February 21, 2017

Timeless Cliffhanger

Is it the end or is it the beginning? After viewing last night's very riveting episode of Timeless, it was hard to tell which it will be. Now it is up to the powers that be at NBC to decide whether or not this excellent show deserves a second season and a chance to build an audience. 

These days, it seems its all about the money. Clearly, this show is expensive to produce. But with great characters- including one of the most layered and complex villains ever seen on the small screen, Garcia Flynn, played by the incredible Goran Visnjic- it's a show worth growing into. 

The ensemble cast is key to the story, and they are a gifted one. Each brings true gold in their performance, and most importantly, none of the actors seem to be obsessed with taking a star turn, making each shine all the more brighter. In contrast, the supporting roles are less complex and developed, but as we can tell by the twists and turns of the season finale, that is about to change in ways we never expected.

Much is rightly made of Malcolm Barrett who brings Rufus to life with his rich and nuanced portrayal. Abigail Spencer's gifted heroine Lucy Preston positively shines, particularly when we see her starstruck by meeting her historical heroes (Ernest Hemingway, Josephine Baker, Abraham Lincoln).

Yet, there's something about the man that's not often given his due.  Matt Lanter's Wyatt is also very complex and very well played. His ongoing sense of duty, sacrifice, true justice, and real bravery may drive him, but he also contains a decent amount of personality flaws. In spite of it all, he presses on. He fights. He perseveres. Wyatt's heroic and fractured nature, as with all humans, is blended with characteristics not easily noticed at first glance. See how he honors his fellow time travelers, stands by them, and how he does it all with a sense of true humility? There's a fine balance in the playing the character here, and Lanter seems to handle his role as effortlessly as does the rest of the cast in theirs. Certainly, humility is not a virtue that is often played to great effect on either small or large screen- and it clearly doesn't seem to be valued much in real life either. 

Timeless deftly manages the delicate task of creating an incredibly entertaining show while also subtly making social commentary that does not alienate viewers on either side of the political spectrum. In that way, the writers succeed in drawing people together. This is something our country sorely needs as we've been divided due to the arrogance of our last several presidents and their respective political parties. And the media which plays it all for profit.

Will Season Two come to pass? Who knows? But in the meantime, if you haven't already, check out the show from the beginning. It's smart, well written, well acted, often slyly humorous ("... James Bond is hitting on Lucy!") and lots of fun.

February 19, 2017

Happy President's Day

I hope all the readers of "Insights and Sounds" are having a wonderful and blessed three day weekend! President's Day is not a heavily celebrated holiday here in the islands, unless you're a state worker (and have Monday off). With the sensitive issues of native Hawaiian rights always present, it's probably not the most revered date on the calendar either. Nonetheless, I thought it appropriate to share some photos I took of fireworks two nights ago. The two biggest holidays involving aerial pyrotechnics are New Year's Eve (due to strong Chinese cultural traditions) and the 4th of July. Nothing is done in particular for President's Day, but the Hilton Hawaiian Village does a weekly show every Friday near the Duke Kahanamoku lagoon. It's a short affair, lasting maybe 3 1/2 minutes or so. But fireworks are fireworks, whether of a short duration or a Disney park affair (I knew I could work some connection to the parks in this post). And since fireworks are inherently patriotic, what's better than linking it to this holiday installment.

And just so I can work in a shout out to our Lord, the bible says to pray for our leaders so that they may have wisdom, compassion, and justness in guiding our country.

So to everyone..."Happy President's Day" from the shores of Waikiki!

 (Photographs Copyright 2017 Len Yokoyama)

February 18, 2017

From a Girl to a Woman

Happiest of birthdays to my oldest daughter! She was a sweet little silly honey, and now, she's a mom of her own daughter- with the same beautiful curls and smile. What a wonderful and godly woman you've become. This Dad couldn't be prouder!

February 17, 2017

Changes Ahead for Disneyland's Pirates of the Caribbean

Can it really be? Next month, one of the most beloved theme park attractions, Disneyland's iconic Pirates of the Caribbean, celebrates its 50th anniversary. That's 50 years of high seas swashbuckling fun and adventure. 50 years of setting sail from the lovely New Orleans Square. And 50 years of changes both large and small.

Have you noticed the attraction has been down for refurbishment until next month? It's off the grid during Disneyland's slower post Christmas season in preparation for a fine tuning of effects... or even more change. What could they be up to?

Ever since Imagineer Marc Davis and company worked with Walt Disney himself to design this landmark adventure, it was clear there was always room for more show scenes, more enhancements, and more detail to be added over the years. There's concept art all over the internet showing scenes designed that never made the cut.

