April 23, 2014

Lovely Laguna

The sand, the sea, my wife, and a vanilla latte from Starbucks. What a wonderful way to start a day in beautiful Southern California. We lived up the road years ago. Years ago! And we never really understood how blessed we were to reside there until we left.

Laguna Beach is one of the most lovely places along the Golden State's coast. Along with Corona del Mar, it's a must stop for great food, a relaxing place an adult beverage, and to enjoy the arts. 

There's a big world out there beyond Disney. I love to explore it!
(Photograph copyright Mark Taft.)


April 22, 2014

The Amazing Story of the Creation and History of Disney's Animal Kingdom


Today, April 12th, is Earth Day. For my newer readers, I want to use this day by introducing one of the largest, longest, and most detailed blog series on the creation and evolution of Disney's Animal Kingdom park. This series is filled with concept art, photographs and more.

Though Part One was first published in 2008, this is now a six part series. (And many more smaller articles followed as well.)

Disney's Animal Kingdom is a game changer for the Walt Disney Company in how it viewed and designed and managed its theme parks and in how it educated its guests.

Taking a look back at the park's history and the thought processes of the Company may give us a hint to its future, even beyond the proposed Avatar expansion. At the end of this posting of Part One, there are links to the other six articles in the series.

Additionally, on this blog, there are 60+ other articles about Animal Kingdom, making it one of the both talked about subjects found here. These posts include more rare concept art, trip reports, etc. But for now, let's begin with Part One...
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2008

Earlier this year, Disney’s fourth and largest Florida theme park celebrated ten years of delighting, thrilling, or frustrating Walt Disney World guests. Plans for the future have yet to be made public, but let’s look back at the past, discuss the present, and speculate on the future of this wonderfully imagineered playground.

Why is there such a deep appreciation and an equal disdain for Disney’s Animal Kingdom? It stands distinctly different from the Mouse’s other playgrounds in the Sunshine State. For its fans, the combination of a brilliant and daring design, consistent theme, and faithful execution brings new and unique adventures and environments. Its detractors would counter there are too few attractions to hold their interest for an entire day. Both sides agree the park is a beauty to view. However dazzling this combination zoo, botanical garden, and theme park is to behold, there are also the intangible factors that draw us to it when we can look past the limited number of adventures: there is a deep emotional connection that comes from our love for nature and animals. It meets our desire to run away from the concrete jungles of modern day life and reality- if only for the day! The park is a unique entity among Disney’s theme park roster, one that will probably never be duplicated.

Beginning with Mickey himself, animals of all types and depictions continue to be a great and profitable fit with Disney. According to company lore, Walt’s well-known love for animals and exotic locales, evidenced by the inclusion of Adventureland at Disneyland, California, and his True-Life Adventure films formed the emotional heart of Animal Kingdom long before ground was ever broken. In reality, when discussion began about the creation of this park in 1989, it may have truly been a strictly business decision that brought it to fruition.

The Magic Kingdom was a concept unique to Disney, successfully capitalizing and expanding upon the reputation of its older sibling in California. The next park, EPCOT Center, conceptually different in Walt’s mind but with its execution clearly inspired by world’s fairs and corporate America trade shows, transformed Walt Disney World from a single day destination to one that could consume a traveler’s entire week. Disney-MGM Studios debuted and was the least original of the three parks, taking ideas from Universal Studios in California and Disneyland, including a new Main Street of a different era for its entrance plaza.

Michael Eisner, brilliant or be damned, was the driving force behind the creation of a nature focused park. Bringing a competitive, and some would say greedy, nature to the business, he guided the company into direct battle with his once friendly neighbors, desiring to capture all the time and money any visitor may have in Central Florida. Disney-MGM Studios Theme Park had just successfully launched to square off with the soon-to-come Universal Studios. Pleasure Island was Disney’s answer to Orlando’s popular Church Street Station, Typhoon Lagoon their response to Wet N Wild, and myriads of resort properties were added to the entire Disney complex to grab a large share of the hospitality industry’s bread and butter. Earlier in the decade, Epcot’s Living Seas pavilion took a swipe at Sea World, and now Disney’s Animal Kingdom was looking to take a large bite out of Busch Gardens popularity in nearby Tampa.

The Studios park was jammed with guests from opening day on, and the atmosphere was rich but the attractions were few. Plans were quickly put into place for expansion, and discussions began on what to do next. Outside the new park, visitors filled the water parks and daytime entertainment and shopping areas. Flush with success and lots of money to invest, Disney executives believed a large audience remained untapped. With the astounding success of all the new offerings on the property, it was only a matter of time before the strategy gelled to add another park to lure and keep vacationers on Disney soil. Watching its competition for further clues, all it took was a glance at what was going on in Tampa to realize people’s love for animals and for the Disney characters would be a hit when combined. Polls taken at the other parks confirmed the company’s hunch. The “blue sky” imagineering quietly but quickly began.

Joe Rohde, who was intimately involved in the now defunct Adventurer’s Club at Pleasure Island, got the go-ahead from Eisner early in the new decade to proceed. He would head up the small but talented team to design the new park. With only a few months, a relatively short amount of time, and a high level of secrecy, this crew began to dream, plan and envision a park that would capture an audience and their money.

The designers instinctively knew Disney’s Wild Animal Kingdom, (as it was first named), had to be different from the other Florida parks, yet it had to appeal to the masses as well. Could Disney pull off a zoological park that didn’t look or feel like one? It had to be one that could excite and not bore. These became the core challenges. The Imagineers and the money men were well aware that travelers would avoid the new park in droves if a run-of-the-mill zoo was the first impression the park left its early guests.


As with any Disney park, this one had to have its themed “lands”. Initial concepts blended traditional Magic Kingdom elements (Beastly Kingdom- home to imaginary animals and the expected Disney dark rides); an Epcot style pavilion (Conservation Station- highlighting advanced animal care techniques); and traditional zoo with safari essentials (Kilimanjaro Safaris and Gorilla Falls Exploration Trail- among others, providing real life animal encounters). Additionally, a few old school Disneyland elements reappeared with slightly different twists: an exploration into the era of prehistoric creatures from Anaheim’s Primeval World met the cutting edge technology of California’s Indiana Jones Adventure (Countdown to Extinction), repurposed Jungle Cruise boats became transportation (Discovery River Boats), and lastly another railroad line linked the more guest friendly areas with the research facility (the Wildlife Express). Of course, any and all great plans are subject to the accountants red pen!


