September 30, 2009

Old Disney Dreams Die Hard

From my first trip to Disneyland in the sixties to my last visit to Walt Disney World, the thought sometimes crosses my mind of what could have been.

I grew up with Uncle Walt on the television. Sunday nights meant we gathered around the the tube to learn from him and enjoy the previews of his next creation. Whether it was a new film or an attraction at his park, I was mesmerized. Sitting around the house, drawing pencil in hand, I sketched pirates that filled his bayou lagoon, created a Disneyland all my own filled with attractions I'd never see built, and later drooled over photos of the just opened Walt Disney World resort.

Around the age of ten, begging gave way to permission as I wandered around the park on myown absorbing every detail, every nook and cranny. Spending hours in the Main Street building that housed the Preview of Coming Attractions, I wanted to shrink to the size of the models and visit places never built like Discovery Bay and Dumbo's Circus.

As a fifteen year old, Disneyland was the first place I learned to drive to, and the sight of the Matternhorn from the Santa Ana Freeway still draws a smile. A visit to Walt Disney World was a dream far out of touch until my father took us on a family vacation I'll never forget. Decades later, my own children have their own memories of visits to these parks- and one to Disneyland Paris!
The recent D23 Expo only added fuel to the fire as beautiful renderings for the New Fantasyland expansion in Florida and Mystic Manor in Hong Kong caught my eye on the internet. Wow- to see these things built will be such a treat!

I'm still a kid at heart although I'm now "all grown up"!

My wishing on a star has long given way to praying to the Creator of heaven and earth. My adoration of Walt Disney is now just deep respect for his gifting, with worship given instead to Jesus Christ, the Ultimate Imagineer and only savior. All said, old dreams die hard, and every now and again-still, I wonder what it would be like to have been a part of the Walt Disney Imagineering team.

September 29, 2009

Pirates Takes a Beating

Sorry, couldn't resist posting a little family joke- caught in full color on my youngest son's 19th birthday. The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise will take a beating as well, if Johnny Depp drops out. No question!

Notable and Quotable: R. C. Sproul

"Men are never duly touched and impressed with a conviction of their insignificance, until they have contrasted themselves with the majesty of God."

R. C. Sproul

September 28, 2009

Post Pier Ponderings

The refilling of Paradise Bay looms. The Silly Symphony Swings will arrive faster than we can believe. World of Color will soon dazzle and excite us. Ariel's adventure is on the horizon although construction progress seems slower than any of us would like. Sure, a makeover of Mulholland Madness is coming and a new eatery, too.

But what happens when Paradise Pier is nearly complete?

Buena Vista Street looks terrific, but will this be enough to bring in the crowds that support approval for Phase Two? Radiator Springs Racers will rock (just watch the preview video!) but will the two smaller attractions with it make Disney's California Adventure a full day park, one worthy of the name Disney? No.

It is just not enough.

The Disneyland Resort needs a second park comparable to the majestic Epcot, a park worthy of being attached to the original Magic Kingdom. And California Adventure is not it- nor will it be. At least not in the form we will see. One day, it will be a great little "third park", more on par with Disney's Hollywood Studios, one with lots of atmosphere and a couple of "must see" attractions. I'd love the Imagineers and the accountants to prove me wrong- go ahead, please try.

It seems Disney has one last chance to wow us in California. It has to be unique to California in theme and brilliant in execution. The acreage for park number three must be used very wisely if Disney suits hope to turn the Anaheim resort into a serious counterpoint to Walt Disney World. Without the abundance of resort features like golf, tennis, and water sports, the park designed for the space must dazzle guests from the beginning- or the company risks the embarrassment and humiliation of DCA 1.0 all over again.

(Concept art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

September 26, 2009

Tower of Terror for Tokyo Disneyland's Tomorrowland?

I kid you not! Randy Savage, a poster over at Micechat, has this amazing rendering for a proposed Tower of Terror type attraction for Tokyo Disneyland's Tomorrowland! His entire post and everyone's responses are fsacinating. Go read some great stuff here.(Concept art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

September 25, 2009

Daydreams of Italy

In the heart of Tuscany lies a gorgeous little town: San Gimignano.