The success of the first Pirates film starring Johnny Depp, (that's Captain Jack Sparrow to you), and those that followed, brought about the most obvious changes to the attraction. But there's been hints along the way that other ideas and additions are seriously being considered. 

The first major reworking of the flow of the attraction took place under Chris Tietz's leadership when designing the beautiful French Adventureland. The now very famous sword fighting pirates of Disneyland Paris (shown above) could make their arrival when California's version reopens next month. But perhaps there's more on the horizon. Couldn't they be looking in Asia for inspiration?

Shanghai Disneyland's version of the attraction is justifiably getting rave reviews. The eye-popping transformation of Captain Sparrow from skeleton to human is an Imagineering feat people will talk about for years to come. And the Imagineers at Disney who have a heart for "Walt's park" are not going to let this kind of special effect only be used overseas. In some manner or fashion, this accomplishment will make its way to Anaheim. That you can be sure about! When is the question. And what could be better than a 50 year anniversary?

Change is coming to Pirates of the Caribbean at Disneyland. We still have a few more weeks to wait and see what the Imagineers have cooked up, but I'm hopeful for what we'll see. Let's not forget this is the team that brought about the Hat Box Ghost for the Haunted Mansion. They've shown they look backwards at the roots of beloved attractions as they plan for its future. (Certainly not the suits but the artists, the Imagineers.) As the designers have shown us in China, they also look forward, using new technologies to give us reason to return again and again. And I know I will.

February 16, 2017

Taking a Gondola in Venice

Venice, Italy. In many ways, the Italian fantasy we dream about. A city of islands and canals unlike anything else on earth. St. Mark's Square, the Grand Canal, and the surrounding town of Murano (home of famous glass) calls us to explore day after day. Hop a gondola or a water taxi. It's the only way to travel!

(Poster art by Vittorio Grassi around 1920.)

February 14, 2017

Sweethearts in Napa

Thirty six years ago, we met on a blind date. Yes, it's really true! It was a three year old girl's birthday party, the daughter of some mutual friends from church. That little girl became the flower girl at our wedding (and later an internationally known surfer. No name though for her privacy.) We've seen many, many changes in our life together- kids, grandkids, career changes, joys, our share of disappointments and more. But God has always been faithful as we have sought to live life the way He designed it to be. 

If you want to know what love looks like, meet my wife. She seems to embody the description of First Corinthians 13, and she is loved by family, friends, and colleagues alike. But not more than her husband. Still beautiful inside and out after all these years!

(Photograph copyright Mark Taft.)

February 13, 2017

More Tokyo Disney Sea From the Air

From the sand to the sea. Tokyo Disney Sea, that is! It is the Disney park that sets the standard for everything after it. Boasting absolutely beautiful landscapes anywhere a guest looks, this lovely and groundbreaking park the pinnacle of Imagineering art come to life. Peter Ellenshaw's concept art of Mermaid Lagoon sparkles in the afternoon light, perhaps the "golden hour" right before sunset. It's also a businessman's dream, bringing in guests by the millions with numbers almost as high as that of Tokyo Disneyland next door. Quite an accomplishment!

The attraction list is short an "E Ticket" here in this particular land, but the stunningly stellar environment both outside and under the sea has been drawing in guests of all ages from the start. Perhaps you can see why.

(Art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

February 11, 2017

Loving the Disney World

How I love - just love- the Disney theme parks! Be it Disneyland in Anaheim, any of the theme parks at Walt Disney World, or the great Disneyland Paris, my visits to each of them have been some of the happiest, most fun days in the my life and that of my children. What's not to love? Great attractions, decent food, and wonderful little shops to spend any remaining money you might have after the park ticket prices.

Even at their worst (California Adventure 1.0 or the Walt Disney Studios Paris, for example), there are still great aspects to be found.

Among my friends, I'm known as the Disney expert. Not a bad thing, but I was reminded by one friend:

"Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For everything in the world- the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does- comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires will pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever."

This friend, Jesus, means more to me than anyone else- so I need to take His words seriously. When He says this in the book of I John 2:15-17, I need to pay attention because it is truth. The challenge is to obey and still understand its perfectly ok to enjoy things. But it's not alright to make them an idol- and that I struggle with. Do you?

(Photograph copyright Mark Taft.)

