March 31, 2015

Walt Disney Studios Paris: The Little Park with an Identity Crisis

It's not for lack of trying. It's for lack of trying hard enough. With the truly incredible remake of Disney California Adventure, the woefully under built Walt Disney Studios Paris theme park is now the bastard child of sorts in the Disney theme park collection.

Following the Michael Eisner disaster era of post- EuroDisneyDisneyland Paris, build them on the cheap, this park continues to suffer from a poor beginning, desperation in expansion, an uncertain future, and the sheer misfortune of sitting next door to the most beautiful Magic Kingdom ever built. 

As with any Disney park, including the now lost Epcot, the disaster of Florida's own Studios park, or the beautiful but lacking Animal Kingdom, there are "nice" attractions to be found among the ruins of potential greatness.

Crush's Coaster is a fun-filled zippy excursion through the world of Nemo, but its big box exterior and less than fully executed interior still make it a second rate attraction. The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror is also fun but as its straddled with the same design as that found in California, by its very beginning it's far less than it could have been. Rock n Rollercoaster looks every bit as thrown together at the last moment as it was, yet, these three attractions do provide some thrills for those wanting more of an adrenaline rush than can be had at Big Thunder Mountain Railroad next door. 

Aside from a film based avant grade "sophisticated" theater show, the park's rounded out by a very sorry Studio Tram Tour and the kiddy amusement park rides of Toy Story Playland. It's certainly not a compelling mix- and faced with a one day only choice, a wise park goer would opt for the park next door. Nor does it make Disneyland Paris a destination resort.

Although, in the current Disney world where Trader Sam's Grog Grotto is better executed than the most current Walt Disney World attractions, perhaps the Imagineers have hit it out of the park by creating the Bistrot Chez Remy. This popular but pricey and very well themed restaurant, is the French equivalent to Be Our Guest in Florida's Magic Kingdom. As with the Grog Grotto, the Paris stop and Florida's Fantasyland eatery are attractions all their own, luring guests who have now forgotten Disney used to be in the attraction business long before it was in the restaurant one.

(Art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

March 27, 2015

Never Built Discoveryland at Disneyland Paris

Imagineering's Tim Delaney crafted an incredible Discoveryland at the beautiful Disneyland Paris. At opening, the entire place had a Jules Verne theme that drew guests into his amazing world. The vibe was electric- especially at night, when the multitude of neon lights illuminated the area. Just fantastic!

As beautiful as the final execution of the land was, some of the concept art for buildings that were not built is every bit as beautiful. Just look at the piece above, and make sure you click on it to bring it to its full size. 

When you do that, you'll discover a resemblance to some of what was built years later at Hong Kong Disneyland. Naturally, that area was designed with more of a fantasy cartoon version of the future, but many of the elements borrowed from the original art for Paris' futuristic land. 

Much to the delight of this Disneyland Paris fan, the incredible Space Mountain was not duplicated anywhere else. For that matter, many of the elements of the French park are exclusive to Paris. A wise choice, making it absolutely necessary to see the most beautiful Magic Kingdom ever in person.

(Art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

Trader Sam's Grog Grotto Open at Disney's Polynesian Village

First look from the Disney Park's Blog:  Looking good! I'm ready for a drink. Are you?

(Photograph copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

March 26, 2015

Disneyland 60th Anniversary Poster

Just something for my records: Disneyland's 60th Anniversary poster. Very cool!

(Art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

March 25, 2015

Design Detail: Disney's Hollywood Studios

Today's Design Detail post takes a look at Disney's Hollywood Studios. Now, before you grumble about what a sad state of affairs this park is in, remember, that's not what this series is about...

I won't say much about this photo. When I took it, I already knew it wasn't terrific in its composure. However, when you blow it up and take a close look, you'll find plenty of design flourishes that make the park a treat for the discerning eye.

(Not much in the realm of attractions however. Sorry, I broke my own request. Just couldn't resist!)

Photograph copyright Mark Taft.

March 24, 2015

The Blessing of Friends

The blessing of new friends! What a great thing.

Clearly, as brothers in faith in Jesus Christ, folks who don't know each other can become good friends in a short amount of time! And so is the case here. 

I am so thankful to consider these men my friends- and to be counted as one by them. God is good all the time.

