's genius in arranging the songs and producing Karen's voice.  

Do you ever wonder why you don't hear covers of Carpenters songs on The Voice or American Idol? Easy. Although Karen made it all sound simple, in reality, the songs were very difficult to perform, and only the finest vocalists would attempt them. Yet, Karen's voice along Richard's production combined to make their versions definitive. Even Christmas songs became theirs. When no one else was recording these favorites, they set the new standard for holiday music with their 1978 release of "Christmas Portrait". 

Photo from her long delayed solo album.

Karen's influence is still heard today. Every time I hear Adele sing "Someone Like You", I hear Karen and her first take- the one released as a single- on the Leon Russell classic "Superstar". Vocalists as varied as Rumer, Madonna, Gloria Estefan, k.d. lang, Shania Twain, and Christina Aguilera have named Karen an influence. Even British singer Harriet, a lovely woman with a voice eerily similar, wisely avoids doing covers of Carpenters songs.

As part of a duo or a solo artist, there's only one Karen Carpenter. The woman could sing, and she could sing anything. Try out one of these lesser known, non-single, favorites from their/her catalogue-

Album Title: Song

Ticket to Ride/Offering:  All of My Life
Close to You: Baby It's You
Carpenters (aka Tan album): Hideaway
A Song For You: Road Ode
Now and Then: Our Day Will Come
Horizon: Desperado
A Kind of Hush: Boat to Sail
Passage: B'wana She No Home
Made in America: Strength of a Woman
Voice of the Heart: Ordinary Fool
Lovelines: Kiss Me The Way You Did Last Night
As Time Goes By: Karen's medley with Ella Fitzgerald
Karen Carpenter: Still Crazy After All These Years

For those of you new to the duo or to Karen, what wonderful discoveries await you! For those of you already familiar with their work, it will be a trip down memory lane. Want more Karen and Richard? To date, there's over 80 more posts on this blog, including album reviews, very rare photos, and much more.
Follow this link if you want to read about Karen's last hours and the documentary that was made about it. 
If you want to read my original reviews of each Carpenters album (and here solo album) starting at the beginning, go here. Or if you want to see how I've changed my perspective on each album after years, start with Ticket to Ride Revisited.

February 3, 2016

Nighttime View from California Grill

Take a look at this incredible photo of the Magic Kingdom from the outdoor walkway at California Grill. This shot by my friend Len Yokoyama captures the reason this restaurant at Disney's Contemporary Resort has become one of my favorites. And dare I say, it is something that Disneyland cannot compete with! From the far reaches of Big Thunder Mountain to New Fantasyland to the iconic Space Mountain, you can see it all. When you're there, you can see it all via telescope too, even displaying the logs going down the final flume of Splash Mountain. Gorgeous!

(Photograph copyright Len Yokohama.)

Retirement Plan

There's nothing like being cooped up in bed for several days to make you think about the things that are truly important. And at least part of the time, that is what I have been doing. It's ugly work thinking about your life and how it does or doesn't match up with what you'd like it to be or what you say is really important to you.

When I was a younger man, my dreams were centered on a great wife and raising wonderful kids, a career I loved, and the chance to travel the world, (starting with Japan), enjoying music, friends, and life in general. 

I guess you could say I have been blessed because all those things have come to pass- and not from my hand, but from the hand of God who opened every door for these to happen. There wasn't too much, honestly, that was not about fulfilling what I wanted. 

Things have changed. I'm older, somewhat wiser, and there's fewer years ahead of me than those behind me. (There's always eternity!) 

Now, I'm focused on "finishing well" for the next several decades. Or tomorrow should God decide it's my time, and you never really know when that will be. Do you? I don't, so I want to plan to live life to the fullest as God defines it.  He is the One we'll all answer to.

Thankfully, in Jesus as the absolute perfect representation of God the Father, we see a loving and sacrificial God. At the same time, he is fully righteous and pure. He desires not one person be in Hell at the end of time, but He allows each individual to have free will to choose His way or the way of death. His way involves turning our lives inside out to follow Him. Everything else is someone else's way that leads to the wrong final destination.

So, when I pray, I pray for people. That they would know Him, love Him, and spend eternity with Him. It's extremely rare for me to pray for things. Sometimes I pray for circumstances. But generally, it is people. People I love. My wife, my children, my grandchildren, relatives who both know Jesus and those who do not, friends I meet along the way who are undecided about their spiritual choices- the very ones that will determine their eternity.

