September 30, 2019

Trip Report September 2019: Hollywood Studios Wins Over the Kids and Adults

As a fairly well seasoned Walt Disney World guest, you can only imagine my surprise to discover that Disney's Hollywood Studios would be the park my daughter's family would most enjoy and want to visit again and again- and so we did!

Due to the joy of park hopping, we left Epcot fairly early in the late afternoon and after a stop at the Pop Century Resort went back out for an evening at the Studios. The father of three had one condition: Due to the anticipated crowds, we would not visit Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge that evening. We would do the other portions of the park including Toy Story Land. With the kids in agreement, off we went.

In my mind, the Disney-MGM Studios as it was named at opening, has always been an odd park. Even with much development early on and then a longer period of neglect, it has always felt like a half-day offering. (If you want a great look at the history of the park at 30 years with concept art, vintage photos from opening year and more, check out my mega blog post here.) The stage shows have been old and stale for years, and aside from the stunning original Twilight Zone Tower of Terror and the once epic Great Movie Ride, nothing else was all that compelling. If there ever was a Florida Disney park that needed a heavy dose of Star Wars and so much more, this was surely the one.

No Guardians of the Galaxy takeover- yet.

Walking into the little park I've seen change since 1989 was pure pleasure. Glancing at the beautifully unobstructed view of the Chinese Theater, I couldn't help but smile as I realized how much better it all looked with that Hat gone. Thank God! Someone in charge finally figured out going back to the original intent made sense. 

Certainly, a different group had to be in charge in order for 1- The Great Movie Ride to be taken down for good, 2- Toy Story Land to be built with so little shade, and 3- The offerings of Batuu to fall so far short. 

To be truthful, Toy Story Land looks great at night (as do most parks- even the dismal and cheap California Adventure 1.0 had its charms under the moonlight). With the coming hurricane keeping the crowds low, Slinky Dog Dash was a mere 20 minute wait. Barely themed, deceptively higher than it looks, and exposed to all, this is no kiddie coaster! Rocking harder than I expected, I barely noticed the blue hue of the Galaxy right in view from the top of one of the hills. 

A beautiful Florida night!

On the scale of the World's coasters, it's up there with Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. Not in charm or theme or beauty, but in thrills alone. This little park needs rides the whole family can enjoy together. There's still a height restriction here keeping the youngest guests unable to ride, but the ride's a lot of fun for those who can. Short lines led to two rides in a row, then it was time to move on. Both my wife and I were ready to let our stomachs settle.

Taken on our third visit to the park.

Well, at least she did. Taking our young granddaughter to shop since she wasn't tall enough, the rest of us took a ride on that wild limo with Aerosmith. Still smooth as glass! Dad and the boys were unsure of it all, but my daughter and I loved Rock 'n' Rollercoaster as we always have. When we regrouped, nightfall conquered the sun. It was time for the original and the best Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. My son-in-law was not told about the 5th Dimension experience, and I gather it took him by surprise. He, his boys, and my wife were not fans. I find it to be a peak of Imagineering in that season for the then struggling park. Can the views from the top be any better?

Toy Story Mania capped off the night as no one in our group was all that interested in taking in stage shows. We had two more visits here to go, so we were quite ready to let everyone rest up for the next day. A late night visit to Woody's Lunchbox helped us regroup. The sandwiches were particularly good, but I found the pop tarts rather ordinary. Don't believe everything you read- even here. Go test it out yourself. Things change so fast.

The frown indicates coolness.
He's really a very sweet kid!

Our next visit to the Studios placed Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run and visiting Batuu at the top of the to do list. (We did not let them ride Star Tours before this one.) There was little wait to walk right into Galaxy's Edge, and the kids were so excited, I thought they were not going to be able to stand still. The response? Underwhelmed is the best word I can use to describe it. The approach to the land triggered a different response, and it was only the final sighting of the Falcon that raised their interest. The adults felt the same way.

Pretty, and pretty empty overall.

The standby line registered 40 minutes, but in reality it was happily only over 25. (We timed it.) The kids but not the adults knew Hondo Ohnaka, so the preshow kept their attention. Since we were a party of seven, we insisted their young family enjoy this all together as it was the one attraction they were all looking forward to more than anything else on the property. My wife and I were given the pilot's role, which we gave to a young boy and his dad instead. 

In spite of what could have or maybe even should have been, the journey is quite fun! Everyone exited with big smiles. I expected a request to ride again, but it didn't happen. I assumed this meant they wanted to explore Batuu. Opting to stop for some blue and green milk, we enjoyed the blue, but found the green to be lacking. 

Day two visit meant an encounter with Rey.
The kids were thrilled!