February 10, 2017

The DCA Disaster of Guardians of the Galaxy

Even this incredible photograph by the always great Mint Crocodile at the Magic Eye blog can hide the truth: This transformation from Twilight Zone Tower of Terror to Guardians of the Galaxy: Mission Breakout is just plain ugly and out of place. 

While the Disney suits were cautious about adding Star Wars Land and not ruining sight lines, care was clearly thrown out the window here. When it came time to add this Marvel based Chris Pratt and company attraction to Disneyland's sister park, did anyone on the payroll mention how awful this was?

I'm sure Joe Rohde's hands are tied- after all the man is known for his work on the beautiful Animal Kingdom! But then again, he had to compromise by adding Dinorama and making it sound as if it fit in. This is no different.

Could we be going back to a really bad case of Bargain Basement Imagineering  for California Adventure? Sure seems like it!

Sand and Sea Instead of Snow

A huge storm is expected to be spreading across the country, so this really wonderful photograph of Seaside resort in Florida seems just like the right thing to wash away the winter blues! No, this great little photograph is not mine, in fact, the photographer is unknown. Certainly, I wish it was me taking the photograph! It would mean I was just there...

February 8, 2017

California Adventure: 16 Years Old and Rare Concept Art

Well, Anaheim's second Disney park would be old enough to drive if it were human! 16 years old and certainly going through more changes. Raging with energy, sure of itself, and still incomplete. The wonderful Twilight Zone Tower of Terror gives way to Guardians of the Galaxy this year, and more Marvel is on the way. But is it all a good thing? At this point, the suits should be adding attractions to a relatively new park instead of redoing ones that are solid. Is this a new version of "Bargain Basement Imagineering"?

Too much of California Adventure's design were piece parted out to various firms in addition to using original work from Disney Imagineering. Such is the case for this piece of concept art for Disney Animation, one of the best little areas to be found in the park on opening day.

A lesser successful project is represented above with California Adventure's cloning of Muppet Vision 3D- direct from the then named Disney-MGM Studios, where it debuted many, many years before. The attraction was already tired and needing an update when it was built for California.

Where do these pieces come from? Amalgamated Studios

I love these looks backward at the park. They help me remember what was- and what should never be again. These kind of opening day disaster parks including Walt Disney Studios Paris and Hong Kong Disneyland were woefully under-built, and until more expansion comes, are suffering from the bad reputation they received and still struggle against. May the suits never again build a park on the cheap.

Thankfully, over time, the suits at Disney realized much need to change. Bring on DCA 2.0!

Let's look at the past and see how the little baby has grown...

While Disney fans around the globe are checking out the beautiful new Cars Land or Buena Vista Street at California Adventure, it seems more than appropriate to look back on what was actually built come opening day. Why? First, it will help us appreciate the transformation and put it all in perspective. As you'll see by looking at the concepts for the park version 1.0, the painters brush can be unintentionally (or intentionally) deceiving! Secondly, due to the cost-cutting measures of the leadership of the time, it reminds us what poor foundations the Imagineers are stuck working with while they continue trying to expand this greatly improved park.

(As you look at the concept art, most pieces can be opened up for a larger version of the image displayed. Enjoy!)

As we look at concept art from the first incarnation of California Adventure, let's compare what we saw in the preview center versus what the park really looked like to an opening day guest. Many visitors, myself included, expressed displeasure at what was found at this new park. So did the media and for a good reason.

Let's begin with the park entrance. The tile murals flanking the sides are really well done. The CALIFORNIA letters are a unique touch and both together clearly communicate this is not Disneyland. It's not a bad design, there's just no follow through. When the Disney advertising experts have to create a fictionalized version of the entrance for promotional purposes, this should be the first clue that the park has some serious problems and design flaws.

It is what we encounter once walking past the turnstiles that shouts "bargain basement" design. Looking right through the gates brings a very ordinary looking area, nothing to entice a visitor who is considering a day at this park.

The Sunshine Plaza reigns as the ugliest and least original park entrance area in Disney's history. Yes, this includes the even less imaginative Walt Disney Studios in Paris! Framed by an out of place replica of the Golden Gate Bridge, the environment matches a low budget outlet mall, appropriately setting the stage for what is found in most of the park.

The Sun fountain is an interesting structure, but it really belongs in an open garden at a hotel, in the midst of a walkway from the parking area or just someplace else. Not large enough in scale to impress, not a fitting centerpiece for the park. In some ways, it is appropriate. This is big and flashy with a contemporary edge- but it lacks substance.

Moving on, let's head to the Hollywood Pictures Backlot. At first glance, it is a pretty Disneyesque area, a more playful version of the main drag at Disney's Hollywood Studios. The centerpiece, and clearly the highlight at opening, is Disney Animation.

