June 21, 2024

Design Detail: Magic Kingdom's Pirates of the Caribbean

Disneyland may have the lengthiest Pirates of the Caribbean, but it is certainly not the only one to be loaded with design detail! The Magic Kingdom version is quite wonderful on its own. And I find I prefer the exterior of Walt Disney World's Adventureland version much better than the original in New Orleans Square in Walt's park. Take a look at this photo from Jeff Bergman. It's from awhile ago, but the clock, the tattered sail and the beaten up crow's nest show Imagineering still knows how to do it right when it comes to setting the stage. Everything works together as it should to create a seamless presentation.

(Photograph copyright Jeff Bergman Photography.)

June 18, 2024

Is Walt Disney World's "New" Epcot An Improvement?

A brand new Epcot. I couldn't wait to see what Disney Imagineering had accomplished over the last eight years. Eight years! It had to be something incredible, something breathtaking, something unique. Filled with attractions worth the wait, shops and eateries that went to the top of our must do list. What would we find this visit?

I have always loved EPCOT Center. Since my first visit in 1983, this was the park I thoroughly appreciated from the very first visit. Now, decades later, how would the current Walt Disney World leadership and Imagineer Zach Riddley's vision for my favorite Disney park compare?  There was plenty new for us to see: Remy's Ratatouille Adventure in World Showcase, the Journey of Water Inspired by Moana, Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind, and the new Walt Disney statue in Future World (or World Nature, World Celebration or World whatever), and the nighttime show Luminous The Symphony of Us. Could anything ever top Illuminations?

The place to be.

Repeating what we learned from the day before in How to Beat Disney at Its Own Game,  we took an early morning Uber to the Beach Resort.  A nice stroll in the cool of the morning led us to the lakefront and past Stormalong Bay, the best Disney waterpark that is not a waterpark. At moments before 7:00am, we snagged a relatively early virtual queue confirmation and a ride with Star-Lord and Company. After a great breakfast straight from the market and nearby seating in the beautiful courtyard, we moved on to the International Gateway entrance to Epcot. Time to go in. It was an easy walk to the France pavilion. 

Ratatouille happens to be my favorite Pixar film. So of course, Remy's adventure was the first must see of the day. The new attraction was only open to DVC members during our last visit. I wasn't happy, but I wasn't too bothered either. The Food & Wine Festival was waiting.

Shades of Paris.

Aside from the more cartoonish take on Paris, there's plenty of design detail and nods to the movie to be found in the side street and very pretty courtyard that leads to the main attraction. I was not quite as offended as some have been with this design choice. I'm not sure I want this to be the norm going forward. This isn't Fantasyland- or is it? - so I just let my ears be filled with the beautiful soundtrack music and enjoyed the new sights and sounds. 

It was not too long before we entered into the main building to begin the final few minutes of queueing. What did I think? It's all quite understated and charming. By the time we hit the evening (indoor) moonlight, I was just in the right frame of mind. There's no denying Disney Imagineering knows how to do nighttime right when it comes to dark rides. From Peter Pan's Flight to Pirates of the Caribbean's lovely Blue Bayou and Mexico's El Rio del Tiempo and later with Navi River Journey, they are experts in bringing the outdoors inside. 

Straight up, Remy's Ratatouille Adventure is no E Ticket. It occupies the same space as many other projects from the more recent years of Imagineering for the Stateside parks: Frozen Ever After, Toy Story Mania, and Millennium Falcon: Smuggler's Run among others. They all fall just shy of greatness. Remy's is fun, kid-friendly, and different enough to be a draw. It will leave a smile on your face, but you will not be talking about it for more of your day. Would I ride it again? Of course! The film's a favorite and I can't resist a dark ride about Paris. 

Elsa is a rude host!
She invites us in only to send us away!

Since we'd had breakfast, we walked through the nations of World Showcase to reach Norway and Frozen Ever After. It was still fairly early, but with the new caste system in place, it took us almost an hour to encounter Elsa and the gang. An hour. Yes, it is a caste system- and Disney is making some bad, bad choices by perpetuating this. They've already priced out many average income Americans from enjoying an affordable Disney vacation. This is one more example of how Disney's talk of diversity, equity, inclusion is all just corporate BS aimed toward placating their employees. I solidly stand by that assessment.  

I may be like you- Frozen Ever After is growing on me. Maybe I'm just getting used to this new Imagineering where "good enough" is the mantra of the current organization. There's still a long way to go to reach the high quality of the Frozen attraction in Tokyo Disneysea's Fantasy Springs expansion, but this Maelstrom takeover does have its charms. Namely Olaf and Sven.  