I was positive that everyone wanted to explore the land, and I was hap that we had one of those hard to get reservations for Oga's Cantina on our third day visiting Batuu. Surprisingly, the family was not interested in exploring. They wanted rides. I walked us through the Morocco inspired space themed bazaar, and the only interest was in using the restroom. A stop in the pet store wasn't of interest to even the youngest visitor in our group. The adults agreed to release our Cantina reservations and let someone else enjoy them. Particularly when we calculated the expense for seven of us. As it stands, it is a big splurge, even when the whole trip is as expensive as it can be.

I mentioned Star Tours, and the group lit up. Star Wars wins the day once again! Following directly after the newest simulator, you'd think this older attraction would feel stale and unneeded. Not so! The pacing and thrill factor was still there, and seeing some familiar droids in action just felt right. Are the suits themselves not a fan of the original trilogy? How could they bypass such an essential piece of what made those films beloved? Perhaps there's something in the yet-to-open Rise of the Resistance to pull it all together. Maybe there's some new plans to help the guests really connect with Batuu. This I know: Something has to change.

What was next? Muppets? No interest. Frozen show? Nope. Little Mermaid or Beauty and the Beast? Not a chance. Going through the list of shows offered led to a lack of interest. I was getting the message. What rides hadn't we done? Swirling Mater's. Mickey and Minnie's Runaway Railway can't come soon enough. What else was there to toss out as an idea? Nothing. We walked out of the area to their requested location and back to Slinky Dog Dash

The Eastern Batuu has more deeply saturated colors
than the Western edition. Good call!

When your group wants rides and not stage shows, not shopping, or even character interactions (for the most part), Disney's Hollywood Studios falls flat. Even the second and third parks have many more physical rides to keep people happy. The suits and the Imagineers need to get on a "Phase Two" expansion. If for no other reason than to balance out the park. The Indy stunt show could be fun, but if you've seen it more than a few times (we have), it's not worth the time. 

A perfect place to take the kids!
Happy kids and equally happy adults.

This was the day resort management decided to shut the Studios down at 2pm due to the pending hurricane. After Slinky Dog, it was time for our lunch at Sci-Fi Dine In, one of my very favorite Walt Disney World locations for lunch. I had not been able to get a reservation there since a trip back in 1992. I was pretty excited! 

Hi there, Walt!

Our lunch here was our very first waiter service restaurant stop of the trip. The kids were fantastic as they happily munched and drank while watching one movie clip after another in the front of the convertible. Mom and Dad sat behind them as we were seated in the last row. Everyone was happy. Even happier because we had the Disney Dining Plan, as this place is not inexpensive. But the food was excellent and the service thoughtful and engaging without excess. In order to really get your money's worth on the plan, you've got to order one of the highest priced entrees each time. No problem! My steak ($37) was better than what I've eaten at some higher priced restaurants outside the world, and my alcohol injected refreshment was just what I needed to start the meal. Great onion rings as well, by the way.

I first captured this in 1989.
I did not remember it until years later 
after I had already started the blog!
Even the lettering is similar 
to the style I chose. 

We finished just after 2pm, so we exited the park. As usual, I took my time to walk around Echo Lake, taking photos of Dinosaur Gertie and the surrounding area. It's a beautiful little park when you stop to take in the details. It'd be a perfect spot to stop and sip that Starbucks latte and take it all in.

Where is it headed? Can Batuu succeed? 
It will be the most exciting journey
for the executives to pull it off!

Our last visit to the park was brief as it was also our day to return home. After our second and last ride on the Falcon (again, 25 minutes), I was pretty excited to talk them into stopping in at Dok-Ondar’s Den of Antiquities. No reaction. But there was a winning moment ahead. The kids had saved their allowance for months, earning money to build a droid. Of course, they fell a bit short, so Grandma and Grandpa came to the rescue and filled in the rest! 

It was soon time for our Fast Pass for Toy Story Mania. Slinky Dog's wait was short as was the queue for Alien Swirling Saucers. Within 40 minutes, we rode again and walked on to Mania. Yes, it's a fun little attraction, but it is certainly no "E Ticket". With this being perhaps Pixar's most beloved film series, you'd think they'd do something a bit more special with this land and what it offers.

A nice diversion, nothing more.

Remembering we had not gone to see the brand new Lightning McQueen Racing Academy show, we slid into a quarter full theater. Aside from the great Audio-Animatronic racer, it was nothing all that special or interesting. Oh well. We were absolutely melting under the heat of the sun, and deciding we wanted to eat indoors, we began to search for the right place. I couldn't think of a quick service location here. asking a cast member, they directed us to the Commissary. Great call!

One of the few indoor quick service offerings
in this little park.

I was quite surprised to find this place as nice as it was! The food was very good and the recently refurbished dining room was just what we needed to regain some sanity after a long day in the sun. having difficulty finding an indoor venue, I began to wonder if the suits really had a long term plan for this park or if they were flying by the seat of their pants, making additions without long range goals. Certainly, killing off the Great Movie Ride was a mistake in a park with so little epic rides, and creating a Toy Story Land with so little shade and a great indoor place to eat was a mistake. Don't get me started on the ups and downs of Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge or the rather abandoned other side of the park. Even a desk jockey wanna be Imagineer could think this one through and come up with better ideas. But it was another great lunch at least.


