December 31, 2009

Celebrate Wisely

Getting ready to say goodbye to 2009 and hello to the New Year. Please celebrate wisely and drive safely! See you tomorrow for a whole new year of posts!

The Year 2010 in Review in Advance

The debut of a new year and another chance for fresh beginnings- It's here and right around the corner!

I just love New Years and New Year's Eve! Maybe I'm a bit foolish and sentimental, but the idea that things start with a clean slate and old things are left behind, well, it always excites me. Imagining what lies ahead can be great fun as well.

When times are good, be happy; but when times are bad, consider; God has made the one as well as the other. The writer of the book of Ecclesiastes has that to say about how we are to view the days. And they go so quickly, especially the older I get! He also says that God has set eternity in the hearts of men, so I shouldn't be surprised when something important seems like it was yesterday when it was really years ago.


So, let's see- what does lie ahead for 2010? Hmm, here is the news as we know it- and some predictions... Let me say in advance, I'm not all that hopeful with projects coming from the House of Mouse.

On that Disney front: At California Adventure, the nighttime show World of Color will make a big splash come Spring. This means the maze of walls around Paradise Pier will begin to disappear as others, hopefully, go up for the beginning of the planned Buena Vista Street. Let's watch if the crowds appear bringing money to spend and with it an impetus for the Walt Disney Company and its Imagineers to execute Phase Two of the park's expansion. Even if a revised version makes the cut in its place, let's hope it includes saying adios to the Maliboomer as well as a forest friendly revamping of Condor Flats. As much as I like this section of the park as it now stands, it does not make sense to have two desert themed areas. The park is getting prettier, so kudos to the Imagineers who work so hard to do things right when given the money and encouragement.

Unfortunately, things will be quiet on the Disneyland front while Star Tours 2 ramps up and Michael Jackson reappears in Captain Eo. Neither project thrills me. In fact, Disneyland looks great but attractions post the Indiana Jones Adventure have left me cold. Tomorrowland '98 was unfulfilling as was the Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage. The smaller rehabs were fine- great really, but it is time to be wowed once more at the original Disney park. Tomorrowland aside, at least if Tony Baxter does retire in the new year, he will leave the park in a better condition than it was in the Paul Pressler days.

Walt Disney World's Fantasyland remodel will begin, helping the Magic Kingdom eventually compete with Harry Potter over at Universal's Islands of Adventure, but nothing else will come its way next year.


At least Epcot isn't getting ToyStory Playland from Disneyland Paris! You never know these days as theme seems to mean less and less and the Disney suits continue to let the greatest park in Florida dilute in theme and execution. (And by the way, why are the French getting this mess without Toy Story Midway Mania? Lack of Euros no doubt!)

The gorgeous looking Animal Kingdom will stay as it is until numbers drop once more. This pattern will probably continue until the current powers that be retire. Speaking of this park, watch for Part 5 of the "Disney's Animal Kingdom: A True-Life Adventure" series coming January 8.

Disney's Hollywood Studios will prep for Star Tours 2 while they continue to shove High School Musical garbage down own throats. Ugh. Maybe the much talked about Monsters Inc. coaster will be announced at 2010's D23 expo.

Over in Asia, Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo Disney Sea will continue pleasing guests, while Hong Kong Disneyland continues to struggle. At least Mystic Manor is coming after Hong Kong's disastrous choice of adding ToyStoryland as well. Will Shanghai Disneyland finally break ground? Or will there be more red tape and delays? Hard to say. One thing seems certain- it looks like we'll all need a trip overseas to be dazzled by the Disney Company. Enough about the parks.


Honestly, those of you who read this blog know I am not the biggest fan of the Company's television or movie offerings. I take each film by any company on an individual case basis- including Pixar releases (gasp!)- and Grey's Anatomy and American Idol aside, find most of television a waste of time and not too interesting at that. After the creative success of Princess and the Frog, I will go see Rapunzel. At least her locks will be visible as I have a feeling Jack Sparrow's won't be on display as scheduled. My hunch is Pirates of the Caribbean 4 will be delayed once more.

The music industry continues its downward slide as the wasteland of rap dominates, most of country music sounds the same, and song lyrics in all genres get dirtier and dirtier. I am sure Lady Gaga will keep turning out catchy numbers with videos that shock, Michael Jackson compilations will keep selling, and old bands from the 70s and 80s will continue to tour one more time. i-tunes will keep adding to the destruction of the concept of album, while favorite old artists will repackage songs from decades past. New "artists" will be built and destroyed by the Disney Channel machine. In other words, same old, same old. Let's hope I'm wrong, and we get some pleasant surprises this year!

