October 31, 2009

Halloween Blessings!

Another Happy Halloween!
(Photos copyright Mark Taft.)

Haunted Mansion Walking Tour

Here's a great little treat for the day! At one point in its early development, a walk through version of the Haunted Mansion was planned by the Imagineers. This piece of concept art was shown as part of the 50th Anniversary display in Disneyland's Opera House.

As you can see, the walking tour would have included a stop at the famous ballroom. Even though it would have seriously changed the capacity of the attraction, imagine what a kick it would be to walk the home and explore it at your leisure. I would have spent hours in there!

(Art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

October 30, 2009

Happy Birthday!

To my lovely wife on her birthday! You may have taken me to my first visit to Club 33, but now I've given you a message the whole world can see! ;)


October 29, 2009

Carpenters' Rite of Passage

The time for change had come.

With the prior studio album both a sales and creative disappointment, Richard and Karen Carpenter- and the A&M Records executives- knew it was time to inject something fresh and attention grabbing into their career. "A Kind of Hush" was a wonderfully warm album but one out of touch with the record buying audience fascinated with new sounds being created across the country and around the world. Disco was quickly becoming popular with artists like Donna Summer and KC and the Sunshine Band beginning their reign on the charts. Fans had moved on, and the Carpenters had to show them they were growing with them.

Their live disc from London's Palladium sold well and quickly, testifying to the duo's skill at reproducing their records before an audience. Yet, in person, it was also a live performance of surprising energy, something their latter studio output seemed to be lacking. It was time to translate some of that to disc. So, off to work they went!

At the creative helm, Richard bravely made startling- some would say drastic- choices for the new recording. For the first time, they would cross the threshold into disco, albeit with a light playful romp not too far from traditional Carpenter territory. All You Get from Love is a Love Song was the catchy and underrated first single. Poorly promoted with an ad campaign equally dire and unappealing, the new single barely cracked the Top 40, yet its swing, upbeat vocal performance and terrific saxophone line brought a bright and delightful freshness along with that dance beat. Karen and Richard sounded like they were having real fun, something that was missing from the previous singles.

If fans and disc jockeys alike had barely noticed the first release, the second choice was jarring enough to make just about everyone stand up and take notice: "Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft" remains the oddest choice ever for their recording career. Playing on Richard's love of Sci-Fi and the popularity of the megahit movie Star Wars, the timing was at once perfect and an obvious display of following the leader. The promotion of the single, however, was groundbreaking.

The accompanying long form video for Occupants was created a full five years before Michael Jackson would do the same for his song Thriller, a fact overlooked by critics when they are busy accessing the work of Karen and Richard or considering who belongs in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Once again, as during a good portion of their career, Karen and Richard made some surprising choices and usually made them ahead of the pack.

Although the science fiction song was not the blockbuster hit they needed in their homeland, things were different elsewhere. In the United Kingdom, the Carpenters discovered the single to be quite popular, and the song stayed on the British charts for quite the duration.

Ad for the album in Billboard magazine.

When the full length album, Passage, was finally released, fans and music industry executives discovered the remake of Klaatu's spacey anthem to be just a taste of the many musical styles represented. From the bold choice of Michael Frank's Bwana She No Home as opening number going forward, this disc was different.

As a long time fan, I found the album both strangely satisfying and disappointing. It was great fun to hear Karen and Richard stretch and successfully perform so many different types of songs. On the other hand, the disc felt like a letdown, as there were not many traditional choices to be heard- and there was not one single Carpenter/Bettis composition to be found. Even the album jacket, photography and artwork broke from the past. Here, there was no elegant Carpenters logo on the front of the jacket, no photograph of the duo, instead an eclectic piece of artwork for the cover.

Thankfully, the liner notes were extensive although quite congratulatory. Yet rightfully so. Even the Los Angeles Times critic Robert Hilburn reviewed the disc and found it appealing. A new found measure of acceptance and respect was found from their critics. By releasing a disc that broke preconceived ideas established by the Carpenters earlier choices, folks had to reconsider the duo. It was just what Richard had hoped would happen.

