March 31, 2017

California Without Disneyland

Southern California but no Disneyland. For a Disney theme park lover, is a good time even possible? The answer is yes- absolutely!

Let's start with perennial favorite (get it?), Roger's Gardens in Newport Beach. Not only is it home to the original Disneyland bandstand, it's just a beautiful place to explore. 

The indoor and outdoor rooms are filled with blooms and style. I particularly loved the "book nook" with its archway spanning across the width of the walls. This photo above, does not do it justice. You've got to see it for yourself.


In the old Orange Circle, just about a block or two away from Chapman College, is a brand new and incredibly tasty Mexican restaurant- Gabby's. It's not cheap- but then the area has become very trendy- yet the food is a fresh and flavorful take on what could be cuisine taken for granted in Southern California. The main room and bar take you to another place and time. An artistic and culinary triumph. The chips and salsa are winners too. A necessary great beginning to a very, very good meal.

The very top photo and the directly one above are taken at Pacific City, a new outdoor shopping center literally across the street from the roaring surf of Huntington Beach. It was a perfect California dream day- just right for a cup of coffee while taking in the view... and dreaming of days gone by when we lived there.

A lemon tree blooms in early March? Must be California!

You're looking at my in-laws back yard and their fully fruited lemon tree. Between this, gardenia, and ever blooming red and pink bougainvillea, not to mention eternally sunny days, I always ask myself "Why did I move?"

Fun in Palm Springs.

Onto Palm Springs. Even though its only an hour and a half away, there are so many diversions in this desert town, it feels like a whole new state and an entirely different culture. This fire pit in the gardens of a retro styled hotel resort - Parker in Palm Springs -made for a perfect end to an incredible meal nearby.

OK, we snuck away to Downtown Disney for an hour one night before we departed the O.C. It was crowded, lively, and just great fun. Even without a visit to Disneyland or California Adventure

For those of you who have never ventured outside of the Disney parks, there's a whole new world out there. Go explore it!

(Photographs copyright Mark Taft.)

March 30, 2017

2017 Milky Way Tour

This time of the year marks the beginning of Milky Way season for photographers and astronomy lovers alike. Confession time, prior to delving into picture taking, I rarely looked up at the skies and couldn't tell you the Big Dipper from a hole in my shoe!

But once I started shooting sunset/sunrise landscapes, I began noticing these incredible pictures of the Milky Way on the internet. As a novice, my initial thought was these images were taken with high end telescope cameras or some such doo-hickey beyond my reach. Then one of my friends posted a MW pic taken in Hawaii with camera gear that was equivalent to what I currently use. After further research, I find out that not only is MW photos possible for most folks, but that Hawaii is one of the best places to shoot due to less light pollution and advantageous weather conditions.

The image that headlines this post was my first attempt at Makapu'u Beach last year.  I was really happy with my first attempt and it even made a blogger's post, "80 Things to Do On Oahu-the Bucket List" at #59 ( I did a few more, but not as much as I would have liked. I tried my hand at photographing it above the lava on the Big Island, but it proved less than spectacular (although I'm going back to give it another try).

I promised myself I would go full speed this year,  marketing my determination as the "Milky Way Tour" for 2017! Much like a touring artist, I envisioned specific dates and locations to mark each shooting event.  

On March 25, I headed out to Kualoa Beach Park to photograph MW over Mokoli'i Island or as locals lovingly refer to as "Chinaman's Hat". I notice the Mokoli'i name used more often nowadays, quite possibly due to political correctness. While "chinaman" does have a derogatory connotation, it was never used in that manner in describing the island. Hawaii's melting pot culture really allowed races to experience and appreciate the uniqueness and difference that each nationality brought to the table. This familiarity also fostered friendly teasing  about these differences without taking offense. Thus Chinaman's Hat remains an affectionate and nostalgic term for many of the locals. What I thought was going to be a solo endeavor ended up a group affair with me encountering a dozen or so fellow photographers with the same idea...hah!

