December 31, 2019

What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?

However you choose to celebrate New Year's Eve, be safe and responsible so you and others can enjoy 2020 without regret. Even if 2019 has been one of the worst possible for you, the new year offers fresh opportunities and unique beauty. Thanks for reading the Insights blog this year! 

Let me leave you with these wise words from the great Scottish pastor Oswald Chambers:

You shall not go out with haste,…for the Lord will go before you, and the God of Israel will be your rear guard. —Isaiah 52:12

Security from Yesterday. “…God requires an account of what is past” (Ecclesiastes 3:15). At the end of the year we turn with eagerness to all that God has for the future, and yet anxiety is apt to arise when we remember our yesterdays. Our present enjoyment of God’s grace tends to be lessened by the memory of yesterday’s sins and blunders. But God is the God of our yesterdays, and He allows the memory of them to turn the past into a ministry of spiritual growth for our future. God reminds us of the past to protect us from a very shallow security in the present.

Security for Tomorrow. “…the Lord will go before you….” This is a gracious revelation— that God will send His forces out where we have failed to do so. He will keep watch so that we will not be tripped up again by the same failures, as would undoubtedly happen if He were not our “rear guard.” And God’s hand reaches back to the past, settling all the claims against our conscience.

Security for Today. “You shall not go out with haste….” As we go forth into the coming year, let it not be in the haste of impetuous, forgetful delight, nor with the quickness of impulsive thoughtlessness. But let us go out with the patient power of knowing that the God of Israel will go before us. Our yesterdays hold broken and irreversible things for us. It is true that we have lost opportunities that will never return, but God can transform this destructive anxiety into a constructive thoughtfulness for the future. Let the past rest, but let it rest in the sweet embrace of Christ.

Leave the broken, irreversible past in His hands, and step out into the invincible future with Him.

December 30, 2019

My Favorite Posts of 2019

The end of another year, and in my case, the end of the tenth year of the Insights and Sounds blog. Here's a look at some of my very favorite posts from 2019:

Super Hero Physical Exam:
In all the Marvel universe, Captain America is the true super hero. Being a hero internally before he was engineered one, reveals a true heart of humility and always doing what is right. Could YOU make the cut of a true super hero? Take the exam for yourself.

Just Around the Horseshoe Bend:
Our friend Len Yokoyama is on hiatus, but this article about a nature land of God's own design is stunning. The photos alone are worth the view.

Disney Parks Attraction Score Card 2010 - 2019:
A nature land of man's own design- the Imagineers. Cars Land may be the pinnacle of Imagineering art for the decade. Maybe not. How did the Company under Iger do in investing into the parks this past decade. Take a look, park by park.

My Honor to be Part of Randy L. Schmidt's New Book on the Carpenters:
What an unexpected treat to be contacted by Randy and asked to be interviewed on my thoughts about the beloved duo's 1976 album A Kind of Hush

A mixed bag for sure, but Epcot is finally getting some attention. Will it be better or worse? Settle in for a lengthy and in-depth article on the coming transformation- and a look at this park's incredible past.

A Fresh Look at Carpenters' A Song for You:
The finest female vocalist of the 20th Century recorded an album that stands the test of time. Was this brother Richard's production masterpiece and Karen Carpenter's finest collection?

The Outlaw King:
Rebels are in! Who is tops? Chris Pine's outlaw could be one of the best but certainly not the only one.

Rare Art for Discovery Bay:
Not the piece above. In the article, here's a rendering only a few have seen- unless you've already read this article. Plus a look back via concept art of all that was planned for Tony Baxter's unbuilt land for Disneyland's northern berm.

Disney's Hollywood Studios at 30:
Thirty years of the first Studios park. Concept art, history, trip report. It's all here. Probably the lengthiest of all posts on the blog.

Alternative Layout for Indiana Jones Adventure:
Sometimes the best Imagineering ideas don't make the cut. You decide if we got the best version or not.

Here's to 2020!

December 29, 2019

Ranking My 2019 Most Anticipated Disney Experiences

Looking back on what I first wrote in January of 2019, I'm going to go back to my most anticipated Disney offerings for the year and give each a rating. This will be like school grades as opposed to the A to E Ticket ratings I did earlier on each park attraction over the last decade. Was I disappointed or delighted? Here we go!

Phantom Manor refaire. Photographer unknown.

The Re-Imagining of the Phantom Manor:  B+
When I read that Imagineer Tom Fitzgerald was refreshing Paris' elaborately original take on the Haunted Mansion, I was skeptical. He's a lover of screens, and I imagined something far worse than the end result. Granted, building on the work of Walt era Imagineers allows a foundation of excellence, but you can also screw up a classic. The end result: I like it much better than I thought- some of it is just stunning- but I wish the storyline wasn't spelled out for me. Turning Melanie into a villain was a mistake. 

