June 23, 2018

Disney World After A Decade Away: Day Two- Epcot

Epcot needs work. There, I've said it and gotten if off my chest. I love EPCOT Center, and I love or used to love Epcot. After not seeing the park for almost ten years, I couldn't wait. Normally, this is the park which begins and ends our vacation to Walt Disney World. Not this time. That's all due to Fast Pass and difficult to get rides where I wouldn't wait 200 plus minutes without a reservation. One disclaimer here: This might be the lengthiest trip report post in the series. EPCOT Center transformed my idea of what a Disney park experience could be, and it has remained my favorite Florida park since its opening. Be forewarned, or just sit back and enjoy it.

After a very satisfying day at Animal Kingdom (aside from not being able to ride Expedition: Everest), I was just itching to get to the second Florida Disney park. As my long time favorite, this one probably has the most blog posts I've ever written about any park save perhaps the original kingdom, Disneyland. I just love Epcot. Have I already mentioned that?


I have this image as a Mac wallpaper.

In the early years of the park, Future World was home to some of my favorite attractions in any Disney theme park: the playful Journey into Imagination, the elegant Horizons, and the warmly humorous World of Motion. Many critics from newer generations of guests mistakenly thought they all felt alike. 

Each one was a lengthy, robot filled experience, but the similarities ended there. Successfully standing on their own, each one had a unique perspective, catchy theme song, and differently flavored presentation.  No wonder Future World just mesmerized me. These were amazing attractions! Disney Imagineers succeeded in hitting each one out of the park. Was there anything the Imagineers couldn't do? It's a different situation these days.  

Our first Epcot day didn't start out as I hoped. We missed the resort bus, not once but twice. When the second time came around, the bus arrived three minutes earlier than scheduled- and we were still getting breakfast snacks at Saratoga's bright and airy quick service snack location. Missed by mere seconds. Thankfully, the next one also came early, and we were right there. 

The lines for security and the park entrance were very long. Efficiency reigned at the gates, and the line moved quickly. As I was first one through, I waited and took the photo at the top of this article. Yet, standing there in front of the park, something just felt different. I could be wrong, but in hindsight, all I can attribute it to was the lack of the original epic and majestic soundtrack playing in the background. Those symphonic medleys signaled you were about to enter an incredible place. This visit, I couldn't even tell you what was playing, if anything at all. 

I knew was we had to get going. That darn Fast Pass reservation for Frozen Ever After was looming. So, finally our entire party came through the security check, and off we went. 


An old favorite!

Spaceship Earth looked terrific, but the arcs of Innoventions / Communicore and the ghastly colors they painted them loudly spoke one thing: No one had a clue of what to do with the future. My suspicions were confirmed as we approached the Energy (closed) / Wonders (closed) / Test Track / Space plaza. The lush flowers and various greenery couldn't hide a sense of disjointedness. Perhaps it was partially the fact the open attractions were only on the right side, making the area feel unfinished. Walking down the avenue, the small splash pad seemed out of place as well, giving a local mall feel to a once great theme park.


New found love for this ride- with some conditions.

Better, much better! It's nice to have two options.

Our initial Fast Pass was for Mission: Space (Green). Definitely not our first choice, but it was all that was available for the early morning time frame. After riding the original (Orange) attraction long ago, I couldn't stand it. One and done. Not only did it make me sick, I found it to be unfulfilling. Expensive simulator and nothing more. 

Grandma and her traveling buddy.


First timers.

Ten years later and with two little ones in tow, the magic revealed itself. Our grandson loved it. The concept of flying a space shuttle around the earth and all the in-house effects made it a winner in his eyes. In fact, it was the sole attraction in Epcot that he requested returning to multiple times...until he rode Test Track and Soarin', then it seemed to be a three way tie... at least for this park! Lesson to be learned: It's best not to assume because we don't enjoy an attraction that someone else will not as well. 

A darker pyramid outside,
but a lighter less cultural experience inside.

Time for the sisters. While heading toward Norway, we came upon Mexico.  Seeing we had 20 minutes to go, we once again played our game of "Could we fit in _________ attraction before we have to get on our Fast Pass ride?" We went for it.


Gorgeous orchids all over Mexico.

Walking inside the pyramid (which seemed painted a different exterior color, more darker than in the past- and a new sign for idiots reminding them not to climb up the pyramid), it was clear there was no line at all for the Gran Fiesta Tour. Had to do it. In less than one minute, we were onboard. The little guys were happily watching Donald Duck's adventures. I enjoyed seeing the Audio-Animatronic trio. It was still a screen for the finale during my last trip to the World. A very big and unexpected improvement when I first read about it. Even better live. In person, this addition completes the story. These three dimensional characters were just what the attraction needed. 


Ah, El Rio del Tiempo! How I miss it!

The conclusion of our happy cartoon voyage brought about very pleasant and bittersweet memories of the Mickey Mouse Revue but more importantly El Rio del Tiempo. More innocent times for sure! Admittedly, the nerd I am, I found myself singing along with the old theme song in my head, wishing for the cultural splendor that used to be the focus of each World Showcase ride. I could see the direction the park was going. Could I live with it or would I ruin what should be a great day by fighting it all?


