June 30, 2008

A Look Back into Small World's Future

From the same mid-sixties souvenir book that announced the real Disney Decade...

Here's a piece of concept art which shows an alternative face to the show building of It's A Small World. If you look closely, you'll notice the iconic smiling timepiece is gone, replaced by flags of the world found in the large oval at the center. Also take notice of the colored geometric shapes and patterns on the building. Interesting, huh? The caption below this illustration fills in the missing information: "This model shows how a 'symphony of lights' will spread across the Small World building, highlighting a new area in Fantasyland." Shades of things to come decades later. Just goes to show good ideas never die in hands of the Imagineers.

(Art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

June 27, 2008

Before Wall-E...

... there was SMRT-1. He was the cute and compact robot found in Communicore at Epcot Center. He could talk and interact with guests, answering questions with a sweet little boy voice and a charming giggle.

Notice anything special about this photo? Before becoming the current home of Innoventions, there was Communicore. It was a bright and airy place, filled with lots of light and open spaces, without so heavy an emphasis on corporate product placement. Epcot's smaller exhibits were designed to be updated, so things would change. But I'll always miss this little robot. Betcha he's just sitting in some imagineer's home or office, now just a memory of days gone by.

June 26, 2008

Kodak Moment: Figment of Our Imagination

Just a fun family reunion made a little more special by the appearance of our two favorite Epcot characters, Figment and Dreamfinder. Another great time circa 1992.

June 25, 2008

Carpenters: Close to You - Second Time's the Charm

Although quickly put together to capitalize on the success of the Close to You single, this 1970 album is actually a near perfect representation of the combined talents of Richard and Karen. This disc remained on my turntable for many weeks. Repeated listenings over the decades have only deepened my appreciation for it, making it a sentimental favorite.

Starting with the iconic recording of Paul Williams' and Roger Nichols' We've Only Just Begun, the set continues with Love is Surrender. This Ralph Carmichael tune is just the vehicle to show the duo's versatility, taking on a contemporary Christian song for a new spin. The rhythm track shines with playful vocals, making me a believer. Returning to ballads, Maybe It's You, this Carpenter / Bettis original, holds up well even in comparison to their later and better known compositions. Quietly elegant, this track still catches me off guard with its intimate reading by Karen. Even at twenty years of age, she sang like a seasoned professional, drawing me into her world.

Reason to Believe is next up. The Tim Hardin classic, the Rod Stewart standard? Yes, indeed, and Karen and Richard's warm countrified version meets the challenge, showing they can excel in most any style. I reconsidered my view on country music because of this song alone, and in my mind, there were too few songs of this style in their repertoire. A reading of the Beatle's Help is next. It is an unnecessary choice- my least favorite track on the album- and the one I used to wish wasn't here as it breaks the established mood. That said, the dramatic ending does set up the exquisite and elongated version of Close to You.

Turning the LP over (and don't you miss the old 12" x 12" covers?), I thought the best was behind me as the two hit singles were found on side one. But what a surprise. Baby It's You captured my ear at first listen and contains one of the finest saxophone solos the Carpenters ever put to disc. Karen's performance is surely a knockout, but this is one of the first times the listener gets a glimpse of young Richard as a great, not just capable, arranger. It is a perfect pairing of singer, song choice, and production, proving his work on the Close to You single wasn't luck. Baby is intimate, dramatic, compelling. The promotions folks at A&M missed the mark here, as this deserved to be their third smash single.

Another Burt Bacharach classic gets the definitive treatment as I'll Never Fall in Love Again is next. Layered vocals and engaging keyboards give us a fresh take on this Top 40 hit. Two more Carpenter/Bettis compositions, the stark but lovely Cresent Noon, followed by Mr. Guder- a good solid song with a strange title, shift the mood once again. For the next number, Richard proves himself a pretty good vocalist. On the breezy I Kept on Loving You, the rhythm guitar plays perfectly against his confident phrasing. This terrific album ends with Another Song, an epic tale of love found and love lost, featuring an ambitious arrangement equal to the powerful fuzz guitar solo on the later Goodbye to Love. This album was a perfect introduction to the talents of this brother and sister team. I was hooked.

