Thursday, April 30, 2020

Haunted Mansion Video Treasures

To this author, perhaps the greatest boon to my life afforded by the modern internet is video streaming - the ability to watch nearly anything at any time for reasonable cost in decent quality. And although I remain an enthusiastic supporter of physical media, the internet has become a digital Aladdin's cave of delights for fans of the weird and obscure. Writing this during the Coronoavirus shutdown, I've recently gone for strolls around Disneyland and Disneyland Paris from the comfort of my home thanks to the modern wonder of streaming high-definition video. And this, in a lifetime where I remember leaving my computer on for an entire week attempting to download Sam Raimi's first horror film through a telephone line.

I picked up the habit of mass video accumulation early. Around 1995 I became obsessed with taping things off television, and I still have a box of around 50 VHS tapes from Disney Channel and other sources that I've never been able to part with. A few years later, I was involved with the Haunted Mansion fan community as it existed through mailing lists and Yahoo groups at the time, and one of our hobbies was trading tapes through the mail of various home video ride-throughs. Please remember that this was a time when RealVideo was just about the best online video streaming option, and you still had to pay for the wonders of QuickTime video. Creating and mailing video cassette tapes was the more convenient option!

Well, I held onto those videos for a long time. A few years back, my good friend Michael Crawford helped me get a few of my stranger video treasures transferred, but I still knew there were goodies yet to be discovered. Late last year, I bought a new old stock VCR. It took several weeks of experimenting, but I'm finally getting results I'm happy with from my capture setup. And so here now are a few of the better tidbits that obsolete technology has granted me an archive of!

First up is a video of extreme importance to me and of nearly no importance to anyone else - just how we like them on Passport to Dreams! Along with Discovery Channel's Fun House documentary, this is probably what kicked my Haunted Mansion fanaticism into overdrive and turned me into the theme park person that I am today. It's a short excerpt from a show called Walt Disney World Inside Out, which Disney Channel ran weekly through 1996 and 1997.

Hosted by J.D. Roth (from GamePro TV!) and Brianne Leary (from CHiPS!), it was essentially part of the promotional mission surrounding the resort's 25th anniversary. Certain highlight sections ran between Disney Channel programming as "Inside Out Spotlite" segments, and this was the most memorable.

For context, you must realize that as a child my ability to see anything from the interior of the Haunted Mansion was limited to a few photos in a souvenir hardcover book and the Day at the Magic Kingdom VHS tape. So seeing a program that not only gave me a good look inside a personal obsession, but went further and explained how certain effects were done, absolutely floored 11-year-old me. I don't think I had even considered at that point that the ride was made up of illusions with secrets behind them, so seeing J.D. Roth put his hand through that bust rewired my brain.

From a historical perspective, this is the only good look I've ever found at the remarkable film bin looping devices invented by Ub Iwerks for WED in 1954. He actually engineered these things as part of his assignment to create Cir-car-rama for Disneyland, allowing the film to circulate endlessly through a giant series of spools without ever getting out of synch with each other. These same looping projectors were also used in the Main Street Cinema, using prints purchased from the Blackhawk Films library. The Haunted Mansion's 16mm 1-minute bins are cool enough, but the 70mm 15 minute bin loops for the Hall of Presidents were things of beauty, 25 feet tall. I wish I had thought to take a few pictures of them before the show switched over to digital in 2008.

This segment is also just quality Disney programming, perfectly judged to increase your appreciation of just how complex these attractions are without revealing too many secrets. Walt Disney World Inside Out was a show wildly variable in quality - there's episodes where they do nothing but poke around The Disney Institute - but when it's good like this clip, it can be very memorable.

Moving swiftly on, let's take in some vintage ridethroughs! These sorts of videos used to be easier to find online before YouTube became the dominant source for streaming video it is, but the migration to that platforms meant that a lot of older material simply never made the leap. Who remembers going to Visions Fantastic and downloading Disneyland videos?

These three vintage ridethroughs are amongst the best that I know of, but they actually aren't mine! These were on one of the tapes I traded for in the early 00s, and I've forgotten exactly who sent this one to me. As a result I've cut out the hitch-hiking ghost mirror segments of each video, because they weren't taken by me. For their vintage they really are excellent, shot with a higher end camera than most consumers ever had access to by a rider who really knew where each little detail was.

First up, the Magic Kingdom Haunted Mansion in glorious, low-fi murky regular vision! This is the category of video that is the toughest sell today, when we all have video camera on our phones that handle dark environments much better than this. But there's still value in this, and this is by far the clearest pre-2007 Mansion video I know of. Certain areas, like the first third of the ride, are near total losses but other areas like the Corridor of Doors are nearly exactly how they looked in real life.

It's also the best view I have of what the controversial "windblown" bride looked like in real life. Flash photos always made her look dopey, and as the years went on and more and more of her lighting and wind machines broke and were never replaced, she looked worse and worse. But when she was brand new she at least was impressive, and that is captured well here.

Some stray observations before we move on. First, the line. For the past fifteen years, Walt Disney World has been so busy and so plagued with the scourge known as Fastpass that it seems almost incomprehensible to look back at a time when except on the very busiest days you could walk on Haunted Mansion with a very modest wait. There were no interactive queues and other such nonsense things to get in your way; once you got through the turnstiles at the porte cohere, that little corner of the park with the family cemetery butting up against the front door was as serene as an actual graveyard.

Second, take note of the entrance area. This particular arrangement - with the front gate that had been put in the early 90s, plus the hearse and fountain which had replaced a large planter and tree in 1997 - ended up lasting a mere 2.5 years. In 2001, Disney put up the Fastpass building which clutters up the area today, added a covered-over fountain smack in the middle of the walkway, and took down the central gates with the dead wreaths on them which much better communicated the idea of "old, closed-off estate". The intersection of strollers, Fastpass building, former Keelboat dock, and gate in this area has been a logistical disaster for at least the quarter-century, and I really wish the park would tear the whole area out and rework it.

Let's take a moment to enjoy the "Aging Man" effect in its full original form here, and actually facing the proper direction! The 2007 digital morph, although certainly smoother, has never struck me as being as eerie or oeneric as the original effect here is, with simple fades between each stage in the deterioration. This is almost certainly a device built in 1969 for use in the Disneyland show, back when they were planning on a full 6 stage transformation for each of the portraits. It was crated up and shipped to Florida instead, and I wish I had thought to take a picture of it before it went digital in 2007.

As for the direction of the portrait, it's been wrong since then. The projector is aimed at the ceiling; it bounces off a mirror and onto the scrim, meaning it's reversed twice once you view it from the other side in the Foyer. Whoever composited the video flipped it to account for the scrim but didn't know about the mirror. That's another small touch I hope they fix when they upgrade the projection to HD.

Before real low-light video cameras became a thing, the most coveted form of ride video was night vision, in which your camcorder spit out a beam of infrared light. In retrospect, it's bizarre that home camcorders even had this option, given that it makes people look like weird glowing demons. However it was amazing for theme park nerds who wanted to take in every detail of their favorite rides, so let's take another spin through, this time, in phosphorescent green!

We begin with a decent look at the Load Area in its mostly original state; I believe the lights along the loading belt went blue in the early 90s and that the red and white wallpaper replaced an earlier pattern sometime around that time. In the 1997 refurb a couple of theatrical lights were dropped in through the ceiling around the corner, pointed down to illuminate the pinch point where the line becomes single file; just a few years later, wall sconces would be added to properly illuminate the floor space. At the same time, weird elevated urns on shelves would be installed to disguise speakers for the safety boarding announcements. Finally, in 2007, the "Sinister Eleven" portraits would migrate to the load area, the wallpaper would be replaced again, a "ledge" would be added to lower the apparent ceiling height, and a solid black wall separating the queue from the doom buggy track would be built.

Practically every old-school Florida Mansion fan was unusually fond of that table, chair and lamp on the other side of the buggies; it was a weird little tableau that suggested that perhaps an unseen ghost was doing a little late-night reading! All of those props are in the Attic now and although I'm not hardline enough to insist that their removal ruins the scene or anything, I do wish that WDI would add some stuff over in that corner because it did help the Mansion feel more like an actual house.

