December 31, 2012

End of the Year Wrap Up: Changes, Changes, Changes

End of the year lists and facts and insights are just some of the things I cannot resist. It's been such a year of change for us. And the world has changed around us, too. Let me fill you in...

You might have sensed my time was being spent in new places as the blog posts came with less frequency. Starting right off in January, my world changed quite a bit! I gave up my full-time paying job for separate non-paying jobs with two non-profit service agencies. Not one job, but two. My wonderful wife and I spent a large chunk of time praying about this potential change as we knew the impact would be huge. What would it be like for her to carry the financial burden? Could we do it? How would we survive? 

Well, in some ways it did not matter. We felt God was giving us the "Go" signal, so we were obedient. My hands shook turning in my resignation. That was almost a year ago.

Two days later, the news came that one of my oldest and best friends had died of diabetes in his sleep. Shocking as he was externally very fit and healthy, but I knew inside he had been fighting this battle for 40 years. I found myself mourning and also having to put together his funeral services. Not the first time I've had to perform services for a friend, but I hope it will be the last. Yet, deep down, I know this will just keep going on.

(And speaking of folks moving into eternity, goodbye Whitney Houston and Donna Summer- two women with amazing voices and very interesting lives... )

March and April brought more (joyous) change as each of our daughters gave birth to a son. My youngest daughter and her husband's first child; and my oldest daughter's and husband's second. At four months along in her pregnancy, the doctors said he had no cerebellum and they should abort. They refused, and we all prayed.  Three days before delivery, there was the slightest amount of brain tissue there. Upon delivery, 100% normal and healthy. The doctors smugly wrote it off to "misdiagnosis", but we knew better. God doesn't always heal or do miracles, but He does do what He pleases to do- and we are thankful.

Just a few months later, the Aurora theater shooting hit us pretty hard. It was so eerie to be just a mile or two away from the location, and having the tragedy right in our city keeps things in perspective. Our church was able to give gift boxes of cards, food and coffee certificates and such to the first responders as a sign of support. Can you imagine showing up to that as part of your job?

Things began to pick up speed for us as we adjusted to our new life. As I adjusted, I still kept track on all the latest Disney projects: Cars Land and Buena Vista Street at California Adventure; the New Fantasyland at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom, and the ongoing "will they or won't they" build Avatar at the long neglected and now falling apart Disney's Animal Kingdom.  No reason to write another piece in that last series- at least not now. And not a strong enough reason to go back to the World either- even if all the nets are removed from the Tree of Life

After one trip overseas for job #1, we eventually got to take a long deserved vacation to California and get some rest. Time for some beloved ocean, family, and sightseeing. Celebrating the 80th birthday's of my wife's parents was great fun- and it gave me a chance to see the reconstructed California Adventure 2.0. In a word- Stunning! Makes me think I will have to continue my series on Bargain Basement Engineering- and bring that happy ending. Now, let's hope Phase Two at California Adventure really happens. 

Not such a happy ending for Disneyland's poorly planned out and fragmented Tomorrowland, however. Never saw this place in such disarray and disregard for the theme. A sloppy excuse for lack of imagination. Maybe my Attraction Poster series should end with Tomorrowland, so I can move on to those at Walt Disney World.

Now that I think about it, I'm not all the convinced that Phase Two will really happen. I mean, the suits have got to be thrilled with the bump in attendance since Cars Land, and it's probably a big enough increase to may them think, "Why remodel more?" It's that kind of shortsightedness that let Harry Potter get away from them, right into the hands of Universal. 

Let's be honest, Universal Orlando and Islands of Adventure are rewriting their history as we speak. The years 2014/15 will be banner years once more. Disney had better watch out. Universal is passing them by in Florida. It's already changing what I will be doing next trip. And tat doesn't even include what's happening at Sea World. Big landmarks coming.

There's been lots of Disney landmarks this year. 45 Years of Pirates of the Caribbean. 20 Years of Disneyland Paris. 30 Years of Epcot. Whoa. Time flies. Speaking of...

This brings us around to December. Who would have guessed? Things have worked out. I am thrilled with my two jobs, and we have survived living on one salary! God is SO good!

What will the future hold? No idea. Change is a constant of life I guess- and my goal is not to control it but to let God direct my life as He chooses. I hope He was blessed by our obedience this year. And I hope your year was filled with good things in the midst of it all. Here's to 2013!

(Concept art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

December 30, 2012

Sea Dreams

Dreaming of the ocean today...

(Photograph by Mark Taft.)

December 28, 2012

An Alaskan Winter

Yes, it's cold in Colorado, and we did have a White Christmas! That said, here's a beautiful photograph taken by my brother in law in Alaska. They live out in the middle of nowhere, so when they have a storm, there's no plows to get them out. Just good old fashioned shoveling...

