July 21, 2017

An Evening in Disneyland Paris

Dreaming tonight of a visit to Disneyland Paris! Right now, its only in my dreams...

(Art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

Quick Visit to Amsterdam

As someone who has to travel for a portion of my job, there are times it is a drag- and there are times when I am surprised by the unexpected opportunities that come my way. Such was this trip! 

God took what was an unfortunate schedule and turned it into a brief but delightful layover in Amsterdam. I had never been to the Netherlands before, so a several hour layover gave me just enough time to sample a very small taste of the city. 

                         
Central Train Station and the loading dock for a canalboat tour.

I wasn't quite sure what to expect although I knew a bit about the city from my own reading, guidebooks, and an occasional look at it from travel programs on television. Flying over the city in preparation for landing gave me my first look at the numerous canals and waterways. Something very charming and different was waiting to be discovered!

My photos are certainly not the quality of those by my friend and fellow blogger Len Yokoyama, but they at at least give you a small picture of what can be found just moments from the main train station, Central Station, about 15 minutes from the airport.

Exiting the train station very, very early on a Monday morning, I wandered out about 6-7 blocks into the city. The architecture of the buildings caught me off guard by how uniquely different they are compared to other parts of Europe. Quite a beautiful mix of styles and colors! Some structures tilted slightly due to normal wear and change of the water levels in the canals over the years. The old cobblestone walkways varied as well, making sure I had to watch where I was walking. 

                           
The Salvation Army building.

Amsterdam, like any big city, provides home to a variety of people and landmarks, most co-existing peacefully even among a variety of philosophies, cultures and lifestyles. The century old beautiful Salvation Army building, above, exists just minutes away from this more recently erected small statue (below) that is an ode to the prostitutes found throughout the city. 

Small statue honoring the city's sex workers. 

I had purposely chosen to avoid the infamous Red Light District, so I was surprised to come across this piece of art on the other side of town. Such is the mix of services and landmarks found side by side in the city. During my walk, it was not uncommon to find a charming cafe next to a "coffee" shop, next to a souvenir shop, next to a small cultural building of interest, next to a sex shop displaying the latest clothing in latex and leather as well as the newest sex toys for sale. 

Charming cafes everywhere!

Unfortunately, the canal tours were later in the day, way past the time I would need to be at the airport for my connecting flights. The Van Gogh Museum and the Anne Frank House were also not open, nor were they even close to where I was able to walk. Even if I could have, I doubt either would be available last minute in the high season of Summer. Perhaps next time.

Inside the airport's main terminal.

By the time I began to head back to the airport, the city seemed to come to life. I came across a large group of bicyclists heading deeper into the city, men in large trucks gathering trash, and most surprisingly, a car emerging onto one of the side streets via an underground automobile elevator that brought the vehicle up to street level from some parking garage below. Fascinating stuff!

If my wife and I have an opportunity for another trip to Europe, I'll certainly suggest we add a few days in Amsterdam. It would be hard to give up time in our beloved Paris to do so, but I was a bit fascinated by this city of canals and contradictions. 

(Photographs copyright Mark Taft.)

July 20, 2017

Paddling Upstream

 "You're going upstream against the current. Keep going. Don't stop. Jesus is behind you, and He is pleased. Ahead of you, there's a big tree where you'll see lots of fruit soon." 

These were the words of a friend who recently came by on July 12 and wanted to pray for me. What a refreshing word from God! 

May I be able to continue on this very unique path. By God's strength, anything is possible (Philippians 4:13). May God be honored in this journey. 

"If anyone speaks, they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God. If anyone serves, they should do so with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen."  I Peter 4:11

July 17, 2017

EPCOT's Other World Showcase

As Epcot transitions into Magic Kingdom 2.0, it seems as if Animal Kingdom will become the new World Showcase with its emphasis on natural environments and culturally based food and music. (Or in the case of Pandora, the Otherworld Showcase.) Yet, us long time fans of the original EPCOT Center know it was not supposed to play out that way. The archives of Imagineering are studded with concept art for new countries waiting to be added.

