February 27, 2011

Big Risks at the Mouse House

What's going on in Central Florida with all the changes to the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World? What impact has Harry Potter's Forbidden Journey had on the plans at the Mouse House? Why is Walt Disney World's 40th Anniversary so important at this time? Come back tomorrow for an in depth look.

February 26, 2011

Tangaroa Terrace and Disney's Cop Out

Just caught a glimpse of the art for the new Tangaroa Terrace planned for the expansion and renovation of the Disneyland Hotel. This quick casual dining experience will have tropical decor and great music. The outdoor seating is perfect for those beautiful California nights. But what is missing?

This Tahitian Terrace inspired eatery is missing the very thing that made the Terrace so popular when it was first opened: Polynesian dancers and live music! With a bit more creativity in space planning, there is no reason Disney suits couldn't bring in a smaller venue similar to the Spirit of Aloha show at Walt Disney World's Polynesian Resort. A serious misstep.

With the live dancers and musicians, this would be the evening place to be found- and the crowds would have a great signature experience to mark their vacations. Without the live entertainment, this location is nothing more than a Disneyfied Rumbi Island Grille! If the Disneyland Resort is indeed a resort, there needs to be an increase in the offerings- and Disney missed the mark here by taking the easy way out.
(Art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

February 23, 2011

Epcot's Tapestry of Nations

What were you doing to celebrate the Turn of the Century from the 1900s to the 2000s? Our family decided it was time to go to Epcot- and we were not disappointed!

Of course, being Disney and being an opportunity for a once in a lifetime Millennium party, the brilliant Imagineers did what they could before the accountants took control: they created some wonderful entertainment to mark the occasion. The best part of the mesmerising Tapestry of Nations, one part parade and one part performance art.

There's not too many pieces of concept art out there for The Tapestry of Nations. In fact, this is a fairly poor scan of a very small piece I have tried to enlarge and improve. But if you can imagine larger than life puppets and drummers all moving around World Showcase to an incredibly original sounding theme sound, you'll get the idea. Or just go to these videos to see if for yourself.

Along with the somewhat charming but overblown Millennium Village (now a convention space!), and an incredible new version of Illuminations: Reflections of Earth, this spectacle represented much of what was good about Epcot and its original vision. Edutainment at its best.

Our last night visit to Epcot, (a family tradition to spend our last night at our favorite park), was one we will never forget. Let's just hope the suits don't make us wait another hundred years for something so truly magical!

(Art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

February 22, 2011

Jesus and the Scum

Scum of the earth? A punk rock Jesus Christ? Am I offended? Actually, no, I'm not.

Denver's Westword magazine pushes boundaries with this published article about Scum of the Earth church during the week of Christmas 2010. I'v read it several times, and the magazine has been in my car for weeks.

The image is striking- and the name more so. Yet the name of the church and the focus of the article actually comes from the Apostle Paul's God-inspired writing to the Corinthians:
To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless. We work hard with our own hands. When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it;when we are slandered, we answer kindly.We have become the scum of the earth, the garbage of this world- right up to this moment. (I Corinthians 4:11-13)

Paul was doing the work of an evangelist, a writer, an apologist, and just being a follower of the God Made Man for Our Sake. Sometimes he spoke up clearly to his accusers and challenged them, sometimes he took it all in stride. Ultimately, the people of earth treated Paul just as they treated His Lord and Savior. But he kept on going, giving glory to God by the way he lived his life with integrity. A call we all must make. Friends of the Only Living God and therefore scum of the earth, or are we friends of all the world embraces leaving Jesus Christ behind as a good man and as a philosopher. Jesus' question to Peter still stands today- and our eternity rests on the answer- "Who do you say that I am?"

(Art copyright Westword magazine)

February 17, 2011

One Too Many

Invading Florida's tropical jungles, Aladdin's Magic Carpets came to the Magic Kingdom's Adventureland, ruining the dense and exotic landscape. This simplistic piece of concept art does justice to the final presentation when built. It's a common spinner, dressed up to take care of parents and kids who won't wait for Walt Disney World's Dumbo. (It's not the artist's fault! You can only do so much with the concept!)

In France's dismal Walt Disney Studios Paris, it debuted sans buildings with the Genie nearby dressed as a movie producer. At Tokyo DisneySea, it arrives soon as part of the intricately detailed Arabian Coast with a new name. Regardless of location, one Dumbo styled attraction is really enough!

(Art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

February 16, 2011

Nothing 'Bout Me

It's a beautiful sunny Sunday as I type, and I'm singing along to my favorite Sting song:

Lay my head on the surgeon's table
Take my fingerprints if you are able
Pick my brains, pick my pockets
Steal my eyeballs and come back for the sockets
Run every kind of test from A to Z
And you'll still know nothin' 'bout me
Run my name through your computer
Mention me in passing to your college tutor
Check my records, check my facts
Check if I paid my income tax
Pore over everything in my C.V.
But you'll still know nothin' 'bout me
You'll still know nothin' 'bout me

You don't need to read no books on my history
I'm a simple man, it's no big mystery
In the cold weather, a hand needs a glove
At times like this, a lonely man like me needs love

Search my house with a fine tooth comb
Turn over everything 'cause I won't be home
Set up your microscope, and tell me what you see
You'll still know nothin' 'bout me
You'll still know nothin' 'bout me
You'll still know nothin' 'bout me etc.
You'll still know zip about me

February 15, 2011

Introducing A Park Filled With Adventure

So says my favorite ad from 1998 introducing Disney's Animal Kingdom. The text is just as fascinating as the shadows in the photo, telling stories told and those abandoned:

"Keep your eyes open and your wits about you. 'Cause you never know what you'll come across here. Herds of wild elephants, prowling lions, fire breathing dragons, and dinosaurs whose return from extinction hans't mellowed their bad attitudes one iota. Where on earth are you? Disney's Animal Kingdom, a whole new Walt Disney World theme park. Where an African safari pits you against poachers, a mad archeologist sends you back 65 million years on a thrill ride of mammoth proportions, and over 1,000 animals roam freely."

