August 30, 2010

Sounds from Outer Space (Mountain)

Newsflash from the official Disney blog: Space Mountain at the Magic Kingdom now has music. Finally, something Disneyland's mountain has had for years comes to their world in Orlando. Maybe the suits are finally understanding it pays to keep things in working order and up to date. Yeti, anyone?

(Art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

Designing Disney

Just found a wonderful new blog, Designing Disney.
It's focus seems to be mostly about the gorgeous Disneyland Paris and the less than gorgeous Walt Disney Studios Paris, but there are plenty of stories about Walt's original park as well. Go there and take a look- you'll become a fan like I did.
(Photo copyright Designing Disney.)

August 29, 2010

And Counting...

Toy Story 3 hits the billion dollar mark. Pixar's latest proves great characters never die, and shows once again why story is king. There must be a mix of celebration and consternation at the old Walt Disney Company offices this weekend. When did Disney proper lose the golden touch and how can they get it back?
(Art copyright the Walt Disney Company.)

August 27, 2010

The Disease of Terminal Niceness

The Christian Church in America is Dying From the Disease of Terminal Niceness! Let that statement sink in for a bit before you keep reading. How did we get there and so far away from Historic Christianity?

Let me throw some thoughts your way. First, “The Soft Gospel”. It says, "Come to Jesus and your life will become better." It's the Pathway to Prosperity, etc. It's a teaching that has taken hold in the United States for a few decades now. We have come to believe it is our God-given right to health and wealth. This mindset keeps us focused on our own needs- and ineffective in God's Kingdom! We don’t think about God’s priorities but our own! It is still “all about us”!

Let me say, Jesus didn't end of wealthy and healthy; neither did the Twelve Disciples, neither did the early New Testament church. Many were killed for their faith! Even today, true believers are not welcomed in our world. The latest martyrs- the medical team serving in Afghanistan- certainly didn't end up with a life on earth full of money and comfort.

This thought is no better than any other philosophy, reducing Jesus’ bloody sacrifice on the Cross- and His Resurrection- to nothing. It reduces Jesus to just another philosopher instead of the Creator God who will return to Judge all Creation. Following this thought pattern reduces the Christian to another self help group, and we can fall into the trap about talking about Jesus and thinking about Him, intellectualizing Him, without actually following Him into a life of self-sacrifice and death. Ultimately, the church and the Christian faith looks like what the world offers but from a different slant!

I read the Bible where Jesus said, “Whoever serves me must follow me.” (John 12:26). On the way to his crucifixion, he asks Peter “Will you really lay down your life for me?” (John 13:38) The same question holds true for us today!

The second reason the church has been infected by terminal niceness comes from another incomplete piece of theology. “It’s All By Grace” – Yes, that is true, and I am thankful for Amazing Grace- but it does not mean nothing is required of us! The Biblical book of James was written for a reason. Faith without works is dead!

Work is an expression of, and a response to, the grace given us, an outpouring of our gratefulness toward Him who gave all for us. Jesus himself set this example in motion! To be Christlike is to also engage in the work the Father gives us. For His purposes and for his glory. If we never work, we become spiritually fat, lazy, and dull! We remain self-focused and immature, useless in God's kingdom.

So, that begs the question- What Does Terminal Niceness Look Like? What are the symptoms?
1- We get Bored- and We look elsewhere for fulfillment! Be it entertainment, business, family, sports, money, leisure, outright sin, , etc. Why? "Soft Christianity" doesn’t fulfill because it has no depth, no challenge, so we look other places.

It used to be the Military appealed to patriotism to recruit. In the last few decades, when that no longer worked, they changed tactics and now appeal to a “Are You Man Enough?” approach. They realized we are designed by God to be about something bigger than ourselves! This is partially why we "come alive" on serving others- Missions Trips and Service Projects! We do what we are designed for!

2- We get Frustrated and Cynical!
As people in the church respond to lack of direction and clear purpose, frustration continues, and in response the church becomes focused on making people happy and being nice- reinforcing the cycle!

3- Other Symptoms

There are plenty! Here's a few.

• We rewrite the rules to justify our personal weaknesses.
• We are fearful to confront sin. Truth tellers become the problem.
• Iron no longer sharpens iron- We got stuck in our disfunction.
• We become insincere as everyone must start to look good and be content or risk not fitting in. • We segregate ourselves from the outside world or we begin accepting everything the world says as ok for Christians. We become useless salt.
• We begin to protect the status quo in the church. At the extreme, we defend it to the result where good is labeled evil, and evil is justified away.

The church's call to Holiness, living a life that pleases God, is not legalism or simple narrow-mindedness - it is asking the church to be the church, the believer to be a disciple, the challenge to live as we say we believe. If we carry the name of Jesus, we should live like him!

If we look at 2 Timothy, where the Apostle Paul addresses Timothy- who was young in the faith but set aside to pastor a church, we get our "job description" as a person who follows Jesus Christ. It's interesting to note that in this letter to Timothy, Paul is the one in prison, but he is encouraging the young pastor to stay the course!

“1 You then, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. 2 And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others. Endure hardship with us like a good soldier of Jesus Christ.” (II Timothy 2:1-3)

Just some observations- We need to acknowledge God’s grace to live this life. Don’t rely on yourself. The Holy Spirit empowering us! Secondly, we as Jesus followers all have work to do, and Paul was encouraging young Timothy to endure hardship- knowing Timothy was working.