Yum!

This isn't the Disney Food Blog (and I love what AJ and teams does), but I'm going to risk an argument with some of you long time readers: We found the food at the Flower & Garden Festival to be better than that found at Food and Wine. The flavors are lighter, brighter, and the dishes much more creative. The adult beverages blended summer fruit with just the right amount of alcohol. We made many, many stops at the various outdoor kitchens, sharing each dish and drink along the way. The Lobster tail was particularly good and a good bargain. The ribs and shrimp were just as good. My wife loved the offerings she found in Canada. 

Our first day at this park, we did not make a reservation at one of the many terrific places to eat in World Showcase. The new Future World is still not the place to go for a good meal. (Check out our Dine or Ditch reviews of more than a few places at both Walt Disney World, Disneyland, or even Universal Orlando Resort.) Surprisingly, we didn't miss it at all aside from some indoor air-conditioning and table service. 

Finally water and lots of it.

The new garden area surrounding Spaceship Earth and the Walt statue was nice, but that is all it is. There's a good portion of shade to be found but sadly, absolutely no water features. I suppose this was a plan to make the Moana gardens walk through experience more attractive. I'll repeat myself here as I said earlier first looking at the concept art- It's a very pretty place and the concept and execution are great, but it is in the wrong park. 

Community Hall, I mean Communicore Hall, was not open yet. From what I've seen, we did not miss much. It's pretty generic looking and the area as a whole reminds me of those bland corporate campuses I used to work at when we lived in Northern California back in the late 1980s. Certainly nothing special, and definitely nothing worthy of the great Epcot or Disney name. 

It was finally time to see what replaced Universe of Energy.



I hate being wrong. Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind is the best coaster on the Disney property! I LOVE it! The big box is as ugly as Hell against the brilliantly designed original buildings, and I despise the fact that Marvel characters have invaded my park. But darn it- I just want to ride this again and again. And again. 

Naturally, my wanna be Imagineer side realizes once the Marvel thing dies out, it will be an easy transition to something else- even if it was too many hundreds of millions of dollars to build. My tourist side says this was a winning choice. I was shocked just how much I enjoyed it.  TRON over at the Magic Kingdom can't even come close. The ride is fast, smooth as silk, and swerving in the dark through the galaxies is so enjoyable, it makes me wish the ride were brought to California. If I could have purchased another ride, I would have. One day, I want to ride it on September 21. 

Since we were almost there, we walked over to Spaceship Earth for a ride. Then we explored the original entrance area. The journey inside the sphere is still satisfying even if it needs an elegant update. Elegant, not trendy please. (When will they learn trendy doesn't work?) It's a classic for a reason, and it reminds Epcot visitors of what once was and what many hoped the new Epcot would be. Give it some respect. 

The entrance area is just as it should be. Those OG Imagineers knew exactly what they were doing. Beautiful landscaping framing the icon just works. Too bad no one at Disney management seems to listen to them anymore. 

We could not get into Space 220 and didn't want an hour and a half wait for a seat at the bar. Fair enough. This meant that Luminous was the only feature of "New Epcot" that we hadn't seen. 

Oh Canada!

Test Track was down, and then the wait was so long, we decided to pass it up. (As of yesterday evening, it is closed for version 3.0) Heading back over to The Land side of things, all of a sudden, the park felt very old school. Living with the Land is still a family favorite we ride each trip. The educational aspect of the attraction blends with the entertainment value in a seamless way- and without a Disney or Pixar or Marvel character inserted. Yes, it can be done and done well when the suits want to. Sure Imagination remains a sad mess and Living Seas with Nemo hasn't aged well. Its new paint job was very nice and very needed. Soarin' was as enjoyable as always even if the wait was much too long for reasons stated above.

Japan is always a favorite place to spend an hour.

What was really left for us now was old Epcot- remnants of the days past- and we just loved it. Taking the time to walk and enjoy the surroundings was like breathing again. There was no rush for the next scheduled attraction time. Cruising on El Rio del Tiempo (I wish!) and exploring the shops of China. Additional stops at the outdoor kitchens and viewing the many special gardens. No scrambling to get across the park in fear of missing an afternoon lunch appointment. More time to stop and enjoy the live entertainment and explore each country around the World Showcase Lagoon. Such a relaxing day!

An inspiring attraction!

Our son was ready to indulge us with our desire for some old school theater attractions, so we began with an Epcot Center classic: The American Adventure. We had timed it poorly on our last two trips, thinking there was still one more showing. We would not make this mistake again. 

