October 31, 2008

Scared Silly at Alien Encounter

ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter. Depending on your point of view, this was either one great Walt Disney World attraction or one that never belonged in a Disney park. Count me among the former. Happily.

Arriving at the Magic Kingdom park one early evening in 1999, I could not wait to get to the New Tomorrowland. I was not disappointed. The visuals were staggeringly beautiful, especially after dark when the neon lighting appeared. Here was the Tomorowland I could get excited about after watching the original in California deteriorate before my eyes.

Having just been to Paris the year before, I was curious to see the American version of Le Visionarium. Very glad to have it on our turf. The Tomorrowland Transit Authority was present and accounted for- in my book a staple of great Tomorroland design. Space Mountain loomed in the near distance, and our entire family had our eyes on another great journey to outer space. Yet it was this small theater show that I was most looking forward to experiencing.

Hearing the many stories of families with young children traumatized from the attraction, I wasn't sure what to expect, but I knew I had to discover the horrifying truth for myself. Wandering inside the building, the more serious, some would say ominous, tone of the attraction was quite a surprise. The upcoming theater experience was only intensified by the eerie music coming from the speakers.

My wife and I gave our kids the big pep talk, particularly preparing our youngest (nine years old at the time) for a thrill on par with the Haunted Mansion- but a little more "up close and personal". We seated him between both of us and held his hands while his teenage siblings sat on both sides of us. The lights dimmed- and the thrills began.

Sitting in the soon darkened theater, every move of the alien brought shrieks- shrieks of laughter that is. Even our nine year old found it great fun. Who ever thought (implied) blood and gore could be so much fun?!? As we exited the show, we couldn't stop talking about it. We spent the rest of our evening in a fairly empty Magic Kingdom, hitting the Florida mountain range and a quick trip with the Pirates. It was a great night under the stars, full of the magic Disney promises.

Expecting Alien Encounter to be around for a long time, we never took another ride. Wish we had as it closed a mere eight years after its premier. Yes, it was a shock for us. Disney, especially in Florida, left its attractions up for years with replacement or rehabilitation. But it was gone, now only to be enjoyed on You Tube.
So, here it is- scary yourself silly! ExtraTerrorestrial Alien Encounter

(Art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

October 30, 2008

Just Doesn't Make Sense!

It seems to me that sometimes things just don’t make sense.

For example, in our own cul-de-sac, we see tragedies all around us. One family has dealt with the death of a mother, the death of a stepfather, and rounds of extensive chemotherapy for the wife, who has an advanced case of breast cancer- all within three months time! Two houses away, a newborn comes into this world without bones or cartilage in one of her fingers. The parents are grief-stricken and feeling a measure of guilt, wondering if they did something wrong during the pregnancy. Of course, we all ask why.

I’m sure life may look the same in your world at times. Different people and different circumstances but the same questions and pain. It may even be your life and that of your family.

It is times like this that force me to consider what God is thinking. (Let me be honest here. Sometimes, it’s “What is God thinking?!?”) However, when I settle down and move away from angst and back into faith, I am reminded He knows better.

From the book of Isaiah, verses 55:8-9:
"For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,"
declares the LORD.
"As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

Certainly, the birth of Jesus and the circumstances surrounding his life and ministry, gave folks a reason to pause. At the time, his birth brought very few folks on earth to celebration, but those beings in heaven rejoiced-and religious scholars ever since have wrestled with the nonsense of the Savior of the world being born into a common family. 

Some thirty years after His birth, the disciples wrestled with the craziness of Jesus being hung on the cross- only cursed men were treated this way! Yet in heaven, there had to be the mixture of somberness and rejoicing as Jesus successfully completed the mission the Father had given Him. At the Resurrection, God’s way was seen and understood better, only to be questioned once more at His Ascension. “What is God thinking?!?” must have been the question de jour after the Father revealed Jesus as the Savior only to take Him back to heaven so soon.

So, be encouraged. When things don’t make sense in your life, remember that God is still in control. “I the Lord do not change.” (Malachi 3:6). His ways are indeed higher than ours- so let’s be thankful we don’t have to rely on ourselves to make it in this life.

Happy Birthday to My Wonderful Wife

Dear Stephanie,

Please forgive the very public birthday greetings! But I hope you'll understand.