(Thank you to Tales from the Laughing Place for the image above!)



The main themed areas were now in place, but the Imagineers had another challenge to solve as well. What should be the park’s identifying icon and how would they set the stage for an arriving visitor? The Magic Kingdom and Studios parks both used a long walkway leading from the park entrance toward its respective icon. Epcot utilized a welcome garden type area then allowed guests to walk under Spaceship Earth. After many different ideas were discussed, including entering the park through a recreation of Noah’s ark, Joe Rohde and team took a unique approach to solve the problem.
To quickly establish the idea this park was built for exploration, wonder, and maybe most importantly, was not your mother’s zoo, guests would pass the turnstiles and enter the enticing Oasis Gardens. This area establishes the feel of the park: there would be multiple paths to explore and animals and birds all around. With the vegetation lush and strewn with tropical flowers, streams, and small waterfalls, this place would be a place to relax as well as have fun. Nooks and crannies discovered along the way would contain animal exhibits quietly hidden for the folks who would choose to take the time to find them. Multiple paths into and out of the gardens encourage visitors to explore. All this to bring a sense of mystery. Once the chattering of birds and small creatures intermingled with the sounds of human laughter, anticipation would be built. What would it lead to?

To ensure the park had an extremely authentic and exotic atmosphere, the Animal Kingdom team wisely involved Paul Comstock, the modern day genius landscape architect behind so many of Disney's wonderful theme parks and resorts. Mentored by the legendary Bill Evans, his reputation is crowned by his breathtaking work on Disney's Animal Kingdom. This unique combination gives the park its bold flavor. (Below is one of Paul’s original landscape plans. To view more of his two decades of work at Disney, see his portfolio at his new employer, Valley Crest Design Group.)The landscaping plan for the park is spectacular, but it is the man made masterpiece, the Tree of Life, the park’s chosen icon, that was intended to steal the show. This astounding structure is a piece of art unparalleled in Disney’s history. Designed to quickly brand the Animal Kingdom, there are more than three hundred animals are carved into its trunk and branches. Surrounding it are even more gardens, streams, and waterfalls. The Tree of Life was a bold and breathtaking choice. Situated on Safari Island, there were various concepts initially proposed for the area before the designers settled on the final one.
As expenses grew making accountants nervous, plans continued to evolve to balance the centuries old tension of art and commerce. The victims of cost cutting meant a haven for meeting the Disney characters replaced the beautiful landscapes and attractions of Beastly Kingdom, old parade floats from Disneyland were turned into the Festival of the Lion King show, and the exciting Excavator coaster for Dinoland U.S.A. became extinct. In what was ultimately another concession to the business side of the Mouse House, a 3D film based on an upcoming Disney/Pixar movie “A Bug’s Life” would be placed inside the majestic Tree of Life. Although fewer attractions would premier on opening day than what was originally designed, the park promised and would deliver enticing adventures for those guests who chose to look beyond the traditional Disney park experience.

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Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five
Part Six
(All artwork copyright The Walt Disney Company. Photos by Mark Taft. All rights reserved.)

April 21, 2014

Captain America Rocks the Screen

The last time I looked forward to a movie as much as this, an "event film", it was The Lone Ranger with Johnny Depp. (Well, yeah, we all know how that turned out.) After seeing Captain America: The Winter Soldier, I left the theater thinking the series may just replace the Indiana Jones series as one of my favorites. Maybe.

This jury may be out until the next in the series, but Chris Evans' take on the Marvel hero strikes all the right notes. What is it that makes the character so compelling?

Innocence and optimism. Perseverance. A strong belief in right and wrong. Justice. Self-sacrifice for the sake of others. A belief that good things- in this case, freedom- are worth fighting for. Democracy. And last but not least, humility. In the first film Steve Rogers was picked for the experiment for reasons fairly rare in the world of the movies. It wasn't because of his physical abilities. He was chosen because of his good character, passion to do the right thing, and caring for others above himself. True superhero qualities.

The film sets our Captain in the perfect storm of intrigue. There's no spoilers here, but I will say the twists keep you guessing while the action keeps your pulse racing. In the midst of it all, Evans grounds the film with his good humor, unwavering integrity, and determination. 

As much as I thought Scarlett Johansson was miscast as Black Widow, I will admit she is growing on me. There's some subtlety and complexity to her story here, a refreshing change. 

One of the most pleasant surprises in the film is actor Anthony Mackie as Sam Wilson aka Falcon. Sure, it adds the buddy film angle to the story, but his partnership with our hero fits perfectly. Here's hoping his role becomes a recurring one.

We all know Disney suits are watching the Marvel series closely. It's a hot franchise for teens, men, and young boys. Should the Imagineers decide to build an elaborate Marvel based third Disney park in California, I'd be happy. If it's as good as the movie I saw last night, I'll be first in line.



April 18, 2014

Going Hardcore

Don't you love it when folks go hardcore? I mean when they put everything into what they are doing- heart, mind, and body. 

Every time the Walt Disney Company steps up and goes all in on a project, they please fans and stockholders alike. Cars Land shows full commitment. Tokyo Disney Sea brims with excellence, and you can almost see every yen spent in creating it. 

When a musician pulls off an excellent and celebrated album, they have a chance at superstardom versus just being popular when the public purchases the disc in droves. Michael Jackson's Thriller stands above most.

And let's talk sports here- a gifted athlete with a powerful team behind him/her can bring results on the scale of a Michael Phelps slam at the Olympics or a winning Super Bowl team. Hours of investment can yield incredible return.

This "win at all costs" mindset is what I love about Jesus Christ. Far from the whimsy blonde haired victim some portray him as, he accomplished the most difficult thing ever done: completing the job given to him by God the Father. Choosing to follow through and die for the sins of all men who would change their ways and embrace him- and then, when all hope seemed lost, raising again to life on the third day. 