Some authors, like the popular Christian author John Eldridge, believe the church has been feminized. This may be why men are dropping out in record numbers, but I believe it is more than that. If it was just feminization, the drop out rate of college age students would be decreased by half!

I believe we have been rendered ineffective by being pacified. We have become pacifists- but God calls us to something different. He calls us to be active in our world, making it better becasue we are in it, contributing to it.

Paul compares being a Believer to being a soldier. But what are soldiers called to do? The job of a soldier is to: Defend, Protect, Free Prisoners, Advance Against and Break Down Enemy Strongholds

The book of I John tells us the whole world is under control of the Evil One, that is the devil. (I John 5:19-20). We know that he is like a roaring lion waiting to devour (I Peter 5:8). Yet, even without the Scriptures to remind us, we can see evil is winning battles in this world, although God has won the War. We are at war! Reality says “If you want to live in a nice world, go to Disneyland!”

Look at Jesus’ words about this battle: "12 From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and violent men take it by force." (Matthew 11:12- New American Standard version of the Bible). What does this mean? The best explanation from the commentators is this: “The Kingdom of God Belongs to Those Who Contend for It!” Who will win? Not the nice guys! Hear me, I'm not advocating aggression or a victim mentality; I'm advocating perseverance and remembering our priorities.

Further in 2 Timothy 2: 3-4: “Endure hardship with us like a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No one serving as a soldier gets involved in civilian affairs- he wants to please his commanding officer.” There's only two comments from Paul here. First, a reminder. Don’t get involved in civilian affairs In other words, remember your first priorities! And second, please your commanding officer – the bottom line! For the soldier, this priority remains job Number 1.

Obedience is required- full understanding of all the facts or circumstances is not necessary even if it is preferred. This is training in integrity, commitment, and perseverance. There's no excuses- you are in the military or you are not. Own what you signed up for! Soldiers train for battle, refined by their commander. Every person is under someone’s authority. Each has special skills which work together for the common good, and all of us in the battlefield of life must be able to rely on the other.

Sometimes, the Commanding Officer is blunt, direct and honest- preparing the platoon for things to come; not always liked but respected. He's not your Mamma! We need Him to keep us from getting lazy and getting off on the wrong track. We need Him to remind us what Our Mission is!

Churches and People can forget their true Mission! It's the Great Commandment, to love God and one another. And it's the Great Commission, to go out into the world, be it near of far, and share the good news that Jesus died for the sins of men to save them from an eternity in Hell.

What challenges do soldiers face? Plenty- we must "Fight the Good Fight of Faith!" It should be a joy and a delight to work with God. At the least, it is exciting to be obedient and see where that leads! The Lord will judge us for our deeds; He will forgive our sin, not our excuses!

We are human and we like to run from truth to justify ourselves. We let ourselves and others stay in sin and old unhealthy patterns- this is not good for the church and not good for us as individuals! We like having just enough Jesus to save us from Hell but this kind of shallow satisfaction isn’t enough to give us deep freedom and healing. Only full submission will do it!

Not only is the way to eternal life narrow, the path for a true follower of Christ is narrow. It’s a path that leads us to the cross as well! Choosing to die to our own desires and embrace His calling.

We stand at a crossroads every day. What will it be, our purposes or His? Obedience or sin? It's time we fight the disease of Terminal Niceness in our churches. Isn't it?

August 26, 2010

Dumbo's Circusland for Florida's Magic Kingdom!

Walt Disney World's Fantasyland Forest expansion has had the beans spilled on the new redo of the original plans. The Magic Kingdom will now include an expanded version of what looks like the original plans for Dumbo's Cirusland, an abandoned concept for Disneyland. Go to the WDWMagic Boards at this thread for all the scoop- including the new Snow White Mine car coaster! It's the East Coast focused version of MiceAge! Of course, it's all speculation, but the original poster, Lee, has a great track record...
(Art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

Work, Friends, Coffee at Caribou

At the end of the day, I sit here and think about how I am blessed to work among my friends at Caribou Coffee. Like any great barista, they are part artist, server, and friend. Thanks guys, for making a difficult work season much more bearable.

Never Enough

It's never enough for me. There's always a quest for more. More time, more money. More music, more entertainment, more dessert (!), more of everything. It's left me tired at times, empty at others. Oh Lord Jesus, have mercy on me. It's you I need!

August 25, 2010

Carpenters Made in America: Can't Go on Living A Memory

Many times over the last month or so, I have wanted to finish writing this post on the Carpenters' first release of the 1980's: Made in America. Funny thing is, my favorite music discussion board at A&M Corner, has been constantly abuzz with threads concerning the album and particularly it's third single, (Want You) Back in My Life Again.

Not only did the intelligent and insightful responses there make me listen to the album several times, they also challenged me to write a better article! But I had to let some time lapse to get a better grasp on the disc. All said, go there and join the boards- you'll be amazed at what you'll learn from the industry insiders and hard core A&M Records fans that post there. So, let's dig into it...

The house that Herb Alpert built alongside businessman Jerry Moss was a house divided: on one hand, Karen and Richard Carpenter were much appreciated for their "cash cow" status. On the other, it was well known inside the music industry that although Alpert loved them, it was somewhat of a disgrace to have them on the label. After all, the Carpenters weren't rock and weren't cool, but as the old adage goes, "Money Talks". In the early to mid 70's no one made the label more money. Or perhaps anyone on any label. Worldwide.

