April 30, 2008

A Taste of the Tropics at Disneyland in 1957

Take a look at this image from a 1957 Disneyland Guidebook. Leaving it as large as I can so you can see the retro coolness of the graphics and the wording. America's love affair with Hawaii was in full bloom, fueling the passion- and it is reflected in the lei, tiki torch, and the mention of Polynesia. The addition of Walt Disney's Enchanted Tiki Room and the Tahitian Terrace was still years away, but that didn't stop us from dreaming of islands far off and tiki bars nearby!

April 28, 2008

Michael Eisner's Mickey Mouse Decision?

The fact that Michael Eisner received his star on the Hollywood walkway did not go unnoticed by his fans and foes. The general media at large made little of this ceremony last week, but the internet discussion boards and blogs wouldn't let this pass by for good reason. The man is either a hero or nemesis to Disney fans.

Strictly from a Disney park and resort perspective, Eisner is both. On the plus side, this man bought the parks out of a creative slump by bringing in outside creative talent while simultaneously increasing prices. The same hero responsible for attractions as great as Tower of Terror, Animal Kingdom, Splash Mountain and Indiana Jones Adventure, not to mention Tokyo Disney Sea and Disneyland Paris, rightfully caused his popularity rating to drop with the greenlighting of many creative disappointments, culminating in California Adventure. With its collection of iron carnival rides, clones from other Disney Parks, and too high an assortment of films, the place was a flop.

Wherever we stand of the issue of Eisner, one thing is certain: this single man changed the face of themed resorts, putting his unique stamp on the four corners of the Disney world.

April 26, 2008

Moonlight Serenade

Thanks Dad and Mom for showing us so fine an example of what a great marriage should be. It's a pretty high standard to love and serve each other, your family, and God with such joy and sacrifice. But that is who you are. Much love to you both- and thanks. 

April 25, 2008

All Hail the Queen Latifah

Quick takes on a terrific disc: Queen Latifah makes one great jazz album as she comes clean with her roots and moves farther away from the street stuff. Arrangements are tight, the musicians swing as they should, and vocals perfectly float into your ears. Keeps me eager for more.

Good cuts- Simply Beautiful and Mercy, Mercy, Mercy, showing alot of diversity in style. Don't Miss Cuts- Hard Times and If I Had You. Just stunning. Perfect for those late night top down in the car summer drives. Trust me, you'll want to hear these over and over.

April 24, 2008

What Were They Thinking?

Big questions today- Why was there no announcement on Tuesday about additions to Animal Kingdom? How in the world did Jason Castro make the cut last night on American Idol, but Carly Smithson was sent home to the pub? Will Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Crystal Skull rule the summer or just be a moderate box office hit? Let's not even mention the year's U.S. Presidential election!

But here is the biggest question I'm wrestling with today- I read this, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No man comes to the Father except through me", and think why? Why did Jesus say this? I believe it and yet, the bluntness of the words cut like a knife. Certainly to some degree, this will remain a question as long as I live. So what came to me this morning on reflecting on his words is only a partial answer.

This isn't just a theological statement. This is also a statement that reflects Jesus' great love for us. Knowing we are complex human beings living through multitudes of experiences both good and bad, having a variety of ideas, and with unique personalities, He decides to draw us all into relationship with Him. These are powerful yet simply blunt words. He makes it easy, directly stating how things stand, answering questions we all must answer. It's out of His great love that He chooses to be this emphatic and clear. Now it is our turn to respond.

April 23, 2008

Love Does Conquer All

Due to a dropped transmission in the middle of Utah several years ago, my wife and I rented this little gem to pass the time away. What a great and sweet little film this is! For those you unfamiliar with this story, the plot goes something like this: Boy meets girl, boy sleeps with girl, boy and girl conceive, and after getting married due to her Catholic upbringing, boy and girl eventually fall in love.

Matthew Perry is his usual goofy but charming self, and Salma Hayek is her usual spicy, self-assured beautiful fireball. Yet, they make a great team- and it is the clever writing and wonderful play of two very different worlds coming together that make this a winning flick. Fools Rush In is PG-13 for a reason, so it is not for the kids, but it is still one of our favorites after a decade. Next time you want a sharp and funny romantic comedy, don't overlook this one while searching your Blockbuster bins.