This is a must see.

Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge: A
Millenium Falcon: Smuggler's Run is the only attraction I've ridden in the land- but I've been to versions on each coast. Does it feel lifeless at times? Yes. Does it need its headliner attraction, Rise of the Resistance to fully show what the Imagineers were trying to accomplish absolutely. Could it have been better? Yes, but even without a complete package, I was not disappointed.

A disappointment.

Toy Story 4: C 
Buzz Lightyear and Woody are the most likable of buddies and the Toy Story series some of the best buddy movies of all time. It was wasted here.  They should have stopped at 3. Enough said. 

Frozen 2: Pass
I've chosen to wait for home release on Disney+. The reviews from my own relatives were mixed, leaving me less than pressed to pay movie theater prices for a film I wasn't sure about to begin with.

Great idea in a very wrong location- but worth the wait.

Mickey and Minnie's Runaway Railway: Delayed 
To quote myself: "Other than giving the boot to The Great Movie Ride, what isn't there to like about an E Ticket attraction focused on Mickey and Minnie? Absolutely nothing!" I was very, very disappointed the opening was delayed. It will now be a few years before I'm back at the World. Still smells like a hit to me!

Ka-plunk not Ka-chow!

Lightning McQueen’s Racing Academy: D
This little show is pure filler and not worth a repeat viewing unless you've got first time little visitors that need a diversion when they can't ride Twilight Zone or Rock 'n' Rollercoaster. 

I guess there's always 2021.

D23 2019: C-
One disappointment after another. Why waste Dick Van Dyke in announcing a Mary Poppins attraction without wowing us with details? Why announce an Epcot renovation without something to amaze us? Why did they even hold this event?

Unexpected and incredible.

The Imagineering Story: A
I did not know about this series coming to Disney+, but aside from the last episode when it falls into a puff piece, this could be my very favorite of all Disney experiences for the year. Respectful of the greatness that once was, honest about recent failures, and hopeful for the future. Just a wonderful series that I wish would continue. 

How did your Disney year shape up?

(Art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

December 28, 2019

Little Stormtroopers

When the bad guys are the good guys, you know you're in for a lot of fun! Christmas Day afternoon just flew by with these littlest Stormtroopers out on command!

(Photograph copyright Mark Taft.)

December 27, 2019

Walt Disney in Colorado

It's easy at times to forget that Walt Disney was a real living human being and not just the name of a corporation. Well, here is Walt in Colorado in glorious black and white. 

Well, not originally. It's not too often I post a photo I've taken that by necessity had to be turned into black and white for a better look. But here is Walt Disney's pic on the guest wall of fame at the iconic Colorado resort, The Broadmoor, taken during his visit in the 1960s. Wouldn't you know those in charge placed it exactly where lighting was the worst? The levels of glare and flash spots (it was too dark without flash) made it impossible to get a great shot. 

(Photograph by Mark Taft.)

December 26, 2019

New Orleans Square Sets the Artistic Standard for Disney Parks

The January 17, 2020 opening of Rise of the Resistance can't come soon enough! All of Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge is an amazing accomplishment, but this new land within Walt's kingdom does need its star attraction to get folks to appreciate what the Disney Imagineers have accomplished.  Cars Land wisely opened with its Radiator Springs Racers to critical and public acclaim. You can be sure the suits will not make the mistake of revealing a billion dollar expansion without its star attraction ever again. 

Do they need an Intellectual Property to build such an amazing place? No. And here's the evidence. New Orleans Square and its E Ticket list of attractions is a high bar to surpass. The Pirates of the Caribbean and The Haunted Mansion in one land, fleshed out by the Disneyland Railroad, some terrific shops and entertainment, and a handful of wonderful places to eat. There's no pay-to-play attractions like Savi's Workshop. Just a whole list of one beautiful and accessible location after another. Sure, the land opened without Pirates, but that was a different era when marketing didn't rule the kingdom. 

Imagineering produced some incredible concept art for this masterpiece.  This one above by Herb Ryman is a piece designed exclusively for Disneyland Hotel.

Take a closer look at what's found here. You'll see a large amount of benches to encourage guests to sit and take in the scenery. The Mark Twain rounding the Rivers of America or the jazz musicians playing an upbeat rendition of When the Saints Go Marching In. Part of the area's charm lies in its ability to allow this rest and reflection, enjoying the gardens and fountains and the life of a simpler time and place. Visitors were encouraged to savor the whole experience. They didn't have to rush from one attraction to another to get their money's worth.

Walt Disney did what he did out of a love and respect for people. Making them a priority and always giving them more than they asked for, Walt knew this was the very best way to build a loyal following, generate a good public image, and yes, make money as a result. This man had his priorities straight- and his company made millions by never forgetting their roots and their purpose.