With a large cast of full functioning Audio-Animatronics, excellent filmed segments, and stirring narration and music, this remains a not to be missed attraction. Our history is filled with events and decisions both good and evil, yet the multi-media attraction focuses on the spirit of Americans. It may be in vogue to slam our country, but once you've traveled the world and gotten to know other countries citizens at more than a passing hello, you soon discover we have it better here than just about anyone. 

This was our first viewing of Canada Far and Wide. The theater was fairly empty, but the low key film was excellent. Sitting in the darker, cooled waiting area was a treat on a hot day. Just walking past the still working waterfall to reach it reminded me that these smaller even hidden attractions and cozy hidden spaces are all part of the park's charm. It's not all about big, expensive rides. 

Our last theater show was Impressions de France. The film is feeling bit dated, but it is also timeless. The music is gorgeous! To say we love  this attraction would not do it justice. We've been blessed to be in France on five different trips, and we wouldn't have it any other way.


At about an hour and 15 minutes before show time, I grabbed us a spot on the bridge between the U.K. and France. As the sun was setting, my absolute favorite section of the park took on the beautiful colors of dusk. Oranges, pinks, and purples filled the sky. The lights of each country started to come on. Pure magic! This spot ended up being a terrific place to watch Luminous

We were all very big fans of Illuminations Reflections of Earth. In fact, it is the only nighttime Disney show in any park that we had to see each visit. The barges of Harmonius were hideous, and the show was mediocre at best. Thankfully, the suits responded wisely to fan outcry and gave it a quick death. Millions were wasted, but it was a good decision. So, what would we think of its replacement?

I'm absolutely sure it is actress Michelle Yeoh as the show's narrator. Her distinctive voice lends an air of sophistication to this outstanding event. And Luminous: The Symphony of Us is a park event not to be missed. While its predecessor had to hit guests over the head with its message, this newer production is very subtle, well designed and as beautiful to listen to as it is to watch. The Circle of Life story is touching, heart wrenching, and joyous. Visually, the opening sequence from the "hill" in the center of the lagoon brings the wow factor, proving again that those huge barge screens from Harmonious were not needed. When it all ended, I wished it were longer. That's how good this is! I hope it stays in the park for a decade or longer. Well done, Disney.

We left the park after the show and went through the International Gateway. It seemed everyone else did as well because the Skyliner queue was full. We were told the estimated wait was 1.5 hours. Yes, it was that long. Happily, we walked back to the Beach Club enjoying the cool of the evening. Our Uber ride home was brief and any line was happily avoided. This is the way to beat Disney at their game.

This day may have been the best one on our Disney portion of the trip. But we had two other parks to explore. Next up would be Disney's Hollywood Studios

Special excursions lining up before the show.

What can I say about "New Epcot"? Is it an unmitigated success? No. The huge core of the park's main entrance area beyond Spaceship Earth feels corporate and unimaginative, more akin to a large city's convention center than a Disney theme park. The new buildings are bland, cold, clean, and sterile. Lacking personality, this area is fresher, but ultimately it leaves a sad uninspired aftertaste as you wander through the area. The landscaping is the star but even this is primarily one note: green. The park's three new attractions are a mixed bag, ranging from wildly successful to pretty good to clearly misplaced. There's little cohesion of all these new elements. The theme of this park has been watered down so many times, I bet it is really difficult to advertise. 

When Zach Riddley's team of Imagineers went back to what made the park great, it was a success. The entrance plaza has returned to its former self. The light show on Spaceship Earth really is stunning. I'm sure that budget allotments could have been adjusted to bring some well needed changes to the park's centerpiece and the beloved but now horrible Imagination pavilion. (Do first time park visitors of the last 20 years know this as anything but horrible? No.) The once inspiring ride is embarrassing at best. Tony Baxter must be angry about what they did to his incredible original show. A refreshing of Test Track is a great move, but that's on GM's dollar. Further more, World Showcase very much needed that Brazil pavilion.  I love touring the countries, but it is time for someplace new to explore. Decades worth of time.

The 2024 D23 announcements may focus on additions to Animal Kingdom and the Magic Kingdom, but I hope they don't leave Epcot out of it all. There's so much potential!  Aesthetics are one aspect of what makes a great park. Content is the other. But for now, the strengths of this park lie in its much ignored roots. Maybe one day, someone with the love of Epcot - like Riddley but with the power of a  Robert Iger- will come along and give it the love and respect it deserves.

(Photographs copyright Mark Taft.)

June 17, 2024

Are We Kidding Ourselves?