Dinosaurs? Check. Wild beasts? Done. But fire breathing dragons give way to an angry Yeti, and dreams of the originally planned, incredibly detailed Beastly Kingdom crash to the ground. Imagineers strive for something equally fantastic, but so far, nothing makes the grade.
Guess I should mention my series on the development and ongoing growth of Animal Kingdom. At this point, it is a six part series but its growing! There's art, photos, trip reports and history, much like my California Adventure series. If you want to read it from the beginning, go here.(Ad copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

February 14, 2011

To My Only Valentine

So many years ago on this day, we met on a blind date. Neither of us thought about it being Valentine's Day. It was just a three year old girl's birthday party; a little girl who many months later would be the flower girl at our wedding. What a gift from God you are. Especially after all these years, your beauty shines brighter and your heart to love and serve God continues to delight and impress me. Thank you for being my best friend, for being the wonderful mother of our children, and my favorite person to spend the day with.

Happy Valentine's Day my beloved wife! You are and remain the only one for me!

February 13, 2011

Ten Years of DCA: Changes in Attitudes

Now for something entirely different... As I was writing the series of articles for this week's postings on the Tenth Anniversary of California Adventure, I came to the realization that my feelings about the park had changed. I did a bit of research- it took some time with almost 1,000 posts here on the blog- and unearthed three posts/trip reports that I have written since I began it. The contrast over time was absolutely fascinating. If I am any indication or statistic, The Walt Disney Company has in fact achieved its goals in making fans rethink the park. And the transformation is only half way through! Hope you enjoy this series of trip reports!
December 2008 (Trip Report)
There it was late September, and I realized that due to the timing, my only chance to go to the Disneyland Resort during a family visit would be sometime after Christmas and before New Year’s. What luck! Probably the busiest time of year. But it would be our only chance to do this as a family now that some of us had moved out of state.

Thinking through my plan of attack, a few things were obvious: One, I’d have to purchase our tickets ahead of time; two, we would have get there at the gate before the opening time; lastly, we’d have to be wise about using Fastpass, deciding what we really wanted to see.

There were also the non-practical but equally important emotional aspects of our visit. I wanted to see the attractions and attraction enhancements I had not seen. This included Pirates Lair on Tom Sawyer Island, the new Sleeping Beauty Castle walk-through, the piranha attack on the Jungle Cruise, and lastly, the
Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage.

I was not the only traveler, however, and we each had our own ideas. My wife hadn’t been to Walt’s original park since Spring of 1997. Yes, 1997. We had been to Disneyland Paris and Walt Disney World, but she had skipped out going to Disneyland the last several visits. (She has not even seen California Adventure since it opened. But that is another story.) Therefore, the Christmas makeovers of Mansion and Small World ranked high. Our son had never been to Disneyland with his wife; neither had he been to the park for almost 15 years. Our youngest son and daughter had to "do the mountains". (Our oldest daughter was actually left at home last minute due to job requirements.) Satisfying everyone and seeing the best of the park would be a challenge. One aspect we all agreed upon: we hated crowds and wanted to make this as low-key a visit as possible.

We settled on visiting the park on December 30, thinking most locals would be back to work and many visitors gone. Not perfect but our best shot at the lightest crowds. Calling Disney Dining thirty days out to reserve a lunch reservation for Blue Bayou, I was surprised that the cast member answered my ringing call by saying "Hello, You probably want the Blue Bayou- and it is fully sold out!" My shocked response was "Yes- can you offer anything else?" After verifying my request, date and time, his reply informed me that in his estimation, that restaurant was full but over-rated, and Ralph Brennan’s Jazz Kitchen was much better both in quality and in price. I booked it, feeling a bit disappointed until I found Bayou's on line menu and saw their outrageous prices!

Due to a change of family plans once we arrived, I had a free day to myself on the 29th. I decided to go to California Adventure with my youngest daughter- the only person who wanted to join me; the others stating DCA wasn’t yet worth the price of admission.

We had our own list of must dos for the park: Blue Sky Cellar, Aladdin, Toy Story Midway Mania, Turtle Talk, Bug’s Land, and the Redwood Creek Challenge Trail- all items one or both of us had not experienced.

After a quick run to the resort the night before to purchase tickets, the morning of our DCA jaunt, we proceeded to stop and have beignets and coffee for a quick breakfast prior to the younger park’s 10:00am opening. Unlike Magic Mornings at Disneyland, we were let into the park and chose to head towards Soarin’ Over California to start our day.

This attraction never ceases to thrill and impress us- and make us proud we spent so many years living in the Golden State. What an error on Disney’s part to allow this headlining attraction- a California Adventure original- to make its way unchanged to Epcot! This should have remained in California as the park centerpiece, but, I digress.

An exhilarating flight and Fastpasses in hand for later, we were off to Toy Story Midway Mania. Passing the fully drained bay, we were amazed at how ordinary and ugly the entire area was without water. This was the price to play for poorly conceiving and building a park without a nighttime water show already in place. Arriving at the entry to this new-fangled shooting gallery, the line was now a posted 45 minute wait. We settled in, taking in the wealth of detail around us.

The beginning stages of transformation of the Pier were startling! This was what this area of the park should have been like at opening. At once elegant, fun, and totally in theme, Paradise Pier 2.0 will eventually live up to its expectation and name. The detail reminded me of what the Imagineers could do when given the proper time and budget. The colors were warm and inviting, the attention to craftsmanship evident. Can’t wait for more!

