June 30, 2018

Disney World After A Decade Away: Day Three - Epcot

Our second (and last day) at Epcot occurred on the third day of our trip. The kid's favorite park, the Magic Kingdom, would comprise the next to come. Therefore the photograph seen above is from the day before, a clear misrepresentation of our activities. But it's a darn nice photo with a story all it's own. More on that later.

With an early morning Fast Pass of 8:30am the next day for the Magic Kingdom's arguably most popular attraction, Splash Mountain, we'd have to plan our last Epcot day really well in order to be rested for the morning. With two little kids, the whole game plan changes. No complaints here, though. We love being with them! All four of them.

The only way to travel to Epcot.

In my mind, there's only one great way to get to Epcot, and that's via the monorail from the Transportation and Ticket Center. Love, love, love seeing the park from that elevation. The problem is, unless you're staying at the hotels on that circuit, you've got to do a little work to get there. But it was worth it. The lagoon sparkles from that high, the countries seem inviting, and guests riding the "Highway in the Sky" get a great idea of the vastness of the park. 

We arrived in the park a bit later than we planned, making me wonder if we could still use our first Fast Pass of the day. We were almost thirty minutes late to the hard to get Test Track, and I'd heard some horror stories compared to showing up late at Disneyland for your reserved spot. Turned out, it wasn't a problem, and our second ride was just as much fun as the first.

A nice perk in Future World.

Gotta admit here- I needed a cup of Joe, and I wasn't the only one. Off to both Club Cool (for all of us), and then a stop at Starbucks (for the adults). I find Club Cool very fun. Really fun, actually, and certainly worth ten or fifteen minutes or more to look around and taste some strange and incredible flavors of Coke products all over the world- and all for free. I expect this to go away by the time Future World gets its makeover.

My son-in-law was particularly excited to drink Inca Cola (I think that was the name) as he'd first had it while serving the people of Peru during a mission trip. I enjoyed all the melon flavors, and even the infamous Beverly from Italy was better than I remembered. I'm a gin and tonic guy, so maybe my taste buds have moved to move bitter flavors as I've gotten older. The kids loved the whole experience as they're always game for trying something new.

Still needed my coffee, and I really did not want to wait in that line, but we did. Another surprise of excellent and speedy service. 

Take note of this- after a couple of days in the parks, today was the first time I purchased something for myself. An Epcot Starbucks "You are Here" mug. Too cool to pass up as I have the original one already, a gift from my daughter after their first trip. Where was all the really great and unique stuff to buy? In days past, I had no problem finding souvenirs that had to come home with me. Not this trip.

With all the changes, I was glad to see this original park mural.

Now that we had some hot liquid in us, it was time for something to eat, but that Fast Pass thing meant a delay to ride Spaceship Earth first before the time limit expired. The grand old gal still holds up well- no, not Judi Dench, the attraction. Pretty sure it would have been a disastrous decision to replace this with the once proposed Time Racers roller coaster. (Really, don't believe me, look here for some concept art of a transformed Future World. Don't forget to enlarge the image.) But then again, the Universe of Energy is (misguidedly) becoming a Guardians of the Galaxy roller coaster, so what do I know? 

Guttenberg's printing press changed the world,
bring God's Word, the Bible, to all.

The experience into the sphere is just classic EPCOT Center. Great Imagineering of old. Thankfully, the suits have some respect left for those who came before them, mostly choosing to leave the iconic attraction alone. Yes, the descent is truly horrid. Really bad and just uninspired. Hopefully that will change done day soon. Yet, nothing in all of Future World is as epic to me as this landmark ride. Is it fast? No. Is it cutting edge? No longer. Is is great? Yeah!

Hopefully the Ratatouille expansion will mean 
more terrific places to grab a bite.

Time for a bit of food, and France won the draw- easily. Wasn't breakfast, and it was way too early for lunch, but we truly needed a snack to hold us over until our 3pm reservations. Again, crowded but fast, and delicious food! My daughter's Quiche Lorraine was a standout, easily matching the delicate and distinct flavors of Paris. (She really knows what to order in a restaurant!) The cast members were friendly and even a bit talkative, taking time to engage the kids at their level. Again, very old school Disney. The grandkids themselves are quite relaxed speaking to adults, and politely and sweetly responded, keeping the conversation going. 

Being in World Showcase already, I was thrilled for a bit of time there. Of course, we weren't the kids, and although they didn't complain, we realized at their ages, there really isn't a lot for them. There were the Kidcot Fun Stop stations, where coloring pages were the order of the day. We didn't do these. We did keep exploring, pointing out the interesting things to look at all around. There's really only a few rides, so I certainly understand the need for some in theme attractions on the side of the lagoon in the U.K. and France. There's the two boat cruises so close to each other in Mexico and Norway, and then not another ride to be found in World Showcase. (Attractions, shows and character greetings, yes. Rides no.)

