June 30, 2015

Peter Pan's Flight: History, Rare Concept Art, and More

Just in time to celebrate Disneyand's 60th Anniversary on July 17th, Peter Pan's Flight, the park's most beloved dark ride, re-opens after a top to bottom overhaul by Imagineering. If you were thrilled with what they accomplished in he recent overhaul of Alice in Wonderland, the results should be spellbinding. As those guests on the West Coast prepare to be delighted by the changes when it debuts today,  let's look backwards at the ride's creation. (Annual passport holders got a glimpse yesterday- video at the end of this article.) There's rare concept art and more below...

Few Disney park fans would argue that perhaps the most beloved dark ride attraction in Disney park history is Peter Pan Flight. When it debuted with the opening of Disneyland in 1955, it was an instant smash. After all, who could resist flying in a pirate ship over the evening skies of London and Neverland? For millions of kids and the adults who read the bedtime stories, the dream to fly was about to become a reality.

English author J.M. Barrie's novel of the boy who wouldn't grow up debuted in 1911. Readers were immediately enthralled with Peter Pan's journeys. The cast of characters were just as interesting: the Lost Boys, the villainous Captain Hook, and the manipulative but good hearted fairy, Tinker Bell. Toss in some mermaids, a few Indians, and an amphibian with a gastric problem to create more adventures than a boy could envision. Dreams of flying over a darkened but starlit London past the Big Ben's clock and onto the island of Neverland were birthed in the hearts and minds of children everywhere. Adults, too!

Off to Neverland!

Naturally, as Walt and his film makers looked at classic literature as the main source of animated film inspiration, the book and Peter Pan's adventures were a natural choice for exploration. The colorful characters and lush environments screamed for the Disney animators to tell their stories. When it was finally released to theaters in 1953, the movie drew universal praise for its enchanting theme, instantly singable songs, beautifully colorful textures and backgrounds, and of course, its endearing characters.

The idea for a family friendly park had been brewing in Walt's mind for more than a few years when he finally decided to take a chance and build Disneyland. He risked everything to do so. 

Imagineer Bill Martin's concept art.
Check out the proposed name!

This park, Walt's park, had to be unlike anything ever seen before, and that meant the attractions contained within needed to be creatively satisfying as well as crowd pleasing. With a handpicked crew, Walt and the team went to work. Each land would be unique, and Fantasyland would draw guests into the stories the animators told so well in their films.

Coming our way in 1955.

During its initial creation and design stage, Walt Disney insisted that his Fantasyland section of the new park would give his guests the unprecedented ability of experiencing the fun and excitement of his animated films by becoming part of them. Remember, this was years before Universal Studios got into the act. Again as usual, Walt Disney was ahead of his time. Way ahead of his time.

The folks that brought in carnivals and fairs told Walt he was out of his mind to build a park the way he wanted to, but Walt persisted to do as he felt he should. Giving guests an incredible experience at a reasonable cost was at the front of his mind. With this perspective and dedication to excellence, his Imagineering team (as they would later be called) created a gem, setting the bar for all theme parks to follow- and up until recently has been the acknowledged leader in the themed guest experience.

Testing the ride vehicle.
Check out the great Disney Avenue site. 
Blogmaster Keith Mahne uncovered this photo.

With Disneyland, not only was the concept unique, the choice and execution of the attractions would be as well. Although those same carnival operators of the day pressed Walt's team to include the ordinary Ferris Wheels and iron carnival rides, Walt insisted on the new and innovative. Instead, this team created adventures that could not be duplicated elsewhere. If you wanted to have this experience, Disneyland would be the place you had to go.  This trend would continue for decades before a change of direction and lack of vision at the end of the 20th century when the Disney suits began lowering the bar of execution and expectation, becoming more like its competitors than being differentiated from them.

Another view of the flight path, courtesy Disney and More.

Dark rides were a staple of amusement piers from Coney Island on the East Coast to various locations dotting much of California. Some were scary, some held promises of love or at least affection, but all of them held a certain mystique to paying customers as they could only guess at the wonders within the building they saw. This medium fit the Disney team perfectly, and they took the experience to a form of art using black light, special effects, and sophisticated animated props. Disney art directors would fashion the rides just as they could a film, directly the riders eyes to carefully chosen scenes. Add in great lighting, terrific and memorable music, the experiences found in the park would be memorable, creating a desire within guests to ride again and again.