If you think California's Napa Valley is the place to go for vineyards and atmosphere to the maximum, you will be thrilled with all you see. The drive up to the town is nothing short of spectacular as each bend of the road brings new delights. Just stunning.

If you are brave enough to climb to the top of the higest tower, you'll be rewarded with a skyline unlike anything else in Italy. This is the uncrowded Italy of old, the one of romantic movies and novels that make you dream of places far away.

Driving in Tuscany is unlike anywhere else I have been, cars collide with motorcycles, bicycles, scooters, and pedestrians- where the rules of the road are there are no rules! Normally I would advise against driving here, but the views on the way to San Gimignano are worth the risk!
(Photos copyright Mark Taft.)

September 24, 2009

A Little Night Music, Please

While I was browsing around the web looking for something new and interesting, I came across an intriguing post on the discussion boards.

Having always wanted to visit Tokyo DisneySea ever since its opening and being curious about its version of the Tower of Terror, I was thrilled upon the chance to hear some music from the attraction. Just go here and hear for yourself!

September 22, 2009

Space Mountain: Universal Thrills

Space Mountain. The name alone evokes excitement for theme park fans all over the world. Whether it is the classic, iconic structure found in Florida, California, and Tokyo; a similar takeoff placed in a Tomorrowland that almost feels kid drawn in Hong Kong; or the elegant Jules Verne styled masterpiece in Paris, the sheer sight of the mountain makes millions of visitors run toward it with anticipation. For this generation, blasting off through the universe has become a right of passage for young Disney fans, but it wasn’t always this way.

Walt Disney had long passed away when Space Mountain debuted at Florida’s Magic Kingdom in 1975. The thrill ride was part of a slew of much needed additions for Tomorrowland. Like most all of the early classic attractions, however, its roots came from Walt himself many years before, and this ultimate thrill adventure was initially planned for his beloved original park in Anaheim.

America’s obsession with space travel provided the perfect timing for an attraction such as this. The future fascinated Walt. He loved science, space exploration, and new technologies. In addition to being an under appreciated businessman as well as a dreamer, fortunately, Walt was also a doer, and he assembled a team that could dream and create with him.

As discussions continued with the team, concept art for Walt’s Space Port, as it was originally named began to emerge. Many different looks were considered before settling on the timeless exterior familiar with fans in the States, and Imagineers Herb Ryman and John Hench each came up with designs that would be somewhat merged for the final result. Plans for Disneyland’s new Tomorrowland of the sixties included the attraction, but other priorities took precedence, leaving Florida to open the attraction a couple of years before it finally hit California soil.

Once the design was settled upon, a detailed model was built, giving the Imagineers a chance to view how the attraction would fit into the Magic Kingdom.

Upon its opening, Space Mountain became an instant fan favorite and theme park classic. With its thrills, the experience was a strong bid for the youth market who found much of the Magic Kingdom park too tame with its emphasis on slow moving attractions and cabaret shows like Tropical Serenade (Enchanted Tiki Room), Country Bear Jamboree, and The Mickey Mouse Revue. The trend setting Mountain transformed into a park staple, with pale imitations created all over the world in an attempt to capitalize on its success. Even if you are not a Disney fan, chances are you know the name, probably recognize its timeless form, and are well aware of the adventure within. Another Walt inspired masterpiece.

“The blessing of size” as Walt said with regards to his Florida project, enabled the Imagineers to create a dual tracked Space Mountain for the younger Magic Kingdom park. Disneyland’s smaller footprint demanded a similar but much smaller mountain back in Anaheim, bringing with this change a single track, different loading zone, and a much tighter flight course. Debates continue as to which mountain provides the better experience but both are beloved and appreciated for their differences.

Living in Southern California during the time of its construction gave me the opportunity to watch the attraction grow over time. Prior to the opening of California Adventure, it was possible to enter the parking lot area by Space Mountain with your car, and I took advantage of the opportunity to drive by often, inspecting the progress. When the attraction finally opened in 1977, I was among the first in line to take flight. And what a line it was! At one point, the queue snaked down Main Street and the hours passed as flights were on then off during its test period. The experience was quite the rush as at opening with the atmosphere darker, the rockets faster, and the journey unfamiliar. Even after thirty years and multiple changes in exterior color and interior enhancements, the thrill has not grown stale.

