August 21, 2019

Before D23- A Guide to Epcot's World Showcase Favorites

It was our first trip to EPCOT Center in 1983. We were newly married, and my wife was about to discover my Disney theme park obsession at a whole new level. This second Disney park in Florida would be the first new park we discovered together. How exciting! 

The evening we arrived at Walt Disney World, the still sleek monorail to the park from the Transportation and Ticket Center took us through the evening darkness into the park. It was very late, but as was the practice back then, the park stayed open much later than it does now. It was a beautifully warm Florida night.

As we rounded the bend into the park, Future World shone in its nighttime glory. I couldn't wait to explore it all! Then we glimpsed the World Showcase lagoon and all the pavilions sitting like sparkling jewels against it. It was just too much for this guy to take. I barely slept that night anticipating experiencing a whole new Disney park for the very first time. It's not too often we get to do that! 

I still get a rush walking into this park. Yes, it is not what it once was- and it will never be again- yet, it's still quite the experience. With that in mind, I'd like to take you on a tour of my favorite places in World Showcase one country at a time. You might be surprised by my choices. Sometimes, I'll highlight an attraction. But it might be a shop, restaurant, or even an experience. My list has probably changed over time, but as this section of the park has experienced the least amount of expansion / re-imagineering, it's fairly consistent. This will be a fun diversion before we know all the plans for the park this weekend from D23.

We normally begin our World Showcase tour in Mexico, but for this post, we'll start counter clockwise and head into Canada. C'mon everybody! Here we go...


Love this Imagineering concept art!

Canada: A pleasant stroll through Victoria Gardens is my top pick for our first stop. The original (and still the best) O Canada film is pretty good and the overpriced Le Cellier serves delicious meals, but the gifted Disney landscape architects hit a home run with this mini creation of the famous Butchart Gardens. Part of the Epcot experience is slowing down, similar to touring Disney's Animal Kingdom. Attractions are expected and important, but they not to be enjoyed at the expense of the rest of the thoughtful design of this park.

Photo from the Disney Parks Blog.

United Kingdom: Until the suits approve that long planned and needed Mary Poppins attraction (unfortunately presumed to be a carousel according to those in the know), The Tea Caddy and the cluster of small shops is the highlight here. We haven't eaten in the Rose and Crown in years, as we've enjoyed real fish and chips and other specialties while being in the U.K., but it is an enjoyable place to stop and watch the nighttime show. 

Ah the gorgeous music!
When the film gets updated, the music had better remain.

France: Hands down, my pick here is Impressions de France. Yes, I know, the film needs updating badly, but they had better not touch that beautiful score! The music accompanying the movie is magic on its own. Remy's Ratatouille's Adventure should be great fun, and it's my favorite Pixar movie, but this journey through France will remain beloved and my first choice. Eating here is always fun, with a variety of choices to please every palate and thickness of wallet.


Photo from my most recent visit.

Morocco: This largely ignored pavilion is truly unique in that artisans from Morocco under the direction of King Hassan II did much of the striking tile work found throughout. The prayer tower, a replica of the one in Marrakesh, is a focal point, but it's only the beginning of what you'll find. (By the way, from the right angle you can see Hollywood Studios' Twilight Zone Tower of Terror- and you'll notice how it easily fits in with the style of this World Showcase pavilion. Gotta love the thoughtfulness of the earlier era Imagineers!) My choice here? The Fez House. You've got to explore around to find it, but step inside, and you're a million miles away from Florida... and you can see from walking the alleyways of Morocco where they got the inspiration for Batuu at Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge. May I add a second choice? Stop and talk to the cast members / nationals working here. It's a good reminder that even if Muslims worship a different God than Christians, (Muslims consider Jesus only a great prophet. Their god is Allah. Christians believe Jesus is God in the flesh), they can be just as kind and delightful as anyone else. Sure, there are "bad apples" in every group, so avoid generalizations and take the time to talk to the cast in each country.

Imagineers' art for an unbuilt Omnimover ride.

Japan: Confession mode- I could spend a few hours exploring this single showcase, and I'd encourage you to do the same. Listening to the drummers or watching the candy maker is always time well spent. As a young adult, Japan was my first destination choice for my solo trip out of the country, and I've never lost my love and fascination with the country, the people, and the culture. A very late evening stop at the Katsura Grill is the perfect way to end the day. While crowds are headed out of the park, we love to climb up the steps in the back of Japan to this small patio. The quick service location is usually closed by this point in time, making it a lovely way to reflect on the day. Then as a bonus if you time it right, you get to walk back to the park entrance with so few people, making it the prime time for some nighttime photos. If you want to read more about all the Imagineers once planned for the Japan showcase- and it's incredible- go here.

Imagineering concept art.

The American Adventure: This Audio-Animatronic theater show is king! At its best, Disney inspires- and Walt himself and the original Imagineers were a patriotic bunch. It's sadly in vogue to bash and trash the United States these days, but God knows, you have to think twice after watching this presentation. Listen to The Voices of Liberty musical group. Such talent! There's not much else here, which is odd given it is the host pavilion, but maybe one day there will be.


Beautiful surroundings await.

Italy: Here in Italy, dining is king. Each destination reveals both familiar and unexpected choices. From the humblest of drinks and ice creams to lavish meals and freshly fired pizza, the restaurants help even the fussiest eaters find something to love... and don't overlook the waterside Venician style gondolas. Unlike those at Tokyo DisneySea, you can't get a ride, but they still photograph well! Walk around and explore the nooks and crannies of this re-imagined St. Mark's Square in Venice. From being to the real one, (here's my trip report), I can tell you the Disney Imagineers crafted their recreation with a loving and detailed hand.

A memorable "Date night" with Grandma and Grandpa.

Germany: Perhaps it is because of some recent memories, but the  Biergarten reigns as my top choice here, my Number One favorite experience in Germany. The live music and show entertain, and it gives family members a chance to dance together in the cool of the indoor restaurant. The food was better than I thought it would be, but that was secondary to the memories we made! When you shop, don't miss all the clocks. I just wish they also had a wider selection of nutcrackers since I have a few prized ones from my trips to Germany.


