July 31, 2014

The World in a Day

When it comes to the state of Walt Disney World these days, count me among the first in line to complain about all the changes. There is, in general, a downgrading of quality. Exceptions exist but they seem to be just that. You see, I remember Walt Disney World from 1975, when it consisted of a freshly minted Magic Kingdom, a couple of beautiful hotels, and not much more.

Then in 1982 came the once amazing EPCOT Center. An incredible place previewing the future with attractions that were almost entirely "E Tickets", a place you could spend days exploring. And we did just that. Usually, it took us one whole day to see Future World and one full day to see World Showcase.  Anyone else remember beginning their days with breakfast at The Good Turn restaurant and booking dinner reservations at a World Key kiosk before heading off to the World of Motion or the original and best Journey into Imagination? Everywhere I looked, I seemed to be surprised that the Imagineers at the Walt Disney Company could pull off such a feat of imagination and engineering. The thoughtful detail throughout the park brought such a welcome picture of the future and our world.

Yes, it's all in the details. In the years prior to the opening of EPCOT CENTER, I began to collect everything I could find about the place. Newspaper articles, magazines and books kept this incredible project in front of the public. Keeping my eyes open, it was easy to recognize rarer pieces of concept art when I saw them. Sometimes, they were seemingly hidden from view as they appeared in small scale renderings. Here's a few of the lesser seen:

Leading off this article, we discover Morocco. Fans of the film Casablanca finally had the chance to explore the country in which the film was represented- even if it was only the work of a backlot studio in Hollywood! The pavilion is the most unique and unexpected in all of World Showcase. Back alleys, shops, and scents from the area's restaurants create an atmosphere like none other to be found on Florida soil.  It's as close to going to the real thing as can be found. One of the places where it's pretty easy to forget you are in a theme park. This is something that is becoming harder and harder to do with Vacation Club booths popping up in unfortunate locations.

China was one of the original World Showcase countries. On opening day, it was instantly a place that drew me in. Even after 30 years and counting, it remains one of my favorite pavilions.  The Circle-Vision 360 attraction is a must-see. The visuals, the narration, and the delicate music make for an experience worth standing for. I am generally not a big fan of the growing use of film in theme park attractions. It seems like mostly a lazy excuse for creativity by the Disney Budgeteers- to the dismay of most old school Imagineers- but in this case, nothing can capture the beauty of one of the largest and most diverse countries on the planet.

I travel quite a bit to Asia but have not yet made a trip to the Chinese Mainland. Shanghai Disneyland could make that change, however. It's probably one of my favorite countries in which to snack! Sitting at a cafe table along the winding street and taking in the sights is just something I really enjoy. The shopping here is pretty good too. Filled with items that range from expensive to very affordable, it takes about an hour to go through it all.  My favorite pieces? They certainly have to be the authentically reproduced Terra Cotta Warriors. At least until I get to photograph the real ones.

Once my favorite World Showcase location, Mexico is still beautiful even if it is now home to the dumbed down and uninspired Gran Fiesta Tour. But I so miss the exotic and mysterious El Rio del Tiempo. Stepping into the temple and discovering a small town lit by the moonlight still surprises and delights me. 

The food at the San Angel Restaurant is no longer top-notch and even more pricey than ever, but it is a good place to sit with an appetizer, (do they still serve Queso Fundido?) and a big margarita to take it all in. When it's really nighttime outside, the temple lighting adds to the mystery. And this is where Disney Imagineering completes the illusion with mariachi music, lush landscaping and nice sightlines.The lagoon is harder to see with the new full service restaurant now lakeside, but what are you going to do? It's all about the bucks now at Epcot, and they seem to think nothing is faster at creating cash than selling liquor and overpriced food. Oh, and shopping. If you think I'm kidding, just keep your eye on the official Disney Parks blog. Generally when Epcot is mentioned, it is about food, booze, festivals, and merchandize. Sad.

Take a good look at this next miniature sized piece of art. You've got Italy on the left and Japan on the right. Due to overspending at the creation and construction of the park, they are still without the attractions that were once planned. Having been to both countries, I can tell you with authority that the representations are pretty accurate! Venice is the inspiration for the Italian showcase and scale aside, the Epcot version does a great job of bringing it to Florida. It could be so much more, especially if they would recreate the gondola ride you can find at Tokyo Disney Sea.

My wife and I find Japan's gardens to be especially beautiful in the evening, a favorite place to wander long after Illuminations and the crowds have departed. Hiding just outside the teahouse with our small plates of food, it feels as if we are on the other side of the world.  The quiet surroundings- so quiet you can hear the crickets- lit by small garden lamps transport us to the back streets in old Kyoto. 