March 23, 2015

Walking Away

I want to quit.

Apparently, I'm like everyone else.  If you look at the numbers, so many people are walking away. Leaving marriages, companies, friendships, churches, their faith etc. Doesn't seem to matter what the core factor at question is, people are generally walking away from it all.

I'm not going to quit.

Yes, I'm tired. Yes, it's hard. Jesus himself described there would be an ongoing battle for those who want to follow God. A battle of flesh against spirit. Thankfully, He promises eternal life for all who would endure until the end.

It's sad though. I see some of my friends' children walking away- and some of them as well! Not all my kids follow Jesus with their whole heart. Some just don't want to press in when things get hard. Some just like the mindset of the world instead and invest little.

The big question: Is the way you're living drawing you closer or farther away to Jesus? Think about it. Standing still is really walking away, little increments at a time.

I won't do it. I want to, but I won't. My heart's desire is to finish my human race well- and right into the arms of a God who loves me.

What about you?

March 21, 2015

Haunted Mansion Tour and Its Ties to Pirates of the Caribbean


Count me in as a fan of old school Disney Imagineering. The first generation of artists really understood what Walt Disney was trying to accomplish at Disneyland. It's that crew of folks like Bob Gurr, Marc Davis, Herb Ryman, Claude Coates and more that really mentored the now retiring greats of our day, including the current torch holder Tony Baxter.

When New Orleans Square debuted at the park in the mid-60's, Imagineering hit its stride with the masterpiece Pirates of the Caribbean. The new land was a beautiful recreation of the famed city, drawing in guests to discover its beautiful ironwork, intricate back alleys, and delightful shops and restaurants. Somehow, just seeing the Mark Twain riverboat round the bend from the cafes seemed so right. So elegant. So Disney.

If Imagineering's stride was hit in 1967, the land itself hits its peak with the opening of The Haunted Mansion in 1969. It remains the cherry on top of a stunning theme park sundae. At once completing the area and further defining its mystery and romance. Being right next door to each other, Pirates and Mansion bring a knockout punch, giving guests an experience unrivaled from any other land in any other Magic Kingdom park.




This video, above, is the absolute best visual presentation to be found. It's fairly recent, as fans of the attraction will know by observing the attic scene, but it's a complete tour with plenty of opportunities to stop the video and discover some secrets.


Art by Eddie Sotto for the unrealized new attraction.

Speaking of secrets and the ties that bind...

My two of my favorite Disneyland attractions: Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted Mansion have an additional but not fully realized connection in Walt's park. Imagineer Eddie Sotto had once been involved in some new ideas to tie the two together using historical references to real life pirate Jean Lafitte. (I had forgotten about this but had heard an interview with him on the subject awhile back.)  Go to this post to see a number of photos and the story in full.  In the old days, Walt would have jumped all over this (along with other ideas like creating a dungeon walk through for Sleeping Beauty Castle). The parks were viewed as artwork then, not solely a tool to increase profits and pimp out the latest movies. 

Want more about the Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean? Being these are my two favorite park attractions, this blog of more than 1800 posts contains dozens of articles, rare pieces of concept art, photographs, and more. Browse around and check it out!

(Art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

March 20, 2015

Daveland Presents Disneyland 1959

... and what a terrific set of photos Dave has posted for us today!

Daveland is one of the best sites out there when you want a retro inspired look at Disneyland history through the ages. In addition to being a pretty great photographer himself and a real nice guy, Dave DeCaro has a fine collection of photos and slides. 

Check out today's post for a real treat- a 1959 visit to all the lands of Disneyland and a look at the Matterhorn Bobsleds under construction.

(Photograph copyright Davelandblog.)

March 17, 2015

Pathetic and Disgusting

I just get sick to my stomach when I read about charlatans that bilk the unsuspecting faith community in the name of Jesus Christ. Here's another case. A different take on the Joel Osteen prosperity gospel that is such a bastardization of true Christianity.

"Pastor" Creflo Dollar (!) wants his congregation to pitch in and buy him a $65 Million jet. Let that sink in for a minute after you read this article. How many people could be fed and clothed? How many Bibles could be distributed in native languages to folks who have never heard of the Good News of Jesus Christ coming to die to pay the penalty for their sin? How much could be given to support the men and women and children that are trying to survive under regimes that kill them all in the name of their god?