Woulda, coulda, shoulda.

Time for Frozen Ever After. I'd seen the videos, heard the rumors, and been informed about the lengthy queues. The attraction itself left us a family divided, but the new interior village area (the line) was something all of us found to be quite nice. Of course, the little guys loved the attraction! (How can you not love Olaf?) The splash down was a nice touch in the Florida heat, but I found myself highly critical of the work that was done to transform Maelstrom into the home of Anna and Elsa. 

The opening two scenes were fairly strong, nicely staged, and instantly engaging. The story seemed well set, but when it came time to ascend to the ice palace, from there on out, the attraction's weaknesses became glaringly apparent. 

Could Disney not afford at least a crop of fake pine trees for the ascent to the mountain top ice palace? Guests should never be able to so clearly see the interior walls of an attraction when they are so close to the ride vehicle. There was nothing to hide them- just a small attempt to do so by painting them black. Once at the summit, an ice skating Olaf and tongue tied Sven were sweet (and it was good to see Kristof), but these scenes just felt incomplete and barren. So much was lacking! Honestly, it was clear these had been given so little money and an equal amount of attention. 

Finally, it was Elsa's big moment. Up close she looked pretty good and moved effortlessly, but in the reverse descent, bad use of screens and poor film quality made for a much cheapened experience. Couldn't they have been more creative here? I'm not quite sure how I feel about those animated faces. Altogether, the experience was fun, shorter than I hoped, and less than the property deserved. (I know, I should just let it go, but I hoped for more.) 


Snowgies for Bita!

The highlight of it all for us was a view at the charming little "snowgies" (my cute little granddaughter's favorites) and a look at big old Marshmallow before a forward swoop down to Arendelle and the grand finish to our new Norway adventure. 

The attraction earned a hearty thumbs up from everyone but the slightly disappointed grandpa who (quietly) ranked it much lower than everyone else. Still cute and enjoyable but so much less than it should have been. Beyond the cultural faux pas of a mismatched location to story, if you're going to shove another character invasion into World Showcase, doesn't Disney's biggest animated hit in decades deserve a full-scale, epic "E Ticket" attraction- and one with much better capacity? I believe so. 

How the suits handled this decision concerns me when regarding the plans for future attractions. With Ratatouille coming to France, the iconic  Mary Poppins to the U.K. pavilion, and the rest of the coming World Showcase attractions, I wasn't hopeful. The new standard seems to be "good enough". 


Holdovers from the Flower and Garden Festival.

What will be this park's standout? It's Pirates of the Caribbean? It's Great Movie Ride? It's Kilimanjaro Safaris? Is Epcot now doomed to second rate attractions, tired films, and 2-3 minute thrill rides? 

The still powerful American Adventure aside, currently there is not one single ride in the park that is consistently well crafted beginning to end which displays what great work the Imagineers can do when given the opportunity. The closest is Spaceship Earth and that level of excellence is compromised by a less than great descent back to the boarding station.

Back to the trip report. By this point in time, we hadn't yet eaten. Where to go? Holding reservations for the Mexican restaurant on the lagoon, we wanted something different- and fairly cheap. After thinking through what was nearby, we opted for The Land food court. Would have been great to sit inside Odyssey and enjoy a meal, but like some of the park's attractions, this restaurant was shuttered long ago.

This sign has changed multiple times over the decades.

I was again reminded how big this park was, as it took us a bit longer to get there than I expected in my head. I'm fairly certain the distance from Mission: Space to The Land is about as long as from the Haunted Mansion to Space Mountain at Disneyland. Anyone care to check the facts and report back?


Unexpected magic.

A blast of air conditioning hit us from one of the open doors in the breezeway. Seeing it came from a character greeting spot- with Baymax no less, I was intrigued. My grandson and I love Big Hero 6, for the record, so we popped in. God smiled on us once again, as it seemed He did most of the trip, and I caught a nice photo. This quick glimpse was enough to please us and satisfy a desire we once had for this meet and greet (the only one we seriously considered). However, an almost hour long wait was not worth it.

Reading these blog posts, you may be tempted to think I only saw the negative changes in the parks and didn't have a great time. Nothing could be further from the truth! It was in many ways it was a Grandparent's Dream Trip, and there is still much to love about the Vacation Kingdom of the World. In fact, we'd return in a minute if we could. As a Disney theme park lover, I am highly critical of what the suits do to their parks, particularly Epcot. In the new Disney era where profits sometimes overrule thematic consistency or providing guests with the best experience possible, I still expect the best. And I'm a detail guy. Enough said for now on this topic... until I share insights I realized in the next Future World pavilion.


Love these!

Always someplace I look forward to visiting, The Land didn't disappoint. Even with its changes, and there certainly are several here, there's much to see for just about everyone. Walking to the railing inside the pavilion, I was once again hit by that wide open expanse and those terrific balloons. With so few visits to the world in the last couple of decades, one benefit is that many things feel fresh to me. 