Were additional rides planned? Yes. Germany's Rhine River cruise, rumors of gondolas for Italy, a Mt. Fuji thrill ride (inspired by Disneyland's Matterhorn) and Meet the World theater show for Japan were all once on the docket but never built. Instead the suits let the park wilt away, preferring to rely on the Food and Wine Festival and other events to draw in the crowds. Bad move, and with the successful competition of Harry Potter attractions at Universal, they've finally seen the error of this mindset- even if it is only the financial loss they took.  Finally, new attractions are coming to this side of the park. (Thank you, Universal! Keep the pressure on.)

Since the suits have recently committed to Ratatouille, that will help bring some variety. I'm not thrilled about the cartoon invasion of Epcot, but I do understand it to some degree. (The suits did not ask for or take my bold suggestions on how to save Epcot. I wish they had.) As of this date in time, the Rat film is my favorite of the Pixar movies, and I am happy I'll find a trackless adventure with Remy to enjoy. Honestly, though, I wish they had let the gifted Imagineers go through with those non-character rides and saved the characters for the Magic Kingdom. Since this is the chosen direction, at least Ratatouille fits its location.  

More Italy- at least more pizza- but no gondolas.

Admittedly, I am really looking forward to a charming, music filled dark ride of Mary Poppins in the U.K. pavilion. It's about time she's honored with an attraction. After all, it's one of Disney's landmark films and one of the most loved. (More details about Imagineer Tony Baxter's original concept can be found here.) It's what will come next that concerns. If the announced Future World additions are any indication, eventually only the settings for the attractions will differenciate this park from the Magic Kingdom. (Post trip, I found myself thinking about how I would build Epcot, particularly World Showcase. I thought about sharing it as part of my trip report. However, instead I'll save it for a separate post. No doubt I'd have been great Imagineer!)

The lightest crowd we saw all day.

We spent a good part of our day exploring the World. The crowds were heavier than our first day visit, and the weather much hotter, so we tried to get inside a few more shops as we toured. The bazaar in Morocco was fun, and the candy shop in Germany was packed with people anxious to buy sweets.

One of our great plans was to let our daughter and son-in-law have a date while we took the kids. (Or was it us who wanted the date with our grandkids?) They chose an Epcot day and a chance for a meal in one of the restaurants in World Showcase. After much deliberation, they chose Canada's Le Cellier. (An excellent choice in my mind.) We decided for our date, a meal inside the German Biergarten with a live band sounded like fun.

Afternoon heat brings cute rosy faces ready for the AC!

We all opted for a late afternoon meal, and went our separate ways, but planned to meet up later in the evening. It had been much more than a couple of decades since we ate at the Biergarten, and I had heard mixed reviews on the food. The fun aspect of it all was the deciding factor.

"Date night" with Grandma and Grandpa.

Gladly, there was nothing to be concerned about! My meal was just first class! I tried the schnitzel, the meatballs, the ham, the salads and the vegetables. All absolutely delicious. (So were the desserts!)

My good friend Len Yokoyama told me it has been years since he photographed this location. I tried my best to get some good shots for him, but in this area, I failed miserably. Sorry, Len. Rest assured not much has changed from what I can tell. When you do get there again, I know you'll get much better shots than I did.

Do not miss this meal and show!

The restaurant was less than a third full it seemed, but it didn't stop the band from going all out. What a great show it was! The band put their hearts into it, making it fun for both adults and children. We discovered from talking to some of the staff that many of these performers were part of the original team that came from Germany to serve in Florida back at the park's opening year. Wow!

Who is having more fun?

We also discovered that you can stay on beyond the meal and enjoy as many shows- and all the beer you want- for as long as you want. That is something not widely known. 

Nothing could match the opportunity to dance a bit with our little dates.

Beyond the wonderful time together, it was smart to get out of the heat and blaring sun. The rest did us well, and we were ready to get back to the outside world for some additional adventures. I did once again notice that indoor locations and inexpensive places to eat were all too often not synonymous. Is it greed on the part of the Company, poor planning, or has no one thought of that? On this note, I will tend to believe it is, unfortunately, the first option. 

You might think of me as cynical, but you must remember, I have been following Disney park trends for years, and I've seen the move away from the Company offering the guests the best of experiences into viewing the popular theme parks (especially the four in Florida) as purely money-printing machines. 

Frozen- and lines- Ever After.

Checking our Touring Plans app and the official Walt Disney World Parks app, we discovered Frozen Ever After had a 40 minute wait. The kids were certainly willing to wait that long for one last ride on it. They knew we weren't coming back to this park, so off we went. Due to a variety of reasons including poor planning on the part of the suits who took the cheaper way out, it actually took over well over an hour to ride. About 75 minutes actually. But we all looked past the wait and enjoyed the cruise for what it was. Yes, the snowgies remained the big hit.