I'd also like to bring up the Corridor of Doors. Nearly the whole soundscape of the Mansion was re-mixed and re-jiggered in 2007, and largely I think they did a terrific job - although many of the changes are subtle, it's one reason I think the Florida Mansion feels very fresh and dynamic. And while many Mansion fans have bemoaned the loss of the original Graveyard vocal tracks, I think the removal of the original Corridor of Doors voices is just as big of a loss. Generally, the 07 sound mix veers heavily towards ominous rumbles and creepy whispers - the sort of thing that we recognize from horror films of this millennium. The 1969 Corridor of Doors tracks are definitely way closer to old fashioned haunted house album tracks if you sit down and listen to them individually, but they never played that way in person because you simply didn't have time to sit there and listen to each one. The new version of the scene is still creepy, but the original was way creepier.

So let's talk about the Attic scene. The pop-up guys up there always were a controversial feature of the ride, and I think at its heart the reason is because you had just come from the Ballroom, the spectacular visual highpoint of the ride, and around the corner was a skeleton dude bobbing up and down on a stick.

But, you know, they didn't have to suck. Were the figures properly hidden, and dropped down out of sight immediately, you wouldn't have to be stuck looking at a static head on a stick slowly being ratcheted out of sight. Making the situation even worse, in 1997 WDI decided to put glowing purple top hats on every one of them, meaning that even the ones properly hidden could be spotted thanks to their dumb glowing top hats.

Then there's the separate case of that first fellow on the right as you entered. I have no idea if he was simply malfunctioning for 8 years, but more often than not he looked the way you see in this video - way too far up, bouncing around in midair, looking stupid. When I was a little kid, this guy came out of an open trunk on the floor and scared the heck out of everyone. It still works that way in Tokyo Disneyland, the last place on earth to enjoy this simple effect. I have a suspicion that someone in Imagineering wanted the popups to be this way, to give "riders a hint" before they appeared.

But the thing is, the only positive thing you can say about a head on a stick that pops out to scare you is that it scared you; with the exception of rubber spiders bouncing around in webs earlier in the ride, it's the crudest thing in the Haunted Mansion. I miss these guys, but I don't miss the way you see them in this video, looking stupid and not properly hidden. If you're going to have a jump scare, you need to commit to having a jump scare, and I think without at least one or two in the attraction, the Haunted Mansion is missing something. The Attic is supposed to be the dark heart of the ride, the room you were never supposed to see, and on that count Connie doesn't cut it.

And, oh, hey, the graveyard of my teenage years! The Singing Busts were out of synch. Somehow, after the switch to "laserdisc technology" as our ghostly friend George put it to J.D. Roth, they were never quite able to synch them up properly. Also, the Old Man was REALLY loud, and the mummy didn't have a vocal track. Was that way until 2007, as best I can tell. Also, if you listen REALLY carefully, you can barely hear the "La-da" singer track by the Hearse, still lurking around in the late 90s. This was a graveyard vocal removed from Disneyland for some reason and some folks are obsessed with it.

Alright, let's hop a plane over to California for one last bit of Mansion-y goodness.

Again, this was a short-lived incarnation of the Mansion. A 1995 refurbishment introduced changes to the Seance Room and Attic, as well as the red wallpaper in the stretch room (which I've always preferred) and an upgraded sound system. Many of these changes were subsequently removed by further changes in 2005, meaning it's increasingly difficult to find good versions of this incarnation of the ride.

The "I Do" version of the Attic has always struck me as a pretty good middle ground between keeping the popups and decreasing the intensity of the scene. Interestingly, in this version of the scene the popups rose one at a time, from the back of the scene to the front. I'm fairly certain that the first guy in the hatbox right by the entrance was supposed to come up every time another one did, but he appears to be broken on this day. Sadly, this pattern did make it possible to go thru the whole scene and not see a single popup. I know because I accomplished this feat more than once in 2003. Videos from the early 90s do show the pops all rising at once, as they did at Magic Kingdom, so perhaps starting in the 90s Imagineering began exploring ways of lowering the intensity of the Attic.

The two other notable changes occur nearer the start of the ride. Imagineering has imported the "Leota tilty table" effect designed for Phantom Manor, which I've never liked all that much. It's fine in Phantom Manor because there isn't much else going on it that room, which I'm fairly sure has a smaller diameter circle around Leota anyhow. I think the "flying Leota" used at Disneyland and Magic Kingdom is a much better upgrade to the scene.

The other change is the reintroduction of some Ghost Host dialogue in the Corridor of Doors. Supposedly the attraction opened with this in 1969 and it was removed a few months later, perhaps as part of the same refurbishment which saw them move the bride and deal with cellar flooding. I've never liked these lines, and was sort of afraid they would introduce them to Magic Kingdom in 2007 as part of that refurbishment. However, I can see how they help keep the Ghost Host more of a participant in the attraction during Disneyland's shorter ride, because without them he gets you on the ride, commands you to listen, then leaves a minute later!

Also, I like and miss that "Dead End!" sign outside the Unload area.

When we talk about Disneyland and Magic Kingdom, especially on sites like these, it can be so fun to dig into the history and details of the places that we forget that they're constantly changing, in ways big and small. Time races by regardless, and now that the mere look of analog video is nostalgic, I hope these small documents of a time long since past are helpful or at least fun. Everyone stay healthy and let's hope for a return trip through the Mansion soon!


Looking for more spooky fun? Head on over to our Haunted Mansion Hub Page, or check out this index of articles on Walt Disney World History!

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Disney World's Universal Decade

As far as theme park fans are concerned, the decade of the 2010s began in June, when The Wizarding World of Harry Potter opened at Islands of Adventure. As far as national media coverage was concerned,  this was the largest theme park story in about ten years - the only thing that came close was the opening, and resounding flop, of Disney's California Adventure. And for possibly the first time ever, Universal was getting the sort of press, the sort of reports of opening day insanity, and the critical platitudes that, in any other situation, would have gone to Disney.

Everyone saw the shots from opening day, with the line snaking out of Islands of Adventure and nearly to the park next door. As an idea - as an image - here was something that was to set much of the stage for the next decade of theme park design.

But even more importantly than the hype and the opening day line was the fact that here Universal had finally delivered on the promise of something Disneyesque, which is to say: something that was lavish and also something that people wanted badly. The keystone ride, Forbidden Journey, remains a charming conjuring trick built on old-school illusion and misdirection that has not dimmed in impressiveness despite ten years of tech challengers. But the true reason the place worked is it delivered those experiences people really wanted.

This is something Disney had really lost sight of in the 90s and 00s: delivering the kind of experience people want in a way they are prepared to pay for. Animal Kingdom, especially in its original form, was too lecture-y to emotionally connect, Epcot had been stripped of much of its warmth, and DCA included smarmy sex jokes and gorillas in Cadillacs. Universal let you drink a Butterbeer, buy a wand, and enter Hogwarts. Adult fans of Harry Potter who grew up on the book series bought themselves a wizard robe, stood in front of Hogwarts, and cried. It was powerful wish fulfillment, and it was coming to them from Universal. And all of this was happening at exactly the wrong time for Disney, who had spent much of the last decade pursuing their most coveted demographic of... six year old girls.

In June 2010, Walt Disney World was a confused mess of projects. The largest project was New Fantasyland, tearing out what remained of the 20,000 Leagues lagoon site in favor of a paltry single ride and six heavily themed meet and greets skewing towards children. Your child can color princess pages in Aurora's house from Sleeping Beauty! It had been five years since the last major addition - Expedition Everest - and Toy Story Mania, though enduringly popular, was not the sort of headliner that sells vacations. It would be another two years before the Little Mermaid omnimover at Magic Kingdom would open for business, and there was little else on the horizon. Pleasure Island had been abruptly shuttered in 2007, and while various replacements had been announced, very little actual work was taking place. Across the country, California Adventure's overhaul had been announced and was still ongoing, and although the World of Color fountain show had been enthusiastically received, much of the best parts of that park were still in the future.

Gentlemen, I give you the future!

Indeed, the overwhelming sense as a Florida based Disney fan was that the true show was happening elsewhere. Hong Kong Disneyland's Mystic Manor attraction was shaping up to be a tribute to old-school Disney attraction values, and Walt Disney Studios Paris was receiving a trackless Ratatouille ride. California Adventure, so long scorned by the internet and the kind of theme park visitor who never likes to travel west across the Mississippi, was receiving ambitious and prestigious upgrades. It felt as though Walt Disney World's doldrums would never end.