On the political front, it will be more of the same as well. Promises from people of both parties, nothing delivered. That is all I will say on the subject.

It will be much of the same in the world of sports, (I do watch on occasion), as overpaid athletes will continue to commit crimes and disappoint with tales discovered of infidelity and the like. (The NFL seems to really be the National Felony League these days.) No matter, as these men will still be seen as heroes by folks desperate for real ones.

Wish I could say I see big changes in the area of religion and spirituality as well, but I don't. It is difficult enough for me to stay on solid Biblical ground without falling prey to television charlatans who peddle God's name for profit promising wealth and fortune instead of personal sacrifice, devotion to holy living, and serving others. Would we even recognize Jesus as the only true savior if He came today?

Lest I sound a bit crusty, hear me out. I am very thankful for my family, my friends, my health- and to you who read this blog. It's been my combination diary, travel journal, and devotional writing.

My upcoming year looks to be an exciting one for many reasons I'll share in the future. All said, I thank God that in a world delivering the best and worst of what man can offer, The Almighty God Eternal does not change. In Him and in Him alone do I place my trust and hope. Consider Him as you ponder what lies ahead. Only He knows your future...

December 30, 2009

Brain Candy for the Holidays

Lots of fun this Christmas season- movies, music, games, family. Time for rentals of the Sandra Bullock disaster, "All About Steve" and other movies not worth the time, much music by Michael Buble, and a good amount of resting and playing cards with the family. (By the way, Toy Story Mania on wii is quite fun!) Not much news on Disney or the California Adventure remodel. Not much substance overall, but life is not always serious, either!

December 28, 2009

Toe to Toe: Disney World vs. Islands of Adventure

Editor's Note: With Harry Potter soon to open at Islands of Adventure- and while I am preparing some new articles for 2010, I thought it would be great to repost my very detailed trip report to Universal Orlando. Enjoy!
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It was the kind of year any theme park fan would envy. I had the summer off, and as it was to play out, it lined up perfectly with our 25th wedding anniversary trip. My wife and I had saved for a decade to celebrate with a three week journey to Europe. Our itinerary covered five countries and included a two day stop at the Disneyland Paris Resort for a visit to both parks. The whole trip was terrific. A wonderful and memorable time. Certainly the highlight of the summer.

My wife had a surprise waiting for me upon our return. Well aware I would never again have a sabbatical from work, she did a bit of saving on her own and surprised me with an end-of-summer trip to Orlando. Besides being quite the bargain, the timing was right, as she had to return to her teaching job, so I would have been sitting at home alone with a yardful of weeds waiting for me. Here was this Disney die-hard's once in a lifetime opportunity to indulge in some geekiness and check out all the detail I might miss on earlier family vacations.

Taking our kids on vacation, Disney or otherwise has always been great fun- full of memory building events they talk about to this day. Being at the top of the Eiffel Tower at sunset, viewing wild animals and glaciers in Alaska, seeing the breathtaking Butchart Gardens in Victoria, cable car rides in San Francisco, touring the White House, and many, many more. Additionally, my wife and I do a good portion of "second honeymooning". Now, I won't lie. We are not rich, but God has blessed us with the ability to do a lot of traveling in the midst of raising four kids and trying to help others less fortunate. Amazingly cheap introductory flights, generous parents, friends "in the business", special deals, etc. have all been a blessing.

This trip would be one for me to do as I pleased, allowing an opportunity to do some things I would not have done with the family. (Or wouldn't put them through!) After much thought about what I really wanted to do, I chose to enjoy two days on the beach, one at Epcot, and one at Animal Kingdom. Because of school schedules and prices, our family visits to Walt Disney World never really left us time or money to go to Universal. Plus, we had been to the Studios in California. However, once it had opened, I had to check out Islands of Adventure. That was a must do on my list, particularly to experience The Amazing Adventures of Spiderman, which had become a fan favorite, even drawing comparisons to Indiana Jones Adventure. Since my departure back home was scheduled for very late in the day, I chose to spend my last morning until late afternoon at Islands of Adventure.

