March 16, 2009

It's a Wrap: Day Four at Disney's Hollywood Studios

Our last day in Orlando left us with about three hours to enjoy one of the parks before heading back to Denver. In our planning, we chose this partial day to be spent at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. In my opinion, this was the least of the four parks in Walt Disney World.

The day before, our visit to Animal Kingdom on a cool gray day with little animal activity revealed the shortcomings of this beautiful park. Not enough shows and attractions to compensate when the animals win playing hide and go seek. We left that day somewhat disappointed by our time at the park. Very different from our previous days at Epcot and the Magic Kingdom. (See my earlier trip reports.) The evening ahead was anything but more disappointment. In fact, in many ways, it was the highlight of our trip.

In our twenty plus years of visiting the World alone, with my wife, with family or with friends, I have wanted to eat a meal at the restaurant at the top of the Contemporary Resort- especially at fireworks time. This was not to be until this trip, and we were both delighted with the experience.

As soon as I know we would be headed to the World, I contacted Disney Dining. Snagging an 8:50pm reservation for two on our last evening, we felt this to be a great way to end our getaway. The day finally arrived. Leaving Animal Kingdom, we returned to our wonderful moderate resort, Port Orleans Riverside, to shower and change, As the time approached, we took the short bus ride to the Magic Kingdom. From there, we walked the pathway to the Contemporary. (It's a great way to see Space Mountain close up by the way.)

It was already pretty dark and slightly breezy. Regardless of the weather, rain or dry, I love Florida’s tropical evenings! A few stars were out, making our hand in hand walk even more romantic. Here I was in one of my favorite places with my lovely wife, my favorite person. What could be better?

I had never walked into the Contemporary from the ground floor. The lobby area was very nice and the new Wave restaurant seemed beautiful. Headed up to the 4th floor via the escalator while watching the monorail sail through the lobby. We stopped at the concierge counter to check in a bit early for dinner and took the elevator to the California Grill.

Purposely arriving early, we checked in and took a walk out on the observation deck overlooking the Magic Kingdom. Entirely empty and quiet. Great! Here was one of my "When Disney does it well, it is amazing!" moments. The sheer sight of Cinderella Castle and the neon lit Tomorrowland from sixteen stories up made me gasp. Absolutely stunning! When I could finally look another direction, I gazed at the Polynesian and the Grand Floridian resorts in the distance. The Electrical Water Pageant was cruising by. I could see the trains of the monorail making the circuit. What a sight! My wife noticed a telescope, so we popped in a quarter and got an eyeful. We could watch the logs of Splash Mountain heading down the final drop. I was in awe, so much so, that I forgot the restaurant had two additional observation decks. Maybe next time. With a fresh slight rain, we headed inside. In just a moment, our table was ready. We weren't seated by a window as those seats were unavailable, but no matter.

We ordered cocktails and an appetizer, enjoying a short break before our meal arrived. Just before it did, the announcement came that the fireworks were starting in just a moment. Many people left their tables and headed outside, us included, to enjoy the show.

I was clearly puzzled by the number of small children inside the California Grill! It is certainly a top notch experience with an expensive menu and an adult environment, but this seemed to not detour families from dining there. In fact, it also seemed to be a hot spot for locals celebrating special occasions as we noticed birthday and anniversary gatherings. Pleasantly, the children were well behaved, seemingly aware of the privilege of being there.

Our meal was extremely good! The dining room's signature pork tenderloin was generously cut and accompanied by delectable goat cheese polenta. My cod with rock shrimp in a clam chowder reduction was so tasty, I was temped to lick my plate. Our service was very good once our waiter got past an earlier snippy response to a simple question from my wife. My scowl in response to him indicated I was not pleased, and he got the message. This ensured the rest of our meal was kindly and well attended to. Dessert was equally enjoyable. Fresh raspberry ice cream and chocolate sauce.

Eventually,we had to leave, as much as I didn't want to do so. On the way out, we decided a quick monorail ride around would be a perfect way to end the evening. Walking up the ramp, I said a little prayer, asking God to let us sit up front with the driver. I so love that God is a god of details and cares so much for us. This is not to say He is my genie in a bottle- after all He is the Creator of the Universe and I choose to serve Him. Sometimes following Him means pain and sacrifice as well as blessing. However, this time He blessed us, answering my prayer with a "yes".

The Magic Kingdom was ahead of us and was our stop. It was Magic Evening Hours- and the park was open until 3.m.! I was tempted to add on another day to our passport for an evening stop, but my sleepy head got the best of me. Besides, tomorrow was our last few hours at Disney's Hollywood Studios, and I wanted to see as much as I could. However, the entire night was our magical evening!

In the morning, we reluctantly and quickly checked out, leaving our baggage to be picked up before taking the Magical Express in the afternoon. Jumped on the next bus headed to the Studios.

Maybe it was the fact it was our last day or maybe it was the fact it was the Studios, but I didn't expect much. The lines were quite long just to get into the park- not a good sign. Once inside, a sign board announced that the Tram Tour, Sounds Dangerous and Fantasmic were not operational.

The crowding continued inside the park as well, making touring extremely difficult. We had reservations for lunch at The Brown Derby, but after our late and amazing meal the night before, neither of us were in the mood.

Something felt different here in the Studios than in the previous three parks, and it took me a bit to figure it out. It was the scale of the park, the size of the buildings, the sense of intimacy. Since we had just been to Disneyland and California Adventure in December, I felt quite at home immediately. This park would have fit well at the Disneyland Resort, but I am glad the essence of it is found in Anaheim's second gate.

The sense of warmth and friendliness was immediately changed by the site of the Hat. How I hate that thing, and how it ruins the sightlines and the feeling of being transported to the "Hollywood that Never Was". The veiw of the beautiful and iconic Chinese Theater from the entrance is gone. What a mistake- certainly akin to the dreaded wand at Epcot.