One day I will visit this country!

China: Top pick here? Reflections of China. It's a very lovely Circle Vision 360 film. When the park opened years ago, only a few privileged folks were able to travel overseas to this destination. Now, it's more common, but it is still a treat to experience a slice of the culture. Take in the acrobats, explore the shops, and even look at the models and concept art for Shanghai Disneyland. In today's Disney, synergy is a game everyone plays. Like it or not, it's all about the money.

It's difficult to hate Olaf.
Photo from Laughing Place.

Norway: I hate to admit it, but Anna and Elsa's attraction has grown on me. I absolutely detest several aspects of Frozen Ever After (the placement, the transformation of World Showcase into Magic Kingdom 2.0, the low end budget given the ride once it was decided upon), but there are parts that unexpectedly charmed me. 

Always changing- for better or worse. 

Mexico: I guess now that it's long gone, El Rio del Tiempo doesn't count anymore. It's been replaced by Gran Fiesta Tour, but that newer attraction still makes it my first choice and top pick. Not the entire boat ride mind you, but the first minute or so cruising the lagoon toward the ancient temple is true Disney magic. Back when this part of the park was about culture and not Disney animated properties and live action films, El Rio del Tiempo and its catchy song spoke EPCOT Center to me almost as much as Journey Into Imagination. Two totally different attractions and executions, but still full of Disney magic. On our last trip, our dinner at La Hacienda de San Angel was a surprise- one of our best meals of the entire vacation. Listen to the mariachis, drink a margarita, and enjoy the sights and flavors.

Will Coco come to Mexico? Will Brazil finally be announced? What else is coming? We will find out more in a few days!

August 19, 2019

Pirate's Lair Attraction Poster

Disneyland attraction posters continue to make great souvenirs as well as advertisements! Here's one that you won't see in any other Magic Kingdom: Pirates Lair at Tom Sawyer Island. Love it or not, in 2007, pirates invaded the island full force, partially to capture the love of the Pirates of the Caribbean film series starring Johnny Depp. The island was due for some help with many of its elements being closed or having lack of maintenance. 

Of course, once Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge was a go, the suits gave the Disney Imagineers a project with a twist. Make room at all costs. This meant cutting the island by a third. However, the end result was better than I ever expected it to be. (See this post in the series- When Reality is Better Than Imagineering Art.)

Whether or not the Frontierland island stays as it now is, fitting better in New Orleans Square or not, the attraction poster is a keeper! 

(Art copyright The Walt Disney Company- from a MouseInfo photograph.)

August 18, 2019

The Amazing Disappearing Disney Article II

Catch it while you can. This one article is bound to disappear soon as well...

Or read it below, written by Gary Snyder on Medium:

"Oh Mickey.
Just after midnight on March 20, 2019, rendered in perhaps his most famous role as The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Mickey Mouse sat square in the middle of a new corporate landing page for the world to take in all that is now the Walt Disney Company. To his immediate left, the affable ambassador of not merely a corporate leviathan but of America itself was bordered by Marvel’s Deadpool. To his right, Lucasfilm’s Lando Calrissian. And just above the word “Disney,” over the ubiquitous mouse, was an image of Avatar’s Jake Sully and Neytiri.

The jarring juxtaposition of images aside, each story behind those three pieces of intellectual property — now part of the Disney vault — runs counter to the core mission of the company’s eponymous founder. Far from family entertainment, they arc from a degenerate mercenary drawn from the world of Marvel Comics to a human trafficker in the Star Wars canon to the architects of genocide as James Cameron’s Avatar took corporatocracy to the extreme of the sci-fi realm.

But, beyond the $244 billion media company that exists in its current form less as a product of creative ambition and more as the result of by-the-numbers acquisitions, there is the veneer of that name: Walt Disney. Still today, more than a half of a century after his death, it implies something. If it is Disney, it is quality. If it is Disney, it is family-friendly.

If it is Disney, it can be trusted.

Only, as the Walt Disney Company surveyed the cyber-scape of a post-September 11th world in the early aughts, its corporate overlords began to realize the company was poorly positioned as traditional media in a then-new click-to-publish atmosphere where anyone with an Internet connection had the potential to turn a carefully crafted public relations campaign into the current-day equivalent of a meme. And, for the first time, Disney found itself on the receiving end of searing criticism from its most loyal fans while, at the same time, roiling from the failed launch of a second theme park across from the original Disneyland.

Enter Al Lutz. An unremarkable, meek if passionate former recording industry executive who gained a following in the early days of online engagement with Usenet, Internet newsgroups where everyday folks could share and amplify their opinions without the glass ceilings and filters or credential-minded gatekeepers of major media’s domain.

Known for “The D-I-G,” or the Disneyland Information Guide, Lutz began his online life as a resource for individuals who were planning a trip to Anaheim, California. Often, where Disney had failed to make up-to-date information on the park available online, he would deliver a just-as-it-is breakdown of everything from park hours to attraction closings to dining and lodging options.
He also would post sometimes harsh criticism of the failings of Disney’s management with regard to the park and, while regularly mocked for mentioning matters as trivial to some as peeling paint and burned out light bulbs, Lutz had earned his bona fides among Disney’s most ardent fans of its theme parks and the company itself by being a reliable, and remarkably accurate, font of information.
This presented a problem for Team Disney Anaheim, where the feet-on-the-ground operations are based, and in the highest reaches of Burbank at the Walt Disney Company’s headquarters off Buena Vista Street. As Lutz had not only grabbed the cyber-tethers of the still nascent online fan community who would wait for an update from ‘their’ man in the field, he had increasingly become the turn-to critic mainstream journalists would go to for a quote on the company.

Complaining about chipped paint on the facade of a dressed-up carnival ride in Fantasyland was one thing, being cited as an authority by the Los Angeles Times was something entirely different.