The scale and scope of Epcot and actually of all Walt Disney World is just impressive. There's no way around it. It can make for some difficult touring in the hot and humid Florida weather, but that uncomfortable reality aside, it's pretty mesmerizing. Many Disney park fans love to argue which resort is better, Florida or Southern California. They're both just very different- and each lovely in their own ways, with their own set of pros and cons. I will admit the only time I have felt the same sense of grandeur at the Disneyland resort as I have in Florida comes when I view the Cadillac mountain range in Cars Land. It's no small feat of extremely creative Imagineering to make a place seem so vast in such little space. In my mind, it is the new crown jewel of the Company's parks in California. Will Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge be as good? That's yet to be seen.


Well done, Disney.

Let me get my one negative observation about this pavilion over with. The Land Grill Room is now a character meal location. I began to realize that many places we used to enjoying dining at in the past had now become a premier guest experience. In every park. This may come at the cost of offering dining experiences that impress for the average, cash strapped visitor. Perhaps it is a shrewd and financially lucrative decision on the part of the suits, but it lowers the over all experience and creates a caste system among guests. We were not going to pay $35 per person for lunch, even if it was with the Company mascot and his chipmunk friends. 

With crowds being thick, you would expect Disney would construct another indoor counter service location at the other side of Future World to help serve the crowds, keeping them happily full, rested and refreshed by the air conditioning, and ready to reengage. At least for the issue of health and helping guests avoid heat stroke or dehydration. Oh, they did build it. It's just closed like too much of the park. 

Passing by the location of our family's traditional first meal at EPCOT Center, we traveled down stairs to the large and very busy food court. I didn't expect much.

Surprisingly, our fast food meal was in reality pretty darn good. (In fact, we didn't have a bad meal or snack anywhere on the property.) Fast, fresh, and hot when it needed to be. Expecting mall court blandness, I was very pleasantly surprised by the high quality and seasoning of my Chinese entree. The crowd flow seemed well managed, and the staff was pleasant and helpful. The bright and airy space remained very clean thanks to the hard work of the crew. A very positive experience.

A simple bus ride can be memorable.

Grabbing a quick Fast Pass for Living With The Land boat ride, we found ourselves cruising the waterway in a matter of minutes. I still appreciated the educational aspect of the attraction. It's something that made EPCOT Center unique and entertaining in its own distinct, still magical way. The slow and steady removal of that focus leads to a downgrade of the park experience. It's one of a few reasons I bemoan the changing of Universe of Energy to something lesser.


Adding any legally usable Marvel character attraction levels the playing field with Disney's competitors. At some point as a consumer you have to ask yourself, "Ultimately, what is the Disney Difference compared to Universal?" Sadly, it's certainly not as much as it used to be as time goes by. By the early evening, I even found myself here at my favorite park with a case of "screen fatigue"- a common complaint with fans visiting Universal, meaning too many attractions rely on film and its effects, 3-D or otherwise, as the main delivery vehicle of the attraction storyline. This was not something I expected at Disney and particularly Epcot!

The Seas with Nemo was just a depressing experience, aside from a great cast member playing Crush to a clever and engaging young audience- including him answering my sweet little granddaughter's question. I won't say more about the once stunning pavilion with its unexpected hydrolators and great exhibits. It's yet another downgrade from what once was.

A Figment fail.

Next up was Imagination, an even a worse, more discouraging, experience. In its current state, it is a breathtaking- and not in a good way- reminder of how Disney management has left Epcot to rot for close to 20 years. The ride- a disaster which turned the once charming purple dragon full of childish delight into a snarky prankster. The lackluster Image Works made things worse, and why would I sit inside a theater to watch Pixar animation that I own on DVD? 

Due to a surprise that Test Track had only a 30 minute wait (via the app), we cruised over for an all family thrill ride. It's certainly still a rush! I found I preferred the original version that was more like a testing facility and less like Tron. By a large margin actually. The test crash ending that leads to the high speed portion of the ride was an excellent and clever touch. 


More variety like this please.
The world is much more than Europe.

It was time to remove ourselves from Future World and go into my favorite half of the park. World Showcase beckoned, and we began in Canada this time, passing by another splash pad.

The first thing I noticed was the new DVC kiosk. Yes, nothing like Disney pushing even more product on you to remind you that you're in a theme park. I so appreciated that reminder on my around the world journey. Victoria Gardens looked as beautiful as I had remembered, but I don't recall it being accessible only to guests of Le Cellier. Or did I misunderstand? It wouldn't surprise me at all to see that this had changed. The kids explored the hedge maze in the U.K., and we caught a small glimpse of Alice before moving on. Unexpectedly, we walked right by France and headed straight for Morocco as my son in law had wanted to see it last trip but they'd run out of time. 

Perhaps the most richly detailed in all of World Showcase.

Don't get me wrong. I love the recreations of the European nations. Yet, we need something more and different in the park. Morocco and its richly detailed buildings were a solid reminder of this need. Exploring its courtyards and market stalls seemed to remind me of what was planned for Star Wars, but the contrast was refreshing after the previous locations. The Spice Road Table was basically empty. Could it be the prices? Probably, as the Tangierine Cafe seemed full of eager diners. 



A trio of photos from the Japan Showcase,
one of my favorites.