How many, you say? Israel, Equatorial Africa, Russia, Switzerland, Venezuela, Spain and the Philippines were all ready to go each at various levels of development. Philippines? Yes, that beautiful Southeast Asian country made up of over 7,000 islands was once on the books- and here is the concept art to show it. 

Looking closely at this piece, some unique elements are easily seen, but did you notice the Epcot guests upstairs in the second level? There are not too many pavilions in which you can go upstairs unless it is to dine in one of the many restaurants. 

Not much more is known about what was planned for the Philippine showcase, but certainly this addition would have brought a nice change of pace from the other more familiar Asian nations represented. Truth is, in all these years since opening, almost any new country added to Epcot would have been a plus. That long list of potential additions would have easily made Epcot a three day park. So much for the past. Change is coming, and like it or not, it's long overdue.

(Concept art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

July 10, 2017

We are the Reason Epcot is Changing


Here are the hard, cold facts: EPCOT Center ceased to exist years ago, and Epcot as we know it is about to change again. 

The character invasion of recent years is now the suits' plan for its future, be it Ratatouille in France, Coco in Mexico, or even more Disney film characters in Future World to go alongside Nemo in the Living Seas. The two true unique characters designed specifically for the park, most interestingly, Dreamfinder and Figment, are being left to rot in the now embarrassing Journey into Imagination with Figment. 

Fans are blaming the suits at the Walt Disney Company for this change, and in many ways, they would be correct in doing so. Always responsible to shareholders of the company to turn a profit, they must act to ensure that should grow much larger year after year. Guest experiences are now added in ways that are designed to extract cash from the buying public, from the lowest end customer who can afford a single day at the theme park of their choice to those on the other end of the spectrum, rich guests needing the ill-advised cabanas in the Magic Kingdom (thankfully now long gone) or the $15k meal at Disneyland in the former Disney Gallery space. 

Satisfying investors is the new bottom line of the last 40 years or so. Altruism no longer exists, at least in the corporate world, unless its to gain favor in the minds of consumers. Granted, Walt Disney himself ran a company as well and had to account for his sound business practices to brother Roy, but he kept the satisfaction of the guest foremost in his mind. Certainly, a respected form of altruism.

Still, the business folk are not the only reason change is coming to Florida's second Disney theme park. In addition to the changes in corporate America, I assert that we primarily have ourselves to blame. 

Yes, it is our fault Epcot is changing. Why? As a people, we've changed. We've wandered from the original vision which was established for the park as inscribed on the dedication plaque:

To all who come to this place of Joy, Hope and Friendship - Welcome.
EPCOT is inspired by Walt Disney's 
creative vision. 
Here, human achievements are celebrated through imagination, wonders of enterprise  and concepts 
of a future that promises new 
and exciting benefits for all.
May EPCOT Center entertain, inform and inspire
 and above all, 
may it instill a new sense of belief and pride 
in man's ability to shape a world
that offers hope to people everywhere.

The EPCOT Center that opened in 1982 was built to educate, inform, and inspire and instill pride in man's ability to shape a hopeful world. What was the inspiration? The wonders of this incredible world. Wonders of exploring not only what could be designed by the most gifted of human minds (Transportation, Energy, Communication) but also of those designed by an even bigger creator, worlds created by one infinite in wisdom and power (The Living Seas, The Land, The Wonders of Life, Space). An exciting world awaiting exploration laid out by the Ultimate Imagineer. A world also given to us to nurture and steward.