We spend so much time planning and thinking about how to make this life better, and we give relatively little time into preparing for an eternity where time no longer matters. My ultimate retirement plan is secure in Christ. What's your plan?

(Photograph copyright Matthias.)

February 2, 2016

Loving Laguna

Our latest big snowstorm has arrived, so I thought I'd share a little California coastline. I snapped this photo a couple of years ago, and Laguna Beach is still a favorite place. I just love it! Enjoy!

(Photograph copyright Mark Taft.)

February 1, 2016

New Shanghai Disneytown Art

New concept art showing Disneytown at Shanghai Disneyland. With World of Disney dead center. Not thrilling, but it is part of it all.

(Art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

The End of Adventure Thru Inner Space

Long before Star Tours made its debut at Disneyland, the deepest, darkest, most mysterious attraction to be found at the brand new Tomorrowland 1967 was a corporate sponsored presentation, Adventure Thru Inner Space. The Monsanto company was on the leading edge of bringing science into everyday life making them a great choice for sponsorship. 

Notice the Peoplemover overhead 
and the same general building shape as the current Star Tours. 

Due to the fact it was at the entrance to Tomorrowland, crowds were instantly drawn to it. Peeking inside the building, the display of a larger than life snowflake made for a compelling piece of eye candy, while the giant microscope at the end of the queue seemed to devour guests. 

Actually, it really did devour guests! The reason Inner Space had great numbers of riders was due to its innovative, continuously moving vehicles. Guests journeyed into the world of a snowflake in the Atommobile, the first use of the Omnimover, a vehicle designed by Disney Imagineers.  It not only kept the crowds moving, it was also used to direct the sightless of visitors as the car itself turned to specific show scenes. 

Nice piece of WED concept art.

This thrilling journey into the world of an atom was a fan favorite for a variety of reasons- including the opportunity to travel with the one you loved to a cool, dark, and relatively private place. All under the view of the Mighty Microscope, of course! 

The actual ending of the attraction is shown in the top rendering. On the right side, drops of oil flowed down hundreds of strands of Monsanto fibers creating a striking piece of art. Smaller exhibits surrounded guests exiting the attraction in an area much smaller than but similar to EPCOT Center's Communicore / Inventions.

The attraction poster.

Crowds packed out Inner Space for about 15 years. By then, it seemed to be time for a change. Disney Imagineers and George Lucas joined together to bring the Star Wars universe to Disney. It was the end of the beloved attraction.

(Art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

January 30, 2016

Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus

"A Devout Muslim Encounters Christianity". The tagline says it all. But in a world of hype on all ends of the spectrum, this book by Nabeel Qureshi is worth far more than the paper and ink used. Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus tells the very personal story of a man raised in a loving, gentle Muslim home and how he slowly began investigating the truth of what he believed, much moreso after 9-11. It's a compelling and compassionate narrative, describing truths about Islam straight from its earliest sources and where it differs from Christianity. Absolutely breathtaking, balanced, and heartfelt.  

January 29, 2016

Perhaps the Most Beautiful Animal Kingdom Art Ever

I am not going to comment and let this beautiful piece of concept art for Disney's Animal Kingdom speak for itself...

(Art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

January 28, 2016

A Rat's Life

A wonderful film, a beautiful soundtrack. Ratatouille continues to be a Pixar film I just love! It's almost ten years old now, but the adventure of rat chef Remy in the kitchens of Paris has all the makings of a classic. Michael Giacchino's score evokes evenings in the City of Light without coming across as too sweet a valentine or as a mockery. One listen to "Dinner Rush" sums up the entire soundtrack rather nicely. French recording artist Camille brings just the right flavor to "Le Festin", an original number you'd swear was a classic tune from years ago.

If there was ever an attraction to make me want to visit the miserable Walt Disney Studios in Paris again, this is it. I'd even take it in World Showcase at Epcot- as long as it did not replace the old but lovely Impressions de France. (Toons are already in the park. I'm just going with the flow...)

January 27, 2016

Killing Christianity

The Christian Church in America is Dying From the Disease of Terminal Niceness! Let that statement sink in for a bit before you keep reading. 

How did we get there and so far away from Historic Christianity?

Let me throw some thoughts your way. First, “The Soft Gospel”. It says, "Come to Jesus and your life will become better." It's the Pathway to Prosperity, etc. It's a teaching that has taken hold in the United States for a few decades now. We have come to believe it is our God-given right to health and wealth. This mindset keeps us focused on our own needs- and ineffective in God's Kingdom! We don’t think about God’s priorities but our own! It is still “all about us”!