After grabbing four hours of sleep, followed by a full day of chores and errands, I somehow managed to pull myself out of bed and head out to Lanai Lookout at 3:00 am the next morning. The plan was to meet fellow shooters there in the parking lot, but the area was so dark that I did not see one single person. I knew they were out there from the various camera lights shining in the dark. Clouds, which are a photog's best friend at sunrise/sunset, is a major boon (along with a full moon) when shooting MW. Undaunted, I headed out to the parking lot and hoped for spots of clear skies. Prior to heading down the cliff, I spotted these two warning signs and knew immediately it might make for cool foreground imagery. The signs are actually white and yellow, but in a stroke of sheer luck, a passing car was slowing down and flashing his brake. The lights were enough to give the signs a nice reddish glow, giving the image a more ominous feel as the Milky Way stretches out into the distance.  

Because it was a three day weekend, I journeyed out to Hawaii Kai on Monday to shoot a carnival from a distance. The destination was Kuliouou Park, a duck sanctuary, that provides a variety of beach textures due to low tides (my wife and I took our dogs out there on Saturday where they were literally running and playing a good distance out from shore). While there, I saw the carnival from afar and knew it might make a pretty cool shot at sunset. And man, was the sunset amazing on Monday, only in the opposite direction...LOL! I kept moving my camera back and forth like a loony Daffy Duck, trying to capture the setting sun in the west, and the fading lights over the carnival in the east. What I ended up doing is replacing the sky over the carnival with a MW composite shot later in the evening. I must have shot nearly five hundred images over those three days and walked away with four good shots. But for me, it's the final product that matters, so I'm pretty happy.

Heading out to the Big Island this weekend for a long overdue vacation. I'm bringing my gear, so I don't expect it will be fully restful. Let the 2017 Milky Way Tour continue!

 (Photographs copyright 2017 by Len Yokoyama. All rights reserved)

A Handful of Family Photos

Stumbled upon some old family photos as we were doing a bit of Spring clean up and improvements. So, these are for the family, telling stories very old and much newer.

Before some big life changes. 
Never to be just a family of four again.

Cute little grandson. Or is that Grover?

Bearded one a few years back.

First trip to Florida. 

My wife's parents' 50th wedding anniversary.

More coming one day, I'm sure!

(Photographs copyright Mark Taft.)

March 29, 2017

What Will Save Hong Kong Disneyland? Pirates?

Think Pirates of the Caribbean, and exactly what do you think about? The new film series? The stunning new film based Disney park attraction in Shanghai Disneyland? Did you think about a groundbreaking land full of attractions at Hong Kong Disneyland? I didn't think so.

But the Imagineers did! Here's a great piece of concept art by the very gifted Tim Delaney to show such a place was on the radar for the little park that should have opened grander than it did. 

Was it truly just a bit of Bargain Basement Imagineering that led to the small roster of attractions at opening or was it early planning for Shanghai Disneyland that brought about attraction interruptus? In some ways, it's not beyond imagination to think that there was no way the Chinese government was going to let the former British colony be home to such a grand Magic Kingdom when one should be preeminent in an ancient mainland city.

Regardless of the reason behind it, the beautiful little park is now struggling to survive. Is Disney going to pull a Disneyland Paris here, letting it come to near ruin before they swoop in?  Probably not. The Chinese don't play as nice as the French or the Japanese. Make no mistake however, whether it is Frozen or Marvel or something entirely different, if the park is going to survive, it needs more than just one new unique attraction the quality of Mystic Manor! Perhaps Pirates...

(Art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

March 27, 2017

Beauty and the Beast: A Skeptic's View

It's not a perfect remake of a near perfect film, but it is very close to it. Disney's new live action version Beauty and the Beast is easily the most compelling of the remake lot, including the winning adaption of Cinderella. I'm reminded here of Director Bill Condon's comment -"I just thought it was the most beautiful and perfect movie. Why remake something that's perfect?" Good question, and it's one fans should be asking about every Disney animated into live action conversion. Regardless of all the press, I had to see it for myself and make up my own mind.