The ability to hand pick from two differently designed Disney kingdoms resulted in giving the Japanese guests a very interesting version of the first overseas Disneyland. When the park opened in 1983, guests found this one to have an entirely different feel, a blending of both American parks and few unique elements at opening. Surprisingly, even with access to the larger Florida version, the Japanese chose the California’s attraction as the one to be duplicated.

European fans that trekked to the Sunshine or Golden States for a Disney fix were surprised when the lovely and uniquely designed Paris park added Space Mountain in 1995. The iconic white mountain was replaced by a gorgeously themed and wonderfully executed Jules Verne inspired adventure.

Originally planned as Discovery Mountain, the attraction inside was as different from its cousins as was its exterior: the open air loading station sends its rockets into a smoke-spewing cannon as guests are launched into the mountain. The track layout included multiple inversions- the first for a Disney park- and the inclusion of a majestic musical score to accompany the journey. This new twist on an old favorite brought in the crowds. Some would debate it even saved the resort.

Although the exterior building concepts remained largely the same, the Imagineers presented several different ideas for what was to be built inside the mountain. In addition to Space Mountain, ideas ranged from a Nautilus adventure including a restaurant inside the submarine to a unique use of the technology that makes The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror so popular for an additional attraction themed to a different Jules Verne novel. (For more information and concept art, track down the wonderful book Disneyland Paris, From Sketch to Reality by Alain Littaye and Didier Ghez.)

Upon our first visit to Paris in 1998, Space Mountain: De la Terre à la Lune, and Phantom Manor were at the top of my must-do list. The ride was as wonderful and thrilling as I had imagined it would be! I couldn’t wait to ride it again and promptly returned to the queue for another trip. In its own unique way, viewing the mountain and watching the Columbiad cannon send explorers on their journey was as compelling as seeing the beautiful Eiffel Tower. I couldn’t take my eyes off the attraction. Beautiful during the day and absolutely spectacular at night with its magnificent lighting, this Space Mountain is the ultimate execution of the concept.

The opening of the first Disneyland in China, Hong Kong Disneyland (2005), provided an opportunity for building yet another version of the Magic Kingdom classic. Due to budget adjustments and misguided opinions of what should constititute the park, it remains short on attractions. However, the famous Space Mountain was a must for opening day. The setting of the Chinese Tomorrowland is more akin to a Saturday morning cartoon than previous versions, but the mountain itself is a near duplicate of California's. In a new take on the mountain's use and design, it also houses an attraction based on the main character from Lilo and Stitch.

Where will the next other worldy mountain show up? Some folks are sure it will be in Shanghai Disneyland, but only the Disney executives truly know. For all the questions we may have, one thing is certain. Space Mountain in all its incarnations, will continue to thrill and fascinate millions of guests looking for a chance to explore the universe and then return safely home!

(All concept art and Tokyo Disneyland photos copyright The Walt Disney Company; all other photos by Mark Taft)

Jim Hill's (Toy) Story

Jim Hill has a great story on TS3 today. As always, Jim tells some interesting tidbits you won't get anywhere else. Go here.
(Toy Story 3 picture copyright Disney.)

September 21, 2009

Disney's Struggle Between Art and Commerce

The age old tension between art and commerce is nothing new to the Walt Disney Company. It has most recently raised its ugly head in the departure of Dick Cook, but it has been going on since the beginning of the company.

From Walt Disney himself and his struggle to finance his films and Disneyland, to the current miscalculations of the suits regarding the public's taste for little imagineered parks like Disney's California Adventure, Walt Disney Studios Paris, and Hong Kong Disneyland to the "fourteenth" direct-to-video episode milking The Little Mermaid success, the Walt Disney Company has struggled to find the right balance.

Even in this newest Disney age, where the hopes of die hard fans rest on John Lasseter, there is much to be hopefully cautious about. Some projects are done from love, some from the need for cash, and a rare few blend both ends of the spectrum, creating a happy medium where fan and accountant rejoice. To be successful for the company, both fiscal and artistic sides must come together. More money means happier investors and more cash for new projects. New projects will excite consumers, and they will support product they like with their money. And so it goes on in an endless cycle.

