September 30, 2011

Bring It Here Now

Today's news that Chipotle founder Steve Ells has a new Asian restaurant brought a huge smile to my face. ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen debuted in Washington D.C., home to a deservingly wide assortment of international cuisine.

Chipotle, and local gourmet burger joint Diego Zhang's, just happen to be two of my favorite places to grab a bite for lunch or dinner. If you throw in my other favorite local spot, Snooze, for breakfast, I'm set to eat in town for the day! But back to the news...
Let's just say I'm thrilled- and cannot wait to get in line in Denver for some great Asian treats. Between now and then, next trip to D.C., and you'll find me in Dupont Circle checking the place out.

September 26, 2011

Doctor, Doctor

My eldest son received his doctorate today, and I couldn't be prouder! Took lots of years and lots of hard work. He persevered through the difficult times, late night assignments, and just did the sweat equity. Congratulations! You're a fine man, and your Dad is very proud of you!

September 23, 2011

California Adventure's Retro Cool Attraction Posters

Every little step of the California Adventure makeover continues to make me hopeful this park will be worthy of the Disney name!

The newest attraction posters for Soarin' Over California, Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, and especially the Red Car Trolleys just scream class. Retro class, retro cool. I cannot wait for the transformation to be complete. Buena Vista Street, here I come!

(Art copyright the Walt Disney Company)

September 22, 2011

Opening a Pandora's Box

Tuesday's announcement of the Avatar project between Disney and James Cameron rightfully set the internet message boards ablaze, opening a Pandora's Box of sorts.

Why would the Walt Disney Company set the Imagineers hard at work on projects promoting someone else's property? Has Imagineering and the company at large lost their creative touch? Why place it in Animal Kingdom? Does it really fit the earth-centric focus of the park? What attractions are planned? Where will they go? Is this the end of Beastly Kingdom? Is this Disney's answer to Universal's Forbidden Journey with Harry Potter? What does Joe Rohde think about his baby being invaded by blue faced aliens? All great questions. Now for some speculation without a drop of official information.

Six years to fruition is an awfully long time to wait, but you can rest easy that the official Disney blog will soon be leaking information, concept art, etc. However, just a cursory glance at some stills from the movie give us fans more visuals than any official concept art ever could. Regardless of the over the top story line and the very preachy one world, New Age, self-realization, ego centric attitude, Avatar is a gorgeous looking film!What viewer was not held captivated by the images on the screen? I sure was- and if Disney can pull this off, more power to them. And all the better for theme park goers who can look past the "educational" aspects. (Entertainment aside, this is what Animal Kingdom is truly about.)

Regardless of what we think should be or not be done with Avatar, this move by the company is exactly what Disney Imagineers should have been doing years ago. Beginning with the Star Wars and Indiana Jones properties from the beginning, the Walt Disney Company should have been ahead of the edge a full decade or more before Harry appeared at Islands of Adventure, creating incredible and immersive worlds based on these properties. Fully realized lands within lands. All in theme. To be fair, this holistic approach was once on the Disney slate but almost as quickly aborted. Remember the planned Myst makeover for Treasure Island / Discovery Island? Remember Tony Baxter's prediction of the 45 minute attraction of the future? Here, in Avatarland, all will join together. However we see it, the truth is Harry did set the pace and is the new standard.

The creative genuises at Imagineering have accomplished this task before, but not at the theme parks. It was at the water parks and to great impact. Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach are quite beloved and successful both commercially and artistically, pleasing tourists and suits alike. This encompassing style is what they are trying to do on a smaller scale with the Fantasyland Forest at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom. (In fact, I happen to believe that when that project is completed, Florida's once concrete home to the princess community will be the new fan favorite of all the Fantasyland styles.)

What do I think they should create for Avatarland? Well, that's a topic for a different post- coming soon.

September 20, 2011

September 14, 2011

Think Big

A very wise friend of mine has the following quote on his Skype page: "You have to think anyway, so why not think big?" 

Brilliant! Wouldn't you just love to write this to those in charge of the Walt Disney Company and remind them that it is thinking like this that made Walt Disney a great man, one who changed the world?

Whether its the new Fantasyland or the original execution of California Adventure, wouldn't it be much better if "thinking big"replaced thinking of money?! Let's be honest here, it is not just corporate America or big business or even politicians that think small- we do it all the time as well.

What would happen if you started to think big? Just imagine the possibilities! Really- stop and think. You could be someone who changes the world, or just your world, for the better. All it takes is one little spark of inspiration.

September 11, 2011

Heroes of 911

Remember this day. What a day of tragedy, but what a day for heroes! When radical Islam extremists decided to attack the United States of America on September 11, 2001, we as a people rallied together. For a season, we were all Americans first.