As Disney’s California Adventure opened in February of 2001 to a less-than-enthusiastic response, Lutz became an entrenched voice of discontent. From behind the screen of his computer, he lashed out at executives like theme park chief Paul Pressler, the target of his online campaign “Promote Paul Pressler!,” with energy anew over the perceived neglect of what had become, to him and his followers, their Disneyland.

Except now, it was the Disneyland Resort. With a new resort hotel, a shopping and dining area, a massive parking structure and major infrastructure improvements in what had been named the Anaheim Resort District. And, aside from the significant expenditure by Disney, the reputation of the very company whose founder is credited as having invented the theme park found itself being held to account for what Burbank was having to admit was, in its best light, a missed opportunity with Disney’s California Adventure. More aptly framed, this was the failure of its long awaited expansion.

Among fans and Disney executives alike, there was no bigger name than Al Lutz. Soft as the exterior was, this almost first of his kind online personality hit hard. As Dave Gardetta wrote in Los Angeles Magazine of Disney’s most well-known blogger, “He’s its Walter Winchell.”

Enter George Kalogridis. A career employee of the company whose backstory was part of the corporate selling of tens of thousands of low-wage, dead-end jobs for employees Disney terms “cast members.” Kalogridis started at the opening of Walt Disney World in 1971, as a busboy at the Contemporary Resort, one of the resort hotels to open with the park.

Now, 30 years later, in late 2001, Kalogridis was second-in-command of the Disneyland Resort — a resort suddenly in trouble. Suddenly under tremendous scrutiny. But, the scrutiny was not coming from the local media or government, which had paid handsomely for the resort’s expansion. The scrutiny was coming from someone who may well have been the first influencer as these individuals would come to be known.

That was Al Lutz.

Although today the word ‘influencer’ produces positive images of polished Instagram posts and well-produced digital clips that work as de facto marketing arms of major companies, the idea of employing the influence of an online voice grew as a reactionary step by companies to online as well as real world critics. Kalogridis wanted to know how to blunt that criticism.

I know because I was one of the individuals he consulted. A few years earlier, I had met George Kalogridis when he was the vice president of Disney’s second park in Orlando — the former EPCOT Center — and I was a guest of corporate for the Walt Disney World Millennium Celebration on December 31, 1999.

When he was promoted to the job in Anaheim, I was one of the first people he told. When the Disneyland Resort had its debut in February of 2001, I was his personal guest. My personal host was another Disney employee, Andrew Hardy, who would become George’s husband.

So then it made sense, knowing my depth of knowledge of the industry and familiarity both with him and the growing online presence of Lutz and others, that he would ask.

And ask he did. Driving down from Los Angeles on a pleasant afternoon in late 2001, I met George for lunch at a sparsely attended Disney’s California Adventure. There, the prim-to-pretentious executive selected a quick-service dining location called Taste Pilots’ Grill in a wide step outside of the normal fine dining we would enjoy. We ordered salads, served in plastic containers and eaten outside just under the monorail beam. With the park so unpopular and the economy struck by the attacks of 9/11, however, we had not a single guest sharing the outside dining area with us.

It was clear both George and the new Disneyland Resort were in trouble.

George saw an abrupt end to his career. Disney saw its reputation as the world leader in themed entertainment heading for a potentially unrecoverable fall.

This was unacceptable. Most especially to Zenia Mucha.
Mucha earned her reputation as an off-with-their-heads but always-on-message political operative for then-New York Governor George Pataki who came to Disney’s ABC television network having been courted by Robert A. Iger. At the time, Mucha had turned her role as communications director and advisor to the governor to include, as the New York Times noted, “virtually every major decision made by the governor.”

Arriving on-scene in Burbank, the rise was swift and deliberate. By May of 2002, with longtime CEO Michael D. Eisner in a curiously choreographed media swiftboating, Mucha, who was known as “Director of Revenge” in her prior life as a politico and termed “Mickey Mouse’s Karl Rove” by journalist Matt Stoller, was promoted to director of corporate communications for ABC’s parent company — the Walt Disney Company. Replacing John Dreyer, a trusted and loyal keeper of the Disney brand, Mucha was a harsh turn from the almost family-like atmosphere Michael Eisner and Frank Wells, Disney’s former president, had fostered as part of their rise to the very top of the House of Mouse.

Indeed, Jody Dreyer, Eisner’s longtime personal assistant and herself a member of the corporate communications department, was married to John. Without delay, however, Mucha had arranged the chairs to position herself as the eyes and ears of the company’s most senior executives. As John Dreyer took time away to “pursue other opportunities,” it became apparent Mucha’s ‘eyes and ears’ (which is also the name of an intracompany publication) were not necessarily there for the benefit of the individual she, at least as her job description stated, reported to: Michael D. Eisner.

From within the company, there were continuing concerns its new communications director might well have been positioned in Eisner’s office to advance the interests, to fulfill the ambitions, of Robert Iger, then-president of Disney subsidiary ABC, who is widely cited as having been instrumental in her rapid rise once at Disney. After all, he brought her into the fold — and, it had long been rumored, held major political ambitions. Of course, being the head of a network when that network is a subsidiary of the Walt Disney Company under a celebrity-esque CEO who fashioned himself as a reanimated “Uncle Walt” does not get you much in the way of press.

That was Mucha’s domain. Enter the “Save Disney” campaign.


Within a year of moving into her office in the building held up by the Seven Dwarfs on the lot in Burbank, what had started as rumblings that Roy E. Disney and business partner Stanley Gold, who had drafted Eisner and Wells nearly 20 years prior, were becoming the eighth dwarf — Malcontent — became a full-bore mutiny. Suddenly dissatisfied with the direction of the company, Disney and Gold vocally called for the removal of Eisner. Labeling the Walt Disney Company under Eisner, and ironically given the company that now is, “a rapacious, soul-less conglomerate” void of a succession plan.

If an online campaign of any sort seems out of character for the nephew of the company’s founder, who was most known for the ouster of Ron Miller, Walt Disney’s son-in-law, as the head of Disney to allow for Eisner and Wells’ entry, that is likely because it could not have been more outside of his lane. After all, not only had Eisner built the company that was headed for a hostile takeover with accompanying break-up for parts and profit into a global media behemoth, in a move that led to what has been termed Disney’s second Golden Age in animation, he appointed Roy chairman of the animation department.