Frankly, this is one impressive showcase! Beyond the park's signature flight simulator attraction, this gem is filled with the kind of care in execution that should have been found all over the park. The Animation Courtyard has an impressive layout that dazzles, and The Sorcerer's Workshop, including Beast's Library, feels like a walk-thru dark ride, drawing guests in further and further inside. It's easy to spend an hour here just watching the transformation in the library. Well done, Imagineers! In a nod to the Studios old working animation area, The Animation Academy truly provides a fun and informative demonstration of the art of the wonderful and ageless 2-D process. (Below is altogether different concept for Disney Animation.)

Beyond this great little attraction is where the troubles begin. Wandering around the rest of this land, guests discover raw steel and bland walls lie behind the great looking storefronts. Even the seemingly impressive Hyperion Theater is really just one great optical illusion. Just a big box but one with state-of-the-art facilities inside. However, it is a facility with no lobby and no restrooms!

Nearby, the past its prime MuppetVision 3D show is found. Not too thrilling an idea or presentation. It's a quick retread from Florida to save some cash- and an attempt by Disney to relaunch a very tired but admittedly once charming franchise.

The worst of the (Back) lot, however, is the only dark ride found here in 2001. In one of the oddest moves ever for a Disney park, the Imagineers designed and built the strange Superstar Limo attraction. The building housing the ride is at once quirky and likable to some degree, but the experience inside is just plain bizarre. Hosted by an on-screen agent who seems like someone you'd never let your children be alone with, the limo ride takes you through a tongue in cheek and trendy Hollywood filled with animatronics of "B" list celebrities from the Disney Studio. It quickly became the laughing stock of the theme park industry and a symbol of everything wrong with California Adventure. Less than a year from its premier, this ride quickly disappeared forever.

In a bit of poor planning, the Backlot's main street becomes a dead end, so let's cross back over to Condor Flats, a recreation of a California desert airfield.

Condor Flats effectively marks the entrance to The Golden State district, the portion of the park that truly strengthens the California theme. The airstrip is a small area to be sure, but it houses the park's signature attraction, Soarin' Over California. All the quibbles of the queue and its minimal theming aside, this film experience is the emotional heart of the park. Californians are rightfully proud of their state and its stunning diversity of landscapes. The photography is exhilarating, the musical score heightens the mood, and the ride mechanism impresses to thrilling results. It is the single standout attraction in the park. This crowd pleaser should not have been duplicated at any other resort. Period.

The true icon of this park, and one that for the first time is positioned to please hotel guests instead of park visitors, is Grizzly Peak. No expense was spared in creating an authentic and beautiful mountain environment. The rockwork created by the Imagineers ranks with the best of their efforts, including Big Thunder Mountain and the younger Expedition Everest. The landscaping is superb. The network of waterfalls, winding paths and viewing areas makes this part of the Grizzly Peak Recreation Area the most beautiful location of the entire Disneyland Resort. 
(Below is an amazing piece of artwork. Like the others, makes sure you click for a larger image.)

The setting for the Grizzly River Run is spectacular and "E" ticket worthy. However obvious short cuts have been taken with this attraction, starting with the design of the watercraft. The promotional poster below shows a whitewater excursion with an authentically styled raft. Somewhere between concept and execution, the attraction ended up with standard theme park fare circular rafts. Certainly the same company that could imagine and engineer leading edge ride systems for other attractions could find a way to build an authentic raft that was safe while providing the desired thrills!

Further cost-cutting took place by the exclusion of animatronic animals. Every other nature-based attraction designed by Disney uses them to good effect. From slow moving rides like The Jungle River Cruise to the high speed adventures of Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, there is simply no excuse for their absence except budgetary restraints. It's still a very fun attraction with terrific views of the park (and the less than beautiful city of Anaheim), but it could be so much more than it is.

Guests quickly noticed a trend in this new era Disney park: there may have been discounting on the attraction detail, but no expenses were lost when it came to the shops! California Adventure has some Disneyland quality shopping areas, and the Rushin' River Outfitters (below) is no exception.

Continuing a trend that began with Disneyland itself, the Redwood Creek Challenge Trail is a new take on the original park's Tom Sawyer's Island. Both provide plenty of fun as well as an area where younger visitors can run free. It is a nicely themed playground but not much more.