Interestingly, I started to discover the power of music to influence its listeners. Not only was the album a turning point in my appreciation of other styles of music, country music in particular, but in hindsight I realized the music of Karen and Richard helped form many of my ideas about romantic love. In the real world, not necessarily a good thing. Yet I also discovered they made some great "mood" music, so you take the good with the bad!

Receiving their gold records. 

It was a pleasure discovering their wonderful singles were not a fluke. In my opinion, the only thing stopping this set from being Karen and Richard's masterpiece album is the absence of a chart topping Carpenter/Bettis composition. That would come later. This fine collection did establish a long and successful career, creating a large and dedicated fan base of listeners from all over the world. I could not wait for their next album, and fortunately it didn't disappoint.
2021 Note: This is part of a continuing series of posts on the albums of Karen and Richard Carpenter. There are also numerous stand alone posts highlights different aspects of their career, recordings, and life. 

Below is the list of my initial reviews and then my "Revisited /Fresh Look" reviews a decade later. 

My Initial Reviews of the albums:

June 24, 2008

The Message

Plainly, this is a great book. It is the sheer simplicity of the message and its presentation that makes it so compelling. It is a tale as old as time itself. Truth be known, at its core, it is a love story. The simple true love story that unfolds in a way you've never read before. Here's the plot: God's love for men and women is so deep and rich and his plan for them powerful and unique. Because of the sorrow, pride, and brokenness of ours souls and spirits and the way we live our lives, we are separated from the one who loves us so. This state of being keeps us from fully understanding what our lives could be.

Thankfully, due to his great and sacrificial love, our lead character sends his son Jesus to the earth to die for us, our mistakes, and the tragedy that our lives become. This is the only gift that accomplishes what God desires for us, inner peace, joy, and a reunited life in him. This amazing gift is given but must be opened by us. No one else can choose to take this gift for us. We each make our own decision.

The author, Eugene Peterson, tells this biblical love story in a modern but not dated, warm and relational way, keeping the substance of the message without using archaic language. Read it for yourself. It is a timeless message about a timeless Gift.

June 23, 2008

Disneyland's Golden Tomorrow

Another concept of the New Tomorrowland for Disneyland. Just look at this great piece! It certainly was "A World on the Move". Found in this illustration is that slightly different take on Space Mountain's exterior that I mentioned a couple of weeks ago- and in a new location, no less! If I'm viewing this correctly, it seems to be where Carousel of Progress ended up. Too bad, as it would have made a great new centerpiece. If you look closely, you'll see there's two levels for pedestrian traffic here. The Peoplemover still glides along while heading into the center station under the Epcot-like golden dome. However, that doesn't seen to be the Rocket Jets up on top but something more like the Observatron!

(Art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

June 20, 2008

Amazing "Journey"

This may end up being one cheesy film, but every once in awhile, you just have to indulge! And I cannot wait for this. One of my favorite and classic Jules Verne novels made into film many, many times. I even like the casting. Brendan Fraser knows how to balance goofiness with true action heroics as seen in the Mummy series. He'll be great fun to watch here.

This story as a theme park attraction forms the centerpiece of Tokyo DisneySea's Mysterious Island, an area based on Mr. Verne's imaginative novels. It's quite popular. The rumor of this showing up as a stateside attraction comes and goes in cycles. Hopefully one day, the rumors hold true with an attraction becoming fleshed out in steel and concrete. I'll be first in line at opening.

(By the way, on Monday I'll have that other rarely seen Space Mountain concept art up on the blog.)

June 19, 2008

Beastly Transformation

Hidden among the book, Disney Dossiers, are all kinds of little gems. But you have to look good to find them! Here's an unused character concept for the main character from Beauty and the Beast, and he appears to be the more French cousin of Rafiki from the Lion King!

(Art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

June 18, 2008

The Real Portofino Resort

Time certainly passes all too fast. It was one year ago that my wife and I were in Italy, enjoying the beautiful towns of Tuscany with side trips to Venice and to Cinque Terra and on to the world famous city of Portofino.