Their greatest hits collection, The Singles 1969 - 1973 established the duo for the ages, but subsequent albums ran the gamut from being definitive works ("Horizon" and "Christmas Portrait") to relative filler ("A Kind of Hush") to clearly out of touch with what was popular on the charts ("Passage") and desperate to establish a new image. 

October 28, 1978 Billboard ad for "I Believe You".

The last single from Karen and Richard was the beautiful but unsuccessful "I Believe You" in 1978. They sounded great here, but times and taste had changed. The old school torch song was an even bigger flop than "Goofus".

Leaving their 70's success and entering into the 80's, things were tough for our favorite duo from Downey, California. Karen's later revealed struggle with anorexia nervosa, her abandoned solo album with Phil Ramone, and Richard's eventually successful battle with prescription drugs, meant that the career had to take second place to their personal lives. By the time work had finished on their comeback album in 1981, two and a half years had passed. This would be alright for superstar caliber artists a decade later, but it was much too long for their season of popularity.

The album arrived to much industry fanfare, but with a slowly breaking Top Twenty single, "Touch Me When We're Dancing", it was going to be an uphill battle to get the Carpenters a Top Ten album. Ah, but the single! Just hearing Karen's voice after so much time was a treat! As a young twenty something madly in love with my soon to be wife, I couldn't get enough of the song, but it remained hard to find on the radio. When the full album was released in June, I was right there at the local Licorice Pizza store in to buy it. 

What was it with the cover? Had the A&M promotion folks gone mad? Why an illustration, even if it was fairly well done? After the previous two album covers had displayed artwork versus a photograph of the duo, you would think the record company would desire something different. (The recent photo sessions created a fairly up-to-date image for them, and these shots have been used for compilations years later.) No matter- the album was mine, and home I went to plug in the earphones for my traditional first listen.

From the opening bars of "Those Good Old Dreams", the Carpenters I had known and loved were back. The artistry was there; the warm familiarity was there; and most importantly, the Voice of the generation was back.

In hindsight, that is much of the problem with this collection. Karen and Richard were stuck here in a time warp of their own making. The album relies on an old formula, almost as if Richard looked at their largest hits and then found songs that sounded similar: "Those Good Old Dreams" equals "Top of the World"; "Strength of a Woman" begins eerily familiar to "Superstar"; and the most obvious comparison is covering "Beechwood-45789" a la "Please Mr. Postman". Yet, these newer recordings have much less emotional and sonic impact than the ones that came before them. I really like the first two of the three songs mentioned, but then again, I can find good in most things.

Made in America was certainly a pretty enough album, but much like Hush, it was far too soft for contemporary popular radio. The sound of it lacked "bite"; everything seemed to be softer, sweeter, and almost airbrushed. The drums, the horns, almost all of it. Even Tony Peluso's great guitar work had sadly lost its rock edge. Karen and Richard were no longer relative to the times.

The album's lyrics were cautiously optimistic at times, betraying the overall sunshine feel of the music. When viewed as a whole, there's a good amount of trouble brewing beneath the surface. Even Karen's wedding song to Tom Burris, Because We Are in Love, hints at uncertainty and fear. (Wish Karen would have listened to herself and ditched the guy! And ditched the song. It is one of my least favorites of all their recordings.) The same could be said in hindsight for the buoyant looking portrait on the cover. Something just didn't feel right- and no one but family and industry insiders knew the truth.

Single number one eventually creeped up to number 16, with each additional release doing much worse than the one before it. For the hardcore fan, it was so much in the same vein of earlier recordings that the disc was enjoyable but ultimately added nothing to their body of work. The one different sounding cut was the Doobie Brothers - ish (Want You) Back in My Life Again, and it ends up sounding more like a plea to radio programmers and fans of old, in spite of some impressive work by Daryl Dragon of Captain and Tennille and Ian Underwood of the Mothers of Invention.

That said, there was some maturing to be found in the lyrics but without the sexual explicitness many artists thought was necessary to survive the times. (That is one aspect of Richard's production and song choice I have always appreciated, and one that has made me really dislike some of Karen's solo work. Not the voice, but the lyrics.)

"Somebody's Been Lyin'" in particular, is a poignant look at the end of a relationship. There's not too many songs in the Carpenters' catalogue where Karen takes some responsibility for the end, although "This Masquerade" from the Now & Then disc hints the breakup is near for those very reasons. Again, the newer song has some depth, but it is not as sophisticated as their earlier recording.

It was clear that A&M didn't know what to do with the album or the artists at this point, as the album headed down the charts as quickly as it rose. Karen and Richard headed off to Europe and South America for promotion, maybe even stops in Japan (a place of strong fan devotion); I'm not sure. The videos for the singles went from average to plain out awful, but at least they were in the public eye once again.

Sadly, this was Karen's last released recording while she was alive. Made in America is probably the weakest album in their collection, the one most desperate, the one that got away. It should have been more, it should have been better. Many of the unreleased songs recorded for the album were stronger than the ones that made the cut. The disc made for a nice addition to my collection, and I played it regularly. Of course, my own wedding was coming soon, so it didn't have as much turntable time as earlier albums.