Just love the Japan showcase. There's still quiet nooks to explore and layers of experience awaiting if you take the time to find it. Was there really a need for a new restaurant? Perhaps, but the necessity of a people-eating attraction is even greater. We love hiding back by the tea house late after Illuminations. It's a whole new world after dark. Couldn't wait to return to the Land of the Rising Sun, but it never happened. Next trip.


Alfredos no longer.

Walking all the way down into Germany, we stopped in Italy after bypassing the American Adventure. We decided to view a later show. Italy seemed hot, so hot, much like what we had experienced in Venice years ago. Little shade, few trees, no grass. A perfect recreation minus overpriced gondola rides and the very unique stench of the water. (But we still loved it the real location!) Sticking our head in Via Napoli, we discovered the place was just packed, and to our surprise, it seemed it was with visitors from international locations. Pizza is a universal food!

By this point, it was almost time for dinner. Our reservations were for La Hacienda de San Angel, and it was late afternoon, so a good time for a break and a meal. Winding our way back to Mexico, we stopped at the entrance, gave them our names, and began a meal marked by incredibly gracious and attentive service. It felt very old school Disney from thirty years ago. My wife and I were very, very impressed.

Lovely lighting was the highlight of the bland atmosphere.

Frankly, from a visual perspective, the new waterside restaurant was nothing special to look at. There are many excellent environments to be found in our restaurants in Denver that surpass the surroundings of this new eatery, but only one back home has food as delicious as what we discovered here. From the queso fundido to the corn soup to the melt in your mouth main entrees, we delighted in each course. The drinks weren't bad either!


Three beautiful ladies- not one a Disney princess.

Our early evening dinner at La Hacienda de San Angel was a definitely a mixed bag experience. The food? Incredible. So was the price, though. The atmosphere? Pedestrian. We might return again, although I hear the waterside restaurant in the pyramid may have rebounded from awful food to decent. I hope so. The atmosphere is enchanting.

The ending of our evening at Epcot came about in a manner we didn't expect. Post-dinner, our timing was perfect for The American Adventure. The show is still an incredible and inspiring one. My son-in-law had never seen it, missing it during his initial visit. His take? Very, very good! 

My grandson sat next to me, and at the ripe age of six, he had some great questions and observations. One example of what he quietly whispered in my ear: "You mean two brothers fought on different sides of the war? And only one came home? The other died?"  Of course, he also recognized one of the characters walked up the steps. Pretty observant kid! I believe even the most "adult" focused attractions can be enjoyed by kids if they are prepared for it. Or they can be taught to sit quietly and use "indoor voices" if they must speak. Walt never aimed just for kids- or teens needing thrills- and I wish the suits would remember that when planning new additions to the parks, especially this one. 

Burned out bulbs and all but still a beautiful sight to behold.

Even though I'm quick to say Epcot needs something more than 2 minute thrill rides and lengthy travelogues, our follow up attraction was Impressions de France, the most beloved of the three World Showcase films. (China's is Number Two, leaving Canada at the bottom by quite a distance.) The music still tears me up at times. The quality of the film seemed fresher than I remembered. The Eiffel Tower ending needs a reshoot however to highlight the twinkling effect now in place. 

Due to the Touring Plans app, we discovered Soarin' Over the World had a twenty minute wait. Without a Fast Pass for it on either day, off we went- but not before I snapped a couple of photos. I'd intended to return to the countries after seeing Illuminations. Major mistake on my part. I had misread some information, believing it started later than it did. 

After our flight, including a view of a badly bent Eiffel Tower, we realized our mistake as we were exiting The Land. Cast members were also closing down the pavilion. That's Disney's mistake and shows how things have changed since the first few years at the park. Back then, everything opened and closed at the same time- a sign of giving guests their best. No longer.

Goodnight Spaceship Earth- until tomorrow.

Everyone was tired by this point in time, so we took advantage of an early and empty bus, returning home via a quiet and quick drive. Our next day was also an Epcot visit, one which included Grandparents' date night with the kids while Mom and Dad had their own. That one, too, had an unexpected ending, but more about that next post as well as my final verdict on the state of Epcot.

One last note before signing off. Upon returning home to Saratoga Springs, we received an email survey asking us what we thought of our dinner experience and what we thought was needed to round out the park offerings. Interestingly, one of the main options was a Brazilian Steakhouse. Prepping guests for a new country, I'd say.

(Photographs copyright Mark Taft.)

June 22, 2018

Maybe in Another Era- It's Over for Timeless

The time has passed. Unless there's another miracle renewal, fan favorite- and in this household too- Timeless has been cancelled. With so many awful to mediocre series being renewed, I shouldn't be surprised that such an elegant and intelligent show would be cancelled on network television.



Thank you to the incredible cast and crew and writers. Special call out to two villains- the wonderful Goran Visnjic, playing one of the most complex and sympathetic bad guys ever; and the deliciously evil Emma, played by Annie Wersching. (She had us mesmerized as Dr. Kelly Nieman on Castle as well.)

Not to say the Good Guys weren't great! This season showed the depth of each character due to some fine acting all around. 



Favorite "fun" episode- Probably "Party at Castle Varlar"...


... or maybe "The Lost Generation", but they are all so, so good! 