As we walked down the street, admittedly, I had forgotten how much exquisite detail there is in this park. The buildings are quaint and charming- the merchandise still generic, however- with the vintage autos and "streetmosphere" creating quite the fun environment. A quick turn down Sunset Blvd. shook that out of me.

The street was a sea of people all clammoring toward The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror and Rock 'N' Rollercoaster. It felt as if we were somehow back in the Magic Kingdom's Frontierland between Splash and Big Thunder Mountains. The standby lines were already over an hour for each, the Fastpasses were good for after our departure time, and the single rider line for the coaster seemed to be about 40 minutes.

Decision time. And out of that came something I have never done before. I chose to tour the park realizing I wouldn't be taking in a single attraction. We only had two hours left, and we wanted to relax and walkaround. I could not have it both ways. The surprising thing was, I still had a great time- and it caused me to see this park in a whole new light.

Intentionally, I sought out the Carthay Theater as I knew this would be the new centerpiece building of Buena Vista Street at California Adventure 2.0. The look of the building very nice and should fit in very well. Personally, the new direction of this cheaply built park is a good one, yet I hope they balance out all the character additions with some uniquely California ones.

The more I stood around and looked, the better I liked this park, the details, and the offerings. Yes, there still are too many theater shows, but I realized I really wanted to go on the major attractions here and was disappointed I didn't have enough time. I took many shots of the Tower of Terror, enoying the care put into the placement and execution of this attraction. Even without riding- or maybe especially without riding- I realized this was the definitive version.

Pixar Place/Studios is full of detail and charm but poorly placed. It really is well done and screams old school Disney Imagineering, it is just very busy and a very small piece of land to hold such a popular attraction. Interestingly, once we passed Toy Story Midway Mania (which had a two hour standby wait and Fastpasses for 7:35pm!), we saw very few people in the park. This made for a very leisurely pace and a chance to relax and take photos.

Continuing out from the backside of the area, a couple of handfuls of folks were going into car stunt show which was just about to begin. We wandered around this area of the park past the Honey, I Shrunk the Kids playground, Muppets 3D, and the streets of the backlot. All amazingly devoid of people, allowing the amount of detail to really show itself.

Sci-Fi Dine In was nearby, so I grabbed a shot of the retro sign. Love the look of it- and the restaurant is fun even if the food is ordinary and pricey. In fact, I found much of the signage in the Studios to be eye catching. Star Tours was a walk on, but it was time for a quick snack of Mickey Mouse ice cream bars before we headed out of the park.

Eating our treat purchased from a cart, we sat on a bench at Echo Lake overlooking Gertie's Ice Cream of Destinction (which was closed. How ironic!). I was reminded of my first visit here, shortly after opening in 1989. Our kids were little and very excited by the simplest things such as the boxes of props for Maroon Studios and the giant bumblebee on the Studio Tour. My conclusion then was this was a pretty park to look at without much to do. Certainly a half day experience but with so much potential. Reminded me a lot of what I thought of Animal Kingdom the day before, albeit with a very different theme and packaging.

I noticed the Indiana Jones Stunt show was still very popular- go Indy!- and that The Great Movie Ride was very busy. Passing by The Prime Time Cafe, I took another sign photo- it was becoming a habit- and thought of the year my 4 year old daughter's coloring page was placed on the home's refrigerator. Sweet memories! We walked on. Cruising by American Idol, I recalled the fun of Superstar Television, but realized taste change, and folks seemed to be queuing up for the new show.

Heading down the main avenue for the exit, I was disappointed we didn't have more time. A stop at Sid Cahuenga's memorabilia shop was a short treat, although the store seemed much smaller than I remembered. Hearkening back to a time when you could find unique merchandise in each park, I enjoyed the vintage photos and atmosphere.

Walking out the gates, I wished I had swapped days and spent this one at Animal Kingdom instead. Expedition Everest and Kilimanjaro Safaris were quick and easy to do in an hour or so, and a walk around the park and the Tree of Life could fill out the two and a half hours we had before our departure for the Orlando Airport. This would have given us a full day at Disney's Hollywood Studios- something I never had thought I could do in the past.

This trip, the charms and compelling attractions of one park were highlighted while the shortcoming of another became evident. Although one of my favorite Florida attractions is there, in my mind, Disney's Animal Kingdom has now officially moved to the bottom of the four in Orlando and Disney's Hollywood Studios has moved to third place. I say this cautiously: both parks are at an interesting crossroads.

Disney's Animal Kingdom needs more of everything- more attractions, more eateries, more substance, more hours. It also needs less- less of the cheapness evident in Dinorama, less dependance on animal exhibits to carry the day, less character based attractions and greeting areas to fill out the guest experience.

The Studios has its own problems: There is a clear need for more attractions that transport you instead of theater presentations. Headliner experiences must be added to the other sides of the park to balance out the rush towards Tower. The older centerpiece attractions such as Star Tours and The Great Movie Ride need a serious refreshening. The shops must return to offering compelling reasons to buy. The layout remains confusing and frustrating to navigate. Ultimately, Imagineering must return the park to a unified theme with consistent execution. And yes, get rid of the Hat!

Walt Disney World will always be a special place worth a visit. We are cautiously waiting what is up next. If it is more film based theater shows, new parades, and character attractions, it will be awhile, probably many years, before we return. These do not cause us to spend thousands of dollars here. However, if the accountants and Disney executives are forward thinking and add major compelling attractions- ones that dazzle and amaze, experiences available only at Disney World- we will make the effort to return. The choice is theirs- and ours.

(Photos copyright Mark Taft.)

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