Now, bear with me here. Especially those of you who have not explored any world of faith or who have and have rejected the thought of a Creator. (I'm not going into that argument. I'm sticking with my original point that it is because of us that the park must change, so please keep reading.) Here's the logic:

The Disney suits follow the dollar. That's their job. It's what we pay them to do. Yet the changes at Epcot all begin with us. Every time we enter the parks, buy merchandise, or view the latest slice of filmed or live entertainment, we are telling the suits at Disney what we want and how much of it we want. When we stopping buying, they rethink their approach and their products. It really is that simple. And what do we want now? We want to be entertained. 

By and large, we no longer want to be the investors in our world and contributors to making it better. We just want to consume. We have looked away from our intended purpose which began with God in stewarding His beautiful creation. Boy, lest you think I'm pointing fingers, I want you to know I struggle with this! It's way easier to kick back and relax than it is to work hard to make a difference. It goes even deeper.

Since you and I have moved away from giving God the credit for His creation and/or accepting the roles He gave us, we instead look to man for fulfillment and answers. We're no longer fascinated by the fact we can have 1- Infinite worlds to explore, 2- An opportunity for a relationship with the Infinite Creator God, and finally, 3- a responsibility to positively impact the world we live in. This covers the gamut from caring for creation to protecting the rights of the most vulnerable of people. We have shifted our focus, so business has shifted their focus in order to make a profit from us.

We humans (park guests and the Imagineers that create attractions) have moved from being inspired by God's creation and the gifts He has given mankind. Instead, we rely on broken and selfish people to fill us and make us happy. Eventually, this brings us to a place of discouragement and general hopelessness when our plans fail or when the people we look to let us down. 

It's even more of a downward spiral when it comes to purchasing products.  The goal of the advertising agency is to get us to buy and keep buying. Isn't this the true goal of marketing? To make us unhappy without the product they are selling? Then to also make sure that we are never thankful for what we do have, keeping us prone to buy more. It's a vicious cycle.

When people or products fail to create long term fulfillment, we look for something else or for something within ourselves. We begin idolizing our own capabilities, strengths, and seemingly limitless potential, instead of giving the honor to God who created us and the world we live in. The trade off is emptiness because we often disappoint ourselves. Sometimes that is the worst of all to handle.

Due to our self-focus and our humanism, despair engulfs us as we look around and see man's plans fail. Even men with good solid other-centered goals. Why? Because men desire different things. Even good things can be in conflict with each other because priorities are different from person to person.

Rulers of nations view life differently, some good and some evil. Common people have differing values, so my plans may conflict with your plans. The result of all this tension? We get frustrated, angry, and burned out. Or on a global scale, war replaces peace as men strive to get what they want. Everyday there are new battles being fought in the streets among conflicting groups and ideologies. All this tires our souls and damages our spirits.

Sooner or later, we decide we've had enough. Our desire for comfort becomes the primary focus of our lives, bringing with it increasing desire to just be entertained and taken into worlds different than the one we have (talking Cars, magical princesses, Star Wars, etc). The Walt Disney Company has data compiled over generations telling the suits what we want so they can sell it to us. 

You and I can go into a movie theater after a grueling day, and we can walk out a few hours later feeling happy and fulfilled because we've forgotten our real life situation. Isn't this true? I know it is for me. For some of us, we go even further and decide we want to live there full time. It's why we love the theme parks. It's why a place like EPCOT Center has an incredible fan base from folks that experienced its greatness in the early years. We left the park not only happy but hopeful for that great big beautiful tomorrow. Who wouldn't want to experience that again and again?

The problem with this phony lifestyle of entertainment is It only temporarily satisfies us. So we lavish high praise on what man has created and desire to live in that place, keeping the real world safely, quietly, in the background.  When addicted to it, our entertainment becomes our prison because we trade in a very real and exciting world for one that is imaginary. We trade what's best for what is less than what we can have. 

A constant life of fantasy (or Fantasyland) is good for no one.

"On the Tombstone of America, the inscription will read: They Entertained Themselves To Death." - Leonard Ravenhill

Let that sink in. This quote above, by the renowned English pastor, applies not only to America as a nation but us as individuals. 