April 22, 2008

The Genesis, Evolution, and Revelation of Disney’s Animal Kingdom

Disney’s fourth and largest Florida park celebrates ten years of opened gates today. In honor of that, let’s look back at the past, discuss the present, and speculate on the future of this wonderfully imagineered playground. And what a gorgeous park it is!

Many folks, myself included, have a deep appreciation for Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Why? The combination of brilliant design, one fairly consistent theme, with faithful execution brings new and unique adventures and environments for our pleasure. However beautiful this combination zoo, botanical garden, and theme park is to behold, there are also the intangible factors that draw us to it: the deep emotional connection that comes from man’s love for nature and animals combined with the desire to run away from the concrete jungles of modern day life and reality!

Starting with Mickey himself, animals of all types and depictions continue to be a great and profitable fit with Disney. According to company lore, Walt’s well-known love for animals and exotic locales, evidenced by the inclusion of Adventureland at Disneyland, California, and his True-Life Adventure films formed the emotional heart and the beginnings of Animal Kingdom. That said, when the talk began about the creation of this park in 1989, it may have truly been a strictly business decision that brought it to fruition.
The Magic Kingdom was a concept unique to Disney, although Epcot Center was clearly inspired by world’s fairs. Disney-MGM was the least original of the three parks, taking ideas from Universal Studios in California and including its own Main Street of a different era for its entrance plaza.

To stand out, Animal Kingdom had to be different. This new park was purposely designed from the beginning to be unlike anything Disney had previously created, unlike anything visitors had experienced from Disney- and it is. Upon its completion, in order to communicate this place was something special, Disney’s advertising experts kicked it into high gear. The cleverest ad produced played on the sense of mystery the park strove to create: a young explorer walking down one of Animal Kingdom’s paths, looks behind him as shadows of animals imaginary, extinct, and wild are cast over him, clearly telling prospective visitors that exciting and unexpected animal encounters were the order of the day here.

Once enticed by this innovative advertising campaign, curious visitors at the entrance gates received the newest park’s handout. The “Adventurer’s Guide” gave a small hint of what was ahead.

Once visitors crossed the turnstiles, those expecting a traditional zoo environment or yet another version of Main Street were taken aback, finding a lush jungle instead.Here’s a rare map from Disney News introducing what guests found opening day.

Looking inside the Adventurer’s Guide or at the Disney News map, and we find the park is a little short on attractions. An honest count means less than ten, but several others are there to pad the list: character greeting kiosks, the village of Harambe in Africa, and Discovery River apart from the boats that cruised it.

Although not immediately obvious, similarities abound with the quickly built Disney-MGM Studios. Both parks are light on attractions, a trend that continued in later years with Disney’s California Adventure and Paris’ Walt Disney Studios. Instead of a lengthy Backlot tour, guests at Animal Kingdom travel via safari truck through the quite realistic African savannah. Exhibits abound in each park. Animation and behind the scenes artifacts are on display at the Studios, while creatures of all sizes reside in the main lands of the Kingdom. Time-consuming theater presentations are plentiful, replacing the absent traditional Disney dark rides while accommodating large groups of guests. Noticeably lacking, however, are Disney’s trademark and lavish Audio-Animatronics adventures. These costly extravaganzas are relegated to one per park: The Great Movie Ride, and Countdown to Extinction, respectively.

Rounding out the Animal Kingdom were a limited number of shops, mostly found in Safari Village. These are beautifully built with handcrafted carvings and stunning décor, and they surround a few small eateries. Happily, the lush gardens, waterfalls, and meandering paths (including the famous “hidden” one), beg for exploration, filling more of the visitor’s day. 

Entering the Oasis, we realize the place is designed for personal exploration as multiple winding paths curve through a lush jungle filled with small creatures and colorful birds. Folks who choose not to rush through this section of the park may uncover a small waterfall cascading before a bridge, all hidden from immediate view. Small caves contain unexpected animal exhibits. The scent of flowers and the distant sound of music fill the air. To experience this is to feel a combination of serenity and excitement, the desire to remain in this one spot all day and the need to explore even further.