"Games people play! Night and day they just can't help it!" So sings the incredible 70's R&B/Pop group the Spinners. A great slice of Philly Soul that holds a lot of truth. Playing games is just something we do. More often than not, the biggest games we play are with ourselves. I know that describes me, and it probably describes you if you're honest. And honesty is part of the problem! It's hard to get real with ourselves. Check this out:

Jesus doesn’t say, “Make converts to your way of thinking.” He says, “Look after my sheep. Make sure they are nourished with knowledge of me.” We think that the work we do in Christian ministry counts as service; Jesus Christ says that service is what we are to him, not only what we do for him. Christianity is not devotion to a work or a cause or a doctrine; it is devotion to a person.

“If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). Jesus doesn’t argue or compel. He simply says that if we wish to be his disciples, we must be devoted to him. When we are touched by the Spirit of God, we see suddenly who Jesus is, and this becomes the source of our devotion.

Today, we’ve substituted ideological belief for personal belief. This is why so many are devoted to causes and so few to him. People don’t want to be devoted to Jesus; they want to be devoted to the cause he started. Jesus Christ the person is deeply offensive to the educated mind of today, to those who don’t want to see him as anything other than a champion of their cause.

Our Lord’s obedience was to the will of the Father, not to the needs of humanity. The saving of humanity was the natural outcome of that obedience. If we are devoted only to humanity, our love will falter, and we will soon be exhausted. But if we love Jesus, personally and passionately, we will be able to serve humanity, even if people treat us like doormats.

The secret of the disciple’s life is devotion to Jesus Christ; its hallmark is unobtrusiveness. It is like a kernel of wheat that falls to the ground and dies, then springs up, transforming the entire landscape (John 12:24).

-------

These words from Oswald Chamber's classic My Utmost for His Highest slapped me hard, so to speak. A very good reminder of the games we play.

 

June 16, 2024

The Best Journey into Imagination Video I've Ever Seen

That most beloved attraction of all time at Epcot: The Original and Greatest Journey into Imagination. Imagineer Tony Baxter created the charming Figment and his pal Dreamfinder as guides for the most fantastic, magical attraction since the park's opening. Have you ever seen a video as great as the one below?


The first five minutes of the ride video are muted due to copyright issues, but after that, you get the full attraction experience. And it's just wonderful! If the above ever disappears, go here.

Thanks to Disney Dave for taking this way back when. Enjoy!

(Art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

June 15, 2024

Wizarding World of Harry Potter Concept Art

There's a reason for the rabid fan base for Universal Orlando Resort's incredible Harry Potter themed worlds, and Epic Universe is about to add to it in an incredible way! First we had Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, then it was Diagon Alley's thrilling Escape from Gringotts. Then, Hagrid's Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure took the crown and rightfully so. Perhaps my favorite ride in the resort. What's next? The upcoming Battle for the Ministry at Epic Universe. The great thing about Universal I'm discovering is that the actual construction and attractions are far better than the concept art. I can't always so that's true of their biggest competitor. Can't wait for more Potter- or anything else Universal Creative chooses to dish up!

(Art copyright Universal Creative.)

June 13, 2024

More Down for the Count

Sadly, two more large trees had to be taken down from our backyard this week. The expense wasn't the issue. These trees were planted by us years ago, and now they've completed their life cycles having died this past winter. I'm always sad to see trees go. This is about ten now that have died in my yard. Each time, they remind me of the passing of time. All things have a season on this earth. The same goes for you and I. Are you ready for a new eternity? I'm not yet- but I know the Lord is in charge of our lives and deaths. I'm thankful for His goodness.

June 11, 2024

Island in the Sun

Come Sail Away, come sail away, come sail away with me... This photograph reminds me of the old song by A&M Records' band Styx. For a mid-June day, the idea of disappearing off to an island in the sun seems so appealing- but work and obligations bring me back to reality. One day, all will be at rest when God calls those who love Jesus to be home with him for eternity. Then, peace and joy will be the constant of the day and striving gone for good. Definitely a reason again to praise God!


(Photographer unknown.)

June 9, 2024

Beating Disney at It's Own Game: Disney vs. Universal Day Three- Magic Kingdom

If you want to beat Disney at its own game, it takes a bit of advance planning, but it certainly can be done! Hitting them in the wallet can certainly work in your favor- and in favor of all guests in the long run. Yet, flexibility is key if you really want to walk this out. And one more thing: you've got to be willing to make a sacrifice or two. But I believe it is more than worth it. How? Read on.

Today would begin the Walt Disney World portion of our trip. This would be the day I finally got to experience my most anticipated new attraction in any theme park: TRON Lightcycle / Run at the Magic Kingdom. Now, that pesky Virtual Queue would become a problem as we were off property staying at Universal Orlando Resort's Dockside Resort. How could we beat the system?