Many years ago, this photo was taken on our wedding day. I thought I had never seen you look more beautiful. Truth is, after so many years later, you are more and more beautiful than ever. You see, it is just not your physical beauty- which is still very much intact!- it is the quiet beauty of your character that shines from God within you. It's the smiles we share when we are both thinking the same thing. It's your great common sense and gentle sense of humor. It's how our kids adore you. It's your hard work and your optimism. All these things I only saw glimpses of years ago but are now fully in bloom. I am a blessed man because of you- and I love you more than you know and much more than I ever say.

So, Happy Birthday, my wonderful wife! Here's to many more ahead...


October 29, 2008

Time Off...

Taking a few days off to enjoy some time alone and with my family, however there are a couple of posts coming. Look for a little Halloween treat I'm sure you'll enjoy...

October 28, 2008

Milestone Not Tombstone: The Carpenters Singles 1969 - 1973

Somewhere, somehow, word got out years after its release that Richard Carpenter regretted, even hated, the look of this album cover. I certainly couldn't disagree more! The cover has a timeless elegance, much like the music inside.

As I faithfully started tracking their hits, it wasn't very long before I realized Richard and Karen had amassed quite a few- enough for an album of just hits. Naturally the executives at A&M Records were way ahead of me!

The Now & Then collection was an undeniable smash, and the inspired hit Yesterday Once More brought the Carpenters to arguably their pinnacle in worldwide popularity. In an odd twist, at least in this teen's mind, a third single was not released in the United States. In hindsight this must have been preparatory for the duo's first hits compilation.

November 17th, 1973 Billboard magazine ad.

During the second week of November, The Singles 1969-1973 became available to the public. As with earlier albums, I promptly snapped it up on the day of its release, somewhat disappointingly expecting a collection of terrific 45 rpm hits and nothing more.

The packaging of the album brought together a terrific photo of the duo with liner notes praising their efforts, comparing their hits to timeless classics from years gone by. Maybe offputting to the hip crowd of the day but 100% right on the money. With their visit to the White House at the invitation of President Nixon in May of the same year and an appearance on a Bob Hope television special as well, this verbage, however, only further cemented the Carpenters conservative image.

Back to the music. What a pleasant surprise awaited me as I sat on the sofa album in hand and disc on the turntable! The back of the album said "We've Only Just Begun" was the first song, yet I heard "Close to You" instead. Then it hit me. Richard created an overture comprised of pieces of hits to open the collection. Another stroke of his genius. Never one to underestimate their audience or rest on past achievements, Richard always strove for the best possible. Here a simple hits package became something classy and unique because it was given the Carpenters touch. I was hooked and ran to the turntable to restart the album to really listen this time. Wow.

The new version of "Top of the World" was still playful and warm but with a newly found confidence in Karen's vocal that didn't seem present the first time around. Quite a treat. It was selection number three, however, that made me once again take notice.

Maybe a sacrilege to some, but I always thought of Karen and Richard's Ticket to Ride as a passable track, nothing more. My perception changed the moment I heard this new version. The vocal performance is clearly improved, but Richard's new arrangement and production of the song brings it to its fullest potential. Listening to this new take, you could just hear the old music business sages saying "This kid's learned quite a bit in the last couple of years!"

From Superstar to Rainy Days and Mondays to Goodbye to Love on, Side One of the record continued to surprise and delight me. Turning the platter over, I expected more enhancements and flourishes but found nothing- except more great music: Yesterday Once More, For All We Know, Hurting Each Other. The hits did just keep on coming.

(Above, unknown origin 1973-1974 timeframe)

By the time the last song- Close to You- began, I realized in one masterstroke of wisdom, by gathering the hits and presenting a great package, Richard had placed the Carpenters stamp on the American musical landscape for good. No critic, professional or otherwise, could listen to this collection and call them a fluke. Not a one-hit wonder. Not just a trend. This compilation was a multimillion seller all over the world. The Carpenters were timeless musical artists- and they were here to stay. At least that was the plan...
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:

October 27, 2008

Tahitian Getaway

Oh, the lure of the islands!

During the 50s and 60s, the United States entered a life-long love affair with places tropical, particularly Hawaii and the South Pacific. The Imagineers were no different, and The Enchanted Tiki Room soon made its debut at Disneyland.