Wouldn't be a trip report without Gertie!
I don't know why I like her, I just do!

You'll never guess what happened next. My daughter's family decided they wanted to go to Epcot and ride Test Track and check out some of the Food and Wine Festival booths. Leaving the park, we took a nice scenic, relaxing boat ride over to the International Gateway. The Skyliner was still in testing. That would have to wait for another trip. 

So, with that, I leave you waiting for the next installment- a look at our time at my beloved Epcot... and my very long winded words about what the suits and Imagineers are doing and what should be done to this once groundbreaking theme park. Until then, thanks for reading this far!

(Photographs copyright Mark Taft.)

September 27, 2019

Rocking the Spirit of Aloha and Oh, Those Ribs!

The Spirit of Aloha may be worth every single penny spent on the Disney Dining Plan- two table service credits worth. Just for those ribs! Being that we took things as they came, we actually gave up a dinner at Ohana and a breakfast at the Land Grill Room to make this happen.


The second visit to Epcot, we noticed that the Land Grill Room was barely revolving, and a cast member said it had been like that for quite awhile. (Bad show!) That was when we cancelled our reservation, which was too bad as that had always been a family favorite.

Once we arrived via boat at the Polynesian Village Resort, (the Magic Kingdom was closed early due to Mickey's Halloween Party), we took a leisurely stroll to Luau Cove. With an evening meal, the later of the two available, it was nice and dark when we arrived. With the tiki torches lit, I could have sworn I was in Hawaii. (One of our favorite places to travel to, by the way.)

No Blue Hawaii here.

The seating was great (Tier 2)- close enough to see the entire show very well, but far enough away to not easily get picked in the audience participation segment! The show was split into several segments, with the last portion lasting about 40 minutes. Great value for the money. 

So, the food... Incredible! I could not decide if these ribs were better than Morimoto's, but they were certainly everyone's top choice to chow down on- again and again. The entire meal and the drinks were top notch.

If you're in doubt about doing this dinner show, don't think twice.

If you want to compare rib recipes, here they are below. Aloha!


Disney's Spirit of Aloha -Polynesian Resort
Island Barbecued Pork Ribs
Yield: 4-6 servings

Ingredients

Select 2 each slabs of Raw Pork Spare Ribs (total – 4 lbs.)

Dry Seasoning

1 cup Kosher Salt
1 tsp Celery Salt
2 TBSP Mesquite Seasoning
1 TBSP Onion Powder
1 TBSP Garlic Powder
3 TBSP Sugar
1 tsp Ground Black Pepper

Sauce

1 cup Tomato paste
1 TBSP Corn Syrup
1 TBSP Molasses
1 TBSP Dijon Mustard
2 TBSP Honey
1 cup Pineapple Juice
2 TBSP Rice Wine Vinegar
1 tsp Granulated Garlic
1 TBSP Onion Powder
1 TBSP Caramel
1/4 Tsp Smoked Liquid

Barbecue Sauce Preparation

1. In a mixing bowl combine all ingredients and mix well
2. Keep refrigerated

Preparation

1. Mix all dry ingredients and season lightly the pork rib slabs on both sides; let marinate for 12 hours.
2. Cook the seasoned pork ribs at 325°F for 1 hour.
3. Cut slabs of ribs while hot into individual pieces (one bone each) and place in baking dish.
4. Heat the barbecue sauce to a simmer and pour over the entire pork ribs.
5. Cover the dish with aluminum foil and place it in a warm oven at 200° for 30-45 minutes.

And now for Morimoto Asia's ribs...

Morimoto’s Sticky Spare Ribs:

Pork Rib Braise
1-rack pork ribs
5 oz Ginger (chopped)
2 oz Garlic (chopped)
1 oz Canola oil 
1 white onion, rough cut 
1/4 cup Cooking wine
1 cup Tamarind paste

Hoisin Chili Sauce

1 cup Hoisin
3 cup Mae Ploy
1/2 cup Rice Vinegar
1/2 cup White Sugar
1/4 cup Fish Sauce
1/4 cup Soy Sauce

Frying/Garnish
2 cups of cornstarch
2 tablespoons freshly chopped cilantro

To make Sauce
Combine all ingredients from the Hoisin Chili Sauce list and fully mix with a whisk or a fork and reserve.
The sauce can be made and kept overnight in the refrigerator.


Braise Pork Ribs            
Place Pork Ribs in an oven proof pan. Place the ginger, garlic, white onion, cooking wine and oil into the pan. 
Cover with water and add the tamarind paste and gently stir the paste into the mixture.
Cover with Aluminum foil and cook for approximately 3.5 hours at 250°F or until the meat pulls away easily from the bone. 
Allow the ribs to cool in the braising liquid until able to handle easily. 
Once cooled slice the rack apart into individual ribs.