December 27, 2012

It's An Earful

Walt Disney World has a pretty cool logo / poster to celebrate the New Year 2013. Take a close look at the image above, and what do you see? As expected, four icons representing each of the parks: Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Disney's Hollywood Studios, and Animal Kingdom. What you don't see- the awful Sorcerer Mickey Hat, with the Earful Tower taking its place. Hope its a sign of things to come!

(Artwork copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

December 21, 2012

The Eye of God

Here's a pretty awesome (in the truest sense of the word) photo taken by NASA. Taken with the Hubbell telescope, they captured this image, naming it "The Eye of God".  Makes me think of this Psalm, 33:12-15:

Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord,
    the people he chose for his inheritance.
13 From heaven the Lord looks down
    and sees all mankind;
14 from his dwelling place he watches
    all who live on earth—
15 he who forms the hearts of all,
    who considers everything they do.

Nothing we do or experience escapes His notice. That is once comforting and challenging. Thank you God for the gift of Jesus Christ- the only One who ever lived that paid the price for my sin and the sin of all who give their lives wholeheartedly to Him.

But it gets better. God offers personal involvement in our lives:

"For the eyes of the LORD range throughout the earth to strengthen those whose hearts are fully committed to him." (2 Chronicles 16:9a.)

Oh, God, not only do you watch everything we do, you watch out and strengthen those who love you. How good you are!

Let me encourage you to consider turning over your life to Jesus. He alone can give you real hope and real forgiveness from your sin. You can live with Him eternally in Heaven versus wasting your life here and perishing in Hell. He sees. He is watching- and He is waiting for you!

December 20, 2012

Christmas at San Antonio's River Walk

A family event is always a good excuse for a change in the scenery! Last weekend, my wife and I and our youngest son flew down to San Antonio for our niece's wedding. Not only was the ceremony and reception great- in a grand ole Texas tradition- we spent a bit of time at the River Walk. It's always beautiful, but at Christmas, it's a real treat for the eyes. A family member snapped this photo, and I just had to share it. Really spectacular.

December 19, 2012

Coolest Theme Park Addition!

It's about time for me to reconsider that trip to Orlando! Nope, it isn't Disney's New Fantasyland or even Universal's Harry Potter's Forbidden Journey. As you can guess by the graphic, it's Sea World's Empire of the Penguin that has me thinking twice.

Do I love Beauty and the Beast? Yes, but I can wait to dine in the West Wing. A meal at a theme park doesn't make me want to hop on a plane. And I'm not wild about Harry, but the ride system is enticing.

Sure, Test Track 2.0 looks enough like Tron to make me want to go, but at its core, its the same attraction. Beyond that, new restaurants in World Showcase don't keep a theme park fresh. At this point in time, Disney's Hollywood Studios leaves me cold. And don't even get me going about the sad state of Animal Kingdom!

It's been years since I've been to Sea World. But I love the place. Problem is, in earlier days, the location was either inconvenient or I did not want to take time out of my Orlando vacation at Disney to go there. No longer. Penguins, dolphins, whales, oh my!

The photos I've seen of this park make the place look fresh, clean, and extremely appealing. Plus its interactive in a way that is hands-on and video game free. Just my style. Maybe its just time for something new. When Disney's ready to bring back something state of the art to Orlando, then I'll get excited enough to book a ticket. In the meantime, Sea World has something cool Animal Kingdom should have explored years ago, and I know I'm not the only one who will take notice.

December 10, 2012

Little Gems May Bring Some Magic

Now that the New Fantasyland has opened at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom, following the opening of Buena Vista Street and Cars Land at Disney California Adventure, there's really nothing too big on the horizon for the US parks. But that doesn't mean there aren't "little gems" of enhancements taking place.

Starting with Walt Disney himself, this practice of "plussing" the parks has been a steady business over at Disneyland for most all its years, except for when a truly evil empire ruled the land in the late 20th Century. (Forget the backstory to the New Fantasyland! This era was when evil really ruled, destroying much of the magic.)

As you can tell from all this concept art, Imagineering is making some pretty drastic changes to where the Hub meets Fantasyland and  Main Street U.S.A. For better or for worse Carnation Plaza Gardens is giving way to a place made just for princesses and those who love them.

Charming is one of the adjectives most used to describe the Anaheim kingdom, and it is the little touches like these that add to the overall atmosphere. If you can get past the loss of a piece of Disneyland history, the proposed changes really are quite beautiful and fit in nicely with Sleeping Beauty Castle. Not that a little imagination couldn't have found other purposes for the space, but during the day, this section of prime real estate sits empty. Turning it into a glorified meet and greet may really assist in making a Frontierland expansion possible in the near future. And that would be truly magical.