Both Season One and Season Two finales left us with a "I can't believe that happened" jaw-dropped mouth. Great writing, great acting, great stories. 

Thanks again, everyone. Well done.

June 21, 2018

Underwhelming Incredicoaster

Watching the on line videos and reviews of it all, it's pretty clear that the quick revision of California Screamin' into the Incredicoaster is seriously underwhelming. Score another serious misfire following the half-baked transition of Twilight Zone Tower of Terror into the ill conceived Guardians of the Galaxy: Mission Breakout. Man, I hope the next thing they do to the park is a win! After the opening of Buena Vista Street and Cars Land, I was hopeful for the park. Now, not so much.

(Art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

June 20, 2018

Disney Buys 21st Century Fox?

The deal is complete. Now, maybe not, as Comcast counter offers once more. If Fox accepts Disney's purchase offer, the parks should be impacted. But what this will mean in all areas of Disney is yet to be seen. You can be sure theme park fans are curious. Seems like Marvel and Star Wars are now not the only big dogs in the House of Mouse. Stay tuned.

June 19, 2018

From Pixar Pier Back to Bargain Basement Imagineering

With the opening of Pixar Pier on its way this weekend, I thought it might be fun to take a look at two pieces of concept art which show the original plan for Paradise Pier

Imagineer Tim Delaney was the artist behind this poorly conceived California Adventure project. Tim's a gifted man, but when the suits order "fast, cheap, and similar to Six Flags", if you want a job, you do what's told. 

It's just a piece of the Bargain Basement Imagineering that made Disney's second Anaheim park clearly second class. That popular blog series by that name can be found here- and then the rebirth came.

Finally under Robert Iger's forced hand, the artists were told to go for it and bring Disney class and attention to detail to the park. Imagineering a New Dream tells that story. Go here- and enjoy.

(Yes, Part Two of our Disney World After a Decade comes later in the week...)

(Art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

The Fireman's Prayer

Couple Sundays ago, we were honored to attend the graduating class of firefighters. I'll paraphrase what was said, and then I'll give you the full text of the traditional Fireman's Prayer

"Billy Graham once wrote: “It might surprise you to learn that the person in the Bible who spoke the most about Hell's reality was Jesus. He repeatedly warned us not to take it lightly: ‘Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell’ (Matthew 10:28).

I think about how you firefighters must understand more about Hell than those of us who don’t jump into the flames to save others! Thank you for being willing to risk your lives for our benefit! May you always go into each fight knowing Jesus cares, is watching, and has offered us the perfect example in how to lay down our lives for others."

Let me end this with a look at the Fireman’s Prayer:

When I am called to duty, God, Whenever flames may rage…
Give me the strength to save some life whatever be its age.
Help me embrace a little child before its too late.
Or save an older person from the horror of that fate.
Enable me to be alert and hear the weakest shout 
And quickly and efficiently to put the fire out.
I want to fill my calling and to give the best in me
To guard my every neighbor and protect their property.
And if according to your will, I have to lose my life
Please bless with your protecting hand my children and my wife."

Thank you to all the brave men and women who serve communities all over the world!

June 16, 2018

In Perspective

Coming back next week with post two in my series of Disney World After a Decade Away. I'm still busy piecing it together. Beginning a busy week after a restful vacation is not always an easy thing to do. Yet, I founds myself satisfied to be back at the grind, finding much enjoyment in my work and the gift of being able to do something I loved. My times of quiet reflection, prayer and study in the Bible truly refreshed me. God is very good in so many ways- even if certain events cause me to temporarily think differently for awhile. More to come...

June 14, 2018

Oriental Land Company Makes Me Cancel My Plans Once Again

The Oriental Land Company has once again put an end to my plans to finally visit Tokyo Disney Resort. I'd been carefully, mentally, patiently, looking at an opportunity to go when the Beauty and the Beast mini-land made its debut at Tokyo Disneyland. Now, the announcement of their new addition to Tokyo Disney Sea will make me delay my plans for even a few more years. Why? 


Can't wait to experience the lantern scene myself.

I just love Tangled. It's my second favorite animated film after Beast. There's certainly no more beautiful animation art in any Disney film than the lantern scene. The attraction itself should be amazing. And finally Rapunzel's tower leads to a real ride and not just to a couple of restrooms!


C'mon everybody...

Plus I can't wait to see what they do with Peter Pan and a whole new Neverland. It's a very charming yet thrilling piece of property at Disneyland Paris, but my bet is this next generation version takes it even further. 


Yo Ho!

An early rumor even suggests Shanghai Disneyland's Pirates technology could be used here. No matter. This expansion will further cement Tokyo's place as the primary leader in the Disney world.

I bet this attraction is a genuine E Ticket!

Frozen land should proves itself interesting on a grander scale than what the Imagineers were allowed to do when they brought the film into Epcot's Norway pavilion. (More on that next post on our trip.)


The choice of where to stay will now be more difficult.

I'll still writing the next chapter post about our Disney World trip. yet, even my wife had to ask this morning upon hearing the expansion news, "Why does Tokyo seem to do things so much better?" Wise woman.