He gave it all. His was a life devoted to pleasing God the Father. Nothing else mattered. Pleasing men never entered his mind, only saving them from eternal damnation. Religious leaders of the day were threatened by His passion, his boldness, his unearthly wisdom, and his unconventional manner. The crowds loved him.

Jesus pulled no punches and always spoke the truth, and He paid the price for it with his life. One day they are praising him in the streets during the most rustic of parades. The next, they are chanting for his crucifixion, mesmerized and manipulated by the authorities. Little did they know that this all played right into God's hand. 

Days later, the miracle of all miracles took place- and sin was conquered for all time. Hid body broken, bloodied, and scarred beyond recognition all for our benefit. Never the victim. Always the victor.

Totally hardcore.

April 17, 2014

Another Shanghai Disneyland Enchanted Storybook Castle Shot

Sometimes a guy just has to post to mark a great discovery! And here it is- another piece of concept art for Shanghai Disneyland's beautiful and big Enchanted Storybook Castle. The American Institute of Architects presented an award for its unique design and application. Go here for a lot more information.

(Art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

April 16, 2014

Going Soft

Part of having a Disney oriented blog involves being a fan of the product, and therefore, reading other sites for pure enjoyment. 

That said, is it just me or does it seem as if too many sites are going soft on the company? In the past, if a product was bad, it was spoken of as such. Now it seems even the most mediocre of things is praised endlessly. Everything from a fairly pleasing but not excellent Ariel's Undersea Adventure to a decent but much overrated song from a hit movie ("Let It Go") has bloggers all atwitter as they twitter. What happened to objective reporting?

Paid trips to Disney theme parks and cruises or Adventures by Disney and stuffing guests with expensive goodie bags has dulled (paid off) those who were at one time critical of what the Company produced. Or met the need of those writers willing to get freebies in exchange for good press. These are the same folks who will argue the New Fantasyland in Florida holds up well against what Universal Creative did with Harry Potter at Islands of Adventure and soon their Studio park, Tangled bathrooms and all.

No one who ever reads Insights and Sounds could accuse me of being a Mommy blogger or a paid agent for the Walt Disney Company. (I do look at the blog reader numbers, and I am highly critical of the company's output, praising only what is truly excellent.)  Maybe I am delusional, but in my mind I speak a hard truth when necessary and am also liberal with praise when earned. 

The sad part of it all is that "news" sites (and television news broadcasts by and large) have become entertainment or pieces of promotional fluff. The negative effect has several aspects. This new standard speaks down to the audience, making potential guests skeptical about investing their hard earned money. When everything is praised, nothing is special. When the company pulls in numbers due to social media success for an inferior product, there's no incentive to create truly spectacular works of art in any medium. The fans ultimately lose as well.

The same can be said of any industry or anything of value. It may be a small world after all, but it's becoming a very jaded one for those with a discerning spirit. 

Four Minnies and No Mickey

During our recent visit to Southern California with a stop at the Disneyland Resort, I ran into four Minnies- without a Mickey in sight! 

It was a great day, even if we didn't go into our old favorite park,  Disneyland or our newer favorite California Adventure. A full day or fun and relaxation Disney style.

How can that be? Well, next week, I'll be sharing about how it can be done without spending a fortune. Stay tuned.

(Photograph by Mark Taft.)

April 15, 2014

Four Blood Moons- Pirates or Prophecy

The Four Blood Moons is not the title of the next film in the Pirates of the Caribbean series. It is however, a series of lunar sightings that is mentioned in Biblical prophecies.

Some scholars believe it is the beginning of the end of the world, others believe not. I find this article quite interesting and worth some thought. Check it out, and let me know what you think.

(Note: Image is photoshopped, as at the time, the first one had not  happened.)

April 14, 2014

The Elegance of EPCOT Center

Long before the gorgeous Tokyo Disney Sea, the best work of Imagineering was actually found Stateside. In a park that has never been recreated, EPCOT Center was a brand new theme park, a World's Fair built to last, a playground where education met imagination.

From Future World to World Showcase, at opening, the park was an optimistic statement of achievement and possibility. It was also incredibly beautiful, elegant from top to bottom.

Imagineer Herb Ryman created this masterpiece in 1978. Designed to establish a feel for the park, this rendering of the plaza around Spaceship Earth is at once compelling and full of charm. The environment sparkles, and the children exploring the park convert it was meant for all ages to enjoy. (Click to see it in very large format.)

With the dumbing down of Epcot in the late 1990's and into this century, the place is no longer what it once was. There's still delights to be found, but now characters invade where they do not belong, attractions thrill but forget to build much story, education or anticipation, and the boozy Fall Festival becomes an excuse to get sloshed. 

Gone are the original Journey into Imagination, Universe of Energy, and the World of Motion. Younger fans of the park must know it was something special in 1982 because old timers like me keep talking about it. You Tube and old photos cannot capture the majesty of Walt's last dream turned theme park.

(Art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

April 12, 2014

Disneyland Paris at 22: The Theme Park as Work of Art


Twenty-two years ago, The Walt Disney Company unleashed an experiment. In the world's most beautiful city, resides the theme park as a work of art. When placed inside a metropolis filled will world famous pieces of art, gorgeous buildings, and stunning gardens, the Imagineers just had to create a parc that would hold its own. And they did!

Originally named EuroDisneyland, competing with an abundance of man made wonders in the city and the continent at large meant CEO Michael Eisner had to invest big bucks if the park was to be a creative and financial success. In spite of the challenges or perhaps because of them, Disneyland Paris not only succeeds but is the most beautiful Magic Kingdom ever built. The overbuilding of the hotels surrounding it would be a noose around the park's neck, making major additions few and far between. That is a story for another time.

As the first European park from Disney and the first Disneyland styled park entirely reimagined from the ground up, the Imagineering team was handed quite a challenge but also a rare opportunity. Thankfully, the principal Imagineer in charge was Tony Baxter. His well-documented love for the first Disneyland and his appreciation and adaption of old school Imagineering, guaranteed the creation would be quite lovely, with substance as well as charm. 