(Art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

Celebrate at Germany's Christmas Markets

Having the opportunity to personally see one of Germany's Christmas markets back awhile ago, I'll tell you it's one of the better ways to celebrate the season! In that spirit, let me offer this wonderful message in German!:

Denn Gott hat die Welt so geliebt, dass er seinen einzigen Sohn gab, damit jeder, der an ihn glaubt, nicht zugrunde geht, sondern das ewige Leben hat. Denn Gott hat seinen Sohn nicht in die Welt gesandt, um die Welt zu verurteilen, sondern um die Welt durch ihn zu retten. (Buch Johannes Kapitel 3)

December 25, 2019

My Very Own Grown Up Christmas List

As I sit and reflect on the year that has passed, I see so much pain and loss. Maybe you do as well. Yet, I can still truthfully say "Merry Christmas to You!", and I mean it. In that spirit, and in no particular order, I offer my very own Grown Up Christmas List (with thanks to David Foster who wrote it and folks like Amy Grant, Natalie Cole, or Michael Bublé whose versions I love):
  • A Peaceful United States During 2020: Election years are truly the worst since the Clinton days. Instead of civilly discussing issues, all parties and most voters seem to be willing to spew hatred toward each other, further damaging a country clearly divided. 
  • An End to Hunger and Religious Persecution: If you read the Bible, you know this will not happen until Jesus returns to the earth. In the meantime, consider bringing food and hope to children around the world. It's too late to send gifts for Operation Christmas Child, but you can always sponsor a child through Compassion International. What a joy to help feed a child who is probably homeless and most certainly needy. You can go deeper and help those who face hardship and death because they are Christians in a nation where they are severely marginalized or tortured because of their faith. Open Doors is one of the best ministries to support. In the 1930's, Jews were being persecuted, and few stood up to the Nazis until millions had been executed. That is a fact, not fiction. Don't look the other way until a group you are part of suffers.
  • More Family Friendly Entertainment: I get so tired of movies and television shows I cannot watch with my family! Filthy language is never needed to convey a character's thoughts or emotions. Violence can be tempered and discreetly shown or implied. And I do not want to see what happens in someone's bedroom. Period. The grooming of children toward a more animalistic nature is something horrible, and make no mistake, we will be judged for our words and actions. 
  • An Awareness of God's Love: Can you imagine your life projected onto a screen for all the world to see? I would be so ashamed of some of the things I've done! Wouldn't you? Although God Himself is holy, pure, and righteous, He is also merciful and loving to those who come to him and express their remorse and brokenness, choosing to follow Him and live by the standards He designed the world by. His love drove him to send His Only Son to the cross to die for the sin we all deserve punishment for. No one gets a pass. We all have to answer to Him. Heaven for those who follow and trust. Hell for the rest. It was created for angels who rebelled against Him, and those who choose to reject God's great gift. It's your choice. Is this too blunt? The truth is watered down all too frequently. 
  • Joy to the WorldThere's joy in the comfort that only Jesus Christ brings. All else is temporary at best. May the whole world stop- if just for one day- to enjoy a respite of peace, love, hope, and joy.
Merry, Merry, Christmas to You and those you love!

December 24, 2019

Home for the Holidays

Are you wanting to get to Walt Disney World or Disneyland for the holidays? Or would you rather be at home?  It's a tough call! I'm always somewhere in the middle, but being at home with those I love is always my best choice.

Colorado at Christmas.

Oh, how we long to be home for the holidays! Sometimes the road is long and seemingly endless. Sometimes, all too often actually,  air travel is not a great option due to crowded flights and high prices. Yet, we long for home! Our seasonal music can reflect that yearning. Here's one of my very favorite Christmas songs. Written and recorded by Amy Grant on her "A Christmas to Remember" disc. 

Listen for yourself, and be prepared to enjoy this very heartfelt performance. 

(Lyrics copyright Songwriters: Amy Grant and Chris Eaton. Top photo copyright The Walt Disney Company. Bottom photo copyright The Denver Channel.)

December 23, 2019

Disney Parks Attraction Scorecard: 2010 - 2019

At the close of another decade, was Disney CEO Robert Iger and his board good for the development of the Disney theme parks during that time? Were the last ten years filled with memorable, iconic attractions, lots of clones, or were the parks let to stagnate because it was more important to purchase the rights to iconic intellectual properties? The answer may be surprising. Going park by park, let's take a look at what was added to the parks and rank some of the newest attractions.