We've taken many trips to Walt Disney World. We do not travel there as often as we used to now that there's just the two of us and going overseas is less expensive than a Disney World vacation.  But the ability to travel the world in a day at Epcot is still very appealing. 

I love the new and improved California Adventure. The incredible Cars Land alone is worth a visit. Clearly the best thing Disney's built stateside in at least a decade. But the Disneyland Resort will never be able to compare to what can be found on Florida's soil. They had their chance to do so when they created Westcot, but blew it by being cheap and abandoning the plans. 

Now, with land for the third theme park seeming to be set aside for Marvel adventures, I will be forced to go to Florida to see World Showcase. It's too bad as I may not go back for awhile. Epcot, especially World Showcase is stuck in the past. Nothing new aside from a few restaurants has been built in decades. (Sorry but character overlays to international attractions do not count.) Shame on the Walt Disney Company for letting Florida's jewel lay dormant!

Will the suits ever allow the Imagineers to create more attractions or pavilions for Epcot's World Showcase? Who knows. But I can tell you they would be fools not to. Who else can give us the world in a day?

(Concept art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

July 25, 2014

Let It Go

The Disney fan community is in a flutter because Frozen seems to be a sure fire thing to replace Maelstrom at Epcot's beautiful Norway pavilion. Nothing we can do to stop it or get the great attraction it deserves built in the Magic Kingdom. Let It Go.

Animal Kingdom gets Avatar and Pandora. Beautiful landscapes, stunning views at night but a B-grade flight simulator ride instead of something cutting edge. Begging the question, "Has Disney lost it's edge?" Fair question worth pondering. But we can't change it. Let It Go.

A wonderful movie and fun potential with a Monstropolis buildout coming to the mostly now beautiful California Adventure. Do the suits at Disney even care anymore about additions to the parks being in theme? Doesn't seem like it. Just another addition that will be enjoyable no doubt but will be another nail in the coffin to what Imagineering used to do best. What can we do? Nothing. Let It Go.

The world is falling apart, one nation at a time. The Middle East is a mess. War looms, people die, children starve. God looks down with a broken heart at the mess man created by choosing what was forbidden in the Garden. Does it create worry, stress, and pain? Give it all to God. There's only peace now and eternally found in Jesus. Trust in Him regardless of what the "now" looks like in your life or the pain of the past. In Him, you can Let It Go.

This world is passing away. It's all temporary. Eternity comes soon enough.

(Art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

July 21, 2014

European Adventure 2014: Air Canada Fails, Geneva Awaits

In an attempt to at least begin a trip report about our recent journey to Switzerland and the south of France, I'll start with the easy basics as an introduction.

Due to the nature of my work, I can travel several times a year to places most people do not visit or visit easily- and in doing so, rack up a zillion miles getting to these out of the way destinations. We had two free airline tickets to anywhere we wanted to go and no restrictions to speak of aside from cash on hand. Thanks to a lovely gift from my in-laws, we had enough for twelve days. Hawaii was calling me as I envisioned a tropical rest, but the lure of Europe was too hard to resist. My wife was in full agreement, so Europe it would be. (Even though we hadn't been to Walt Disney World since 2009, nothing drew us there. No, the New Fantasyland wasn't enough.)

Going to Geneva, Switzerland from the States offered the most flexibility with many cheap connections to other destinations which interested us. It's incredibly inexpensive to city hop as it were once you are over on the other side of the pond. 

Our desire was to explore something new including a new country as part of the itinerary. We had not been to Switzerland and were told of its beauty, cleanliness, and friendly people. Two countries per visit was our goal. This time we would bypass our beloved Paris and opt for the south of France, which we had never seen. Provence and its vineyards and lavender fields and the gorgeously famous southern coastline would comprise the last two thirds of our trip. Some beach time would come on the Mediterranean instead of the Pacific. I found that a valid trade off. Although we labored in planning in exactly what places to visit and also where to stay, we would not regret this decision. 

For the most part, our research uncovered that what we had heard about Geneva was that it was basically a "business destination" without much to draw in tourists. In reality, this kept the tourist count low, and we found the city had much old school charm along the beautiful lake its built on.

Our children were happily envious and got us to the airport early morning of our departure. One of our newer traditions is a stop at Caribou Coffee, now gone for the most part from where we live but still at the airport. A nice way to start the trip before the adventure began. And it began upon arrival in Geneva via Toronto.