Now, if an online campaign by an individual sharing the name Disney sounds more like the move of a savvy political operative, you might be inclined to look over at the individual recruited by Eisner’s successor as CEO. You might want to look at the person brought over from Governor Pataki’s office: Zenia Mucha.
Oh, and the timid if intense fellow who once introduced a classical music take on some of Disney’s most beloved tunes. The former recording industry executive. Al Lutz.

Admittedly, it does seem like an odd pairing. And it is. Yet, on the homepage of SaveDisney.com, prominently featured, was a link to what was represented as Lutz’s latest and greatest hits on Disney and its leadership under Eisner. True to the reputation of the online enigma that Lutz had grown into, it was unforgiving.
It also was not Al Lutz proselytizing to his followers who might be planning a visit to Disneyland or might have visited one of the Disney parks.

Mucha had identified, early on, the power of the World Wide Web and the potential to employ a vast network of ‘volunteers’ to bring about a certain outcome. And, in what may well be the first example of online gaslighting and the launch of brand ambassadors or advocates — now termed influencers — Mucha’s department, and the corporate communications director for what is now the world’s largest media company and the home of a major news network, had set their sights on a proxy. That proxy? It was Al.
Except, the recording industry guy turned media company gadfly was hardly able to produce the content, the strategic strands of nouns and verbs, required. No problem. From behind a keyboard, as the world has learned, anyone can pretend to be anyone. So, it appears, she did.

Mucha’s Disney recruited a hungry-as-a-dog-before-dinner and needier-than-a-new-arrival-to-Sunset-Boulevard cast member. Even gave him an impressive title to use, Corporate Liaison for Imagineering & Operations (“CLIO”).

No, that would not be Al. That was Troy C. Porter.

Except, to everyone clicking on that link at SaveDisney.com and everyone reading the columns produced, they thought they were reading the thoughts, observations and ramblings of their ‘old friend’ from The D-I-G. Instead, they read carefully crafted copy to undermine the leadership of Disney CEO Michael Eisner.
To this day, while Al Lutz has been in the later stages of Parkinson’s disease, the antagonistic voice of the fan community that is grating and caustic at the same time as it is homespun in that dysfunctional and abusive manner has been maintained as his. It is not.

By December of 2002, the online personality known as “Al Lutz” left the Disney fan site he co-founded, MousePlanet, and started MiceAge (later to be hosted by MiceChat, whose placeholder was and remains a backseat-blazer wearing and Simonized-smile dressed character known as “Dusty Sage,” who is, in real life, an individual with dubious connections to the Walt Disney Company named Todd Regan).

Quickly redirecting Al’s followers, Porter was engaged and continuously employed to ferry the talking points that seemed to advance the position of Mucha and Iger while, at the same time, undermining the leadership of — and, more importantly, the faith of the financial community in — Eisner. All, apparently, using the faux voice of an early superfan as misappropriated by the very corporate communications office of the head of the entire company.
All using the company’s co-founder’s son as a dupe in the Save Disney puppet show which was, in appearance if not fact, a corporate ops stratagem of Mucha and Iger.

The goal being, of course, to replace one “Uncle Walt” with another. Here, replacing Eisner with Iger in, what then was thought to be, an effort to position the latter on a launching board to high-level political office. The bailiwick of none other than Zenia Mucha.

And, for nearly a generation, it stayed positioned just so. The facade, as meticulously as they had crafted it, stood. Then, as typically happens, they got sloppy. Stupid. Arrogant. Or, maybe they were always that and folks simply did not think to question it — to pull pack the curtain to see what lurked behind it.
Dating to the mid-1990s, when Troy Porter relocated from Oregon to Southern California to work for Disney, he began posting on the Usenet boards. His online moniker was TP2000. To this day, on fan sites, you can find this same poster under an assumed persona posting about the behind the scenes happenings at Disneyland and within the Walt Disney Company.

Presenting as an Orange County Log Cabin Republican with a penchant for spinning yarns about “the neighbor lady” and “things overheard about the goings-on at Disney,” he seemed near-pitch perfect to adopt the writing voice Mucha and the top tier of Disney’s corporate communications department thought would sell to this new if soon-to-be industry-of-its-own medium of passionate fans who devoted significant portions of each day following every move of the company.

So Troy Porter became Al Lutz. Or, as the fans would see it, Al Lutz became somehow different yet familiar. But the con was in. Set. And it has stayed in position for all of these years with Disney listening in on and eventually manipulating discussion boards into controlled focus groups lorded over like a corporate clubhouse hidden in the backroom of your local YMCA.

From a former partner of Regan’s and housemate of Al’s, “I cannot say that Al ever wrote a single column for MiceAge or MiceChat.” And, in fact, studying the writing voice and the spot-on information distilled in a manner at once disparaging and dispiriting and yet also weirdly complimentary, or strategically complimentary, the fingerprints are all there.

These works were cut-and-paste-and-forward writings that read as though precisely positioned by Disney’s Mucha & Co.
“It always seemed as though, while people thought Al had all of these sources, something he would do nothing to dissuade people from believing, he had only one — Troy Porter.”

Continuing on, another person familiar with the operations of the site that published ‘Al’s column,’ said, “When Al missed a week or two, it was because Troy hadn’t sent the copy to him.”

It appeared there was a not-so-small amount of narcissism at play among all involved, however. As, by early 2005, with the relentless attacks by ‘Al Lutz’ as promoted by SaveDisney.com, the shareholders held a no-confidence vote and Eisner was on his way out. Who was to succeed him? Well, despite an alleged corporate search, there was only one candidate — Zenia Mucha’s. Robert A. Iger.

The eventual undoing was vanity though. As Porter had become so accustomed to the feedback loop writing as Al presented, and posting on fan forums as TP2000, he continued writing. For years after the Save Disney campaign was little more than a Wikipedia entry, Porter wrote as Lutz.