With the layout of the park determined Fantasyland's courtyard would hold these smaller but still innovative and compelling adventures. Since the film was one of the most recent Disney hits, Peter Pan was prime for exploitation. Live theater and film had been telling the story for years, a dark ride would be a whole new way to share it. Beyond the marketing potential of living the adventure of Peter and his friends, the possibilities of how to tell the story were endless. A flight over London and Neverland were obvious contenders for the scenes, and Peter Pan Flight, as the attraction was initially named, was quickly decided upon as a necessary choice for opening day. Walt and the designers must have known they had a winning combination of story and ride vehicle on their hands.

The original plan for the exterior of the attraction.

How to set the stage for this great people pleasing adventure? The simple but effective exterior of the attraction, as shown above, fully met the strict budgetary requirements of the new venture while still presenting a fanciful, enticing entrance. The rounded tent entrance seen above would give way to a flat fronted entrance, but the primary concept remained. Even though budgets changed the exterior design what Walt originally wished to present, the tournament tents, banners, and other decorations created war still an atmosphere that could not found elsewhere. The style of Fantasyland wasn't what was fully envisioned, but the more extravagant surroundings would have to wait for later, finally appearing in 1983.

So beloved, it became the centerpiece of the Company's 1952 Christmas card.

The actual attraction, however, was as successful as they thought it would be. Filled with lavish and sometimes expensive little details that others might deem unnecessary, it was a rich experience from opening day  The queue area may have been decorated with a painted mural along the side of the building but even that was done with great care. Loving creation of the attraction- including a unique ride system whose cars were ornate pirate ships suspended from a track in the building's ceiling - rightfully enchanted guests.

Wisely, it's two rows of seats in Paris!

In many ways, this Peter Pan attraction and the more elaborate Jungle River Cruise would define Walt's park by showing what could be accomplished by the artisans and engineers when the goal was to tell a great story through pleasing, entertaining, and delighting its guests. This relentless dedication to excellence by Walt's experienced team of filmmakers brought great rewards and extremely long lines for both smaller rides as well as lengthy iconic attractions. Upon the park's opening, these Peter Pan Flight and the Jungle River Cruise became instant icons along with the it's physical centerpiece, Sleeping Beauty Castle.

Rare alternate entrance and exterior.

Not only was Mr. Disney a premier showman, he was also a savvy marketeer, and he worked hard to make sure every American knew of his beloved park. Walt and his brother Roy enticed television's ABC network into a creative and financial partnership that truly benefited both parties. Bringing Walt Disney to television was a coup for the struggling network, and the weekly network exposure of the plans for the park guaranteed much anticipation for its opening. The marketing plan was wildly successful- perhaps too successful- resulting in hoards of guests with money to spend. Anticipation was high, and so were expectations due to the buildup given Walt's magic kingdom.

Thankfully, Walt, Roy, and the Company delivered on their promise and their advertising. Disneyland actually made available one unforgettable experience after another, becoming the new gold standard for the American family vacation. Word quickly spread.

With television consistently whetting the appetites of millions of viewers, fantasies became realities- and the company was soon flush with cash to create even more amazing experiences. This meant even more ambitious and innovative attractions than what the Disney team was first designed.

Turning this into reality for Disneyland guests.

As with any new venture that was unprecedented, initial budgets were underestimated and therefore strained for the park, with Fantasyland and Tomorrowland suffering the most changes compared to what was originally desired. Still, no one could resist Peter Pan's Flight. Where else in the world could guests fly over London without being on a real airplane or cruise down exotic jungle rivers? Yet, this dream and others would become real for those visiting Anaheim and later, Florida, Tokyo and Paris.

A new and greatly detailed queue in Florida. But what about the inside?

Yes, Peter Pan Flight was so iconic, it had to be duplicated in Florida's Walt Disney World and its Magic Kingdom. Sure, other dark rides unique to Florida's park were considered, (Mary Poppins and Sleeping Beauty among them), but nothing past or present has held its own with the undisputed champion. In 2015, the Florida version received an enhanced queue, but the interior remains sorely in need of an update.