Onward we went. Mission: Space showed a 15 minute wait, so that would be our next and final destination. Of course, we just couldn't pass by China without a look. The film was starting in 5 minutes. I just had to see it.

Home of Mulan. Is that the future?

Surprisingly, the kids paid close attention to the film. At one point at the beginning of the film, my granddaughter said to me, "This is where Mulan lives!" Who said Epcot is no longer educational? This is certainly the wave of the future I believe- a place where Disney's well-known international characters live. 

We ventured into the display on Shanghai Disneyland. I took some photos of concept art I hadn't seen, but I'll save those for later. I was looking for the Terra Cotta Warriors, but I finally realized they were replaced by this promotion of the new Asian Magic Kingdom. 

Always a favorite view!

One more unexpected stop. The kids saw the Mexico pavilion, so we asked about another cruise with Donald. Of course, they said yes- they love the duck- so we jumped into a ten minute line. It really was ten minutes too, as it was close to meal time, just after 5:30pm or so. Diners were filling the available spots at San Angel

Shades of Coco.

The tropical moonlit night next to the indoor pyramid does make for quite an enchanting location to dine. I've always loved the smoking volcano seemingly just beyond that thatched hut. Those Imagineers let no small detail go unfinished if it meant a better attraction or restaurant. For those of you that haven't seen the place, just think of it as Epcot's Blue Bayou.

Cramming them in.

Waiters were much busier than I had seen them before in previous trips. It was certainly noisier! The whole place seemed less relaxed and more hectic. Then I realized why. The tables of the restaurant were pushed much closer together than the last trip to the World, squeezing in maybe 50 or 60 more diners to an already crowded location. Such a shame. 

Will the Three Caballeros head to Brazil next?

Finally making it to Mission: Space, the journey was a great amount more fun the second time for our granddaughter as she knew what was coming. Then the unexpected happed. We got a text from our daughter and son-in-law. Their expensive but excellent dinner was over, and they were heading back to the hotel. It was after 6pm, so we thought about it and decided to join them after a short stop or two.

He is the cutest- not Mickey!

While I purchased some Mickey pretzels, the kids had a short break and enjoyed the water pad. It was still hotter than Hell, (well not really I guess), and this made for a refreshing break. My wife sat with them for a moment so I could enter the Mouse Gears shop, and look for a souvenir or two. After looking around, I left with one Epcot 35th Anniversary mug complete with the original Future World pavilion logos, a couple of key chains for the kids, and a small compass magnet. Nothing else captured my eye. Wow, things had changed. 

Maybe another trip one day-
and maybe even an improved Journey with Figment!

Time for us to go. We headed toward Spaceship Earth and the exit, knowing I would not be returning to Epcot this trip. I gave that some thought and realized we'd been on all the attractions except viewing the Canadian travelogue. In what was a first for me, I had not seen Illuminations on this visit, nor had I spent any time in World Showcase at night. Do you remember that top photo? That was as close as I'd get to my beloved World Showcase at night this trip. No matter. I'll do it next vacation here if there was one to come. 

As a Grandpa, my main desire was to hang out with the kids. I happily did so, looking out for them to make sure they were well rested for their first day at the Magic Kingdom. They are sweet and patient kids, not over-indulged at all, and very appreciative of all they got to do. I wanted them to have a blast the next day! That day was the most important vacation day to them, so it was important to me as well. This was my priority more than anything else I could do. The incredible blessing of doing this trip with them was more than enough. (Special thanks to my daughter and son-in-law.) Guess I've grown up a bit.

Tomorrow, I'd return to the Florida Kingdom after almost a decade. Couldn't wait to see the charming New Fantasyland and to eat dinner at Be Our Guest. Most of all, I couldn't wait to experience those classic Disney attractions with my grandkids, and see their faces. That is the real magic.

(Photographs copyright Mark Taft.)

June 28, 2018

The Country Bears Introduce the Critter Country 500

Every once in awhile, someone suggests ripping out the Country Bear Jamboree from the Magic Kingdom's Frontierland. I hate that idea! It's a Florida Kingdom original, and it's one of the few musical Audio-Animatronic shows left. (Will they ever go back in style?) The other American version of the show got pulled out for Winnie the Pooh, leaving just a version of this humorous attraction in Tokyo Disneyland. 

How did it get pulled from California? Well, "The Happiest Place on Earth" had a big problem as its traffic patterns indicated that the once popular show seemed to have run its course. The country music fan base was just not as strong as in the South. Time for change had come for Imagineer Marc Davis' musical comedy.  

