Saturday, December 18, 2010

Passport to Dreams Year End Report, 2010

Anno 2010 has come and gone, and I think most of us are happier to see it going than we saw coming. On the Disney front, at least, things have been busy... if not exactly interesting. Walt Disney World spending has rebounded this year, even if overall attendance has dropped. Whether this is because of one of those odd cyclical patterns that all businesses go through or whether Universal's excellent new Harry Potter attraction up the street is drawing people away, Disney isn't saying. In fact, they're not doing much about it at all. Now that a high-speed rail line is coming to Central Florida with a station on Disney property, the mass transit they're likely counting on to bring people in will also be able to take their business away, elsewhere. Things are changing rapidly in Central Florida and Disney seems to be counted on to be the last to respond.

But this is a design oriented blog so I'm really not going to comment on that, especially and doubly so because so many people have spillt so much bandwidth this year doing so. So little has actually changed at Walt Disney World in the past 12 months that I did reconsider the necessity of writing this. Still, not every year can be a banner year, for Disney or for I, and maybe there's something to be said for a ritualistic year end tradition of unsolicited complaining. EPCOT Center did see some interesting additions this year and I will address those as well, and begin a new year-end recap of what happened here at Passport to Dreams.

So ready or not, here comes:


Hide the Women! Next-Gen is Coming! - The biggest thing to really happen in the Magic Kingdom this year was the tentative launch of "Next-Gen", which is a vaguely menacing prospect for those of us concerned about the aesthetic unities of this park since the introduction of FastPass ten years ago severely compromised many sightlines and obscured many themeing accomplishments with garish and badly placed directional signs. The little family plot outside the Haunted Mansion has, of of this writing, been totally torn out and WDI has moved forward with the construction of a next-gen queue which promises to be something like the "Boot Hill" area outside Disneyland Paris' Phantom Manor, and honestly if there is a bit more atmosphere in the works for the outside of this attraction, then it's sorely needed. Ever since 1990 the Haunted Mansion's "atmospheric prelude" has been compromised by strange props and bad placement so that the house no longer truly feels separate from Liberty Square. Don't expect the strange red canopy to go away anytime soon but the new queue could end up something like the first areas of the Tower of Terror queue, so in my mind could be very good as a prelude to the show inside. At the very least, as an open air area, it will afford attractive views of the house, and the additional queuing space is badly needed.

What has many people concerned is the promise-threat of interactive elements in this new queue, and we got a potential taste of what that could be like earlier this year when the fancy new interactive Winnie-the-Pooh queue opened. That queue was very well done but has the unmistakable atmosphere of a playground, which would certainly feel out of place outside the menacing Haunted Mansion. We should have faith that WDI, who have proven themselves to be fairly reliable for the past few years, will create something creepy and atmospheric instead of exuberant and playful. Indeed the Winnie-the-Pooh queue is so good that it makes a mediocre ride seem much better than it is, but I've already spoken extensively about this queue and how it fares surrounded by 1971 WED designs.

One final comment about the Pooh queue that nobody seems to be talking about: although there is indeed a Fastpass return area which bypasses all the cool new stuff, there is actually no Fastpass distribution area, nor is there any place for one to be added. One of the aspects of Next-Gen is that all FastPass distribution is expected to soon be centralized, possibly only available to those staying in resorts and pre-booked on in-room touch screens. If this is true then we can perhaps, one day, expect all those awful signs and sightline-blocking buildings clustered outside Big Thunder Mountain and similar attractions to be removed or at least substantially cut back. The loss of many really superb views in the Magic Kingdom is my chief complaint against FastPass, and if WDI is looking at solutions to rectify this, then I saw bring on the Next-Gen. GRADE: B

Magic Kingdom: The Happiest Construction Zone of Them All - This was a bad year to visit Magic Kingdom if you don't like construction walls, because simply put, they were more prevalent than guests on some days. The Adventureland Breezeway bathrooms, particularly, were greatly reworked and expanded this year in a project which lasted an absurd five months. The net result of this is that the shaded veranda facing south near the bathrooms has been totally absorbed, which brings to an end a nearly 40 year run of what was once the furthest-flung seating for the Adventureland Veranda restaurant. In the process we lost some nice woodwork and an acceptable false skylight (see right, photo on left), but many of the original decorative elements have been retained and moved out towards the main walkway. This isn't really a tragic loss but it means that yet another quiet feature of the Magic Kingdom has been lost forever. Those looking to be nostalgic may enjoy this 1990 video of the Veranda west veranda taken by Mike Lee, but let's be honest - it hadn't been this nice for fifteen years by the time this area was dismantled and filled with a bathroom, and the change is so subtle that many longtime Adventurers may not even have noticed. On the other hand, what were consistently the dirtiest and dingiest bathrooms in the park have been greatly improved, and this is a real improvement, not a rhetorical argument about the historical value of a minor pedestrian space.