Our local sideshow barker, a Mr. Potato Head, was witty and fully functional. Very impressive. Reading each poster for Midway Mania, I gleaned as many facts and hints as possible. Boarding the attraction vehicle in anticipation of the first ride of a new Disney attraction is always an exciting event for me. What would this be like? Would I enjoy it? Could Disney dazzle me after all these years?

How can I describe Toy Story Midway Mania? In one word: disappointing.

After all the hype, the on-line photos and trip reports, I found myself having an enjoyable time but not being astonished by the end result. Traveling in front of a bunch of screens with a minimum amount of props and set pieces is not my idea of a world class attraction.

Ultimately, Midway Mania is a nice "C" ticket attraction, housed in a "D" ticket building, found in an "E" ticket location. Admittedly, this new attraction was what needed to be present in the Pier moving forward. Midway Mania is a step in the right direction but not worthy of the attention it has received.

Time for some good old-fashioned fun. That meant California Screamin’, one of the best coasters on the Disney property if not on the West Coast. The crowds had built by this time, and we encountered another lengthy wait. Once we boarded, the music kicked in, building the anticipation for another terrific ride. Certainly not the tallest or fastest or the most technologically impressive, California Screamin’ succeeds because it puts fun before fear. The launch gets the heart racing, and the drops keep it going without creating paranoia about what will happen next. A themeless queue is its only shortcoming, and that may get fixed one day, but for now, this attractions rocks with the best of them even without it. We left with huge smiles on our faces. What more can you ask for?

As we realized Aladdin was to start in 12 minutes, we rushed to the theater and got in the top balcony moments before the show began. I had seen the production a few years prior, my daughter had not. As usual, the Genie took center stage and never gave up his hold on the audience. Jasmine was quite good, with a fluid movement and a wonderful voice. The same could not be said for the show’s namesake. He was stiff and soulless in his presentation, his voice mediocre at best. The rest of the cast was nondescript. However, for a theme park show, it was still better than anything found at Disneyland. A slight walk to Tower of Terror left us with new passes.

Hunger hit us, and a stop at Taste Pilots fit the bill. What is it with this place? Every visit, busy season or not, means huge crowds and poor service. Thankfully, excellent burgers almost made up for the forty minutes it took from stepping in to receiving our food. The self-service kiosks were gone, but the process was still not acceptable. Dining at California Adventure has become a problem when at opening, it was full of choices and high quality. The paying customer now suffers. This matter must be fixed before the crowds grow due to Disney’s numerous expansion plans.

In Florida, the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror is my main reason for visiting the underwhelming Disney Studios. At California Adventure, this attraction is a main draw but a second class version of the original. The set-up lacks the mystery of its older sibling. The inside of the hotel is too bright and cheery, and the lack of forward movement makes for an extremely short ride without the necessary emotional build up for the drops. Still fun and still first class for California Adventure, but still just good enough.

In some ways, "good enough" seems to be the mantra for this park- at least in its current incarnation. There are very appealing aspects, but they seem to be individual parts instead of a complete and compelling whole. The park lacks soul and heart, something the Imagineers hope to bring after an almost billion dollar laundry list of improvements. I hope they accomplish their mission.

Following our brief haunted hotel tour, we dropped into an undiscovered gem in this small park: Turtle Talk with Crush. The Animation Building was an early DCA hit for good reason. The variety of attractions inside are only strengthened by the presence of this presentation. Crush delighted us, adults and children alike. The concept is simple but the technology amazing. Loved it at Epcot. Just as much fun at California Adventure. This attraction is truly under advertised and overlooked by a majority of the crowd. Crush is a clear home run- and we left with another smile left on our faces.

Crossing back to another side of the park, we took in the Blue Sky Cellar, while the crowds were thick and people getting impatient around us. It was a 5-star presentation, leaving me filled with hope that the park will eventually end up one California fans can be proud of. Phase One does seem heavy on adding characters, but this is just the start of a fresh beginning.

The afternoon was slowly changing into evening, and we had forgotten about Grizzly Rapids. It would certainly be less advantageous to an all day excursion at the park to be left wet for the rest of the day. We chose to ride anyway, and the queue was surprisingly full.

This choice yielded some unexpected benefits- time to take in the detailed queue, great photo opportunities, being immersed in the beautiful forest atmosphere- and getting partnered with a fun-loving family from the United Kingdom once it was our time to board.

While I firmly believe Disney settled for the expected and fairly cheap circular rafts instead of letting research and development come up with a true rafting experience, the ride is undeniably enjoyable. Would I like animatronics? You bet I would (and I hope they are added one day)! But overall, this is still a winner. (Animal Kingdom’s Kali River Rapids only dreams of being this good!) The views of the surrounding area are great, and the environment is rich. The spinning drop was not in operation, but that may have saved us. Our friendly Brits were absolutely soaked while we had a few splashes, nothing more.

We were left in good and dry shape to continue to the Challenge Trail. This was a new experience for both of us. The lower levels seemed fairly ordinary, and in the past, this had kept us from continuing on. This time, we did- much to our delight. The sun was now going down, providing a beautiful backdrop to our evening photos. The park ranger stations and theme transported us to another place. This was surprising as California Adventure has been rightly criticized for not doing this well. Feeling far away from the crowds of Southern California, it was awhile before I realized the best views of the area and the majestic mountain came from the rooms of the resort behind me. Conclude what you will about the designer’s motives in this being so.

By this point, the park’s crowds were thinning, making for a fairly short wait on another underrated attraction: Monsters Inc. This great ride with the strange facade holds up well visit after visit, earning the place of my favorite dark ride after Peter Pan Flight. Even though remnants of the odd Superstar Limo can be found, this ride has it all: detailed sets, a clear story (even if our on vehicle television screens didn’t work- poor show!) and endearing characters. How can you not love Sulley and Boo?