Frying
Lightly coat each of the braised/cooled ribs in cornstarch and fry in oil at 350°F until golden brown and crispy (about 2-3 minutes) and place on a wire rack to drain and cool slightly.

Assembly/Plating
Once drained and slightly cooled, toss the fried ribs with the Hoisin Chili Sauce and plate (3) to a serving.  Top with fresh cilantro and serve immediately.

(Photographs copyright Mark Taft.)

September 26, 2019

Living Beyond Disney

There's so much more to life than Disney! Be it trips to the parks, seeing the movies, or owning merchandise and following the latest news, your life is and can be bigger than that. Listen to these words of wisdom:

It is easier to serve God without a vision, easier to work for God without a call, because then you are not bothered by what God requires; common sense is your guide, veneered over with Christian sentiment. You will be more prosperous and successful, more leisure-hearted, if you never realize the call of God. But if once you receive a commission from Jesus Christ, the memory of what God wants will always come like a goad; you will no longer be able to work for Him on the common-sense basis. 

What do I really count dear? If I have not been gripped by Jesus Christ, I will count service dear, time given to God dear, my life dear unto myself. Paul says he counted his life dear only in order that he might fulfil the ministry he had received; he refused to use his energy for any other thing. Acts 20:24 states Paul's almost sublime annoyance at being asked to consider himself; he was absolutely indifferent to any consideration other than that of fulfilling the ministry he had received. Practical work may be a competitor against abandonment to God, because practical work is based on this argument - Remember how 'useful you are here, or - Think how much value you would be in that particular type of work." That attitude does not put Jesus Christ as the Guide as to where we should go, but our judgment as to where we are of most use. Never consider whether you are of use; but ever consider that you are not your own but His. 

Above taken from Oswald Chambers' "My Utmost for His Highest". Devotional for March 4 

"But none of these things move me, neither count I my life dear unto myself." Acts 20:24 

Copyright Statement Taken from 'My Utmost for His Highest', by Oswald Chambers. © l935 by Dodd Mead & Co., renewed © 1963 by the Oswald Chambers Publications Assn., Ltd., and is used by permission of Barbour Publishing, Uhrichsville, Ohio. All rights reserved.

September 25, 2019

We Interrupt This Trip Report...

In the midst of a very busy Walt Disney World trip, it's important to stop and look around. Those Disney trips are never as relaxing as the advertising team would have you believe! You've got to stop and grab little pieces of reflection time along the way.

Few places are more intricately designed than Florida's fourth Disney park, Disney's Animal Kingdom. Imagineer Joe Rohde and team fashioned an incredibly beautiful place to roam, explore, and rest. Even the poorly inadequate Kali River Rapids has stunning vistas and lovely little areas to gaze upon. Look at the photograph above. This is just the queue. Enjoy!

Watch for the next installment of our September 2019 trip report. It's full of surprises.

(Photograph copyright Mark Taft.)

September 24, 2019

Kevin Rafferty: Imagineering As You Dreamed It Would Be

It's not too often that someone from Imagineering writes about their career, but Kevin P. Rafferty's warm and nostalgia filled book Magic Journey: My Fantastical Walt Disney Imagineering Career is one book worth picking up. I knew relatively little about this man up until recent years. When I discovered he was the main person behind the incredible Cars Land, I started paying more attention.

If you're reading this blog, chances are you have followed the antics of the executives of the Walt Disney Company for years, even during Walt Disney's lifetime. Although they might love to hide it or present it differently, Disney and its Imagineering branch are just as petty and cutthroat as anywhere else. Tales revealed are lurid and uncover an unsavory and seedy side of the company the world now loves.  

But it's not like this in Rafferty's book- and therein lies its charm. He focuses not on others exploits, but instead of his own shortcomings and many adventures with a sense of humility and astonishment that is rarely seen when someone experiences great success. I attribute that to his indications of being a man of faith in Jesus. He's generous to others as well, everyone from revered Joe Rohde and Tony Baxter and Marty Sklar to the less than appreciated Barry Braverman and Tom Fitzgerald. Nicely done.

If you want a very funny read- I laughed out loud many, many times during the course of pouring over each of his stories- you'll enjoy this book as you learn even more about what makes Disney attractions world renown. Now I really can't wait to ride Mickey and Minnie's Runaway Railway

September 23, 2019

Sister and Brother

Siblings who really love each other put a smile on my face- especially when they are little. They don't yet know people expect them to fight and argue later when they are teenagers. This family photo is just a charmer!

The Promise of Tomorrowland

Here's a nice way to start your Monday morning- a piece of vintage Disneyland concept art. This was back when the Land of the Future had an optimistic outlook, when people were excited and not threatened by what could be. A world where people were still imperfect but much nicer in their day to day interactions, a day when newspapers reported the news instead of trying to create the news. Overall just a simpler time when Walt Disney and his gifted Imagineers had little idea of how they would once again change entertainment. Tomorrowland held all these promises and more. Thanks, Walt!