Its also worth remembering that 2010 was the year WDWs attendance finally began to fall, and this happened nearly in harmony with Universal's ascendancy. Universal Orlando, which had spent much of the decade since the opening of Islands of Adventure in comfortable slumber as a favorite of locals and niche enthusiasts, suddenly began to do the kind of business its parks were designed to do. Tourists who never previously would have considered heading crosstown began to descend to see their Disneyesque Harry Potter area -- and they actually liked what they saw. Shops had to put up makeshift queues to control Potter-crazed fans of all ages. Abandoned corners of Islands of Adventure such as the Captain America Diner suddenly sprung to life. What Disney had feared in 1989 and 1999 had at last come to pass - Universal was peeling off vacation days from visitors. All Disney had to counter The Boy Who Lived was a pack of princesses. Resentful fans built castles in the sky, fantasizing about Disney's imaginary Potter Swatter.

Something had to be done, fast. The Fantasyland area was reworked, with half of the Princess meet-and-greets pulled and replaced with a family coaster. That was fine in the short term, but Disney still had nothing with the in-built fan base and cross generational appeal of Harry Potter.

With Marvel tied up with Universal and Lucasfilm's acquisition still in the future, Disney announced they had acquired the theme park rights to James Cameron's Avatar. It was the confused shrug heard round the world. But in retrospect, it was something more. It was the start of a new phase in Walt Disney World history.

The IP Invasion

Michael Eisner was the boy who ran away from the polo club to become a television executive. A product of a wealthy New York City family and the Hollywood culture of the 1970s, Eisner loved big, flashy, prestigious ideas -- Disneyland outside Paris, WOW! Under Eisner, Disney could build modernist architecture palaces, teach you American history, and market Tim Allen as Santa Claus. What Eisner was bad at was where road meets rubber; burned on EuroDisney and Disney's America, in the second decade of his term he became gun shy on spending. This leads to many bizarre missed opportunities from 1994 to 2005; Eisner could never bring himself to build a proper Lion King ride anywhere in any of the four Disney resorts in the world, despite that feature being the crowning fiscal achievement of his tenure. So Eisner liked big ideas with no money behind them; a celebration of man's progress to welcome the 21st century at Epcot, WOW! But what that actually was, was fabric on poles and a pin stand.

In comparison, Bob Iger is, on the big ideas front, a dullard. Bob likes to give people more of what they've already said they wanted - he did not miss the opportunity to get a Frozen ride open wherever he could as quickly as possible, whereas one feels that Eisner would have been more comfortable having Elsa blast snow at you on the Backlot Tour at MGM or something. Having spent  his entire term as CEO trying to mop up the mess left by the underspending at DCA, Hong Kong Disneyland, and Walt Disney Studios Paris, where Iger excels is making sure these projects are properly funded to return lavish results. The difference in quality between fit and finish on Hollywood Boulevard at the entrance to Disney-MGM Studios and Buena Vista Street at California Adventure is massive. This combination of safe ideas applied to the parks with good budgets has characterized this decade of theme park development, and the model is explicitly drawn from Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Fans call the IP Invasion.

The warning signs were there early on. In 2009, Avatar shot to the top of the box office charts - a big, dumb, lavish James Cameron space epic. And while the show has retained a cadre of fans and is probably on track to become a nostalgic favorite of a certain age group of 2010s youngsters, the reputation of the film has declined precipitously in the decade since its release. Square in the flush of this decline, but well ahead of its very well hyped sequels, Disney announced and built a full on lavishly scaled themed area for the film in Animal Kingdom.

Pandora: the World of Avatar is nearly as impressive for its conceptual acrobatics as it is for its scale. Set many decades after the events of the film (series?), the alien planet Pandora has become a site of eco-tourism and the land represents a sort of national forest on Pandora, which works so well to slip Avatar into the larger environmental concerns of Animal Kingdom that you almost don't notice the strain. Grounded by an alright if interesting boat ride and a sort of deluxe version of Soarin', besides its unbelievable scale by far the most interesting thing in the area is a series of meandering paths through the center of the area that allow you to wander in, through and around the weird alien plants and animals. It's like a tiny Tom Sawyer Island out in the open of the land, and as a convincing sort of primordial alien swamp it provides the necessary depth behind the "wow" of the floating mountains that I'm not convinced either attraction delivers.

Pandora is also the only theme park area in history where you can cause a huge plant to "pollinate" all over a crowd of pedestrians by rubbing it, so that counts for something. Plant sex! In my Animal Kingdom!

If in 2014 Avatar could be ridiculed as a ludicrous misstep, Disney then went another step and announced Maelstrom at Epcot would close in less than six months to be converted into Frozen After After. Maelstrom had become, for a certain generation of Epcot fan, nearly the last tangible connection with the heyday of the park, and the news was not taken lightly. The replacement ride, while arguably more lavish and containing some very impressive audio animatronics (which is something you definitely can't say about Maelstrom), comes off more as an overbearing song highlight reel than a true attraction. Maelstrom was too cheap, too confused, and too weird for its own good, which gave it an endearing, memorable charm which made it many friends.

If you directly compare Frozen Ever After to something like Peter Pan's Flight, it's not a bad ride. But to this writer, there's a hollow feeling that not every opportunity was actually embraced. The long ascent up the lift hill, mysteriously dark in Maelstrom, has become a flat projection extravaganza which manages to be far less impressive than Maelstrom's flat painted viking ghost and laser-eye. An area which once contained some of Maelstrom's most interesting and weird scenery has become an endless corridor of projections of Elsa singing Let it Go, which feels suspiciously like riding through the editing timeline of a music video. But the true heartbreaker for this author is that the main gag of Maelstrom, where the boats threaten to plunge through a hole in the side of the building backwards, has been sealed up. That's like removing the ride from inside the Matterhorn but keeping the mountain. But really, the problem is that no matter how you try to define the question, Arendelle in Frozen is not Norway. The attraction and the meaning of the area that supports it are at ludicrous cross-purposes. After a year of rumors that seemed far too bizarre to be true, in 2017 Disney announced they were going to convert the Tower of Terror at California Adventure into a Guardians of the Galaxy attraction, and fears that this slapdash method of IP placement would continue seemed to be confirmed.

The real elephant in the room here, of course, is Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge. This new area contains brilliant theming, one solid ride and one absolutely remarkable ride, clever experiences, and an IP that many have a strong emotional attachment to. In Florida, where it replaced a weird fake New York that Eisner built to make a Bette Midler movie, it's a home run, and will be even more of one when its adjoining immersive Star Wars hotel will be open. Nine years later, this is finally something as good or better than Universal's Potter areas.

But it absolutely is the wrong fit at Disneyland. Yes, its removal caused the dramatic reconstruction of a neglected corner of the park, and it bolsters and complements Disneyland's strong roster of attractions brilliantly. It improves crowd flow, and the theming to visually cut it off from the rest of Disneyland is cleverly done. But it does not belong at Disneyland, no matter how you try to slice it. One could opine that that ship sailed back in 1987 when Star Tours opened at Disneyland, but it's hard to escape the feeling that this is new territory for Disney.

I will say it if Disney has forgotten it: this is a bad look for a company whose core product is nostalgia. I will say it again: Disney's core product is nostalgia, and once you take that away, the thing that gives Disney its edge over, say, Time-Warner will dissipate. In fact, this may already be happening.

This isn't going to end anytime soon. Epcot, that fan favorite down in Florida, is currently undergoing a huge renovation that will introduce Pixar, Marvel, and Disney animated characters across the whole of the park. Given that Epcot has been a disjointed mess since the 90s, perhaps this will be a shot in the arm, but it's hard to escape the message: that Epcot you knew is over. Just a few weeks ago, Disney announced that the new restaurant next to The American Adventure is going to be hosted by Sam the Eagle from the Muppets, which makes almost no sense at all.

The IP Invasion surges on.

The Adult Retreat

Not everything that happened in the 2010s was a full on dunk in brand synergy. Finally completing their promise to rebuild the troubled Downtown Disney area into something operationally manageable and modern, Disney went full on weird with Disney Springs. Designed at a honeypot to trap locals and Instragram influencers, there's not much Disney at Disney Springs, and it's kind of amazing.

