August 17, 2015

D23: Thinking It All Through- New Adventures as Old Ones Go Away

In its 4th exposition, this year's D23 convention offered Disney theme park fans some of the most rewarding announcements to date. As expected, the biggest news concerned the building of two massive Star Wars themed lands, one for each of the U.S. resorts. This move was expected as was the announcement of something Toy Story themed and an increased look at Animal Kingdom's Pandora.

Disney itself advertised a gigantic section of the display space would be to hype the incredible looking Shanghai Disneyland. But I did not expect anything for Hong Kong Disneyland, Tokyo Disney Resort or Disneyland Paris. (I was wrong on this part of my pre-opening prediction as there was a brief film showing a piece of the Iron Man Experience for the Hong Kong park. And wrong again, as absolutely nothing was announced for California Adventure.) 

Long ago and far away...Now the Adventure is truly real!

The animation announcements only reinforced what I truly expected from the park's announcement: Disney Intellectual Properties would be the focus for both. I mean, have you ever seen such a slate of films that were so tied to previous hits and popular series? I haven't. Certainly, I think this would eventually lead to burnout, but remember, these days, it seems to be all about stock prices. Hit while the Iron Man is hot.

Honestly, if you look backward, post 1969, almost every addition to Disneyland (and later Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom) were tied into either a company film property or a tried and true earlier Disney attraction. Let's face it, after Walt's death, few folks carried the torch, and it all became about "synergy" long before Michael Eisner made it a mandate. Robert Iger has just made it a company lifestyle.

EPCOT Center was the last real attempt at non-IP imagination. The next park, Disney-MGM Studios, was all about the movie tie-in, helping propel Disney animation and Touchstone films to even greater profitability. The cycle just keeps repeating itself. Now, I think Disney Imagineers cannot even present an original idea as an option for the parks. Nor do the suits apparently think they have any to offer for Stateside parks.

Nonetheless, even though its now mostly all about the sizzle and often less about the substance when it comes to park additions (see Florida's New Fantasyland), D23 does an excellent job at making sure fans leave very excited about what is coming next from the Company they love. This includes fans from Orlando who may have rightly thought the convention was too Disneyland Resort centric in the past. Not so in 2015.

Can Disney really pull it off?

With the biggest announcements for this year, thankfully, Star Wars brings both the substance and the sizzle! 

For California's Disneyland and Disney's Hollywood Studios in Florida, 14 acre parcels are being created to provide fans of the epic film series the chance to finally experience a full blown experience. Bringing with them what sounds like not one but two "E Ticket" attractions and a long list of shops, restaurants, and entertainment experiences tied directly to the series of George Lucas' beloved Sci-Fi classics.

Surprisingly, it seems no one in the Disney fan sphere is crying foul when it comes to cloning the new lands (or "planets" as Disney's promotional machine is calling them).

But are they really cloning them, one model for each resort? I have my doubts. The pieces of land set aside in each park seem to be vastly different from each other in shape and configuration even if they remain the same size. This alone may make the layout and the rides themselves different from park to park. In fact, in sunny California, we know the existing Star Tours is in Tomorrowland- which will not be take over by Star Wars Land (or whatever it will be named). Meanwhile, in sunny Florida, the larger version of Star Tours will be absorbed into the expansion and in an entirely different park. All this could easily bring about two vastly unique configurations of acreage with very different placements of the same type attractions, shops, and restaurants. 

Drinks anyone?

Both are guaranteed to feature the two headlining attractions: a chance to control your own Millennium Falcon and another which promises it " puts you in the middle of a climatic battle between the First Order and the Resistance". Throw in a visit to a famous cantina, plenty of unique shopping, and interaction with the planet's inhabitants, well- it will be a Star Wars geek's dream come true. Or at least we hope it will!

I'm totally alright with it taking up a chunk of real estate in a Florida park themed to films, but even though I'm looking forward to it, I feel very differently about an entire land dedicated to one film in Walt Disney's original Magic Kingdom. That said, I am glad to see the suits are freeing up some land for this expansion. They are certainly going to need it in order to accommodate all the growth in park guests. (This makes me think there are big plans for California Adventure to help in that arena, but that's a discussion for another time.)

For now, I'd like to skip what also is coming to the Studios, and discuss the in process Avatar / Pandora themed land coming to Disney's Animal Kingdom

Thanks to Alain Littaye for the great posters.

With a fairly large and detailed model, Disney presented guests of D23 a very nice look at what is planned to open in 2017. The model seemed terrific, but the two supporting exhibits were nothing special. Aside from that promotional travel brochure from Alpha Centauri Expeditions ( ACE ) and their little film creating interest in travel to Pandora. A film that included Imagineer Joe Rohde and Lightstorm's Jon Landau, the former playing himself, and the latter in disguise as a tour operator for the company that takes you to this new and exciting destination. It's a clever piece of promotion played to great effect.

Of course, after all that, then you add in all these really wonderful travel posters. What would a Disney park attraction be without one of these beloved pieces of artwork? My hunch is that in the park, they will be found somewhere in the mess hall, akin to all the smaller set pieces found all through Grizzly Peak Airfield at California Adventure. My second hunch is they will be for sale somewhere as well!