A little over a year and a half later, the girl with the golden voice would be gone. Too bad she couldn't have passed with a blockbuster hit as her latest release. Guess you really "can't hold on, living a memory".

Even though this would be the end of the duo, Richard continued on, as will the reviews of Carpenters' discs both as a duo, with solo works, and other artist productions on tap as well. Stay tuned.  
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:

August 23, 2010

Disneyland Paris' Le Visionarium

This painted mural at Disneyland Paris stood near the entrance to the excellent and elegant Le Visionarium attraction. In some ways, this was the emotional and philosophical centerpiece of Discoveryland, paying tribute to great visionaries of the past. A few years ago, this was replaced with a smaller but very popular version of Buzz Lightyear's AstroBlasters. It's too bad, really. The good news is you can find a video of the stateside version of this attraction at this YouTube link.
(Photo copyright Mark Taft.)

August 20, 2010

Sorry, Sarah!

From The Daily Beast blog:

"This is the sound of Sarah Palin jumping the shark in two tweets:
• Dr.Laura: don't retreat ... reload! (Steps aside bc her 1st Amend.rights ceased 2exist thx 2activists trying 2silence "isn't American, not fair")
• Dr.Laura = even more powerful & effective w/out the shackles, so watch out Constitutional obstructionists. And b thankful 4 her voice, America!"

To defend Dr. Laura's racist tirade is not cool. Sorry, Sarah!In fact, that word used by anyone- including those of color- is promoting racism, and that is just plain stupid. It's time to grow up, America, and stops the slurs.

August 19, 2010

Bulls and Beasts

Two bits of news yesterday that made me stop and think:

In Madrid, Spain, a bull in the ring actually jumped over the grandstands into the crowd, injuring many.

The other? LaGarrette Blount, a football player known for his unrestrained temper, once again lost his cool, punching another player.

What's disturbing about this? LaGarrette's coach writes the episode off as "It's football, it's training camp." Making excuses for poor sportmanship. This is another bit of proof that we as a people have fallen into a trap. We reward talent instead of character, making heroes out of those who have no such reason to be seen as one.
The bull in Madrid was doing what bulls so. I guess LaGarrette was too, as man is sinful at his core. But I ask, when we will stop the craziness of elevating those who do wrong just because they are great talents? And who really needs to be trained correctly here?

Strong Arm Tactics

Looks like Disney is putting real muscle behind the continued reinvention of California Adventure. It appears they may be winning the battle for increased attendance as a result. World of Color continues to pack them in, and with The Little Mermaid: Ariel's Undersea Adventure less than a year away, Imagineering's efforts are in full swing. That's without two of the biggest projects to come, Buena Vista Street and Carsland with it's "E" Ticket Radiator Springs Racers. Let's make sure we reward their efforts by spending more time in the park and increasing attendance. We want them to learn it takes money to make money so they keep investing and launch the proposed Phase Two enhancements and expansion.

(Photo copyright Mark Taft.)

August 18, 2010

And Then There Were Two

Coming soon- the final two articles on the Disney Park Countdown. Will it be Walt's original playground, Disneyland, at Number One? Or will it be his greatest dream, Epcot? The series starts here. Stay tuned...

August 16, 2010

Storm Watch

Looks like it is going to be a good one tonight. Guess it is a good night to watch Criminal Minds!

True Blue Madonna

Guess today is Madonna's 52nd birthday. Love her, hate her, or just ambivalent, she certainly is an icon of our generation. True Blue, in my humble opinion, represents her at her best. The song is just plain fun and so reminiscent of the 60 girl groups. Her take on Carpenters writer John Bettis' Crazy For You was another brilliant piece, showing her flexibility and willingness to adapt to whatever was hot during the period. The much later Take A Bow was another sultry favorite.

You don't find her on the radio stations I frequent, but I do not think I will ever forget her playing Breathless Mahoney in the Walt Disney film Dick Tracy. Warren Beatty was certainly smitten by her then both on and off the screen- and I was too.

Tony Baxter: Dreamfinder Personified

Earlier in the week, I was pondering some questions about what makes a man successful in the eyes of others. Certainly, character traits like integrity, sacrifice, and how we love others are of utmost importance. As we age and pass on, these pieces of who we are will largely form how we are ultimately remembered. If the work we leave behind is public, like for artists, athletes, politicians, authors, architects, etc., then that also makes a statement. When we view Walt Disney, for example, we think of his legacy as mostly related to his artistic output.

In this ongoing Tony Baxter / Tom Fitzgerald debate for the soul and future of Disneyland, ordinary long time fans like us are only wanting one thing: high quality attractions that showcase the best of Imagineering's craft. We really don't care who is a diva, who is a cut-throat businessman, who buddies up with who, or anything else all that personal. It makes for interesting news and endless debate, but it is the end result built in concrete and stone, paint and steel, that we most care about.

I am a Tony fan- and I will say it loud and clear. This is nothing personal against Tom; I do not know either men; never met them, probably never will. Since I cannot judge their character, all I can judge is the work they will leave behind. And the results speak volumes: Just look at some of his work, and you will discover Mr. Tony Baxter to be one of the best Imagineers in the history of the company. (Look here for a small taste. And look a couple of posts below for his work on the incredible Disneyland Paris.)