I won't cover my Disney or beach days here, but I'll focus on my day at my final park instead. Leaving the hotel bright and early, I arrived at the parking garage about half an hour before opening time. The crowds were fairly light, and the walk was lengthy from the garage to City Walk. At one end was my destination for the day, and at the other Universal Studios Orlando. Although I briefly considered changing parks, I realized most of the Studios attractions could be found in California, so I stuck to my plan. Besides, I couldn't miss my one chance for Spiderman! Walking up to the gates and passing the iconic lighthouse, I was dumbstruck by the detail I saw inside.



This really surprised me, and my anticipation for the rest of the park grew as I waited for the gates to open. What I felt was a good reminder of some facts from Theme Park Design 101: The entry area sets the stage for guest expectations and draws visitors in. I truly wondered how many people, pondering the choice of which park to enter, walked over to Islands and immediately made their decision based on the designer's marvelous work. Wow, totally unexpected and wonderfully crafted. (Note to the Imagineers redoing California Adventure: you've got one last chance, so make sure you do it right this time.)

My photos may be a little out of order here, but my memory of what I did next is clear. Once I could figure out exactly where to store my things, I headed right for The Hulk coaster. The line was light as the morning was young.

Time for a confession here. I like coasters, really do. But I am not an extreme thrills kind of guy, so the new ones at places like Six Flags Magic Mountain and Cedar Point are not ones you will find me riding. Yet, I had to do Hulk, just once and just for the views I knew I would get. Mission accomplished, and it was quite fun!

Still on a Hulk rush, I walked down Marvel Super Hero Island's main street, thinking "Not too bad, Universal, not too bad at all." Being so impressed with the Port of Entry, I looked for more details. Big mistake. Then I began noticing the painted flats, how easily I could see backstage, assorted areas where the large photo images were peeling off, and lots of faded paint. This was a consistent vision throughout the park. No boats were visible to bring visitors from island to island, giving the place a very unexpected stillness. When I finally reached Spiderman, I forgot all about all the disappointing pieces. I was ready to rock!

Right to the point, I have nothing but wonderful things to say about this attraction! It alone was worth the money spent to visit the park. The queue was great at setting the story, and the ride itself really lived up to its title. Won't fill this paragraph with any spoilers, but I will say I rode it three times in a row. Each trip, I discovered new things and still walked off asking myself how they pulled it all off. It is Universal's answer to Indiana Jones. An amazing adventure indeed! Is it better? That's up for you to decide.

After a few major plusses in a row, I was really ready to embrace this park as a Disney quality experience. Then I went into Toon Lagoon. Here my thoughts of equality were dashed as the poor upkeep I'd seen earlier was even worse here. Coming right off Super Hero Island, you'd think Universal would give us a change in environment, but the cutouts and cartoon characters felt too similar and created a bit of boredom. They really didn't change much, only the attractions were different. Wetter. Way wetter, and not in a good way.

Popeye and Blutos Barges was my first experience in getting 100% drenched on any theme park's attraction. I had been forwarned, so I wore a quick dry pair of shorts as if I was headed to a water park. So did many other folks, and I saw many women in bikini tops! It was a good thing I was prepared for a soaking, as Universal's designers went for minimal theming and lots of cheap shots here. It was a fun and appropriately rough course, but it felt as if theme was an afterthought.

I expected much more from the other drencher in this area- Duddley Do-Right's Ripsaw Falls. The folks touting Universal's superiority over Disney say this is their Splash Mountain. Definitely similar on the thrill meter, but absolutely no charm and sorely lacking on the maintenance. I have never seen any ride at any park in such poor condition! This went beyond needing new paint. Props were not only inoperable, they were left visibly broken with the mechanisms exposed for all to see. No attempt to hide anything. Very poor show. Thankfully, I knew Jurassic Park was around the bend, and I was excited to see it.

Oh, the power of the movies! Just seeing the entrance arch made my pulse race a bit!

After having just seen Dinoland U.S.A. at Disney's Animal Kingdom, it was very difficult to walk into this area at Islands of Adventure without making an immediate comparsion between the two. The verdict? In terms of atmosphere alone, Universal wins this round with a knockout. Jurassic Park is appropriately lush and gorgeous. Details abound that are true to the films. The Discovery Center sits at the center of the park, drawing in the eye. Between the entrance arch and the center, however, is a wonderfully themed children's area, Camp Jurassic.