Surprisingly, I enjoyed our next stop more than I thought- Muppetvision 3D. The visuals were crisp, the theater looked brand new, and Kermit was as engaging as ever. Too bad the Muppets are past their prime. I’d bet that it is soon to go, however, as the show was a walk-on and our theater was almost empty.

Last of our pre-Screamin’ trio was the park’s other 3D experience. It’s Tough to Be a Bug was enjoyable as well, with another near empty theater. Let’s get real here: 3D attractions age quickly, and it is a poor choice of Michael Eisner’s to have this attraction housed in the centerpiece of the amazing Animal Kingdom theme park. Yet another example of a "C" ticket attraction found at an "E"ticket location.

It was now time for a newer tradition. Screamin’ left us breathless with laughter! Having been blessed with the front row, my daughter and I were delighted by the dark skyline and lit up park as we zoomed by. With the ugly Anaheim Convention Center and backstage areas more difficult to see, this attraction takes on a whole new feeling during the evening. Paradise Pier finally sparkles, taking on new life and energy. Buildings in the Golden State transform with an elegance unseen during the day. Disney’s lighting experts have reason to be proud of there work here.

After a disappointing ride on Mulholland Madness, (can we please just get rid of this embarrassment?), there were a few attractions left for us to experience. We wandered through Condor Flats, again stunning at night, and journeyed into A Bug’s Land to complete our rides for the day. Heimlich’s train was short but sweet, and Flik’s Flyers a little more thrilling than expected. The area was deserted except for a few other families, making for some great photos and walk on attractions. Heading toward the entrance area to view the Electrical Parade, we’d had a full but overall satisfying day.

Disney’s California Adventure is evolving, and mostly toward a better park than at opening. (Like the photo below says, Start Over!) There was Disney magic to be found. Recent changes have brought a mixed bag of unexpected successes and minor failures. Mistakes like removing the Eureka parade are balanced by some wonderful additions. There is still not much variety between thrills and films, with a low amount of attractions the whole family can enjoy together. Daytime clearly reveals the park's weaknesses and much of that involves outside diversions and the framework of Paradise Pier. Yet, the plans look promising to change some of California Adventure's harsher realities, even if it does involve many character additions. Our thoughts? We will be returning in 2012 when the amazing proposed changes are now realities in concrete.

Walt's original park was our destination for tomorrow- and we had to get some sleep.
(Photos copyright my youngest daughter. Watch for Disneyland trip report soon.)

July 15, 2010 (A Comparison of Disney Parks I Have Visited)

Drum roll, please... Coming in at Number 5- Disney California Adventure!

Once the laughing stock of the stateside Disney parks, Disneyland's younger sister is in the midst of a makeover fit for an ugly duckling. And what an ugly ducking it was!

Boasting the most unappealing entrance ever to a stateside park, DCA was an enormous failure for the company that produced it. Although the marketing frenzy was in full blitz upon its opening in 2001, the end result was a mish-mash of ideas and quality, and the public was smart enough to notice.

The place couldn't decide exactly what it was. Once inside, an ugly carnival made up the largest piece of real estate in the park, the Hollywood Backlot resembled a junkyard with all the exposed steel, and the quality and quantity of attractions made decades old Disney fans stand up and take notice for all the wrong reasons. The park was so cheaply designed, the concept art even looks mediocre! (Follow my "Bargain Basement Imagineering" series starting here.)

However, there were bits of elegance to be found in the Golden State forest and Winery, with small gems of attractions hidden inside the amazing Animation exhibit. Although the Wharf area consisted of only eateries, all combined these areas did give the park a slight World Showcase feel.

It's been almost a decade since opening, and the park has changed for the better overall. Things that were once weaknesses are beginning to be a small part of its strengths. In an economy still struggling, the many attractions that were imported from Walt Disney World are now saving me a trip to Florida!

I love The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror and Turtle Talk with Crush. Glad they are here, even if the former comes in an abbreviated form! Two 3D movies from Florida also show up - one from Animal Kingdom and one from the Studios, the Muppets. Then add in an Animation attraction that is better then the one in the Studios. The Great Movie Ride is the only attraction as an excuse left for visiting that Florida park. And it is one that will probably get passed over if I'm ever short on time.

As far as original attractions, Soarin' Over California, is a favorite! I still consider myself a Californian at heart, so flying over my home state never ceases to thrill me and add a tear to my eye. This attraction so perfectly fits in the park's Condor Flats area. Much more so than it ever can at Epcot's Future World! (But then, Crush fits so much better in The Seas pavilion!) Grizzly River Run seems like an entirely different attraction than the bland and too short Kali River Rapids, even though they are the same commonplace ride system. Lastly, as much as I hate the fact it is without a theme as strong as the other Disney coasters, California Screamin' is just too much fun! Still, there are not many unique attractions, unless you count the state fair types found in Paradise Pier- and I do not.

Of the newest additions, Tower aside, the Monsters Inc. dark ride succeeds the most. The story is great, and the execution far better than most of all the similar "C" ticket rides at Disneyland. Yes, I'd rank it up there- almost with Peter Pan! Other additions fall all over the scale. Bugs Land? Great theming, more carnival rides. Midway Mania? Fun and engaging but the park really didn't need it- aside from being the first piece of a Paradise Pier makeover. The theater presentation of Aladdin is the best Disney theme park production period.

Shopping? California Adventure is hardly worth the time and effort aside from Rushin' River Outfitters and Off the Page; the first for smartly themed outdoor gear and the second for Disney movie fans, as the place is filled with animation art and books on the subject. Everything else? Well, think High School Musical and Hannah Montana.