The piece above showcases Tony's take on EPCOT Center's Land pavilion. It wasn't built as designed, but it's influence on the nearby Imagination pavilion is clearly there. Another artistic triumph- and his portfolio is full of them; full with projects both big and small. Say what you will about the man, but his love for Disneyland and his commitment to high quality imagineering says the most about him. These things are what the Disney fan community will ultimately judge him by.

(Art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

August 15, 2010

Dreamfinder in a Real World

Tomorrow on the Insights blog: A fresh look at a Dreamfinder of a different sort and the impact on Our Imagination...
(Art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

August 14, 2010

Obama and the Mosque

President Obama continues to show how out of touch he is with the American people. What a disappointment he has turned out to be!

Yes, I am for freedom of religion- but placing a mosque near Ground Zero shows incredible ignorance and insensitivity. Akin to a pro-Nazi monument next to Auschwitz, a pro Pol Pot monument next to Cambodia's government buildings, or a host of other possibilities where the triumph of evil is celebrated next to sites of great human loss.

Our president is becoming a fool right in front of the very eyes of his people. This emperor is showing his lack of clothes.

(NOTE: For an admittedly better explanation of what I was trying to say, please read the comments.)

August 13, 2010

Notable and Quotable: Billy Graham

"Courage is contagious. When a brave man takes a stand, the spines of others are often stiffened.”
Rev. Billy Graham

August 12, 2010

It's Official: Bye Bye Pixies?

From a brief interview with Tom Staggs from the Orlando Sentinel, it's official: The Fantasyland Expansion at Florida's Magic Kingdom is changing. Go here for the article.
(Art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

August 11, 2010

Fresh Determination

Take a close look at the picture. Pause and reflect.
I've gotta look at this with fresh eyes in light of my own struggles.
For the full story, Go here.
Photo and story at the Denver Post.

August 10, 2010


"Teach me your way, O LORD; lead me in the straight path because of my oppressors. Do not turn me over to the desire of my foes, for false witnesses rise up against me, breathing out violence.

I am still confident of this: I will see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living. Wait for the LORD; be strong and take heart and wait for the LORD."
Psalm 27:11-14

August 9, 2010

Disney Park Countdown- #3 Disneyland Paris

In the world's most beautiful city resides a great Disney Imagineering experiment: the theme park as a work of art. (The park is so beautiful, I left all the images very large, just click on them.)

Walt Disney World was bound to capture the masses due to its sheer size and scope. Tokyo Disneyland would win fans by appealing to the Japanese love of all things Disney and a healthy dose of most things American. The challenges were different in Europe. The originally named EuroDisneyland had to be gorgeous to compete with the abundance of man made wonders in the city and the continent at large. If this park was to be a creative and financial success, it also had to overcome the reputation of Americans and Americana as being "second class" and lacking culture. In spite of the challenges or maybe because of them, Disneyland Paris not only succeeds but is the most beautiful Magic Kingdom ever created.

This was the first European park from Disney and the first Disneyland styled park entirely reimagined from the ground up. Thankfully, the principal Imagineer in charge was Tony Baxter. His love for the first Disneyland and his love of old school Imagineering, along with his well recognized eye for exquisite design, made him the perfect man to oversee the design and construction of a park that had to hold its own in a city known for its world famous art.

In an interview from 1995 (found here), Tony recalls a conversation with Marty Sklar about his plans for the park: "I would really like to have a chance to try for a perfect version of Disneyland." And he and his team did create it!

Speaking of team, just look at the group assembled for the job: Eddie Sotto, who created a stunning Main Street U.S.A.- even if it isn't the "Roaring 20's" styled one he fought for; Tim Delaney, whose work on the Jules Verne themed Discoveryland is on par with anything every built at Tokyo Disney Sea; Tom Morris, his take on Fantasyland brings it to a whole new level of beauty; Chris Tietz, no other Adventureland past or present so perfectly accomplishes the task of feeling so remote yet intimate all the while being so vast in size; and lastly Pat Burke, whose designs for Frontierland are so terrific that words are not enough to communicate his accomplishment- though I will try later!

While Tony Baxter cannot and does not take the credit for the park, his ability to draw out the best in his team cannot be overstated. The results clearly speak for themselves. Let me bluntly say this: Disneyland Paris is the ultimate Magic Kingdom styled park.

(Here's a challenge Disney park fans. Look at the photos of this park and then stop and think: the very fact the company would marginalize Tony should tell you much about its true priorities and the negative creative impact it will have on the parks!)
So, what did I see that made me wish this park was my "home Kingdom"? Our first visit was in 1998- and I was mesmerized by what I saw. (My second trip in 2007 was just as impressive.) Although the park does not have the lakeside lot similar to Florida's Magic Kingdom, the elaborate gardens at the entrance perform the task of staging quite admirably.

Walking under the stunning (but pricey!) Disneyland Hotel, the expected Main Street U.S.A. train station comes into view. It's a beautiful building, but it is not until you are in queue and view the handcrafted stained glass windows- depicting each land in the park- that you realize the Imagineers have gone far beyond the expected. It's the same everywhere you look.

For a Disneyland fan, the first sight of the centerpiece castle is one that excites. Here, in a country full of magnificent palaces and stunning structures, Le Ch√Ęteau de la Belle au Bois Dormant, impressively mixes fairy tale style with European true to life sensibilities. Like Florida's Cinderella Castle at the Magic Kingdom, it is huge and easily seen from most of the entire park.