The signature attraction here at the camp is Pteranodon Flyers, a very short flight high above the area. It is fun to watch- bringing some movement to the area- but impossible to ride without a child joining you, so I was out of luck. The camp itself is a smaller dinosaur focused version of Tom Sawyer's Island. Very well done and worth a visit just to take some terrific photos. The waterfalls and vegetation make this a relaxing spot to stop and enjoy your immersive surroundings.



The famous River Adventure was next. Although the surroundings are better than what Universal could have possibly accomplished in Los Angeles, so many effects were broken, ultimately ruining what should have been their centerpiece attraction. At one point, one of the major dinosaurs had its "skin" ripped off, clearly revealing the metal parts underneath it. This was in full view of the riders as we looked directly at them. The falling jeep effect was not working, the smaller dinosaurs were not spitting, and some were not even moving. The giant at the end worked just fine, however, sending our boat off with a roar before we went over the falls. All the wonderful effects may not be working at Disney's Countdown to Extinction, (I hate the generic Dinosaur), but at least everything is in the dark, and the carnotaurus is not exposing his insides to reveal he is, in fact, just a robot.


The Discovery Center was an additional disappointment as none of the major exhibits were working and a large section of the inside was actually just a cafe. I wandered around in a mostly empty building without an employee in sight.

Ultimately, at first glance, Jurassic Park feels much richer than its Animal Kingdom cousin, but the attractions pale in comparison. What Jurassic promises, it does not deliver. Although Disney presents a much odder storyline in Dinoland U.S.A. and Chester and Hester's Dinorama carnival in particular, it does make good on its delivery, as quirky and cheap as it feels.



Next island up as I traveled clockwise was Lost Continent. Certainly, the most visually impressive island here as well as the one with some eye-popping attractions: Dueling Dragons coaster, Eighth Voyage of Sinbad stunt show, and the incredible mutlimedia guided "funhouse" walk-through, Poseidon's Fury.



We who follow Disney park lore (too) closely are familiar with the true story of ex-Disney Imagineers heading over to Universal and designing the Dueling Dragons coaster, and in essence "stealing" the primary reason for Beastly Kingdom to exist. The designer's impact is profound- at least in the queue. It is richly detailed and successfully draws you into the castle and its story. The buildup is similar to what we experience in the Orlando version of the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror and its lush but abandonded gardens. Unfortunately, budgets must get axed at Universal as well, as both coasters are entirely outdoors aside from the station. No theming, no continuation of story, nothing. But what fun coasters they are! Both the Fire and Ice sides are worth a spin.

Even better is the Poseidon's Fury walk through attraction. No spoilers here, but I must say it is really well done. Go see it! The awful downside is an extremely long wait time, mishandled queuing directions by the operators, and a holding area that is both dark and in some places quite "scented". I almost left several times during my near one hour wait, but I am glad I did not.

Before I continue this report with a bit about Seuss Landing and a conclusionary wrap up, let me say that I ate lunch at the Enchanted Oak Tavern in this section of the park. Definitely great theme park food- and just very good food compared to the real world. Terrific ribs, salads, and breads. Slightly on the expensive side but worth every penny. I have had many more mediocre meals at Epcot! Sitting on the adjacent outdoor patio overlooking the lake made it a relaxing and all around pleasant dining experience.


Being a big kid at heart, I saved Seuss Landing for last. It's quite a jolting visual experience going from the Mediterrean feel of Lost Continent into the rainbow world of Dr. Seuss. The one dark ride, Cat in the Hat, was a major disappointment after a 45 minute wait in line. This was supposedly the Peter Pan's Flight of Island's of Adventure, and this part of the park is certainly Universal's answer to Disney's Toontown. In reality, Cat in the Hat reminded me more of the Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. Pick California or Florida, either one. Nothing great. The rest of the Landing, however, is very appealing with a great carousel and very immersive, colorful  environment. I snapped these last few photos and quickly rushed out of the park to reach the airport for my flight home. Definitely a fun day. The visit quenched my curiosity, and I was glad I had taken time out of my trip to visit.


As I left the park, the comparisons between Disney and Universal spun around in my head. Feeling I had visited each company's premier Florida parks gave me a fairly objective perspective. There were winners and losers on both sides in this contest.