The Country Bears were to begin life here.

But the show- which began as an idea for Disney's Mineral King Ski Resort- had its fans. Fans in Imagineering, actually.

Many ideas were tossed about as they tried to come up with something fresh for those Hillbilly Bruins. A small flume type attraction was considered as well as a silly road race, shown above. (You can see more concept art for the race here.)

The great sounding "Critter Country 500", a fun road race for all ages was one of the ones with the best chance of making the cut. But it wasn't to be.  Even this rending by Christopher Merritt couldn't convince the suits. Pooh won out, taking his place at Disneyland.

(Oh yeah. Come back tomorrow for my trip report on Disney World After a Decade- Day Three at Epcot... then, the Magic Kingdom.)

(Concept art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

June 26, 2018

Fissure 8 Lights the Milky Way

Taking a short detour from my Japan trip reports to share the above image with readers of Insights and Sounds. If you've been semi following me on this blog, you know that I love photographing the Milky Way, especially at the top of Mauna Kea Summit! At an elevation of 13,800 ft, shots of MW are as clear and crisp as you'll ever see. I can clearly see it also with the naked eye (and not some vague outline, but a very defined and detailed look).

I drove up last week attempting to photograph the MW above several of the telescopes located at the peak. Unfortunately, it was on the opposite side of the sky! A little disappointed, I nonetheless moved my camera and gear to still grab something. As I approached the edge, I noticed an orange hue rising from the horizon. As it came into full view, I realized it was the glow of lava from the newly emerged Fissure 8! If you've been following the news, you know that volcanic activity has been hot and heavy, with the lava destroying hundreds of homes in the Leilani Estates area. I had hope to shoot this event, but security was tight with fines of $5,000.00 and possible jail time being handed out to trespassers. But God, in His generosity, gave me a birds eye view of this spectacle from over 80 miles away!

As a sidenote, while the lava has touched a lot of lives and is a tragedy, 99% of the Big Island is unaffected by the lava (other than the VOG)! If you were or are planning to visit there, please do so! A lot of the small businesses are dying because of visitor cancellations. There is still so much to do and see on the Big Island..and visiting the summit is clearly one of them!

Photographs copyright 2018 by Len Yokoyama

An Imperfect Perfect Backyard

Quite a rainstorm today, with a lengthy burst of pulsating water and a great Summer breeze to go with it. It all left behind a layer of green we haven't seen in several weeks.

Gardeners call what we have a "mature landscape". It means new things grow and bloom but trees are starting to have their end of lives near. We've lost 4 in the last few years, but that was due to harsh freezes right before Spring, killing off the weaker ones.

It's an imperfect perfect back yard. Home to a wedding, numerous celebration dinners, and lots of late night drinks (and dancing) on the patio, it's been an important part of our family and church life. I think back with thankfulness and joy for the Lord placing us here!

(Photographs copyright Mark Taft.)

June 25, 2018

Political Anger and the Butcher, Baker, and Candlestick Maker

It's out of control, people! Stop it now. Whether you're a Democrat, Republican, or Independent, it's time to begin treating each other with respect and decency. It doesn't really matter whether or not you agree or disagree with someone else's politics or if someone else's actions are acceptable or not. Ultimately, you are not held to their standards. God will be your judge- and that holds true for all - Donald Trump, Maxine Waters, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Nancy Pelosi, or anyone at the Red Hen Restaurant. 

Did the restaurant have the right to deny service to Ms. Sanders because she serves the U.S. under a president they hate? Yes, absolutely. So do other businesses that disagree with the political stance or moral choices of a person who is requesting their services. But you can't have it both ways. One size fits all. Butcher, baker, and candlestick maker. Including Christian ones.

Time to love- and pray for- your enemies.

Long Lost Photo

One of my favorites that I just found. This post is for my records. (Yes, the next Disney After a Decade Away report is coming soon...) Unfortunately, this is only a photo of a photo. No idea where the original is.

June 23, 2018

Disney World After A Decade Away: Day Two- Epcot

Epcot needs work. There, I've said it and gotten if off my chest. I love EPCOT Center, and I love or used to love Epcot. After not seeing the park for almost ten years, I couldn't wait. Normally, this is the park which begins and ends our vacation to Walt Disney World. Not this time. That's all due to Fast Pass and difficult to get rides where I wouldn't wait 200 plus minutes without a reservation. One disclaimer here: This might be the lengthiest trip report post in the series. EPCOT Center transformed my idea of what a Disney park experience could be, and it has remained my favorite Florida park since its opening. Be forewarned, or just sit back and enjoy it.

After a very satisfying day at Animal Kingdom (aside from not being able to ride Expedition: Everest), I was just itching to get to the second Florida Disney park. As my long time favorite, this one probably has the most blog posts I've ever written about any park save perhaps the original kingdom, Disneyland. I just love Epcot. Have I already mentioned that?