From a financial standpoint, we were saving well over $140 per night by staying at Disney's competitor and for a much nicer experience than All Star Sports. (Two bedrooms and a breakfast table, chairs, a microwave, and a refrigerator.) But it all came at a price: We had to use Uber to get to and from Universal to Disney. Thankfully, that was inexpensive, about $25 more or less each way depending on the time. The more expensive price than Uber was when it came time to book an attraction that getting in a virtual queue was a necessity. 

We narrowed it down to two attractions: TRON and Guardians of the Galaxy Cosmic Rewind. We were not going to Florida and missing either one of these. Then we prioritized the new Magic Kingdom E Ticket at Number One, so that if we missed riding the first day, we had another one to try again. But here's how we beat Disney at its own game.

A great spot for breakfast and a happy son!

The night before, we scheduled our ride for 6:15am the next day. Now, it's not like waking up at 5 minutes before that necessary 7:00am time slot to get on your phone, but there were unexpected benefits to being up that early. But we had to be up early anyway, so what was an additional half hour? Nothing.

After doing a bit of research, we decided our landing spot would be the Grand Floridian. Our plan was to arrive early, walk around a bit, and be on our phones at the needed time in hopes of securing a spot in the queue. Next, we would stop to have breakfast at the Grand Floridian Cafe before taking the monorail to the Magic Kingdom. It was ambitious, but it ended up being the perfect plan.

We arrived at 6:35. This allowed of plenty of quiet time with no one around to walk through the resort and the grounds, taking plenty of photographs with the lovely glow of early morning. It was peaceful and beautiful as the rising sun changed the landscapes every few minutes. We set our phone alarms for the correct time so that we didn't have to watch the clock and could enjoy the serenity. After snagging an early boarding group, we enjoyed a terrific breakfast at a leisurely pace. 


With a short monorail ride, we entered the Magic Kingdom and queued left for Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. We have a family joke that has been going one for over a decade now. Our youngest daughter loves this coaster, so whoever rides it must send her a photo of the ride when she's not with them. Quick photo and playful text sent, we walked right on for two successive rides on the Wildest Ride in the Wilderness. Still fun after all these years. Imagineer Tony Baxter and team sure knew how to create an instant but enduring classic. 

Speaking of Mr. Baxter, Tiana's Bayou Adventure was not open, but a quick walk by left me wondering what would be in store for guests who loved the original Splash Mountain. I'd soon have my answer. My thoughts on this Princess and the Frog makeover are here.

Not the best version but still never missed.

In any Disney castle park, Pirates of the Caribbean is one of the best attractions to be found. The truncated version of the California original is in Florida, but it is still a must-see adventure every visit for us. The attraction was in tip top shape. From the multiple Audio-Animatronics to the volume of the sound effects, everything worked terrifically. 

One thing I just love about visiting the Magic Kingdom is that the guests do not shout out dialogue or sing the attractions theme song and disturb other riders. In Florida, it seems people are a bit more respectful of others who paid way too much to experience things only Disney used to create. Passholders and regular visitors to Disneyland would be their reputation a favor by following similar standards. 


It was time to ride TRON. I couldn't wait. The walk to Tomorrowland seemed like an eternity- even longer than it takes Disney to build something new unless it is a DVC location or a brand new hotel. Priorities, people, priorities. 

Oh, the thrill of experiencing a brand new attraction for the first time! Now, I'm a person who watches all the YouTube videos, partially out of curiosity and also because I know the in person experience will greatly differ than what can be seen on a computer screen.

When the attraction debuted at Shanghai Disneyland, I was so jealous. When it was announced for Florida in 2017, I was thrilled. When I finally rode it for myself seven years later... I was truly disappointed. 

A view from the queue.

After having just ridden Islands of Adventure's most popular roller coaster, Hagrid's Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure, I couldn't help but make the comparisons. Yet, on its own, TRON disappoints- and it kills me to say it. The queue to the ride is terrific. It should be as it carries the visual look of the movies. The build up is great with the voiceovers and the idea of a thrilling race across the Grid. So far, so good.

Once on it, I found the lightcycle itself uncomfortable. The ride is very smooth- and incredibly short. The outside portion looks more fun than it is. Certainly, good advertising for the ride, but you don't really have a chance to get used to the ride or the story of the race before it all ends. Let's be honest- fans of the film want to ride in the darkness of the Grid. Why does it begin outside? By the time your eyes adjust to the darkness, the ride is half over. And the whole thing runs about one minute long. One minute. 