Islands of Adventure is extremely engaging for folks looking for thrills. If you love Six Flags style parks, this is the closest you will get to one in Orlando- with a bit of Disneyesque style and magic thrown in. You have to be able to overlook poor maintenance, seeing backstage areas, and a lot of painted plywood cutouts. You'll love the place if you can. The employees are pleasant, the food ranged from to be expected to great. Spiderman is a must see. Jurassic Park the island, but not the attractions, is what Disney's Dinoland U.S.A. should have been. No one knows at this point how well their plans for Harry Potter will turn out, but Lost Continent is a winner nonetheless.

As for me, I am hoping Universal's Potter declares war on Disney and makes each company attempt to outdo the other. The fans win. With the right mix of new attractions and a good polishing of the park, I will probably return in the future. But Universal has to win me over because Disneyland in California is still the standard they need to beat. I'm not sure if anyone can, but I'd love to see someone besides the Japanese try.
(Photos copyright Mark Taft.)

December 25, 2009

Really Simple


It's really simple: That Christmas Baby born in the manger- the one we celebrate on December 25- grew up. He is the perfect and holy Son of God sacrificed on the cross for the sins of mankind. Salvation and eternal life are available to all who choose to believe and follow. The simplicity of it all confounds the intelligent and wise, yet makes those familiar with their own brokenness thankful beyond words.

How easy it is to celebrate His birth yet forget about the accomplishment of his mission on earth. Yes, God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son. Whoever believes in Him will have eternal life and be free. Jesus came into the world because of His love for us to draw men to Him. The choice is ours. It's really simple.

Silent night, holy night!
Shepherds quake at the sight
Glories stream from heaven afar
Heavenly hosts sing Alleluia!
Christ, the Saviour is born
Christ, the Saviour is born

Silent night, holy night
Son of God, love's pure light
Radiant beams from Thy holy face
With the dawn of redeeming grace
Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth
Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth.

December 24, 2009

Disney Imagineering and 4240 Architecture

Do you love the Wilderness Lodge at Walt Disney World? Are you entranced by the magnificent artistry of the Animal Kingdom Lodge? Perhaps the West Coast stylings of the Grand Californian is more your type of lodging. However you answer, you just have to check out the website for 4240 Architecture. The name of their now deceased Principal, Peter Dominick Jr., might sound familiar. A great site! It's chockful of wonderful concept art and photographs of these Disney projects. What about "5280" you ask? That's for the Mile High City, Denver, where this firm is located.
(Concept art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

The Timeless Realm: Disneyland's Fantasyland

It's very easy and understandable to think that Disneyland's Fantasyland is timeless. Certainly, the theme seems iconic, and yet this section of the park has seen its own fair share of change. Just glance at this 1957 park map. Definitely from another era and sensibility.

Attractions have been enhanced, added or replaced. Eventually, colorful but simple tournament tent-like show building facades painstakingly transformed into elegant and stylized versions of European locales. In the latest incarnation, Pinocchio joins the dark ride line up of adventures with Snow White, Peter Pan, Mr. Toad and Alice in Wonderland.

One of the earliest additions is the largest: a Matterhorn mountain is built from scratch, while years later a slice of a beloved Neverland disappears, only to resurface in Paris a decade later. In between, a World's Fair favorite joins the line-up, inducing cheers and jeers, yet becoming a staple of the parks. It is a Small World after all.

Storybookland and its canals remain, a skyway ride vanishes, and an abominable snowman makes tracks. Company leaders and Imagineers come and go, each leaving imprints of their own on this timeless realm.
(Art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

December 23, 2009

Snowy Calm Before the Storm

The weather outside is frightful- the storm that came in last night continues to blow, making for a White Christmas. But here I am blogging away for next year's posts, listening to Karen Carpenter sing away, waiting for the storm of Christmas celebrations to begin. It's a casual quiet day as we wait for them to begin, starting with this evening's Christmas Eve Eve service (isn't that a great idea). Thankful for all I have and for a God and family who loves me...
(Photograph copyright Mark Taft.)

Hanna-Barbera Mystery Book

Would you help me out today? Friends of ours own this mystery book from Hanna-Barbera. Her father was in accounting with HB in the 60s, and this book was given to her as a gift a few years before he passed away. The cover is shown above, the introduction page is inside. No table of contents. It has no year or publishing information.

The text and gazillions of character images cover television productions into the early 1970's. Our guess is it was an employee only issue, a thank you celebrating a major anniversary of the studio. Anyone have any ideas? You can be a hero... Thanks!