The delicately winding road into the city was buzzing as autos flew by while cyclists cruised and pedestrians crossed the road. It's a blur of activity. My wife described Portofino as the "Italian Beverly Hills", and it really does have the air of the well-moneyed. Mansions and yachts were far from out of the ordinary. Stately shops and hotels beckoned. Outdoor cafes are patronized by women in designer clothes and men looking as if they stepped out of a Fred Astaire movie. The experience was almost surreal- as unique as Venice but entirely different. And worlds apart from the pseudo-Portofino at Universal Orlando.

(Photographs copyright Mark Taft.)

June 17, 2008

Comstock's Plant (and Animal) Kingdom

Paul Comstock is the modern day genius landscape architect behind so many of Disney's wonderful theme parks and resorts. Mentored by the legendary Bill Evans, his reputation is crowned by his breathtaking work on Disney's Animal Kingdom. Here is one of his pieces for the park. Astounding. (Copyright Disney and Paul Comstock.)

To view more of his two decades of work at Disney, see his portfolio at his new employer, Valley Crest Design Group.

June 16, 2008

Guns Galore!

From the 1964 Disneyland Guide- a rare look into the long gone Adventureland Shooting Gallery. Something you'll never find 44 years later at the more politically correct Disney's Animal Kingdom!

June 13, 2008

Rooftops of Paris

This absolutely gorgeous photograph was found by me on the website Flickr several months ago. I am using it by permission per the page I found it on even though I lost the information of the photographer! (If it is you, please e-mail me.) This view is one of many reasons Paris is a city that must be seen to be believed. The City of Lights is a city of delights. (Sorry for the pun!)

June 12, 2008

Songs for Simpler Times

At one point in the not too distant past, Disney developed several musical variety attractions. The trend began in 1963 with the opening of "Walt Disney's Enchanted Tiki Room" and continued on with various shows opening in many theme parks around the world. This was a good fit for the time as American television was dominated by comedy, music, and variety shows.

The spectacular success of "Tiki" meant there would be more to come. Eventually, there was a duplicate of the show in Florida dubbed "Tropical Serenade", as well as two others at the opening of the Magic Kingdom park, "The Mickey Mouse Revue" and "Country Bear Jamboree". In turn, the West Coast gained its own bear hoedown as well as another show - a tribute to America and its music, just in time for the country's bicentennial with "America Sings". With all these shows, theme park fans across the country had several chances to sit down and relax while they were entertained in air-conditioned comfort. A big bonus especially in the humid and hot Sunshine State.

The Magic Kingdoms were not the only Disney parks to receive these types of musical revues. The 1982 grand opening of the groundbreaking EPCOT Center, brought us Kitchen Kabaret, a strange little show about nutrition hosted by fruits and vegetables. For all of Disney's talk about the park heralding the next century, this cabaret was very retro, exactly the type of attraction that earned Disney parks the teen reputation of being "the place old people went." Or even just a place for little kids. (Think about the pizza hall Chuck E. Cheese!) It was an extremely long 12 years before this show was retired, but unfortunately it was replaced by an even worse presentation, Food Rocks.

Tokyo Disneyland's opening saw the first overseas presentations of the Magic Kingdom's shows, aside from "America Sings" which, thankfully had no place in Japan, and the Land pavillion's musical theater- which shouldn't have happened anywhere. Wiser heads prevailed for the planning of Disneyland Paris. None of these shows were featured, and the originally planned Beauty and the Beast musical theater presentation was axed in favor of other attractions. I must admit, since this is my favorite Disney animated movie, ( Do I really need to qualify this by saying "hand drawn"?), I was very much looking forward to this show.

Although initially quite fun, these musical shows were starting to wear thin with each repeat veiwing. Attendance began to drop. Marc Davis' charming American characters finally found a new home in Splash Mountain, and the Mouse's Revue in Florida took up new digs at Tokyo's opening. A poorly planned and executed replacement for Serenade opened in Florida as a desperate attempt to keep an audience. At the Happiest Place on Earth, the Bears vacated their California home and made way for an English cub, with Food Rocks retiring for Epcot's version of the only California Adventure classic, Soarin'. In the middle of this transition time, the Imagineers wisely dropped plans for an alien cabaret to replace the poorly aging Carousel Theater in California. The era of theater shows starring animatronics had passed.