Themed after Florida, a place Disney otherwise goes to amazing lengths to ensure you never see, Disney Springs is a bees nest of semi-haute restaurants, high end shops, weird bossa nova music, and theming intentionally reminiscent of Rollins College in Winter Park. With its restaurants with hanging Edison bulbs, reclaimed wood, exposed brick and menus awash in buzzwords like "crafted" and "local", Disney Springs drops a bell jar over the early 2010s in a way that perhaps no Disney product since EPCOT Center has perfectly encapsulated its era. There may be no Disney characters, sure, but there is a beautiful artificial spring, hand painted murals, a totally bonkers invented "history", garlands with tiny chandeliers at Christmas, a speakeasy buried under a pizza restaurant, and a place where you can wander on a dock and check out a millionaire's collection of rare boats. It's totally bizarre, and I suggest everyone enjoy it for what it is now before Disney paints Mickey Mouse and Elsa over every available surface in the next decade.

There certainly has been increasing alarms being rung in some corners of the Disney fan sphere as renovated rooms in resorts at diverse as the All Stars and Wilderness Lodge return from refurbishment with minimal details and clean, modernist furniture. While this may seem at first glance to be a removal of theming, hotel rooms by their very nature are intended to change and update every few years, as Disney has done every decade since the 70s. And while a case could be made that the new rooms are both less themed and more like the bland "airspace" world ushered in by AirB&B, one fact that should be considered is that room occupancy has continued to decline at Walt Disney World - which explains so many rooms being removed from inventory to be sold as DVC units, and possibly pressure Disney to more fully reflect what a modern traveler would expect to find in the "outside world" in 2020.

And if the removal of theme had stopped there, behind closed doors, it may not have been worthy of comment. But in the 2010s, the Polynesian Resort, that amazing time capsule of 70s Disney kitsch, suffered a fate worse than update.

Going beyond the necessary room updates and removal of room inventory for DVC, Polynesian Resort was perhaps the first Disney hotel to be fundamentally downgraded as a result of its remodel. Meandering pathways through tropical gardens were widened into freeways to accommodate a new revision of the RCID building code which required firetrucks to have clear access into the interior of the resort. Even worse, Fred Joerger's beautiful interior atrium and waterfall was removed and paved, replaced with a tiny statue of Maui surmounting an insultingly tiny trickle of water. It drove a stake thru the heart of the life of the place. Whereas the Polynesian Lobby just ten years ago was bursting with activity, today its a space nobody wants to linger. There were bright spots, such as the addition of the wonderful Trader Sam's Grog Grotto, but this really was a case where Disney paved paradise. And again, it's that nostalgia thing: once you remove that, you can't go back. I'd be curious to know if the Polynesian has retained it status as the most sought after rooms on property.

A more successful case study may be found south, at the Gran Destino Tower, questionably tacked onto Coronado Springs. Coronado Springs, a bizarre 90s fever dream of Latin America, now hosts a tower that looks very much like any Hilton in the world, even more questionably inspired by Salvador Dali and the Spanish, ie European Espana, artistic heritage.

If this sounds totally incoherent it is, but taken strictly as Disney's first full on attempt to create a Disney version of a modern, high end resort, it actually succeeds. The lobby bar serves the kind of drinks you'd expect to find at a destination bar in New York. The interior finish is lavish without being overbearing in its execution. The rooftop restaurant, Toledo, serves an amazing spread of food with views of Animal Kingdom, Epcot, and Hollywood Studios. If the Grand Floridian felt lavish but stuffy, Gran Destino feels lavish and chic. It doesn't exactly feel like you're at Disney, and I think that is the point. This is for the sort of traveler who stays at the Kimpton wherever they go, and with it and the slightly more family friendly brand new Riviera Resort, the question of what Disney is going to do with their dowdy old Contemporary Resort seems ever more pressing.

In a way it feels like this past decade was the era when Disney finally embraced their adult fan base, and whether that's due to Harry Potter wands or not, that may be the biggest story here. It certainly isn't children driving up the grosses of Marvel movies, or buying $200 lightsabers. And while the mainstream media may still be able to generate clicks with articles about "childless millennials" at Disney, a quick review of the internet shows that the majority of content generated about Disney is from that age group - this blog is written by one.

And while it may be difficult to reconcile a Disney that will tear down Epcot AND sell you an adorable Figment pillow, Disney is not what it was a short time ago. Disney is a multi-media, multicultural juggernaut, and any money they think they can get from you, they will take. Disney made 80% of the top box office attractions in 2019, a number that would have been staggering in 2008. They rode their tide of childless millennials to glory, sweeping aside all in their wake.

Hollywood Studios seen from the top of Gran Destino / Disney Food Blog

Interactive Everything

The first time I saw an iPhone was late June, 2007. I was working at the Hall of Presidents, and a guest who had waited in line to buy one on the first day was showing it off in the lobby. At the time, the idea that that little chunk of metal would change the world was laughable. Remember that devices such as the Nokia N-Guage had been coming and going since the Millennium making similar claims, but the iPhone was the one that stuck.

In retrospect, Disney's response to the whole thing was just as strange. To be clear, people had always brought small distraction devices to Disney to help kill the time spent in line, and in 2007 seeing a kid with a Nintendo DS in line for Space Mountain was exceedingly common. The world of social media and Angry Birds were still yet a few years away, and Disney's knee jerk response was that this new world of technology was going to need to be met head-on with... competition.

In 2009, the Kim Possible World Showcase Adventure debuted, based around the retrospectively quaint notion of lending guests a flip-phone running proprietary software to cause various effects to activate around World Showcase. That same year, the new queue of Space Mountain debuted with a wall of video screens playing Wii-esque mini games involving docking ships and sorting luggage. These were merely an appetizer for the deluge of interactivity to come.Disney was prepared to wage a full-on war for your attention, and the places guests consistently were asking for more things to do was while waiting in line.

The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh and Dumbo received playground-esque play areas appropriate to the kiddie set they were courting, although Dumbo ended up using a pager system concept which turned out to be more trouble than it was worth. Test Track was rebuilt with the concept of interactive queue integration baked into the concept of the ride, although the refresh has remained controversial with nostalgic fans. The most controversial addition was the lavish Haunted Mansion queue, decried by traditionalists but largely enjoyed by the public. Peter Pan's Flight received a new but largely passive queue experience, and a "build-a-doll" feature planned for Small World ended up being only half implemented. Probably the best of these various queue refreshes, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, seems to stop the line more than Operations would like.

All of this was intended to be built on the back of Disney's massive, extraordinarily costly MyMagic+ initiative. An attempt to tie together a number of internal software upgrades, MM+ was ambitious and was intended to roll out to every Disney resort around the globe, unifying all of them under one system and application. To say it didn't work out that way is an understatement.

To be clear, Disney needed to massively upgrade their tech infrastructure to begin with. Each line of business within the resort used a different tech solution often hacked together using existing technology, none of which interfaced with each other properly, requiring lines of business as diverse as a hotel front desk to manually input data to be sent into, say, the reservation bank at the Crystal Palace. Let's not forget that Disney is the same company that's been pulling boxcars around with magnets as a "transport system of the future" since the early 70s. The idea was to streamline key items as diverse as park admission, purchasing, hotel room entry, reservations, photographs, and more into one easy user-end software interface.

Chris Barry
Which today sounds like a no-brainer, but remember that in 2011 and 2012 the idea that absolutely everyone would own a smart phone, tablet, or Apple Watch - probably more than one - was still in the future. As a result, starting in 2009 Disney began to test and implement a vast array of tech built around RFID, a technology they had been using in the parks since the early 2000s. Only the true dinosaurs like me will recall the 100 Years of Magic "Magical Moment" pins, ungainly chunks of plastic which would light up whenever you were experiencing a "magical moment", such as the end of the fireworks. These were essentially reacting to a gigantic blast of infrared RFID information installed in various attractions, huge beams of which can be seen in night vision home videos from 2001 until 2007. This infrastructure would then be re-introduced in the form of Pal Mickey, a talking, vibrating plush with an RFID receptor installed in his nose. Pal Mickey, a forward-thinking attempt to help guide guests around the parks, had a number of interesting ideas that were never fully implemented, such as Mickey directing you to attractions with short waits. The difference was the Magical Moments pins cost $10, and Pal Mickey was an $8 rental on a $50 deposit. In the early 2000s.