December 22, 2009

Frosted Window Panes: The Carpenters Christmas Portrait

Richard and Karen Carpenter's Christmas Portrait was the culmination of the longest wait ever for a full length Christmas recording. Not just of the decade but by any recording artist. 


Billboard magazine ad for Merry Christmas Darling- an instant classic!

From the 1970 release of their first holiday recording Merry Christmas Darling, fans waited and waited for the Carpenters to complete an album full of old favorites and new songs dedicated to the season. The gorgeous song written by Richard and Frank Pooler achieved instant standard status upon first play, with Karen's deep and warm vocals played against Richard's lush arrangements and Frank's romantic lyrics. It was constantly on my turntable.

The near decade in between the single and the album had been far from unkind, however, with the duo turning out hit after hit. Things began to slow after the release of The Singles: 1969 - 1973, but Karen and Richard were still quite productive. A new arrangement of the seasonal classic "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" came in 1974 along with an appearance on Perry Como's Christmas special. (Find it and watch Karen perform "It's Impossible"- one of her most tender readings of a song ever!) "Please Mr. Postman" ended '74 as a worldwide smash.

Horizon arrived in 1975, with A Kind of Hush coming the following year. Although both discs contain some of their best individual recordings ("Only Yesterday", "Solitaire", and Desperado" from the first, and "I Need to Be in Love" and "One More Time" from the latter), neither produced the sales of years previously.

The duo's next album in 1977, Passage, was not the large hit they wanted and their career so desperately needed. The result was fun, playful, and largely uninspired. Even die-hard fans like myself started to move on to other interests.

I discovered that in the midst of recording Passage, the Carpenters were also beginning to record for another project at the same time this eclectic album was forming. Perhaps both the A&M Records executives and Karen and Richard expected the Christmas recordings to be completed in time for a 1977 release, as their second television special "The Carpenters at Christmas" was to air in early December.


Above- the photos that inspired Robert Tanenbaum's beautiful portrait

My personal life was taking a dramatic downturn as well. My post high school life had been an interesting mix of fear, loneliness, increasing depression, and anticipation. I began to search for greater meaning in life than what I could see. After years of looking into various world religions- and after a near disastrous automobile accident shortly after seeing the Carpenters in Las Vegas- I found myself at an evening gathering at Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa. A young evangelist, Greg Laurie, presented the truth to me as shared in the Bible: I was a sinner, a broken man, and the only way to a relationship with God and a restored life was through faith in Jesus Christ. God Himself reaching down to man and not man's efforts to reach Him. What a difference it made to hear about a god who loved his creation.
My heart jumped as I chose to make a decision to embrace Jesus and his sacrifice on the cross. I knew I'd have to live differently, and I was ready. As I prayed for a new beginning, I hoped for the best. The result was better than I ever expected. For the next six months, my depression was replaced with hope and joy. My friends and family could not believe the transformation. Neither could I!

Christmas was very different that year. Finally, all those hymns made sense- and watching and listening to Karen sing them touched me deeply. By this point, I was also smart enough to understand a Christmas album had to be coming soon.

Celebrating the Season's sales.
Billboard magazine ad from December 1978

As the following year progressed, many good things began to happen in my life. My job situation improved greatly, I formed some deep friendships, and even though life was more back to normal with expected ups and downs, I had peace and hope. Guess my faith "stuck", and I'd never go back to my old life.

On the musical front, things were fairly uninteresting. I was thrilled to finally hear something new from Karen and Richard. "I Believe You" was a terrific little single that got next to no airplay, but my lengthy wait was finally rewarded again when the Christmas Portrait album hit the shelves. Couldn't wait to get it home! Little did I know the album would end up being one of my favorites by them and a very personal one- one that would always touch me deeply.

Finally, the album was out of the sleeve and on the turntable. I patiently listened through the opening songs. Finally Karen came in singing "Frosted window panes"...


I was mesmerized. What an introduction Richard designed for his favorite vocalist! Thirty-two years later, hearing her opening to "Christmas Waltz" still signals the beginning of the season, and Christmas Portrait is the traditional first disc played in our house. (And one played only after Thanksgiving!)