Shortly afterward, the wonderful Tahitian Terrace restaurant staked its claim on Adventureland soil. It quickly became one of my favorite places to hang out and enjoy a meal. Back when the park was much less crowded, dining here seemed as if I was a million miles away from the California freeways. The food was still fairly foreign and a draw all its own. But it was the stage show that was truly enchanting. From dancers fire to hula, the performers brought an island magic to land-locked Anaheim for many years. Sadly, one day it closed and became yet another character attraction.

When Matt Ouimet was on board at the company, word leaked out he had a soft spot for the place, too. Rumors come and go that the place may one day reopen. Wouldn't that be great- bringing back some charm for evening dining at the park that now seems restricted to just New Orleans Square. Enchanting indeed!

(Art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

October 24, 2008

Slice of (Italian) Heaven

Ran across the photo today. It's Vernazza beach, an area of Cinque Terra, Italy. A little over a year ago, I was swimming off to the right side of the photo under the warm Italian sun. This shot was taken from the cafe high above the town. We were so high up that the birds were flying below us! The only thing as spectacular as the view was the food- and a chance to spedn three weeks in Europe alone with my wife. No telephone, no email, no worries... ah!

(Photograph copyright Mark Taft.)

October 23, 2008

Little Low Today

Feeling a little down today. Carrying burdens for others, for me as well. But I am hopeful as God is in control. Even a great and focused and accomplished man like the Apostle Paul struggled with depression. Listen to this:

"We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about the hardships we suffered in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. "(2 Corinthians 1:8-10)

So, I am encouraged. Paul also reminds us that our troubles are light and momentary in regards to the bigger picture in life. I choose today to believe the things I know are true instead of how I feel: Jesus loves me and gave His life for me; my life belongs to Him; everything in heaven and earth are under His command. Faith, hope, and love endure as well.

October 22, 2008

Color Someone's Day

Here's a great cause we can all support: Breast Cancer Research. Amy Grant, always someone ready to help those around her, has recorded a new song "She Colors My Day"- and the proceeds go to research. Click here for me details. Let's join together to benefit our wives, mothers, sisters, daughters and friends.

October 21, 2008

Dying a Slow and Painful Death

Epcot Center's Wonders of Life used to be a remarkable, entertaining, vibrant pavillion. Now just sitting there, neglected and used only for special events like the Food and Wine Festival, it is in a sad state. When it was on the drawing boards, Disney expected this space to draw in the crowds. It did for a few years. The attractions found here were diverse in presentation and a whole lot of fun as well as being educational. Above is one of the first concepts for the building. Oh, what some time can do! Maybe, just maybe, the suits have a great plan for the area...

(Art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

October 20, 2008

"Bargain Basement" Imagineering- California Adventure 1.0

Note: I had no idea this series would be so popular when I first posted it! Many years later, it is a continual favorite. And remember, it is Part One of a multi-part series. Enjoy! (July 2013)

While Disney fans around the globe are checking out the beautiful new Blue Sky Cellar at California Adventure, it seems more than appropriate to look back on what was actually built come opening day. Why? First, it will help us keep all this new and wonderful concept art in perspective. Remember, this is what the park will potentially look like once work is completed. The painters brush can be unintentionally deceiving! Secondly, due to the cost-cutting measures of the leadership of the time, it reminds us what poor foundations the Imagineers are stuck working with trying to improve this discount park.

As we look at concept art from the first incarnation of California Adventure, let's compare what we saw in the preview center versus what the park really looked like to an opening day guest. Many visitors, myself included, expressed displeasure at what was found at this new park. So did the media and for a good reason.

Let's begin with the park entrance. The tile murals flanking the sides are really well done. The CALIFORNIA letters are a unique touch and both together clearly communicate this is not Disneyland. It's not a bad design, there's just no follow through. When the Disney advertising experts have to create a fictionalized version of the entrance for promotional purposes, this should be the first clue that the park has some serious problems and design flaws.

It is what we encounter once walking past the turnstiles that shouts "bargain basement" design. Looking right through the gates brings a very ordinary looking area, nothing to entice a visitor who is considering a day at this park.

The Sunshine Plaza reigns as the ugliest and least original park entrance area in Disney's history. Yes, this includes the even less imaginative Walt Disney Studios in Paris! Framed by an out of place replica of the Golden Gate Bridge, the environment matches a low budget outlet mall, appropriately setting the stage for what is found in most of the park.
The Sun fountain is an interesting structure, but it really belongs in an open garden at a hotel, in the midst of a walkway from the parking area or just someplace else. Not large enough in scale to impress, not a fitting centerpiece for the park. In some ways, it is appropriate. This is big and flashy with a contemporary edge- but it lacks substance.