On the other hand, the dining options were once varied and plentiful, then shabby, and now getting better. (A coffeehouse inside a train? How cool is that?) I think the Disney suits decided its guests really love some great choices along the lines of those found at Epcot's World Showcase and Disney's Animal Kingdom. Looks like eateries and atmosphere for dining are going to get better and better- especially if the terrific Marachi Divas continue to play on the Wharf!

In 2010, we are almost at the half way point in the park's one billion dollar makeover. The results have focused on making the Pier truly a slice of paradise by revamping the steel rides with a fast and cheap cosmetic makeover. The changes to the games, shops, and restaurants are in process. A lavish Little Mermaid attraction is on the way. (Had they built the originally conceived Circle of Hands, would we ever see Mermaid?) There is finally a nighttime show- the well received World of Color. More is on thee way. (In fact, my blog series on California Adventure's art has transformed into a series entitled Imagineering a New Dream- and you can find it here.) As the park now stands, it currently holds some of my favorite attractions from Walt Disney World and will soon add a version of another (Radiator Springs Racers is Test Track transformed.)

Longtime readers of this blog might ask, "What changed your mind about California Adventure?" after noticing it is now above the two lesser parks in Florida. The answer is pretty simple. With a much better variety of attractions and experiences than at opening, the park is becoming a place that is just plain fun! It doesn't shove an agenda in your face like Animal Kingdom, and it isn't just an excuse to push the latest Disney film and its merchandise like the Studios. The future also looks bright with the coming Buena Vista Street and Carsland. In fact, there is so much change coming, my next "Best Of" list may be revised in a few years.

Speaking of this list, like the transformation of California Adventure, we are also at the half way point. Just as the Walt Disney Studios Paris is in a (poor) class all its own, the three I just ranked are still many notches below the ones remaining. The Top Four ranked parks are so close to each other, it is making committing to my decision difficult. Very difficult.

(Photos copyright Mark Taft.)

Oct 28, 2010 (Trip Report)

If Walt Disney World guests cover the gamut of shapes and sizes, it seems the guests of Disneyland and California Adventure comprise an entirely different lot. During my visit last week, I was surrounded by young blonde beauties with silicone enhancements in all the right areas and blindingly white teeth, and young men with jet blackened hair or none at all, bronzed faces, bulging biceps and perfectly placed tattoos. It was Southern California's Ken and Barbie show for the new century! But it was also a good complement and imagery to describe the transformation of Anaheim's second Disney theme park.

California Adventure has truly become Disney's Complete About-face. Eschewing the "hip and edgy" focus of 2001, this Disney ugly duckling is changing rapidly. The new-park-in-the-making is heading back to the future with immersive theming, Disney charm, and old school, story-rich attractions. The wait is half over as the surgeons complete their work.

Having been to the Disneyland Resort last year about the same time- and the differences in this park (and my trip report and impressions) couldn't be more different than if I was comparing the park of 2001 to the park of today. I had one day to cover both parks this time. Thankfully, it was an overcast day, so my one day park hopper- along with some advance planning- brought me 23 attractions between two parks, leisurely strolls for exploration, and a "blue" ticket for World of Color. For this post, I'll focus on California Adventure alone.

Having seen all the latest photo updates, I thought I'd had a good feel for the current state of things. I was wrong. Nothing beats first person visuals. Approaching the gates, it was rather strange to see the right mural dismantled, and later, the sun sculpture following suit. With half of Paradise Pier behind walls and the Bountiful Valley Farm area a distant memory, the whole of the park felt under the knife of surgery. Much like Heidi Montag before and after- and during.

The line for a World of Color ticket was the longest line I waited in all day for either park- about 15 minutes- and I was at the gates just minutes after opening. Going into Condor Flats, I was reminded how much I liked this area of the park and just how much I disliked the fact that Fly 'N' Buy had become another generic Disney merchandise location versus the unique offering it once was. Not too sure about how Fastpass for the show worked, so I skipped getting one for Soarin' Over California, the one attraction at California Adventure that I never miss. No worries, my wait later on was one single ride cycle. In fact, I never bothered with another Fastpass all day.

The not-too-golden ticket in hand, Grizzly River Run just seemed like a bad idea at the time, so I wandered through bathroom row (San Francisco), turned into Paradise Pier and headed for Silly Symphony Swings. Beautiful building, well positioned, and a very enjoyable ride over Paradise Bay. Very enjoyable solo ride. No other person in sight. What a difference being out in the open air made instead of being inside a peeling Orange Stinger! Touring the lower level of the building after the ride, I was impressed with the thought and detail put into this simple makeover. And I loved Mickey on top. Well done.

Rounding the bend and passing the now defunct Maliboomer was a joy. Continued straight on to California Screamin', passing Toy Story Midway Mania- which posted a forty minute wait already. No single rider line, so it wasn't worth the wait. Not a must see in my opinion.

I had the pleasure of riding the coaster next to someone who hadn't ridden before, her husband betting she wouldn't do it. Laughing through the entire ride once we were past the launch, she kept saying how smooth this was. California Screamin' is a great coaster- and it will be even better with a fresh coast of paint and perhaps even a new queue. The coaster looks horrible- dirty and tired- but the ride is as great as always. The cheap queue and set up do this attraction an injustice.

Glanced at the renamed Paradise Pier Ice Cream Company. Nice changes, nothing more. But it was a reminder to me of how much time we Disney park lovers have invested in watching California Adventure's transformation live and on line. We / I have made so much out of even the littlest changes. Before anyone yells "Fault", I think it is a compliment to Disney Imagineering that we are so passionate about their work. It's brand loyalty the suits love when we spend cash and heap praise; one they disdain (and maybe even mock) when we rightfully attack a poor product or project. The truth is, you cannot have one without the other.

By this point in the morning, I was ready for a brief stop at the Winery tables before entering the Blue Sky Cellar. Sitting there, it hit me how much this park has in common with Florida's Animal Kingdom in one important aspect. In both parks, a sunny day makes all the difference in the world.