Occupants was not the only stunner to be found on Passage. The true emotional centerpiece of the album was another unlikely choice. Long before Madonna covered the primary song from the pop opera Evita, Karen's performance of Don't Cry for Me Argentina was found here- and it is without a peer. As gorgeous as it is on record, it was even better live. I heard Karen perform the song in concert a month before the album was finally released. Her live reading of Argentina was at once strong, tender, and heartbreaking. For a singer known for the softness of her voice, the power and range of Karen's vocal abilities cannot be understated. Each nuance of the anthem was played to full effect. Every note perfect with Karen in control. Just beautiful!

In spite of such notoriety, the album still did not break the sales spell the Carpenters seemed to be under. The last single was yet another bold choice. Juice Newton's Sweet, Sweet Smile eschewed the expected release of I Just Fall in Love Again, a radio perfect traditional Carpenter ballad.

One of the cleverest ads for Carpenters music ever.

Smile played well to country music fans, selling enough copies to make the duo consider producing an entire disc of the genre, but even the extremely innovative ad campaign using the Mona Lisa couldn't generate enough sales to make the song appear on the pop charts. It was enough, however, to make them consider a country album for another release in the future.

Although Passage generated decent but not great sales numbers worldwide, in the United States, the album soon faded into the background among other higher profile Christmas releases.

Passage marks the transition of one season in their career to another: from highly successful and chart-topping to that of artists needing a hit and on the comeback trail. At this point, Karen and Richard's personal lives were unraveling, but they would return the following year with one of the most beloved and acclaimed albums of their career. A Christmas album- a disc the duo felt they were created to make- that would become an enduring masterpiece. 

My life was changing as well, and Passage was a turning point of sorts...
This post on Passage is part of my series reviewing each Carpenters album in the order released. You can begin reading with my review of Offering / Ticket to Ride here.
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 28, 2009

Tokyo Disneyland's World (Showcase) Bazaar

During the early to middle 1970's, the Walt Disney Company was still hard at work when it came to the theme parks. After the successful opening of the Walt Disney World Resort in October of 1971, and the addition of the Country Bear Jamboree and America Sings at Disneyland in the years following, the Imagineers still had many projects on their plate. Even without their visionary leader, the company forged ahead with revised and constantly changing plans for Walt's last dream, EPCOT Center.

Expansion plans were not limited to the States, however. After finally announcing an agreement with the Oriental Land Company, Tokyo Disneyland, "The Kingdom of Dreams and Magic" would debut to a Japanese audience just months after Florida's second Disney park. The park would draw heavily from its American cousins, yet it would also have some unique features all its own.

The expected attractions would all be there: Pirates of the Caribbean, The Haunted Mansion, It's a Small World, and Space Mountain among others, both duplicates from the two parks and originals designed specifically for the new audience.
The city of Tokyo was quite different than the more mild climates of both Anaheim and Orlando, so the decision was made to cover Main Street U.S.A. - renamed World Bazaar- with a glass roof, an elegant take off on the beautiful Crystal Palace restaurant. This feature would provide extra coverage during snowy seasons as well as providing a striking difference to the quaint shops and restaurants on the avenue.

The name World Bazaar developed as the Imagineers played with the idea of creating an entrance plaza that would provide a multicultural shopping and dining experience for the guests. With EPCOT Center's World Showcase fresh in their minds, Imagineering's preliminary plans combined earlier ideas from that park with those from the Magic Kingdom's Main Street. The unique design challenge produced only a few renderings. Above is one of the only pieces of art to surface from the Disney vaults. As you can see, there is even a bit of the Contemporary Resort's open concourse feel to the end result! Although the international concept was eventually abandoned in favor of a traditional Main Street, the name stuck, providing Tokyo Disneyland with yet another feature all its own.
(Art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

October 24, 2009

Ringing Loud and Clear

A few years back, my wife and I traveled to Alaska for a wedding, and to this day, I am still perplexed by what happened that day. It continues to amaze me. The ceremony itself caused me to be challenged. Let me explain.