(Concept art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

September 20, 2019

Trip Report September 2019: A Magic Kingdom in Transition

Is the Magic Kingdom better than Disneyland? The debate rages on, but as someone who grew up next door to "Walt's park" and has visited both for many years, after this trip and the one prior, my answer may shock some and delight others: As far as the castle parks go, each one has their own unique design, charms, and attractions. Each kingdom has their own strengths and weaknesses. Some attractions are better on one coast compared to the other, some much lesser. Ultimately, they are two different experiences tailored to and targeted for two contrasting guests. You can't escape the impact and artistry of what Walt and his first generation Imagineers accomplished in California, but you also can't discount what Roy and his team accomplished in Florida on their own.

But is the Magic Kingdom headed in a good direction? Now that is a question worth asking- and it's one with a complicated answer.


Starting the day with a little Starbucks stop.
A nice beginning for Grandma 
and a nice little steamer for the little cutie.

The Magic Kingdom was day number four on our plan. When taking younger children to Walt Disney World for the first time, the majority of trip planning experts recommend that the Magic Kingdom day comes after visits to each of the other parks. It's not a bad plan! This way, they enjoy each of the park offerings fresh without the idea that every other one will be the same style as the castle park. Here's what happened to us:

With an arrival inside the park at 8:45am, we were absolutely stunned by how empty the place was! How empty, you ask? After a quick stop for coffee and no line at all at Starbucks, we took two rides (with less than a five minute wait on each) on the Seven Dwarf's Mine Train, then used our Fast Pass for it again. Right in a row. Three rides on arguably the most popular ride in the park. Still don't believe me? It gets better.


Outside the attraction 
and the indoor standby queue. Empty.

How about not one but two rides on Big Thunder Mountain Railroad and then a ride on Peter Pan's Flight (with a less than ten minute wait) all by 10:15am. It took longer to walk to the Frontierland side of the park than it did to wait to board a pirate ship for Neverland. And a very peaceful walk it was...

Oh yeah, and I forgot to mention the little Fantasyland Sword in the Stone Ceremony. The kids didn't get picked in the morning. This photo is from later in the trip on the second day.


One my guilty pleasures.

After that flight, we took on It's a Small World (another walk on- without a request from my littlest visitor to do it again) and then split up. The older kids, their parents and I went to Space Mountain, while the littlest guest visited all four princesses in Fairytale Hall, much to her delight. The older group got on and off the mountain's rocket and back to the rest of our party in less than a half hour. 

Riding so many coasters in a row did have a big downside. That now seemed to be all the kids wanted to ride. When given the choice of a ride or show, rides won out every time. (They mostly do with me as well, but for three kids who had never been to a Disney park, they had no comparisons.) Regardless, we were blazing on the attraction completion scale. 

At this rate, to use my son-in-law's language, we were going to "finish the park" (get on all the rides) by our evening dinner reservation at Cinderella's Royal Table. (Anyone remember King Stefan's Banquet Hall? Last time my wife and I ate in the castle that is what it was called.) Since we regrouped in Fantasyland, we decided to stop for a cinnamon role and a Le Fou's Brew. Both were excellent and well priced using our snack credits. There was only one other family in the tavern. Never did see Gaston, however. That's two trips now. Maybe one day.

As we sat there and planned what was next, it was very strange for me to realize how empty the park still was and how many less attractions there were here than in California. However, that gave us all reason to slow down and take in the scenery. Although there's less significant attractions, this Kingdom is full of places to explore and scenery to take in that you just won't find in the original park.  


Now it's time to say goodbye...

This approach also gave me time to visit an old favorite: Country Bear Jamboree. As much as I enjoy the old bears, I must say Disney management has left it in such a truncated and depressing state that it is time to go. Must be their new strategy: Make the cuts, ignore the maintenance, and then mine the guest surveys until the suits can show the visitors no longer want it and enjoy it. There's no doubt in my mind that Tokyo will soon be the only place to see the bear show. After the Magic Kingdom's 50th anniversary is my bet.


Going, going, almost gone.

Only one theater was running (the other looked permanently closed off), some lesser known songs and now politically incorrect dialogue were cut, replacement fur looked awful, and the sound quality was lacking. The overall show appearance and maintenance was shoddy. Imagineer Marc Davis and his team would be saddened and embarrassed. Walt Disney himself would be angry. What a shame and what an unwise approach to park management!


Perhaps my favorite land in the Florida Kingdom.

This would be a good place to answer the question, "Is the Magic Kingdom headed in a good direction?" My answer: Yes and no. 