Back to Epcot. All our love of and addiction to entertainment and imaginary worlds is why the park is changing.  We're no longer enthralled with science and nature and new discoveries. Nor are we fascinated by the God that created it all- which leaves us looking to ourselves and others. The cycle of emptiness continues as looking to others will never fulfill our human hearts. 

It's probably too late for the direction of Epcot, but not for us. When we honor Him and reflect on who He is and what He has done, our world becomes filled with wonder, joy, thankfulness, and hope. The more we look to God, the more we become who we were intended to be- beautiful and unique individuals all reflecting His glory. With this freedom and true self, we become inspired. We want to go deeper with Him, know more about Him and the world He created. 

(Art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

July 6, 2017

Man to Man

It's time for a real man to man conversation. That doesn't mean one that brings us to punches or a shouting match. What it means is it's time to get serious about how we live our lives. It means it's time to lovingly challenge each other to live what we believe. For us who choose to follow Jesus, it means it's time to get serious about the what and whys of our faith and put aside the trappings of this very temporary life.

When we look through the book of Acts, we see how God moved powerfully in calling people to Himself, and we see how He uses new believers to draw others to Him.  They were so excited in the new life and freedom they found in Christ! They had tried living without God, without guidelines, and therefore, without hope. It just didn't bring them peace. Living this way never does.


The new believers in Jesus moved in the gifting and power of His Holy Spirit, with signs and wonders and miracles accompanying their sharing of the Gospel message. As we continue on reading, we discover that when we work through conflict with each other, God’s is glorified, the body is strengthened, and the eternal work of the Kingdom in seeing people come to faith happens again.  

This is so different than the way it works in the world! The difference in the way we live and treat each other is noticed by people to see if God is truly real and working in our lives. They are drawn to Jesus in us. This happens only if they see something different than what they see elsewhere.       

People are the reason Jesus died for our sins  --- and people are watching Christians to see if we are authentic, real, and most importantly, if our lives have trust been changed. The reality is that we are all dissatisfied with something in our lives. Ultimately, there's the discovery that our emptiness and our hopelessness comes from the bad choices we've made and the destruction it brings. Simply, our sin, our active rebellion against the laws God has put in place, only leads us to death. Death here and death and separation from God for eternity. If you're like me, sometimes it seems as if I am absolutely powerless to due the right thing. 
                                     
“You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”                 (Romans 5:6-8)


Oh, that good news! Real good news! Boy, do I need to hear that. Again and again, if I'm honest with you. I tend to forget as I go about the busyness of my life.

Isn't all so easy and so practical? God makes it this simple because of His great love for the people He created. Jesus doesn't say He is the only way to God because He is being close minded or hated. He says this because He desires to keep it simple and make the way to Him easy to find. It's the enemy of our souls that tries to complicate the matter.


“I am using an example from everyday life because of your human limitations. Just as you used to offer yourselves as slaves to impurity and to ever-increasing wickedness, so now offer yourselves as slaves to righteousness leading to holiness.  When you were slaves to sin, you were free from the control of righteousness.  What benefit did you reap at that time from the things you are now ashamed of? Those things result in death!  But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life.  For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”   (Romans 6:19-23)


Stop and think right now of who you were and how you lived before you met Jesus. Deep down, at least for me, I could never really reach the place of being joyful. Life dragged me down. The weight of carrying around disappointments and brokenness seemed to be a never ending spiral I could not get free from. The story of God's great love and His mercy drew me to Him. Is it your story?  Our story - and what hope and life we have found - should be what motivates us to keep sharing Jesus. Why?