So Walt Disney World bought in full hog on RFID. Park admission, room keys, and purchases were streamlined into a clunky but functional user interface all tied to a rubbery bracelet sent to you in flashy packaging. Obviously modeled on the "Livestrong" bracelet fad, MagicBands continue to be sold at Disney, but their actual utility is less than a fraction of what was imagined. Early MagicBands included batteries to enable to use of long-range RFID, and Disney was, until the actual complexities of running such a torpid system became apparent, busily installing RFID receivers all across the roofs of Magic Kingdom. That's right, Disney, the ultimate nanny state, wanted to use these bracelets to keep tabs on nearly everything about what their guests were up to, from purchasing patterns to bathroom use. A glorious future was envisioned where Mickey Mouse himself could upsell you on an ice cream cone outside of a bathroom because Disney knew you had gone exactly 2.5 hours since your last snack.

Disney's dream of the 2010s
Again, the ambition and absolute folly of building a tech infrastructure like this in 2011 based on close-range RFID emitters is retrospectively staggering. In the end, MyMagic+ would never leave Walt Disney World. A torpid, costly affair supposedly tipping the budget scales above two billion, a combination of the protracted Avatar project and MyMagic+ shot parks executive Tom Staggs down in flames. The other Disney resorts looked upon Orlando's efforts with indignation. Many of the elements that really did improve the guest experience, like the removal of turnstiles in favor of touch points, were absolutely impractical at places like Disneyland. Slowly, Disneyland and then other parks rolled out their phone apps, each built in a separate silo from each other.

The two projects that were truly going to demonstrate the power of the system - Pandora at Animal Kingdom and Shanghai Disneyland - came and went without significant MyMagic+ presence. Although Walt Disney World has maintained the MyMagic+ name and wristband element, nearly nothing of that decade-ago tech remains operational. There never was a full integration of all of Orlando's Disney systems, for the same reason that there never has been one - any job where you deal with the public is bound to be a messy one, and Disney has simply never managed to take the guesswork out of it. In the end, trying to build a tech infrastructure based on something like Bluetooth in 2016 instead of 2011 probably would have been a bigger success... but there's another problem, and it's a problem that Disney used to be the masters of.

It's that no matter how carefully you design a user-end interface to solve all of the problems of your line of business, people are still people and getting them to use it the way you want is a fool's errand. People are still gonna people. Disney used to be masters at understanding people and invisibly guiding them towards designed, profitable experiences. Someday, stand on the monorail platform at Magic Kingdom and just watch the people. Watch the monorails gliding in and out, the doors popping open, the people constantly flowing in and out, each one and individual from cultures around the world but each being helpfully guided by design through an area. Watch how gracefully they navigate each other and a space and moreover watch how it happens again and again and again. Compare that to the mess of humans milling around waiting for a Fastpass to become valid.

Rise of the Resistance, Disney's best attraction since Indiana Jones Adventure, opened this last month. There was no interactive queue. Scratch that: there's no queue. The ride works on a pure reservation system, with groups being called to wait in a short line to board. We're back where we started, with what Imagineering knew back in the 50s and 60s: the park itself is the interactive queue, and anything that complicates the space between that and getting on a ride should be as minimal as possible.

But really nothing tells the story of MyMagic+ better than a tiny spot in the interactive queue for the Haunted Mansion. The third crypt has a peek-in scene where a book of verses is writing itself. There's a disembodied voice to prompt you to complete the rhyme. It's a circa-2011 version of voice recognition, an early form of Alexa or Siri. It's all wrapped up in a clever package, but if you stand there and watch the way people interact with this thing, not one guest in 25 understands what they're being asked to do. There's even a recorded narration constantly asking you for input: "Muses! Speak up!".

Nobody does. After a year, WDI went back and added telephone receivers to provide a visual aid to help this gag sell. Guests broke off the receivers and still they do not speak up. What they will do is walk past the crypt, see the book writing itself, and exclaim "Harry Potter!".

Harry Potter.

Clearing the Cobwebs

Much of the best stuff that happened at Walt Disney World this decade was all about old-school park design values. The decade was kicked off with The Enchanted Tiki Room: Under New Management being destroyed in a kind of literal act-of-God freak fire, paving the way for the return of a tighter version of the original show. A few months later, The Orange Bird returned to Adventureland, setting off a merchandise trend that has yet to subside. It was a strange time to be a classic Disney fan.

With the noteworthy exception of Space Mountain, nearly all of the Magic Kingdom classic attractions are in great shape. A 2015 Pirates of the Caribbean refresh finally made that attraction into the showpiece it deserves to be, with many of the figures looking better than they have since the 80s. Stalwart attractions like Jungle Cruise and Riverboat have kept up with their maintenance, while Haunted Mansion continues to be wildly popular and receive suspect additions - most recently, an on-ride photo.

Disney finally put Stitch's Great Escape out of its misery, gutting the show's animation and is now using the lobby as a meet and greet. Magic Kingdom seems to be in no hurry to replace the attraction, perhaps understandable because that space has never managed to house a significant attendance draw. Instead, a copy of Shanghai's TRON ride is sprouting up next to Space Mountain and WDI is on a rampage around Tomorrowland, trying to bring back an updated version of its original Space Age look.

Removing the Future That Never Was / Derek Sterling
Less positively, in 2013 Country Bear Jamboree was retooled into a version that cut nearly a third of its run time, doing very little to retain much of its original wit while gaining very little in terms of pace. The figures themselves were lavishly redressed, and hopefully the full 15 minute show can be restored in the future. Meanwhile, Pirates of the Caribbean continued to receive suspect updates to the Auction scene, a rare situation where my feminism and desire for park preservation were at loggerheads. The resulting scene isn't any worse than the other 2006 tampering, and far better than the atrocious 90s fixes to remove implied rape in the Chase scene, but its now kind of shocking to consider that the ONLY scene remaining in the Florida ride where you can hear X Atencio's original iconic script is in the Jail scene. Given all of this, it would be nice if WDI saw fit to  remove Barbossa from the Bombardment scene and reinstate Paul Frees' original Blackbeard captain. Barbossa hasn't even made sense as the captain of the "evil" pirate crew looking for Jack Sparrow since the first film, anyway.

While efforts to move crowds around this most crowded of Florida parks continue, the most significant this decade were the leveling of the Skyway station and the the rebuilding of the Hub. The Skyway project turned into one of the nicest bonuses to come with the New Fantasyland project, a leafy corner devoted to Tangled with some nice details. The Hub project was badly needed and while not all of Operations' lofty plans to issue Fastpasses to preferred viewing corrals have quite worked out, on the busiest days the extra space has made a huge difference. It's not the Magic Kingdom hub I grew up with, but it's flashy and not bad at all.

Overall the removal of Toontown, the re utilization of the former 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Skyway attractions, and the rebuilding the of the Hub, Main Street bypass, Adventureland Veranda and finally at long last the entrance plaza have finally cleared away most of the badly utilized spaces around the park, though those shops in Adventureland and Caribbean Plaza remain poorly capitalized upon. With TRON rising out of the ground quickly. Magic Kingdom is finally receiving her first genuine capacity addition since 1993 (!). The park is just about in the position you want a legacy park to be in.

BlogMickey / @MickeyExtreme, August 2016
Meanwhile, across the resort, Walt Disney World's most ill-conceived addition has a new lease on life. The entire rear of Hollywood Studios, a "backlot" which saw less than one year of active production and then stood untouched for nearly 30 years, is finally gone, and with it Catastrophe Canyon, the Backlot Tour, a temporary movie set playground that set an unfortunate precedent, and more are finally gone. And while the Toy Story area that was built nearby is less than ideal, the Star Wars area that superseded much of that old backlot is an absolute winner, especially compared to its previous life as a fake city street with no real purpose.

Less easy to applaud is the decision to scrap that park's final opening day attraction, the problematic but lavish Great Movie Ride, in favor of a screen-based Mickey Mouse attraction. But it's a brave new park out there now, and certainly of the slate of four parks, the Studios had the most to gain and least to lose by wiping its slate clean. Let's hope in the next few years this freshening up continues and we say goodbye to poorly utilized areas such as Animation Courtyard, the Beauty and the Beast tent show, and the Indy Stunt Show. Disney went from barely a major player to the 500 pound gorilla on top of the Hollywood box office in just ten short years, and their movie theme park really ought to reflect this.