The original size of the art. Enlarged below to show detail.

Back on the West Coast, Fantasyland, and the newly named Peter Pan's Flight, remained the same for almost 30 years, until Tony Baxter led a group of Imagineers on a total revamp of the land. Now with the cash they desired, the carnival/circus tent/medieval fair look of the heart of Disneyland soon gave way to a fanciful take on the villages and atmosphere of Western Europe.

Typical Walt Disney:
Personally involved in the park that bears his name!

These changes also brought the dark ride's namesake characters into the attraction for the very first time. Originally, guests were supposed to be the main characters, but few understood the concept and many were left wondering why they never saw Peter Pan in an attraction that carried his name. This problem was corrected with the extensive remodel, much to the appreciation of frustrated parents trying to explain the initial idea to their bewildered children.

Paris' Peter Pan. A bit gritty as I blew it up so you could see the details.
On the other side through the arcade? Skull Rock!

Disneylands to come, in Tokyo then Paris, were designed with the crowd pleasing Peter Pan's Flight as a centerpiece to each respective Fantasyland. Only in Paris were the Imagineers smart enough to increase the rider capacity. However, even with larger pirate ships sailing into the night sky, guests continued to make the queue time one of the longest in the park. In fact, the lines to hop aboard are just as full in Japan and Paris as they are in Anaheim and Orlando!

Unrealized Tokyo Disneyland Peter Pan mini-land.
Courtesy photograph by Disney Geek.

Oddly, at Hong Kong Disneyland, Peter Pan's Flight never made the initial roster of opening day attractions. Quite strange, considering Hong Kong's history of being under British rule and given their knowledge of the culture. The only Brit represented there in China would be A. A. Milne's cuddly bear, Winnie the Pooh. He could be found as the star of his own dark ride next door to the 3D film, Mickey's Philharmagic. Whether Peter makes it to Shanghai Disneyland is yet to be revealed.

Perfectly maintained dark ride in - where else?- Tokyo.

In a perfectly designed kingdom, Peter Pan's Flight would be a full scale "E" Ticket attraction with a lengthy ride time. Yet, the shorter flight seems to require repeated trips to soak it all in. And guests continue to line up over and over again with each new generation. It's a rite of passage every bit as strong as a first flight with Dumbo or the first ride on Space Mountain.

Editor's note July 10: Here's a recently released piece of art showing the attraction as it will appear at Shanghai Disneyland. Seen on the far left... and a look at the pirate ships below.

Off to Neverland! Now departing from Mainland China!

Walt enjoying the fruits of his team's hard work.

Proving once again that a great story and near flawless execution are much more important than sheer mass, big thrills and excessive budgets, Peter Pan's Flight has held its own with Imagineering's "E" ticket attractions- for 60 years...and counting.

And now, a video of the new attraction!
Courtesy Mouse Info

(Art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

June 29, 2015

Art for Dragon's Challenge at Disney's Animal Kingdom

Unbuilt Disney attractions. Is there anything else that creates a high level of both curiosity and frustration among fans of Imagineering and the Disney theme parks? Not for me, especially in a Disney world where good enough often passes for excellence while the competition next door is turning out world class attractions.

Western River Expedition, Westcot, Discovery Bay and countless other unrealized gems are the backbone of discussions for armchair imaginers and would-be Disney Company CEOs. These are the things of myth and legend... and some great concept art!

Over at Disney's Animal Kingdom, long before Avatar made an impact on the physical landscape, plans were well under way for Beastly Kingdom, a land full of dragons, unicorns, and other animals of mythology. Effectively, this was to be the Fantasyland of the park, bringing dark rides, family friendly attractions, and a bit of the imaginary element promised for the park and reflected in its dedication by Michael Eisner:

Welcome to a kingdom of animals... real, ancient and imagined: a kingdom ruled by lions, dinosaurs and dragons; a kingdom of balance, harmony and survival; a kingdom we enter to share in the wonder, gaze at the beauty, thrill at the drama, and learn.
                          Michael D. Eisner, April 22, 1998

An intriguing entrance to the attraction.