(Art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

December 7, 2012

Olivia Newton-John Top Ten

Olivia Newton-John, the All-American Girl (Aussie woman) with a long and prosperous musical career, has just released her new duet video with John Travolta: I Think You Might Like It.  Hoping to capitalize on the immortal success of You're the One That I Want from Grease, the two gather together once more for a benefit Christmas album, This Christmas

It's a pretty harmless piece of fluff- with a wonderful car- but it got me thinking about how Olivia has had some incredible successes along the way. So, I'd like to present my Top Ten favorite Olivia songs. Your mileage may vary. In no particular order:

"Deeper Than A River" (1992): Though long past her hit making days, this country tinged ballad had all the right elements- and it had me looking once again at a vocalist I'd mostly forgotten.

"I Can't Help It" (1980): Duet with the late Andy Gibb.  It's the perfect match of breathy vocals from both and a delicate but simply effective arrangement. A piece of perfect late night ear candy. Made my long evening drives on a delivery route all the more enjoyable.

"Hopelessly Devoted to You" (1978): The Grease solo smash- still love it to this day. You just have to not like music to not appreciate the retro coolness of this record.

"Dancin'" (1980): This 40's meets 80's blend with punk rockers The Tubes shocked me upon first watch at the movies (Xanadu). But I loved it immediately. Layers and layers of Olivia vocals with a swinging beat and big band style. Guilty perfection. Who could ask for more! (Well, maybe a full version of the song with The Tubes edited out?!?)

"Summertime" (2004): From the Indigo-Women of Song project. I had wrongly thought we needed to leave the basement register vocals to Karen Carpenter. I was wrong. Olivia hits bottom in a good way, and the end result is a perfectly respectable take on an American classic.

"Make A Move On Me" (1981): From the Physical album. The keyboard works hard against a spunky and convincing Olivia begging for something better to do- "Won't you spare me all the charms, and take me in your arms." This song had men everywhere getting in line to take her up on the offer.

"Dancin' Round and Round" (1978): From the first album post-Grease, Olivia threw in this gentle country cut. All around a Totally Hot album.

"Lovers" (1975): To some, this was a toss away song and album. Yet this quiet tale of the effects of love lost was quite mature in the midst of songs about puppies, brotherly devotion, and summer love.

"The Way You Look Tonight" (1989): After the failed attempt at cashing in once too many times on the nice-girl-gone-bad image (Soul Kiss), Olivia returned to a nice girl as a new mommy. The home project brought her one of her most beautiful albums, Warm and Tender. Nice, very nice.

"You're the One That I Want" (1978): I couldn't help it. It's pure fun, pure magic- and who can resist singing along with the chorus?  C'mon. You know you want to.

December 4, 2012

The Future Returns to Epcot?

Test Track 2.0 makes its debut at Epcot this month, and from looking at the photos, all I can say is "WOW!"

If the experience holds true to what is presented, Walt Disney World's most original and interesting theme park could be headed back to the future.

Above, thanks to Alain Littaye of the wonderful Disney and More blog, is concept art depicting the new vehicles. I'll let you go to his site to see the rest of the pieces. Suffice it to say, I was impressed.

The actual photographs that can be found everywhere depict a very futuristic Tron like experience. Not a bad thing! But its the sleek exterior that matches the experience inside that excites me. Let's be honest, Mission:Space aside, the ring of pavilions that surround the stunning Spaceship Earth leave much to be desired. Boring. Dated. Left to rot ungracefully. This redo by the Imagineers and Chevrolet bring something fresh to the table.

Reminds me of the grand and gorgeous EPCOT Center at opening. Walt's Imagineers not only carried on without him, they created something they cannot repeat. A World's Fair environment as pleasing to the eye as the experiences and adventures it contained. Back at debut, the buildings were instant icons. And who didn't love what they found once they darkened the pavilion doors?

World of Motion, Journey into Imagination, The Land, Spaceship Earth, and Universe of Energy surrounded Communicore to create a sparkling new tomorrow. A hopeful, beautiful, inspiring place to explore. (And go ahead and sing the songs! You know you want to...) 

So, perhaps, just possibly, this is the beginning of a new stage, a new era. I'm skeptical, but I have to remember, this remake is coming from the same company that just designed Cars Land at a gorgeously remade California Adventure.  Here's hoping I'm right.

(Art copyright the Walt Disney Company.)

December 3, 2012

An Opportunity for Chris Powell

David Smith is a name you may not remember. But the "650 lb. Virgin" is one you've probably heard of before and never forgot. 

Years back, this young man worked with trainer Chris Powell long before he starred in Extreme Makeover: Weight Loss Edition. Together, they saw David trim himself down by 400 or so pounds. Their productive partnership resulted in David working for Chris, and they shared their success story in every media outlet available to them.

All that hard work and discipline paid off very handsomely- and it built a bond of friendship between the two men that would seem to last a lifetime. Apparently, it hasn't. Sadly, there's been some sort of rift.

Chris is now married with a wife and family. He's also authored a book, "Choose to Lose" which will be published this month. You can't help but be pleased for the guy. He's worked hard, and it has paid off.