In these quarters we're less sure of the fortunes of Epcot. Currently in the midst of a protracted multi-phase reboot a'la California Adventure, it's still so early in the going that it's hard to say if Disney is going to end up with a conceptually unified park, something that Epcot hasn't really been since the turn of the Millennium. Certainly, it's been hard to say goodbye to stalwarts such as Illuminations, Impressions de France, and Universe of Energy, but on the same token the Disney that built EPCOT Center is no longer with us and that park is never coming back. And while the probability of the newest incarnation pleasing EPCOT Center purists is probably below zero, there is a chance to build a park that feels more like a futuristic showplace and less like a community college from the 80s.

I personally gave up on ever seeing my preferred version of Epcot again ten years ago, so this quarter is cautiously optimistic. If nothing else, the new films at The Land and Canada, bowing this month, are actually far closer to the education and inspiration message of the Epcot of old than their 1996 and 2007 replacements were.

For this observer, the best trend of the past decade has been the sudden awakening by somebody somewhere in the organization that the Orlando property's infrastructure is embarrassingly outdated and that Disney has the capital necessary to fix it. Downtown Disney was once the property's biggest logistical nightmare, with traffic that frequently gridlocked the roads around it. With the reconstruction into Disney Springs came new overpasses, parking garages, elevators, escalators, and even pedestrian access bridges across the intersections. This all works wonderfully today and parking spaces can be located from the road in under ten minutes from both directions, which compared to the Downtown Disney of 2005 is sort of a miracle.

The success of that project kicked off a rash of upgrades across the resort, and new traffic patterns, off ramps, security processes and more have been a constant for the past four years. But none has been more visible than the Skyliner, a Doppelmayr lift system connecting Epcot, Hollywood Studios, and several hotels. Despite opening month hiccups the system works amazingly well and has already caused Disney to reduce their reliance on buses within the network. The system transported a million people in less than a month. As a passenger with me in one of the buckets exclaimed a few weeks ago, "the Skyliner is legit".

Hopefully, the Skyliner system will be expanded with a new hub at Coronado Springs and spurs connecting Coronado to the Beach Club, then on to Blizzard Beach, Animal Kingdom, and Animal Kingdom Lodge. From there, a north spur could easily cut through wetlands north of Coronado Springs and bring guests to the Transportation and Ticket Center. This would effectively put most of the resort on mass transit. Even more pressingly, hopefully Disney will soon invest in a new automated monorail fleet and replace the aging, literally falling apart monorails they are still running.

In short, its hard to avoid feeling that Walt Disney World is finally getting to the point it should have been at ten years ago. Genuine expansion and hard looks at existing problems are finally rolling forward,  hopefully setting up the resort for its next ten years of improvements.

Tom Bricker
You Can't Go Home Again

But, you know, its not all clear skies ahead. While the past few years have been a whirlwind of new additions, Disney spent all of the 00s and half of the teens obliviously treading water while raising prices constantly. Day tickets crossed the $100 threshold years ago. Left and right, upcharges and add-ons have spread like crabgrass. Parking a car at thr hotel overnight? That'll cost you. Planning on using your tickets later? That'll cost you. Want to refill your Coke? That'll cost you, too.

With hotel occupancy down overall, its hard not to feel that Disney has finally crossed that event horizon from popular destination to once in a lifetime spree. The trouble is, the tighter they squeeze, the more money's gonna run thru their fingers. Disney travelers have long relied on outside grocery stores and stroller rental companies to take the sting off the tail of Disney prices, and with recent moves to curtail these competitors one wonders at which point vacationers are going to stop buying those high profit resort drinks or simply decide to go elsewhere next year.

Myself, I'm wondering what Disney is going to do when the market declines again. Tourism has always been a boom and bust industry, and attendance has dropped precipitously at the start of the 1980s, the 1990s, and the 2000s. We're very much waiting for the other shoe to drop, and when that happens Disney has always had a robust local market to appeal to in the past. Given the discounts I've seen being marketed locally and the sudden lifting of summer blackouts last year when Toy Story Land was not enough the entice visitors to Orlando, I'm starting to wonder if that market is still going to be there for them when they need it. I can't speak for everyone, but when it came time to renew my pass several years ago, I decided a Nintendo Switch was more appealing. And I have Disney posters on my wall. Disney's core product is nostalgia, and you can't have nostalgia when you've torn out a lot of what makes people nostalgic.

The bulldozers finally came for River Country / Cameron F
It's also been frankly bizarre to see Universal, the company who kicked all of this off by snatching the golden chalice and waking the sleeping dragon, stumble as badly as they have in Orlando. Following their second, marvelously realized Harry Potter area, they've mostly been content to open nice hotels and underwhelming replacements. Universal Orlando's "third park", Volcano Bay, is a nicely themed water park that still falls short of the theming Disney lavished on their two water parks a quarter century ago. And despite acquiring the property of my personal childhood dreams - Nintendo - progress on getting the thing open in Orlando has been stalled by a series of false starts. It's now wrapped up in a frankly bizarre venture to open a park nowhere near their other two in a move which seems doomed to boondogglery. The cross town rivals briefly looked competitive, but each year that passes the gap seems to widen and widen.

They say you can't go home again, and that's true for the Walt Disney World of the 20s.

After losing much of the history and charm at the Polynesian earlier in the decade, in 2019 the final, untouched pocket of old school WDW fell. The bulldozers arrived at Fort Wilderness to clear away River Country for a new hotel. Like the Gran Destino it will probably be very nice and probably pretty incoherent - its ostensibly about nature, and Pocahontas or something but it looks like a mid-century Radisson.

And with that, the Walt Disney World I fell in love with as a child was finally gone. That same Walt Disney World that was still almost kinda hanging on when I worked there, the one I began writing this blog about, has finally sailed its last phantom sidewheeler steamboat across Bay Lake and vanished.

It almost, nearly, made it to 50.

If you're reading these words there's a good chance that it was your version too. But the thing is,  there is out there right now somebody who never rode the Backlot Tour or Alien Encounter or Horizons who will love it, and perhaps they'll be the next ones to pick up this thing we were part of and carry it forward.

It's not our Walt Disney World anymore... but it might just be somebody's.

Friday, November 22, 2019

Dead Media from Tokyo Disneyland

Once, a long time ago, listening to music at home meant buying records. And, in those days, Disney records were in a league of their own. The Disneyland record label consistently made something that was viewed as a banal part of everyday life fun and interesting with elaborate gatefolds, slipcovers, and lavish multi-page books. Disney's key target demographic was children - cheap plastic record players had become increasingly common through the 1960s, and "storyteller" records with included storybooks were a good way to keep children entertained. Releases such as Country Bear Jamboree and The Enchanted Tiki Room are fascinating objects for modern theme park fans because of this lavish attention to detail.

Sadly, by the late 70s and early 80s, buying a Disney album on LP had become just about the worst way possible to experience the product. Long gone were the lavish booklets and clever custom programs and the quality of the records - which had never been all that hot to begin with - had degraded to near paper-thin. Late-stage landmark Disneyland Records releases such as The Official Album of EPCOT Center and, yes, Mickey Mouse Disco and Mousercise are just lousy products - thin-sounding, with cheap packaging. It's a fairly depressing state of affairs for collectors who enjoy these items as mementos, even if the actual contents of the discs are rarely exactly earth-shaking.

But there is an exception, and I recently discovered it: the LP release of the Official Album of Tokyo Disneyland. It's weird, and lavish, and surprisingly interesting.

To begin with, the booklet is back. Except this time it's something more akin to the "Pictorial Souvenirs" produced for stateside parks in those days, making it a pleasant complement to the other early Tokyo Disneyland souvenir products, such as their guide maps and souvenir picture book.

We've covered Disney's exceptional photographic publicity from this era before, and interestingly Tokyo Disneyland got the royal treatment in 1982 and 83 - even photographs which could have been duplicated from identical areas at Magic Kingdom, such as inside It's A Small World, got brand new excellent photography.

Best of all, the center of the LP booklet is a reproduction of the park's 1983 map poster, the one where the spot that would one day be occupied by Star Tours has the Queen of Heart's soldiers "painting the roses red". These delightful vintage items are among the most expensive on the second-hand market, so having a medium-size reproduction here is a real treat.