Journeying beyond, the Tree of Life becomes a breathtaking piece of art upon closer inspection, as the three hundred plus animal carvings found in its trunk and branches become evident. One cannot help but photograph this masterpiece all through the day and from various angles.

However disarming the view, it is only upon entering the newly created village of Harambe, that the serious message of conservation comes into focus. The park’s signature attraction, Kilimanjaro Safaris, is found here and takes up approximately 100 of its 500 acres. In this African town, which takes minor design elements from Epcot’s unrealized Equatorial Africa pavilion, its citizens make their living from eco-tourism and coexist in peace with their surroundings. The attraction itself contains a focus about the real evils of poaching, subtly weaving its important message among the views and the thrills.

In this regard, Animal Kingdom aligns itself much more with Epcot than with the Magic Kingdom or the Studios. The latter two parks place a heavy emphasis on pure fun and entertainment, but underneath Epcot’s incredible pavilions are doses of philosophy mixed with Disney magic dubbed “edutainment”. The same holds true with this park. It may be subtle, but it is always present.

Like its predecessors, the Animal Kingdom theme park is first and foremost a business venture, so it is designed to appeal to the masses. The emotional connection with its audience goes even deeper than appealing to our love for animals. Varying worldviews and spiritualities are foundational elements that combine with Disney’s attention to detail. All this is done very carefully as to not offend anyone, and Disney carefully straddles the lines between man as guardian and steward of creation to man as equal with the rest of creation, an important distinction.

The Oasis was once named Genesis Gardens during the planning stages, but the Tree of Life is a direct reference found in the holy books of all three major religions. Man and woman were created by God and placed in this beautiful garden and in the center stood the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. It is only when they disobey God and eat of the forbidden fruit that they are banished. At Animal Kingdom, guests have a chance to return to this glorious place, and they rarely are disappointed. Disney’s creation here mimicks our Earthly creation. It is masterful and done with a loving hand. The environment designed does not fail in creating the most beautiful place they have ever conceived. This setting is satisfying to the soul!

Departing from the safari jeeps, we journey onto the Gorilla Falls Exploration Trail. In this verdant valley, a troop of incredible creatures roam freely within yards of the path. Later an excursion aboard the Wildlife Express to Conservation Station, Disney's behind the scenes visitor center, impresses with their animal care.

Moving on down the way, the Flights of Wonder bird show is found at the outpost of the soon to open Asia section of the park. In a few months, when guests can enter the village, they’ll discover another exploration trail revealing tigers, bats, and komodo dragons as well as an exciting but brief white water rapid ride.

Having completed the tour of the areas celebrating real animals, guests can venture to Dinoland, U.S.A., seeking encounters with those creatures prehistoric and extinct. Countdown to Extinction, a time machine journey gone awry, is the premier attraction here. It is a fast-paced, loud, and quite scary adventure. The layout of the track is an exact copy of the popular Indiana Jones Adventure in Disneyland, a concession to rising costs associated with building Animal Kingdom. Competitively, it is a direct answer to the Jurassic Park attractions planned at Universal’s Islands of Adventure.

Even this innocent science fiction adventure reinforces an evolutionary theory that dinosaurs were destroyed by a meteor storm, compared to the great flood that many creation believing scientists think accomplished the end result. Regardless, it is a thrilling encounter not soon to be forgotten. Aside from the prehistoric botanical gardens, an imaginative child’s playground, and a stage show based on The Jungle Book, not much is found here as the planned Excavator coaster fell also prey to additional budget cuts.

Camp Minnie-Mickey concludes our journey of Animal Kingdom at opening. This land was originally planned as Beastly Kingdom (or Kingdomme), bringing the fantasy element of the park. Focusing on dragons, unicorns, griffins, and other creatures of the imagination, dwindling budgets aborted the plan. Eventually, character greeting kiosks transformed into an entire land.