Let us rally together now in prayer for our nation and remember the sacrifices of those serving and the loss of family and friends. Let us preserve our freedoms- but do it with sensitivity, honoring those who gave their lives and not those who killed others.

September 10, 2011

Disney's Animal Kingdom Collection

Editors Note: This year's D23 convention was full of exciting exhibits and displays, but it unfortunately and thoroughly ignored one of Walt Disney Imagineering's most important projects of the last two decades. Disney's Animal Kingdom is a game changer for the Walt Disney Company in how it viewed and designed and managed its theme parks and in how it educated its guests. Although Part One of this six part series was first published in 2008, taking a look back at the park's history and the thought processes of the Company may give us a hint to its future. At the end of this posting of Part One, there are links to the other six articles in the series. Additionally, on this blog, there are 60+ other articles about Animal Kingdom, making it one of the both talked about subjects found here. These posts include more rare concept art, trip reports, etc. But for now, let's begin with Part One...

Earlier this year, Disney’s fourth and largest Florida theme park celebrated ten years of delighting, thrilling, or frustrating Walt Disney World guests. Plans for the future have yet to be made public, but let’s look back at the past, discuss the present, and speculate on the future of this wonderfully imagineered playground.

Why is there such a deep appreciation and an equal disdain for Disney’s Animal Kingdom? It stands distinctly different from the Mouse’s other playgrounds in the Sunshine State. For its fans, the combination of a brilliant and daring design, consistent theme, and faithful execution brings new and unique adventures and environments. Its detractors would counter there are too few attractions to hold their interest for an entire day. Both sides agree the park is a beauty to view. However dazzling this combination zoo, botanical garden, and theme park is to behold, there are also the intangible factors that draw us to it when we can look past the limited number of adventures: there is a deep emotional connection that comes from our love for nature and animals. It meets our desire to run away from the concrete jungles of modern day life and reality- if only for the day! The park is a unique entity among Disney’s theme park roster, one that will probably never be duplicated.

Beginning with Mickey himself, animals of all types and depictions continue to be a great and profitable fit with Disney. According to company lore, Walt’s well-known love for animals and exotic locales, evidenced by the inclusion of Adventureland at Disneyland, California, and his True-Life Adventure films formed the emotional heart of Animal Kingdom long before ground was ever broken. In reality, when discussion began about the creation of this park in 1989, it may have truly been a strictly business decision that brought it to fruition.

The Magic Kingdom was a concept unique to Disney, successfully capitalizing and expanding upon the reputation of its older sibling in California. The next park, EPCOT Center, conceptually different in Walt’s mind but with its execution clearly inspired by world’s fairs and corporate America trade shows, transformed Walt Disney World from a single day destination to one that could consume a traveler’s entire week. Disney-MGM Studios debuted and was the least original of the three parks, taking ideas from Universal Studios in California and Disneyland, including a new Main Street of a different era for its entrance plaza.

Michael Eisner, brilliant or be damned, was the driving force behind the creation of a nature focused park. Bringing a competitive, and some would say greedy, nature to the business, he guided the company into direct battle with his once friendly neighbors, desiring to capture all the time and money any visitor may have in Central Florida. Disney-MGM Studios Theme Park had just successfully launched to square off with the soon-to-come Universal Studios. Pleasure Island was Disney’s answer to Orlando’s popular Church Street Station, Typhoon Lagoon their response to Wet N Wild, and myriads of resort properties were added to the entire Disney complex to grab a large share of the hospitality industry’s bread and butter. Earlier in the decade, Epcot’s Living Seas pavilion took a swipe at Sea World, and now Disney’s Animal Kingdom was looking to take a large bite out of Busch Gardens popularity in nearby Tampa.

The Studios park was jammed with guests from opening day on, and the atmosphere was rich but the attractions were few. Plans were quickly put into place for expansion, and discussions began on what to do next. Outside the new park, visitors filled the water parks and daytime entertainment and shopping areas. Flush with success and lots of money to invest, Disney executives believed a large audience remained untapped. With the astounding success of all the new offerings on the property, it was only a matter of time before the strategy gelled to add another park to lure and keep vacationers on Disney soil. Watching its competition for further clues, all it took was a glance at what was going on in Tampa to realize people’s love for animals and for the Disney characters would be a hit when combined. Polls taken at the other parks confirmed the company’s hunch. The “blue sky” imagineering quietly but quickly began.

Joe Rohde, who was intimately involved in the now defunct Adventurer’s Club at Pleasure Island, got the go-ahead from Eisner early in the new decade to proceed. He would head up the small but talented team to design the new park. With only a few months, a relatively short amount of time, and a high level of secrecy, this crew began to dream, plan and envision a park that would capture an audience and their money.