No wonder atheists and humanists look at the church in disgust! But even this does not the away from the truth found only in Jesus Christ.

Want to see true Christianity in action? Read the Gospel accounts of Jesus' life on earth and then read the book of Acts which describes how believers lived after Jesus left the earth to return one day. That is real Christianity lived out. 

Real Christians exists everywhere and walking out the real faith in Christ happens all over the world. Yet it seems too much of the American church has blended the American success story and search for comfort above all with their faith, resulting in a faith that isn't true at all. Just another false gospel.

(Photo copyright Phil Skinner.)

March 14, 2015

Yesterday and Tomorrowland Lead the Walt Disney Company

Who says that imagination is dead at the Walt Disney Company

At the movie houses, Cinderella seems to be on the road to being the latest hit, Tomorrowland is on the way, and more is coming. Like Pirates of the Caribbean before them, great movie concepts are taken from iconic attractions at Disneyland, old animated classics, and then spun into gold. All you have to do is look at the upcoming slate of Disney films to see that looking to the past is the new future for the Company.

Robert Iger leads the way into making the most of what as been done before and what has been brought into the company fold. Marvel, Star Wars, and a little project called Shanghai Disneyland will make the most of what Disney can do, be it via Imagineers or film makers.

True forward looking projects such as Epcot, have taken a back seat to money makers. Disneyland's Tomorrowland looks backwards as do most of the castle park's "Land of the Future". Making a quick buck by exploiting the past is the new marketing focus and a way to grow revenue. It's all about the money.

And visionaries like Walt Disney and his crew like Herb Ryman (who designed the piece of concept art, above), would cry to see what they've done to their company.

(Art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

March 13, 2015

Hong Kong Disneyland Railroad Attraction Poster

Here's a beautiful attraction poster! This one is from Hong Kong Disneyland. The old railroad posters, be they from Disneyland in California, the Magic Kingdom in Florida, Paris or Tokyo, or any of the castle parks, have long been a favorite of mine. Like the others, this one is elegant- very befitting the charm of a century ago.

(Art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

March 12, 2015

Billboard Magazine Ads for Carpenters

Thanks to my friends over at A&M Corner, my chronological album reviews of music by Karen and Richard Carpenter now include a set of ads placed in Billboard magazine. The images can be very stunning, such as the one above, celebrating the release of the Carpenters self-titled album. While these ads announce each new release, they also reveal the clear problem A&M Records executives had in promoting the brother and sister duo. Regardless, they are a fascinating piece of music history for anyone who appreciated the most gifted vocalist of the 20th century and her incredibly talented brother who produced, arranged, and even wrote many of their hits. Just looking at the ads, it's Yesterday Once More.

March 10, 2015

Frozen Fever Poster

While I'm busy doing blog maintenance, here's an interesting little poster for the Frozen Fever animated short. The one everyone knows is part of Disney's reboot of Cinderella.

(Art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

March 9, 2015

New Art for Grizzly Peak Airfield

It's finally here! Concept art for Grizzly Peak Airfield. Disney Imagineering has just released some concept art giving us a preview of changes to come.


Taste Pilot's becomes Smokejumper's Grill, with a new improved menu that is sure to please guests and will most likely retain a few favorites from opening day.


Opening March 20, just a week and a half away, the interior will have shades of the former tenant but will also offer some new touches more in theme with the forest environment.


It's the revamping of Soarin' Over California that has me the most excited however. When it reopens in time for the kickoff of the 60th Anniversary celebration, there will be refreshed visuals and special effects. This classic attraction gets a new exterior and soon enough, a new film as well. Soarin' Over the World / Horizon has to first open at Shanghai Disneyland, but it will make its way to California Adventure

(Art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

Super Heroes Do Good Everyday

Chris Pratt and Chris Evans doing a superhero visit to the Seattle Children's Hospital. Doing good for others with nothing to gain should be a goal for everyone. Don't you agree?

March 7, 2015

Quiet 7th Anniversary

It's been 7 years since I began writing this blog. It's now such a regular part of my life that I totally forgot to mention it. Now adding this post as a "marker" at the end of May.