I have this image as a Mac wallpaper.

In the early years of the park, Future World was home to some of my favorite attractions in any Disney theme park: the playful Journey into Imagination, the elegant Horizons, and the warmly humorous World of Motion. Many critics from newer generations of guests mistakenly thought they all felt alike. 

Each one was a lengthy, robot filled experience, but the similarities ended there. Successfully standing on their own, each one had a unique perspective, catchy theme song, and differently flavored presentation.  No wonder Future World just mesmerized me. These were amazing attractions! Disney Imagineers succeeded in hitting each one out of the park. Was there anything the Imagineers couldn't do? It's a different situation these days.  

Our first Epcot day didn't start out as I hoped. We missed the resort bus, not once but twice. When the second time came around, the bus arrived three minutes earlier than scheduled- and we were still getting breakfast snacks at Saratoga's bright and airy quick service snack location. Missed by mere seconds. Thankfully, the next one also came early, and we were right there. 

The lines for security and the park entrance were very long. Efficiency reigned at the gates, and the line moved quickly. As I was first one through, I waited and took the photo at the top of this article. Yet, standing there in front of the park, something just felt different. I could be wrong, but in hindsight, all I can attribute it to was the lack of the original epic and majestic soundtrack playing in the background. Those symphonic medleys signaled you were about to enter an incredible place. This visit, I couldn't even tell you what was playing, if anything at all. 

I knew was we had to get going. That darn Fast Pass reservation for Frozen Ever After was looming. So, finally our entire party came through the security check, and off we went. 

An old favorite!

Spaceship Earth looked terrific, but the arcs of Innoventions / Communicore and the ghastly colors they painted them loudly spoke one thing: No one had a clue of what to do with the future. My suspicions were confirmed as we approached the Energy (closed) / Wonders (closed) / Test Track / Space plaza. The lush flowers and various greenery couldn't hide a sense of disjointedness. Perhaps it was partially the fact the open attractions were only on the right side, making the area feel unfinished. Walking down the avenue, the small splash pad seemed out of place as well, giving a local mall feel to a once great theme park.

New found love for this ride- with some conditions.

Better, much better! It's nice to have two options.

Our initial Fast Pass was for Mission: Space (Green). Definitely not our first choice, but it was all that was available for the early morning time frame. After riding the original (Orange) attraction long ago, I couldn't stand it. One and done. Not only did it make me sick, I found it to be unfulfilling. Expensive simulator and nothing more. 

Grandma and her traveling buddy.

First timers.

Ten years later and with two little ones in tow, the magic revealed itself. Our grandson loved it. The concept of flying a space shuttle around the earth and all the in-house effects made it a winner in his eyes. In fact, it was the sole attraction in Epcot that he requested returning to multiple times...until he rode Test Track and Soarin', then it seemed to be a three way tie... at least for this park! Lesson to be learned: It's best not to assume because we don't enjoy an attraction that someone else will not as well. 

A darker pyramid outside,
but a lighter less cultural experience inside.

Time for the sisters. While heading toward Norway, we came upon Mexico.  Seeing we had 20 minutes to go, we once again played our game of "Could we fit in _________ attraction before we have to get on our Fast Pass ride?" We went for it.

Gorgeous orchids all over Mexico.

Walking inside the pyramid (which seemed painted a different exterior color, more darker than in the past- and a new sign for idiots reminding them not to climb up the pyramid), it was clear there was no line at all for the Gran Fiesta Tour. Had to do it. In less than one minute, we were onboard. The little guys were happily watching Donald Duck's adventures. I enjoyed seeing the Audio-Animatronic trio. It was still a screen for the finale during my last trip to the World. A very big and unexpected improvement when I first read about it. Even better live. In person, this addition completes the story. These three dimensional characters were just what the attraction needed. 

Ah, El Rio del Tiempo! How I miss it!

The conclusion of our happy cartoon voyage brought about very pleasant and bittersweet memories of the Mickey Mouse Revue but more importantly El Rio del Tiempo. More innocent times for sure! Admittedly, the nerd I am, I found myself singing along with the old theme song in my head, wishing for the cultural splendor that used to be the focus of each World Showcase ride. I could see the direction the park was going. Could I live with it or would I ruin what should be a great day by fighting it all?

Woulda, coulda, shoulda.

Time for Frozen Ever After. I'd seen the videos, heard the rumors, and been informed about the lengthy queues. The attraction itself left us a family divided, but the new interior village area (the line) was something all of us found to be quite nice. Of course, the little guys loved the attraction! (How can you not love Olaf?) The splash down was a nice touch in the Florida heat, but I found myself highly critical of the work that was done to transform Maelstrom into the home of Anna and Elsa. 