The film is aimed at teens and older. It's in an entirely different league than the animated classic, much gruffer and grittier with fewer humorous elements. Much more akin to Beastly, the more modern (2011) take on the tale as old as time. It is not for young children. Darker, moodier, more violent, and just plain adult in theme, the emotional complexities of death, war, and disease are not your normal topics for a kid film, yet they are subtle but key elements to this story that are missing from the original.

As a big fan of the original, the differences were very noticeable, and they began with the new narration and opening sequence. Effective but very different, signaling clearly that this is not the  animated film of days gone by. The music reflects this transition as well. The score feels dark, with the arrangements and performances less buoyant and bright. Even the upbeat numbers reveal more than a twinge of desperation under the surface.

In this version, it's less important that these characters can sing well than it was in the animated film, especially one that followed up The Little Mermaid, the film that was the beginning of Disney's animation rebirth. Now, years later, this new story is so powerful and such an accomplishment that it wouldn't have needed to be a musical at all- even though fans of the original would be disappointed. That said, of all the vocal pieces, Dan Stevens' solo, the new Evermore, is unexpected- a simply beautiful standout performance. But more on the music later.

Smart, beautiful, and a stunning voice.

A very fine portrayal of Belle- even without Paige O'Hara's great pipes.

This is a movie where Disney's promotional machine was clearly out of touch with reality in more than a few key points- or at least it became obvious they were attempting to manipulate the potential audience. Let's start with our leads. If you've read this blog, you know I was not a fan of Emma Watson playing the iconic lead character. I saw her as too young, too boyish, and lacking elegance and maturity. Additionally, the entire cast including Ms. Watson herself made it seem as if this Belle was a revelation, when in fact, she was no more of a groundbreaking role model than before. The hype machine made me believe Belle had become strident, domineering, and overbearing. Ugh. 

In reality, her performance was delightfully nuanced and increasingly rich as the film progressed. Watson displayed a convincing vulnerability in all the key spots. This was so necessary to making her Belle lovable. I found her even charming and warm- something I did not expect. You heard it first- her adequate singing aside- I was wrong. She was terrific, winning me over by the time she explored the West Wing. As much as I love Paige O'Hara's voice, I equally appreciate Emma Watson's portrayal of my favorite Disney heroine.  

More of a klutz.

More mature but still unsure any girl could love a beast.

In the animated film, Beast was a fairly one-dimensional character. He's moderately more developed here but still secondary to Belle and Gaston in time allotted on screen. A bit more of Beast's backstory unfolds, and it is to the new film's advantage, particularly when it comes to developing his budding romance with the village girl. 

There are more not so subtle changes. His Beast is a well read adult with a dry sense of humor and more mature, with an overall better understanding of relationships. This must be partially due to the fact he was not restricted to breaking the curse before he reached the age of 21- certainly a concession to Dan Stevens being quite a bit older. One small gripe- I do wish Beast had thought of giving her the library as in the original. It may have displayed some of his growth in truly understanding his woman. Strengths aside, Beast is still full of rage and melancholy, but there's got to be a downside if you're rich, handsome, and have an absolute killer of a castle. Right? 

Much to his credit, Dan Stevens' beautiful performance is intentionally understated, not only strengthening his position as the moody and mysterious leading man but also showing his commitment to the success of the story, allowing others to take center stage for the benefit of all.  

Personal confession time- half way through writing this post, I stopped to watch the animated version while the new release was still fresh in my mind. This only reinforced what I had witnessed: Comparisons to the animated version couldn't be avoided, but from a practical sense, they are two very different movies and need to retreated as such.

Here Gaston is vain, dumb, and evil.

Now he's vain, wounded, and even more evil.

Much has been made of the biggest variation of all- LeFou and his man crush on Gaston. I'll definitely make an observation here, but it's more important to first discuss the character portrayals by the actors. Truly, Luke Evans is Gaston. He now owns the role, and I doubt if anyone else will ever be able to match him in a live action version. 