March 6, 2015

Disneyland vs. Disney World: A Look at the Parks in 2015

Disneyland versus Disney World again? Sure, it's done all the time by park fans on discussion boards and folks deciding where to take their next Disney vacation. With so much news about the parks in the last few months, taking another look just makes sense.

I'm a huge Disney park fan of decades with lots of visits and photos to prove it. So, I am not here trying to be unfair. For some folks, a Disney vacation is the last thing they would do. Not me. By their actions, the Disney Company itself has forced me to reevaluate where I spend my hard earned cash. And if you've read the blog for awhile, it's generally been elsewhere these days. I am a tough critic to please as I've seen Disneyland and Disney World at their best. Unfortunately, that was then, and this is now. Very, very different times. 

What's the bottom line? At this point in time Disneyland and the expanded resort are worth your travel dollars if you just have to go to Disney this year. Avoid Florida unless you've never been or its just been way too long between visits... or if you're dying to see the Harry Potter attractions at Universal Orlando.

Just taking a closer look at the Florida parks should tell you it's not the right time to go.  Animal Kingdom is a beautiful destination but strange mess of construction walls, broken effects on key attractions like Expedition Everest and the poorly generically named Dinosaur. Avatar won't be open for years. Nor will Rivers of Light evening water show, and even the more recent expansion of Africa will add additional shops and restaurants but not attractions. 

Don't even get me started on the third Walt Disney World park: Disney's Hollywood Studios. "Hot Set"? More like hot mess. Thankfully, that hat is gone, but then, so are a few attractions in a park that has so little to do. Star Wars Land is light years away. An expansion of Toy Story Mania only adds capacity but nothing new. Speaking of new, you can go to see the new Starbucks if that's enough to make you pay for a ticket there.

Epcot. Once my favorite Florida park, it's been a hodgepodge of additions that are more like subtractions. Characters have invaded and continue to do so where they do not belong. More booze, more food. It's the new theme of a once amazing place, a place now on creative life support.

A beautifully redone but somewhat shallow New Fantasyland is worth a visit to see the Magic Kingdom in person. Just not yet. One park addition does not a Walt Disney World vacation make. There is nothing show stopping, compellingly new, that's been built in the World to get me to hop on a plane. Maybe one day, but not now.

As it stands, from a park alone viewpoint, Walt Disney World is three days- one at Magic Kingdom, one at Epcot, and one day split between two half parks. If you go to Florida, take time to visit Universal Orlando and the beaches to fill out your week. Like most anything these days, the natural wonders created by the Almighty God are just as fascinating and beautiful as manmade magic.

Let's go over to the Disneyland Resort in comparison. It's not perfect there either, but it is still a better choice this year for a diehard Disney park fan. 

With the 60th Anniversary celebration coming, guests can get their fill of new parades and shows and a retro, nostalgia fueled day at the park. After all, Walt himself built the place. Notice, again, a trend: There's no new attractions, but at least those that are there- and there are plenty- are generally in working order. 

California Adventure continues its reign as the pretty younger sister that everyone has to see for themselves. A single visit to Cars Land will remind many old timers of the kind of excellent, immersive, attractions and areas that old school Imagineers used to build. Before the age of short attention spans of guests and money grabbing antics of Company leaders more interested in lining their pockets than providing first class entertainment. Remember when Disney led the way in constantly adding to their parks and not Universal?

Even though the offerings are better and with far less construction than in Florida, a visit to the Disneyland Resort remains a two day experience, one for each park. Again, get out of the parks and into the State. Or just get out of the parks altogether. At least for a few years until Disney earns your money again.

(Art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

March 5, 2015

Perspectives on Rwanda, Part 1


Editor's Note: Today I present another letter from my friend who gives up so much to serve the children of Rwanda. She is a single woman of 70 years old who continues to amaze me with her vibrant life for the sake of Jesus and all that matters to Him. Don't ever say you are too old (or too "anything") to be used by God.
All He wants is a willing heart.

------
It had been two years since I stepped foot in Rwanda when I arrived on September 12, 2014 for a 61/2 week stay.  I had come to experience first-hand the day-to-day “business” of Hearts for the World International (HFTWI), to see the incredible changes that had occurred since I had been there with the HFTWI ministry team in 2012, to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ, teach English at Kamate Parent Primary School and see my sponsored children and their families, if possible, to represent HFTWI at the First Generation Vocational School’s 4th graduation of tailoring students and the 1st for beauty school graduates, to begin to learn Kinyarwanda, and for whatever else God and Pastor Stephen had in store. 