Even in this natural Fantasyland, philosophy and theology exist hand in hand with entertainment. A small stage show with North American animals starring Pocohontas and Grandmother Willow, is enjoyable, yet sports a strong animist worldview, teaching nature itself possesses a soul. These are heady concepts for a theme park. The major revue, and some would say the best attraction in the park, is The Festival of the Lion King, a highly energetic show with gifted performers featuring recycled floats from of an old Disneyland parade. It is a deserving crowd favorite and a fitting way to end the day.

It was not the consistent serving of multicultural perspectives and spirituality that dissuaded visitors from entering the gates. Guests were quick to notice the cleverly disguised shortcomings, many deeming this “new breed of Disney park” a half-day excursion. Disney responded equally fast that this was a place to be savored, not a rushed experience. Both camps were right, yet since Disney understood that guests vote with their wallets, plans were immediately made to add to the park in short order.

During my first journey to the park, two erroneous design choices were clearly evident along with the lack of attractions. The majestic Tree of Life is truly a draw in itself, but the film experience inside, although quite good, uses space that should contain an iconic and timeless attraction. Additionally, the tacky and very unnecessary Rain Forest Café takes up prime real estate at the park’s entrance, lending a stench of commercialization to an otherwise organic and visually appealing piece of land. This is a major mistake, akin to placing a prominent Home Town Buffet at the grand entrance of Main Street.

Other guests were equally insightful. The persistent “half-day park” assessment, the early closing time, a lack of Disney quality, Audio-Animatronic attractions, and the misperception that Animal Kingdom was nothing more than a zoo, combined to keep attendance levels lower than the executives in Burbank desired. In fact, by some reports, attendance figures dropped for two to four consecutive years after the park opened. Although short on cash for expansion, new plans were developed with varying degrees of success in acceptance and execution.
Chester and Hester’s Dinorama was added to the prehistoric section of the park, providing additional fun for children but diluting the theme by adding a cheap carnival atmosphere to this elegant setting. Countdown to Extinction became the generic Dinosaur, tying itself in name to the newly released Disney film. Other smaller name changes made things easier to understand for guests. Popular shows were given new indoor theaters to answer the complaint that there was little air conditioning to combat the Florida heat.

In spite of these changes, numbers remained flat at best. Disney’s advertising team finally took on some of the misperceptions directly, promoting that Animal Kingdom was “Nahtazu”, eventually culminating in “Adventure Awaits” when Imagineering finally built an attraction that single-handedly changed the fortunes of the park.

Expedition Everest: Legend of the Forbidden Mountain was just the high profile attraction the park needed. Beautifully in theme and stunningly executed, this high speed roller coaster appealed to teens and families alike. This was one instance where the superb concept art was surpassed by the majestic reality formed from concrete, steel and paint.
The success of Everest catapulted Animal Kingdom above the Studios in Florida park attendance, but it also created the need for more shows, attractions and eateries to handle the folks now determined to make the park part of their vacation. Fortunately, a small orange fish named Nemo was the impetus for another blockbuster, a theater show that easily rivaled Festival of the Lion King in scope, execution, and popularity.

A decade later, Animal Kingdom still bears a strong resemblance to its opening day presentation. However lofty the goals for this park were at conception and initial execution, during a decade with mixed results both creative and financial, eventually Disney Imagineers came to their own revelation: the beautiful Animal Kingdom park was primarily a business investment, and it had to be tended to with much care to maintain both its integrity and monetary success.

What is next for this marvelous place? Only the suits and Imagineers at Disney know. Strong contenders seem to be an animal area focusing on Australia, although some die-hard fans still desire a version of Beastly Kingdom. South America is also uncharted territory. Many Disneyphiles are concerned about the infusion of animated characters into the parks, feeling Animal Kingdom is the next to be infected by this trend. Time will tell.

Reagrdless of future plans, some things are certain: Disney will continue to compete with its neighbors, Harry Potter or otherwise; Imagineers will design attractions that inspire while Disney executives direct the park’s course based on guest attendance and spending.

Lastly, Disney's Animal Kingdom will continue to connect with guests. The superb craftmanship at the park is unrivaled in the States, and as long as the theme and execution remains uncompromised, it will be profitable. More importantly, due to man's deep love for animals, a spirit of adventure, and his longing for connection to the Garden where he began, this wonderful, creative place will bring us back again and again.
This article appears in its original abbreviated form. Due to much feedback and reader appreciation, I have been encouraged to expand the series. So, I have, quite a bit in fact- and it starts here.