As for David, he has regained the weight and is struggling again. Wouldn't it be cool for the two men to reunite and work together? Of course, the friendship between the guys is their own business, but I am all for another success story- reshape the nation and reshape a friendship.

December 1, 2012

Worth the Wait

Monsters University is the sequel that deserved to happen but I doubted if it ever would. Cannot wait to see Mike and Sulley on the big screen once again!

November 23, 2012

Carpenters Celebrate the Christmas Season

A long-standing family tradition is to not decorate the house or play Christmas music until the Friday after Thanksgiving. And not just any Christmas music is played. Karen and Richard Carpenter's classic Christmas Portrait is always the first to open the season. 

So, to open the season, here are my reviews on the two Christmas discs from my favorite duo.


Richard and Karen Carpenter's Christmas Portrait was the culmination of the longest wait ever for a full length Christmas recording. Not just of the decade but by any recording artist. From the 1970 release of their first holiday recording Merry Christmas Darling, fans waited and waited for the Carpenters to complete an album full of old favorites and new songs dedicated to the season. The gorgeous song written by Richard and Frank Pooler achieved instant standard status upon first play, with Karen's deep and warm vocals played against Richard's lush arrangements and Frank's romantic lyrics. It was constantly on my turntable.

The near decade in between the single and the album had been far from unkind, however, with the duo turning out hit after hit. Things began to slow after the release of The Singles: 1969 - 1973, but Karen and Richard were still quite productive. A new arrangement of the seasonal classic "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" came in 1974 along with an appearance on Perry Como's Christmas special. (Find it and watch Karen perform "It's Impossible"- one of her most tender readings of a song ever!) "Please Mr. Postman" ended '74 as a worldwide smash.

Horizon arrived in 1975, with A Kind of Hush coming the following year. Although both discs contain some of their best individual recordings ("Only Yesterday", "Solitaire", and Desperado" from the first, and "I Need to Be in Love" and "One More Time" from the latter), neither produced the sales of years previously.

The duo's next album in 1977, Passage, was not the large hit they wanted and their career so desperately needed. The result was fun, playful, and largely uninspired. Even die-hard fans like myself started to move on to other interests.

I discovered that in the midst of recording Passage, the Carpenters were also beginning to record for another project at the same time this eclectic album was forming. Perhaps both the A&M Records executives and Karen and Richard expected the Christmas recordings to be completed in time for a 1977 release, as their second television special "The Carpenters at Christmas" was to air in early December.

Above- the photos that inspired Robert Tanenbaum's beautiful portrait

My personal life was taking a dramatic downturn as well. My post high school life had been an interesting mix of fear, loneliness, increasing depression, and anticipation. I began to search for greater meaning in life than what I could see. After years of looking into various world religions- and after a near disastrous automobile accident shortly after seeing the Carpenters in Las Vegas- I found myself at an evening gathering at Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa. A young evangelist, Greg Laurie, presented the truth to me as shared in the Bible: I was a sinner, a broken man, and the only way to a relationship with God and a restored life was through faith in Jesus Christ. God Himself reaching down to man and not man's efforts to reach Him. What a difference it made to hear about a god who loved his creation.

My heart jumped as I chose to make a decision to embrace Jesus and his sacrifice on the cross. I knew I'd have to live differently, and I was ready. As I prayed for a new beginning, I hoped for the best. The result was better than I ever expected. For the next six months, my depression was replaced with hope and joy. My friends and family could not believe the transformation. Neither could I!

Christmas was very different that year. Finally, all those hymns made sense- and watching and listening to Karen sing them touched me deeply. By this point, I was also smart enough to understand a Christmas album had to be coming soon.

As the following year progressed, many good things began to happen in my life. My job situation improved greatly, I formed some deep friendships, and even though life was more back to normal with expected ups and downs, I had peace and hope. Guess my faith "stuck", and I'd never go back to my old life.

On the musical front, things were fairly uninteresting. I was thrilled to finally hear something new from Karen and Richard. "I Believe You" was a terrific little single that got next to no airplay, but my lengthy wait was finally rewarded again when the Christmas Portrait album hit the shelves. Couldn't wait to get it home! Little did I know the album would end up being one of my favorites by them and a very personal one- one that would always touch me deeply.

Finally, the album was out of the sleeve and on the turntable. I patiently listened through the opening songs. Finally Karen came in singing "Frosted window panes"...

I was mesmerized. What an introduction Richard designed for his favorite vocalist! Thirty-two years later, hearing her opening to "Christmas Waltz" still signals the beginning of the season, and Christmas Portrait is the traditional first disc played in our house. (And one played only after Thanksgiving!)

The album, continued to sparkle. Hearing the Carpenters band sing on "Sleigh Ride" was great fun! The new single "Christmas Song" made famous by Nat King Cole and recorded by seemingly thousands of other vocalists, was a natural choice for Karen's voice. It was at that moment of first hearing it that I realized Karen was the new voice of Christmas for my generation. Considering the millions of copies sold, I am sure I am not alone in this assessment.