No luggage. Air Canada was not scoring any points for losing my wife's luggage for two days and mine for five. Such is travel. We rolled with the delay, and once we found our stop, a quick trip into H&M brought a new shirt or two and some other necessities. (The end of our trip, however, would bring much bigger problems in travel- something never expected or experienced. More on that at the end of this series.)

Do you see the famous Jet d'Eau? 450ft water fountain.

We were only a few blocks from the lake itself, so off we went, exploring the entire city by foot or later by its very easy, clean, and inexpensive bus system. Lake Geneva straddles the borders of both Switzerland and France, with the French side being undeveloped countryside, the Swiss side being home to some marvelous small towns and world famous cities.

The landmark of the lake on the Geneva waterfront is the famous fountain Jet d'Eau. When it operation, it shoots upwards of 400 feet into the air. We would not see it our entire visit. It was very windy, keeping it very temperate, and the waves on the lake felt more like the ocean than we expected. It did not stop the sunbathers of all shapes and sizes to be found on both sides of the path to the lighthouse. 

I'm going to stop now before we begin touring the city since I've run out of time. However, as a "public service announcement" for those of you considering Europe, please enlarge the photo above. 

Since we were very tired from flying but wanted to stay up until normal bedtime to adjust to the time change, we felt a coffee break at Starbucks was just what we needed for a quick boost. It's become kind of a fun game to compare prices for a latte in each city as we travel. This is the only exception we make. Otherwise, we eat and drink like the locals.

Feel free to compare the prices. It's the only part of traveling Europe (aside from gasoline costs and highway tolls) where it is very expensive to travel. The lesson: if you "Go American", you'll pay for the familiarity. 

More to come.

(Photos copyright Mark Taft.)

July 18, 2014

Mickey Does St. Tropez

Finding illegal Mickeys in Asia is nothing new. Yet, this is the first time I've found an illegal Mickey Mouse in Europe. St. Tropez, France, to be exact. Even in this ritzy town of yachts bigger than most houses, somebody uses the mouse for their own benefit. This drive-by shot was as good as we could get it as traffic was a mess.

No, I haven't forgotten to post a trip report covering our travels through Switzerland and the south of France. real life has gotten in the way, so this will have to do for now. 

Let me repeat- Ditch Disney and go overseas and see the real countries found in Epcot's World Showcase. The experience is richer, the landscapes full scale, and the people friendly. Most importantly- these places are authentic and even though they are centuries old, unlike Walt Disney World, they're not stagnant. Also, rooms are reasonably priced, and as with most areas, meals range in expense as well. There are always free concerts and street events to entertain. Take a risk and ditch Disney this year. You'll be glad you did.

(Photograph copyright Mark Taft.)

July 17, 2014

Two Important Birthdays

July 17, 1955. Fifty-nine years ago, Walt Disney and his team accomplished something the entire world has loved. In one year and one day, they built an entire theme park- the original Disneyland. Kings, Presidents, Hollywood starlets, and ordinary royalty of all kind came to love this beautiful, charmed filled, heart-strings tugged place.

Fast forward to just 25 years ago, and under the new leadership of Michael Eisner and Frank Wells, the Imagineers led by captain Tony Baxter, debuted the incredible Splash Mountain. Proving once again that a mediocre film (Song of the South), can be the basis for a great theme park attraction, a Disneyland classic was born.

These important park birthdays serve to remind us that 1- true creativity and risk taking produce great results, 2- Rome can be built in a (year and a) day, and 3- continuing to create guest pleasing experiences brings the revenue the suits look for.

In 25 years from today, may we be celebrating some attraction that is a new instant classic!

(Art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

July 14, 2014

Disney Riding the Wave of Nostalgia

Escape from Gringotts is the newest, latest, and greatest from the daring men and women at Universal Creative. What a job they have done, instantly giving Walt Disney Imagineering a run for their money.

Yes, their money. Up until the opening of Harry Potter and his Forbidden Journey in 2010, Disney seemed to own Central Florida without a strong competitor in sight. Everyone else's park was the add on, not the must-see. Now, while Disney rides on nostalgia and magic wrist bands, Universal keeps pounding ahead, making their two parks the ones everyone must visit.

Do I love Space Mountain, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad at Magic Kingdom? Absolutely. Is Expedition: Everest my must do when I visit Animal Kingdom? Yep. Are these enough to stop me from now taking two days out of my trip to see Universal Studios for the first time and Islands of Adventure once again? Nope. Lost revenue from shopping, dining, and now two nights at at Universal Resort hotel.