(Art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

June 11, 2018

Disney World After A Decade Away: Day One - Animal Kingdom

As promised, I want to give all the Insights readers reflections on my first trip to Walt Disney World in almost ten years. Certainly for a Disney blogger and particularly a lover of the theme parks (and all their corresponding concept art), this gap of a decade must seem like a serious crime punishable by certain death. Perhaps after reading a few posts / trip reports, you'll pardon me. I hope so! 

My good friend Len Yokoyama is a much better photographer as you already know, but I'll include some photographs to go along with my thoughts. After the first day and doing some experimenting, I discovered my new phone actually took much better photographs than my old camera! Certainly a new experience for this traveler.

More than just using a cel phone camera, this trip was full of "firsts".

Full confession: This trip was my first one as a grandfather! My wife and I tagged along (by invitation) with our youngest daughter, her husband, and their two adorable kids- a son six years old and a daughter four years old. This was their second trip as a young family with each of the kids now old enough to ride a few "Big Kid" rides at each park. 

Each trip to Disney is unique, and this one is no exception. My daughter and son-in-law are also "foodies", which meant it took a bit of extra planning and saving to enable us all to eat in some very special locations. My wife and I would normally dine at one or two locations for a special meal, but we have never eaten at so many waiter service spots as we did during this trip. It was great fun- and quite expensive compared to our normal way of traveling. With four adults, we each picked one restaurant that we wanted to dine at, with a couple of last minute or unexpected choices added in along the way. Fortunately, our sweet grandchildren are extremely well behaved and handled themselves better than some adults during each one and a half to two hour meal. Chalk that up to good parenting! 

This was our first time using My Disney Experience with Fast Pass +, Magic Bands, and all that goes with it. My daughter did all the planning for the Fast Pass reservations as we were out of the country for work on the first day everything opened up for us. She did an amazing job getting us all we wanted to see and do.


The Winner's Circle at Saratoga Springs.

Saratoga Springs was our home base as we used a Disney Vacation Club reseller. Another first. It was also our first vacation to the property during the busy Summer season. Certainly, this added its own list of pros and cons. Being that we picked dates after school got out, we also overlapped with Gay Days. Each of these "first time" experiences should give this series of posts a unique perspective. Plus, with this being our first visit in nine and a half years, my experience felt brand new yet familiar in many ways. I'm sure my take on all this will surprise some, delight a few, and make others raise their eyebrows. Such is the life of a blogger.  

With all these caveats in mind, let me begin!

Due to a short delay in our Frontier airlines flight but a very major computer glitch with Magical Express, we arrived at Saratoga Springs at 3:30am! It was not at all the way any of us expected to begin our week at the resort. This did mean quite a big change in our first day schedule. Unfortunately, our original plan meant a 10:00am breakfast at Whispering Canyon Cafe, then continuing on with a late -morning Fast Pass for Na'vi River Journey at Disney's beautiful but seriously undeveloped Animal Kingdom. Given two relatively strong edicts from Disney (1- Financial Penalties for cancelling a meal reservation within 24 hours, and 2- Difficulty in gaining Fast Passes for prime attractions), we decided to soldier on and stick with our original times. 


He walked most all of each day, 
but we were happy to give the guy a break when he needed it!

The way our grandchildren handled the lack of sleep should have been our first clue how they would go with the flow with any other changes. They were tired, as we all were, but never uttered a complaint beyond the initial muttering of waking up. The lure of breakfast at the Wilderness Lodge was enough to get them smiling. Neither child is a wall flower, and both have strong personalities and firm opinions. Yet, they are sweet and kind children with exceptional interpersonal skills for their ages. (Lest you think it's just a grandfather bragging, you'd have to see them in action to get it.) 

Given we all wanted to sleep in as much as we could but not give up these very hard to get reservations, we decided to splurge on a Minnie Van. It was one of the best decisions we made. When you spend as much as you do on a Disney park vacation, you don't complain about $25 if it means getting six people to their destination on time under the atrocious circumstances. 

I loved that my daughter and son-in-law now had their own Disney trip tradition by starting with their first meal at the Whispering Canyon Cafe. (We had taken our kids to the Good Turn restaurant on day one of each trip. It's now called the Garden Grill Room.) 


Where have all the cowboys gone?
Nice details in a now sedate restaurant.

By now, you've probably read about all the changes to the restaurant and the experience. Unfortunately, they are all true. The team tried to make it a fun experience, but the end result was a tasty meal in a very quiet atmosphere. One not worth a future visit.


Good food but no longer high on the fun factor.

No games, no ketchup shenanigans, no races, no spontaneity. The only hint of fun came from one very wonderful staff member who, when we asked for a dollop more whipped cream for our grandson's pancakes, proceeded to cover his entire plate with the fluffy stuff, piling it on as big as the smile he saw in return. 

Once we had walked the outside of the lodge, we traveled via resort bus to Animal Kingdom. It was already hot and humid- of course it was this time of year- and the crowds were thick (ditto). Security measures made it take longer than I had ever experienced, but we were able to get into the park in about ten minutes once we reached the gates.

Honestly, I had forgotten what a gorgeous park it was. And I'd forgotten how few attractions were there as well. The first sight of the Tree of Life was just breathtaking. I was finally in Walt Disney World! 