Richard was oft-quoted for his influences being the "3Bs" (the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and Burt Bacharach) but here on their first Christmas release, it is clearly Spike Jones, the 40s bandleader with his group, the City Slickers. (Does the name sound familiar? Remember their newer live show or the 1st TV special?) Check out Spike's holiday albums in its various rereleased forms, and you'll find similar song choices, medleys, and arrangements. That said, Richard's genius is evident here. Between the arrangements of Peter Knight and the concept of the album, not including his terrific playing throughout, Richard's contribution is unmistakable. This album is as solid and strong as any of their previous work, and it holds it own against any modern day releases.

There are plenty of additional gems on the disc. One of my personal favorites is "First Snowfall/Let It Snow". The playful arrangement is quite fun but when Karen's voice is overdubbed on the former and she emotes on the phrase "if you really hold me tight" on the latter, it's pure magic. Next, Richard's "Carol of the Bells" is stunning. The newly rerecorded "Merry Christmas Darling" is made even more beautiful by Karen's softer vocal approach. And it just keeps getting better. The disc's closing "Ave Maria" reveals how powerful and under control her voice was. It also shows how unmatched it is by those vocalists of her day and those of ours. How many other artists have dared to perform such a demanding piece?

Christmas Portrait was an instant success and became a radio staple for the decades. Beginning with the following season, recording artists began to mine the gold found by the recent success of Karen and Richard, and they recorded their own holiday albums. As with their earlier work, others once more followed the duo's instincts and groundbreaking lead.

Since Karen's untimely death, "I'll Be Home for Christmas" has taken on a poignancy stronger than its already heartfelt lyrics. Her passing means the end of an era. Beyond the later release of "An Old Fashioned Christmas" in 1984, there is not much Carpenters material left other than television show recordings, and the chance for additional Christmas albums is gone. Over and over again, Richard has started and stopped work on his own collection of holiday tunes. Will we ever see it? If only in my dreams...

Whereas the gorgeous and definitive Christmas Portrait has been rightfully so been described by Richard Carpenter as his sister's first solo album, An Old Fashioned Christmas feels more like his first solo album with Karen guesting.

After Karen's tragic passing in 1983, I knew the days of the Carpenters were sadly over. Instinctively, I expected greatest hits compilations, perhaps one disc of unreleased material, and an eventual solo project from Richard. An Old Fashioned Christmas came as a surprise to me when it was released in the fall of the following year. The beautiful Voice of the Heart album had only been in release for a year, but I suppose it made sense to Richard and the executives of A&M Records to release another disc so soon.

In my memory, I recalled multiple but unused songs being recorded for Christmas Portrait when it was first intended as a double length album. I was still quite surprised and very delighted to find Richard had finished work on a second volume of Christmas music. It had to have been a very difficult labor of love for him.

It was still a season of vinyl then, even though compact discs had made their way into the market. There was no accompanying disc to be found for this release- only chrome tape for the cassette release- therefore, my first view of the album cover was large in scale as well as being wonderful to behold. It was another artistic take on the Norman Rockwell look and feel of the first disc's cover, but as with the music it contains, not nearly as charming or effective. I do appreciate the slight nod to Karen's well known love of Disneyland, as the elf on the right wears a pair of Mickey Mouse ears!

Similarly to the 1978 album, Richard begins the proceedings with a crisply sung "It Came Upon A Midnight Clear". After a quite lengthy choral and instrumental medley that includes slivers of Richard's vocals, the title song arrives, offering sweet sentiments but a fairly mundane melody, arrangement, and performance. Written in 1984 for this collection, An Old Fashioned Christmas is a nice composition with long time lyricist John Bettis, but it is not a classic to be cherished.

Immediately thereafter, Richard's stunning instrumental reading of "O Holy Night" begins. It is a powerful piece of music masterfully played. This is my favorite Christmas song, and few singers effectively capture the substance and drama of the lyrics.

Richard's performance of it is so well done, I do not miss the words. In fact, it seems to bring me to a place of worship for the God who became Man for our sake. Not many instrumentals have that effect on me! In fact, for his part, it's Richard's skills as pianist that are his strength here throughout the album.

After about fifteen minutes of music, Karen finally steps in. When her warm, gorgeous voice comes in on "Home for the Holidays", showcasing her lower register. It's in that deep part of her range that reminds no other singer can compare to her! Hearing Karen, the game instantly changes, reminding the listener this is a Carpenters album! She immediately brings a cheeriness, a buoyancy to the disc but also an instant and underlying sadness as we remember she is gone. The tune is quite charming but brief at a length of just over two minutes. Here is the pattern of this album: lots of Richard, little of Karen. By necessity, on an album comprising roughly 49 minutes of music, Karen's vocals make up only about 18 minutes total!