The Disney theme parks are where you'll see the most obvious effects of this struggle. Films and their merchandise come and go, but the parks are places where concrete and steel and the work within create something much more permanent and less easily forgotten. Let's start at Walt's original park.

While Disneyland in Anaheim was a smash upon opening, time and money took its toll from the beginning. Tomorrowland was nothing more than colorful banners, a few set pieces, and a couple of attractions mostly supporting corporate sponsored exhibits. Of course, Walt and his team quickly remedied the situation, and the park was improved upon and expanded quickly until the time he died. The list of the expansion ensured new guests and return ones as well. The first major expansions brought attractions that are beloved and still exist today: The Matterhorn Bobsleds, the Monorail, Submarine Voyage topped the list, but it was just the beginning. With the public response to Audio-Animatronics and The Enchanted Tiki Room, it seemed money would no longer be a problem for Walt's magical park. Pirates of the Caribbean and The Haunted Mansion continued to draw crowds, their cash, and created a happy company and investors.

Walt died, times changed, and poor management left the park mostly untouched. With the exception of the amazing Indiana Jones Adventure, nothing new of substance was added in the later years of the 20th century. Thankfully, the pending 50th anniversary of the park made new management take notice, and Matt Ouimet made sure Disneyland sparkled for its celebration.

Fast forward a few years to the much heralded return of the submarines. Tony Baxter finally discovered just the right property in Finding Nemo get the suits to agree to bring life back to the lagoon, but the end product delivers an expensive but fairly boring product. Kids flock and queues are full. The lagoon is saved. But to what cost to the original futuristic Tomorrowland theme?

On the other hand, Tony and team's detailed redo of the Sleeping Beauty Castle walkthru is a labor of love. Painstakingly remade, the result's a gorgeous product, created for the love of the parks and done within a fairly reasonable budget.

Next example: Pirate's Cove at Tom Sawyer Island. Regardless of the all public relations work, the dilution of the Mark Twain theme to satisfy the lust for more Pirates experiences brings the once popular attraction back to life, yet it also delivers a strong sense of commericalism to the island.

Much the same can be said of the upcoming and sure to be popular changes to the park across the way. In California Adventure, we'll see the addition of Ariel's Undersea Adventure and Carsland and its Radiator Springs Racers. Are they in theme? That will be debated for ages. Terrific attractions for this poorly designed park? Sure looks like it. As I mentioned earlier, the astounding disaster of California Adventure and its poor reception from the public punctuates the struggle. Disney tried to put one over on its hardcore Anaheim fans by building a second rate second park. The wiser public voiced its opinion by not spending the money to go, and it was back to the drawing boards again to find the balance of quality and financial success.

This art and commerce tension is not limited to the West Coast. In fact, I would guess it is even more pronounced than in California.

The plans for the recently announced Fantasyland expansion in Florida's Magic Kingdom look terrific and are correctly in theme. The princess franchise and experiences and The Little Mermaid are preciously where they belong. For the company's arguably flagship park, Fantasyland needs to look more like something out of a realm long gone versus its current and tired incarnation, and the decision to make it stunning is long overdue. Disney management (and those amazing Imagineers!) gets an "A" here, even though it would be a nice touch to include something for the guys!

Epcot is another story. Any lover of this park, and anyone who saw EPCOT Center at its opening, would have to give a failing grade to the most recent changes. Detailed long ago on this and many other blogs, the changes to the World Showcases of Mexico and Canada are dreadful. The Nemo and Friends overlay to the once elegant Living Seas gets a slightly better grade, yet it has brought activity to this once empty attraction.

Disney's Hollywood Studios gets a pass, as the designers and accountants can throw just about anything in this catch-all park and make it "in theme".
The lush and gorgeous Animal Kingdoms suffers from the art and commerce struggle. It's been this way since its opening. Before the addition of Expedition Everest, the park relied on its artistic touches and lots of foliage but lost big points with guests for lack of beautiful new attractions due to shortage of cash.

Plans were quickly put in place, resulting in the horrible Chester and Hesters Dinorama. Thankfully, this cheaply built mess was followed up by the exquisite but expensive journey to discover the yeti. Next came Finding Nemo- The Musical. Beautiful, surprising and artsy, but it is another animated character addition. The mix of new additions to the park pack in the crowds as well as bringing added capacity.