With so many of the attractions outdoors, California Adventure designers rely on beautiful weather by the hand of God to complete the perfect lens through which to view the park. When it is sunny and bright, the lush greens of the Golden State's pines provide the perfect backdrop for the sparkling waters around it. The geysers' spray dances in the sun, making getting drenched much more fun. Attractions alongside Paradise Bay have a bit more allure. Even the rather pedestrian streets of the Hollywood Pictures Backlot seem welcoming. On a cloudy and overcast day, the lines are short, but the trade off is the park feels drab and its shortcomings are more obvious.

Surveying the work for Carsland and the incredible looking Radiator Springs Racers, I had one thought in mind: I cannot wait for this to open! Route 66 belongs here, and the towering bluffs will finally create a berm from the outside world, allowing more magic to shine through. Greatly detailed buildings and beautiful neon at night- it's a bit of Disney's Hollywood Studios best atmosphere given a west coast twist. And what can I say that hasn't been said about the land's premier attraction? Cars is not my favorite Pixar movie by a long shot, but the film segment where the characters race through the land is made for an attraction. Test Track rocks, so it is a great match of story and technology. I'll ride Racers every visit just like I do Soarin'. More Disney is a good thing here. Let's just hope the show elements remain working, unlike the Yeti at Animal Kingdom's Expedition Everest!

It was time for Tower of Terror- and a look at the construction surrounding the coming Red Car Trolleys. The ability to connect through Flik's Fun Fair is an improvement in traffic flow. The area is one of the best designed and most charming in the park, and too many adult visitors have missed it in the past.

Ever ridden the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror with only three other people? I did for the first time. Going into the library and then the empty boiler room is an entirely different experience. I slowly explored a few references to the television show. Nice not to be rushed by the folks behind me, but kind of creepy, too. It would be even creepier with a darkened lobby at the beginning to set the tone. However, this was the one time the darkened skies added to the atmosphere. In fact, for a brief moment I wondered if the lightning was real.

Before returning to Disneyland, I wandered into the Blue Sky Cellar, noticed much hadn't changed since my last visit, and decided to return to this park an hour or two before lining up for World of Color.

Flash forward several hours. I stopped in Baker's Field Bakery for a treat and a cup of coffee. Dusk was approaching in about two hours, and I wanted to pause and sit by the train and take in the details found in this soon to be demolished area. The California Zephyr is one of the few original pieces of California Adventure that I will miss. It's elegant with great visual impact and true to theme. Sun Icon- adios. Golden Gate Bridge- goodbye. Maliboomer- see you later. Sun Plaza- meet Buena Vista Street! No loss to any of the old ugly pieces of the past. But to lose this train, a great piece of real history and simple charm- not a good idea. Not at all. Attention Imagineers: If you find a home in this park for the train, you'll win many fans. It fits the new theme beautifully. Walt was a railroad buff after all.

Finishing my coffee, a bit of hang gliding was next on my agenda. Front row- first time since my first visit in 2001. Nice, really nice. Being a Californian in Colorado, Soarin' always brings a tear to my eyes.

Since the skies had warmed up, I jumped in a nonexistent line for Grizzly River Run. What a blast to ride as the sun is disappearing into the horizon. The details on the ride seem to be increasing, and I hear there are more to come. (Were there always "miners" sound effects in the caves?) For water rides as these, the other riders make or break the journey, and in this case, a nice crew from Northern California were the perfect rafters to share a journey with.

Almost time to queue for World of Color, but I had time for a trip to Monstropolis. Again, no line. The quirky Superstar Limo was laughable in not a good way. I was worried Disney would continue to "cheap out" as they transformed the ride to Monsters Inc, but they did not go the route I expected. Monsters is among my favorite "C" ticket dark rides in any Disney park. Mike, Sully, and Boo are great characters, the effects terrific, and the storyline great fun.

Time for the nighttime spectacular. The thirty five minute wait passed rather quickly due to the color patterns on the Fun Wheel. The set up is rather messy, and I much prefer the take your chances approach used for Disneyland's Fantasmic. Personally, I think this is just the suits way of presenting World of Color as an event. If it is difficult to see and expensive to do it the best, it must be something special. Guess it works.

Much has been written about this new century Disney extravaganza, so I keep it brief. The music soars, the images are somewhat blurry, a story is unnecessary, and the water fountains bring a brand new dimension to the night. I just wish the after show would have lasted longer. Being in the back of the viewing area, I could easily see the higher streams shooting up, but the richer amazing colors of the smaller jets were harder to see. As with Epcot's Illuminations, the Imagineers' new show is a fitting way to end the evening, but I wish it were only the beginning of a few more hours to tour the park at night. California Adventure has always shone better after dark, and riding Screamin' over a neon lit bay is a different thrill than riding during the day. Why not get more play out of all that atmosphere from the Pier in the evening?

I ended my Disney day at this point, aside from a walk through Downtown Disney. I strolled through the night tired but happy as I realized the Disney Magic was finally ready to strike twice in Anaheim. I do not get to Walt Disney World very often, as my wife's family is in Southern California not Florida. My Disney fix usually comes from the west coast. To say I was disappointed in California Adventure in 2001 would be saying the obvious.

When the calendar hits 2012, it will be a difficult choice should I have only one day to visit a park. I'll always love Disneyland, but at least for awhile, I'll have a love affair with the other park once she's been through surgery. She's working hard to earn my love, and she's almost ready for her second debut.

(Photos copyright Mark Taft.)

Fall 2012 (Trip Report)

Flash forward with me to Disney California Adventure in 2012...

And what a great day it was! Just starting the second decade, it's hard to imagine this is the same little bare bones park we walked through in 2001!