This was the longest period of time I would be in Rwanda and I wanted to see how that might figure into the possibility of longer-term missions for me, if that might be the call that God had on my life.  I had traveled solo to Rwanda before, in 2011 for 21/2 weeks to learn much more about orphanages and stayed with Pastor Stephen and his wife, Grace, and their boys at that time.  Once again they graciously opened their home to me for the duration of my visit.

I had a fantastic mountain-top week in Kamate, preaching at the new and thriving church there and teaching three classes of English each day covering every grade at least once.  What a joy to be with the students and to see them thriving, eager to learn, with an expectant “can do” attitude.  I attribute these qualities to a stellar group of teachers and staff, most of whom I had not met previously.  They are professional, competent and committed to their students.  I was very impressed with them and with the head master and assistant head master, who also assume teaching duties.  In the evenings we had unforgettable times of fellowship and I pray we see them all back again this year.  I also had a Kinyarwanda lesson each evening taught by the best Kinyarwanda teacher in the country, who happens to teach our students, too.


The school looks fantastic, all bricked in with windows and doors, newly refurbished walls and floors where needed, ready for a new year.  A new, larger, and more solidly-built latrine also has been added.  Kamate Parent Primary School will now be added to the official map of all schools in Rwanda, too.
It is so heartening to see the effects of student sponsorships, the bread and butter of HFTWI, on students, their families, and the community.  I started sponsoring two children in the same family two years ago, a family without hope living in absolute destitution.  With a little extra help, they are totally changed, love the Lord, have hope for their own and their children’s future. Words cannot do justice to the investment Pastor Stephen and the other pastors and teachers make in these children’s lives.

Kamate’s Needs for 2015.  The government is requiring French be taught again, so new teachers will be needed and at least one additional classroom, as well as added dorm space and renovation of the teachers’ dorms.  There will be an ongoing need for additional sponsors since new students are starting this year and many current students still need sponsors.

My time at Zaza, at the First Generation Vocational School, was rich.  I had an opportunity to address all the graduates on behalf of all of you who comprise HFTWI.  Not only was it graduation time, but a crusade followed the ceremony, with baptism and another crusade the following day.  Many new believers were added to the kingdom and Zaza’s First Generation Church was filled to overflowing on Sunday. There also was a wonderful and fruitful time for meaningful conversation with many of the pastors that were there for the various events.  Evangelist Emmanuel was my interpreter and shepherd, and I developed an even greater love and appreciation for him and his family.


Zaza’s Needs for 2015-2016. Ideally two, but at the minimum one classroom is needed to better accommodate the beauty school and to add a third vocation in the not-too-distant future, most likely brick-making, but welding is on the back burner for a later date.  A few sponsors are still needed for the tailoring class of 2015, for the new class starting this year and graduating in 2016, as well as for the beauty school students.  Just as each tailoring student graduates with a sewing machine, at the minimum, we want to be sure that each beauty school student graduates with the essential tools for his or her vocation. 

Thanks to my church, I was able to bring in 60 solar lights for Kamate families that didn’t yet have them, first aid supplies for the primary and vocational schools, and additional funds to be used for Zaza’s graduation ceremony, which was so special.

Pastor Stephen and his family are amazing people and I appreciate them so much.  It is not easy to have someone from another culture stay in your home for an extended period of time, and they did so much to make my stay as comfortable as they could. I must admit, and they will, too, that I was not always the most pleasant person to have around, as I faced some challenges I had not faced on previous stays and struggled with the fact that I struggled. However, that’s for another newsletter, perhaps.   I thoroughly enjoyed my times with Sedrick, Bush, and Joseph, our talks and walks, our prayer times, and play times.

What is far more important is that Stephen works more than full-time for the Lord as a pastor who mentors many younger pastors and oversees multiple churches, for Chosen Generation Ministries / HFTWI with its myriad parts and responsibilities, and as a husband and father of four sons.  It became very apparent as I traveled with him and through our many conversations that it is humanly impossible to do it all without cost to person(s) and/or projects.  He is exceedingly competent, a remarkable visionary, and at the same time, a humble man and very human.