Long before Frozen, Disney broke new ground in animation by making the story's villain physically appealing. Now, Gaston's character is taken a step further as his background is told during key places in the action. He doesn't illicit sympathy, but we understand a bit more of why he is who he is. While he does not have the strength of singing voice as Richard White from the animated version, Evans more than compensates by bringing greater depth to what could be a stereotyped villain. Even if Evans vocal performance feels lacking in the tavern's opening musical number, he does sound more convincing and relaxed on the reprise of his self-titled song, even more so later when he convinces the townspeople its time to get rid of his competition. Again, this trade off is a small price to pay for such a powerfully stunning  performance.

Gaston's initially charming personality gives way to outright evil, gradually increasing with every scene and culminating in his treatment of Maurice and the murder of Beast. Chilling. Powerful. And perfect for this adult treatment of the fairy tale. Like many folks, Gaston never realizes the depth of his pain and brokenness, unlike Beast who longs for forgiveness and another chance to redeem his life. In this way, Beast tells everyman's story. We all have regrets of choices we've made, and we wish we could go back and change them. We ask ourselves, "What benefit did we reap at that time from the things we are now ashamed of?" And we understand those things result in despair and even death of sorts. Loss of innocence. Loss of trusting in our own way. These very mature themes of redemption come into play here in the film, making good fodder for discussion. (If you want to read about the original thought and creation behind Beast, read the animator's story here.)

I find Josh Gad's portrayal of the loyal sidekick LeFou to be a disservice to gay men. His flamboyant posturing and over the top personality is a gay cliche' at best, a parody, and I find it to be insulting. I've had a few gay friends, and not one fits the stereotype shown here. It is the totally wrong presentation for Hollywood to assert on traditional values America. The film clumsily attempts to let LeFou redeem himself by the end, but the underdeveloped effort falls flat, leaving LeFou to be an even bigger villain of a different sort: a coward. It would have been better for Bill Condon to stand by the original reading of the character.

The "gay moment" has been overplayed by both sides of the media and some of the cast and crew. Honestly, if you blink, it's over. The Liberal side has cheered and championed it all- and they fell right into the marketeers' hands by ensuring they would spend their dollars (and yen and euros etc.) to see the movie. Frankly, they took the bait. There's nothing to be proud of here, and as I have written above, how the character is portrayed is certainly not worth celebrating. Not in the least. He's just as lost as Gaston.

The Conservative side of America has bemoaned LeFou's character and mostly avoided seeing an excellent film worthy of so much praise. In addition, unfortunately, too many sources claimed scenes in the film that never materialized, and some readers took the bait as well. Frankly, this angers me even more. As a Christian, the most we are called to is Truth and Love (Jesus said He is The Way, The Truth, and The Life, and no one comes to God the Father but through Him). Shouldn't believers in the media adhere to a standard of being truthful? Actually, shouldn't all members of the media try to be truthful?

Regardless of the end result, the inclusion of LeFou being gay makes this a film for mature teens and adults. Again, these themes are not for small children who cannot understand the varied and numerous complexities associated with human sexuality, sickness, war and death. Each parent and not the media should be making the choices of when and how to educate their children with the values they hold as the ones responsible for their upbringing.

In watching the animated film immediately after seeing this one, I noticed just how many kid friendly segments were removed from the new version. Before, Chip almost functions as on screen narrator, asking questions of his mother that young viewers would need the answers for to follow the plot and have the characters actions make sense. The earlier film did not avoid LeFou's lifestyle. In fact, it made a slight reference to LeFou's potential sexual desires. Remember him walking down the tavern aisle in that mock wedding to Gaston? He seemed perfectly fine playing the bride. It was subtle, but it was there. All said, the amount of evil, violence, and the mature themes alone make the film anything but a Saturday matinee for the little ones- even if there was no "gay moment". For every other reason but including this one, I wouldn't bring my young children to this film. It's an excellent for an older audience and geared toward them. 

Loyal servants and true friends.