Sure getting into the place seemed a bit tighter as the entrance through the turnstiles into Buena Vista Street noticeably closer to that of Main Street U.S.A. at Disneyland. For the first time in quite awhile, the line for both parks seems about the same. Visitors are lined up everywhere, and that earlier opening for California Adventure gives us some extra time for breakfast- that is right after we grab our Fastpass tickets for Radiator Springs Racers!

Rushing down Buena Vista Street, I wanted to hop on the Red Car Trolley, but we don't really want to wait in line. Let's catch it later. Follow me, will you?

Down at the the end of the main drag of Hollywoodland, the theater's showing a great new production straight from Disney on Broadway. Sure, it's scaled down for time's sake, but still pretty impressive to be able to see this in a theme park! Whoa, there's Twilight Zone Tower of Terror- no, don't stop yet- we gotta go into Cars Land to get our tickets. Just follow the crowd heading the right direction. This reminds me of the daily mad rush yesterday at Disneyland for the Indiana Jones Adventure. Incredible!

Here we are. What? A fifteen minute wait in line just to get a Fastpass for Radiator Springs Racers? Guess it really is that popular. I'll wait it out while you get us some Cokes.

Take a look at those mountains! Those red rock formations are really cool. Just watching those cars race around makes me glad I decided to wait in line. Hard to believe we're right in the middle of the city of Anaheim! I'll have to check out the Drive-In Restaurant. Sure glad the suits decided to go ahead and build this thing. The food's good and the whole thing's fun.

Finally at the front. OK. 1,2,3,4. Got all those Fastpasses. Come back at 11:30am. Can do. Here's yours. What's that? You saw that Luigi's Flying Tires and it looks better than you thought it would? Sure, let's do it! This whole place looks like something right out of the movie. I could spend all day here.

You are right- Flying Tires was a blast! Let's do it again later on. Hmmm, what's next? You know, there's Mickey's Fun Wheel. Means California Screamin' and Toy Story Midway Mania are right around the corner. Follow me...

And with that our day began. Radiator Springs Racers was a rush. (In fact, we ended up getting another ride at night but it was almost a two hour wait.) After Racers, we decided to ride the rapids at Grizzly River, hop on Soarin' Over California, then go to Tower of Terror. Something's wrong? We forgot something, what was it?

Oh yeah, breakfast!
For now, this concludes our week long look at the Ten Year Anniversary of California Adventue, but stay tuned for more articles starting tomorrow!

(Art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

February 12, 2011

Ten Years of DCA: Back to the Drawing Boards

Continuing on with our week long look at California Adventure at Ten Years (which starts here)...
To put it politely, California Adventure was the not astounding success the Walt Disney Company wanted for the Disneyland Resort in California. Most fans detested the park, staying away in record numbers, and when they did enter the park at full price, many were to be found complaining loudly at Guest Services.

The media, the press both traditional and on line, did not help matters. Word of mouth was consistently bad with the sole winner being seen as the great Soarin' Over California. But one attraction does not a crowd favorite make.

Visitors to the resort saw Paradise Pier from afar, rightly thinking "carnival", and this poor impression only kept them away as well. Sponsors began to drop out. Quick fixes like the extreme sports presentations and "sure fire" attractions pulled from the planned "Phase Two"like The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror didn't do much for attendance. Even the wonderful Tower was reduced to a second hand version of Disney's Hollywood Studios sole masterpiece. This misstep only reinforced the perception that Disney was not in fact serious about turning this into a high quality park. Behind the scenes, once it was clear that this new and expensive addition didn't pull in the crowds, it was back to the drawing boards to reinvent the park.

Word was leaking out that California Adventure was due for a major overhaul. Al Lutz over at MiceAge, with perhaps the best connections within Disney halls regarding California, spilled the secrets early. The park would in fact be redone to correct past mistakes, giving it a brand new focus on Walt Disney's arrival in California.

Eventually, CEO Robert Iger wisely (or reluctantly)admitted the park hadn't met expectations, and along with a proposed one billion dollar plan to fix it, earned much respect from fans. Imagineering a New Dream began, and California Adventure 2.0 was soon on its way. It started small. Let's take a look at some art for the expansion while I interject my insights along the way.

Pixar Play Parade

This fun little parade /interactive experience was pleasing to the crowds, but it was another clear move away from the California theme. Pixar was the name of the game as its movies continued to go from massive success to massive success, something the Walt Disney Company could not pull off with their animation division.

Toy Story Midway Mania

The first major addition to the park since Tower was not a project originally announced with the billion dollar makeover. Instead, it was announced prior to it. On line "insiders" claimed it would change the entire look and feel of the pathetic Paradise Pier. In some ways, Disney delivered what was promised.

Toy Story Midway Mania is a fun little cruise through the Pixar world. I find, however, three main problems with this addition. One- its brings even more film based attractions to a park already filled with them. Two- The attraction was again duplicated in Florida, depriving bi-coastal fans from yet another reason to visit the Disneyland Resort. Three- the Imagineers were again repeating themselves as they moved away from the California theme. Much too similiar to Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin/AstroBlasters just across the way.

Blue Sky Cellar

In a move with more savvy than used in creating the park, Disney management deemed it absolutely necessary to house a preview of coming attractions for the park- especially if they intended to keep the crowds coming while the place was torn to shreds. A makeover of a Disney park had never been done like this before- more than 50% of the park would be undergoing a major remodel- and it was important to create enthusiasm for the billion dollar investment over the years it would take to change the mistakes from the first attempt.

Replacing the beautiful Seasons of the Vine film, The Blue Sky Cellar became a popular attraction in its own right, only proving once again that us Disney park fans would clamor to see what was new and upcoming! Love the concept art!