Throughout the parks, food quality was consistently excellent. Not just good or acceptable but excellent. From snack locations to Cindy's dinner meet and greet, I can't remember when the Magic Kingdom had such great choices on the menu, all well prepared and with wonderful service. Very, very impressive. (That said, Be Our Guest at lunchtime is a mixed bag in service- if you're doing both castles for a meal, do this one before Cinderella's castle.) 

The Columbia Harbour House remains an excellent choice for those of us who love Liberty Tree Tavern but do not always want to pay the price to eat there. The waffles at Sleepy Hallow - yum! If you're looking for the best value for your money, they are only a snack credit on the Dining Plan. All said, Liberty Square is the place to go for the most variety and bang for your buck when you're in the Kingdom.


A delightful Cinderella.


Dinner with a view only Disney could provide!

On the Disney Dining Plan, it took two table service credits to eat in the castle- and it was worth it on every level. Probably our favorite meal of the week. Beginning with a photo opportunity downstairs with the namesake of the castle, everything was just wonderful. The children were just perfect ladies and gentlemen, just as they were at every waitress service restaurant we ate at. I was so proud of them! 


This is impressive! If you're going to eat in the castle,
know you can skip the Norway one in Epcot without missing anything.

Our staff was attentive but not intrusive. The drinks and first courses were excellent, the steak perfectly cooked, and the desserts heavenly. We were probably seated for 15 minutes before the princesses were introduced and the fireworks started. What an incredible way to see the show! (In a sign of the times, a guest offered to pay the staff for a window seat. He was told $45 would secure the seating of his choice. These days at Disney, you can pay to get what you want if you press hard and long enough.)

In contrast to dining, shopping options at the parks continues to disappoint me. The same merchandise is everywhere, and it is demotivating to spend a dime. I did not purchase a single souvenir for myself from any of the parks- not even my beloved Epcot. Not a solitary item from any shop or stand, and I used to spend well over one hundred dollars each trip. 


I would like to eat at the Crystal Palace again

without having to pay the price of a character meal!


As we spent two days, one and a half actually, in the flagship Disney park in Florida, I will say that some less than impressive occurrences make me doubt its future to be as bright as it once was.

Let's begin with the elephant in the Kingdom, the Tron building. Look, I can't wait to ride the thing! But the location is one which will ruin the beautiful and iconic placement of Space Mountain in the park's skyline from both inside and outside the park. Much like the disastrous Guardians of the Galaxy ride building in Epcot, Tron's big square box shows a lack of care by the suits in its placement and design. There's no other way to say it. Take a look at the photo below. You won't get this view for long. 

What is built after this attraction will tell theme park fans the direction this place is headed.



Soon to be overshadowed by the big box of Tron.


Attraction upkeep and maintenance is next on my list. There were so many broken effects on Big Thunder! The sound quality was terrible on Splash Mountain and It's A Small World. Peter Pan needs an overhaul to bring it into the 21st Century. For such a beloved ride, the version in Florida is easily the lowest quality of them all. 

The only attraction in the Kingdom that seems better than its Anaheim cousin is the Haunted Mansion. The Jungle Cruise stands about even in the competition, but the groundbreaking Pirates of the Caribbean shown here makes me wish the suits would have stuck to their guns and instead given us Western River Expedition. After having just ridden these rides this summer in the original kingdom, Florida has certainly received the cliff notes edition of this classic. 


May I balance out this negativity just a bit to tell you that this park's Tomorrowland remains much more consistent than what's found in California? Just the Peoplemover alone brings it up a step! What a joy to ride this! It's certainly something I do not tire of.


Liberty Square continues in the great tradition of Disneyland's lovely New Orleans Square yet with a style and a feel all its own. However, The Muppets Present… Great Moments in American History- yawn. Not only is the show out of place, it is boring. Bring it with a different story to Disney's Hollywood Studios where it belongs. There's enough characters in The Hall of Presidents without adding fuzzy ones to this elegant section of the park.



The Swiss Family Treehouse is a favorite!

What is the future of this park? Have the suits and Imagineers forgotten its roots and what makes it special and different from the other kingdoms? Is it now just a "greatest hits" version from other castle parks all over the world? I hope not.

Is the soul of the park in danger of being lost? Yes. The Iger / Chapek leadership model seems to prove that they have forgotten what makes this park great. When they lose sight of the creator who designed it for excellence, made it work so well, and yet begin wandering from that purpose and model, things go wrong, leaving the place to be an empty shell of what it was designed for. (Wow! There's a spiritual analogy in there!)


Perhaps the growing hoards of Florida annual pass holders will stand up and fight for their history. It works well in California!




He could do it!
Almost midnight in Tomorrowland.
Boy, this park is beautiful after dark!


Our second day in the Magic Kingdom ended fairly early due to Mickey's Halloween Party. But we were ready. Between both visits, we had seen many attractions several times, and the only ones we did not visit were The Hall of Presidents, Enchanted Tiki Room,  and Tom Sawyer Island. Besides, the kids wanted to go back to Disney's Hollywood Studios, which by now it was clear it was their preferred park. 