Moving on, let's head to the Hollywood Pictures Backlot. At first glance, it is a pretty Disneyesque area, a more playful version of the main drag at Disney's Hollywood Studios. The centerpiece, and clearly the highlight at opening, is Disney Animation.

Frankly, this is one impressive showcase! Beyond the park's signature flight simulator attraction, this gem is filled with the kind of care in execution that should have been found all over the park. The Animation Courtyard has an impressive layout that dazzles, and The Sorcerer's Workshop, including Beast's Library, feels like a walk-thru dark ride, drawing guests in further and further inside. It's easy to spend an hour here just watching the transformation in the library. Well done, Imagineers! In a nod to the Studios old working animation area, The Animation Academy truly provides a fun and informative demonstration of the art of the wonderful and ageless 2-D process. (Below is altogether different concept for Disney Animation.)

Beyond this great little attraction is where the troubles begin. Wandering around the rest of this land, guests discover raw steel and bland walls lie behind the great looking storefronts. Even the seemingly impressive Hyperion Theater is really just one great optical illusion. Just a big box but one with state-of-the-art facilities inside. However, it is a facility with no lobby and no restrooms!

Nearby, the past its prime MuppetVision 3D show is found. Not too thrilling an idea or presentation. It's a quick retread from Florida to save some cash- and an attempt by Disney to relaunch a very tired but admittedly once charming franchise.

The worst of the (Back) lot, however, is the only dark ride found here in 2001. In one of the oddest moves ever for a Disney park, the Imagineers designed and built the strange Superstar Limo attraction. The building housing the ride is at once quirky and likable to some degree, but the experience inside is just plain bizarre. Hosted by an on-screen agent who seems like someone you'd never let your children be alone with, the limo ride takes you through a tongue in cheek and trendy Hollywood filled with animatronics of "B" list celebrities from the Disney Studio. It quickly became the laughing stock of the theme park industry and a symbol of everything wrong with California Adventure. Less than a year from its premier, this ride quickly disappeared forever.

In a bit of poor planning, the Backlot's main street becomes a dead end, so let's cross back over to Condor Flats, a recreation of a California desert airfield.
Condor Flats effectively marks the entrance to The Golden State district, the portion of the park that truly strengthens the California theme. The airstrip is a small area to be sure, but it houses the park's signature attraction, Soarin' Over California. All the quibbles of the queue and its minimal theming aside, this film experience is the emotional heart of the park. Californians are rightfully proud of their state and its stunning diversity of landscapes. The photography is exhilarating, the musical score heightens the mood, and the ride mechanism impresses to thrilling results. It is the single standout attraction in the park. This crowd pleaser should not have been duplicated at any other resort. Period.

The true icon of this park, and one that for the first time is positioned to please hotel guests instead of park visitors, is Grizzly Peak. No expense was spared in creating an authentic and beautiful mountain environment. The rockwork created by the Imagineers ranks with the best of their efforts, including Big Thunder Mountain and the younger Expedition Everest. The landscaping is superb. The network of waterfalls, winding paths and viewing areas makes this part of the Grizzly Peak Recreation Area the most beautiful location of the entire Disneyland Resort. (Below is an amazing piece of artwork. Like the others, makes sure you click for a larger image.)

The setting for the Grizzly River Run is spectacular and "E" ticket worthy. However obvious short cuts have been taken with this attraction, starting with the design of the watercraft. The promotional poster below shows a whitewater excursion with an authentically styled raft. Somewhere between concept and execution, the attraction ended up with standard theme park fare circular rafts. Certainly the same company that could imagine and engineer leading edge ride systems for other attractions could find a way to build an authentic raft that was safe while providing the desired thrills!

Further cost-cutting took place by the exclusion of animatronic animals. Every other nature-based attraction designed by Disney uses them to good effect. From slow moving rides like The Jungle River Cruise to the high speed adventures of Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, there is simply no excuse for their absence except budgetary restraints. It's still a very fun attraction with terrific views of the park (and the less than beautiful city of Anaheim), but it could be so much more than it is.