The album, continued to sparkle. Hearing the Carpenters band sing on "Sleigh Ride" was great fun! The new single "Christmas Song" made famous by Nat King Cole and recorded by seemingly thousands of other vocalists, was a natural choice for Karen's voice. It was at that moment of first hearing it that I realized Karen was the new voice of Christmas for my generation. Considering the millions of copies sold, I am sure I am not alone in this assessment.

Richard was oft-quoted for his influences being the "3Bs" (the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and Burt Bacharach) but here on their first Christmas release, it is clearly Spike Jones, the 40s bandleader with his group, the City Slickers. (Does the name sound familiar? Remember their newer live show or the 1st TV special?) Check out Spike's holiday albums in its various rereleased forms, and you'll find similar song choices, medleys, and arrangements. That said, Richard's genius is evident here. Between the arrangements of Peter Knight and the concept of the album, not including his terrific playing throughout, Richard's contribution is unmistakable. This album is as solid and strong as any of their previous work, and it holds it own against any modern day releases.



There are plenty of additional gems on the disc. One of my personal favorites is "First Snowfall/Let It Snow". The playful arrangement is quite fun but when Karen's voice is overdubbed on the former and she emotes on the phrase "if you really hold me tight" on the latter, it's pure magic. Next, Richard's "Carol of the Bells" is stunning. The newly rerecorded "Merry Christmas Darling" is made even more beautiful by Karen's softer vocal approach. And it just keeps getting better. The disc's closing "Ave Maria" reveals how powerful and under control her voice was. It also shows how unmatched it is by those vocalists of her day and those of ours. How many other artists have dared to perform such a demanding piece?

Christmas Portrait was an instant success and became a radio staple for the decades. Beginning with the following season, recording artists began to mine the gold found by the recent success of Karen and Richard, and they recorded their own holiday albums. As with their earlier work, others once more followed the duo's instincts and groundbreaking lead.

Since Karen's untimely death, "I'll Be Home for Christmas" has taken on a poignancy stronger than its already heartfelt lyrics. Her passing means the end of an era. Beyond the later release of "An Old Fashioned Christmas" in 1984, there is not much Carpenters material left other than television show recordings, and the chance for additional Christmas albums is gone. Over and over again, Richard has started and stopped work on his own collection of holiday tunes. Will we ever see it? If only in my dreams...

December 21, 2009

Overload

I'm on Christmas overload- but everything is finished for the holidays... thank God!

Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow at Disneyland?

The future was bright for the debut of the New Tomorrowland of 1967. So much on the drawing boards came to life, dazzling guests, spinning turnstiles, and pleasing the accountants of the Walt Disney Company. Imagineering delivered a superb vision of the future. General Electric's Carousel Of Progress was one of the bit hits of the day. Kind of makes you stop and think about the sorry state of Disneyland's Tomorrowland in this new century, doesn't it?
(Concept art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

December 20, 2009

The Invisible Children of Uganda

It's Christmastime- a time where people hope and pray for a better world. It's also a good time to take action and make a difference. Want an opportunity to help a child? To make a difference in the life of a kid? Children and youth in Uganda have few resources and can use our help. Two decades of war has taken its toll on them. Check out the website of this agency: Invisible Children.

December 18, 2009

Michael Jackson's Eo Returns to Disneyland

I have such mixed emotions about the return of Captain Eo to Disneyland. It was groundbreaking for its time, but in this new century and since Michael Jackson's death, is this really a good move? On one hand, it seems the Walt Disney Company will do just about anything to make a buck in these tough economic times. On the other hand, he was associated with Disney and his love for Disneyland was made well known- this could be an appropriate tribute. (I wonder, he said sarcastically, while they didn't try to shoehorn Eo into California Adventure...)

The risk will be in folks viewing Michael Jackson as a caricature of himself. Which is somewhat true as he began his multiple facial transformations, bizarre behavior, and even stranger associations. For me? I would rather remember him as the brilliant artist behind Off the Wall in particular, and Thriller secondarily.
(Captain Eo poster copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

New Karen Carpenter Biography

Coming soon, a new biography on Karen Carpenter. Randy L. Schmidt has already published on Karen and Richard before, and his new book focuses on the woman behind the golden voice. The Carpenters' story continues to fascinate. Go here to see details.

Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln, Baxter, and Trowbridge


MouseInfo has one of the first videos of the new "Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln" at Disneyland.