(All concept art and some photos copyright The Walt Disney Company. Most photographs copyright Mark Taft.)

April 21, 2008

It's Still a Small World

Saw the videos of Hong Kong Disneyland's "It's A Small World" last night. Although it was not as nicely done as other locale's versions, I was not feeling bombarded by the character infusion. Nor did it feel as if Imagineer Mary Blair's vision was at all compromised. It was charming as ever. On to the next subject, please.

April 19, 2008

Disney's Pre-Westcot Chinatown

Rummaging through my stuff to complete Tuesday's Animal Kingdom piece and happened upon this admittedly small but rare concept for Disneyland's abandoned Chinatown, an offshoot from Main Street U.S.A. 

This image comes from a larger guidebook page with concept art for the "Haunted House" (sic) and "Adventures in Science". Enjoy!

(Art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

April 18, 2008

Just Do It

Nike was onto something. Balance is so important in my life, but I do not always do it well. Absolutely love to stay on top of the music and Disney worlds for fun, but also attempt to keep some exercise going so that I don't morph into a blob! There is quite the rush when I've pushed myself harder than I thought possible. Yet, even that isn't enough.

A man I admire greatly wrote, "For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come." Really like this quote from the Apostle Paul in the book of I Timothy- helps keep me in balance.

April 17, 2008

Stay Tuned...

Coming Tuesday, we'll celebrate 10 years of Disney's Animal Kingdom.

Happiest Kingdom of Them All

It's very easy and understandable to think that Disneyland's Fantasyland is timeless. Certainly, the theme seems iconic, and yet this section of the park has seen its own fair share of change. Just glance at this 1957 park map. Certainly a stark contrast to the New Fantasyland of 1983. 

Attractions have been enhanced, added or replaced. Colorful but simple tournament tent-like show building fascades painstakingly transform into elegant and stylized versions of European locales. A mountain is built from scratch, while a slice of a beloved Neverland disappears, only to resurface in Paris a decade later.

(Art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

April 16, 2008

Learning My A B C's at Disneyland

Here's some great images from the Summer 1975 Disneyland Guidebook. This is the freebie given out at the gate to everyone who entered the park. I collected these for years. Drove to the park to pick up each new edition, and I just loved to see what changed from quarter to quarter. (How I wish I had kept all of them!)

The explanation page provides some great detail as to what things cost in 1975. Not only were "E" tickets less than a buck, but the information shown really let you know which attractions were considered the premier ones as looks from the show building's exterior could be deceiving.

Not only did the guide explain what was considered an "E" , this ticketing system lent itself to some great and friendly discussion among family and friends as to what constituted the value Disney assigned it. (Ah, we have now discovered a root cause for the ongoing "What Makes An "E" Ticket?" debates.)

You can see that some middle grade attractions flucuated between letters. As things changed with increased technology (and as more coasters were added to the park), lesser sophisticated but still enjoyable attractions were given a lowered ranking.

The decision is go to an all inclusive park admission was a mixed blessing for me. While I thoroughly enjoyed the freedom to do as I pleased, the magic and fun of planning wisely how to spend my park "cash" disappeared forever.

(Art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)  

April 15, 2008

Donna Summer: No Ordinary Girl

Love to peruse the books found on the bargain table, and I ran across something I didn't expect: a Donna Summer autobiography entitled Ordinary Girl. All I really knew about her personal life amounted to not much more than her infamous beginnings as a moaning disco singer. Sure, I'd heard her on the radio in the seventies and early eighties- you couldn't turn the thing on without that happening. Since I had a soft spot for her out-of-the-box take on MacArthur Park and some time to spare, I picked it up and sat down. Wow. The things you never know about someone...

This gal has had quite the life, all the blessings and hardships anyone could expect- and more. Crisis after crisis brought her to a place of considering suicide. Donna eventually had what could only be called a powerful, life-changing experiencing with God. She decided that Jesus was in fact the Son of God who came to earth because of his great love for the people He created, giving up his life on the cross in payment for their sin- and then proving his divinity by being raised from the dead. This decision turned her life - and her earthly fortunes- around. An amazing story. Gotta read it to believe it. 