The centerpiece attraction was to be Dragon's Challenge, a roller coaster thrill ride where guests encounter one of the largest Audio-Animatronic creatures ever built as they try to capture kingdom treasure long under guard this dangerous inhabitant.

The concept art that introduces this post supposedly shows the inside of the climax of the attraction. Honestly, there is some speculation it may not be really the work of Imagineers and instead is just the art drawn by a fan. Yet, the viewer can indeed get a better idea of the concept hat surely would have been a winner in guest satisfaction surveys. The two pieces that follow are well known paintings from Disney itself.

Will we ever see a Beastly Kingdom? Sadly, my guess is that we never will. Universal's Islands of Adventure, have very high profile thrill rides with Harry Potter and company that make good use of the dragons found in the books from which the attractions were derived. I believe its safe to say that Disney does not want to be seen as following the leader by repeating what's already been done. 

But the re-Imagining of Disney's Hollywood Studios park better be first class. The fact is, for many fans, Disney is already following the new leader. It is not going unnoticed by the Disney suits that folks are beginning to spend two or three days of their vacation at Universal instead of Walt Disney World. The lack of revenue- and the word of mouth about the great attractions found at their competition's parks- are creating issues in the House of Mouse. Nobody steals the treasure from that dragon!

(Art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

June 27, 2015

Love Wins

The United States Supreme Court has decided that same sex marriage is now legal in all 50 states. Those folks that are disagreeing with the decision say its not the court's place to decide or are opposed on grounds of their traditional understanding that God designed marriage for one man and one woman, referencing both the Old and New Testaments that make up the Bible.

Those celebrating the court's decision say "Love Wins", claiming marriage is only a legal bond between two people of any gender, and the availability of the institution should be made for all.

I say "Love Already Won". And it won two thousand years ago, when the supreme act of love was taken by Jesus Christ to die on the cross for the sin of all mankind, making a way to eternal life for all who would turn away from their sin, trust in Him and His work on the Cross before being raised from the dead, and choose to live a life that honors God by following the law he gave.

What constitutes civil rights will change from county to country, decade to decade. God's Word and his law are eternal - in fact through the Ten Commandments, He did legislate morality- and He does not change. 

In spite of where you stand on the issue of gay marriage, the most important question we will ever have to answer still remains: Jesus asks "Who do you say I am?" 

Your answer and the relationship you do or don't have with the creator of the universe, the only one who paid the price for your sin and mine, is the first and most important relationship you need to have settled. Everything else is important but secondary. 

How you handle this decision and how you love people, even those you disagree with,  will show whether or not real love has won in your life. End of story. 

Here's a good video from Dr. Michael Brown discussing God's love for ALL people, including the gay community. 20 Minutes worth your time- minus the slightly dorky music...

June 25, 2015

$1 Billion Investment into Disneyland Resort Pending

Ready for another $1 Billion to be pumped into the Disneyland Resort in Anaheim? I am!

Will it go to Disneyland or to its new finally successful sibling, Disney California Adventure or split into both? Perhaps its even for improvements to the resort district with additionally parking and all of the above.

The answer depends on the city of Anaheim and a new gate tax.

Read about it here for full details. But know this- if the city says no new tax, construction will start after plans are announced in December. Will this delay announcing plans at D23 or is this part of a game from Disney to get benefits from what they already plan to do? Who knows.

June 23, 2015

First Visit Ever To Disneyland!

Tomorrow my son-in-law ventures into Disneyland for his first visit ever to a Disney park. And what a year to go! Stay tuned for a unique trip report...

(Art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

June 22, 2015

The Definitive Ranking of Pixar Movies

Warmly, but with absolutely no apologies to Kelly Lawler at USA Today who posted a totally different list with the same title, here's my ranking of the greatest (and least) of Pixar films. With an agreement that we can all lovingly disagree, your list will probably vary:
You're cute but your story is too heavy handed.
15. Wall-E
A preachy, mostly charmingless tale of two robots with only eyes for each other. The human race be damned. I'll take my Starbucks and my computer when I choose, thank you very much.

Oh no, there's some, ugh bugs, to work out of the story.
14. A Bug's Life
Even for an attraction that has to use film as its main medium to tell a story, I find this Animal Kingdom attraction based on this movie pretty terrific. But then, it's only 6 minutes at best. This film is boring, boring, boring. Had it not followed up Toy Story, it would have flopped.