Not that we live there dwelling in the past, but remembering who we are and who we used to be accomplishes a few very important things in our lives and in how we serve God:
1- It keeps us thankful for what God has done – thankfulness manifests joy which radiates!
2- It keeps us humble, reminding us to feel blessed that God would choose to use us. 
3- It protects us against our ego and pride, thinking more highly of ourselves than we should.
4- It keeps our focus on God’s strength and not our own, God’s gifting to us and not our natural abilities

Will we go out with the message and in this manner? Pastor Michael Petillo says: “True triumph is when we humbly embrace God’s leading into places of weakness where He can show Himself strong. “ The longer I know Jesus, the more I have to depend on Him. Temptation to the old way of life, the temptation to sin never really leaves. (By the way, temptation is only temptation. It's not the same as sin. Jesus was tempted in every way, but He never sinned. Wish someone had told me that years ago!) The place most important to show His control over your life? In your own house.



5- It reminds us to function like brothers and sisters in God's Family instead of thinking like the world.

In the world, power and position are used as a tool to intimidate and manipulate people. Not in God’s kingdom- Here, in our new family, it is used to serve others. As servants of Jesus, we are not above Our Master!  Listen to Jesus’ words: “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you” (Luke 22:25-26)

It reminds us we serve a common goal- not creating conflict and competition between different parts of our churches and our lives. 
In the book of James 3:16, we find, "For where jealousy and self-seeking exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice." 


It's as if God knew that even believers in Him would be competitive. I love this quote from Pastor Andy Knuth- “Jesus before Strategies, Prayer before Projects, Faith before Formula.”

6-  It removes the “hard ring” of telling a story that no longer impacts us, keeping it personal.
7- It communicates to non-believers and new believers that our life with Jesus is a journey- and we do not have to meet standards of perfection to be loved or welcomed or used by God AND HIS FAMILY!                  

We are not slaves to having to appear perfect! We are free in Christ Jesus!
I can love and serve and believe in a God like that! Can't you?

Let's look at 1 Timothy 1:12-17. It's the story of the Apostle Paul: 

I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength, that he considered me trustworthy, appointing me to his service. Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst.  But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life.  Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen.”  

Remember where you came from and what Jesus did for you! And what he is doing now!
• Be thankful
• Be humble
• Focus on God’s strength not our human wisdom and abilities
• Remember we are in a new family with new rules in how we treat each other
• Share god’s love and patience towards us- loving us as we are transformed!
• Invite them into the family of God- and watch long lasting fruit and believers who multiply!

 
Here's a couple of questions for further reflection:

1- Are you the thinking like the world or like someone in God's family?
2- Which of the following areas are difficult for you?
Lack of thankfulness?
Pride?
Focusing on my abilities?
The desire to have power, prestige, and status?

Bless you as you press into the things of God for His Glory!
   

July 4, 2017

The Ongoing American Adventure

Today is American Independence Day. As we approach our 250th year in the next ten years or so, and given the current state of division and divisiveness in our country, I think it's time to stop and reflect on how good we actually have it. 

I travel all over the world for my work, and trust me- there is no country on earth where we are as free as we are in the United States of America! You can complain all you want about our government and our politicians. That's one of the great things about our country. You cannot do that everywhere. We have the wisdom of the founding fathers to thank for this, and we have the sacrifice of our military veterans to thank for keeping those liberties. 

To tie it all back to Disney, Imagineering great Herb Ryman created this incredible rendering for the American Adventure.  Back in 1979, EPCOT Center was coming to be realized, and the Disney suits needed pieces of concept art such as this one to excite the potential guests and to inspire corporations the world over to invest in the project.  As with all of Mr. Ryman's work, this piece brings out the dignity of the nation. 

So, today, July 4th, let us thank God Almighty for shedding His Grace on us!


(Art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

July 3, 2017

When Images Collide

The title of this post is an ode to the George Pal sci-fi-fi classic "When Worlds Collide", but this entry has nothing to do with it...haha! Instead, it's a little story of how things come together sometimes in my photographic journey. By all accounts, I'm definitely not what you would call a "photo journalist".  My images are just a little off skewed and tend to look a little hyper-realistic. That being said, I'm not a photoshop maverick either, editing and compositing bits and pieces from different images to craft something totally new and unique. The accompanying images probably fall somewhere in between.