In an interview from 1995 (found here), Tony recalls a conversation with Imagineer Marty Sklar about his plans for the park: "I would really like to have a chance to try for a perfect version of Disneyland." And he and his team did create it! In fact, I would say the resulting creation is the "E Ticket" park filled with "E Ticket" attractions.


The team of Imagineers Tony assembled is a "Who's Who" of Imagineering. While Tony cannot and does not take the credit for the park, his ability to draw out the best in his team cannot be overstated.

Tony himself is a fan favorite for leading the charge in building Splash Mountain, the Indiana Jones Adventure, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad and Journey into Imagination. Here's the rest of the main designers:


Eddie Sotto: Later instrumental in creating the groundbreaking Pooh's Hunny Hunt at Tokyo Disneyland,  Eddie accomplished a stunning Main Street U.S.A. It isn't the "Roaring 20's" styled one he fought for, (and the one Michael Eisner later regretted not building), but it stands above the others in the realm of mixing art, history, and fantasy.


Tim Delaney: His work on the Jules Verne themed Discoveryland is on par with just about everything built at Tokyo Disney Sea.  A French Mysterious Island, if you will.


Tom Morris: Prior to the new Fantasyland Forest take on Fantasyland, Tom brings the best of all previous versions to a whole new level of beauty. The castle itself is the most spectacular ever built, worth an hour or more of exploration all by itself.


Chris Tietz: No other Adventureland so perfectly accomplishes the task of feeling remote yet intimate. Opportunities to explore are everywhere! It's vast in size... and so full of potential growth for the future.


And lastly Pat Burke: Assigned to Frontierland,  Pat created a story and environment so rich, with attractions so interwoven, that words are not enough to communicate his epic accomplishment. In a park full of incredible lands, this one is my favorite.



What did I see that made me wish this park was my "home Kingdom"? 

Our first visit was in Fall of 1998, and I was mesmerized by what I saw. Our second trip occurred in Summer of 2007, and we were just as thrilled. Our third visit in 2012 was during the Christmas season. The park was cold, the trees bare, but the magic still shined as bright as the holiday lights. (See the blogpost An American in Paris for a full trip report.) 


The park does not have the lakeside location as with Florida's Magic Kingdom, but the elaborate gardens at the entrance- a European tradition- set the stage for the wonders to come. They are elaborate yet tasteful, with plenty of fountains punctuating the Parisian sky. 


Walking under the lovely (but extremely overpriced) Disneyland Hotel, the expected Main Street U.S.A. train station comes into view. It's an odd sight for those of us accustomed to the Stateside kingdoms. The station is so close to the ticket arcade, and it creates an unusual sense of space. 

The train station is elegant and understated.  The great detailing is really only to be found once you are in queue for the grand circle tour around the park. The handcrafted stained glass windows, each depicting a land in the park- windows in miniature that would be a popular but expensive souvenir- help you realize the Imagineers have gone far beyond the expected.  It's only the beginning. For a tourist rushing from attraction to attraction, the place delights. For an Imagineering fan, the place is one lush detail layered on top another.

For me, the first sight of the centerpiece castle is one that excites. It reminds me I am at Disney and not some local park filled with iron rides and little else. As a family, we couldn't walk down Main Street fast enough to begin our day. On the other hand, the castle draws you in and right to it. It's almost impossible to resist.

Le Ch√Ęteau de la Belle au Bois Dormant, triumphantly mixes animated movie style of Sleeping Beauty artwork with European true to life sensibilities. The work of the primary artist on the film, Eyvind Earle, was the inspiration for the castle. The artist and fans of the 1959 film would be thrilled to see it come to life. 



In each Magic Kingdom styled park, there are different experiences to be found. California has its walk-thru, Florida a restaurant, and Tokyo a combination of both. At Hong Kong Disneyland, the Anaheim-like castle was once listed as an attraction to pad the numbers. Yet, it is just a building, only a landmark at the first Disney Chinese park.  However at the French chateau, there really is an attraction worth exploring. We willingly spent over an hour of our one day visit viewing its handcrafted tapestries, stone tree pillars, lovingly created stained glass windows, its balconies, terraces and incredible views of Fantasyland. (Don't miss the sleeping knight in armor.) When beams of sunlight come into the castle, it's pretty enchanting. When the skies are darker, the beauty becomes a bit foreboding.

For an even darker experience, the piece de resistance is found at the basement level Dragon's Lair. Inside the dimly lit, dank dungeon, a fully realized Audio Animatronic dragon snarls and growls, blazing fire and smoke at guests passing by. How you discover it depends on the guest. The first visit, we journeyed through the accessible outside entrances. The next time, we discovered this darkest lower chamber is also reached by a secret passageway from the wizard Merlin's laboratory (and shop) above. In a sense, the castle is the premier attraction at the park, combining story, art, exploration and unexpected surprises. This is Disney Imagineering at its best. And all accomplished before Harry Potter arrived and changed the game at Universal Orlando.


Beyond the castle, the Parisian Fantasyland is a beautiful combination of Anaheim's (though at a much larger scope and scale) with elements all uniquely its own. There are many small gardens, water features, and plenty of discoveries around every bend.


In a nod to the multi-national authors of the fairy tales represented each attraction is voiced in the language of the original writer. It's a nice touch that reminded me that we were not home. One aspect of Fantasyland was very different. Initially disappointing but ultimately charming. The exteriors of Toad Hall look the same as the California attraction, but the residence is actually a British fish and chips restaurant. If you look around, you'll find one of many little charming touches that honor the park's continent: a portrait of Mr. Toad himself sits on a wall above diners. But wait and look carefully- here Mr. Toad is envisioned by great European artists: Van Gogh, Rembrandt, and da Vinci. The painting magically transforms before your eyes every minute or so. Delightful!



Fantasyland does have its dark rides. Peter Pan's Flight, with its double capacity vehicles, draws the same large crowds here as back home. Pinocchio's Daring Journey is almost a walk on just like at Disneyland as well. Snow White also has her home here. Each little dark ride is full of all the expected detail and similar storyline. There's not much different here, honestly, but as I'll share, the placement of Peter Pan's Flight is key.