Go ahead, pop it on the turntable and give it a listen.

The contents of the LP are fairly interesting as well. The nearest analogue is the 1980 "Official Soundtrack of Disneyland/Walt Disney World", but in comparison that release was frankly a budget affair - dropping together various tracks from already-released albums in basically random order. But in terms of arrangement and sequencing, the TDL effort vastly exceeds it.

For instance, the 1980 DL/WDW release has a few tracks that paste together some of the more popular shows, such as Country Bear Jamboree and Hall of Presidents. These are clearly cut down from the existing mix-down versions done for lavish LPs released in 1972, giving the tracks a rushed, inelegant sound.

In comparison, the TDL equivalents of these tracks are actually mixed from isolated source elements, possibly because the music elements were available having been utilized in creating the new Japanese language soundtracks. The new versions are much better, and give us opportunities to hear things not heard in any other version of these soundtrack releases - the piano introduction to Teddi Barra's number in Country Bear Jamboree presented without Henry's narration being a high point.

The entire first side of the album is dedicated to Fantasyland. Walt Disney Productions was very concerned that Japanese audiences would not connect with the other areas of the park, which is why the Americana aspects of the park are de-emphasized - renaming Frontierland to Westernland, for instance. But Japan HAD been a clearing house for Western animation and cartoons through the 50s and 60s, and the emphasis on their cartoon back catalogue here both reflects Disney's strategy in Japan and sets the stage for the cartoon mania which still grips that park.

The extra space allows the Disney sound engineers to do some interesting things. Background and incidental music is featured, something that would never happen on Western releases until the 21st century. The version of Mickey Mouse Revue finishes with a cut-down version of the attraction's theater entrance music, ending with funky guitar riffs which nearly scream 1971. Elsewhere, attraction underscore is presented for Peter Pan's Flight and It's A Small World.

The crown jewel is Pinocchio's Daring Journey, which was heavily marketed within Japan as being designed exclusively for Tokyo Disneyland (it wasn't, and managed to remain exclusive to Tokyo Disneyland for about three months, but theme parks could  get away with things like that in 1983). Practically a quarter of the first side of the platter is devoted to this ride, with a mix of what I believe is attraction underscore and Famntasyland area music. It's bizarre to listen to this record as elaborate mega-attractions like Pirates of the Caribbean blip by in one-minute sound clips while Pinocchio's Daring Journey goes on... and on... and on. The soundtrack on this record is longer than the actual attraction is.

Side Two continues with excellent Japanese-language compressions of Tiki Room and Country Bear Jamboree and is highlighted with a short version of Meet the World.  The Tokyo Disneyland record is not only the best park soundtrack of its era in both technical and presentation areas, but also paves the way towards the modern Disneyland soundtrack.

But before I had the record, I had the cassette.

Purchased in a bulk lot of Tokyo Disneyland items, I picked up the cassette on a whim because I was intrigued that it was devoted entirely to Fantasyland - before I knew that it represented Side A of the LP release. But I was fascinated by the oddities of its tracks, especially the Daring Journey track, and was intrigued enough to import the LP from Japan to continue the search. Here, in the interest of completion, is the cassette version of the Fantasyland tracks.

I'd still like to know how this was released. There's no indication of it being, say, Cassette 1 of 2, and it appeared in my life all alone, in its own vintage plastic case with no insert. A compact cassette can hold much more music than an LP can, so if Disney simply wanted to issue the TDL soundtrack on cassette, they were perfectly capable of doing so without splitting off the Fantasyland tracks over two sides. What I suspect is that this was released as part of some sort of book and tape combination, probably focusing on the Fantasyland area of the park, and the book has since gone missing.

It's an oddity, to be sure, but an oddity that crosses over through a lot of my interests - there can't be too many others who are invested in theme park music, vintage releases from Japan, write a historical blog such as this, and who have the equipment already sitting around to digitally transcode both records and cassette tapes of both.

It's a narrow window, sure, but even minor players like these in the history of how a park was promoted upon opening can be interesting, never mind the very first overseas Disney theme park, the first black ship launched into foreign waters. It's an auspicious moment that looks both backwards and forwards at the tail end of the Post-Walt era before Disney would rapidly become very, very different.


If you enjoy Disney Park obscurities and weird old music, then you're in the right place! Check out our Walt Disney World History Hub for more deep dives and Park Music Hub for more old music rescued from weird old formats!

Friday, May 10, 2019

Meet Beverly: The Italian Connection

If you've been to Epcot in the past 20 years, you've almost certainly come across it at the Coca-Cola free soda exhibit... a clear, odorless, intensely bitter soda being dispensed under the amusingly bland name "Beverly". So infamously unwelcome is this product it's become a common prank to trick somebody into drinking it, or take the "Beverly Challenge" and watch the imbiber squirm:

Look online and you'll find plenty of colorful adjectives to describe it: the worst taste in the world, like old socks, like puke.

But there's more to the stuff than that! And with the Coke exhibit likely ready to be torn down in the next couple of years, let's take a quick tour of what Beverly actually is, learn some history about it, and perhaps gain some perspective on what is actually a fairly interesting little beverage that's been making hapless American tourists gag for 20 years.

Italy, Meet Beverly

Beverly is an aperitif drink, which is a tradition essentially unknown in the United States but beloved in northern Italy.

You almost certainly have come across forms of the aperitif recently in the United States, with the bitter Italian subcategory of drinks lately being very vougeish among drinkers. The most infamous is currently the Negroni. As author Mark Kingwell memorably noted, the Negroni is not a drink for fence-sitters - it's strong, bitter, and thick, and those who love it love it precisely because it's overkill.

If you're allergic to bitter flavors and all you've had in the way of experience is Beverly and perhaps a sip of Negroni you're going to be tempted to write the whole thing off right now... but wait. There is an aperitif for every palette.

Perhaps more fundamental to the concept of the aperitif is the ubiquitous Italian vermouth, a mild red wine spiced up with various botanicals. Poured into a tall glass over ice, it's as basic and Italian as an aperitif gets, and a gentle start to an evening of leisure.

But the thing is, I can't really convey what an aperitif is in toto by pointing out examples, because simply an aperitif isn't a single product so much as it is a whole range of practices - a whole way of thinking about things that went down in flames in the United States with the death of the cocktail hour. And while elaborate drinking rituals have returned in city centers over the past two decades, as Americans we still don't have an instituted culture of stopping the work day with a lightly alcoholic, sparkling drink as a prelude to dinner.

That's really what can't be conveyed here, in this country where we have trouble keeping work out of the rest of life and cannot stand any dickering around over matters such as stopping to enjoy a casual drink and snack at the cusp of the evening. But it's a very civilized way to start the evening, if you're so inclined to give it a try - and the options available to you are numerous.

There are as many apertif beverages as there are towns in Italy, and they cover the entire range from sweet and welcoming to minty and medicinal. The most common options are Aperol, Cynar, Ramazzotti, Campari, Montenegro, and Averna, but there are hundreds. The other thing to understand is the most common way of taking these beverages is to top them up with sparkling water or prosecco, which utter transforms them. Bitter Campari, which taken straight from the bottle will remind many Americans of cough syrup, lightens up into a surprisingly sweet, round drink redolent of blood oranges when lengthened with seltzer. It is therefore appropriate to think of these bottled mixers as being comparable to the concentrated syrup that Coca-Cola is made from - tough to drink on its own, but add carbonated water and the flavors open up dramatically. Pre-diluted bottles of the most popular options, such as Campari, are sold throughout Italy for easy imbibing.

Which brings us back to Coca-Cola.

Coke introduced Beverly in Italy in 1970 in an effort to hedge their way into the popular regional drinking traditions. Advertised as "Cold as Helsinki - Sparkling as Rio - Dry as El Paso", advertisements of the day show a non-alcoholic, deep red (!) beverage alongside newspapers and revelers. And if you were a gigantic corporation trying to establish a toehold in an international market that had remained stubbornly loyal to traditional local beverages, what would you do to sway drinkers to try your new product? You'd probably model it as closely as possible on the most popular aperitif on the market, wouldn't you?