C'mon, Disney, I'm rooting for you. Universal's upped the game. Show up- or your guests wanting something new and exciting will not. One day at a time.

(Art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

July 8, 2014

The New King of Theme Parks: A Boy Wizard

Diagon Alley. The name should be striking fear into the heart of Robert Iger and every Walt Disney Company executive. Especially those with a focus on the theme parks and Imagineering. As the video leaks out of the new expansion at Universal Studios Florida and its attraction/connection to Hogsmeade and Forbidden Journey at Islands of Adventure, their worst fears are being realized: theme park fans will now be taking two days out of their Florida vacation to see what Harry Potter has up his sleeve. 

Universal Creative has out-Disneyed Disney. When folks usually have to settle for YouTube films followed by comments of "These don't do it justice", you know the end result in real life should be better. But when the YouTube videos show park expansion that looks absolutely amazing even with poor photography, what is created is a drawing card that only matches television advertising and word of mouth. And the word on the street is that Disney has been surpassed. It's time to crown a new creative king. 

The opening day crowds for Escape from Gringotts are only a taste of things to come. The financial loss of one day is hard enough for the Disney suits and accountants. Yet, if most visitors are like me, they will now lob off two days on their next trip. I know I will. 

Add unique dining and shopping- with items exclusive to the park, and it's a sure fire hit. One that won't be satisfied by a half day visit. Unfortunately, something I still do at Disney's Animal Kingdom. And soon Disney Hollywood Studios.

I am not even a Harry Potter fan in the slightest. I've read none of the books and seen only one movie. However, when something this incredible has been created and the boundaries are pushed, I've got to go. See you there...

(Images copyright Universal Studios Florida.)

Cars Land Expansion?

Anyone with common sense can see that Disney hit pay dirt with the Cars franchise. The movies are successful, the toys are best sellers, and the inclusion of Cars Land saved Disney California Adventure. Radiator Springs Racers continues to be the Disney standard for their U.S. parks. (Notice I did not say all theme parks? That probably now goes to Universal Studios incredible Diagon Alley and the Escape from Gringotts attraction.)

Since Planes: Fire and Rescue is on the way to movies theaters near you. It seems to be its own profitable franchise with a look that mirrors the environments from Cars, (Can "Boats" be on its way), an easy expansion with some additional rides should be on the burner (pun intended) for the suits in Burbank and the Disney Imagineers. Toss in a new version of the Disney Hollywood Studios eatery Sci-Fi Dine In, with that all new E-Ticket anchor, and you've got all the makings of turning Cars Land into its own must-see land for years to come. 

A move like this continues giving the second Anaheim gate is own identity and saves the Marvel universe for Gate Number Three. 

(Art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

July 7, 2014

View from the Castle

Gruyeres' Castle that is, in Switzerland. Consider this a teaser of an upcoming trip report- that is, if my workload will calm down after being gone for two weeks.

(Photograph copyright Mark Taft.)

July 4, 2014

Alice Returns

Earlier this week, Disneyland's classic attraction Alice in Wonderland, returned to operation in Fantasyland. Always beautiful to look at, the ride has never looked better! Of course, I haven't been there myself to see it, but video abounds.

Alice in Wonderland... an example of a beautiful-to-look-at but mediocre film that makes for a charming attraction. A very charming attraction.

Touring Plans has the best looking video out there. See the refurbishments for yourself.

If this is any indication of what the Imagineers have planned for Disneyland's 60th Birthday/Anniversary, I say we are in for a treat. Even though Walt's park deserves a big ticket item for this landmark date, these are still very wise investments. It shows, once again, that the older sister- or should we now say "matriarch" of Disney parks is still the richest in atmosphere and in number of attractions both big and small.

(Poster art copyright The Walt Disney Company. Video copyright Touring Plans.)

July 3, 2014

Dubai Disneyland and Favilli Studio- An Update

No photo today.

Just received a very nice phone call from a true gentleman at Favilli Studio. Quite the theme park fan himself but also a businessman, he politely asked if I would consider taking down the images associated with Dubai Disneyland. I did immediately.
I hope you liked what you saw while it was there!

Why I Dumped Face Book

Maybe we should call this season "Cleaning House". After about 5 weeks of choosing to deactivate my face book account, I've decided to say goodbye for good.

What I enjoyed in that break was sometime I have too little of: time. What I didn't miss was what someone had for breakfast, nasty political rants, and cutesie "inspiration lite" quips. What I'll miss will be photos of distant friends and family, but they can send that to me directly if they choose.

More freedom, more time. A change worth making.