In Hong Kong Disneyland, the castle is listed as an attraction to pad the numbers but really has nothing to offer. Here at our French chateau, there really is an attraction worth exploring. In fact, we spent over an hour just viewing its handcrafted tapestries, lovingly created stained glass windows, its balconies and terraces. Of course, the piece de resistance is found at the basement level Dragon's Lair. Inside the dungeon, the fully realized Audio Animatronic dragon snarls and growls, blazing fire and smoke at guests passing by! This dark lower chamber is even reached by a secret passageway from one of the Fantasyland shops above. This is Imagineering at its best!

Beyond the castle, our Parisian Fantasyland is a beautiful combination of Anaheim's (though at a much larger scope and scale) with elements all uniquely its own. There are many small gardens, water features, and plenty of discoveries around every bend.

Much is made of the Alice in Wonderland themed labyrinth and for good reason! The winding paths through manicured gardens make for a great little family excursion. Filled with characters from the film, it is more akin to the "smaller" attractions that provide charm at Walt's original park- the ones that are sorely missed in Florida. It's A Small World is nearby, being the first one to include a United States themed area in the attraction. Very nice.

Besides the Anaheim original, the only other Storybookland Canal Boats are found here. The focus seems to be mostly on the newer Disney film classics with an odd inclusion of The Wizard of Oz. Casey Jr. Circus Train appears next door. However, this one is a real coaster, blatantly ensuring the poorly designed and themed Gadget's Go Coaster will never make its way to France all the while providing thrills for little ones.

Fantasyland has its dark rides as well, with Mr. Toad's Hall being a terrific little restaurant versus the entrance for a ride to nowhere in particular. Peter Pan's Flight, with its double capacity vehicles, draws the same large crowds here as back home. Pinocchio's Daring Journey is almost a walk on just like at home as well. Snow White also has her home here. Each little dark ride is full of all the expected detail and similar storyline but with a twist: each is told in the language of its writer. A nice nod to the diversity of European cultures.

Where to go next? Let's walk by Peter Pan and go into Adventureland.

Similar to the transition between the Florida's Liberty Square from Fantasyland, there is a subtle architectural blending between both lands here in Paris. In fact, the transitions in this park are so smooth yet very distinctive. However, once you enter one land, it is so immersive and so convincingly secluded from all others, it is easy to forget you are in a multi-themed park. The placement of focal points amidst cleverly placed high points and foliage make it next to impossible to see the other lands than the one you are in. This is a strength of the design. The effect reinforces the storytelling, highlighting the brilliant detailing and masterful crafting of the park. But, I digress- back to Adventureland.

From the plaza, Adventureland beckons with a distinctive Arabian Nights theme, a nod to the European perspective of what is considered exotic. Inside the buildings are a nice walk through attraction based on Aladdin, a bazaar, and a very quiet little cafe. Entering from Fantasyland, things are different. Our first view is of Adventure Isle. This fresh take on Tom Sawyer Island, showcases Skull Rock and Captain Hook's pirate ship- a very nice blending from Peter Pans' Flight, which we just walked past in Fantasyland. There are no watercraft plying the area, instead two pedestrian bridges provide access to the island.

Up high on a hilltop is also The Swiss Family Tree House, its roots creating the perfect place for exploration with caves underground and the expected bridges and trails above. This incredible playground also consumed an hour or so of our time, as we had to cover every inch of it; the sights from almost every side of the island had to be captured by my camera. From one angle, the beautifully decaying fortress of Pirates of the Caribbean; from the other, views into an African themed section of the land or the jungle filled ruins of a temple being excavated by Indiana Jones.

Back on shore, Pirates of the Caribbean is the definitive version of this classic attraction- even outpacing the Anaheim original. Most all Disney fans have heard of the dueling pirates found in the "chase" scene, but the action at the beginning of the attraction also impresses. From the smaller marine animatronics, (such as the squid found just out of view from diners at the beautiful Blue Lagoon restaurant), to the very active pirates overthrowing the fortress before riders descend into the middle of the battle, this old standby attraction is reinvented to great effect. Here in Paris, those explosives do detonate- but you'll have to see it for yourself. It was a gutsy move to reimagine the finest of Disney attractions, but Dead Men Tell New Tales here!

Heading back to the central plaza, let's look at Frontierland. In Europe, Frontierland is found where Adventureland resides in the American parks. It's placement seems jarring at first, but when viewing the entrances to each land from the plaza, it makes good sense. Those fanciful Arabian domes seem much more in their proper place next to the equally fanciful castle than an American fort of the Wild West.

Many Europeans love the tales from the American West, its landscapes, its stories, its heroes. This Frontierland captures it all, embracing both the facts and the lore. With the "blessing of size" and the ability to create this land from scratch, the Imagineers, led by Pat Burke, have produced the most compelling landscapes and stories ever created for this piece of the Disneyland styled parks. It is the standout themed land in an entire park of them; the ultimate Frontierland, one I bet Walt Disney himself would have loved to see come to fruition.

Approaching Fort Comstock, you can see how much it looks like the original concept art for California's Disneyland. There are a few Indian teepees in the front alongside the small stream. (Just a side note: Between Adventureland and Frontierland entrances from the plaza side is a cleverly hidden gallery housing restrooms along a secluded path. The designers used a variety of vegetation to gently transition from the Middle East to the Old West of the United States. Excellently done.)