Excluded from the list and the ratings are attractions that first debuted at another park (The Little Mermaid), a light redressing transformation of one park attraction into another (such as California Adventure's Orange Stinger into Silly Symphony Swings), scene additions to films (Wonders of China changing its name to Reflections of China), pay to play additions (Savi's Workshop), traditional Disney character meet and greets, parades, theater shows, and scavenger hunt games. It most certainly doesn't include the Company's focus on trendy merchandise and limited edition snacks nor does it include park maintenance and upkeep. Using the classic "A" through "E" Ticket designations, here are the decade's scores both for each park and the individual attractions that opened during that time.

A special thank you to the Touring Plans site for the chronological list of attractions when my memory failed me.

Character interactions? Sure, but put attractions first.

Disneyland: "B" Ticket
It's really not a surprise that Walt Disney's baby has mostly been left to exist on nostalgia and good will for the last decade. Until the debut of the Star Tours like Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run ("D") in May of this year, the last attraction of any significance was Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage in 2007. Prior to that? Indiana Jones Adventure in 1995! 

This past decade, the park has existed on meet and greets (everyone from the Frozen sisters to Marvel and Star Wars characters), parades (Mickey's Soundsational Parade), and nighttime shows. Sure, they did have money to spend if they wanted, and they did, but it was invested next door in Disney California Adventure. Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge is a strong addition, but it does not make up for a decade of neglect to the original Magic Kingdom. Hopefully, Rise of the Resistance will open a new decade of significant artistic and financially successful growth.

What were they thinking?

California Adventure:  "D" Ticket
In mid-October of 2007, Robert Iger announced a significant investment into the dismal, laughing stock of the industry theme park with this stunningly honest assessment, "Any time you do something mediocre with your brand, that's a withdrawal. California Adventure was a brand withdrawal." Changes came early in the decade. World of Color ("A") opened to great reviews in 2010. The Little Mermaid  ("D") and Buena Vista Street (if it were an attraction itself, I'd give it an "E") arrived in 2011, but the best was yet to come. The magnificent Cars Land and it's centerpiece Radiator Springs Racers ("A") came in 2012 and with it the crowds Disney wanted from the opening of the park. 

From that point forward, however, it's been a mixed bag of success and failure. Guardians of the Galaxy- Mission: BREAKOUT! ("E") earned it's mixed reception. Fans of the newly focused park decried losing it's in-theme Twilight Zone Tower of Terror and expressed concern this would be the beginning of California Adventure becoming a catch-all park. They were right. Although there transformation of Condor Flats into Grizzly Peak was a good move and very well done, Pixar Pier is not just a step backward but a fall down the ladder.
Let's take a look at The Walt Disney World parks and see if they fared any better this past decade.

It's sweet but should have been so much more.

Magic Kingdom: "B" Ticket
Much like Disneyland, this park remained focused on drawing from loyal commitment from its glory days. Facing stiff competition from Universal Orlando and its striking creative and financial success with Harry Potter, Disney suits allowed the Imagineers some breathing room as they created a brand New Fantasyland, rebutting at the end of 2012. Enchanted Tales with Belle ("C") and the Little Mermaid Ride were pleasant additions, placeholders until the arrival of Seven Dwarfs Mine Train ("D") in 2014. The expansion should have been much more than it is. When guests talk most about a themed restaurant, you know the mark was missed. 

The previous decade gave visitors a Stitch inspired replacement for Alien Encounter, an Aladdin spinner in Adventureland, and two new theater presentations, Mickey's Philharmagic and Monsters Inc. Laugh Floor. All very telling. Two decades in a row of minimal investment into Florida's beloved and flagship Disney park. You've got to go back to Splash Mountain in 1992 to see something of substance.

The original EPCOT Center was incredible.
I guess it is time to let it go.

Epcot: "B" Ticket
Frozen Ever After ("D") replaced Norway's Maelstrom in 2016. All else amounted to changes in live entertainment and more character greetings. Mission Space came in 2005 and Soarin' before that in 2003. That's a decade and a half of limited investment into what was once the most unique and compelling theme park Disney Imagineers ever designed! I could go on seemingly forever with how I feel about that (and I guess I did here after my September trip), but I won't in this article. It's Spaceship Earth, The American AdventureSoarin' and Test Track that keep this park rated as high as it is.

Kylo Ren saves the day at the Studios?!?

Disney's Hollywood Studios: "D" Ticket
As troubling the lack of care I see in Epcot, things are just as bad at the Studios. But this has always been a park that has suffered from a lack of clear vision and ongoing care and investment. Before looking at the decade, let's look backward to the one before it. Lights, Motors, Action! Extreme Stunt Show screamed into the park in 2003 and a cloned Toy Story Mania came two years later. Earlier than that, you have to go back to Rock 'n' Roller Coaster in 1999 and the iconic Tower in 1994 for anything worth writing home about.