As it is with many weddings these days, this was a very non-traditional one. The bride and groom wrote their own vows. They were sweet and tender, and even a little humorous if you knew them. But in what was a new experience for me, the Maid of Honor spoke up and said something prior to the rings being shared.

In what may be seen as very indicative of the spiritual climate of the day, she began her comments with something about “the god above and the goddess below", then she wished them (and I cannot give you an exact quote here)- the peace of Buddha, the _?_ of Krishna, the passion of Pele (Hawaiian goddess of fire) in their love life, and the _?_ of Thor (Norwegian god of thunder and war). Everybody but Jesus and the Cat in the Hat seemed to be included. Now, that is not to be disrespectful with my words. I choose them just to give you a full picture of her words and their shock value to my ears.

Again, that was the maid of honor speaking. I know a little something about the bride and groom, and I have no idea what they thought about this "prayer of blessing" or anyone else’s thoughts at the wedding, for that matter.

This entire experience challenges me in my prayer life. How can I reconcile her words with those of Jesus? "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." (John 14:6)

Yet, here is a very nice, well-meaning woman truly believing in any and all gods of the earth- aside from the One True God who created it all. I thought who else at this ceremony is fully embracing this concept of many gods and goddesses? Or even just the idea of “earth and nature worship”- which is so common these days among people who are really just looking for God?

All people are searching for meaning and order to their world. And Jesus loves all of them and died for all of them. But let’s be clear- no one will enter into heaven at their death by believing in and worshiping everyone and anyone but Him. Jesus said it himself. Either He is telling the truth about who He is and why he came to earth in human form or He isn’t. Pretty simple. And pretty unpopular and very politically incorrect in his day and in ours. But they are His words, not mine.

The Bible is pretty clear on these matters of multiple gods and earth worship. The apostle Paul writes:

“They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.” (II Timothy 4:4) and this one:

"We know that an idol is nothing at all in the world and that there is no God but one. For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many "gods" and many "lords"), yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live." (I Corinthians 8:4-6)

And these verses from the book of Romans talk about the worship of the creation and of animals, certainly not a new thing:

"For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles. " (Romans 1:21-23)

The "No one"s ring really loud and clear.

So what are we to do? Love well, live kindly and respectfully, and speak wisely.

Most people know of Jesus- head knowledge, school book, even church trained stuff. But how many really know and are intimate with Him in the way the Bible speaks of having a life-giving relationship with him? Heart knowledge? Knowledge of their sinfulness and of their need for Him? Many of us have family members and dear friends who do not know Jesus at the level He challenges us to. At the very depth of relationship that will one day lead us to eternal life with Him with or without Him.

We can all do our part, however, by loving well, living kindly, and speaking well. This is the best way to share the heart, the love, and the message of Jesus.

October 22, 2009

Of Disneyland, Miceage and Starbucks

With all the talk on Miceage about Al Lutz's recent article on Starbucks and Disneyland...

Here's the index of the 1957 Disneyland Souvenir Guide. A detailed look of what is on it is pretty revealing. Lots of corporate sponsors to be sure. More than expected when we think about "the good old days", yet- it is offset by probably the greatest incarnation of Frontierland to date!

(Artwork copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

October 21, 2009

Turning New Tricks

Taking an old and tired but respected torch song and turning it into the next James Bond 007 theme is just one trick in Michael Bublé's latest bag. His Cry Me A River startles after hearing the same tune recorded by Olivia Newton-John a few years back on her Indigo disc. Who could ever have guessed the song could sound like this! An instant favorite once the jolt wears off.

The disc brims with cuts expected like Georgia on My Mind, which would do Ray Charles justice, and the title song orginally recorded by Van Morrison. However, it is the unexpected choices and arrangements that make the collection stand out.