I am woman. Hear me roar.
13. Brave
Beautiful scenery. Good main character but undeveloped secondary ones. Convoluted tale of feminism. Merida does win points for being a strong female in spite of some bad choices to accomplish her independence and make her point.

In my beautiful balloon.
12. Up
The powerful but depressing opening scenes give way to a tale of two odd friends. There is so much potential but it's wasted as the story becomes a fantasy filled with speaking dogs and an entirely unnecessary villain. Kudos for using an old man as a lead character.

 I see dead batteries.
11. Cars 2
Loses some points for a less than original script, but the cars are lovable, making it a great daddy and son Saturday matinee movie. Not sure if chapter three is even necessary. Out of gas?

That was it?!?
10. Inside Out
There was much potential for this to be a truly great film. But as I said a few posts earlier, the film just isn't much fun. So much for the second wave of Pixar greatness... at least for now.

Who needs a dog when you have Bullseye?
9.  Toy Story 2
Terrific storyline and characters we all know and love. Jessie's sour attitude is quite annoying, but Bullseye saves the day. Ride on cowboys!

Frat brothers.
8.  Monsters University
What's not to love here? Collage age Mike and Sully are just as much fun as their older selves. If there ever was a buddy movie with plots twists and turns we didn't expect, this is it. Not quite as good as the original but every bit as creative.

Buddy movie of a different kind.
7.  Cars
Is is Doc Hollywood in car form? Sure, but that storyline has been told for decades. Owen Wilson is terrific as the lead ego propelled racer who learns the lessons of true friendship. A winning film for those who don't care about being politcally correct. Bonus points for being the film that produced one of the best "lands" from Disney Imagineering since New Orleans Square at Disneyland

You've got a franchise in me.
6.  Toy Story
The first and perhaps the best loved. Buzz Lightyear is a revelation.   Optimistic and lighthearted with a good dose of nostalgia tossed in. The heartstrings don't get fully pulled until two sequels later, but boy, what a tug!

Ah, Paris!
5.  Ratatouille
One of my personal favorites. The story is unexpected, the main characters strong, and the atmosphere and musical score totally mesmerizing. If you've been to Paris, you understand. 

Could strong fathers be a key to Pixar's success?
4.  Finding Nemo
A strong loving father and a special needs son that both find their way home. You have to have a heart of stone to not like this film. Populated with an oceanful of great characters.

Who says you have to be young to be cool?
3.  The Incredibles
A Pixar film for adults that have survived (and thrived through) a midlife crisis. Discovering yourself and your partner amidst marriage drama, changing bodies, and the sometimes joyless responsibilities of being a parent. Sophisticated stuff for an animated film made enjoyable by a great plot line and dazzling environments. The perfect Pixar film for a series. Can't wait for the second one!

Is it just me or should this be a Disney roller coaster attraction?
2.  Monsters Inc.
Billy Crystal in the part he was designed for! Turning an old story on its head, Monsters Inc. creates a charming world all its own. One we are sad to leave when the time comes. 

It's ok- we've all grown up, Andy.
1.  Toy Story 3
By the time this film came out, the characters were beloved world over. The climax of the film is as gripping as anything Disney has ever done. It's at that moment we viewers realized these characters had a well earned place in our lives. The art of storytelling at its Pixar best.

(Art copyright Disney/Pixar.)

June 19, 2015

Inside Out = Upside Down

Pixar Disney's Inside Out is one clever movie. The overall concept is rather unique, (although director Pete Docter must be familiar with Epcot's Cranium Command), the execution is very creative, and the film itself is filled with heartwarming moments. Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Mindy Kaling, and Bill Hader do a terrific job with what they are given. 

The problem with the film is, it just isn't much fun. The serious nature of the storyline brings memories of the depressing and eventually off the rails story of Up, but thankfully without the preachiness of Wall-e.  

What could have been a great movie ends up being serviceable. It's definitely not one worth waiting in line for to buy tickets. Save a viewing for a rental night.

(Art copyright Pixar / Disney.)