As for this last ten years, replacing one very minor attraction for another (The Legend of Captain Jack Sparrow) was the order of the day until Toy Story Land came into being at the end of the decade. Slinky Dog Dash ("D") should have been a highly themed "E" Ticket but instead is a very fun, lightly themed thrill ride. Alien Swirling Saucers ("B") adds to the fun but is a carnival ride pure and simple. 

The simple Lightning McQueen's Racing Academy ("B") is pure filler, a peacemaker for kids too small to ride the neighboring thrill rides. The only reason the Studios rates higher than Epcot is due to last Summer's opening of Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge and its headliner attractions. Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run came first but Rise of the Resistance ("E") is the one every guest really wanted. With the original and still greatest Twilight Zone Tower of Terror there and Mickey and Minnie's Runaway Railway coming soon, the attraction line up will remain much too light but still enjoyable- if you can get reservations for the headliners. 

An unbelievable journey.

Animal Kingdom: "C" Ticket
If you are spotting a trend with the Florida parks, it will continue when you look at the statistics for Animal Kingdom. Looking beyond 2006 and the opening of Expedition: Everest, it's easy to see this park as well as the other three were largely ignored in favor of foreign investments until - thankfully- Harry Potter rightfully earned a full day away from Central Florida vacationers. Competition is a good thing! For better or worse, Rivers of Light came in during the decade. 

But it was the Memorial Day weekend opening of Avatar / Pandora in 2017 that finally brought something new and incredible to this beautiful but undernourished park. Flight of Passage ("E") is my current favorite attraction on the property. It's exhilarating! The smaller Na'vi River Journey ("D") is lacking, but it is a beautiful if peaceful water excursion. In our family, the park is still not worth the price of a one day ticket or a full day. I may be the lone exception to this view. What will the next decade hold?

Did Disney's overseas parks do any better? Depends where you're looking... (A note about the Tokyo Disney Resort: It is owned by the Oriental Land Company and not Disney, but I included its here for a bit of fun. The Chinese parks are a partnership between Disney and the Chinese government. Disneyland Paris is now fully owned by the Company.)

No rescuing needed at this park!

Tokyo Disneyland: "A" Ticket
This one surprised me. Very much! Seems as if Oriental Land Company is now looking to the American parks for direction.  Monsters, Inc. Ride & Go Seek opened in 2009, so it is ineligible. (And Pooh's Hunny Hunt opened to widespread acclaim in 2000.) Beyond the park's immaculate upkeep, there were changes to classic attractions. The Jungle Cruise found an evening focused upgrade, but not much else came into play during these years. Guess what did open? The simple Stitch Encounter ("C") theater show in 2015. Even though I have not seen this for myself- and this is true for all the Asian parks- it certainly cannot be something more than another version of Turtle Talk with Crush. Lots of fun, but nothing extraordinary. The park will certainly benefit from next year's opening of the sure to be exquisite Beauty and the Beast attraction. 

This park sets the standard for Imagineering in Asia.

Tokyo Disneysea: "B" Ticket
Although Toy Story Mania is extremely popular, it is a clone of the California Adventure original and therefore also not considered. 2017's Nemo and Friends SeaRider, a reworking of the opening day Stormrider, also is ineligible, and neither is the Japanese version of Soarin' which opened this year. These are solid additions to filling out an already strong attraction roster. Much like the Beauty and the Beast additions to its next door neighbors, this park will also benefit by the Fantasy Springs addition, bringing Frozen, Peter Pan, and Tangled to life.

In Japan, seems the focus was in strengthening the brand by keeping parades and shows fresh and by building new building additional hotels to create a more fully realized resort for the crowds sure to come in the following decade. How did the Chinese parks fare? Let's look at Paris first.

The castle gallery in Paris.

Disneyland Paris: "A" Ticket
1995. Let me say it again. 1995. The most beautiful of Magic Kingdoms has been without a major new attraction since that year when Space Mountain debuted. Buzz Lightyear Laser Blast replaced Le Visionarium in 2006. The park touted parades and shows, seasonal events, and a refreshed Star Tours. 

In a shrewd and potentially unethical but highly profitable decision, the Walt Disney Company allowed this park to struggle and age for decades- until they could buy out the rest of the shares for reduced prices in 2017 and own it all. Once that happened, seemingly every part of the park was refurbished or enhanced, including a brand new take on Phantom Manor. Maintenance and upkeep should be a standard part of the Disney park experience, nothing worthy of praise. Will they begin the new decade with a long deserved "E" Ticket to the first park? It's long overdue.

A Parisian original Headed to Epcot in 2020.

Walt Disney Studios Paris: "B" Ticket
Much like the Disneyland and California Adventure comparison, this second French park received the money for new attractions. The big budget Ratatouille: L’Aventure Totalement Toquée de Rémy ("E") and the surrounding area opened in 2014. Cheaper filler attractions are found in Toy Story Playland from 2018. An exact line up of what was built in Hong Kong years earlier. What was prior? Moteurs... Action! Stunt Show Spectacular came 16 years earlier. Very big expansion plans have been recently announced, but otherwise, the park remains a poorer stepchild to the masterpiece next door.