Haven't Met You Yet surprises with its horn section similar to that found on Fleetwood Mac's Tusk. The following two songs move this album into greatness: All I Do is Dream of You sparkles while the gorgeous Hold On picks up on the relationship where his classic Home left off.

One of the biggest acts of magic is David Foster's production. Just when you think Michael needs a new producer and all you'll get another stylistic retread from past albums, David pulls off a remake of the Eagle's classic Heartache Tonight with such pananche. It's enough to make the listener think the tune always had this much swing. As fun as the arrangement and production are, it is the vocals of this new age Rat Packer that takes it to a new level.

The fun continues on- including an old song from Sandra Bullock's movie Two Weeks Notice: Baby (You've Got What it Takes) sounds absolutely terrific. The unexpected island influenced vocals on Startdust also startle, but ultimately the song is not as successful as with the opening cut. Lastly, the bonus cut, Whatever It Takes with Ron Sexsmith, surprises with its bromance anthem- maybe crossing over as a blatant bid for play at gay clubs. It is, in fact, a very tender song of hope with their voices playing beautifully against each other. Right about now, whether straight or gay, we all need a little hope.

In a tight economic market, gaining new listeners may be the biggest trick of all- and with a #1 debut on the Billboard charts, Crazy Love has just enough magic moments to pull it off.

October 20, 2009

Sex Talk

I listen for a living.

It can be exhausting; it can be enlightening; it can be encouraging. Sometimes it is just frustrating.

The last few months, having spoken with men of many ages in various stages of life, there has been a common annoying thread: sex talk. Bad sex talk at that. What do I mean?

To quote the Twilight Zone's Rod Serling, "Imagine if you will..." a man talking about his dating relationship or his marriage. He wants to see things get better, and he wants something rich and meaningful in his partnership. When the subject comes to sex, I'm no prude- yet when this same man starts using vulgar slang for sexual activities or body parts, I've got to wonder what he is thinking. From those in their 20s to those in their 60s, men of various ages, professions, and status, seem to go from gentlemen to voracious readers of porn based on the way they talk.

Particularly, if he is not getting the kind of action he wants in bed. I've got to wonder if he talks to his woman in the same manner. No self-respecting woman I know would put up with it- or perform it- when sex is presented like that. For that matter, why degrade the very beautiful thing designed by God for our pleasure?

Time for us men to grow up. It's time to use our words to build each other up, to encourage each other, and to put our spouses preference before our own. That is what love is. I bet if we would really love each other, love each other sacrificially, there would be more than enough of all the sex we want.

October 19, 2009

Tim Delaney's "Failures" at WDI

Surprising and foolish. For Walt Disney Imagineering to let go of Tim Delaney is just a mistake- and someone has much different things on their mind than quality attractions if they think this was a good idea!

Given support and an appropriate amount of financial backing, this man could accomplish magnificent pieces of art. Anyone who has seen Discoveryland at Disneyland Paris knows exactly what I'm talking about. Tim's vision and design for the land, including the definitive version of Space Mountain, stands head and shoulders above all other Tomorrowlands. Period.

Not even the great 1960s version at Walt's original Disneyland comes close. I left my photos full size so that the reader can imagine walking in this place if they have never had the chance. Just look at the detail! Stunning.

What kind of decision makers are in charge of the Walt Disney Company these days? Money men. Art and the love of the product- and love for its guests- seems to mean less and less. Uncle Walt must be turning over in his grave.

(Photos copyright Mark Taft.)

Can Epcot Be Saved?

Quite awhile ago, I took a fair but critical look at The Walt Disney Company's challenges at the Disneyland Resort with Disney's Real California Adventure. While the second park in that state is certainly worthy of a critique due to its numerous and oft discussed failures, it is by no means the only park that needs serious work as well as a plan for the future.