April 14, 2008

Starry, Starry Night

Just returned from a Rocky Mountain retreat. Venturing to the rooftop to view the evening sky with the stars and moon in their glory, I was once again mesmerized by their beauty. Later that weekend, I was given the opportunity to view the video below- and I sat in my chair stunned at what I heard and saw. Stunned.

Start here: http://www.bethlehemstar.net/. This amazing website is chock full of scientific data with Biblical references surrounding the appearance of the Bethlehem Star. This is the star that was used to announce the birth of Christ to the Wise Men of old. It later chronicles the changes in the sky that were reported to occur at Jesus' crucifixion. I didn't have to be a rocket scientist or a theologian to understand it, it was that well laid out.

Do you like what you see? The DVD mentioned is really well done, and worth every penny. Mind-blowing stuff. Even without the spiritual overtones, someplace where you can explore the constellations belongs in Epcot.

This single endorsement intrigued me:

"About 99.9% of the Star of Bethlehem stuff is nutty, but this isn't that. It's well-researched and reasonable."—Ronald A. Schorn, Ph.D.—Schorn founded and served as Chief of the Planetary Astronomy department at NASA and was Technical Editor of Sky & Telescope magazine. He is the author of Planetary Astronomy."

Worth a look- I promise. You'll never look at the night sky the same again.

A Tale of Adventures to Come: 1997

As mentioned last week, change is on the way to Florida. New enticements will be announced to Walt Disney World property, as the suits continue to encourage the shareholders by guaranteeing visitors will keep returning and dropping their hard earned dough beyond a one day visit to the iconic Magic Kingdom. Particularly important in a troubled economy.

Disney News, a company produced glossy magazine, existed for many years prior to the internet. The intent was clearly promotion- and the folks behind the project knew how to build excitement among the fans. The Spring 1997 issue included a full color version of this collectable map (seen above) detailing what was to come for the new summer season and to additionally plug the upcoming opening of Disney's Animal Kingdom. The graphics are well done, combining an emphasis on childlikeness with a slightly retro adult look. Quite fun!

(Art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

April 11, 2008

Rocky Mountain High

Off to a mountain retreat today for a few days of play and rest. My annual time away to focus on my faith, my family, and my friends. The really important things in my life. It's a good thing to reflect and spend time being worshipful and thankful. Be back next week.

For a Special Girl

As Stevie Wonder says, "Isn't She Lovely?"... Yes, a thousand times, yes.

April 10, 2008

Paradise Found in Hawaii- With or Without Disney

The snapshot above is one of several lagoons on the beautiful island of O'ahu, Hawaii. This is the Ko O'lina resort area beach, where the Walt Disney Company will soon be opening their newest resort. A stunning location! Wide expanses of quiet beach and incredibly beautiful water gives this a charm not soon forgotten.

The wedding chapel is in view turning the other direction from the focus of the earlier shot. Apparently is there quite a waiting list to be wed here. The green grass and stunning palms gives a slight idea of the lush gardens that are found around the few existing hotels at Ko O'lina- along with shark pools, man-made reefs, fountains and statuary. It's all lovely- and expensive. Yet, it did it's job as my wife and I didn't want to leave.

The new Disney resort may not be quite as beautful and relatively low key as the Polynesian Village Resort in Florida due to the proposed high rise section, but that is balanced out by one small piece of information: It's found in Hawaii, not Central Florida. Paradise found, indeed!

(Photographs copyright Mark Taft.)

April 9, 2008

The Mouse Isn't Roaring -Yet!

Things are extremely quiet at Disney these days. As the company tries to quiet down the anger and bad press regarding changes at a concurrently scorned and mocked but loved attraction, not too much else is happening. Sure, they are building up mild anticipation for Mania/Midway games at California Adventure, yet overall, it is a season of absence. Even the cyberworld has gone still about what is going on behind closed doors. All this tells me one thing: the Mouse is preparing to announce something new for the resorts. Just watch.