Perhaps my largest disappointment in the film was the minimal use of the very charming secondary characters. I particularly wanted to see more of Kevin Kline. Beyond being almost unnecessary to advancing the story, there were plenty of adult savvy comments made by Cogsworth ("Flowers, chocolates, promises you don't intend to keep") and Lumiere in the original that are missing here. They are not needed due to its already serious tone, but they were missed. I appreciated Mrs. Potts words regarding their commitment to the master and their part in making him who he was- and the chance to do it differently this time. Again, the multi-faceted complexities of adult relationships are in full display here, and that is to be celebrated.

Worthy of and faithful to the original.

Upon hearing of the live action remake of my favorite animated film, I was very curious as to how Disney would handle such iconic musical numbers, especially "Be Our Guest". I am pleased to report that it was delightful and fully worthy of praise for how it was handled. Lively, charming, and faithful to the original without concession to the more serious nature of the rest of the movie. In fact, it was a very needed break, one of the few pieces where humor was injected.  

The gang's all here.

Although darker, far more complex, and certainly less kid-friendly, faithful fans of Disney animated films have nothing to fear here. The studio's remake of this classic is more than admirably handled, a few quibbles aside. Go in with your eyes open, as well as your heart. Go see it, and judge for yourself. You'll find much to like and much to discuss. The new version not only displays the meaning of real beauty, acceptance, and love, it also reveals the unchanging nature of a fallen mankind and a chance for redemption. These eternal truths, which have made the story an enduring classic for generations, are presented in a powerful, beautiful, and creative way. 

Count me in as a converted skeptic. 

(Photographs and art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

March 24, 2017

Behold the Theme Park Sphere

Love Epcot? Me, too. There's just so much creativity and charm mixed in with all that positive, forward focused thinking. That said, the park's iconic centerpiece, Spaceship Earth, is far from an original thought.

The top photo of Expo 1967- Montreal (from Imagineering Disney) reveals those amazing Disney Imagineers were not the first to recognize and adapt the power and style of the sphere as an icon. Nor would it be the last.

Europa Park, Germany (photographer unknown)

Epcot's landmark sphere was copied almost directly at Europa Park in Germany. Opening in 1989, only a few years after Disney's park, this slightly shorter building houses the Eurosat coaster. Hmm. A coaster fully enclosed in the dark.

Time Racers to replace Spaceship Earth.

Where have we heard that? Oh yes, it was part of the Imagineer's planned redesign for Spaceship Earth, a coaster called Time Racers, back when Future World was to become Discoveryland. As you can see, designers gain inspiration from each other. It really works both ways.

Futurescope, Paris, France (photographer unknown)

Just a few hundred miles west in Paris, another theme park sphere shows up. Futurescope, celebrating the power and influence of film, also uses the mighty sphere to make a powerful statement. No metallic triangles, but just as striking with its smooth exterior. The use of the sphere is not limited to Europe, however.

World Energy Expo 2017, Astana, Kazakhstan

Here's a new sphere in the theme park / exposition landscape. On the other side of the world in Kazakhstan, Central Asia's largest sphere will debut this year as the centerpiece building of the World Energy Expo in Astana. The concept art above appears to present a transparent structure- certainly a first.

1964 World's Fair, New York, USA

Let's close out our brief look at the theme park sphere with three lovely if not fully realized parks. Directly above, the 1964 New York World's Fair's 12 story Unisphere. Any Disney park fan with a small bit of knowledge of the company's history knows this World's Fair hosted a multitude of Disney attractions. Everything from It's A Small World to the Carousel of Progress. With President Lincoln and dinosaurs in between. The success of the Disney attractions paved the way for the decision to build Walt Disney World.

EPCOT Center 1981, Orlando, USA

The next theme park sphere holds a very special place in my heart. Epcot's Spaceship Earth. Not only is it an absolutely stunning piece of architecture, it reminds me of the very first brand new Disney park my wife and I ever toured together. We'd been married just a year when we first visited. And my very first glance of it was from the monorail just shortly before park closing. A beautiful, balmy Florida evening in late March 1983. Our future looked as bright as the park did. (Over time, we have fared much better than the park!)

One last theme park sphere to explore.