Disney's original second park, Epcot, requires a hefty dose of help to restore it to grandeur. Let's take a look at what Disney can do to save Epcot, restoring it to the wonderful and visionary park millions experienced at its opening- without repeating mistakes of the past.

Plan of Attack #1- Develop a Vision for the Park and Stick to It

This shouldn't be that difficult- one was already developed. Make it better, make it different, but do it. Be creatively inspired and show it by the results, then we will be inspired by what we experience there. Imagineers and accountants, work together to make us feel your inspiration! If you don't, neither will we.

In comparison to Epcot in its current state, Animal Kingdom feels cohesive and unique due to this very factor, and for the most part, what was built at Florida's 4th park matches the vision. Joe Rohde and team creatively challenged themselves to please and astound their guests, and it shows. It is my belief that Epcot began to slide in quality and attendance when those involved moved away from its original plan.
Plan of Attack #2- Bring Back the Timelessness

With the eyepopping Spaceship Earth dominating the landscape, guests entering Future World come in wanting, and expecting, to be inspired by... the future. Removing the wand was the right beginning. Keep going and remove the memorial too. Take us right into the future and out of the present.

Speaking of our current times, Epcot is not supposed to be Disney Studios 2.0. Nor is it the setting for cross promotion and marketing "synergy". Isn't the advertising outside the parks in print, television, movies, and cable already enough to generate the cash needed to run the company and please the investors?

Leave the insertion of current "hip and edgy" Disney television and movie stars for the attractions of Disney's Hollywood Studios park. Remove their voice overs and their images. Think of the number of pavilions and individual shows that have a present day actor in them: Universe of Energy, Imagination, Wonders of Life (now closed), Mission Space, even Soarin'. Not many of these have aged well due to this very factor. Is this a case of cause and effect? Something to consider.

Admittedly, removing the original "Living Character Initiative" aspect is a lengthy process, but it is a major step toward making the park feel timeless once more. You cannot take guests into the future when celebrities and cartoon characters are all around. Keeping us rooted in the present reminds us of our daily lives. It is not a difficult reality to comprehend nor to fix.

Plan of Attack #3- Give Us the World
Remember World Showcase is fully half of this park- a major part that folks enjoy. Guests spend a lot of money in its shops and restaurants. Do you want to keep them coming back? Treat World Showcase with some dignity. In blunter terms, take care of your cash cow. Clean up the films with new prints and/or technology. Keep the special effects working on the few attractions that do exist.
Give guests some new attractions, some new country showcases to experience. The idea base to draw from in planning new adventures is as limitless as the earth itself. Open land exists all over World Showcase; space that already has major infrastructure complete. There are even existing plans Imagineering have had for years. Make good use of them.

Develop and execute outstanding and immersive attractions that celebrate the foreign cultures versus exploiting or belittling them. No more mistakes like "Gran Fiesta". There is real magic in experiencing a taste of other cultures that does not include the Disney world and its animated characters. Bring that kind of magic to us.

Make dining and shopping a rewarding experience not a headache. The dumbing down of meal offerings to please American palates not used to the more authentic is an insulting and poor choice. Although by neccessity children's offerings are needed, keep them in harmony with what children eat elsewhere. Burgers and chicken nuggets are not the answer, use some culinary creativity. 

Additionally, the Disney Dining Plan may bring profits, but even in the bast case scenario, it is difficult to use even for the most informed guest. It is time for it to go.

Continue to improve the retail experience available. This point is not limited to World Showcase even though there is much more variety as would be expected. Shopping in Future World seems to consist of fairly generic Disney merchandise available all over the property. Admittedly, the tide may be turning a bit with the introduction of the retro Epcot offerings. Keep moving forward.