With the recent, and highest profile of Iger’s tenure, failure of the massive Star Wars land expansion, Galaxy’s Edge, added cancer-like on the back of Walt’s hallowed Disneyland with a companion land coming to Walt Disney World in just a couple of weeks, Al has reappeared in a grand way. Make that, Troy Porter has reappeared.
The goal — the reason— could not be clearer. As Porter wrote here, directing folks to ‘Al’s column’ on MiceChat.com:
“I wonder does the current crop of Burbank execs and Bob Chapek even know how big a deal this is? Do they understand the weight that Lutz’s words have with the long-term West Coast fan community? If I were Mr. Chapek, I would be concerned that I did indeed cut things a bit too far and awakened the Tiki Gods and Al Lutz.”

So, it seems, the ‘once an operative always an operative’ Mucha reenlisted that crusty old influencer from days of yore. Now, the need was even more urgent, as Iger needed someone to take the fall, hard and fast, for the flailing and single largest expansion at Disneyland and anchor intellectual property for both domestic resorts. That would be Mr. Chapek, the as-if-stylized-by-Mr. Clean chairman of Disney’s Parks & Resorts division.

And that career employee of the Walt Disney Company who started as a busboy at Walt Disney World’s Contemporary Resort? George Kalogridis? Well, George might well have been Mucha’s only real conduit to Troy Porter. Where is George?

George Kalogridis is the president of Walt Disney World. The largest private single-site employer in America — marketed as the world’s top vacation destination.

According to the story, he started clearing tables. Now, he sits at the head of the table.

As for how this all came to be, this campaign that likely is the start of what is understood now as that of the influencer who grew out of something pure and passionate — a fan, it all came to be one fall day at the flailing theme park across from Walt’s original in Anaheim. Over lunch at Taste Pilots’ Grill.

When an executive from Florida, whose job with the company if not career was on the line, asked a friend who was an early participant in the online world of engagement and knowledgeable in advancing a brand or thwarting one how to counter the later named superfan.
“Control the message by controlling the messenger,” I said. “Acquire the voice.”
“You do not counter someone like Al. You cannot counter Al. You can, if done smartly, own that voice as your own — as a conduit of the Walt Disney Company.”
Now, you can grab the fresh-squeezed lemonade, add in some just brewed iced tea, even toss in a bit of an adult libation and ask ‘the neighbor lady’ if she knows anything about how a political operative came to script everyday Mouseketeers, a weatherman came to lead the world’s largest media company and a busboy came to run the world’s largest resort destination.

After being named the new president of the Walt Disney World Resort in January of 2013, the local newspaper ran a puff piece by Jason Garcia entitled, “George Kalogridis: From clearing tables to Disney World chief.” Garcia wrote, “Kalogridis’ star has soared since he took over as president of Disneyland, where attendance and spending have ballooned…”

Quoted just below that: Al Lutz. “I think he showed up at the right time.”

Reflecting on that meeting in late 2001, over a mediocre Cobb salad with a man of middling potential who was seeking a spot on the mainstage, I am not entirely sure who Lutz was referring to.
Author’s Note: The Walt Disney Company declined to comment on this column."

August 17, 2019

Rare Piece of Fantasyland Art for Disneyland

Here's a little Disneyland surprise, a rare piece of concept art for "Walt's park"- Sleeping Beauty Castle and it's courtyard. Clearly, the Imagineers concept for the area was not used, as this big archway is not to be found anywhere in the park. Yet, it's quite the charming piece- even if it was passed on in favor of something different. These early pieces convey an innocence and optimism about what Walt was striving for. I can't get enough of them!

(Art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

August 16, 2019

Aretha Franklin Still Gets Respect

The legendary Aretha Franklin. One year after her death, the woman is still often imitated, but no one comes close to her power, her passion, and her sass! 

The 1960's and 1970's were her strongest years, producing mega hits like Respect, Chain of Fools, Rock Steady, Spanish HarlemA Natural Woman, and more. Of all these hits, it's the charming and warm Until You Come Back to Me (That's What I'm Gonna Do) that still gets to me after all these years. It's a Stevie Wonder composed gem.

Aretha still had many chart hits after those glory years. Freeway of Love comes immediately to mind, although she had many songs on the R&B charts that ranked significantly higher there than on the Billboard Hot 100. (Is it just me, or does Billboard now seem to be less about the music and more about politics these days?) 

In many ways, the music of the 80's and early 90's was instantly dated- and this song may be one of them- but I totally groove on her duet, "I Knew You Were Waiting For Me". He may be somewhat of a cliche by now, but George Michael (may he rest in peace as wellis great on the song- and even though he can't hold his own with Aretha, he brings in a strong performance.

With a family rooted in the true Gospel of Jesus Christ and a strong commitment to the authority of the Bible, Aretha may be gone from this earth, but her enduring love for and faith in Jesus means she's rocking the heavenly realms as we speak. Glory Hallelujah!


Friday's Island Escape

Breathe in, breathe out. Everyone deserves a little island getaway after the end of a busy week. This photo is of Kauai, my favorite escape from the Mainland. Ah, Hawaii! It's the stuff daydreams are made of...

(Photo from Getty Images.)

August 15, 2019

The King's Table- A Must Hear

Author Fraser Keay has released a wonderful audio book telling the story of Mephibosheth, the son of King David's best friend and faithful warrior Jonathan. Here's the links to the audio book and a link to a free short video. Well worth a listen!



August 14, 2019

It's That Time Again!

A very cute little guy all anxious for kindergarten! Looks just like his Dad at that age. It's that time for school again...and all the parents rejoice...as the teachers are filled with mixed emotions!

August 13, 2019

A Brand New Magic Kingdom is Coming to India

A new Magic Kingdom in India? Yes, that really is the not totally unexpected hidden news within MiceChat's update by MiceAge founder Al LutzYou can find the article here (Al Lutz India park rumor)- look toward the very end of it. The bulk of the article chronicles the would of  /should of aspects of the troubled Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge and all the cutting Bob Chapek did to what was originally intended- including that impressive looking animal transport- to save some big bucks. This was certainly a foolish decision after seeing dismal crowds and mostly tepid fan reaction all summer at Disneyland. (I had a lot to say about it three posts below.)