The Walt Disney World Resort Hotels also display this art/commerce tension. Compare Pop Century with The Grand Floridian. There are more than "Guest Needs" in consideration here when the plans for expansion are made. It was shocking to realize the same company could design both!

Beyond the United States, the situation remains much the same. The tension is a worldwide phenomena.

Look at the world's most beautiful Magic Kingdom, Disneyland Paris. The innovative and distinctive Le Visionarium had to give way to the popular Buzz Lightyear, just as Captain Eo eventually gave it up to Honey, I Shrunk the Audience. The park needed new attractions but was short on cash. The same can be said for the minimally themed Temple du Peril. At least this park has enough theming to made up for the mistakes!

Not so fortunate next door, where the very ugly younger sister resides. Following the California Adventure business plan, The Walt Disney Studios Paris opened entirely void of charm and warmth. Tepid reaction and again, loss of incoming cash, made the company rethink its plan. Just like its California counterpart, Imagineers tossed in the cheaper version of Tower of Terror and a couple of off the shelf attractions: the highly themed carnival ride Cars Race Rally and the not quite as highly themed Crush's Coaster. The park's next steps will be telling. If the newest Parisian addition is the Ratatouille attraction that has been detailed on Disney and More, the future looks much brighter even if coming after its recently acknowledged and very cheap looking Toy Story Land.

Above image perfected by Disney and More.

In Asia, Hong Kong Disneyland is a delightful park to view. The greenery is lush, the detail evident. Yet its shortcomings include a carbon copy castle, minimal "E" tickets, and a variety of character meet and greets in place of attractions. Thankfully, the incredible looking Mystic Manor is on its way- but so is Toy Story Land, a bare bones addition that inventive concept art cannot disguise!

Even in Tokyo, the art/commerce struggle grips the suits. Even the most unique of all Disney parks, Tokyo Disney Sea, has made steps to increase capacity and attendance at the price of dumbing down this elegant place. The Tower of Terror is a masterpiece, new theme and all. Raging Spirits? Not so much. Further, does this park really need Toy Story Mania or Turtle Talk shoehorned in? Absolutely not! But it is being done anyway. New attractions come at too high a price.

Things do come full circle. It seems the executive branch at the Walt Disney Company finally understands that quality will bring both crowds and profit. Maybe the success of the recently announced additions at the D23 Expo will flood the coffers, making investors happy and realigning to something Walt Disney always knew: Don't shortchange the customer- give them the best- and they will love you for it.

(Concept art copyright The Walt Disney Company. Photos copyright Mark Taft.)

September 20, 2009

Heigh Ho, Heigh Ho

It's off to Disneyland I go! Just found out that I will be visiting the parks due to a fairly last minute family trip. October is just around the corner- yipee!

September 18, 2009

Crooners Galore!

Looks like the music selection for Christmas 2009 is shaping up to be the year of the crooner. First, Michael Bublé, and now Harry Connick Jr. His new disc, Your Songs is coming soon. Just in time to bring on the romantic holiday fun!

September 17, 2009

Darkbeer's Latest

It's nice to know we can always rely on Darkbeer for a great California Adventure construction update. The Disneyland Resort just keeps getting better and better!

Grey's Second Life

This Fall's television schedule is not getting me excited about viewing. I guess it is time to give Grey's Anatomy another chance...

September 16, 2009

Taste of Europe in Colorado

A bit of Europe in my own backyard. Vail, Colorado, is not only a world class ski resort, it is also quite a beautiful (and still expensive!) place to play in the warm summer months.

Filled with flowers and a beautiful variety of trees, the village of Vail sparkles in the sun and draws visitors by the thousands to its music festivals, wine tastings, and fine restaurants and shopping. A small mountain stream runs through the middle of town, providing a fine place to stop, sit, and enjoy God's creation.

Of course, skiing is king! And there are many pieces of art celebrating the sport and those who love it.

During the summer, the lift operates for cyclists and visitors, both looking for a wonderfully scenic way to reach the summit. Regardless of your seasonal preference, this little village is a perfect taste of Europe just an hour or so from Denver.

(Photos copyright Mark Taft.)