Pastor Stephen’s Needs for 2015. Ideally, Stephen would benefit greatly by having a project manager or assistant to work with him. At the minimum he needs a very competent secretary to take care of the everyday multiple administrative tasks, to ensure smooth functioning.

It is amazing to see all that God has accomplished through his servants, whose ears are attuned to him and whose hearts are joined with him in providing assistance to those in great need.  In only seven years God has immeasurably changed lives and communities in Rwanda far more abundantly than many of us could have imagined, and all to God’s glory. 

March 4, 2015

Inside Out Poster: The Voices Inside Your Head

Here's the official movie poster for Pixar's latest release. Coming to theaters on June 19, Inside Out looks to be another winner. If this poster represents the film well, expect it to be fresh and fun. And if the movie hits big, my bet is that we'll see Epcot's old but inspired attraction Cranium Command re-Imagined for a new generation.

(Art copyright Pixar.)

March 3, 2015

It's a Small World Through Rose Colored Glasses

Over at Yesterland, the great site led by Werner Weiss, I've really enjoyed his posts which compare photos of the park over the decades. This one post discussing Fantasyland was of particular interest. Werner had several shots showing the favorite attraction designed primarily by Imagineer Mary Blair, the classic It's a Small World.  

Upon more thought, I realized I had taken a photo of a "missing link" in the progression. It was in 1994 when the suits decided it was time to refresh the exterior by adding some color- making it more like the exteriors at Tokyo Disneyland and later Disneyland Paris. I was struck by the transition from what I knew and snapped a shot. So glad I did!

Truth be known, I love both the original white and gold and the rose colored scheme. In fact, I just love the attraction period! I love it in California. I love it in Florida, and I love it in Paris as well.

Walt Disney himself tended to see the world in through rose colored lenses- and I always loved that about him. He was unabashedly sentimental and patriotic. Although a successful business man who had seen the harder and seedier side of life, there was a child like innocence that was part of him as well. Maybe that's the piece of Disney and Disney parks that brings a warmth to my heart. It goes right along with Jesus' words reminding us that we must be like little children to enter the kingdom of God. 

With all the refurbishments going on at Disneyland for the 60th Anniversary celebration and the recent small fire at It's a Small World, it only seemed right to present this photo. It is a Disney treasure regardless of how you present it.

(Photograph copyright Mark Taft.)

March 2, 2015

Animal Kingdom's Unrealized Jungle River Cruise


Disney's Animal Kingdom has the potential to become my favorite park at Walt Disney World.  I am often blown away by its lush beauty, serene environment and thrilling attractions- especially when they are in full operating order. Deep down inside, I think a park of this magnitude and high maintenance requirements will never be built again.

The history of the park fascinates me, and long time readers of this blog know I've written an extensive multi-part history of its fascinating development and haphazard growth. (Six parts beginning here.) The comprehensive look- filled with concept art and more- would made Joe Rohde proud. At least I think I did he and his team justice.

The list of unbuilt attractions is almost unrivaled in Disney fan circles given the relatively short length of time the park has been open. It really is unfortunate as some of the Imagineers' most intriguing projects have never seen the light of day. 

Prior to it's debut, work was on the drawing boards for a real life Jungle Cruise through the Asia section of the park. A piece for that attraction is seen at the top of the post. It is one thing to go to the Magic Kingdom and see tons of Audio-Animatronic creatures, and its another altogether to take a cruise past very real and very unpredictable animals. Truly wild. 

The challenges of a theme park with a zoo built in continue to create more challenges for the Imagineers- including finding its own audience for the place. Sometimes that hurdle results in less than instantly fitting choices. 

Of course, the fan community already knows James Cameron's Pandora is coming to they park. Will the rumored boar ride fall into the "never built" category?

Regardless of the attraction choices, will the World of Avatar, a trip into Pandora, thrill me and keep the love coming? I have to admit that even though I was not a fan of the idea initially, the latest concept art and video is pretty interesting...