June 12, 2015

Top Ten Disney Park Moments

When you're a huge Disney park fan such as I am, you look around at the condition and quality of the Stateside Disney parks and sometimes wistfully yearn for days in the past when the company was truly cutting edge and fully invested in creating the ultimate experience for its guests. That doesn't mean there haven't been huge successes recently, the revamp of California Adventure comes to mind- but in too many other areas, the Company has failed at home in spite of some great concepts developed by the Imagineers.

Why do we look backwards? Often it is because we are used to being flabbergasted by what's been created by the folks who used to be best in the business. And we hold on dearly to those sweet, sometimes inspiring, memories that we've made. It is in that spirit that I present my personal Top Ten Disney Park Moments (in chronological order):

Wow, just wow!

July 1975- Taking the boats across the Seven Seas Lagoon, seeing Cinderella Castle for the first time, long before we arrived at the dock to go to the Magic Kingdom. I was just a teen, but the impression was so strong that my attachment to Walt Disney World became just as powerful as the one I had to Walt's Original Kingdom. That's saying something from a guy who considers himself an Orange County California boy.

July 1981- Visiting Club 33 at Disneyland with my girlfriend (now wife). It was the perfect birthday gift, and one that has never been able to be repeated. My father in law worked for Kodak, and they had a corporate membership. Little did she know then that her life would be filled with Disney moments.

If You Had Wings was just around the corner. Photographer unknown.

April 1982- Walking the grounds of the Polynesian Village on our honeymoon. It wasn't the focus of our trip, (that was the Bahamas), but it was the first two days. We absolutely loved the gorgeous Electrical Water Pageant, Liberty Square, and of course, If You Had Wings.

In its original incarnation, EPCOT Center was my favorite Disney theme park.

April 1983- Returning a year later but this time for a whole week, we couldn't wait to see the first (and best until Tokyo Disney Sea) non-castle Disney park. Taking the Walt Disney World monorail through EPCOT Center the night before we would go in the park, I couldn't imagine what it could be like. World Showcase lit up beautifully, Future World gleamed even before Horizons, and the next day could not come soon enough. We were not disappointed.

Photo copyright The Walt Disney Company.

May 1989- Taking our children to Walt Disney World for the first time. Three little ones were surprised by the adventure as they went with Daddy on his business trip. A stay at the Caribbean Beach and the opening of the Disney-MGM Studios. What a week of fun!

A beautiful day to explore the world's most beautiful Magic Kingdom. 
One of three trips to Disneyland Paris taken in three different seasons.
(Photo by Mark Taft.)

October 1998- The first view of the castle as we walked down Main Street U.S.A. at Disneyland Paris. Our family (now with three teens and an 8 year old) snagged $99 each way tickets from Denver to London. Absolutely, we would not miss Paris and Disney's first European theme park. Just being in Europe as a family was the "E Ticket", but the part itself was everything it was promoted to be. Still the world's most beautiful Magic Kingdom.

Photo copyright Mark Taft.

October 1999- The Tree of Life at Disney's Animal Kingdom. This family trip included a close friend of ours. The kids were old enough to stay in the room one night while we went our for dinner.  A new Disney theme park, a beautiful one, but woefully short in attractions.

We still love Epcot- but not as much as the original EPCOT Center.
Photo copyright Mark Taft.

February 2009- A trip for husband and wife alone. After many years, the World seemed fairly fresh again. Dinner and fireworks at the California Grill restaurant at the top of the Contemporary Resort. Watching the Magic Kingdom via the telescope. A stay at the Port Orleans Riverside resort was just the ticket to a relaxing few days. Now, that restaurant is one of my favorite places to eat- but its not the food (mostly good), but it is the location that draws me. 

Photo copyright Mark Taft.

October 2012- Catching the view of Cars Land for the first time as I walked under the rock work arch from the Pacific Wharf at California Adventure. I was alone this trip but absolutely amazed. The Imagineers still had it. If the suits would let them. Perhaps my favorite land at the Disneyland Resort. That or New Orleans Square. Now, it's a tough choice. 

Well, thanks to my job and all my miles, we've been able to have some great adventures. These are my Top Ten Moments, all without actually being there and riding an attraction. By the way, did you notice there were only nine? I'm reserving Number Ten for when the time comes that we take take our  grandchildren to Disneyland for their first visit.