Banking on it being a beauty at night.

If the headlining simulator Flight of Passage attraction isn't your speed, it was confirmed that the boat ride through the jungle forests filled with bioluminescence did make the budgeteers cut. I'm thrilled for this piece! Supposedly titled "Na'vi River Journey",  some Imagineers have said this will be on par with Pirates of the Caribbean in scope, scale, and detail. Whether that's company hype or fact remains to be seen, but the Animal Kingdom park certainly needs more attractions and more classically styled dark rides. (Now, there's the place for a great indoors restaurant a la Blue Bayou!)

Is there more to it than Soarin' 2.0?

 The final beautiful poster for Pandora.

I must admit that this addition to the park has me excited. I was not happy for what I perceived to be the break in theme, and I still believe a different option would have been better, but I am liking what the Company is showing us. The addition has all the earmarks of something pretty groundbreaking. There's no question it will look spectacular in the evening.

Flight of Passage

With the Rivers of Light evening show and all the recent changes and additions to Harambe in Africa, this once neglected park will finally be worthy of an all day excursion- and anoint the night as well. That's probably the piece I am most excited about as the park is stunning when the sun goes down!

All this talk of Avatar and Star Wars (and Marvel) made me think- Why all the Sci-Fi additions to Walt Disney World, Disneyland, and other Disney parks? Is this the last bastion of creativity and fantasy? Do the suits forget how to make compelling movies or are they just reflecting the tastes of our world- a world that is looking for and hoping for something far better than what we have? I think so. And I hope they find it and fast. 

Nice way to add some deeper story and a growing fan base to "classic" Magic Kingdom thought.

One minor addition we all knew was eventually coming to the Magic Kingdom was the addition of a Jungle Cruise themed restaurant. I really enjoy it when the Imagineers layer on the story, adding a layer of depth to the theme park experience. In this case, it's a tie in to the S.E.A. private club found first at Tokyo Disney Sea, then Hong Kong Disneyland, and soon in Shanghai. Could it be the Disneyland in California and Paris are not far behind? I'd love to see a reopening of the classic Tahitian Terrace at Walt's park, but I'd certainly opt for something different and great.

The Toy Story gang's all here.

Back to the Studios. In addition to the new Star Wars land at (the soon to be renamed) Disney's Hollywood Studios additional announcement was the kid friendly Pixar themed Toy Story Land.

I'd say the crowd reaction was mixed. The similarly styled land in Paris seems a desperate afterthought. Although it seems to present better in Hong Kong Disneyland, there's no denying the land is populated by dressed up rides found in local state fairs and carnivals.

Will a Slinky Dog coaster redeem a troubled concept?

The reality that something like this was coming to the Florida park most in need of re-Imagineering was not a surprise to those in the know. But the content seemed to be! With a fleshed out palette of seemingly unique restaurants (this time with a real Pizza Planet please!) and space for more additions in a highly themed land, Toy Story Play Land at least has some real atmosphere and family friendly attractions going for it. Imagineer Kathy Magnum says it will be as richly themed as California Adventure's Cars Land, but the concept art seems to deny it.

How about a rethemed Mater's Junkyard Jamboree?

Couple of questions: Is "shrinking down to the size of a toy" the new "something goes horribly wrong" concept so many attractions in the 80's seemed to be based upon? I hope not. Also, where is the Monsters Inc. coaster? Some think it will be announced later as part of another look at Streets of America. That would be nice.

Regardless of its faults, this park needs much more than theater shows. It needs real attractions for the whole family. Certainly an 11 acre Play Land and a 14 acre Star Wars land are not all the company has planned. There's room and time for much more to come. Let's hope this Phase Two happens- and would somebody please tell the Imagineers that the great One Man's Dream attraction needs to resurface? If not in the Studios (and wouldn't someplace on Hollywood Blvd. be perfect for it?), then have the class to move it to the Magic Kingdom.

By the way, a big Thank You to everyone who covered D23! This landlocked Denverite couldn't make it to Anaheim, so I relied on many, many great sites to keep me up to date.

Speaking of staying covered in up to date news, it's time for me to take a break. Between two jobs that place me on three continents, my marriage, four children, and eight grandchildren, I just cannot keep up with it all. When I began this blog seven years ago, I sensed it was a direction I was to take. Now, I sense its time to let it go- at least for a season. 

I've been blessed by your continued readership, comments, and enthusiasm for the site. I'll pop in from time to time when I've got something to say or really have a desire to write a story. There's almost 50 articles in a partially completed state, and many more I wanted to but never completed. 

As I would when saying goodbye to other friends, let me close with a prayer: "Lord Jesus, I thank you for the gift of time together and the friendships here. I pray that we would grow to love you more and more and share you with others. We're in a world that is slipping away, and we know there is no one like you. No one else could ever fully pay for the price of our sin! We thank you for your gift of death on the cross and that you rose again to life- giving all of us Life Again to those who would believe and turn toward you. Bless my friends! In your Name Jesus. Amen."

(All art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

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