Grandpa and sweet girl. First ride together.

With only about 40 minutes until our Fast Pass time for the boat ride had ended- and this would become a common guessing game of "Could we fit in _____ attraction in time?"- we decided to go to Dinoland U.S.A. to begin with Triceratop Spin, a favorite of my granddaughter. She was delighted, and I was thrilled to be riding with her. As much as these cheap carnival rides are something I hate being added to this park, riding them did help me see the park through a young child's eyes. Something that would be very easy to forget as an adult. The joy and delight on her face was priceless.

The sense of euphoria passed once we traveled toward Pandora to get a ride on the Na'vi River Journey. There's no other way to say it than it was a proverbial mob scene, and this was for the family friendly boat ride and not the main attraction. Had we not had a Fast Pass, it would have been a ninety minute wait for a four minute "D Ticket"(at best) boat ride. Thankfully, we reached our line in time, quickly boarded a reed boat, and off we went.  

The Imagineers clearly noticed guests love the caverns of Pirates of the Caribbean, and they used a newer version of them with lots of water effects to begin the Na'vi cruise. An inviting beginning that quickly removed us from the outside world! The artist's lavish attention to detail was quite incredible. From the male Na'vi watching us at the beginning of the cruise to the cute little creatures jumping from huge suspended lily pad to lily pad, we were happily immersed almost immediately into this environment.  

Without a narration, it was difficult to explain the ride to the little guys, especially when they saw creatures that looked scary. To the adults, it was a clever use of layers of screens and film, but to them, it was menacing. Who was the big blue guy at the beginning and the very weird giant lady at the end? As with many things at the Disney parks, the easy explanation was "It's all make believe". A four and six year old would not understand the nuance of the storyline and its Gaia focused spiritual worldview even if it is a fantasy based story. Make no mistake, it's a pretty obvious, and not always subtle, teaching aspect central to this park. 


Impressive Audio-Animatronic!

From an Imagineering standpoint, I would have appreciated some Audio-Animatronic animals to go with the shaman and even a hunter or two to bring some depth to it all. What was there was incredibly beautiful to look at. Strikingly gorgeous, really! It just got a bit repetitive after the first minute or so. Let's say you can tell where the budget was cut. It should have been more than it was, but given the excellence of the star attraction, as I would discover on our second day at the park, I can give it more of a pass than if it were billed as a major attraction. Looking at the line for the ride, you certainly would think it was one!

I must ask though: What is it about Disney building a new land that is huge but only adding two very short duration attractions to it? There needs to be one more attraction here that is family friendly, somewhat lengthy, and with a high capacity to round it out. At least the similarly sized Cars Land in California Adventure has three attractions to spread out the crowds and other alternatives to the main event. Hopefully, the next few films will be a huge success, and Disney will build additional attractions here. And I hope Disney learns some lessons after the crush of Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge. 


You have to see if in person to really appreciate it.
The hype is only matched by the actual delivery.

Visually, Pandora itself is a wonder! I found myself staring at those floating mountains just as much as I still do at the Tree of Life! An incredible work of art. Even though Disney really excels at theme park rock work, the star of it all is what is found on the ground. The lovely water features, the plants, the hidden winding paths. It was all here. Everything but wildlife and Na'vi. Everywhere you look, it seems the Imagineers deliver yet another great photo opportunity at every turn and more areas calling to be explored. I could have easily spent a couple of hours here if it was not so crowded.


Layers of depth in design!

Special kudos to the landscape architects and their success in integrating real live plants with those of an alien planet. Many smaller details may have gone unnoticed due to our time constraints, but one seemingly minor aspect I did appreciate was that stroller parking areas were positioned in very carefully selected spots to not destroy the overall show. This made a huge impact. Thoughtful Imagineering at its best. 

The Canteen offered fairly priced and delicious food. The main shop was well designed even though it was jam packed. Let me just say I thought the Banshees were overpriced for what they were. On the other hand, T shirts seemed to be a hot item to purchase, but only a few people seemed to even look at the "turn your image into a Na'vi" Barbie dolls. This was one aspect where I thought the need to outdo Harry Potter seemed very obvious. 

We'd return later that night for an evening look, but next was the Finding Nemo Musical, a journey on Kilimanjaro Safaris, and a ride on my favorite Walt Disney World attraction, Expedition: Everest- or so we thought. 


Beautiful details abound here.

Animal Kingdom's gorgeous design includes wide walkways and layers of detail. The park is just huge! (Walking it amounted to just over 8 miles and approximately 20, 000 footsteps on the first day alone.) The lushly themed jungle has only gotten denser and more beautiful than last time I saw it a decade ago. There's one big difference that I believe the Imagineers weren't prepared for: the unexpected abundance of mobility scooters and some extremely large strollers. 

Now, I am in no way a slight person. In fact, by medical standards, I am considered overweight as is a good portion of my extended family. That said, I could not believe the number of extremely large people in the parks- people much, much larger than we are. The difference a mere decade has made in the general health of the population was difficult to realize. And it's not just Americans or those of a particular race. Nor is it just the elderly or those with special needs you could see. We could not believe the number of young people, some not even teenagers but still so large that they were the only person seated in a ride vehicle meant for two or more. Am I making fun of the heavy set or saying they are not wonderful humans? Absolutely not! We are created in the image of God Himself. Yet, my eyes alone tell me our country is in serious trouble if this trend continues. 