As with the castle, Fort Comstock is also an attraction. You can explore the entire complex, walking the upper levels and enjoying terrific views across the frontier. Legends of the Wild West presents famous figures from American history in full scale tableau. Everywhere you turn, the detail and historical authenticity is incredible. For you Californians that have never been to the Paris park, think Frontierland done with the same amount of care as California's New Orleans Square!

Straight beyond the fort lies Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. Its trains round the track on this rocky island situated right in the middle of the Rivers of the Far West- this is after the ride begins with the trains going under the river. This aspect alone gives the attraction a spectacular beginning, setting the pace for the whole journey. Placing Big Thunder here front and center gives the land much kinetic energy, creating a very different feel from the somewhat sleepy but very mysterious feeling of Adventureland next door.

Back on shore is the town of Thunder Mesa, named as a tribute to the great Imagineer Marc Davis and his never built Western River Expedition. (In fact, this park would be a perfect fit for the never built attraction as Europeans are less politically correct than Americans when it comes to Old West stereotypes.) The expected steamboat sails by, the Disneyland Railroad trains encircle the area, and the nearby shooting gallery creates some excitement. Yet there is something very different and uniquely special about this Frontierland.

While Big Thunder Mountain Railroad is the thrilling visual center of the town of Thunder Mesa, Phantom Manor delivers thrills of a different kind, revealing a sinister undertone to the legends of the community. The debates will continue on as to whether or not this take on the Haunted Mansion is better or worse than the original. Ultimately, the attraction is just scarier and different, (its symphonic score is gorgeous), still fully advancing the stories behind Thunder Mesa while leaving enough room to create your own.

Sitting on the wooden walkways next to the shops far across from Phantom Manor, it was easy for me to suspend belief and dream of truly being back in time. There's a large chunk of land devoted to this theme, and the area is visually secluded from all others, with the layers of detail in sight and sound so rich and varied, the end result is the perfect representation of the old west mythologies. We spent several hours here taking in attractions, exploring the shops, and eating at the excellent and fairly priced Cowboy Cookout Barbecue.

After two visits to the park, I still could not uncover why this version is my favorite of all Frontierlands and perhaps my favorite land in all of Disneyland Paris. As I started to write this post, I was able to come to this conclusion: In California, Frontierland is a shadow of its former self in contrast to what was designed by the Imagineering team under Walt Disney; in Florida, the land is an excuse for the placement of cuddly characters. Only in France, thousands of miles removed from the actual geography represented, does this uniquely American story get the respect it deserves. Bottom line and bluntly stated, this Frontierland feels like the real thing and not an area found in a theme park.

In 1992, I watched the opening of the EuroDisney resort on television, and dreamed and prayed I would one day get to visit. While the banter of American hosts Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson added little to what I wanted to see, the images of Discoveryland stuck in my head. (Remember, this was even before Space Mountain was built. By the way, my very detailed look at the worldwide Space Mountains is found here.) This was what drove me to pursue a trip as I am a big fan of Jules Verne; and for those who are interested, Mysterious Island is my favorite of his writings.

When I finally did see Discoveryland with my own eyes in 1998, the small screen images didn't hold a candle to the monumental work I saw! Walking through the land, I was drawn so many different directions. But I had a single goal in mind: Space Mountain. From start to finish, it was a winner. The ride was smooth as glass, the music drew me in as it enhanced the experience, and the scenery while awaiting launch was stunning. I couldn't ride it enough, although the queue length meant only two trips this go around as there was so much to see and shortened park hours. Even my Disney jaded fourteen year old son walked off the ride with a huge smile on his face! When Space Mountain: Mission Two premiered years later, I lamented the changes I perceived would be made for the new adventure. My ride in 2007 only confirmed they were in fact for the worse.

Exploring a fully developed Nautilus submarine was one of the highlights of my day. I saw clear references to Tony Baxter's long lost Discovery Bay here as well. The place is full of eye candy and the kind of design detail I love. Yet, one of the most endearing attractions at Disneyland Paris is no longer there: Le Visionarium. This circlevision film was great fun and a wonderful introduction to French future/fantasy. However, in our second visit in 2007, this impressive little movie was replaced by the ever popular video game starring Buzz Lightyear. This was not the first of the toon invasions into the park as Toy Story's Pizza Planet restaurant was already added to Discoveryland before our first visit.

When considering the direction Disney is taking with its Tomorrowland's, Discoveryland holds a unique place as being middle ground between Anaheim's original future focused realism and Hong Kong Disneyland's character infused land. May Discoveryland hold its own as the transitions continue by remaining a tribute of visionaries come to life!

Let me take some time to discuss Main Street, U.S.A., the first land in the park. It is every bit as impressive if not moreso than the grander than the original version found in Florida's Magic Kingdom. If the Paris version of the land of the future has taken on a more fantasy bent, I would venture to say the same holds true for its Main Street. There is an idealistic, very artistic, beauty of each building, each billboard, each attraction. The beautiful work of Eddie Sotto and team elevates the land to something befitting landscapes from a dream.

Walt's: An American Restaurant is the perfect example of what I am attempting to communicate. The food is not only delicious but beautifully presented, and the atmosphere is a dream for every fan of classic Disney Imagineering. Artwork from the creation of the parks in found in the restaurant's themed rooms with appropriately styled furnishings. During our second trip (and the only one without the kids), we lunched in the Frontierland room with a window view overlooking Main Street. It was worth every bit of the $75 we spent, one highlight of many in our trip to the park.