Being a music lover meant these shows had a longer life span for me than maybe necessary. Some shows weathered better than others. Having a soft spot for Hawaii and looking back fondly on our many vacations there, I was thrilled when the original Tiki Room was beautifully restored. I wished Disney had saved one theater for the Bears, but that was more for nostalgia value than anything else. (A rumored remake with famous country singers would have held some interest for another few years, however.)

Just recently, I listened to the full recordings of the Disneyland shows from the 50th Anniversary set. Sad to say, but I found myself thinking these shows needed to be replaced. The Jamboree was charming for its time. America Sings, as much as I appreciate the talent of Mr. Davis and his sense of humor, has aged the worst of the lot. Even my beloved Tiki Room survives as a pleasant distraction due to my love for the islands.

Attractions aging poorly is not solely the domain of animatronic musical theater. Disney faces the same kind of challenges with its reliance on 3D film-based attractions and especially in Florida, also with stage productions using live actors. Due to its large base of international versus local visitors, the Florida parks can last longer with aging shows and films, but not so in California, as evidenced by the feeble crowds for the tired "Muppets" and "It's Tough to Be a Bug". Viewing the latest plans for California Adventure, we see the Imagineers themselves understanding the struggle they face. New adventures either involve interactivity or those that physically move us from place to place, all the while telling a great story.

The biggest lesson here for Disney is to understand their audience is constantly looking for something not found elsewhere. Disney cannot continue to rely on yesterday's methods and whatever is easiest (or cheapest) to do. Developing new technologies are a vital part to keeping things fresh and to bringing return visitors. Disney cannot allow their competition the luxury of beating them at their own game by passing on cutting edge ride or show systems offered by outside firms.

While in the parks, guests desire- and pay for- something new and different. Particularly in California where it is so easy to travel between parks, a variety in types of attractions and experiences contribute to keeping visitors around through mealtime and into the evening hours.

Balancing these truths and budgets are all part of the new rules for today's theme park game. As shown by the public's lukewarm reaction to the poorly executed California Adventure, rewriting the rules doesn't always work. The lessons learned at this park prove it is better to do it right the first time or pay the price. This time, they won't get increased attendance for a song.

(Art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

June 11, 2008

Sparrowless in Paris

Wish I had bought this Disneyland Paris attraction poster when I had a chance. Bought Adventure Isle instead, as I could only afford one of them. Isn't this one great? The artistry put into this park is phenomenal. The Pirates of the Caribbean attraction is even better than California's version. And Jack Sparrow is no where to be found- yet.

June 10, 2008

Rising from the Ashes

Don't read ahead unless you are ready to hear spoilers about this interesting little movie. OK. you've been warned...

Alternately depressing and encouraging, this 2006 film is a remake of a tear jerker thirty years old. In place of Peter Falk and Jill Clayburgh, we have Dermot Mulroney and Amanda Peet starring as two folks each with a terrible secret: terminal illness. It's a horrible but not unexpected twist on the old "Boy meets Girl, Boy loses Girl" story.

It is a warm, and at times, funny film. For its modern sensibilities (including the now mandatory nod to Viagra), it remains an old fashioned tale of love and loss and death. The main characters, whose names are also the title of the movie, Griffin and Phoenix attempt to enjoy what's left of their lives while coming to grips with what they will miss.

Amanda Peet (Phoenix) is absolutely wonderful as the young woman who painfully understands, as much as she would like, she will never have a child. (Her encounter with an emotionally burned out mother is a heartbreaking scene.) This is her movie, and she brings the substance and soul to it. Dermot Mulroney (Griffin) plays the part he always seems to, the likeable and easy going boyfriend. Yet, even his character finally reaches a melting point, bringing his performance above the ordinary. There's good chemistry here, and the film wisely keeps its focus on these two versus adding subplots and more in depth secondary characters.

Once I got past the bait and switch from what was marketed as a sweet little, Disney happy, chick flick, here's the part that really struck me: once each of their secrets are out, these lovers never discuss what happens to them after death. There is no questioning of their future, their purpose, the existence of a heaven or a hell or any kind of afterlife. It is as if their physical bodies are everything that defines them. 

Even in our culture obsessed with looks and youth and living for today, I have not met one single person who hasn't wrestled with the questions of immortality when contemplating their own impending death. What a disservice to the viewer. This forgotten aspect of the film shortchanges the depth of the characters and keeps the story a somewhat shallow virtual reality.