Let me say, Jesus didn't end up wealthy and healthy on this earth; neither did the Twelve Disciples, neither did the early New Testament church. Many were killed for their faith! Even today, true believers are not welcomed in our world. The latest martyrs- believers in the Middle East who are executed- certainly didn't end up with a life on earth full of money and comfort.

This thought is no better than any other philosophy, reducing Jesus’ bloody sacrifice on the Cross- and His Resurrection- to nothing. It reduces Jesus to just another philosopher instead of the Creator God who will return to Judge all Creation. Following this thought pattern reduces the Christian to another self help group, and we can fall into the trap about talking about Jesus and thinking about Him, intellectualizing Him, without actually following Him into a life of self-sacrifice and death. Ultimately, the church and the Christian faith looks like what the world offers but from a different slant!

I read the Bible where Jesus said, “Whoever serves me must follow me.” (John 12:26). On the way to his crucifixion, he asks Peter “Will you really lay down your life for me?” (John 13:38) The same question holds true for us today!

The second reason the church has been infected by terminal niceness comes from another incomplete piece of theology. “It’s All By Grace” – Yes, that is true, and I am thankful for Amazing Grace- but it does not mean nothing is required of us! The Biblical book of James was written for a reason. Faith without works is dead!

Work is an expression of, and a response to, the grace given us, an outpouring of our gratefulness toward Him who gave all for us. Jesus himself set this example in motion! To be Christlike is to also engage in the work the Father gives us. For His purposes and for his glory. If we never work, we become spiritually fat, lazy, and dull! We remain self-focused and immature, useless in God's kingdom.

So, that begs the question- What Does Terminal Niceness Look Like? What are the symptoms?
1- We get Bored- and We look elsewhere for fulfillment! Be it entertainment, business, family, sports, money, leisure, outright sin, , etc. Why? "Soft Christianity" doesn’t fulfill because it has no depth, no challenge, so we look other places.

It used to be the Military appealed to patriotism to recruit. In the last few decades, when that no longer worked, they changed tactics and now appeal to a “Are You Man Enough?” approach. They realized we are designed by God to be about something bigger than ourselves! This is partially why we "come alive" on serving others- Missions Trips and Service Projects! We do what we are designed for!

2- We get Frustrated and Cynical!
As people in the church respond to lack of direction and clear purpose, frustration continues, and in response the church becomes focused on making people happy and being nice- reinforcing the cycle!

3- Other Symptoms

There are plenty! Here's a few.

• We rewrite the rules to justify our personal weaknesses.
• We are fearful to confront sin. Truth tellers become the problem.
• Iron no longer sharpens iron- We got stuck in our disfunction.
• We become insincere as everyone must start to look good and be content or risk not fitting in. • We segregate ourselves from the outside world or we begin accepting everything the world says as ok for Christians. We become useless salt.
• We begin to protect the status quo in the church. At the extreme, we defend it to the result where good is labeled evil, and evil is justified away.

The church's call to Holiness, living a life that pleases God, is not legalism or simple narrow-mindedness - it is asking the church to be the church, the believer to be a disciple, the challenge to live as we say we believe. If we carry the name of Jesus, we should live like him!

If we look at 2 Timothy, where the Apostle Paul addresses Timothy- who was young in the faith but set aside to pastor a church, we get our "job description" as a person who follows Jesus Christ. It's interesting to note that in this letter to Timothy, Paul is the one in prison, but he is encouraging the young pastor to stay the course!

“1 You then, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. 2 And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others. Endure hardship with us like a good soldier of Jesus Christ.” (II Timothy 2:1-3)

Just some observations- We need to acknowledge God’s grace to live this life. Don’t rely on yourself. The Holy Spirit empowering us! Secondly, we as Jesus followers all have work to do, and Paul was encouraging young Timothy to endure hardship- knowing Timothy was working.

Some authors, like the popular Christian author John Eldridge, believe the church has been feminized. This may be why men are dropping out in record numbers, but I believe it is more than that. If it was just feminization, the drop out rate of college age students would be decreased by half!

I believe we have been rendered ineffective by being pacified. We have become pacifists- but God calls us to something different. He calls us to be active in our world, making it better becasue we are in it, contributing to it.