The designers instinctively knew Disney’s Wild Animal Kingdom, (as it was first named), had to be different from the other Florida parks, yet it had to appeal to the masses as well. Could Disney pull off a zoological park that didn’t look or feel like one? It had to be one that could excite and not bore. These became the core challenges. The Imagineers and the money men were well aware that travelers would avoid the new park in droves if a run-of-the-mill zoo was the first impression the park left its early guests.

As with any Disney park, this one had to have its themed “lands”. Initial concepts blended traditional Magic Kingdom elements (Beastly Kingdom- home to imaginary animals and the expected Disney dark rides); an Epcot style pavilion (Conservation Station- highlighting advanced animal care techniques); and traditional zoo with safari essentials (Kilimanjaro Safaris and Gorilla Falls Exploration Trail- among others, providing real life animal encounters). Additionally, a few old school Disneyland elements reappeared with slightly different twists: an exploration into the era of prehistoric creatures from Anaheim’s Primeval World met the cutting edge technology of California’s Indiana Jones Adventure (Countdown to Extinction), repurposed Jungle Cruise boats became transportation (Discovery River Boats), and lastly another railroad line linked the more guest friendly areas with the research facility (the Wildlife Express). Of course, any and all great plans are subject to the accountants red pen!

(Thank you to Tales from the Laughing Place for the image above!)

The main themed areas were now in place, but the Imagineers had another challenge to solve as well. What should be the park’s identifying icon and how would they set the stage for an arriving visitor? The Magic Kingdom and Studios parks both used a long walkway leading from the park entrance toward its respective icon. Epcot utilized a welcome garden type area then allowed guests to walk under Spaceship Earth. After many different ideas were discussed, including entering the park through a recreation of Noah’s ark, Joe Rohde and team took a unique approach to solve the problem.

To quickly establish the idea this park was built for exploration, wonder, and maybe most importantly, was not your mother’s zoo, guests would pass the turnstiles and enter the enticing Oasis Gardens. This area establishes the feel of the park: there would be multiple paths to explore and animals and birds all around. With the vegetation lush and strewn with tropical flowers, streams, and small waterfalls, this place would be a place to relax as well as have fun. Nooks and crannies discovered along the way would contain animal exhibits quietly hidden for the folks who would choose to take the time to find them. Multiple paths into and out of the gardens encourage visitors to explore. All this to bring a sense of mystery. Once the chattering of birds and small creatures intermingled with the sounds of human laughter, anticipation would be built. What would it lead to?

To ensure the park had an extremely authentic and exotic atmosphere, the Animal Kingdom team wisely involved Paul Comstock, the modern day genius landscape architect behind so many of Disney's wonderful theme parks and resorts. Mentored by the legendary Bill Evans, his reputation is crowned by his breathtaking work on Disney's Animal Kingdom. This unique combination gives the park its bold flavor. (Below is one of Paul’s original landscape plans. To view more of his two decades of work at Disney, see his portfolio at his new employer, Valley Crest Design Group.)
The landscaping plan for the park is spectacular, but it is the man made masterpiece, the Tree of Life, the park’s chosen icon, that was intended to steal the show. This astounding structure is a piece of art unparalleled in Disney’s history. Designed to quickly brand the Animal Kingdom, there are more than three hundred animals are carved into its trunk and branches. Surrounding it are even more gardens, streams, and waterfalls. The Tree of Life was a bold and breathtaking choice. Situated on Safari Island, there were various concepts initially proposed for the area before the designers settled on the final one.

As expenses grew making accountants nervous, plans continued to evolve to balance the centuries old tension of art and commerce. The victims of cost cutting meant a haven for meeting the Disney characters replaced the beautiful landscapes and attractions of Beastly Kingdom, old parade floats from Disneyland were turned into the Festival of the Lion King show, and the exciting Excavator coaster for Dinoland U.S.A. became extinct. In what was ultimately another concession to the business side of the Mouse House, a 3D film based on an upcoming Disney/Pixar movie “A Bug’s Life” would be placed inside the majestic Tree of Life. Although fewer attractions would premier on opening day than what was originally designed, the park promised and would deliver enticing adventures for those guests who chose to look beyond the traditional Disney park experience.

Part Two

Part Three

Part Four

Part Five

Part Six

(All artwork copyright The Walt Disney Company. Photos by Mark Taft. All rights reserved.)

September 7, 2011

Loss for Words

After such an invigorating and challenging time away, it seems I have found myself at a loss for words. That doesn't happen very often! If you frequent this blog, you know I always have something to say about the Walt Disney Company, especially what is happening (or should be!) at the parks.

Yes, I have surely missed some important landmarks and milestones in the Disney community: the 10th anniversary of perhaps the most beautiful of all Disney parks, Tokyo DisneySea; the grand opening of Aulani, Disney's newest DVC location in Hawaii; and lastly the second D23 gathering. Rest assured- once I get going again, I have much to share. It's just a matter of time. But for now, be patient as words are not coming easy.