New Paradise Pier

The remodeling of Paradise Pier was a necessity if the company would in fact convince tourists to give the park another try. This created a long list of improvements, some successful, others short changed. All needed since the company took the cheap way out the first time around.

Games of the Boardwalk

Stuck with an infrastructure that made a changing of theme entirely impossible (sans dismantling California Screamin') Disney started off by characterizing the miserable little carnival games Walt detested and avoided at Disneyland. The end result was certainly more attractive with its buildings revamped to a more genteel era.

Mickey's Fun Wheel

The iconic Sun Wheel was a poor choice to begin with, but turning it into Mickey's Fun Wheel didn't make it any better. The only improvement was the lighting package and some new signs. The ugly concrete walls of the queue and lack of the boardwalk hinted at by the model in the Blue Sky Cellar brought to mind the debacle of the Tower of Terror addition: It promised much and delivered little.

Grand Californian Expansion and Disney Vacation Club Units

Never one to miss a beat when it comes to cash from lodging versus investing in a park, the Disney Company expanded the vacation club offerings at the Grand Californian Resort. Certainly the land could have been used more creatively to expand a park cramped for space. Yet, if the addition generated income produces more cash for park expansion, I will see it as a necessary evil. Problem is, the company has not convinced me of that goal when I look at what as happened in Walt Disney World in Florida!

Silly Symphony Swings

Aside from the incredibly offensive Maliboomer, the ugly Orange Stinger revealed how little the business side of the Walt Disney Company understood of what made a great park. Hip and edgy never seemed so unattractive.

In its remodeled version into the Silly Symphony Swings, it is still the same ride but better. It is much more fun to glide out in the open over the bay. If this were the only swing based ride, I could accept it, but with the Golden Zephyr right next door, it is an unnecessary thing. the building housing the ride does create some great little nooks for sitting and photography however.

World of Color

Finally, a real hit when it opened. When the original Imagineering team was told to forget a nighttime show in the great Disney tradition, it was a sad sign for the future of the park. Evening draws of great magnitude bring in the dinner crowds, increase spending, and keep guests in the park. The shortsightedness of the executives in this area was consistent with their overall view and execution of the park.

World of Color changed this immediately. Disneyland's Fantasmic! would pale in comparison to this incredible show. The Imagineers, under the leadership of the talented Steve Davison, created a masterpiece on par with Epcot's stunning Illuminations. This beautiful show is now the must see event at the Disneyland Resort, making the years of construction ugliness worth it. The gardens/viewing area is not as beautiful as originally conceived, but that is a small complaint.

Goofy's Sky School

Here's a place where I have to agree with some yet-to-be Imagineers. This attraction needs to be torn down or enclosed and given a complete and compelling makeover. The park's opening day Mulholland Madness only strengthened the cheap aspect of California Adventure, and the Goofy's Sky School makeover is on par with what has happened to the Sun Wheel and Orange Stinger.

Far better ideas are out there, including this one which was imagineered years ago. Sure, the structure already looks better with its proposed changes, but the lipstick on a pig analogy fits here.

The Little Mermaid /Ariel's Undersea Adventure

In response to the all-too-accurate cry of "There's no great Audio-Animatronic attractions like at Disneyland", the Imagineers resurrected an old idea for bringing the beloved animated movie of 1989 to the park in a full length extravaganza. Wise move! Mermaid is beloved for many reasons, and its timeless story reasonates with the generations.

Unfortunately, the creation of the attraction comes at a price. California Adventure is again robbed of a unique draw as Ariel's Undersea Adventure is the centerpiece of the revamped Fantasyland in Florida's Magic Kingdom. (Does anyone sense a disturbing pattern here?)

No matter, on the heels of World of Color and a 85% revamping of Paradise Pier, a Little Mermaid attraction will make a fine addition to a park that needs all the help it can get to recoup the large investment needed to fix it!

New Entrance to the Park and Buena Vista Street

Logically, the whole entrance area both inside and outside the gates to California Adventure marked the first major blunder in design. Do not misunderstand, I really liked the tile murals and the giant letters- but then the park delivered a mall quality entrance area which reversed and sense of intrigue the park might have built. First impressions are only created once, and this was not the one needed. Along with the removal of the Maliboomer, the remodeling of these areas will be one of the best advertisements that Disney means business this go around.

Not thrilled with the reuse of the gates from the Disney Hollywood Studios, but I can live with that because the area inside the gates make for a pretty terrific change. Like the entrance gates, there will be more than a nod in similarity to the park formerly known as Disney-MGM. Thankfully, we get a full blown recreation of the Carthay Circle Theater at the end of the street instead of the giant Sorcerer Mickey's hat! Now, what they put into it will be interesting. Private club, shopping, or a new version of the Blue Sky Cellar. With the Red Car Trolleys making its route nearby, a nice park fountain, and plenty of places to rest and dine, this should put guests minds at rest. This is a Disney park.

Should Carsland remain exclusive to the West Coast, it will put California Adventure on the radar of theme park lovers. That is a big if, as development and production costs keep soaring with some claiming Radiator Springs Racers to be the most expensive Disney attraction ever built- including Epcot's Mission:Space.

This loving tribute to Pixar, I mean Route 66, will be the place to go day or night. The atmosphere will be rich, the shops unique, and the attractions a mix of updates on old favorites. In spite of the obvious character references, I cannot wait to see this land come to life.

Hollywood Pictures Backlot

The Red Cars from Buena Vista Street will end up here as well, but major revisions to Hollywood Pictures backlot- including a name change- are on the horizon. That will be part of the next article to come on the California Adventure saga.

As we learned last time earlier in this series, the end result speaks louder than concept art, so let's just hope the Walt Disney Company does the right thing and follows through with what they have planned. This will be their last chance to prove a second day at the Disneyland Resort is worth the wait!

As we continue with this series, come back tomorrow for something new...

(Concept art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)