Richard's next instrumental medley is a bright blending of "Here Comes Santa Claus", "Frosty the Snowman", "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer", and "Good King Wenceslas". It feels fresh and sparkling, in direct contrast to the somberness of the next number, Karen's intimate and yearning "Little Altar Boy".

On the vinyl version of the album, this song ends "Side One". It also emotionally divides the collection with its stark, desperate lyrics. Karen's touching plea for intercession and ultimate redemption for her lost life burned in my ears from first listen. When a vocalist whose personal life held inner turmoil and ended in tragedy, these lyrics take on a haunting, new significance. "Little Altar Boy" is the spiritual equivalent of the duo's earlier "Goodbye to Love". She quietly screams to be noticed and loved.

Thankfully, "Side Two" begins with the triumphant "Do You Hear What I Hear?" In contrast to his vocals elsewhere, Richard sounds absolutely confident and terrific. Yet, this is ultimately a command performance by Karen. As the music builds to its crescendo, Karen's singing matches the song, ending in a powerful presentation of the last word, "light". For a vocalist known for her intimate, warm, soft voice and nuanced phrasing, this last note reminds us she was in control of that gift. Here, she belts it out with the best.

If we've heard Karen, it means it is once again time for Richard. "My Favorite Things" seems an odd choice and is not one of my favorite selections.

"He Came Here For Me". It is a testament to Richard's knack for finding great material that this song was ever recorded. Again, Karen goes to the lower end of her range to good effect. To my ears, the overall result is not as strong as "Little Altar Boy", but I so appreciate the richness of the lyrics:

"Born in a stable He came here for me
born of a virgin He came here for me
God's only son come to set the world free,
born of God's love and He came here for me.
Savior, of the world I praise thee

Jesus, Lamb of God, I pray to thee, hear me
As I praise thy birth bend down thy ear and hear my prayer
Over a stable a star shone so bright,
guiding three wise men who rode through the night
He was called baby Jesus, He came here for me,
Born to this world, then He died here for me."

From the sacred to the secular, Karen and Richard follow up the previous selection with their 1974 recording of "Santa Claus is Coming to Town". This slower dreamy version perfectly shows off their skills. Richard's terrific arrangement allows Karen to take center stage. In contrast to the original release, the saxophone solo has been entirely reimagined. For the record, I enjoy each saxophone solo for different reasons. On this take, it brings a smooth jazz feel to the song, very appropriate and contemporary for its inclusion a decade later. (Just a side note here: I loved watching Karen and Richard perform this on Perry Como's Christmas special. She looks great!)

What can I say about "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?" I was smitten at first listening! The 1940's produced some of my most loved recordings, and I had long thought Karen and Richard should be doing these kinds of classics. The inclusion of "I Can Dream Can't I?" on the Carpenters' masterpiece album "Horizon" confirmed I was right. Certainly, there are stronger performances on this holiday collection, but this romantic piece is my personal favorite. It is the perfect match of singer, song, arrangement and production.

After three vocals in a row by Karen, Richard's selections from "The Nutcracker" are a great way to draw near to the album's end. Somehow, he makes this sound new, even though the music has been heard for decades. Just beautiful.

The album's closer, "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day", was a song I did not remember and one that took me awhile to appreciate. "Lower register" and perfectly sung- check. Well arranged and produced- check. But what was it about the song that I just didn't like? Took years for me to figure it out. The song signifies the end of an era for me. Really, for all of us.

Television outtakes, aside, there would be no more Christmas music from the duo. Karen and Richard's holiday themed television specials would not see release. Richard's long discussed solo Christmas album would be started, delayed, and ultimately shelved. (In 2002, he would go on to give two songs to Japanese vocalist Seiko Matsuda: "Christmas Turned Blue" and "December Morn".)

In my opinion, the Carpenters and Christmas go together. Christmas music means Carpenters albums. Karen's is the voice of the season, and "Christmas Portrait" is always the first disc played in our home when I control the player. It will always be that way. The second disc is good too, but regardless of its many charms, it is a patchwork project.

Thankfully, even though "An Old Fashioned Christmas" would be their last holiday release, Richard had more Carpenters music ahead for their fans- and in some ways, for posthumous releases, the best was yet to come.

This post is only one piece in a series focusing on Karen and Richard Carpenter, a review of their many albums and the impact of their music on my life. If you'd like to read the entire series, begin here.

November 22, 2012

Thankful for the Gift of Jesus!

Tis the season to be thankful! And I am. Are you? We have so much to thank God for! If nothing else, the gift of life. I'm still here, and so are you. God has placed us in this particular place and time for His purposes. We get to be part of His plan to introduce people to the gift of His Son, Jesus Christ, the only payment for our sins, the only way to heaven. What a wonderful opportunity- and I am thankful to be part of something bigger than myself.

(Art copyright This Northern Girl.)