In some small way, I suppose, this is a clear and significant representation of many people. We are an enlightened new century, yet easily missing the simple truth of life: we all must die. It's easy to fall into the trap of thinking life as we know it will continue on indefinitely. I often forget about the true reality- an eternal reality, instead focusing on the here and now and what is just ahead on tomorrow's calendar.

We are so much more than just what happens between our birthday and our funeral. May we remember that death is our doorway, not our ending. Its just the beginning of a new reality, a new eternal existence. One spent with or without the Creator who loves us and gave His Son for us. The book of Hebrews says it directly:

"Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him."

June 9, 2008

Retro Rockin' Space Mountain

At the start of Disneyland's second decade, there was an air of real excitement surrounding the future of the park. Walt Disney's Enchanted Tiki Room has just opened and was wowing audiences with its Audio Animatronic magic. The most recent souvenir book not only included a three page retrospective of the building of the park, but it also had five full pages of up and coming attractions.

The second decade proved to be the real "Disney Decade", as Disney Imagineers delivered almost everything that had been promised. What what built in this amazing span of ten years? Oh, just some little attractions you know as Pirates of the Caribbean, The Haunted Mansion, all of New Orleans Square, a New Tomorrowland with the Adventure Thru Inner Space, Peoplemover, Carousel of Progress, and It's A Small World. What wasn't built in time? Space Mountain, but its debut came in 1977, only a year or two after it was promised.

Here's a piece of concept art showing the inside of the mountain. Look at the very cool, very 60's style rockets! And notice the Peoplemover going through the mountain. The exterior concept shows a similar but different perspective that you don't see too often. That's coming in a later post...

(Art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

June 7, 2008

"Light" Rock

Just gotta check out this band! This is one of their first albums but maybe their best. David Crowder and band rock in a whole new strange and powerful way. Mainstream yet edgy, soulful and raw. Terrific live! Definitely fun and enlightening. Check out "Illuminate" here.

June 6, 2008

Islands of Mixed Adventure

It was the kind of year any theme park fan would envy. I had the summer off, and as it was to play out, it lined up perfectly with our 25th wedding anniversary trip. My wife and I had saved for a decade to celebrate with a three week journey to Europe. Our itinerary covered five countries and included a two day stop at the Disneyland Paris Resort for a visit to both parks. The whole trip was terrific. A wonderful and memorable time. Certainly the highlight of the summer.

My wife had a surprise waiting for me upon our return. Well aware I would never again have a sabbatical from work, she did a bit of saving on her own and surprised me with an end-of-summer trip to Orlando. Besides being quite the bargain, the timing was right, as she had to return to her teaching job, so I would have been sitting at home alone with a yardful of weeds waiting for me. Here was this Disney die-hard's once in a lifetime opportunity to indulge in some geekiness and check out all the detail I might miss on earlier family vacations.

Taking our kids on vacation, Disney or otherwise has always been great fun- full of memory building events they talk about to this day. Being at the top of the Eiffel Tower at sunset, viewing wild animals and glaciers in Alaska, seeing the breathtaking Butchart Gardens in Victoria, cable car rides in San Francisco, touring the White House, and many, many more. Additionally, my wife and I do a good portion of "second honeymooning". Now, I won't lie. We are not rich, but God has blessed us with the ability to do a lot of traveling in the midst of raising four kids and trying to help others less fortunate. Amazingly cheap introductory flights, generous parents, friends "in the business", special deals, etc. have all been a blessing.

This trip would be one for me to do as I pleased, allowing an opportunity to do some things I would not have done with the family. (Or wouldn't put them through!) After much thought about what I really wanted to do, I chose to enjoy two days on the beach, one at Epcot, and one at Animal Kingdom. Because of school schedules and prices, our family visits to Walt Disney World never really left us time or money to go to Universal. Plus, we had been to the Studios in California. 

However, once it had opened, I had to check out Islands of Adventure. That was a must do on my list, particularly to experience The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, which had become a fan favorite, even drawing comparisons to Indiana Jones Adventure. Since my departure back home was scheduled for very late in the day, I chose to spend my last morning until late afternoon at Islands of Adventure.