Beyond the dark rides, much is made of the Alice in Wonderland themed labyrinth and for good reason. The winding paths through manicured gardens make for a great little family excursion. We all enjoyed it, and we let the kids freely work through the maze, giving them a bit of independence. Filled with characters from the film, the attraction is more akin to the "smaller" ones that provide charm at Walt's original park- the ones that are sorely missed in Florida. The glass-topped Tea Cups are nearby. Last visit, I thought that the Queen of Hearts Banquet Hall and a re-imagined Alice ride would have made a great little sub-area.

In the opposite direction, It's A Small World is nearby, being the first one to include a United States themed area in the attraction. The facade echoes the original but with covered queue. The inside foregoes Mary Blair's art direction and style for something different but equally effective. Appreciating the differences is one major key to really enjoying this park. We found it interesting that here we were in Paris, with people speaking multiple languages all around, and together we were embarking on the Happiest Cruise that Ever Sailed. It is a small world. Nothing beats leaving your country to get a bigger taste of the world around you.


Besides the Anaheim original, the only other Storybookland Canal Boats are found here. The focus seems to be mostly on the newer Disney film classics with an odd inclusion of The Wizard of OzCasey Jr. Circus Train appears next door. Howeverthis one is a real coaster, blatantly ensuring the poorly designed and themed Gadget's Go Coaster will never make its way to France all the while providing thrills for little ones. Built long before it, the train also guarantees that the Seven Dwarfs' Mine Train will not be created on French soil.


As a family with teens, (our first visit and without any children the next two), we enjoyed Fantasyland, but we did wish for more. We would have loved a Mary Poppins themed dark ride or at least an attraction that was unique to this park.  Will the Little Mermaid / Ariel's Under Sea Adventure arrive? Probably, but when is the question. I have no idea if the Audio-Animatronic show from Beauty and the Beast will ever be built, but it once was on the expansion plans. (I've got the artwork on the blog somewhere...)

We wrapped up Fantasyland for exploration of Adventureland a trip with the Pirates of the Caribbean.  The quickest route there from Fantasyland? Through the covered arcade right past Peter Pan.  Going into Adventureland this way, there's Adventure Isle with Captain Hook's Pirate Ship and Skull Rock on the other side. Thematically consistent but there was no doubt we had left one land and entered a totally different one.


Similar to the old transition between Florida's Liberty Square from Fantasyland (pre-Tangled restrooms), there is a subtle architectural blending between both lands. In fact, the transitions all through this park are so smooth yet very distinctive. Once you enter one land, it is so immersive and so convincingly secluded from all others, it is easy to forget you are in a multi-themed park. The placement of focal points amidst cleverly placed high points and foliage makes it next to impossible to see the other lands than the one you are in. This is one strength of the Imagineer's design and the benefit of learning from what has come before. This effect reinforces the storytelling, highlighting the brilliant detailing and masterful crafting of the park. But, I digress- back to Adventureland.


A map of Adventure Isle and all its landmarks.

From the plaza, Adventureland beckons with a distinctive Arabian Nights theme, a nod to the European perspective of what is considered exotic. Inside the buildings are a nice walk through attraction based on Aladdin, a bazaar, and a very quiet little cafe. Shops surround it all, offering African goods and such, with an Indiana Jones type jeep on the road... perhaps a hint of things to come. 


Coming in from the other entrance, Adventure Island is straight ahead and offers two pedestrian bridges to provide access to the grounds. There's no watercraft other than Hook's ship in dock but closer to Pirates of the Caribbean, the weathered remains of a small boat are on the sand. 

Up high on the island hilltop is The Swiss Family Tree House, its roots creating the perfect place for exploration with caves underground and the expected bridges and trails above. This incredible playground also consumed an hour or so of our time, as we had to cover every inch of it; the sights from almost every side of the island had to be captured by my camera. From one angle, the beautifully decaying fortress of Pirates of the Caribbean; from the other, views into an African themed section of the land or farther out, the jungle filled ruins of a temple being excavated by Indiana Jones.


In contrast to the high energy feel of neighboring Frontierland, the feel of this land is more quiet, subdued, mysterious. The only area that feels energetic is around the Temple of Peril coaster and that is just because you can hear the screams of the riders on this small scale coaster. This quiet flavor works well to make the next major attraction have a huge impact.


Back on shore, where fortress and village meet, the Pirates of the Caribbean is the definitive version of this classic attraction- even outpacing the Anaheim original. The build looks much like what the attraction at Shanghai Disneyland will resemble. White washed stone weathered by sand and wind and water. The queue is dark, winding, and slowly engulfs you into the attraction. It's as effective a waiting space as that in Florida's Pirates or of the same high quality as the line at the Indiana Jones Adventure, but it is more subtle. There's no bayou here as in California, so the queue is performing double duty in place of the tranquil first few minutes of the cruise in Anaheim. I don't want to spoil everything, but I will mention a few standout differences.

Most all Disney fans have heard of the dueling pirates found in the "chase" scene, but the action at the beginning of the attraction also impresses. From the smaller marine animatronics, (such as the squid found just out of view from diners at the beautiful Blue Lagoon restaurant), to the very active pirates overthrowing the fortress before riders descend into the middle of the battle, this old standby attraction is reinvented to great effect. Currently, there's no Jack Sparrow in sight, so fans of Johnny Depp and the films may be disappointed. There's another change to the original- Here in Paris, those explosives do detonate- but you'll have to see it for yourself. It was a gutsy move to re-imagine the finest of Disney attractions, but Dead Men Tell New Tales here. Again, appreciating the differences is a major key to enjoying the park.

 
Stumbling upon a pirate hideout- from the queue!

Here, Frontierland is found where Adventureland resides in the American parks. It's placement seems jarring at first, but when viewing the entrances to each land from the plaza, it makes good sense. Those fanciful Arabian domes seem much more in their proper place next to the equally fanciful castle than an American fort of the Wild West. I am not a fan of the color of the domes, however, as I find it competes with the European palace next door. After dark, it seems to be a wise color scheme. Yet, I guess the same could be said for the colors of Discoveryland. Regardless, it is nothing major and just a preference.