I guess that will be my next choice for this trip report! Thanks for reading thus far. Lots more stories to tell.

(Photographs copyright Mark Taft.)

September 19, 2019

From the Magic Kingdom to the Polynesian

Traveling from the Magic Kingdom to the Polynesian Resort via boat is a delight! In fact, it is one of those experiences that says "Walt Disney World" to me...perhaps even more than riding the monorail. And to think our Spirit of Aloha luau was to follow!

For a moment, I could actually believe I was off the coast of some tropical island- and this thought came to mind, "Let them give glory to the Lord and proclaim his praise in the islands." Right from the prophet Isaiah, a reminder that God has created the natural beauty we see, from the rainbow that signifies his promise to the the majesty of the mountains and the seas. No Imagineer past or present or future could create a sky such as this!

(Photograph copyright Mark Taft.)

September 18, 2019

A Grandmother's Joy

It was quite the special evening! We were on our way to our grandson's baptism, and my wife received a call that he wanted his grandma to help do the honors. She was thrilled! So, here's our photo commemorating the event. His father, the pastor, doing the honors as well and his younger sister standing by. 

Baptism is simply an act of obedience, a confession of faith in Jesus as the Savior and as Lord, the only way to Heaven and eternal life. The dunking symbolizes the old life passing away and a new life in God beginning. 

This seven year old young man knew full well what he was doing and the choice he was making. I'm praising God today for his choice!

(Photograph copyright Mark Taft.)

September 17, 2019

Dangers of Fire Walking

We speak a lot of what God requires of those who follow Him: sexual purity, obedience, honesty, etc., but all too often within the groups of those who claim to believe in Jesus, we find infidelity and other entanglements that destroy marriages, children, friendships and entire families. 

"Can a man scoop fire into his lap
    without his clothes being burned?
Can a man walk on hot coals
    without his feet being scorched?
So is he who sleeps with another man’s wife;
    no one who touches her will go unpunished."

                              Proverbs 6:27-29

It's time to look inside the church and encourage those who follow Jesus to make those difficult choices to do the right thing - in spite of what feels good. But don't forget, God's laws apply today to all groups because He set them in place- whether you claim to believe in Him or not, truth is truth.

September 16, 2019

Songland Needs A Rewrite

NBC's songwriting competition, Songland, needs a rewrite. It's a great concept brought to the mainstream by Maroon5 frontman  Adam Levine. The problem is not the concept. It's one of the coaches.

While One Republic's Ryan Tedder and mega super star producer Ester Dean - with her sparkling, happy personality- fit perfectly, it's country music's Shane McAnally that is the misfit. He may be a talented guy, but each interaction with the songwriters seems to turn into a personal therapy session as Shane discusses his past and his demons. A self-focused downer. During the Leona Lewis session, he even seems to hit on one of the contestants. Very unprofessional.

The concept is solid and has yielded some pretty good results. Let's hope this show gets renewed for a second season- with a new producer / coach.

September 13, 2019

Trip Report September 2019: Animal Kingdom is Just a Zoo?

This trip with these travelers, Disney's Animal Kingdom came in last place when it came to the rankings of the theme parks. Epcot came in third, and surprisingly Magic Kingdom came in second, leaving Disney's Hollywood Studios as the Number One favorite theme park. Your rankings may vary- as did mine, by quite a bit actually. But I'm an old school Imagineering fan where design detail, immersive environments and a wide variety of attractions play an important part of the overall experience.  For this post, I'll begin with Animal Kingdom as we spent the least amount of time there.

Over the decades I have discovered that each trip taken to the same location is different than the ones I have had before. Our touring experiences and the rankings above prove this point once more.

To set up the stats for this trip, let me tell you our group was made up of two boys (8 and 7), one girl (5), their parents- my daughter and her husband (mid-30s) and my wife and I. Other than my daughter, no one else in her family had been to Walt Disney World before- and only her husband had been to Disneyland once. She herself had not been to Florida since 1999. 

Pouring over the map in preparation
for a day of exploration.

We were set to depart knowing that we would probably experience some park closures or being restricted to our rooms at Pop Century due to the coming Hurricane Dorian. The parks were empty, including Animal Kingdom which fell on Day Two.

Unfortunately, this beautiful park was only a zoo
to this crowd.

Due to a very late night before, with the little guys beat, we missed both our 8:30am Kilimanjaro Safari and almost our our Expedition Everest Fast Pass times. When it hit 8:00am and we were still in the room, I went on the app and gave up the safari for someone else to have. Wouldn't have mattered. Most everything was a walk on.

Arriving at almost 11, we reversed our initial plan and first walked straight to Everest. Only our littlest tourist couldn't ride, much to her disappointment as she likes to keep up with her brothers. My wife happily sat out with her.  I've long described Everest as "Big Thunder on steroids" and my favorite ride on the property. 