From a guest flow standpoint, all this means ride capacity decreases and crowds feel even more dense as fewer people than ever could comfortably inhabit a walking path. Add all this to the beginning of Summer 2018, the flaws inherent with Fast Pass +, and Disney's lack of serious investment in new attractions in the last decade or so, and you can safely say it was not a relaxing week to tour. 

But there was a problem on the Disney side that made all of it seem even worse than ever.

My wife used to work at Disneyland, and unprompted by me, she also noticed something quite alarming: Many times ride vehicles would go out with multitudes of empty seats. At times three and four in a row and not just single rider spots. Although the Disney cast members were very friendly- and a handful outright excellent- we also noticed many of them had a somewhat disjointed approach at serving park visitors, particularly those who worked at ride loading points. All too often, they were busy speaking to each other about personal issues and not really paying attention to getting guests on the attraction. 


Safari expedition.

Of course, the cast was meticulously "in tune" for the two Pandora attractions, but the first location we noticed the problem was on the still enjoyable and very popular Kilimanjaro Safaris. By the time we reached Africa from Na'vi River Journey, it early afternoon. The area around the new walkway between the two lands was very nicely themed. I loved seeing the Lion King show where it belongs. The crowds were beyond thick, the weather as sweltering as expected, and anticipation was high as we entered the line for the safari. As we got within view of the boarding area, it seemed vehicle after vehicle went out with a large number of empty seats. Bad show and even worse customer service.

In a park with so few attractions and even fewer ones that everyone can ride, your company had better be on the top of its game to keep guests happy. Even with multiple day passes, Disney parks are expensive to visit even for a local.  For those traveling from out of state, expenses stack up faster than the pancakes at Whispering Canyon Cafe. We, the paying customer, have every right to expect a world class, top notch experience. Yet, in this manner, Disney fell short in each of the four parks. (The worst was being seated in a Star Tours vehicle with seven empty seats divided between two rows directly behind me- and the standby line was already beyond reasonable. This was an added insult in a park with only four rides- all less than a couple of minutes at best- and a handful of very outdated theater shows. Sorry, but character meet and greets are not a replacement for attractions, and neither are shows.)

Back to our time at Animal Kingdom. The daytime Safari itself was great, although I miss the original cast members from various African countries. "Joe from Brooklyn" just can't create the same experience and feeling of authenticity. This was followed by the sweet and impressive Finding Nemo the Musical, It's Tough to Be a Bug (now playing only at this park) and then a vain attempt to ride Expedition: Everest

As I said, we ate a late lunch at the air conditioned Pandora canteen and walked back by Everest (no luck). It remained down the rest of the day. 


The queue of Kali River Rapids.

Later on, after checking Everest once again, we settled on a ride down the Kali River Rapids. The queue is more beautiful than the ride itself. It was a fun but scary experience for our four year old granddaughter, and it was over all too quickly for the rest of us. 




The adults and our grandson rode Dinosaur- still a much lesser name than Countdown to Extinction - but a great attraction. Our cute granddaughter was tall enough to go back in time, but she wisely backed out.  Other than the beginning of time travel needing some help and a few minor effects seeming to be out of service, the ride is as thrilling and outright scary as ever! The attraction earned a tentative thumbs up from my grandson. 

Does the ride need Indiana Jones? Probably not, but the resort does! What the land does need is a sweet simple dark ride showing dinosaurs to younger kids without the extreme thrill factor. Think Disneyland's Primeval World without the constant menace. Kids of all ages love dinos, and to not have realistic looking ones available for them is a big mistake on the part of the Company. 

While my daughter, son-in-law and their kids went home, my wife and I decided to stay and see Pandora at night right after taking an early evening safari. We skipped Rivers of Light to make this happen, but we were not in the least bit disappointed. 


Again, photos do not do the place justice.

If AvatarPandora is impressive during the day, it is even more so once the sun sets! We easily spent 30 minutes or so taking more photographs and just walking around exploring the new land. I thought the subtle lighting actually worked well, playing off the entire mystery of the land and seemed to make the sound effects hidden just beyond the vegetation all the more enticing. The place just screams atmosphere! 


"It's a New World" - sing along now!

We were rewarded with a 15 minute wait for our second ride on the river journey, which my wife correctly dubbed "The New Age It's a Small World". It was still a beautiful if slightly short experience, and walking off the ride into the Pandora evening made for a visually stunning and effortless transition back into the "real" world of the film come to life. 


Majestic!

Given we had arrived at the Walt Disney World resort at 3:30am, we chose to depart shortly after our second boat ride in Pandora. We were happily exhausted. I mean, c'mon, we're at Disney World! It was a good first day. Everyone seemed pleased with it overall, and in spite of the obstacles, we all kept cool heads and grateful hearts. 

End of the night  celebration.

We had lots of adventures ahead. The next day would be one I was especially waiting for. A day at Epcot - my favorite parkand I couldn't wait. 

(Photographs copyright Mark Taft.)