The opening two scenes were fairly strong, nicely staged, and instantly engaging. The story seemed well set, but when it came time to ascend to the ice palace, from there on out, the attraction's weaknesses became glaringly apparent. 

Could Disney not afford at least a crop of fake pine trees for the ascent to the mountain top ice palace? Guests should never be able to so clearly see the interior walls of an attraction when they are so close to the ride vehicle. There was nothing to hide them- just a small attempt to do so by painting them black. Once at the summit, an ice skating Olaf and tongue tied Sven were sweet (and it was good to see Kristof), but these scenes just felt incomplete and barren. So much was lacking! Honestly, it was clear these had been given so little money and an equal amount of attention. 

Finally, it was Elsa's big moment. Up close she looked pretty good and moved effortlessly, but in the reverse descent, bad use of screens and poor film quality made for a much cheapened experience. Couldn't they have been more creative here? I'm not quite sure how I feel about those animated faces. Altogether, the experience was fun, shorter than I hoped, and less than the property deserved. (I know, I should just let it go, but I hoped for more.) 

Snowgies for Bita!

The highlight of it all for us was a view at the charming little "snowgies" (my cute little granddaughter's favorites) and a look at big old Marshmallow before a forward swoop down to Arendelle and the grand finish to our new Norway adventure. 

The attraction earned a hearty thumbs up from everyone but the slightly disappointed grandpa who (quietly) ranked it much lower than everyone else. Still cute and enjoyable but so much less than it should have been. Beyond the cultural faux pas of a mismatched location to story, if you're going to shove another character invasion into World Showcase, doesn't Disney's biggest animated hit in decades deserve a full-scale, epic "E Ticket" attraction- and one with much better capacity? I believe so. 

How the suits handled this decision concerns me when regarding the plans for future attractions. With Ratatouille coming to France, the iconic  Mary Poppins to the U.K. pavilion, and the rest of the coming World Showcase attractions, I wasn't hopeful. The new standard seems to be "good enough". 

Holdovers from the Flower and Garden Festival.

What will be this park's standout? It's Pirates of the Caribbean? It's Great Movie Ride? It's Kilimanjaro Safaris? Is Epcot now doomed to second rate attractions, tired films, and 2-3 minute thrill rides? 

The still powerful American Adventure aside, currently there is not one single ride in the park that is consistently well crafted beginning to end which displays what great work the Imagineers can do when given the opportunity. The closest is Spaceship Earth and that level of excellence is compromised by a less than great descent back to the boarding station.

Back to the trip report. By this point in time, we hadn't yet eaten. Where to go? Holding reservations for the Mexican restaurant on the lagoon, we wanted something different- and fairly cheap. After thinking through what was nearby, we opted for The Land food court. Would have been great to sit inside Odyssey and enjoy a meal, but like some of the park's attractions, this restaurant was shuttered long ago.

This sign has changed multiple times over the decades.

I was again reminded how big this park was, as it took us a bit longer to get there than I expected in my head. I'm fairly certain the distance from Mission: Space to The Land is about as long as from the Haunted Mansion to Space Mountain at Disneyland. Anyone care to check the facts and report back?

Unexpected magic.

A blast of air conditioning hit us from one of the open doors in the breezeway. Seeing it came from a character greeting spot- with Baymax no less, I was intrigued. My grandson and I love Big Hero 6, for the record, so we popped in. God smiled on us once again, as it seemed He did most of the trip, and I caught a nice photo. This quick glimpse was enough to please us and satisfy a desire we once had for this meet and greet (the only one we seriously considered). However, an almost hour long wait was not worth it.

Reading these blog posts, you may be tempted to think I only saw the negative changes in the parks and didn't have a great time. Nothing could be further from the truth! It was in many ways it was a Grandparent's Dream Trip, and there is still much to love about the Vacation Kingdom of the World. In fact, we'd return in a minute if we could. As a Disney theme park lover, I am highly critical of what the suits do to their parks, particularly Epcot. In the new Disney era where profits sometimes overrule thematic consistency or providing guests with the best experience possible, I still expect the best. And I'm a detail guy. Enough said for now on this topic... until I share insights I realized in the next Future World pavilion.

Love these!

Always someplace I look forward to visiting, The Land didn't disappoint. Even with its changes, and there certainly are several here, there's much to see for just about everyone. Walking to the railing inside the pavilion, I was once again hit by that wide open expanse and those terrific balloons. With so few visits to the world in the last couple of decades, one benefit is that many things feel fresh to me. 