(Art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)


March 1, 2015

Worth repeating- The Amazing Disappearing Article: Disney CEO Fumbles Entry to China

You know, some days, a guy just has to point out the pitfalls of the world around us. Here's an article that appeared- and then was removed- from the Huffington Post. It criticized Robert Iger and the Walt Disney Company's plan for their entry into the Chinese market, and its potential effect on Shanghai Disneyland. It must have angered him so much that he used his wife's influence to have it yanked. I hate that kind of corporate or governmental power play!  So, here it is below, courtesy Google.  (And thanks to the WDWMagic Boards where the article was resurrected...)

-------------

Sorry Mickey, they're just not that into you. Minnie, you either.
For that matter, you can take the whole stable -- the "Fab Five" of Walt Disney's animated creations -- and, despite a media machine that churns a very different story, China has largely been a land where the fabled wishes, dreams and magic of the Walt Disney Company and its brand have virtually no connection with the consumer. As valued as that consumer is in the economic theater of globalism, the iconic brand synonymous with America has little appeal and less traction among the newly seated audience in the Chinese mainland.

To its 'vanilla on toothpaste' helmsman, Robert A. "Bob" Iger, who has shown himself to be an able cobbler of assets but a less than visionary leader of the media colossus that is the Walt Disney Company, this troubling if known and growing headwind threatens to undermine the content-heavy but culturally aloof purveyor of demographically unshackled product. For in his zeal to expand its library of content, Bob Iger has drop-kicked the Disney moniker to enter new and expanding marketplaces only to position a product that runs well afar of the expectation of the Disney bounce.
In so doing, the once unrivaled status of the Disney brand has become a catch-all for entertainment and its associated byproducts that are increasingly a strange and sometimes conflicted ragbag of franchised acquisitions presented as some sort of media mélange for all ages and all palates. Or, as John Dreyer, the longtime and immediate past head of corporate communications for the Walt Disney Company, said upon the publication of the column Disney CEO Readies Magic Carpet for Exit, "Disney losing its Disney way."
With the company making its grandest play for a market that dwarfs all others, Disney has found itself adrift in a crisis of identity that breaches the foundation of the castle upon which an empire was built. For as turrets were raised, wings were added and a moat of meticulously positioned whimsy was filled in to expand the Disney footprint, something that looks decidedly more pedestrian than the fantastical inspiration for one of the world's most coveted brands has emerged.
Leverage has become the arch of entry into the Disney-verse, while the brand has been marginalized into a holding vehicle for assets that are worth more separately than that vested in the castle itself.

As Mr. Iger said at the 2013 Fortune Global Forum held in Chengdu:
I think the first thing you have to do is you have to obviously be aware of what your most significant brand attributes are. What makes your brand your brand? Why is it great? You have to focus on quality and on those attributes that, again, created the value in the first place. You can't look to cut corners. You can't look to make something with your brand on it that's any cheaper simply because it's going into a market that may not be able to afford it the way another market may have. You can't compromise in that regard. So it starts with what I'll call quality and a respect for an allegiance to the very brand attributes that created the value in the first place.

Now, considering Shanghai Disney is preparing to make its 2016 debut as Disney's first foray into the renminbi rich Chinese mainland after a less than stellar arrival in the former British colony of Hong Kong in 2005, there are lessons aplenty to learn from that delayed embrace and the long stalled entry into the single largest consumer market on offer to the world -- the whole of China. 


Under Mr. Iger's stewarding, Disney has partnered with the Shanghai Shendi Group, an umbrella name placed on a panoply of government-owned companies created to facilitate Western investment as a massive anti-graft campaign is just now rattling Beijing and beyond, to introduce a Disney 'branded' park to those consumers. A flag in the ground for Disney. A flag that has been in the works since the prime of Michael Eisner's reign at Disney and one that nearly collapsed entirely by the summer of 2006.


Indeed, Mr. Iger had to leave the annual Herb Allen retreat for media moguls, tech tycoons and other scripters of society in Sun Valley for an unscheduled trip to Shanghai that day in 2006, scrambling to save face and leading to a denouement worthy of great scrutiny by any company -- especially those entities whose trade is in intellectual property -- wanting to enter China.