Proposed Westcot, Anaheim, USA (unbuilt)

The unbuilt Westcot. This was what Disney promised and never delivered as Anaheim's second park. A grander refreshed version of Epcot for the West Coast. Would have loved it! Instead, we got California Adventure 1.0 to satisfy the massive Disney fan base. (There was even a version of Epcot proposed for France, but that's for another story.) Speaking of Westcot, I'm reminded I still need to finish that story...

(Disney artwork copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

March 23, 2017

Treasure Trove of Rare Imagineering Art

Note: I ran the piece below a couple of years ago. Now that the official Disney Parks Blog has changed its structure, it's harder to get such great pieces of Imagineering art. Thought I'd repost just for fun. Enjoy while it lasts!

Fans of Imagineering concept art would do well to keep an eye on the official Disney blog. Earlier this week, the blog ran a series of pieces celebrating their participation in the 1964 World's Fair fifty years ago. All the pieces posted today, sans one, are that individual day's website banners. (The above piece is my favorite of the bunch.) I am sure full sized art exists and that these are only slices to fit the web. Not that I mind. I'll take what I can get!

Historians correctly note that the public's response to Disney at the fair was the proving grounds to see if a Disneyland styled park and resort would be a hit should one be built on the East Coast. The results spoke for themselves, as Disney's work on four pavilion's were among the most popular.

EPCOT Center's CenterCore or the 1964 World's Fair?

Ford's "Magic Skyway" was one of the most popular attractions. Guests cruised in automobiles back in time to the world of dinosaurs. If the concept seems much like EPCOT Center's beloved World of Motion, well it is. The Future World attraction, sponsored by General Motors (and with an incredibly good voiceover tour by Gary Owens) used several variations on the same theme. If you look at the concept piece directly above, you may see the inspiration the ending of the attraction as guests cruised into CenterCore, the city of the future.

You can even see some similarities between the entrance to the EPCOT attraction and what was built for the Fair. In each, the cars were shown to guests as a draw into the attraction, moving in a circular path. If something works, there's no need to reinvent the wheel.

Each of these attractions would return from the fair back to Disneyland in one form or another. Magic Skyway was represented as part of the now Grand Canyon /Primeval World diorama (dinorama?)

Unfortunately, for most of the art shown on the Disney blog, there is no artist information made available for any of these pieces. (Imagineer Mary Blair's pieces-below- are instantly recognizable for It's a Small World collectionhowever!) Regardless, they do make a nice addition to my collection!

Love it or hate it, It's A Small World was a fan favorite from day one when it made its debut at the fair. The Pepsi show had it all- charm, warmth, and great atmosphere- not to mention the iconic song. I'm particularly fond of the forward looking color scheme in the second piece.

When it came to designing the attraction for Florida's Magic Kingdom, could it be the Imagineers looked at the piece above as inspiration for the new ending? The carousel and ferris wheel make the perfect setting for a playful conclusion- but not for a theme park.

Third on today's list: Carousel of Progress or Progressland as it was called at the fair. The innovative attraction traveled to California and landed in Tomorrowland in 1967. It was a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow for the extensive re-Imagineering of the Land of the Future.

Lincoln. Abraham Lincoln. The State of Illinois hired Disney to bring this remarkable one man show for visitors from all over the world. After a few problems, he performed perfectly, proving to Imagineering that they could in fact pull off human characters so convincingly. In the last couple of decades, the Disney suits thought about removing Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln more than once- including replacing this patriotic masterpiece with a new home for the Muppets. I'm sure Walt Disney was turning over in his grave! Wiser heads prevailed, and after a strange attempt at renovation, Tony Baxter was given the job to update the show. True to form, he handled it with impeccable style and restraint. 

As I said at the beginning, keep your eyes on the Disney blog. In the meantime, if you want to hear and see more about Disney at the Fair, order the boxed set. It's well worth the money!

Lastly, make sure you come back May 1st as the Insights and Sounds blog celebrates the 25th Anniversary of Disney's Hollywood Studios. I was there opening month, so this post is filled with photos, concept art, and a history of the park- with a few trip reports along the way through in for good measure. It's the longest, largest post I think I've ever written.

(Art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)