For years, there was a recurring rumor that Disney Imagineers were actively designing an India pavilion in World Showcase at Epcot. India is one of the world's oldest civilizations and one of the most populated places on earth. It also has the potential for a huge client base for Disney. Alain Littaye at Disney and More had this story to share way back in 2014 about Disney's attempts to break in to television and film there (as well as Consumer Products) and the hope of a new Magic Kingdom. 

Wouldn't you want to see a smaller version of this
grace the World Showcase lagoon? I would!

With regards to Epcot, it would bring in some new perspective on the overwhelmingly Eurocentric park. This whole World Showcase  expansion is not a new idea. At the WDWMagic boards have been talking about it for years as an expansion in addition to what's supposed to be added, the long delayed Brazil pavilion.  Watch those WDWMagic boards. It's a great inside source from real industry insiders with great track record. 

Taj Mahal Westcot version.

Disney Imagineering has long wanted to include the mysterious world of India into the parks. Even the aborted but much desired Westcot in California included the nation in its extensive plans. (Read more about it here- and see the concept art.) Looks like something better is coming soon. Stay posted. 2019's D23 could reveal more than we expected! If it doesn't, well, rest assured India is on the Disney executive's lines of sight!

(Top photo copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

August 12, 2019

Imagineering Stories Tie Disneyland's Haunted Mansion to Pirates of the Caribbean

Did you know there are Imagineering ties that bind Disneyland's 50 year old Haunted Mansion to its also iconic Pirates of the Caribbean? Read more below and you'll discover there were almost ties to these attractions and Tom Sawyer Island as well. That one never materialized, but oh what it would have been!

Beautiful, creepy- and just the beginning of what was planned.

Let's begin with a question- Why do these two beloved attractions have in common that cements them as fan favorites generation after generation? A great story, rich atmosphere, memorable music, and a chance to explore the mysteries of the unknown. All done without lessoning the experience of the guests by cutting corners. 

The very first generation of Disney Imagineers truly understood what Walt Disney was trying to accomplish at Disneyland. Why? Because Walt himself recruited men and women who came from a background in the film industry. He made sure they shared his heart for his new pet project! Storytellers and artists such as Marc Davis, Herb Ryman, Claude Coates created classic attractions, but they also prepared the next generation to carry on, including men like Tony Baxter who kept the torch burning until his retirement. This elite group also included the very gifted Eddie Sotto - the man with a great but unrealized attraction using Tom Sawyer Island to tie together three thrilling and different park experiences. 


Overhead look at Disneyland's Crown Jewel.

Disneyland was already an international sensation by the time New Orleans Square debuted at the park in the mid-60's. Imagineering then hit its stride with the masterpiece Pirates of the Caribbean. The new land was a stunningly beautiful recreation of the famed and colorful Louisiana city. Guests soon discovered its beautiful lacy ironwork, intricate back alleys, delightful shops, and restaurants with authentic food and drink. Seeing the Mark Twain riverboat round the bend from the land just brought it all together. It was so elegant, so unexpected, so Disney.

If Imagineering's stride was hit in 1967, the land itself hits its peak once more with the opening of the long awaited The Haunted Mansion in 1969. Being right next door to each other, Pirates and Mansion deliver a one-two knockout punch, giving park guests an experience unrivaled from any other land in any other Magic Kingdom park. The closest competitor is found in Disneyland Paris where the Phantom Manor works in unison with Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, where its Frontierland tells the story of the effect of the gold rush on a wealthy family doomed to disaster.


Imagineer Ken Anderson's concept art
for "Captain Gore". 

As originally planned, New Orleans Square would have its own story to tell, tying the newly opened Mansion to the Pirate adventure. The wicked sea captain pictured at the top of the article was an undeveloped character considered to bring the two together, one with a difficult part and a bloody intent. "Captain Gore" shown above was another direction that was considered, the groom of the mansion's wedding story who turned out to be a bloodthirsty pirate. Those stories remain untold with only a sailing ship - or is it pirate ship- weather vane that sits atop the mansion to this day.


Concept Art by Eddie Sotto for the unrealized new attraction.

Speaking of stories, Imagineering secrets and those ties that bind...

Back to Imagineer Eddie Sotto. Like others, he had once been involved in some new ideas to tie the two iconic attractions together. He offered up the idea of using historical references to real life pirate Jean Lafitte. This is where Tom Sawyer Island comes into play. There's still a remnant of Eddie's plan to be found in the park. Imagine entering into an old crypt for a brand new and very creepy walk through adventure...

Go to this incredible Long Forgotten Haunted Mansion post to see a number of photos and read the story in full.   


One more piece.

Do you want to find out more about the Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean? Or perhaps more detail about Disneyland Paris' incredible Frontierland? This blog has more than 3,000 posts contains dozens of articles about the Disney parks including rare pieces of concept art, photographs, trip reports (like my recent visit to Disneyland's Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge, found below) and more. Browse around and check it out!

(Art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

Jesus Is Returning To Judge the Earth

It's a pretty sad state of affairs when you compare the Jesus followers of His time with many of the folks who call themselves Christians today. Just from reading the Gospels and the book of Acts in the New Testament, a casual reading would confirm that following Jesus was counter culture, at the expense of everything else- money, security, worldly wisdom, popularity, power and position. It cost everything, even requiring giving up the old way of living.

It's happening: Jesus himself told his believers that they would see wolves in sheep's clothing, weeds among the wheat, those proclaiming to follow him that would conform in thought and deed to the patterns of this world instead of pursuing a life of holiness, and growing in closeness to him. It happens inside the church and outside the church, and in all levels of involvement. The Apostle Paul warns us against it: 

"See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy which depends on human tradition and elemental spiritual forces rather than on Christ." (Colossians 2:28) 

We see this today as many claim Him but call sin anything but, making excuses for it or valuing human wisdom and  "intelligence" above God's own word- making truth relative instead of submitting to what God says is true, conveniently forgetting Jesus said to the woman in adultery that she was to go and sin no more. Whoops. Those are the more blatant examples but not the only ones. Reminder from the Old Testament:

"Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight." (Proverbs 3) 

(Hey, don't get mad at me, God has made the rules. Read his rulebook as to define what is and isn't sin.)