Many Europeans love the tales from the American West, its landscapes, its stories, its heroes. This Frontierland captures it all, embracing both the facts and the lore. There's a good chunk of American History with a bit of Disneyland history thrown in. Beyond the fort at the entrance, there's little physical resemblance to the original Disneyland version which offered its Conestoga Wagons, mule trains, and Nature's Wonderland. There seems to be more soul in Paris than what's currently found on either side of the States. It's an intangible feeling, but it is definitely there.

The Imagineers, led by Pat Burke, have produced the most compelling landscapes and stories ever created for this section of the Magic Kingdom styled parks. There's wide open spaces and a lot of land. Though much of it is available for further design and  development, it truly does feel complete. With its attractions, array of places to dine, and an environment that's so encompassing, Frontierland is the standout themed land in an entire park of them; the ultimate Frontierland, one I bet Walt Disney himself would have loved to see come to fruition.

From the hub, approaching Fort Comstock, there are a few Indian teepees in the front alongside the small stream. The area is wooded and rustic. The riverboat cruises beyond the fort and Big Thunder Mountain is clearly in sight. Between the Adventureland and Frontierland entrances from the plaza side is a cleverly hidden gallery housing restrooms along a secluded path. The designers used a variety of vegetation to gently transition from the Middle East to the Old West of the United States. Excellently done.

As with the castle, Fort Comstock is also an attraction. You can explore the entire complex, walking the upper levels and enjoying terrific views across the frontier. I shot the photograph below from the upper level. You can see Phantom Manor to the far left. The Molly Brown riverboat sails past the parks of Big Thunder.


Inside the fort, Legends of the Wild West presents famous figures from American history in full scale tableau. Everywhere you turn, the detail and historical authenticity is incredible.  


The view from the top of Fort Comstock.

Straight beyond the fort lies Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. Its trains round the track on this rocky island situated right in the middle of the Rivers of the Far West. 
There's much kinetic energy between the trains racing and the boats traveling the river.  

In an engineering feat of excellence, the trains race under the river and the bulk of the ride occurs on the island. This aspect gives the attraction a spectacular beginning, setting the pace for the whole journey, and is only outdone by its explosive finale.

Back on shore is the town of Thunder Mesa, named as a tribute to the great Imagineer Marc Davis and his never built Western River Expedition. (In fact, this park would be a perfect fit for the never built attraction as Europeans are less politically correct than Americans when it comes to Old West stereotypes.) With the racing mine trains, the steamboat sailing by, the Disneyland Railroad trains encircling the area, and the nearby shooting gallery creating some excitement, the combination is powerful. Tossing in the scents from the excellent steakhouse and a Mexican cantina, you've got the recipe for several hours just on this side of the park.


While Big Thunder Mountain Railroad is the thrilling visual center of the town of Thunder Mesa, Phantom Manor delivers thrills of a different kind, revealing a sinister undertone to the legends of the community. Our first trip through, actor Vincent Price was still the narrator to the journey. Not so for the last two. 

One thing is certain, this is not Imagineer Marc Davis' Haunted Mansion. Humor is missing in this Wild West version, the only remnant being the portraits found in the stretching room. 

The tone is darker, much darker, the landscapes hold more skeletons, and house itself is woefully unkept. The story revolves around greed, revenge, and murder. Not your typical Disney fare. Ultimately, the attraction is just scarier and different. Its symphonic score is a gorgeous piece of music, eerie but sad, beautiful and haunting. The story of Phantom Manor advances the stories behind Thunder Mesa while still leaving enough room for guests to create their own.



Sitting on the wooden walkways next to the shops far across from Phantom Manor, it was easy for me to suspend belief and dream of truly being back in time. There's a large chunk of land devoted to this theme, and the area is visually secluded from all others, with the layers of detail in sight and sound so rich and varied, the end result is the perfect representation of the old west mythologies. We spent several hours here taking in attractions, exploring the shops, and eating at the excellent and fairly priced Cowboy Cookout Barbecue.

After two visits to the park, I still could not uncover why this version is my favorite of all Frontierlands and perhaps my favorite land in all of Disneyland Paris. I finally came to this conclusion: In California, Frontierland is a shadow of its former self in contrast to what was designed by the Imagineering team under Walt Disney. In Florida, between Country Bear Jamboree and Splash Mountain, the land is an excuse for the placement of cuddly characters. Only in France, thousands of miles removed from the actual geography represented, does this uniquely American story get the respect it deserves. Sure, it is fictionalized and somewhat fantasized, but bottom line and bluntly stated, this Frontierland feels like the real thing and not an area found in a theme park.



In 1992, I watched the opening of the EuroDisney resort on television, and dreamed and prayed I would one day get to visit. While the banter of American hosts Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson added little to what I wanted to see, the images of Discoveryland stuck in my head. (Remember, this was even before Space Mountain was built. By the way, my very detailed look at the worldwide Space Mountains is found here.) This was what drove me to pursue a trip as I am a big fan of Jules Verne; and for those who are interested, Mysterious Island is my favorite of his writings.


When I finally did see Discoveryland with my own eyes in 1998, the small screen images didn't hold a candle to the monumental work I saw! Walking through the land, I was drawn so many different directions. But I had a single goal in mind: Space Mountain

From start to finish, it was a winner. The building itself radiates an other-worldness with its metallic surfaces and neon. Once placed within the cannon, the scenery while awaiting launch was stunning. The ride was smooth as glass, the music drew me in as it enhanced the experience. I couldn't ride it enough, although the queue length meant only two trips this first go around as there was so much to see and shortened park hours. My Disney-jaded fourteen year old son walked off the ride with a huge smile on his face. Not so my wife. It was just a bit much for her. 

When Space Mountain: Mission Two premiered years later, I lamented the changes I perceived would be made for the new adventure. My ride in 2007 only confirmed they were in fact for the worse.

Our last trip, my wife sweetly offered to shop while I rode. When I met her at the assigned place, my response said it all- "THAT is what I came to Disneyland Paris for!" Then, with her permission, I turned around for one more ride. If I had to choose between Space Mountain and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, I don't know if I could.