November 20, 2012

Balancing Act

Don't you just love this piece of concept art by legendary Imagineer Marc Davis? I sure do. Pirates of the Caribbean continues to be the masterpiece attraction at any Disney park- from Disneyland to Shanghai Disneyland and most everywhere in between, Pirates continues its reign as the most beloved and admired theme park icon.

The image also reminds me of the delicate balancing act between art and commerce. The suits have to do this well- and when they do, they have a runaway success on their hands. All you have to do is watch the crowds entering California Adventure 2.0 and heading toward Cars Land and Radiator Springs Racers to see great art can bring great rewards.

Will Walt Disney World's New Fantasyland pull in the crowds as well? Will it be strong enough to do battle with the boy wizard next door at Islands of Adventure? Probably not. But it can serve as a good starting point to a re-imagined Walt Disney World. A resort that once again returns to amazing its guests and providing experiences not available anywhere else. A place where great customer service is only bested stunning surroundings. To bring the current state of the resort back to the highest standards of earlier decades? That would be a hat trick- but one that must be done.

(Art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

November 13, 2012

Cruising in Cars Land

Thanksgiving isn't even here yet, but the suits at Disneyland and Walt Disney World have already begun their Christmastime transformation of the parks. Living in Denver, I do not dream of a White Christmas. It happens often enough.

What I am dreaming about is another visit to a Disney park. Nope, it's not the beautiful but net-filled Animal Kingdom. It's not even the home of the original Twilight Zone Tower of Terror- Disney's Hollywood Studios. Nor Epcot, nor the New Fantasyland found at the Magic Kingdom.  You've guessed it by the photo- it's Disney California Adventure 2.0 and the stunning Cars Land.

Zooming through Ornament Valley on Radiator Springs Racers is what I want to be doing just about now. Eating some Caramel Banana Brioche at Flo's V8 Cafe and cruising along Buena Vista Street with my wife.  That is what would give this day a perfect ending! Guess it means the Imagineers have done their job!

(Photograph copyright Mark Taft.)

November 9, 2012

Sharpest Weapon Known to Man

For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.

Hebrews 4:12-13

October 31, 2012

A Little Halloween Treat

It's hard to give out candy via a blog, so how about a piece of pretty rare concept art??? 

Imagine if you will, a walk through version of the Haunted Mansion!  This was actually planned by the Imagineers at one point in time, but as with some things in all Disney parks, attraction capacity necessitates changes. So, the little walk through Haunted Mansion became a ride on a Doom Buggy. (Speaking of that, do go to - an amazing site.)

This piece of concept art was first shown as part of the 50th Anniversary display in Disneyland's Opera House.

Naturally (supernaturally?), the walking tour would brought us to the infamous ballroom. What a thrill it would have been to walk the house and explore it on our own! 

Perhaps a new Mansion would use a trackless system, and the riders could tour different rooms at random. Just think of the repeatability factor! Or on a smaller scale more in line with a holiday makeover, maybe one day Sleeping Beauty Castle could be given a Halloween makeover...

(Art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

October 30, 2012

October 26, 2012

Disneyland Resort's New Crowning Jewel: Cars Land

California Adventure's incredibly fantastic Cars Land and the equally impressive attraction Radiator Springs Racers together form the new gold standard for Disney theme parks. There is nothing like it- and it alone is worth a trip to Southern California and the Disneyland Resort whether or not the film is appealing.

I was skeptical even after reading the glowing trip reports. After all, this is the same company that has been given us "attractions" like "Monsters Inc. Laugh Floor" and "Stitch's Great Escape", not to mention the original mess of California Adventure 1.0. However, since my visit last week, I have been converted. Seeing is believing... and I am not a huge fan of the Cars films.

From the measure of a single "E Ticket" attraction, the geniuses at work in Imagineering have not created anything this incredible since the opening of the Indiana Jones Adventure. When combined with an entire land just as well designed, you'd have to go back to Disneyland in its prime days of the mid to late 1960s to find an end result equally as inspired; a time when the gorgeous New Orleans Square, the Pirates of the Caribbean, and a brand new dazzling Tomorrowland seemed to be revealed within months of each other.

Let me put it a different way. My son-in-law and I bought a park hopper pass, and we stayed twelve hours in the parks, from opening until the start of World of Color. Less than two were spent at Disneyland. This trip, we preferred to spend our single day at California Adventure. In the past, that never would have happened.

The park opened at 8:00am, and we arrived at the gate 45 minutes earlier with tickets in hand. Heading straight for the Fast Pass line for Racers, those golden tickets brought us a ride at 8:40, so we immediately walked to the regular queue while crowds were light.

Walking down the main drag of the town, I was stunned by the attention to detail and the scale and scope of the whole project. Totally immersive, encompassing in every sense. The exact opposite emotion of my first visit to this little park in 2001. 