I won't cover my Disney or beach days here, but I'll focus on my day at my final park instead. Leaving the hotel bright and early, I arrived at the parking garage about half an hour before opening time. The crowds were fairly light, and the walk was lengthy from the garage to City Walk. At one end was my destination for the day, and at the other Universal Studios Orlando. Although I briefly considered changing parks, I realized most of the Studios attractions could be found in California, so I stuck to my plan. Besides, I couldn't miss my one chance for Spider-Man! Walking up to the gates and passing the iconic lighthouse, I was dumbstruck by the detail I saw inside.

This really surprised me, and my anticipation for the rest of the park grew as I waited for the gates to open. What I felt was a good reminder of some facts from Theme Park Design 101: The entry area sets the stage for guest expectations and draws visitors in. I truly wondered how many people, pondering the choice of which park to enter, walked over to Islands and immediately made their decision based on the designer's marvelous work. Wow, totally unexpected and wonderfully crafted. (Note to the Imagineers redoing California Adventure: you've got one last chance, so make sure you do it right this time.)

My photos may be a little out of order here, but my memory of what I did next is clear. Once I could figure out exactly where to store my things, I headed right for The Hulk coaster. The line was light as the morning was young.

Time for a confession here. I like coasters, really do. But I am not an extreme thrills kind of guy, so the new ones at places like Six Flags Magic Mountain and Cedar Point are not ones you will find me riding. Yet, I had to do Hulk, just once and just for the views I knew I would get. Mission accomplished, and it was quite fun!

Still on a Hulk rush, I walked down Marvel Super Hero Island's main street, thinking "Not too bad, Universal, not too bad at all." Being so impressed with the Port of Entry, I looked for more details. Big mistake. Then I began noticing the painted flats, how easily I could see backstage, assorted areas where the large photo images were peeling off, and lots of faded paint. This was a consistent vision throughout the park. No boats were visible to bring visitors from island to island, giving the place a very unexpected stillness. When I finally reached Spider-Man, I forgot all about all the disappointing pieces. I was ready to rock!

Right to the point, I have nothing but wonderful things to say about this attraction! It alone was worth the money spent to visit the park. The queue was great at setting the story, and the ride itself really lived up to its title. Won't fill this paragraph with any spoilers, but I will say I rode it three times in a row. Each trip, I discovered new things and still walked off asking myself how they pulled it all off. It is Universal's answer to Indiana Jones. An amazing adventure indeed! Is it better? That's up for you to decide.

After a few major plusses in a row, I was really ready to embrace this park as a Disney quality experience. Then I went into Toon Lagoon. Here my thoughts of equality were dashed as the poor upkeep I'd seen earlier was even worse here. Coming right off Super Hero Island, you'd think Universal would give us a change in environment, but the cutouts and cartoon characters felt too similar and created a bit of boredom. They really didn't change much, only the attractions were different. Wetter. Way wetter, and not in a good way.

Popeye and Blutos Barges was my first experience in getting 100% drenched on any theme park's attraction. I had been forwarned, so I wore a quick dry pair of shorts as if I was headed to a water park. So did many other folks, and I saw many women in bikini tops! It was a good thing I was prepared for a soaking, as Universal's designers went for minimal theming and lots of cheap shots here. It was a fun and appropriately rough course, but it felt as if theme was an afterthought.

I expected much more from the other drencher in this area- Duddley Do-Right's Ripsaw Falls. The folks touting Universal's superiority over Disney say this is their Splash Mountain. Definitely similar on the thrill meter, but absolutely no charm and sorely lacking on the maintenance. I have never seen any ride at any park in such poor condition! This went beyond needing new paint. Props were not only inoperable, they were left visibly broken with the mechanisms exposed for all to see. No attempt to hide anything. Very poor show. Thankfully, I knew Jurassic Park was around the bend, and I was excited to see it.

Oh, the power of the movies! Just seeing the entrance arch made my pulse race a bit!