Paul compares being a Believer to being a soldier. But what are soldiers called to do? The job of a soldier is to: Defend, Protect, Free Prisoners, Advance Against and Break Down Enemy Strongholds

The book of I John tells us the whole world is under control of the Evil One, that is the devil. (I John 5:19-20). We know that he is like a roaring lion waiting to devour (I Peter 5:8). Yet, even without the Scriptures to remind us, we can see evil is winning battles in this world, although God has won the War. We are at war! Reality says “If you want to live in a nice world, go to Disneyland!”

Look at Jesus’ words about this battle: "12 From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and violent men take it by force." (Matthew 11:12- New American Standard version of the Bible). What does this mean? The best explanation from the commentators is this: “The Kingdom of God Belongs to Those Who Contend for It!” Who will win? Not the nice guys! Hear me, I'm not advocating aggression or a victim mentality; I'm advocating perseverance and remembering our priorities.

Further in 2 Timothy 2: 3-4: “Endure hardship with us like a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No one serving as a soldier gets involved in civilian affairs- he wants to please his commanding officer.” There's only two comments from Paul here. First, a reminder. Don’t get involved in civilian affairs In other words, remember your first priorities! And second, please your commanding officer – the bottom line! For the soldier, this priority remains job Number 1.

Obedience is required- full understanding of all the facts or circumstances is not necessary even if it is preferred. This is training in integrity, commitment, and perseverance. There's no excuses- you are in the military or you are not. Own what you signed up for! Soldiers train for battle, refined by their commander. Every person is under someone’s authority. Each has special skills which work together for the common good, and all of us in the battlefield of life must be able to rely on the other.

Sometimes, the Commanding Officer is blunt, direct and honest- preparing the platoon for things to come; not always liked but respected. He's not your Mamma! We need Him to keep us from getting lazy and getting off on the wrong track. We need Him to remind us what Our Mission is!

Churches and People can forget their true Mission! It's the Great Commandment, to love God and one another. And it's the Great Commission, to go out into the world, be it near of far, and share the good news that Jesus died for the sins of men to save them from an eternity in Hell.

What challenges do soldiers face? Plenty- we must "Fight the Good Fight of Faith!" It should be a joy and a delight to work with God. At the least, it is exciting to be obedient and see where that leads! The Lord will judge us for our deeds; He will forgive our sin, not our excuses!

We are human and we like to run from truth to justify ourselves. We let ourselves and others stay in sin and old unhealthy patterns- this is not good for the church and not good for us as individuals! We like having just enough Jesus to save us from Hell but this kind of shallow satisfaction isn’t enough to give us deep freedom and healing. Only full submission will do it!

Not only is the way to eternal life narrow, the path for a true follower of Christ is narrow. It’s a path that leads us to the cross as well! Choosing to die to our own desires and embrace His calling.

We stand at a crossroads every day. What will it be, our purposes or His? Obedience or sin? It's time we fight the disease of Terminal Niceness in our churches. Isn't it?

This teaching is one of my personal favorites. I posted this years ago, and the message still holds true today.

January 26, 2016

Harry Potter Tales to Come

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter changed the face of theme parks forever. Universal's Islands of Adventure finally had a hit on its hands- and the lovely little park deserved to be noticed. With Harry Potter attractions also at the Studios park, Universal Orlando is giving Disney a run for its money.

My friend and great photographer Len Yokoyama stopped in for a lenghty visit over the Christmas holidays and returned with some wonderful photos and stories. More coming- stay tuned.

(Photograph copyright Len Yokoyama.)

January 25, 2016

The First Walt Disney World Map

Here it is for your viewing pleasure: the very first map I ever saw of Walt Disney World. Looking at this illustration of the soon to open Magic Kingdom was all it took for me to convince my folks to take a trip to Central Florida. It still has its charms with its very distinctive 1960's design aesthetic. 

Just look at 20K Leagues Under the Sea up at the top with its huge lagoon and mysterious caverns! Liberty Square and the Hall of Presidents. A brand new castle and the Country Bear Jamboree. So much to see, not counting the futuristic Contemporary Resort and the tropical Polynesian Village.f

Passport to Dreams Old and New is one heck of a site. One that provided this map. In fact, there's a whole article about the first ten year's of Magic Kingdom maps, and it can be found here.  But there's more on this site worth your time: in depth articles, rare photographs, and investigative reporting. One of the best out there is you love Walt Disney World history.

(Art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)