Rounding the corner, our wait for the first ride was a total of 27 minutes. It flew by as the sights at every turn absorbed it quickly. The Bottle House was a particularly beautiful addition to the queue, unexpected and delightful. We finally reached the front of the line and anxiously awaited our vehicle.

There's nothing like the first time on any new Disney attraction. It cannot be repeated. My view of the attraction rarely strays from what I first experienced. The expectation was high, the experience just as powerful.  

For those unfamiliar with the attraction, Radiator Springs Racers, breaks down nicely into three segments: a slow sightseeing tour of Ornament Valley, a dark ride portion inside the main show building, and a high speed family thrill ride to conclude the journey. A little something for everyone and a potent combination where the sum of the parts creates an entirely satisfying whole. No spoilers here, but I will say I was happy to get right back in line for my second ride. 

We hadn't eaten before arriving at the resort because I wanted to breakfast at Flo's V8 Cafe. So worth the delay! Walking in, Motown tunes created a warm buzz and retro vibe. I ordered the delicious and fairly priced Caramel Banana Brioche, one of the tastiest things I've ever eaten at the resort- on par with the Creme Brûlée French Toast at Goofy's Kitchen. We sat outside in the morning sun with the cars of Racers hugging the track in front of us every few seconds. 

I still couldn't believe the view. Everywhere I turned, the gorgeous rock work and loving attention to detail stunned me.  I was totally drawn into the story, the environment, the feel; surprised I really was in a theme park, specifically California Adventure. The Imagineering dedication to excellence paired with the generous budget created something that will draw me back for years. Yes, Cars Land will be a hit for generations to come- long after the namesake movie is a memory. We exited through the entrance from Pacific Wharf, turning around for a new glance. The long view, the short view and all in between. I swore I was in Arizona on Route 66 with California within sight. Words are not enough.

Pirates of the Caribbean was next up as last year it was closed for refurbishment. My son-in-law had never seen it. Yet, we walked by Mater's Junkyard Jamboree, and we couldn't resist the fifteen minute long line. So glad we did! For a ride considered one for little kids, a minor addition, it was a blast. We laughed through our entire dance. And I didn't see one single face without a smile on it, young or old. A surprise hit.

So, it was back to Disneyland. The close proximity of the two parks is a big plus at the West Coast resort. In short order, we covered Pirates, Haunted Mansion, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Matterhorn Bobsleds, Pinocchio, and Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin. Briefly, Pirates looked and sounded the best it had in years. The bayou was dark, and no ceiling could be seen. All the effects worked beautifully. The Bobsleds were a painful ride, but the snow storm has finally returned. Tomorrowland looked awful with worn paint, making the old as dirt buildings look every bit their age. Hopefully, Iron Man will bring a fresh focus. Back to California Adventure we went, less than two hours in Walt's original park.

Heading back into California Adventure, we took time to explore Buena Vista Street. What a wonderful new "first act" for the park. At opening the Sunshine Plaza and entryway was almost a joke, a quick and easy, "trendy" attempt at something new. Only the Sun Icon and the California Zephyr train housing restaurants and shops hinted at any creativity. It's boring no longer. Instead, the area is warm, charming, and full of places to explore. The shops are full of unique attraction-specific merchandise. For the first time since my original visit, I actually purchased a variety of souvenirs and wished I had more money to burn. Incredible. 

Loved the Walt and Mickey statue as well as Oswald's. The Red Car Trolley adds much to the area, and the lush landscaping truly brings guests into another place and era. The Carthay Circle Theater brought just the right touch of elegance. Was this really the same park that Disney geeks firmly rejected in 2001? 

To make a long story very short, lunch was Chinese, dinner of Clam Chowder at the Wharf. We were able to explore every corner of Cars Land and do just about every attraction in the park, ending the day with a nighttime ride on Radiator Springs Racers (Single Rider Line, fifteen minutes. Even better at night!) The lighting ceremony at Cars Land was a treat. The new land is as strongly themed and every bit as impactful as anything Disney has ever built. It was a near perfect day.

Is California Adventure now the perfect park? No. The weaknesses are still there, with Hollywood Land and Paradise Pier exposing the faults found at the park circa 2001.  Will those areas be addressed? Hopefully so. 

As things now stand, I'd place California Adventure as a stronger American park than Disney's Hollywood Studios and Disney's Animal Kingdom. There's a big difference between the three: the new Adventure feels like a complete stand-alone, full day worthy Disney park. The other two remain half day parks. You can still tell where the suits have stopped short of excellence, and where they have continued to let those parks rot. Would Cars Land help save the park formerly known as Disney-MGM? Absolutely. Should it be built? Absolutely not!

I have no idea when my next visit to California will occur. However, I can say with full confidence that the new California Adventure will be where I spend my entire Disney day. Cars Land is a well deserved smash, a true labor of love. I cannot wait to ride Radiator Springs Racers again. Congratulations, Imagineers!

(Photographs copyright Mark Taft.)