Beyond the brevity of the ride, I found the indoor visuals lacking. With all their storytelling skills and creative tricks, there should have been a better way to experience the race than how it was done. Will I ride it again? Sure- with other family members who haven't been before, but probably not on my own. I'd consider TRON an epic fail. Wasted potential of what should have been as good if not better than Space Mountain next door. 

A much better experience.

Aside from the unnecessary long lines due to Genie+, the Magic Kingdom's first roller coaster remains a very satisfying experience. It is a bit rougher for all the wear and time for a track replacement, but that aside, it reminds Disney fans of the storytelling excellence of the old school Imagineering greats. Great story, compelling setting, and a ride worth the wait. TRON and Space Mountain are like opposite sides of a coin. The older Magic Kingdom coaster is a classic for a reason.



While in Tomorrowland, do what the locals do: Ride the Peoplemover. When I think of the attractions that have been removed at Disneyland but still exist in Florida, this one is at the top of the list. (With my humblest of apologies Country Bear Jamboree!) I could hop on this  several times of day and still enjoy it just as much as the first ride. Viewing the Contemporary Resort from the transportation system of the future just feels right. Those Imagineers went out of their way to make sure everything was in theme and the visual intrusions of show buildings were out of the ordinary. You really can't say that anymore.

One big misstep, but a better overall experience awaits in Florida.

Much like Pirates, we do not miss the Haunted Mansion on our visits. The big curiosity this visit would be the addition of the Hatbox Ghost. While I do think the Florida mansion is an overall better experience, the placement of him is just wrong and so is the cartoonish queue. The rest of it, however, I find to be a much better storytelling device to ride through each scene. The Portrait Gallery takes on a whole new feel when you're in your Doombuggy, and the Florida exclusive Library is a real fine addition, befitting the grandeur of the creepy old house on the hill. Again- all of it in fine working order.



On the opposite side of the scale, there were many things not working in the classic It's A Small World. That was disappointing as it is one of my very favorite old school attractions. I just love the sweet sentiment behind it, and I also absolutely love the theme song by the Sherman Brothers. The sound settings were off and some of the dolls did not move. There were burned out bulbs in the finale. It's a broken world after all- just as it is in reality. 

After a visit to Ariel's world, we walked to the train station and got off in Frontierland to head to the Jungle Cruise. As is customary, our skipper was really good, but the line had swelled well beyond the normal range due to Genie+ again. What a disaster this money making gimmick has produced. The lines seemed to be at least 50 percent longer because of this change. I hate the new Disney for pulling crap like this. Really.

It's now time for me to give out two awards. The first one goes to the Worst Lunch during our entire trip. Actually it was my worst meal at Walt Disney World ever. The "winner" is Comic Ray's Starlight CafĂ©. My hamburger meat was dry. But the worst offense was the bun itself. The entire bun, top and bottom, was so hard that I had to use a bit of force to push my finger into it. To make matters worse, the fries were undercooked. I never return my food- but I made an exception this time. 


The second award was for Worst Dinner during our trip. Yes, also to be found in the Magic Kingdom. You've guessed it- Pecos Bill Cafe. We tried to eat in Adventureland- at the Tortuga Tavern actually. The menu looked terrific! But it was closed. The closest thing available was around the corner. And boy, was it busy! Now, the food wasn't that bad- but compared to all of our dinners, this meal was the bottom of the rung. If only Cosmic Ray's was this good...

After our meal, we took a quick ride with Buzz Lightyear and then headed out of the park. We had just been to Disneyland a year before, so we had been on everything we wanted. Besides, there are way fewer attractions at the Magic Kingdom compared to Disneyland. With it getting dark, we wanted to be outside the park before the fireworks. A quick monorail rode out of the Magic Kingdom to the nearby Contemporary Resort. As we waited for our Uber, we watched the fireworks. Almost exactly when they were over, our ride arrived, and it was a short ride home. We beat all the crowds and had a great day- meals aside.

A visit to the Magic Kingdom is still satisfying, but even less so this visit. Maybe the unplanned stop in First Aid had something to do with it. (No story here.) It definitely had something to do with the sub-par eats. But how I long to be in the park for several hours after dark- and at no extra cost. But those were the old days when Guest Satisfaction meant more than the profit margins. Sorry, Walt. Things have changed with the company you built. They are greedy, pure and simple.

Our second day at Walt Disney World would be at my favorite Disney park in Florida: Epcot. And I couldn't wait. The EPCOT International Flower & Garden Festival was in full bloom. Would it be a good one?

(Photographs copyright Mark Taft.)