Or, as Dalian Wanda Group Chairman Wang Jianlin, whose real estate and entertainment empire is building its North American headquarters adjacent to the Beverly Hilton at 9900 Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills, said on the same panel at the Fortune Global Forum:

[W]e have so many Western companies in China, but you cannot simply replicate the Western ideas and philosophies in China. They need to adapt to the Chinese realities... So for Fortune 500 companies in China it's very important, it's imperative for them to learn traditional culture in China and how is it interrelated with the modern business culture.

Curiously though, the world beyond the berm is told the 330 million or so Chinese within a three-hour trip to the site on the other side of Shanghai's Pudong International Airport cannot wait to queue up for a boat ride on "It's a small world"or whatever Disney is offering up for its reported $5.5 billion marker. As, no, there will apparently be no attraction of that name at Shanghai Disneyland.

Not in China. Not in a country where Mickey, Minne and the rest of the gang are barely known. In a country where Disney might as well be Smith or Jones or Johnson. Well, maybe not that last one as Johnson & Johnson is actually a reasonably well-known brand throughout China.

The Walt Disney Company has a history of stumbling if not outright tumbling in its efforts to export Disney's brand of Americana. For reference, look no further than Euro Disney -- now known as Disneyland Paris -- and Hong Kong Disneyland. Of the latter, it is worth note that Disney has been known to Hongkongers from the early days of the Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio. Yet, to this day, with a direct link by MTR line to points throughout Hong Kong, Disney is barely able to keep up with the brand devoid, geographically hemmed in and animal exhibit heavy Ocean Park in Aberdeen.

Over lunch earlier this month at Neptune's in the Grand Aquarium, Ocean Park Hong Kong CEO Tom Mehrmann, who began his career as a street sweeper at Knott's Berry Farm just up the road from Walt's original Disneyland, said, "Disney still has to explain to some of its guests exactly what a 'Disney Park' is. We don't have that problem."
To further illustrate this point, visit Disney's outpost on Lantau, a parcel of reclaimed land near Hong Kong International Airport, and you will notice a different Disney. Some call it 'Disney-lite'. Others refer to it as 'McKingdom'. Regardless, there is a definite feel of a diminished product -- of a diminished brand -- on stage for the public's consumption.

For, on a spit of land with an audience topping seven million attached by subway line having a familiarity and a kinship with the West, sits the real experiment of Disney's entry into the Chinese market. And there, on a recent day, at a performance of The Lion King in a theater designed for Disney's Animal Kingdom in Orlando dropped into the Walt Disney Company's first Disney branded park in China, the actors sought to lead the audience in a rendition of the hit tune from this classic of Disney's second golden age of animation: Hakuna Matata.

Hakuna Matata. 
What a wonderful phrase. 
Hakuna matata. 
Ain't no passing craze.
It means no worries. 
For the rest of your days. 
It's a problem free philosophy.
Hakuna matata.
Arms raised high in the air, cast members -- on stage and off -- encouraged the capacity crowd to sing the infectious chorus. With lyrics blasting through the speakers and flashing on screens in the theater, they sought a simple singalong to the catchy and commercial hit written by Elton John and Tim Rice. Unmoved, the audience sat stone-faced. Child and adult alike.

Considering most individuals reading this are likely humming the tune or hearing it play as part of the soundtrack of their lives, that speaks poorly of Disney's penetration into the far less foreign landscape of Hong Kong. As for Shanghai, Mr. Iger continued on at the conference in Chengdu:
We're a brand that is viewed as good for me and good for my family. There are values to the Disney brand and what it stands for that have interested people all over the world. But, it's very, very important that while we bring Disney to a market we make sure that in that market it feels like, for instance, China's Disney.

In leaving the park on that recent evening, the dressed by and for Disney MTR cars filled with tired visitors exposed to, saturated in, that which is the Disney Parks experience offered up in Hong Kong. Looking to the left, to the right, all around, not one visitor had that uniquely American rite of passage positioned upon their head. Mickey ears. Not one.
And, in the second largest market for its product and the largest consumer market on the planet, Disney's Frozen, the highest grossing animated film ever having delivered over $1.27 billion in ticket sales and the fifth-highest grossing film of all time, earned little more than $48 million. Less than four percent of its global box office.
Welcome to China, Bob.


Gary Snyder is a member of the Redstone family, whose company, National Amusements, owns Viacom and CBS, among other media assets. He is an advisor on Western media and culture to China.