The flavor profile Coke chose to emulate was Montenegro, among the lightest and sweetest of the amari on the market. Montenegro is among the most approachable options on the market, herbal and sweet straight out of the bottle rather than harsh or minty as many are - the Montenegro American website suggests such options as a "Monte Mule", "Monte Manhattan" or "Montenegroni" for home mixographers. But to an American Epcot fan, all it takes is one sip and you'll immediately know - this tastes like Beverly. Actually - this tastes better than Beverly.

Around 2007, I began to become interested in getting ahold of the real bottled Beverly, but could find nobody who could import it for me. According to the World of Coke website, Beverly was discontinued in 2009.... if it was widely available at all by then. Traditional amari won... at least in Italy.

World, Meet Beverly

Coke and Disney have always had a traditional partnership, but it wasn't until the 80s when the company laid down sponsorship money for The American Adventure at EPCOT Center that Coke really solidified their hold on Disney - a position they have yet to cede. Ahead of the opening of Animal Kingdom, Coke negotiated a new deal with Disney for a series of drink stands across the resort, which resulted in some of the tackiest features of Walt Disney World's absolutely most garish period. Animal Kingdom got off easy, with the beautifully realized Dwolla drink bar in Asia. Of the rest, the least egregious was the expansion of the Refreshment Outpost in World Showcase's "Africa" section into the Refreshment COOLpost. Disney-MGM Studios got this terrible freestanding oversized 6-pack of Coke:

Instead of the Hot Set, this was the COOL set, and the lid of the giant bottle would pop open and spray passersby with water. I still can't believe this survived for two decades.

Magic Kingdom's Tomorrowland stand, the COOL Ship, at least somewhat fits in with the rest of the area, although why we are still subjected to stacked shipping boxes of cola is the definition of suspect theming. Perhaps the stacked futuristic shipping boxes of Coke were a necessary counterbalance to the stacked futuristic shipping boxes of Fed-Ex which once littered the open floor space in the Space Mountain queue?

This is the official photo, look how proud they are.

But poor Future World got the worst of it, starting with the Test Track COOL Wash, where blinking lights inform us "Frozen When Flashing!". Mist and fans spray water out in all directions, car wash bristles reveal the shape of cola bottles when spinning, and a Test Track car in the center of it all has the last remaining crash test dummy. Here it is in 2007 with its original Test Track colors:

Mr. Iger, tear down this car wash!

But somehow none of that was quite as bad as a giant igloo in the middle of Epcot, emblazoned with the pink text "Ice Station Cool".

Opening in July 1998, Ice Station Cool at least was the most elaborate of these experiences, offering a short tunnel where the temperature was kept near freezing thanks to a pair of air curtains and a show machine regularly produced snow drifts. This emptied into a shop themed after an arctic exploration base stocked with Coke t-shirts. The drinks were dispensed by these strange contraptions aimed a gigantic globe on the rear wall of the shop.

The most memorable aspect of Ice Station Cool was the frozen caveman glimpsed halfway through the cold tunnel, of course captured in ice at the moment of his demise clutching a bottle of Coke. Personally, as a frequent visitor to Epcot in 2004 and 2005, the most memorable aspect was the raised rubber treads on the floor, which were perpetually sticky with spilled soda. By that time the air curtains had been turned down and the snow machine would simply dribble some cold water on your head. But perhaps, in the end, truly the most noteworthy thing about Ice Station Cool his that it unleashed Beverly on an unsuspecting population.

In 2005, Ice Station Cool was closed and reworked into Club Cool, the form that it exists in today. This basic installation was copied and brought back to the World of Coke attraction in Atlanta, where it is known as the "Taste It!" exhibit. The original flavors were Krest Ginger Ale, Fanta Kolita, Beverly, Vegeta Beta, Kinley Lemon, Lift Apple, Smart Watermelon, and Mezzo Mix.

As you have probably realized by now, I have remained a fan of Beverly since I began to become accustomed to bitter flavors in my 20s, and more than once repeated shots of Beverly have saved me from dehydration after a full lap around World Showcase on a summer day. I've been the subject of intended pranks to "tricking" me into drinking it, which I have always done and reported my enjoyment. To me, the bitter taste of Beverly is as much a part of Epcot as Spaceship Earth.

What I'm not convinced of, however, is that what Coke is distributing there is actually a fair representation of Beverly.

In the research dives for this article I've only ever come across very old Italian advertising for Beverly, which to me suggests that even before Coke officially pulled the plug on the stuff in 2009 it was effectively off the market anyway. What Beverly tasted like in Italy in the 70s we'll never know, but I'm not convinced that the Epcot version is an accurate version. For one, it's not red, which we know for sure the product was on launch. Additionally, it's much, much bitter-er than Montenegro, which it's transparently modeled on. Third, it's being distributed for free in a theme park by the division of the company that never produced it. I think Coke is offering a fairly crude approximation of Beverly, that the real product in the 70s was likely much better balanced, and of course the pure volume of the stuff being mixed with carbonated tap water and dispensed into tiny paper cups all but ensures that the flavor will never be quite right.

But the fact is that even if the flavor was dead accurate, the context would always, always be wrong. Epcot tourists have certain in-built expectations when they see Coca-Cola, and something dry and bitter is not one of them. Additionally, placed right in a row of sweet flavors, the bitter, medicinal taste will always hit harder than if it were sampled, say, before the rest. Presented across a bar, in a tiny glass, and offered as something reminiscent of a Dry Martini, Beverly would have an opportunity to find an appreciative audience. But Coke knew very well what they were doing here, and they set up these tourists to gag and groan and spit and do all of the things they've been doing since July 1998.

Except some of us. Some of us who really like it.

We have no idea if the Coke exhibit is going to be relocated once Communicore gets torn down in a few years, and with Beverly off the market, what's a fan of bitter soda to do?

Home Bar, Meet Beverly

Once I came across Montenegro and immediately recognized it as the basis for the taste of Beverly, I began excitedly experimenting. Perhaps it would be easy enough to simply dilute the stuff with seltzer and I could enjoy Beverly at home?

It wasn't that easy. Over my years of making Negronis at home, I've learned that amari react in strange and unusual ways to being tinkered with. As a syrupy mixer, they have a background taste that some of their least kind critics compare to cough syrup. Diluted, the sweetness becomes properly checked and the fruit flavors emerge. Stirred with other spirits, the bitterness comes forward and the syrupy quality remains. Shaken up with ice, the syrupy quality vanishes and a pleasant, surprising dryness emerges - one can easy make a Negroni into a dry, summery drink by shaking it up with and orange wedge, whereas the stirred version is a strong, brooding drink.

In this case, the Montenegro simply turned into orange soda once it was diluted with seltzer, far too sweet to hit those familiar Epcot Beverly notes. I would have to get creative.

In this case my blueprint was a spin on the Negroni called the Lucien Gaudin, which balances the aggressive Campari with triple sec, resulting in a surprisingly sophisticated cocktail. Again the gentle nature of Montenegro required careful handling and rebalancing.

The result is a beverage that tastes reminiscent of Beverly but with the edges sanded off. It's orangey-sweet and not too strong, which required a new name...

Velvet Beverly 
1 tsp St. Germain Elderflower Liqueur
1/2 oz Dry Vermouth
3/4 oz Montenegro Amaro
1 oz Dry Gin
Stir until very cold and strain into a cocktail couple. Garnish with a fancy lemon peel.

The Elderflower Liqueur can be substituted for Triple Sec, Maraschino or indeed any other cordial you enjoy. Go easy on the teaspoon - most of the sweet in the drink comes from the Montenegro, which should be kept in check.

Even those of you who prefer to keep things on the sweet side will perhaps next time stop by Club Cool and think of Beverly in a different way. When your palette becomes fatigued by the sugar, try a sip or two to cleanse your taste buds. Or pour yourself a cup while you're leaving and sip it as you stroll into World Showcase, as a refreshing and fortifying end to your sugar high.

It's a fascinating product, a failed attempt to emulate a fortified cordial invented in 1885 half a world away, then re-created to shock and surprise theme park tourists in Orlando. Even 20 years later it's a stranger to this land - dislocated, out of time - but sometimes it's the strange things I treasure the most. Ciao!

We have more entries on Walt Disney World drinks, real and invented:
Jungle Navigation Co. Punch | The Seven Seas Drink | Howling Dog Bend