June 6, 2024

Three Smart Cookies

Guess which one looks most like their Mom- and acts like her too. You've probably figured it out by taking a single look at these three smart cookies.

(Photograph copyright Mark Taft.)

June 5, 2024

The Pros and Cons of Tiana's Bayou Adventure

There's a lot to like about Tiana's Bayou Adventure! But it is not all good news! There are some things that just aren't well done or missing the mark of a great attraction. Especially when compared to Splash Mountain. Instead of breaking it down into segments, I'm going to comment on both sides at the same time.

The attention to detail and bringing in the flavor of New Orleans is evident. This seems like the part the Imagineers worked hardest on, but they missed or forgot about the most important ingredient of any great attraction: The story. It's just not compelling. It's one note played out over 9 minutes. There's no drama, no tension, no sizzle. Princess and the Frog was a very good movie. Here, it seems they tossed out what made it so and instead replaced it with something bland and rather forgettable. Even Tiana herself can't rise above it. Thankfully, the physical ride is built on the backbone of Splash. The story just doesn't excite. There's really no adventure here in spite of the name.

Many of the Audio-Animatronics in Tiana's Bayou Adventure are excellent. Truly top notch. The way Tiana and Louis move is on par with those found in other recent Imagineering accomplishments. They are remarkable in fluidity and believability. Very well done. They are just not given much to do other than talk to those passing by on a log.

On the other hand, the lesser known (newer) characters seem flat and lifeless. The animal band- which is a key part of the story- feels like it's right out of Chuck E. Cheese. The eyes are key here, and this is a fail. How can you fall in love with the characters if they don't feel real? Eye movement conveys personality. I can't imagine much animal band plush or merchandise being sold.

The setting of the story is fantastic. It is truly beautiful. The darkened landscapes with Spanish moss hanging from the trees makes you forget this was once another place and story.  Seemingly endless fireflies buzz about creating a quite moody, unexpectedly romantic environment. I'm mixed on the exterior. Perhaps placed by New Orleans Square at Disneyland it will feel like a better fit than it does in the Magic Kingdom. 

Mama Odie is just not a likable character, and to make matters worse, she's a stereotype. Why is she central to this attraction? Her annoying and overplayed (overacted?) cackle reminds me way too much of the old hag in Snow White. Yet, Imagineering elevates her to multiple appearances as if she is the star of the show. She's not- and she shouldn't be- but at least she is actually doing something.

This is more than I can say about our lead character. Doesn't Tiana have something to do besides finding a band? I wish she also worked in the kitchen next to her employees cooking some delicious dishes for the party. Perhaps she's become like too many modern bosses who doesn't work themselves but only stand on the sidelines giving orders. Tiana looks great and sings as sweetly as ever, but she needs to be more than a narrator.

The music shines. Each segment hits the right notes, pun intended. The grand finale, Secret Spice, just works. It's an unexpected ear worm but a totally different and appropriate song for this new ride. Zip A Dee Doo Dah is iconic, so the replacement had to be as good if not better. Secret Spice isn't quite as good, but it is different. Think Kool & the Gang's well loved Celebration done New Orleans Jazz style. Former Maroon5 player PJ Morton had a tough act to follow. But his tune works well. Riders are just not in the finale scene long enough to get the full impact of his creation. This is too bad as the Mardi Gras party is the highlight of the whole thing.

Will Tiana's new adventure satisfy those who loved Tony Baxter's iconic attraction? No. And Tony was wise to back out. Taken on its own, Tiana's Bayou Adventure is fun if imperfect. Years from now, will it be remembered as a classic in the same league as Pirates of the Caribbean or the Haunted Mansion. Absolutely not.

(Photograph copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

June 1, 2024

The End of Rome As We Know It: Day Three

The Eternal City earned its nickname- and we just love Rome! Like the two days before it, our next - and unfortunately last- day was filled with one adventure after another. Had we a bit more time, we would have explored the city at a more leisurely pace. We still had the southern part of the country to see (Amalfi Coast and Sorrento) as well as our last stop, several days in Paris.

The breakfast room- Beautiful!

After yet another wonderful breakfast at the Hotel Ponte Sisto, we decided to walk it off to our next destination, a tour through the breathtaking ruins the Palatine Hill. Next would be the Colosseum, right across the street. We walked, but if you wanted to take the Metro, the Termini station is literally at the base of all the tour operators. 

My measly photographs do not do it justice. 

If you are planning a trip to Rome, you'll definitely include these two destinations in your itinerary. If you are interested in history, you'll find the tours go by much too quickly. (Make sure you also do the Scavi Tour, which you must book way in advance. It's a very limited group that gets in and can be quite a pain to get, but it is the neatest thing we've ever done anywhere. Make sure you go through the official site here.)