Plan of Attack #4- Strive for Greatness Not Profits
Don't just focus on the bottom line. Consider it, of course, but don't let it drive your decisions. Imagineers are among the the most brilliant folks on the planet with the best resources. As your fans, we love to see you astound us. We'll reward your efforts with the attendance you want and increased spending. Look what the highly detailed and unique attractions have done for your parks. They will draw the crowds. Everest did for Animal Kingdom, Tower of Terror for the Studios, or Indiana Jones for Disneyland. However, big budgets are not the determining factor for success. There are plenty of smaller gems found in the parks, adding to the atmosphere and creating a sense of awe visitors should feel at a Disney park. Again, inspire us. Don't rest on your laurels. Expectations are higher than those for your competition because of your reputation and your history.

Although the theme park version of Epcot is not what was originally imagined, it should continue to be seen as more than just another gated attraction. The unique vision, history, and heart of EPCOT the city and EPCOT Center the park is rooted in a desire for a better future- with a chance to experience some of what lies ahead. Use your imagination to revitalize this park back to greatness. All it takes is one little spark.
(Photos copyright Mark Taft.)

October 17, 2009

Can Epcot Return?

Please join me on Monday as I challenge the Walt Disney Company to return Epcot to its original greatness. We'll examine what went wrong as I present a few different aspects needed for the park's resurrection. Actions considered that need to be well thought through and moved upon if today's executives want to see returning guests and increased profits. Hope to see you Monday!

(Photo copyright Mark Taft.)

October 16, 2009

Rock and Rollercoaster's French Cousin

Poor Walt Disney Studios Paris! It opens to a collective thud with very few original attractions and a rehash of experiences from its older sibling in Florida. (Sounds amazingly similar to Disney's California Adventure 1.0, doesn't it?) While it meets the contractual obligations of the agreement with the French government, it disappoints fans by providing a lackluster theme park at the bottom of the Disney rung.

Rock N Rollercoaster is one of the very few attractions to be represented by renderings from the Imagineers. You may ask yourself why. I'd say if you saw the park before the recent additions of Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, Crush's Coaster, and Cars Race Rally, you never would have had to ask. It was that bad.

Let's just hope Toy Story Playland turns out much better than the concept art!

(Concept art copyright The Walt Disney Company. Note: I found this on the now defunct DisneyCentury website.)

October 15, 2009

Returning Engagement for Mr. Lincoln

Count me in as one of the folks who cannot wait for Mr. Lincoln (sans buzzing flies and a haircut) to return. Coming soon to an Opera House near you.

(Art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

October 14, 2009

New Day Dawning

Unexpectedly, a new day has dawned. Maybe it is the looming of vacation after a long season of hard work. Perhaps, it is getting more exercise and rest! Deep inside me, more than anything, I know it is a work of the Lord that has refreshed me when I have least expected it but needed it most. He is giving me what I have asked in prayer.

In my most recent time of reading the Bible, the text of the book of Ecclesiastes resonates deeply. There is a time for everything under the sun (see Chapter One), but it was this admonition from Chapter Seven that challenged me, both calling me into account and bringing me freedom:
"Do not say, "Why are the old days better than these? For it is wise not to ask such questions." (Ecclesiastes 7:10)

Thank you, Lord Jesus, for doing what I cannnot do regardless of how hard I try- and thank you for your love.

October 12, 2009

Disney's Animal Kingdom: A True-Life Adventure (Part Four)

With the gates to Disney's Animal Kingdom finally open, it was time for the company to watch and measure guest reaction to all the hard work of the Imagineers, with the end result being a precarious mix of entertainment and education. This was not the Magic Kingdom but one belonging to mostly real and not robotic animals, so a certain amount of realism was expected.

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

The stunning Oasis Gardens at the entrance to the park conveyed a serious message from a design standpoint: this park was meant for exploration of the unexpected. The lush jungle, multiple paths and creative and seemingly barrier-free animal habitats caught the paying public by surprise. By intentional design, the Imagineers communicated this park was more than a collection of highly themed and easily accessible adventures; it was as much about slowing down and discovery as it was about delivering the expected Disney theme park experience.