The level of detail inside Disneyland Paris' Discoveryland has to be seen to be believed. This photo is one of many mini murals painted inside the Cafe Hyperion restaurant.


This painted mural stood near the entrance to the excellent and elegant Le Visionarium attraction. As the emotional and philosophical centerpiece of Discoveryland, the attraction paid tribute to great visionaries of the past. 

Exploring a fully developed Nautilus submarine was one of the highlights of my day. Again, its a scenic piece in a small bay and not a major attraction, but it is eye candy and worth the time to explore. I saw clear references to Tony Baxter's long lost Discovery Bay here as well. The entire land is full of eye candy and the kind of design detail I love. There's space for more to be built if the company ever gets the weak Studios park to a point it can bring in a large audience. Time for a confession: I have need ridden Star Tours here. With time always at a premium, this flight simulator is towards the bottom of my list, and no, I am not a Star Wars fan. 

Unfortunately, one of the most endearing attractions at Disneyland Paris is no longer there: Le Visionarium. This circlevision film was great fun and a wonderful introduction to French future/fantasy. However, in our second visit in 2007, this impressive little movie was replaced by the ever popular video game starring Buzz Lightyear. This was not the first of the toon invasions into the park as Toy Story's Pizza Planet restaurant was already added to Discoveryland before our first visit.

When considering the direction Disney is taking with its Tomorrowlands, Discoveryland holds a unique place as being middle ground between Anaheim's original future focused realism and Hong Kong Disneyland's character infused land. What will happen in Shanghai? So far, it looks to be a sleeker 1960s version of Walt's original incarnation. Whatever changes come, I hope  Discoveryland holds its own as the transitions continue by remaining a tribute of visionaries come to life!


Lastly, Main Street, U.S.A., the first land in the park. It is every bit as impressive if not moreso than the grander version found in Florida's Magic Kingdom. If the Paris version of the land of the future has taken on a more fantasy bent, I would venture to say the same holds true for its Main Street. There is an idealistic, very artistic, beauty of each building, each billboard, each attraction. The beautiful work of Eddie Sotto and team elevates the land to something befitting landscapes from a dream.


Walt's: An American Restaurant is the perfect example of what I am attempting to communicate. The food is not only delicious but beautifully presented, and the atmosphere is a dream for every fan of classic Disney Imagineering. Artwork from the creation of the parks in found in the restaurant's themed rooms with appropriately styled furnishings. During our second trip (and without the kids), we lunched in the Frontierland room with a window view overlooking Main Street. It was worth every bit of the $75 we spent, one highlight of many in our trip to the park.



After lunch, as with every other land, we lingered here soaking in the details. Exploring the shops one by one, we loved what we found. My favorite was Main Street Motors, a love letter of sorts to the American automobile. The Emporium and Harrington's were also stops for our destination shopping, with equal amounts of detail found in both. Although we ate at Walt's, we did stop in and peek at the Market House Deli and Casey's Corner. More great theming and layered detail.

Although Main Street is relatively short on attractions, the Liberty and Discovery Arcades are attractions all their own. In fact, we spent more time in these than we thought we would, causing a delay of our after park plans. Each arcade held a series of "mini exhibits", adding to the richness of the park. It is these small touches that bring this kingdom closest to the charm of Walt's first Disneyland while maintaining the expanded scale and scope of Florida's.


Beyond its physical beauty, Disneyland Paris offers some of the most enhanced and esquisite versions of the classic Disney attractions. The choices for dining are on par with what can be found at Epcot. From snack choices to fine dining, the park has a variety of options to fit all budgets and preferences.

Readers of Disney parks' discussion boards are familiar with the ongoing complaints concerning the park. And these hold up with good reason. This beautifully designed place is saddled with very poor maintenance- probably the worst of all the Disney theme parks. It is not that the cast members are not doing their jobs. In fact, the cast members are very kind, courteous, and knowledgable. Simply said, the business planners for the park have not given enough resources to keep the park up to its opening day standards in upkeep and cleanliness.

The lovely setting from the second floor found in Walt's was offset by what I viewed from the window. Rotting wood, peeling paint, and general disrepair of the buildings found across the street took away from the experience inside. The same held true for the higher reaches of the park's castle, parts of Adventure Isle, and slices of each of the park's themed lands. There was a noticable difference in these standards between visit one and two, much to my dismay. Things rebounded a bit by the third visit, but it is clear there is still work to be done.

Item number two: downgrading the shopping experience. What are character plushes and plastic toys doing out in the open streets of Adventureland? (Or even in the shops here at all?) This is a horrible trend, one that should be reversed immediately. Our first visit held plenty of unique, even theme park exclusive, merchandise. Not on our second or third visit. Seems this disease is spreading from Florida!


Next, delay in bringing new theme appropriate attractions. No excuse here for stagnation. It does take money to make money. Learn from Walt here and not the corporate raiders of our day. The park should have new- not reimagined- attractions between 1998 and 2007. Replacing Le Visionarium for Buzz and rotating 3D movies is not the way to go. Nor is a new children's play area at the Adventureland beach or thowing in Woody and company into Frontierland. The Studios park may need more, but it is past time for the Paris Kingdom to gain a new jewel to crow about.


Lastly, and this piece is not entirely the fault of the Walt Disney Company, but the fault of the park's management, are the guests. Far too many of the park's visitors are incredibly disrespectful of both other guests and the beautiful surroundings. I have personally witnessed outdoor urination, widespread invasion of nonguest areas, and extremely poor manners with regards to line cutting. Is this really the same European guest that is amazingly respectful of the unprotected artistic masterpieces found in the Musee d'Orsay or the Louvre? My mind says impossible, but my mind also says probable. Either way, park security does nothing, only adding to the frustration of being in a beautiful park that at times feels out of control.


Do not let the downside to this European Disneyland stop you from visiting! From a thematic and design viewpoint, this is the finest Magic Kingdom ever created, maybe even on par with the much heralded Tokyo Disney Sea. Though outside the city limits, the park fits in perfectly with the City of Lights and is certainly worth an entire day of exploration. Twenty-two years later, Disneyland Paris is still the ultimate Magic Kingdom styled park.