After having just seen Dinoland U.S.A. at Disney's Animal Kingdom, it was very difficult to walk into this area at Islands of Adventure without making an immediate comparsion between the two. The verdict? In terms of atmosphere alone, Universal wins this round with a knockout. Jurassic Park is appropriately lush and gorgeous. Details abound that are true to the films. The Discovery Center sits at the center of the park, drawing in the eye. Between the entrance arch and the center, however, is a wonderfully themed children's area, Camp Jurassic.

The signature attraction here at the camp is Pteranodon Flyers, a very short flight high above the area. It is fun to watch- bringing some movement to the area- but impossible to ride without a child joining you, so I was out of luck. The camp itself is a smaller dinosaur focused version of Tom Sawyer's Island. Very well done and worth a visit just to take some terrific photos. The waterfalls and vegetation make this a relaxing spot to stop and enjoy your immersive surroundings.

The famous River Adventure was next. Although the surroundings are better than what Universal could have possibly accomplished in Los Angeles, so many effects were broken, ultimately ruining what should have been their centerpiece attraction. At one point, one of the major dinosaurs had its "skin" ripped off, clearly revealing the metal parts underneath it. This was in full view of the riders as we looked directly at them. The falling jeep effect was not working, the smaller dinosaurs were not spitting, and some were not even moving. The giant at the end worked just fine, however, sending our boat off with a roar before we went over the falls. All the wonderful effects may not be working at Disney's Countdown to Extinction, (I hate the generic Dinosaur), but at least everything is in the dark, and the carnotaurus is not exposing his insides to reveal he is, in fact, just a robot.

The Discovery Center was an additional disappointment as none of the major exhibits were working and a large section of the inside was actually just a cafe. I wandered around in a mostly empty building without an employee in sight.

Ultimately, at first glance, Jurassic Park feels much richer than its Animal Kingdom cousin, but the attractions pale in comparison. What Jurassic promises, it does not deliver. Although Disney presents a much odder storyline in Dinoland U.S.A. and Chester and Hester's Dinorama carnival in particular, it does make good on its delivery, as quirky and cheap as it feels.

Next island up as I traveled clockwise was Lost Continent. Certainly, the most visually impressive island here as well as the one with some eye-popping attractions: Dueling Dragons coaster, Eighth Voyage of Sinbad stunt show, and the incredible mutlimedia guided "funhouse" walk-through, Poseidon's Fury.

We who follow Disney park lore (too) closely are familiar with the true story of ex-Disney Imagineers heading over to Universal and designing the Dueling Dragons coaster, and in essence "stealing" the primary reason for Beastly Kingdom to exist. The designer's impact is profound- at least in the queue. It is richly detailed and successfully draws you into the castle and its story. The buildup is similar to what we experience in the Orlando version of the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror and its lush but abandonded gardens. Unfortunately, budgets must get axed at Universal as well, as both coasters are entirely outdoors aside from the station. No theming, no continuation of story, nothing. But what fun coasters they are! Both the Fire and Ice sides are worth a spin.

Even better is the Poseidon's Fury walk through attraction. No spoilers here, but I must say it is really well done. Go see it! The awful downside is an extremely long wait time, mishandled queuing directions by the operators, and a holding area that is both dark and in some places quite "scented". I almost left several times during my near one hour wait, but I am glad I did not.

Before I continue this report with a bit about Seuss Landing and a conclusionary wrap up, let me say that I ate lunch at the Enchanted Oak Tavern in this section of the park. Definitely great theme park food- and just very good food compared to the real world. Terrific ribs, salads, and breads. Slightly on the expensive side but worth every penny. I have had many more mediocre meals at Epcot! Sitting on the adjacent outdoor patio overlooking the lake made it a relaxing and all around pleasant dining experience.

Being a big kid at heart, I saved Seuss Landing for last. It's quite a jolting visual experience going from the Mediterrean feel of Lost Continent into the rainbow world of Dr. Seuss. The one dark ride, Cat in the Hat, was a major disappointment after a 45 minute wait in line. This was supposedly the Peter Pan's Flight of Island's of Adventure, and this part of the park is certainly Universal's answer to Disney's Toontown. In reality, Cat in the Hat reminded me more of the Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. Pick California or Florida, either one. Nothing great. The rest of the Landing, however, is very appealing with a great carousel and very immersive environment. I snapped these last few photos and quickly rushed out of the park to reach the airport for my flight home. Definitely a fun day. The visit quenched my curiosity, and I was glad I had taken time out of my trip to visit.