Having meandered through the gardens and passing small waterfalls, delighted (or shocked) visitors strolled over a bridge to see a towering tree before them. The park's icon, The Tree of Life, rose from the landscape, bringing an immediate reaction of oohs and ahs. Upon closer inspection, the appreciation became more accute as discoveries of over three hundred animals were found carved into its huge trunk and branches.

The structure was a stunning success, every bit a peer of the beautiful castle in the Magic Kingdom or the breathtaking Spaceship Earth at Epcot. The difference at Animal Kingdom? Guests could see those defining buildings from far away whereas The Tree of Life was designed to be discovered only once in the park. Just one more variation from what Walt Disney Imagineering had accomplished previously; another break from the past.

Further exploration around the Tree beckoned. The boat journey along the river enticed, but the lure of the African safari- in a space as big as the entire Magic Kingdom- pulled guests away from the colorful Safari Village and right to the gates of Africa. Exotically authentic architecture, the sounds of musicians playing, and cast members from African nations drew guests in. This clearly wasn't Adventureland!

Boarding the safari jeeps at the far end of the area, the 20 minute journey thrilled riders with views into the continent long offered only to a privileged few. Not only had the Disney landscapers done a magnificent job of creating another world in Central Florida, the investment of time and energy by those designing new enclosures that seemed non-existent yeilded a very "open" experience for guests with the animals on view. This single attraction instantly became the must-see experience in all Walt Disney World. Kilimanjaro Safaris was a hit, and the lengthy queues testified to its popularity.

Once departing the showstopping attraction in Africa, guests left the safari jeeps and journeyed onto the Gorilla Falls Exploration Trail (now named Pangani Forest Exploration Trail). In this verdant valley, a troop of incredible creatures roam freely within yards of the path. All open air, seemingly within arms reach. Nearby, an excursion aboard the Wildlife Express trains to Conservation Station, Disney's behind the scenes visitor center, impresses guests with their top-notch animal care facilities.

Proposed but never built version of Asia

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

Our Journey Continues...

After our safari, my family continued down the exploration trail. Before reaching the gorillas, we encountered a large variety of other creatures both large and small, hippos to small birds. Like many families, we had seen The Lion King movie and were familiar with Timon, the meercat. Seeing a real life meercat was fascinating, and our kids had noses pressed to the glass watching him move about. Display cases and walls showed important bits of information regarding their life and the other animals around them. Time went by quickly, but it was necessary to move on.

Going from Africa into Asia, sounds of rushing water and screaming people were soon heard. Of course, we knew this meant we were close by to the Kali River Rapids, and we jumped into line to wait for our turn. I eventually noticed that this version of Asia was not the Japan or China showcases of Epcot but instead a very realistic and earthy representation of a variety of other nations and cultures.

The detail found in the queue overwhelmed us. Everywhere we looked, layers upon layers of storytelling dazzled us. The anticipation of the ride made us patiently wait through the lengthy delay. Actually, the queue was the best part of the attraction as the cruise itself ran very short with little of that Disney attention to detail we saw in line. Such a disappointment! Yet, the Animal Kingdom is such a warm park that having a soaking wet body did provide some relief from the relentless Florida sun.

Official Disney photo.

We skipped the Maharajah Jungle Trek, saving it for a later visit instead choosing to go to Dinoland U.S.A. Navigating the park at this point in time was not an easy thing to do. Just as in Rome, all roads seem to lead back to Safari Island and the Tree of Life. For as large a park, the actual pedestrian areas are very small, sometimes even cramped depending on the crowds, and the route back to Dinoland U.S.A. took some time but it yielded additional views of the park icon.

Having completed the tour of the areas celebrating real animals and finishing this within a couple of hours, we ventured on to Dinoland, U.S.A., seeking encounters with those creatures prehistoric and extinct. Countdown to Extinction, a time machine journey gone awry, is the premier Audio-Animatronic attraction here.