After lunch, as with every other land, we lingered here soaking in the details. Exploring the shops one by one, we loved what we found. My favorite was Main Street Motors, a love letter of sorts to the American automobile. The Emporium and Harrington's were also stops for our destination shopping, with equal amounts of detail found in both. Although we ate at Walt's, we did stop in and peak at the Market House Deli and Casey's Corner. More great theming and layered detail.

Although Main Street is relatively short on attractions, the Liberty and Discovery Arcades are attractions all their own. In fact, we spent more time in these than we thought we would, causing a delay of our after park plans. Each arcade held a series of "mini exhibits", adding to the richness of the park. It is these small touches that bring this kingdom closest to the charm of Walt's first Disneyland while maintaining the expanded scale and scope of Florida's.

By this point in my countdown of Disney parks, any reader of this article would wonder what aspects of Disneyland Paris bring it down to Number Three versus a higher ranking. Let's talk about the plusses and minusses of the place.

Beyond its physical beauty, Disneyland Paris offers some of the most enhanced and esquisite versions of the classic Disney attractions. The choices for dining are on par with what can be found at Epcot. From snack choices to fine dining, the park has a variety of options to fit all budgets and preferences.

Readers of the discussion boards of Al Lutz's Miceage, in particular, are familiar with the ongoing complaints concerning the park. And these hold up with good reason. This beautifully designed place is saddled with very poor maintenance- probably the worst of all the Disney theme parks. It is not that the cast members are not doing their jobs. In fact, the cast members are very kind, courteous, and knowledgable. Simply said, the business planners for the park have not given enough resources to keep the park up to its opening day standards in upkeep and cleanliness.

The lovely setting from the second floor found in Walt's was offset by what I viewed from the window. Rotting wood, peeling paint, and general disrepair of the buildings found across the street took away from the experience inside. The same held true for the higher reaches of the park's castle, parts of Adventure Isle, and slices of each of the park's themed lands. There was a noticable difference in these standards between visit one and two, much to my dismay.
Item number two: downgrading the shopping experience. What are character plushes and plastic toys doing out in the open streets of Adventureland? (Or even in the shops here at all?) This is a horrible trend, one that should be reversed immediately. Our first visit held plenty of unique, even theme park exclusive, merchandise. Not on our second visit. Seems this disease is spreading from Florida!

Next, delay in bringing new theme appropriate attractions. No excuse here for stagnation. It does take money to make money. Learn from Walt here and not the corporate raiders of our day. The park should have new- not reimagined- attractions between 1998 and 2007. Replacing Le Visionarium for Buzz and rotating 3D movies is not the way to go. Nor is a new children's play area at the Adventureland beach or thowing in Woody and company into Frontierland.

Lastly, and this piece is not entirely the fault of the Walt Disney Company, but the fault of the park's management, are the guests. Far too many of the park's visitors are incredibly disrespectful of both other guests and the beautiful surroundings. I have personally witnessed public outdoor urination, widespread invasion of nonguest areas, and extremely poor manners with regards to line cutting. Is this really the same European guest that is amazingly respectful of the unprotected artistic masterpieces found in the Musee d'Orsay or the Louvre? My mind says impossible, but my mind also says probable. Either way, park security does nothing, only adding to the frustration of being in a beautiful park that at times feels out of control.

Do not let the downside to this European Disneyland stop you from visiting! From a thematic and design viewpoint, this is the finest Magic Kingdom ever created, maybe even on par with the much heralded Tokyo Disney Sea. Though outside the city limits, the park fits in perfectly with the City of Lights and is certainly worth an entire day of exploration.

Six parks down and two to go. As with this article on Disneyland Paris, there is much to say about both Epcot and Walt's beloved Disneyland in California. Keep watching for the next part in this series where I reveal my Number Two choice.
(Photos copyright Mark Taft.)

August 8, 2010

Disney Park Countdown Continues

Our park countdown continues tomorrow morning. Disneyland, Epcot, Disneyland Paris. Which park ranks third on my current list of best Disney lands? Come back tomorrow morning and find out for this detailed and fascinating look of what makes our Top Three worthy of their place.

August 5, 2010

Birthday Boy!

To my youngest son on his birthday- May God bless you all the days of your life as you leave the teens behind and embrace manhood. I love you and am so proud of you! Dad

August 4, 2010

Herb Ryman's EPCOT Center

The great team at Progress City, U.S.A. continues on with another series of concert art by the talented Herb Ryman. This is another must see at a site known for incredible posts. Go there and find images rarely seen for the World Showcase Israel pavilion and more. Or stay here and search for Herb and find other pieces of his wonderful art for other Disney parks as well!

(Art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

I'm Breathless

Totally in love with this 2006 release from Corinne Bailey Rae. Smooth, light and breezy, with the perfect combination of sophistication and innocence. Couldn't you just hear it as a Phil Ramone produced hit for Karen Carpenter?

August 3, 2010

Kodak Moment: Metro Ride Anyone?

While pulling old photos for my Disney Park Countdown, I was looking through some from 1998. Here, two days before our first visit to Disneyland Paris, is our young family heading for a metro trip. Weren't my kids cute? My wife, too! By the way, any of my readers from Paris know the name of this station?
(Photo copyright Mark Taft.)