From looking at the facts so far, it seems as if the parks were not a priority for The Walt Disney Company for the last decade unless they were threatened by competition or significantly decreasing attendance. Back to the Chinese parks...

So much more than another version of the Haunted Mansion.

Hong Kong Disneyland: "E" Ticket
Entering the new decade, the park celebrated its fifth anniversary, but the future of the park was at risk. Government officials and visitors seemed to instinctively know that Disney once again delivered an inferior product, another "brand withdrawal". It's a Small World opened in 2008, but it did not deliver an uptick in attendance. The park relied on special events to draw crowd that continued to decline. In the midst of a cultural clash and an ongoing heavy competition with the mainland, Hong Kong officials insisted Disney step up their game and invest heavily into the park to ensure its success. So they did. 

A proposed package of additions was approved, all funded by Disney. These were strategically designed to give the park its own identity in order to compete with the coming Shanghai Disneyland.  The easily built Toy Story Land opened at the end of 2011 with a roster of attractions that would later open in ParisRC Racer ("B")Slinky Dog Spin ("B"), and Toy Soldier Parachute Drop ("B"). A little more than half a year later, Grizzly Gulch would open with its premier attraction, Big Grizzly Mountain Runaway Mine Cars ("E"). Think Expedition: Everest meets Big Thunder Mountain Railway. A very solid line up was definitely coming into play, but the finest attraction of the bunch would come next: Mystic Manor ("E") in 2013. Fairytale Forest, simple gardens with a Disney touch, came in 2015.

Without the legal restrictions imposed in the States, Hong Kong Disneyland was actually the first Disney park to bring in Marvel attractions. The Iron Man Exerience ("E") joined the roster in 2017, with a reworking of the old Buzz Lightyear system, Ant-Man and The Wasp: Nano Battle! opening two years later. Although bid additions are coming in the new decade, the one we are finishing shows Hong Kong Disneyland is serious about earning its place among Disney theme parks.

Photo by Mark Willard on the Disney Parks Blog.

Shanghai Disneyland: "E" Ticket
The youngest in the Disney park family opened in 2016 to mostly very mixed reviews. Where it is good, it is spectacular! Where it's bad, it is very bad, revealing lots of filler to be found in the park, particularly in Fantasyland, the weakest of all the park's lands and the least inspired version of the land in any castle park. Standouts worth mentioning- meaning not duplicates of earlier developed attractions- include the award winning Pirates of the Caribbean: Battle for the Sunken Treasure ("E") and the original version of the much anticipated TRON Lightcycle Power Run ("E") that is coming to Florida's Magic Kingdom.  

There are more attractions to be found. Other park originals include Voyage to the Crystal Grotto ("C"), and Camp Discovery's Challenge Trails ("D"). A more recent addition in 2018 is yet another Toy Story mini-land, whose only unique attraction is a reworked spinner. Next decade's Zootopia land will inspire and bring in another "E" Ticket attraction. "Authentically Disney and distinctly Chinese" indeed.

Marvel is the next decade invasion.

What's the final scorecard?

Hong Kong Disneyland and Shanghai Disneyland - "E"

California Adventure and Disney's Hollywood Studios - "D"

Animal Kingdom - "C"

Disneyland, Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Tokyo Disneysea and Walt Disney Studios Paris - "B"

Tokyo Disneyland and Disneyland Paris - "A"

What did we discover by looking back at the last decade and Disney's investment into its parks? The facts speak for themselves. 

In the last ten years, the Chinese parks were the ones with the most significant investment in major new attractions. The Tokyo Disney Resort is still stellar and will continue to be so for decades to come. Things will change in Paris, Orlando, and California with continued investment in new attractions in each park, making next decade's ranking something that should look very different.

Regardless of the rankings and ratings, one fact rings true: No secondary theme park can hold the emotional legacy of a Magic Kingdom. When families remember their trips together, these are the places that first come to mind. Walt Disney was a genius. 

(Images copyright The Waly Disney Company.)

December 22, 2019

Post of the Decade Coming Tomorrow!

I've written my articles over the last ten plus years on the Insights Blog, but be assured tomorrow's is the post of the decade. You won't want to miss it!

(Oh yeah, this map of Shanghai Disneyland's Camp Discovery is from a photo I took this year...)

(Art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

The Blunder and the Beauty of a Downtown Disney Christmas

In  the middle of coming to SoCal for a funeral, I was able to sneak away for a brief dinner at Downtown Disney. As you can tell from the photo above, three cuties got away for a morning there as a birthday celebration fell in the midst of all the memorial services. 