What is this so hard to understand? As with anything of value or anything that grows, you must work at it, tend to it, to see it bear good fruit. Yet, Christianity is all too often thought of as a philosophy or "fire insurance", with some moving on to live their lives as they please. Pity- and it gives Christianity a very bad name. It's as if there is a thin veneer covering their lives: They seem like the real thing until you look deeper past the surface. 

Some folks have walked the opposite direction in seeing the hypocrisy of some in the church. They claim Christ but live and think like the world; no discernment, no wisdom, just following the same paths to destruction as many around them. The Bible becomes archaic or outdated, and they prefer their faith comes from those preaching prosperity and humanism. Or worse, they just create another veneer, making up their own beliefs but adding the name of Jesus to it. Egotistical at best, deadly at its worst.

An easy question to help you and I measure our relationship to Jesus: Are we closer to Him and becoming more like Him? Are we more obedient to God or do we look more like the world, valuing what the world says is important and thinking like those of a humanistic lifestyle? 

Jesus is returning to the earth one day, and He will judge the world. Heaven in Hell lie in the balance for each person. God sent Jesus because of His great love, not His anger. But He requires those wanting forgiveness and relationship for eternity to stay the course and pursue Him. Those who are truly His should be actively seeking His heart, His guidance, His wisdom, not that of earthly standards and beliefs. But that happens every day, sometimes in small doses, one step at a time. If you know and love Him, seek after Him with all your heart. Perpetually.

August 9, 2019

Unexpected Batuu: Galaxy's Edge Review

Let me state an important fact up front: I am not a Star Wars fan, but I am a huge fan of Disney Imagineering. It's not that the movies aren't enjoyable. They are just not important to me nor have I seen more than two or three of them. There's no right or wrong way to approach the series from my perspective, just give me a satisfying experience. There you go.

Maybe because of the above stated facts, I had already decided I would not visit Disneyland's version as we were headed out to Walt Disney World in late August, shortly after opening. This wasn't our plan when we booked the trip with our daughter and son-in-law and kids back in January, as Galaxy's Edge wasn't scheduled to be open. (Similarly, we had missed Toy Story Land's opening by just days last year.) Disney marketing team announced the opening date in late Spring, so we will be there to see it- an unexpected surprise. (Honestly, I was more disappointed that Mickey and Minnie's Runaway Railway wouldn't be open! As much as I hate its replacement of The Great Movie Ride, this looks like a classic and very fun attraction.)

One big unexpected surprise came my way a couple of weeks ago. I ended up sliding in a one day SW:GE day during a necessary family visit to California. This was not on my plan for many reasons, but it happened. Even the day my youngest son and I ended up visiting Disneyland was a surprise- a last minute decision that took place shortly before noon. I've never done that before!

Guest reviews of Disneyland's Star Wars land and previews of the same at Disney's Hollywood Studios are thoroughly a mixed bag. Those who are loyal fans of differing films of the series have their own strong opinions on what should have been built versus what was finally was. I had no opinion on that part of it at all, but one thing seems certain: It seems most everyone feels Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge should be more than it is... and I agree.


The First Order dominates the area.

By the time we finally entered the park, it was about 12:30pm. Main Street was pleasantly empty and the newly refreshed castle looked great. The roof sparkled almost white as the sunlight hit it. Since Rise of the Resistance wasn't open, we decided to enter the area through Frontierland, using the entrance you first find after walking past Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. I chuckled to myself seeing the special sign stating that the land was open without restrictions. 

Rounding the bend, we walked into the tunnel. The geeky Imagineer wanna be in me noticed the great transition in rock work and lighting between the two areas. Very nice beginning! My son surprised me by commenting on that. For better or worse, I seem to have rubbed off on him- although I will freely admit that he refers to Universal Orlando as "his parks" (vs. Disney Parks being mine). This led us into inevitable comparisons with Harry Potter themed lands and the whole issue of immersion. One day, I'll visit Uni Orlando with him to see it from his perspective, and let him ramble on and on as I do about design choices, Easter eggs, and the like. I can't wait to do that. Again, not a big fan of the books and movies, but I am a big fan of theme park design.


Disney Imagineers are masters at rock work!

The first time visiting a new Disney park or newly designed area is a powerful experience for me. It's like the first listen of a new album by your favorite artist. You can only do that once. I happily absorbed in as much as I could, stopping for quick photos along our walking route toward Millennium Falcon: Smuggler's Run

The scale and scope is unexpectedly huge- much, much, bigger than I expected. Batuu is drier, grayer, grittier, and more foreboding as well. As this is an area ruled by the First Order, the Disney Imagineers were successful in creating a sense of being unwelcome. Yes, the land feels like a place you shouldn't be there visiting, it's somewhere you may have stumbled upon. Quite unexpected as well. It's not charming. It's even a bit intimidating. This is brand new territory for a Disney theme park or its individual lands. 

In this regard, Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge is very out of place being found within "Walt's park", and I'm sure it will be a much better fit for the movie themed park in Florida. Life and activity are lacking, however. The suits don't need to wait until Halloween to play up the drama. Perhaps they should go full bore and do something similar (but obviously with a different tone and intent) to the Muslim call to prayer you find in nations where Islam rules: Provide a steady stream of instruction or harsh warning over loud speakers. Play up the foreboding angle even more. Opt for a darker, droning, robotic "Bright Suns" by its citizens. Increase the presence of Storm Troopers. Throughout the majority of the land, there are upper walkways throughout which provide the perfect opportunity to let them overlook it all and complete the prison yard feel. Use the upper windows and even doors to allow its alien citizens to occasionally peek out, similar to the Wicked Queen at Snow White's Scary Adventures down the road. Bring out the bad guys in force- even from different eras. Don't worry about the littler kids- most of them understand (or should) that it's all make believe. 