Photopass was put to good use.

The reactions? My oldest daughter declared it a winner; her hubby wasn't thrilled, but the two boys loved it in spite of it putting the fear of God into them... and they immediately wanted to ride again. We stopped in the exit shop nearby to buy each of them an Everest T-shirt to commemorate them braving the mountain, just as I did last year with their cousin. Once again, they spoke up, sharing their desire to do it again. We could have done so easily as the line was up to ten minutes now, but we made a decision to take our youngest traveler on something she was tall enough for: Kali River Rapids.


Her smile says it all.

Being Florida, we expected hot and humid and a larger group of people here, but the crowds were nil, leaving us to walk right through the empty snaking line all the way to the front and into our raft. Kali has a gorgeous queue, perhaps the prettiest in all of the park. Such a waste for a journey less than half the length of what was originally planned. No fire effects, no logging sounds, nothing. Just one big drop after a few spins, and it was over. Even our little adventurer asked if that was it. Kids say the darnedest things!

The Safari was next, and the experience landed with a collective thud. I miss the opening days when drivers from the African continent were present. I miss the days I couldn't see so much chain link fence, and being we rode around noon, we missed seeing most of the animals. An antelope doesn't cut it, but at least the lion was out. Looking back through our photos, none of us had taken one single shot of anything related to the park's centerpiece attraction! Gorilla Falls did not charm the kids either. This visit - our only day in this park- was going downhill quickly. Very, very quickly.

It was time for a new tactic, so I suggested the winning Festival of the Lion King. As we waited, the skies opened and a torrent of rain washed down drenching those under the portions of the line that were uncovered. Due to the direction it fell, we took a lot of water too, but not nearly as much as our neighbors. The kids wanted rides and not shows. Of course, the 2nd-4th Disney Parks in Florida are filled with shows to round out the attraction list as these parks remained under built for decades. (Could this be one reason the Magic Kingdom is still the most visited?) The kids reluctantly went in, but once the giant character floats and especially the monkey gymnasts came in, they were infinitely more interested. It was a solid "B" rating, but it came back with a request from the boys to conquer the mountain once again.


Kevin from "Up"
brings the biggest smiles of the day.

We had dinner reservations at Boma in the early evening as our large group was on the Disney Dining Plan, so off to Flame Tree BBQ we went for lunch. Since the park opened in 1998, this place has consistently provided delicious meals of all those on the property without fail visit after visit. No different this time either. 


As we edged so much closer to our last ride time of the day, Flight of Passage, we ran into Kevin as we circled back to Everest for another ride. I made it to the last seat, my favorite. We rounded the bend to Dinosaur while it was raining hard again. In the preshow area, so many people were talking and yelling that we couldn't hear the set up for the jeep ride, and we were right up against the screen. This kind of stuff is irritating, as for most people, I bet Walt Disney World is a once in a lifetime trip. The same kind of discourtesy happens at Disneyland as the regulars tend to speak all the lines of the attractions as if these were sing a long shows. Annoying! But the ride was another average hit with the kids. They wanted Everest again. Are you sensing a pattern here?

The Valley of...
I can't remember much anything specific about this movie.

Finally Pandora! It was a mere 15 minutes to take the boat ride. Good thing, as it was another "meh" rated experience. As for me, I think the environment is beautiful, but the attraction needs a bit of a story, a slightly longer length, a few real Audio-Animatronic Na'vi hunters and a few robotic animals to bring the experience up to where it should have been. Gotta say though,  I love Disney dark rides cruising in a boat.

As our very last attraction, it pleased me that Flight of Passage was an overall home run! The boys loved it. We needed the baby swap option, so some of us rode twice. I discovered my immediate second ride was as thrilling as the first. Boom, it hit me. I had a huge smile on my face. Until Disney Imagineers wow us again, I now have to say Flight of Passage is my new favorite ride on the property.

On our way to the bus to Animal Kingdom Lodge for dinner, I asked my daughter and son-in-law what they thought of the park. It was "pretty but really just a zoo". They were glad it was only one day of our trip. They told me they wouldn't even go back next visit if they were short on time.

Another lesson learned: Each guest experiences the Disney theme parks in very different ways. We come with very different tastes and a large variety of expectations. For some like me, this lush giant Adventureland is worth an entire day exploring and stopping to soak in all the details as well as enjoying the rides and shows. For others, if it's not a roller coaster, it's not worth the time. And still for others, if you're under some height restrictions, it could be a very frustrating day where you often feel left out. 
----------------

Next up might be the Magic Kingdom. We'll see. 

(I guess it's time for that next part in my detailed look at the history, creation, and evolution of Disney's Animal Kingdom...Part One of Eight - so far- starts here. It's also full of rare concept art, plenty of information on unbuilt attractions, and trip reports through the years.)

(Photographs copyright Mark Taft.)