These sweet little guys are beautiful, but their surroundings in this photo show the blunder of what Disney did to a lovely little area for the Christmas season of 2019. Even at night, it just isn't attractive!

Much like the awful Pixar Pier transformation at Disney California Adventure, you have to wonder exactly what they were trying to accomplish and at how much of an expense. 

 Splitsville looked much nicer with its indoor Christmas tree visible on the upper level. Yet, something charming and worthy of the name Disney was missing from it all. When you add in the wasteland that is the area around Rain Forest Cafe, Disney Springs in Florida comes into focus as the finest example of retail art outside any Disney theme park. It's truly a shame as the Grand Californian and the iconic Disneyland Hotel are so nice in their own very different ways.

Things look better when you see the park entrances. However...Our youngest daughter hadn't been to DCA 2.0 since right before Cars Land and Buena Vista Street or even Mermaid. Hadn't seen World of Color either. She and her husband chose to go to DCA so she could see the changes, Radiator Springs Racers in particular. They went shortly after opening time. She found Buena Vista Street beautiful but with nothing to do. Saw and loved the popular Cars Land, declared RSR great, walked the park after doing Soarin'. 

She absolutely hated the Pixar Pier transition (she has a strong love for classic Imagineering as does her Dad). They soon decided DCA was still not worth the money of a full day ticket. Thinking Disneyland was still much was better, they went to guest services for a park hopper. Arrived on Main Street shortly after 12 Noon. Both had a great time at DL (loved Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge and Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run) but will not go back to Anaheim's second Disney Park for a very, very long time.

The Grand Californian lobby was as stunning as to be expected! Its elegance speaks of classic Disney and is worth a visit on its own. Just the beauty piece the resort area needs this time of year. When will the suits learn that hip and edgy do not win out over classic Disney done well? Maybe in 2020.

(Photographs copyright Mark Taft.)

December 21, 2019

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker- A No Spoiler Review

As a very, very casual Star Wars fan- is there even such a thing? - mixed feelings seemed to be the order of the evening before, during, and after viewing the latest outing for this epic, decades long outer space Western saga. Not a good sign, but as a man who loves my little grandkids, I wanted to share this adventure with them. They were going to see this Star Wars film on the big screen. All others had been viewed at home. 

I've not seen all the films. Not the original trilogy or those that have followed. Give me an earthbound adventure story (the Indiana Jones series), a murder mystery (Castle or Criminal Minds) or even a romantic comedy (Fools Rush In), but popcorn movies focused on imaginary space characters and aliens are rarely an interest. Sorry, E.T.! But I am a first and foremost a Disney park fan, so when the mammoth entertainment company I mostly enjoy owns it, I want to fully understand a new property's content to better enjoy the attractions they will inevitably build. 

How could I catch up on forty years worth of film? In order to understand the entire storyline for the series and to be able to follow the whole finale more easily, I happily absorbed all the spoilers I could find. I'm not sharing them here for one very good reason: This film is better than you might think, and at the same time, it is in parts sappy and full of expected clichés. 

Not a buddy flick.

What can I say about the film? It is Rey's story, and it's a good one. Unfortunately, Poe and Finn are backup players as are just about everyone else in the film. These guys could be dynamic and inspiring, but they are not due to no fault of their own. Don't get me wrong. Daisy Ridley shines throughout most of the film, but I'm a man who is naturally more drawn to stories about men. (You can crucify me later.) Wasting two could be interesting characters and relegating them to minor players is a disservice to the fans and the series. Lost potential. To slightly balance this out, Adam Driver's Kylo Ren is much more interesting than I thought possible. This may be one of the film's biggest triumphs.

How will this finale affect the theme parks and particularly Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge attractions? That's a tough one. Certainly, folks will still want to pilot the Millennium Falcon, and Rise of the Resistance will remain a new century iconic attraction, but the feel of the land they inhabit could change as the story is further incorporated.

Should you see the film? Absolutely. Will you leave the theater with mixed feelings about it? Most assuredly. Folks will be arguing about this film for years to come, keeping interest alive for the next chapters in the story to be told. Successful marketing for sure.

December 20, 2019

El Rio del Tiempo (The River of Time)

Imagineer Eddie Martinez was unknown to me until I was gifted this beautiful piece of concept art for EPCOT Center's Mexico pavilion. You might correctly recognize it as a scene from the original boat ride attraction, El Rio del Tiempo (The River of Time).  

Back in the early days (until the Three Caballeros took over and it became the Gran Fiesta Tour), this intimate cultural gem was one of my favorite parts of World Showcase. The transition to Tour was just another early indicator of the direction the suits were going to make Epcot "more Disney". Coco here we come.