The scale and scope of Epcot and actually of all Walt Disney World is just impressive. There's no way around it. It can make for some difficult touring in the hot and humid Florida weather, but that uncomfortable reality aside, it's pretty mesmerizing. Many Disney park fans love to argue which resort is better, Florida or Southern California. They're both just very different- and each lovely in their own ways, with their own set of pros and cons. I will admit the only time I have felt the same sense of grandeur at the Disneyland resort as I have in Florida comes when I view the Cadillac mountain range in Cars Land. It's no small feat of extremely creative Imagineering to make a place seem so vast in such little space. In my mind, it is the new crown jewel of the Company's parks in California. Will Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge be as good? That's yet to be seen.

Well done, Disney.

Let me get my one negative observation about this pavilion over with. The Land Grill Room is now a character meal location. I began to realize that many places we used to enjoying dining at in the past had now become a premier guest experience. In every park. This may come at the cost of offering dining experiences that impress for the average, cash strapped visitor. Perhaps it is a shrewd and financially lucrative decision on the part of the suits, but it lowers the over all experience and creates a caste system among guests. We were not going to pay $35 per person for lunch, even if it was with the Company mascot and his chipmunk friends. 

With crowds being thick, you would expect Disney would construct another indoor counter service location at the other side of Future World to help serve the crowds, keeping them happily full, rested and refreshed by the air conditioning, and ready to reengage. At least for the issue of health and helping guests avoid heat stroke or dehydration. Oh, they did build it. It's just closed like too much of the park. 

Passing by the location of our family's traditional first meal at EPCOT Center, we traveled down stairs to the large and very busy food court. I didn't expect much.

Surprisingly, our fast food meal was in reality pretty darn good. (In fact, we didn't have a bad meal or snack anywhere on the property.) Fast, fresh, and hot when it needed to be. Expecting mall court blandness, I was very pleasantly surprised by the high quality and seasoning of my Chinese entree. The crowd flow seemed well managed, and the staff was pleasant and helpful. The bright and airy space remained very clean thanks to the hard work of the crew. A very positive experience.

A simple bus ride can be memorable.

Grabbing a quick Fast Pass for Living With The Land boat ride, we found ourselves cruising the waterway in a matter of minutes. I still appreciated the educational aspect of the attraction. It's something that made EPCOT Center unique and entertaining in its own distinct, still magical way. The slow and steady removal of that focus leads to a downgrade of the park experience. It's one of a few reasons I bemoan the changing of Universe of Energy to something lesser.

Adding any legally usable Marvel character attraction levels the playing field with Disney's competitors. At some point as a consumer you have to ask yourself, "Ultimately, what is the Disney Difference compared to Universal?" Sadly, it's certainly not as much as it used to be as time goes by. By the early evening, I even found myself here at my favorite park with a case of "screen fatigue"- a common complaint with fans visiting Universal, meaning too many attractions rely on film and its effects, 3-D or otherwise, as the main delivery vehicle of the attraction storyline. This was not something I expected at Disney and particularly Epcot!

The Seas with Nemo was just a depressing experience, aside from a great cast member playing Crush to a clever and engaging young audience- including him answering my sweet little granddaughter's question. I won't say more about the once stunning pavilion with its unexpected hydrolators and great exhibits. It's yet another downgrade from what once was.

A Figment fail.

Next up was Imagination, an even a worse, more discouraging, experience. In its current state, it is a breathtaking- and not in a good way- reminder of how Disney management has left Epcot to rot for close to 20 years. The ride- a disaster which turned the once charming purple dragon full of childish delight into a snarky prankster. The lackluster Image Works made things worse, and why would I sit inside a theater to watch Pixar animation that I own on DVD? 

Due to a surprise that Test Track had only a 30 minute wait (via the app), we cruised over for an all family thrill ride. It's certainly still a rush! I found I preferred the original version that was more like a testing facility and less like Tron. By a large margin actually. The test crash ending that leads to the high speed portion of the ride was an excellent and clever touch. 

More variety like this please.
The world is much more than Europe.

It was time to remove ourselves from Future World and go into my favorite half of the park. World Showcase beckoned, and we began in Canada this time, passing by another splash pad.

The first thing I noticed was the new DVC kiosk. Yes, nothing like Disney pushing even more product on you to remind you that you're in a theme park. I so appreciated that reminder on my around the world journey. Victoria Gardens looked as beautiful as I had remembered, but I don't recall it being accessible only to guests of Le Cellier. Or did I misunderstand? It wouldn't surprise me at all to see that this had changed. The kids explored the hedge maze in the U.K., and we caught a small glimpse of Alice before moving on. Unexpectedly, we walked right by France and headed straight for Morocco as my son in law had wanted to see it last trip but they'd run out of time. 

Perhaps the most richly detailed in all of World Showcase.