As I left the park, the comparisons between Disney and Universal spun around in my head. Feeling I had visited each company's premier Florida parks gave me a fairly objective perspective. There were winners and losers on both sides in this contest.

Islands of Adventure is extremely engaging for folks looking for thrills. If you love Six Flags style parks, this is the closest you will get to one in Orlando- with a bit of Disneyesque style and magic thrown in. You have to be able to overlook poor maintenance, seeing backstage areas, and a lot of painted plywood cutouts. You'll love the place if you can. The employees are pleasant, the food ranged from to be expected to great. Spider-Man is a must see. Jurassic Park the island, but not the attractions, are what Disney's Dinoland U.S.A. should have been. No one knows at this point how well their plans for Harry Potter will turn out, but Lost Continent is a winner nonetheless.

As for me, I am hoping Universal's Potter declares war on Disney and makes each company attempt to outdo the other. The fans win. With the right mix of new attractions and a good polishing of the park, I will probably return in the future. But Universal has to win me over because Disneyland in California is still the standard they need to beat. I'm not sure if anyone can, but I'd love to see someone besides the Japanese try.

(Photos copyright Mark Taft.)

June 5, 2008

Eyes to See

Want a modern day true-to-life story about God at work in our world? Check out this blog from a fellow Coloradan: Eyes to See Holy. I think you'll find his story, um, eye opening. Certainly a nice break from the Disney news- and a chance to read about a God who cares for the folks He created at a deep and personal level. Inspiring and challenging.

(Come back tomorrow for my Islands of Adventure trip and photo report.)

June 4, 2008

Design Detail: Lighting California's Adventure

Much of the criticism of the California Adventure theme park focuses on its general lack of detail. However, there are small pockets of the park which are actually detail rich. The Disney Animation attraction is one of these places. (I left the photo quite large so you could see that I'm talking about.)

Moving beyond the surprisingly open and impressive lobby is this small exhibit hall. Here visitors are given a chance to create their own pieces of animation. The setting is intimate and spectacular. A variety of lamps and mirrors give this place a bit of magic that is lacking in several other areas of the park. In fact, Disney's lighting experts did a wonderful job parkwide, as California Adventure is actually a much better visual experience at night than during the day! 

From the blue lit runways in Condor Flats to the brightly lit boardwalk of Paradise Pier, this park is stunning in the evening hours as external distractions disappear in the darkness, allowing us to focus on what the Imagineers did right. Hopefully, we'll get to see more of the park once Disney's World of Color water show makes its debut. Can't happen soon enough.

(Photo copyright Mark Taft.)

June 3, 2008

A&M Records 25th Anniversary Book

In 1987, A&M Records celebrated their 25th anniversary. Not a small feat for a label few people predicted would be successful, let alone become a powerhouse in the industry. To commemorate the occasion, the company produced a wonderful retrospective and distributed it to all its employees. Although not an employee myself, I was blessed to receive a copy. To this day, it remains one of my prized music related possessions.

This 70 page volume details the A&M story from various perspectives both inside and outside the company. The beautiful cover, shown above, depicts the founders, although as the scan shows, the book is quite dogearred from years of use. The inscription by Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss reads, "To the A&M dream- with love and gratitude to all who helped it along the way." Besides the expected label discographies and award certifications, there is a timeline of releases featuring the hit albums and artists that brought them to use. Also included is a history of the A&M studios lot, beginning when it was owned by Charlie Chaplin, interviews with key staff from the company, quotes from its artists, and articles of appreciation from others in the music industry. Plus plenty of photos. It's a gem of a book.

Sadly, the company was sold a few years after this book was published. Even though A&M is a mere shadow of its former self, its impact lives on through the artists it developed and the timeless records it produced. The dream did indeed become reality.

June 2, 2008

America's Playground

Here's one of the most distinctive illustrations of Disneyland. This one is from the 1964 guidebook, prior to the opening of some very big projects that would change the face of the park. No Pirates, New Orleans Square, the New Tomorrowland, or the Haunted Mansion- yet. But it was still a unique place to play. Nice, very nice, indeed.

(Art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)