Back to the ruins. Be prepared to do a lot of walking and on a variety of street conditions. It's often uphill. It's often rocky. It's often difficult. But it is always worth the effort! Buy the icy cold water offered by street vendors. You'll need it. Even in the early winter months, it is quite hot. I wish I'd remembered a hat.

With the area's rich, rich history and incredible views of the city, this is something you do not want to miss. Any of the tours will do the trick. Know that you will be placed into groups of about 20+ people. If you want to hear the narration, and you should, stay close to your guide. The place is buzzing with people. You'll hear dialects and languages from all over the world. 

As with every civilization, the more the people engaged in debauchery of all types, the quicker they went downhill. Then, another conquering people would come in and set up camp. You see opulence in full color on this tour. The wealth of the city's richest patrons is easy to see as the architecture and stonework make this a place like no other. When you add in the stunning views, it is just magnificent. The four of us may have taken more photographs in just this part of the city than anywhere else on our trip together. 

All this stone makes it very, very hot!

With the Colosseum across the street, this is the tourist hub of the city. The Vatican may hold more people in the wide open spaces of the outer courts, but this area of Rome feels absolutely crushing at times. Hold on to your children. They can easily get lost, and parents urgently looking for little ones will have a hard time finding them after a few minutes. These tours are not stroller friendly. Rome is great for families, but Pre-School aged kids will not be able to get anything out of these tours nor can they handle the decaying steps and difficult paths. 



The Colosseum is a marvel of engineering and a place of bloody spectacle. According to history, the local people would come by during their breaks from work to watch the epic battles which took place. Sometimes, it was man to man, gladiator to gladiator. Other times, it was a criminal (usually a Christian because Christianity was outlawed then) up against the lions. In either case, man to man or man to animal, it was a bloodbath. Once the faith of those who follow Jesus was recognized, eventually this cross (above) was placed inside the great arena. 

At both the Colosseum and Palatine Hill, the security is very tight. You will go through a complete search and check much like you would at any international airport. Be prepared for long waits. 

A little lunch, please.

Completing our tours, we were hot and hungry. There are plenty of places near these attractions, but we decided we would walk about one mile or so into some of the neighborhoods in town, away from the tourists. We found this worked to our advantage and the food and drink were usually better and the prices lower.

We stumbled into this busy little locals hangout. Like a lot of Europe these days, English language menus are offered when they have them. It seems Italians in particular like Americans, as everywhere we went we were warmly greeted, and everyone seemed to enjoy interacting with us. (Later, contrary to popular opinion, we also found this to be true in Paris.)

This just belongs here.

Our midday break with salads, pizzas, and a nice beverage created a terrific stop as well as a chance to rest and talk about the morning's adventures. Friendly, relaxed service and excellent food. Great friends and lots of laughs. What more could you want, right?

From the top of the Spanish Steps. 

Refreshed and reenergized, there was still much more to see. If you want to meet the world in a famous city, go to the public squares. One of the most popular in Rome is the location of the Spanish Steps. There is a small (for Rome!) fountain and lots of people to be found before you ascend to the top. The walk up was not quite as bad as we expected it to be, and the view from the top (shown above) is more than worth your time and trouble. It was late afternoon. The crowds were thick but friendly, and folks began lining up to watch the sunset and wait for the bars on the upper tier to open. One young couple was taking their wedding photos and the top of the steps, making the most of a very charming location.

The worldwide popularity of the television show Friends continues on.

Walking the streets of Rome is an experience in both caution and delight. When cars do go through here, you've got to pay attention. But when there's a stretch of empty road, you have a chance to see some unique shops and cafes and well known clothing chains. People watching is fun here! There's a collective mentality I find all through Europe where being out socializing is just the norm. It's pretty common to find folks just relaxing with coffee or gelato and letting the world pass by. The pace of life seems a bit slower and more focused on relationships. Being is important. One unique thing I did notice is that although there are cel phones, people don't seem glued to them as they do in the States.  


The was our last night in Rome. You'd think we'd go out to a fancy place for an elegant dinner, but you'd be wrong. Instead, we went home to our hotel later in the evening and sat at the garden patio under the stars. We each chose a different glass of wine and sat back, feeling the blessing of God to allow us this adventure together. 

Tomorrow, we'd take off for the southern parts of Italy, the Amalfi Coast and Sorrento. We couldn't wait, but then again, we could have stayed in Rome for a full week and not seen enough. I'd go back in an instant. There's nothing like it on this earth. 

(Photographs copyright Mark Taft.)