Don't get me wrong. I love the recreations of the European nations. Yet, we need something more and different in the park. Morocco and its richly detailed buildings were a solid reminder of this need. Exploring its courtyards and market stalls seemed to remind me of what was planned for Star Wars, but the contrast was refreshing after the previous locations. The Spice Road Table was basically empty. Could it be the prices? Probably, as the Tangierine Cafe seemed full of eager diners. 

A trio of photos from the Japan Showcase,
one of my favorites.

Just love the Japan showcase. There's still quiet nooks to explore and layers of experience awaiting if you take the time to find it. Was there really a need for a new restaurant? Perhaps, but the necessity of a people-eating attraction is even greater. We love hiding back by the tea house late after Illuminations. It's a whole new world after dark. Couldn't wait to return to the Land of the Rising Sun, but it never happened. Next trip.

Alfredos no longer.

Walking all the way down into Germany, we stopped in Italy after bypassing the American Adventure. We decided to view a later show. Italy seemed hot, so hot, much like what we had experienced in Venice years ago. Little shade, few trees, no grass. A perfect recreation minus overpriced gondola rides and the very unique stench of the water. (But we still loved it the real location!) Sticking our head in Via Napoli, we discovered the place was just packed, and to our surprise, it seemed it was with visitors from international locations. Pizza is a universal food!

By this point, it was almost time for dinner. Our reservations were for La Hacienda de San Angel, and it was late afternoon, so a good time for a break and a meal. Winding our way back to Mexico, we stopped at the entrance, gave them our names, and began a meal marked by incredibly gracious and attentive service. It felt very old school Disney from thirty years ago. My wife and I were very, very impressed.

Lovely lighting was the highlight of the bland atmosphere.

Frankly, from a visual perspective, the new waterside restaurant was nothing special to look at. There are many excellent environments to be found in our restaurants in Denver that surpass the surroundings of this new eatery, but only one back home has food as delicious as what we discovered here. From the queso fundido to the corn soup to the melt in your mouth main entrees, we delighted in each course. The drinks weren't bad either!

Three beautiful ladies- not one a Disney princess.

Our early evening dinner at La Hacienda de San Angel was a definitely a mixed bag experience. The food? Incredible. So was the price, though. The atmosphere? Pedestrian. We might return again, although I hear the waterside restaurant in the pyramid may have rebounded from awful food to decent. I hope so. The atmosphere is enchanting.

The ending of our evening at Epcot came about in a manner we didn't expect. Post-dinner, our timing was perfect for The American Adventure. The show is still an incredible and inspiring one. My son-in-law had never seen it, missing it during his initial visit. His take? Very, very good! 

My grandson sat next to me, and at the ripe age of six, he had some great questions and observations. One example of what he quietly whispered in my ear: "You mean two brothers fought on different sides of the war? And only one came home? The other died?"  Of course, he also recognized one of the characters walked up the steps. Pretty observant kid! I believe even the most "adult" focused attractions can be enjoyed by kids if they are prepared for it. Or they can be taught to sit quietly and use "indoor voices" if they must speak. Walt never aimed just for kids- or teens needing thrills- and I wish the suits would remember that when planning new additions to the parks, especially this one. 

Burned out bulbs and all but still a beautiful sight to behold.

Even though I'm quick to say Epcot needs something more than 2 minute thrill rides and lengthy travelogues, our follow up attraction was Impressions de France, the most beloved of the three World Showcase films. (China's is Number Two, leaving Canada at the bottom by quite a distance.) The music still tears me up at times. The quality of the film seemed fresher than I remembered. The Eiffel Tower ending needs a reshoot however to highlight the twinkling effect now in place. 

Due to the Touring Plans app, we discovered Soarin' Over the World had a twenty minute wait. Without a Fast Pass for it on either day, off we went- but not before I snapped a couple of photos. I'd intended to return to the countries after seeing Illuminations. Major mistake on my part. I had misread some information, believing it started later than it did. 

After our flight, including a view of a badly bent Eiffel Tower, we realized our mistake as we were exiting The Land. Cast members were also closing down the pavilion. That's Disney's mistake and shows how things have changed since the first few years at the park. Back then, everything opened and closed at the same time- a sign of giving guests their best. No longer.

Goodnight Spaceship Earth- until tomorrow.

Everyone was tired by this point in time, so we took advantage of an early and empty bus, returning home via a quiet and quick drive. Our next day was also an Epcot visit, one which included Grandparents' date night with the kids while Mom and Dad had their own. That one, too, had an unexpected ending, but more about that next post as well as my final verdict on the state of Epcot.

One last note before signing off. Upon returning home to Saratoga Springs, we received an email survey asking us what we thought of our dinner experience and what we thought was needed to round out the park offerings. Interestingly, one of the main options was a Brazilian Steakhouse. Prepping guests for a new country, I'd say.

(Photographs copyright Mark Taft.)