Stopped for interrogation.

The reveal of the Millennium Falcon surprised me. It packed quite the punch, even if it doesn't mean much to me. It is just that well designed! It didn't illicit a gaping mouth response as it does for the actors in the commercials, but I was very impressed and instantly reminded of entering Cars Land via the back entrance through the Pacific Wharf area at Disney California Adventure

After snapping a few shots in front of it, it was time to fly the Falcon for ourselves. Not knowing what we would find later in the day, we opted for the single rider line with its 25 minute wait. The wait turned out to be much less, and my son and I were assigned the engineering positions and placed into the same hunk of junk.

Father and son play day.
Wished all my other sons were here too!

Not being a gamer, I wasn't disinterested in pushing buttons to make things work, but I was more focused on the ride itself and seeing if it felt fresh or really was Star Tours 3.0. The verdict? This supporting role attraction was quite fun! The system seems to react to your commands flawlessly and immediately. The small cockpit area is an intimate experience, giving it a different vibe than the original Star Wars attraction. If it were the stand alone draw for the land, I would expect more, but being it was designed to be different than Rise of the Resistance, I'm fine with it being exactly what it is.

By this time, we were pretty hungry as we'd left the house so fast we hadn't eaten. Oga's Cantina was out of the question. Even with the Disney app, we couldn't get a reservation until 11pm at night. We hesitated for one minute, it was then gone. Ronto's Roasters it was.

The tasty pita wrapped sausage and slaw / sauce combination was everything the Disney marketers and bloggers had made it out to be. Very flavorful and a fairly good portion for the price. We each ordered different drinks. Both were good if a bit pricey. It was hard to find a place to sit, so we opted to stand up next to the droid turning the meat. 

Where are the alien citizens of Batuu?

Although there would be no $200 light saber for us, the exploration of the marketplace was worth the time we spent. It seems the Imagineers paid close attention to the fact that guests love exploring the back streets of Disneyland's New Orleans Square, Epcot's World Showcase nations, and the winding paths of Animal Kingdom. In this area, there were no encounters with the locals. Not even a moving droid to be found.

In wide open spaces, it was different but still lacking. Aside from a slight show starring Kylo Ren, some woman with blue hair, (proof I really don't know the films at all), and a total of three Stormtroopers, there were no interactions in this section of the land. Only one cast member we encountered tried to stay in character, making the overall experience awkward at best.

He's alive!

The Den of Antiqities perhaps showcased the intent of the land even better than the opening day attraction. It was oddly beautiful, and I could have explored it all for much longer than I would have first thought. In fact, I spent a chunk of time up close to the shop's alien proprietor watching his every move. Even the patrons felt more alert and invested here. The vibrant space and the interactive response were much more like what I expected from the park's new expansion. 

Although I found the First Order section of the land very well done, the Resistance area was puzzling to me. The space felt as incomplete as it was and entirely misimagineered. Full size vehicle models with no one around them created a dead, lifeless area. The "forest" was lacking in every way possible, including a scant number of trees  (much like the Fantasyland Forest in the Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World). Although the sounds of the area were interesting and certainly well done, they did not compensate for the absence of the film's heroes. We did see a quite lovely Rey, who caught the eye of my single son, but she seemed to hurry by. Must have been break time. I'm sure the intent was to divide the land into "Heroes" and "Villains", but as it stands, it is a missed opportunity and a waste of a very large amount of acreage. 

The whole land needs its mega ticket to open.

We left the area and caught some of our favorite adventures: Pirates of the Caribbean, Haunted Mansion, Indy, the Jungle Cruise (Where is the water in the world famous Schweitzer Falls?), two rides on Space Mountain, one on the Matterhorn Bobsleds (Too rough! Too old!), three on Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, and we even rode with Mr. Toad and took off to Pleasure Island with Pinocchio. Midway, we took a short break at the overrated and overhyped Tropical Hideaway

Yes, we really did like the Blue Milk!

Returning in the early evening, we decided to take the standby line for Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run so that we could see the preshow as well as walk through the queue. It was 40 minutes, but with the hot late afternoon sun and a view of the Falcon from up above it, this was a good decision to be in the shade. The Hondo Audio-Animatronic ranks up there as one of Disney's best! The movement is fluid and clean, and use of it during the preshow adds to the overall attraction experience. We need some of these robotics in Pandora to complete the Na'vi experience. 

For this ride, we were flying with three very young pilots and their father. I'd say 4, 5, and 6 years old. They were clearly out of touch with the buttons and warnings and the whole idea of participation. Their youthful excitement and inexperience created a random, haphazard flight path as we bounced and shook from one interaction to the next. It was easily the most fun ride of the three we took! Don't be worried if you are partnered with younger riders- we saw an entirely different show and had a great time laughing through the whole flight. Isn't that the real measure of a ride's success?

Batuu at night feels like a different planet.

By this point in time, we were pretty tired, but my son wanted to make a last minute stop to build a droid. The whole process was much faster than it should have been for the price. No matter, he enjoyed it. Choosing a black and silver color scheme, he named it R2FU. (Figure it out. I love his warped sense of humor!) 

We departed Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge via Critter Country and hopped aboard the Disneyland Railroad to Main Street U.S.A. before departing. He offered to ride It's A Small World with me- one of my guilty pleasures- but I passed as it was time to go home.

How can I sum it all up? There's so much potential there! I hope the Disney's Hollywood Studio's version- which I will see soon- takes advantage of the much more humid climate and being farther away from where fireworks are shot to add more plants and greenery. It would add much more of a welcome feel to the area. I also hope they learn from Disneyland's mistakes and bring as many Star Wars experiences into the land as possible. March of the First Order is a good beginning, but there are still too many spaces where smaller stages were obviously built but left unused.  

Perhaps Disney Imagineering has more tricks up its sleeves when its star attraction finally opens. Robert Iger has admitted the area has been less of a success than they hoped. Maybe Disney's ego has finally shown its fruit. Time to go back to the drawing board and the board room to make a very good expansion even better.

(Photos copyright Mark Taft.)