Time marches on as well as flows. As I'm writing this post, I'm also preparing to share at my father-in-law's memorial service. And I'm thankful for his life but also aware of my own limited time on earth. Jesus' words ring in my ear- the words he used to comfort two grieving sisters at a loss because of their brother's death: "Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live even if he dies, and the one who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” It's from John, chapter 11. 

In the midst of death, there's hope and peace- and in time, a reunion dinner for all who love Jesus, God in the flesh. See you soon, Grandpa Joe. The River of Time continues to flow...

(Art copyright The Walt Disney Company.) 

December 19, 2019

Originality Still Trumps All Else at Hong Kong Disneyland

What overseas attractions would make you want to visit the Chinese Disney parks? Certainly, Shanghai Disneyland means Pirates of the Caribbean. For Hong Kong Disneyland it's no competition: Mystic Manor! It's still the centerpiece of a continually revitalized Hong Kong Disneyland. And what a terrific piece of Imagineering concept art this is. The orange and gold highlights play perfectly off the darker, richer, blues, greens, and violets. Hong Kong Disneyland may have been purposely played down in favor of its newer mainland sister, Shanghai Disneyland, but it is coming into its own with a stunning, reimagined castle, a Frozen themed area, and an Avengers E Ticket sure to be a crowd pleaser. 

All this expansion, however, leaves the elegant Mystic Point's premier attraction as the one I most want to see. It's an original to this park and a brand new concept from scratch- something I wish we saw more of in all the Disney parks.

(Art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

December 18, 2019

The Proclamation

This is the day. This is the time. This is what I choose in the midst of difficulty, of loss, of disappointment, of change. God is still good! And He is always in control, doing good things we may not understand- if we love Him and are focused on his purposes. He existed before time itself. He understands events before they happen and knows how even the most difficult of life's circumstances play out. His love is so deep and true that he's aware of the very numbers of hair on your head. If that's you, read with me:
Psalm 34
I will extol the Lord at all times;
    his praise will always be on my lips.
I will glory in the Lord;
    let the afflicted hear and rejoice.
Glorify the Lord with me;
    let us exalt his name together.
I sought the Lord, and he answered me;
    he delivered me from all my fears.
Those who look to him are radiant;
    their faces are never covered with shame.
This poor man called, and the Lord heard him;
    he saved him out of all his troubles.
The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him,
    and he delivers them.
Taste and see that the Lord is good;
    blessed is the one who takes refuge in him.
Fear the Lord, you his holy people,
    for those who fear him lack nothing.
10 The lions may grow weak and hungry,
    but those who seek the Lord lack no good thing.
11 Come, my children, listen to me;
    I will teach you the fear of the Lord.
12 Whoever of you loves life
    and desires to see many good days,
13 keep your tongue from evil
    and your lips from telling lies.
14 Turn from evil and do good;
    seek peace and pursue it.
15 The eyes of the Lord are on the righteous,
    and his ears are attentive to their cry;
16 but the face of the Lord is against those who do evil,
    to blot out their name from the earth.
17 The righteous cry out, and the Lord hears them;
    he delivers them from all their troubles.
18 The Lord is close to the brokenhearted
    and saves those who are crushed in spirit.
19 The righteous person may have many troubles,
    but the Lord delivers him from them all;
20 he protects all his bones,
    not one of them will be broken.
21 Evil will slay the wicked;
    the foes of the righteous will be condemned.
22 The Lord will rescue his servants;
    no one who takes refuge in him will be condemned.

December 16, 2019

A New Tomorrowland for Shanghai Disneyland

Let's just say it pays off to browse through the websites of Disney Imagineers...  Of all the Disney castle parks, when you take a deep look at what's been designed for each land of the future, Shanghai Disneyland's version is every bit as stunning as the much loved 1967 incarnation at Disneyland. With the Jet Packs flying and  Tron Lightcycles Power Run coursing its way through the area, the vibe given off screams excitement and adventure. 

Imagineer Scot Drake's beautiful concept art comes in many forms. There's his take on what was eventually built as well as these pieces showcasing a future that apparently wasn't meant to be.

The parks always look great at night.

Some folks may view Tomorrowland as sterile and corporate. (Or EPCOT Center's Future World.) Not this guy! I remember when the future was a time to look forward to instead of one that instilled fear and uncertainty. This was especially true at the Disney Parks. The green manicured areas designed by Scot in the piece above are very serene and appealing, taking their cue from the majestic but tranquil gardens of Asia. 

Strive as they may to update California's world on the move, so far, the suits and Imagineers have been largely unsuccessful due to minuscule budgets and lack of clear vision. It's time to scrape what is there in Anaheim and begin anew. Very few might be bold enough to accomplish this work. But I wonder if the park fans are ready for it.

(Art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)