The limited number of attractions and cutbacks aside, this region of California Adventure provides the immersive environment that Disney guests are accustomed to finding at the parks. If only the rest of the small park had this much charm and care taken with it! The glaring shortcomings are only heightened when we enter into the San Francisco area, one far removed from the Golden Gate Bridge we found at the park entrance.

This tiny little sliver of San Francisco houses only restrooms, leaving guests who expected an elegant area such as New Orleans Square in a state of shock. In place of a fully realized cityscape, we find Golden Dreams, the film tribute to the history of the state. Originally envisioned as Circle of Hands, it was intended to be a heartwarming multimedia presentation of the brave men and women who settled and worked the land. Budget cuts again derailed the project. We are now left with a small scale but warm and politically correct vision of history. Unintentionally, this show is also one of the best arguments for Disney to stop using its a film stars as part of their attractions.

As we move around the bend, the beautiful Golden Vine Winery comes into view. Of course, so does the Pacific Wharf food court, Bountiful Valley Farm, and the surprising Paradise Pier.

The winery area charms guests with a sophistication not found elsewhere. Of course, like Napa Valley itself, we find a couple of pricy restaurants among the park's vineyard. Attractions? Oh yes, Seasons of the Vine is here- yet another film, this one highlighting the process of the art of winemaking from field to table. It is a slice of Epcot Center, an undiscovered gem. The music and photography perfectly capturing the area.

Across the way on this side of the bay is the Pacific Wharf. What could have been a wonderful setting for some California themed Disney attractions is reduced to mostly a food court with a couple of bakery tours using short films to tell the manufacturing story. The educational aspects of the park are important, however, they needed to be balanced out with traditional Disney attractions to justify the full ticket price.

Butting up to the Wharf is Bountiful Valley Farm, showcasing the agricultural impact of the state. Aside from yet another film, this one a clone of an additional 3D attraction from Florida, guests to the area are left without much to do except viewing tractors and watching a quite unimaginative fountain. In the age of "bargain basement" Imagineering, it's Disney storytelling at it's sorry best.

Controversial. Cheap and tacky. Off the shelf. Not what Walt would have wanted. Paradise Pier is all these things and more. And less. Much, much less.

Once guests had experienced the limited number of attractions in the other areas and the truly good live entertainment to be found, many headed toward Paradise Pier hoping to round out their day at Disney's recreation of a seaside amusement area.

The California Screamin' coaster stands tall over the area, and it is a roller coaster ride very worthy of a Disney park. Unfortunately, it is just a coaster- no great theming to be found here. No journey to outer space, no wildest ride in the wilderness, just an exposed track reaching for the sky. It is fun, day or night, but there are no Disney touches to be found except the giant glaring Mickey head. In this new fangled park, big, loud and obvious has mostly replaced the charming nuances of designers from earlier generations.

The rest of Paradise Pier is fleshed out with carnival games, kiddie attractions, swing rides, and an impressive Ferris Wheel. There's truly nothing magical or Disney here, yet the advertising department thought this was one of the best areas to show to promote the new park. What were they thinking? The public was not fooled, and the executives at Disney were left with an embarrassment on their hands.

Which brings us back full circle to the Blue Sky Cellar, housed in the old Seasons of the Vine building. Yes, it seems Disney is seriously trying to redeem itself by re-Imagineering the park. Starting with the areas that guests complained about the most, the makeover has started. The entrance to the park will be reworked. The Hollywood Backlot will get more improvements. The Pier will be a challenge but will still be a carnival. Plans even exist for a wonderful new land and a couple of great attractions worthy of the Disney of old. Will we see them? Will the proposed changes turn California Adventure from dud to star?

What can we learn from the "Bargain Basement Imagineering"? Concept art can be deceiving, and budgets can be reduced.  Disney has learned some important lessons from trying to fool us as they did in 2001. Now, they are going back to the basics of good design and Imagineering quality... and I, for one, can't wait to see what lies ahead in the future... if Phase Two of the restoration ever gets built!
When I first published a revised version of this post in 2008, the response was incredible. It led to additional segments on the development of California Adventure, its concept art, and more.  Use the search feature to find more "Bargain Basement" Imagineering posts or cruising the blog- stopping to look at the week long series of posts for the park's 10th Birthday in February 2011. Just as with my series on the development of Disney's Animal Kingdom, there's a lot to see and discover- trip reports, history, and art galore!

Want to see the next stage of DCA's development? This post includes Bug's Land and Twilight Zone. Or go to the next part in the series, entitled "Imagineering a New Dream" right here, which chronicles the reimagineering of the park and Buena Vista Street and Cars Land.

(Art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)