The museum setting for the attraction is quite effective in establishing the tone and feel of what is to come. As we waited in the queue, appropriately placed artifacts and detailed murals presented prehistoric life. Eventually, the lights dimmed as the narrator revealed the story of these incredible creatures. Keen eyed observers will notice the large dinosaur skeleton in the rotunda is in fact what guests will encounter later in the flesh; a discovery lost on us until our second journey.

It is a fast-paced, very loud, and quite scary adventure. We were shocked by the intensity of everything we encountered, but suffice it to say, this is not the mild cousin of the dinosaurs found in Disneyland's Primeval World section of the railroad! My kids took the whole adventure in stride, but my wife and I were surprised by how frightening the trip was- and we wanted to warn parents with small children to bypass the attraction.

The layout of the track is an exact copy of the popular Indiana Jones Adventure in Disneyland, a concession to rising costs associated with building Animal Kingdom. Competitively, it is a direct answer to the Jurassic Park attractions planned at Universal’s Islands of Adventure. It is a compelling trip, however, and once we got over our jitters, we reentered the line for another journey.

Seldom seen piece of art for Countdown to Extinction

Once we left the attraction, we wandered through the main store. The Chester and Hester's souvenir stand is a huge establishment. We loved the quirky charm, loads of punny detail, and unique merchandise.

Photos from WDWEnt.

The Dinosaur Jubilee was a rather quickly thrown together exhibit of bones, housed in a tent, in an area that would be the precursor to the forthcoming Chester and Hester's Dinorama carnival. We were not even aware this existed. It wasn't until years after our return that we know this existed.

Map of Dinosaur Jubilee from DiscoveryRiverBoats.com

Like much of the park at opening, Dinoland U.S.A. left quite a bit to be desired. It felt unfinished - as it does to this day.

As it was later in the day, hunger propelled us to some great food at Safari Island's Flame Tree Barbecue, so we quickly passed through the rest of the area to find it. The meat was surprisingly good- and this became something else we noticed at the park. The food quality and variety was way above the norm, especially compared to the culinary boredom found in both the Magic Kingdom and in Disney-MGM Studios. Perusing the park map, we realized we had missed the last showing of both the Lion King extravaganza and Flights of Wonder. What was left? Only It's Tough to Be a Bug, so off we went.

As we expected, this 3D show was entertaining, full of in-house effects as well as educational. But it was also pretty brief, and we left the Tree of Life theater understanding we had seen all we were going to see for the day. No matter as the park closed at 5pm. We did feel a bit cheated by the short hours and low attraction count. We were not alone. Comments from visitors began to reach the offices of the Disney company.

Above concept courtesy Disney and More blog!

Although most customers anticipated large doses of realism, they also expected equal amounts of Disney magic and fantasy. Early promotional materials featured mythical beasts. Guests were not only expecting them given their experience with the three previous parks, but they also saw promise of them at the park entrance where iconic imagery of dragons were found along with those of creatures real and extinct. It was even stated on the dedication plaque at the front of the park. Guests were primed and ready for the experience.

Although the land devoted to imaginary animals fell victim to the accountants red pen, this change was not made clear to guests, and many fans walked away from a day in the park very disappointed after realizing attractions based on fanicful animals were no where to be found. The best laid plans of mice and men fell to leave behind only indications of Disney's intent- an unseen firebreathing dragon along the river with a few other set pieces but nothing more.

There were other cuts made from this park- an outdoor roller coaster set for Dinoland U.S.A., and a vastly extended water rapids ride than the one finally opened shortly after the park's debut.

Above- Disney's Animal Kingdom at Opening

Other guests were painfully aware of the park's shortcomings. The persistent “half-day park” assessment, the early closing time, a lack of Disney quality Audio-Animatronic attractions, and the perception that Animal Kingdom was nothing more than a zoo.  All this combined to keep attendance levels lower than the executives in Burbank desired. In fact, by some reports, attendance figures dropped for two to four consecutive years after the park opened.

Although short on cash for expansion, new plans were developed with varying degrees of success in acceptance and execution. And that is a tale for the next chapter of the Animal Kingdom story.

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