However, even if you don't want the sneak peek, there is also a question and answer session with Tony Baxter (Senior Vice President, Creative Development at Walt Disney Imagineering) and Scott Trowbridge (Vice President, Creative, Walt Disney Imagineering Research and Development) about the development of the attraction.

You'll discover a few surprises as they share about their hearts to create the ultimate tribute to the man and to America. Pieces of Epcot's American Adventure and the Magic Kingdom's Hall of Presidents in Liberty Square made an appearance in the preshow area. The interview is fascinating and well worth your time. And why is Dash from the Incredibles brought up??? You'll just have to listen for yourself!
(Photo from Disney.)

December 17, 2009

Disney's Hilton Head Resort: Mixed Results

Note: While in the colder months of winter, a trip back to Hilton Head, South Carolina, and a look at Disney's Vacation Club, might just remind me warmer days are ahead! A reposting from August 2008...

Last month, thanks to a recent promotion with our cel phone company and some free hotel space, my wife and I were able to get away for a few days to Charleston and Hilton Head, South Carolina.


Being quite aware of the Walt Disney Company's Vacation Club offerings, I was curious to check out their timeshare property at Hilton Head Island, so we spent about an hour stopping to take photos and ask some questions. When we saw the small Bambi and Thumper topiary (actually fake topiary) and the "Year of a Million Dreams" banner, we knew we were at the right place. We checked in at the registration desk upstairs at the main building. It is a very small area with a tiny lobby and slightly larger library/den. Our hostess was nice enough to provide a map to the island and the property, a copy of the latest newsletter, and the offer to explore without being escorted- the nicest surprise of all.


Hilton Head Island is comprised of mostly resort properties with just about every piece of beachfront property developed. Large, well-known companies specialize in providing amenities associated with any luxury resort: golf, tennis, spas, pools, restaurants, shopping. Disney is no exception, although their roster falls short in comparison. Walking the Disney grounds, it became very clear that the property was pleasant and well maintained but not nearly as nice as many of the surrounding resorts.


The biggest difference: although it may not be immediately obvious to a reader of the promotional materials provided, the primary piece of property, the one where the vacation homes are located, is not beachfront or even across the street from it! In fact, although the Disney resort is on (its own) Longview Island in Shelter Cove Harbour, the complex sits in Broad Creek and its marsh.


Sure, it is beautiful to look at with the area's live oaks and pines, but where's the swimming beach? Follow that 1.5 mile bike path between the main lodging area to Disney's Beach House on the sand. The path runs under Highway 287. To be fair, a shuttle service is available, but at Vacation Club pricing, beachfront should be the order of the day.

Replacing the beach for 31 main buildings of accommodations are one medium-sized but well themed pool and a horseshoe pit with a nearby snack bar and small shop. No tennis or golf. I was expecting something as nice as the Wilderness Lodge or at least the Sarasota Springs Resort in Florida. Instead, everything here was very low key with nothing grand to be found.


We did find the usual and expected nice touches of theme, found here particularly in the signage. (Although a sign referencing "Michael and Michael" now seems to poke a bit of fun at Eisner's grand plans with Mr. Ovitz.) The vacation home buildings were very well done. The gardens were nice but not much more than adequate. A bit of character merchandise and a small collection of pins could be purchased in the shop, and Walt Disney World Resort paper cups were used in the snack shops. Cast members were friendly, smiling quite a bit, enjoying conversation with the guests.




After our walk around, we drove to the Beach House and were slightly more impressed. The main house was well appointed in a nautical theme. The outdoor pool was of decent size with a fountain play area sporting a beach ball theme. A small snack shop and a deck side bar rounded out the offerings with promises of a weekly shrimp roast. The sand was before us but mostly hidden by lots of trees affording privacy to members.






We spoke with a vacation club member who, with a slight smile and sigh, told us it was difficult but not impossible to use his vacation club points to get here due to the popularity of Hilton Head, but he much preferred Disney's Vero Beach resort. I can only hope that property is beachfront. I am sure that once word gets out that Disney's Hilton Head Island resort is not on the sand and has no golf or tennis, it will be much easier to book time there.

To sum it up, this was one of the first times we were glad not to be "on the property". In a strange way, I was happy to discover that our longtime decision not to purchase was a wise one, leaving our options open for staying at a variety of destinations. However, if Disney's Ko Olina turns out terrific, we may have to reconsider!


(Most photos copyright Mark Taft- with a couple of photos copyright The Walt Disney Company.)