(Photos copyright Mark Taft.)

April 11, 2014

Real Life Adventure in Africa


Serving others is a high value for our friends and our family. In this report, a good friend shares her experiences as she teaches and serves in Rwanda. Just a note: the "Mr. Taft" mentioned is not me but my father. Thanks, Dad, for giving of your resources so freely to help others.

It's not Disney's Animal Kingdom, but instead the real life Africa. Much more exciting and life-changing...
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FOUR BANDAIDS, ANTIBIOTIC OINTMENT AND PRAYER

My friend, Sydney, and I were packing our bags to travel to the Kamate Parent Primary School.  After a two-week missions stint in Rwanda in 2010, the rest of our Hearts for the World International team returned to the U.S., but Sydney and I had been asked long before we left to stay on an extra week to teach English to the 1st through 4th graders.* At the last minute I decided to throw in my miniscule, personal first-aid kit consisting of four Band-Aids™ and antiseptic lotion. I also had the always-needed-everywhere wipes in my bag.

During the second day of our teaching, a request went out for someone to administer first aid to a student who had fallen and split her knee open.  It was apparent I would be that person.  Calling on my very basic medical knowledge and prayer, of course, I cleaned the bleeding wound and covered it with two Band-Aids™.  One of the teachers interpreted my further instructions to the student of keeping the wound clean and dry and to see me the next day.  Most importantly, we prayed that she would have no infection and that the wound would heal.  Over the next couple of days, I redressed the wound and continued to pray for healing.  On the day we were to leave, her wound no longer required a bandage or ointment.  I had had just enough in my first aid kit to aid her, but, most importantly, there was always prayer. 
This was a wake-up call for our Hearts for the World ministry.  There was absolutely nothing in Kamate, or at the First Generation tailoring school in ZaZa, to take care of basic wounds.  

When our team returned the following year, we brought in two 50-pound suitcases of a wide variety of supplies, thanks to Mr. Taft, a very generous donor, who has a large heart for children in need. That led to a clinic being held every time I returned to Kamate and for one of the teachers, who had watched carefully each time I was administering first aid and helped me as needed,  and whose English was very good, to become the one who continued assisting children.

The generosity of Mr. Taft has had a large ripple effect.  Each time a team or I return, we replenish the supplies, and the community has been resourceful, as well.  So many benefits to the Kamate community come to mind, including parents who now come for aid, as well, but two encounters, in particular, stand out.
 In 2012 at the end of the clinic time, a young girl brought her friend to see me.  This young lady was quite unkempt, downcast if not depressed, with a very dejected demeanor.  She showed me some ulcers on her legs, some of which were oozing and were obviously infected.  

As always, I started praying for God’s wisdom to enable me to treat her appropriately and for his healing of her wounds, and we ended with prayer, as well.  I cleaned each ulcer and bandaged it and after ten minutes, each time I thought we were done, there was another sore she pointed out to me on her feet and on her thighs, as well as her legs.  I lost track of how many Band-Aids™ and gauze pads were needed and ultimately I wrapped each leg entirely in gauze to make sure the bandages stayed in place.  She left with instructions to keep her bandages clean and dry and to return the next day.  Throughout the rest of the day and evening I continued praying that God would continue to heal her wounds and make her skin as beautiful as the skin of all of her fellow students.  When she returned the next day, healing was well underway, there were no more suppurating wounds, and we repeated the same treatment and instructions.

*The fifth and sixth grades were added in subsequent years and in 2013 the very first class of 6th graders graduated from Kamate Parent School.

When she came to see me the third day, which was the day I was departing, her bandages and legs were filthy and her healing wounds had re-opened.  One of the teachers knew her difficult family situation and made a decision with the others to intervene with the family.  Over the weeks and months that I was gone I continued to pray that she would have fully-healed and beautiful skin. 

I returned in the fall of 2012 and at the end of clinic one day, a young girl brought her friend to see me.  Her friend was tall, very stately, and beautiful.  “Don’t you recognize her?” she asked.  “No,” I answered honestly. “Should I?”  “Yes,” she said.  She was the girl who had had the horrible ulcerative sores.  Her life was changed. She was doing very well in her classes and was a leader in the school, and her family situation had improved considerably.  God had answered our prayers abundantly.

During the same stay, I had been informed that one of the workers who were installing a water collection system at the Parent Primary School had injured his foot.  Of the several workers there, he was the one who never smiled when I waved or said “Mwaramutse” (good morning) and appeared to be the most mystified, even foreboding, and likely suspicious about why I, an Anglo, was at the school.  As God had planned, he was the one who was hurt. 

His was a quite a superficial wound, which he had bound with a very dirty rag.  As I gently washed his foot, I found myself thinking about Jesus, who knelt to wash the feet of his disciples.  I then applied ointment and a Band-Aid™, as I prayed for healing.  From the cap he wore on his head, I believe the worker was a Muslim. To be touched in this way by a woman and a white woman, in particular, undoubtedly stretched his cultural boundaries.  Yet, this encounter changed him, and each time we had an opportunity to greet one another, he waved and smiled.  Only God knows what seeds were planted, but I continue to pray for him, that he will come to know Jesus as his savior and his hope for eternity and that others come into his life to water this seed.

Well, what are the “take-aways” for me and perhaps for you?  First and foremost, prayer to a loving God, in whom I have put my faith and have come to love and trust implicitly, avails much. (Proverbs 15:8; I Peter 3:12). Second, being willing to use my little bit enables God to increase that little bit abundantly in ways that I would never have imagined and in ways I have no way of knowing on this side of heaven. (I John 2:5, Ephesians 3:20), and third, when I follow the call God has on my life, and my desire is that my life glorify his, my joy, peace, and gratitude have no bounds (Galatians 5:22).  I am changed and I am blessed mightily when I give my life to God and walk with him where he leads me.
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Hope you enjoyed this post on serving in Rwanda. If you'd like to read the first report, go here. Of course, to see more about Hearts for the World International, a child sponsorship organization with incredibly low overhead and a small monthly fee to help a child, go here.