Guests quickly noticed a trend in this new era Disney park: there may have been discounting on the attraction detail, but no expenses were lost when it came to the shops! California Adventure has some Disneyland quality shopping areas, and the Rushin' River Outfitters (below) is no exception.

Continuing a trend that began with Disneyland itself, the Redwood Creek Challenge Trail is a new take on the original park's Tom Sawyer's Island. Both provide plenty of fun as well as an area where younger visitors can run free. It is a nicely themed playground but not much more.

The limited number of attractions and cutbacks aside, this region of California Adventure provides the immersive environment that Disney guests are accustomed to finding at the parks. If only the rest of the small park had this much charm and care taken with it! The glaring shortcomings are only heightened when we enter into the San Francisco area, one far removed from the Golden Gate Bridge we found at the park entrance.

This tiny little sliver of San Francisco houses only restrooms, leaving guests who expected an elegant area such as New Orleans Square in a state of shock. In place of a fully realized cityscape, we find Golden Dreams, the film tribute to the history of the state. Originally envisioned as Circle of Hands, it was intended to be a heartwarming multimedia presentation of the brave men and women who settled and worked the land. Budget cuts again derailed the project. We are now left with a small scale but warm and politically correct vision of history. Unintentionally, this show is also one of the best arguments for Disney to stop using its a film stars as part of their attractions.

As we move around the bend, the beautiful Golden Vine Winery comes into view. Of course, so does the Pacific Wharf food court, Bountiful Valley Farm, and the surprising Paradise Pier.

The winery area charms guests with a sophistication not found elsewhere. Of course, like Napa Valley itself, we find a couple of pricy restaurants among the park's vineyard. Attractions? Oh yes, Seasons of the Vine is here- yet another film, this one highlighting the process of the art of winemaking from field to table. It is a slice of Epcot Center, an undiscovered gem. The music and photography perfectly capturing the area.

Across the way on this side of the bay is the Pacific Wharf. What could have been a wonderful setting for some California themed Disney attractions is reduced to mostly a food court with a couple of bakery tours using short films to tell the manufacturing story. The educational aspects of the park are important, however, they needed to be balanced out with traditional Disney attractions to justify the full ticket price.

Butting up to the Wharf is Bountiful Valley Farm, showcasing the agricultural impact of the state. Aside from yet another film, this one a clone of an additional 3D attraction from Florida, guests to the area are left without much to do except viewing tractors and watching a quite unimaginative fountain. In the age of "bargain basement" Imagineering, it's Disney storytelling at it's sorry best.

Controversial. Cheap and tacky. Off the shelf. Not what Walt would have wanted. Paradise Pier is all these things and more. And less.

Once guests had experienced the limited number of attractions in the other areas and the truly good live entertainment to be found, many headed toward Paradise Pier hoping to round out their day at Disney's recreation of a seaside amusement area.

The California Screamin' coaster stands tall over the area, and it is a roller coaster ride very worthy of a Disney park. Unfortunately, it is just a coaster- no great theming to be found here. No journey to outer space, no wildest ride in the wilderness, just an exposed track reaching for the sky. It is fun, day or night, but there are no Disney touches to be found except the giant glaring Mickey head. In this new fangled park, big, loud and obvious has mostly replaced the charming nuances of designers from earlier generations.

The rest of Paradise Pier is fleshed out with carnival games, kiddie attractions, swing rides, and an impressive Ferris Wheel. There's truly nothing magical or Disney here, yet the advertising department thought this was one of the best areas to show to promote the new park. What were they thinking? The public was not fooled, and the executives at Disney were left with an embarrassment on their hands.

Which brings us back full circle to the Blue Sky Cellar, housed in the old Seasons of the Vine building. Yes, it seems Disney is seriously trying to redeem itself by re-Imagineering the park. Starting with the areas that guests complained about the most, the makeover has started. The entrance to the park will be reworked. The Hollywood Backlot will get more improvements. The Pier will be a challenge but will still be a carnival. Plans even exist for a wonderful new land and a couple of great attractions worthy of the Disney of old. Will we see them? Will the proposed changes turn California Adventure from dud to star?

What can we learn from the "Bargain Basement" Imagineering? Concept art can be deceiving, and budgets can be reduced. However, I have a hunch Disney has learned some important lessons from trying to fool us as they did in 2001. They've got one last chance to redeem themselves, and my money says they will.

(Note: And they did. Keep reading for more segments of this series!)

(All art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)