Last weekend, I did something I rarely do, shoot both sunrise and the milky way in the same day! For the morning shots, I'm usually out of bed and downing a cup of coffee by 4:00 am. For this instance, I had a model shoot at Lanai Lookout, a popular spot for wedding couples during the day. It was near here that the famous "From Here to Eternity" beach scene with Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr was filmed. Because we had to access our area through rocky terrain via a lava cave (while carrying a bench and camera gear), I gave ourselves extra time, so my alarm was set at 3:00 am. Once we arrived without any mishap, the group quickly set up in order to be ready for the approaching sunrise. The window for the "golden hour" when the sky has that unmistakable orange/yellow cast is very short, so you need to get your shots done quickly and correctly!

I had worked with Katie last year on a portrait shoot before she left for Harvard University. Bright and charismatic, Katie is a natural in front of the camera and was game for an early outdoor shoot (even if it meant waking up crazy early). Our prior work together was strictly in studio, so an outdoor setting was a natural progression.


The waves on the south side of Oahu had been pretty high all week...in the 8-12 foot range. People have been swept off shore... lost at sea with one fell swoop of a powerful wave. Safety is always the highest priority when shooting at a beach area. Add in to the fact that "King Tides" (highest tides of the year) was set to his Friday night and the session was in doubt until we actually made our way to the shoreline.


God, with His infinite blessings, gave us a beautiful sunrise with various shades of orange and yellow dotting the cloud filled skies. We worked quickly to set Katie up while I began firing test shots to calibrate the off camera lighting. Shooting sunrise is tricky, as I need to expose for the background, which invariably leads to an underexposed model. Trying to add enough light to Katie without it being overwhelming (something camera flashes in auto mode often produce) is a trial and error process for me. I do have a light meter, but I find it quicker to make an educated guess and adjust from there.


After finding the sweet spot, we did a number of poses including one for the panorama seen at the end of this post. While the sunrise is always a breathtaking sight, I had this ideal of putting the milky way in the pano image. So, after waking at three in the morning, I found myself heading back at Lanai Lookout around midnight to shoot the night sky. Sitting at the edge of the cave, camera mounted on a tripod for long exposures, the quiet and peaceful surroundings gave me time to marvel at God's incredible handiwork.  Not a soul in sight but for the stars and ocean.


And to really put me in the "bonkers" category, I headed up to the to the top of Hanauma Bay Ridge trail earlier to photograph a cell tower against the Milky Way. It's a good mile and a half to the top at a steep incline, but I somehow managed to make it. 

All in all, it was a pretty successful Saturday from dawn to dusk. Enjoy these images....


 
(Photographs Copyright 2017 by Len Yokoyama)


New Hope for Walt Disney Studios Paris

Poor maligned Walt Disney Studios Paris! It's saddled with a poor layout, no real sense of focus, and most unfortunate of all, being right next door to the most beautiful Magic Kingdom ever created! As with many lesser projects, beautiful concept art can still be created by Imagineering, as this piece from Christian Hope shows. (Love the name, by the way.)

While Disneyland Paris is consistent in theme and execution, the Studios park is hit and miss: There's the gorgeously themed area surrounding Ratatouille right around the corner from the minimally themed Toy Story area. Then you've got the rather fun and cute Crush's Coaster - still an obvious box however- next to the carnival like attractions and landscapes of the rest of Toon Studios. (The simple little Cars area right next door to the Aladdin spinner!) 

Help is on the way in the form of Marvel. Or is it? Certainly the here and now landscapes of the Avengers does not lend itself to an interesting atmosphere. God forbid the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror changes to Guardians of the Galaxy! The building is found directly in the center of it all, the main focus of the park sight lines  But alas, we may be headed that way. Time will tell.

(Art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)