Other restorative work has been done around the park, including worthwhile efforts on Main Street and Liberty Square, and the old Round Table soft serve kiosk has been given a new thatched roof and a new name, both of which look very attractive. Last year I commented that the overall appearance of the park seems to be greatly improving, and the same holds true this year, which seems to indicate that at least a pattern is being established. I feel that some care has been taken to improve landscaping features, with many old trees in Liberty Square removed and replaced with new leafy ones, which greatly improves the appearance of the Square from the Hub. An unexpected series of freezes early in the year saw the removal of lots of old scraggy year-round weedish plants in Adventureland and replacement with aesthetically appropriate flowers, and a number of trees have come down which were formerly obscuring views of buildings. Somebody in horticulture or WDI has clearly noticed that the park looks very nice if you can actually see the buildings as intended in 1971, and this ranks as a massive victory in my book.

Of particular historical interest is that the Gulf Hospitality House / Exposition Hall on Town Square has finally closed for an extended interior renovation which will remove both of the original Walt Disney Story attraction theaters and replace them with some sort of greeting area for Mickey Mouse. In a way this is a logical end for a show building whose use has been contested for as long as it has existed. When the front of the building was constructed in 1971 it was a facade for a hotel which never existed, and the facilities for the Walt Disney Story were actually built onto the east facing-side for the opening of that 1973 attraction. Over the years the space has been used for theme park preview centers, promotional campaigns and timeshare sales without really ever finding a satisfactory reason to exist, and if there's anywhere in the Magic Kingdom as it existed in 1971 in which I would approve of the permanent installation of Mickey and Minnie Mouse, the Hospitality House is it. Chief amongst the Magic Kingdom's many sins is the number of spaces walled up and neglected in the busiest theme park in the Western world. If Disney is ready to find a long-term use for this cavernous but neglected space, I'm ready to approve of it. So long as the interior sets for these meet and greets are tasteful and appropriate to the Victorian setting, this proves to be a significant upgrade for characters long relegated to garish cartoonish settings.

And of course we would be remiss not to mention the absurd demolition project which has finally started to make good use of the 20,000 Leagues ride plot and will finally send Mickey's Birthdayland/Starland/Toontown Fair off to a merciful end after a painfully protracted twenty-two years, or over half of the existence of the entire resort complex herself! The verdict is still out on what the expansion will be like and is likely to remain so through 2011, but the good news is that work is finally, belatedly, underway. Perhaps future generations won't believe us when we tell them that Disney once closed an attraction and spent almost twenty years replacing it with something... but I somehow doubt it. GRADE: B+

Cantina de San Angel Inn and Via Napoli - Moving over to the EPCOT Center, which for once got all the cool stuff this year, we find Disney investing in some new restaurants which pose interesting aesthetic challenges in relation to fitting in with the pre-existing thematic infrastructure. The longtime lakeside Mexican restaurant has been totally demolished and rebuilt as a double-purpose take-out and sit-down restaurant, and although the take-out food is quite tasty, it doesn't really impress from the outside. Make no mistake, for a double-purpose restaurant crammed into a tiny footprint it's fairly nice but the relatively unadorned side directly facing the original Meso-American pyramid makes more of an impression of being in a strip mall than a theme park.

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On the other hand there's some top-notch efforts around the sides of the structure and facing the lagoon, some very evocative false balconies and rockwork, and the main dining room comes complete with windows specially designed to sell tables expressly for views of Illuminations. This is the real reason it exists, of course, and your personal preferences will largely determine whether it's an inoffensive addition or just another sign that the day of the locust is at hand. The original Cantina at least kept a low profile and blended easily with the rest of the pavilion from across the water. The new building, painted a bright yellow and red, for better or for worse is impossible to ignore. GRADE: C

But the second effort this year, Via Napoli, across the water at the Italy pavilion, impresses. WED left the Italy pavilion unfinished back in 1982, and the lame back wall and open air on two sides made this painfully obvious. 27 years later, Disney has finished the job, and I find the effort admirable. The massive Via Napoli building, from across the water, looks just like it always belonged there, and the thematic work done leading from the former "back wall" of the Italy pavilion towards the front doors of the new structure has been carefully judged to appear a natural extension of the original work. Once inside, the restaurant helps to extend the feel that the pavilion continues off into some imaginary horizon line rather than terminating in a parking lot. Windows towards the east look out towards an original WED berm seperating Italy from the American Adventure which has been adorned with decorative trees and a gravel path, and it is a surprisingly effective evocation of some sort of Italian countryside. Tall half-round windows grace the back wall, but far above eye level, and look out towards a distant, again pre-existing line of trees. The backstage areas and parking lots have thus been cleverly screened out, but the treetops suggest a rolling countryside beyond the back wall which does not exist.

In the close-knit club of World Showcase pavilions, very few seem to extend past their "back wall" and continue on forever, an effect which is traditionally achieved with "Stratification" design concepts. Mexico creates an otherworldly nocturne and so seems outside the boundaries of the "three walls" courtyard layout these buildings create. Only France seems to ramble on past our view, an imaginary Paris just behind the Palais du Cinema. We can now include Italy in this group, and the interior designers of this new restaurant (not WDI, by the way) did a bang-up job. Oh, and the food is really good. GRADE: B+

The Power of Song, Imagination and Dance - And oh yeah, this ludicrous thing called Captain EO is back. It's about Michael Jackson battling evil in outer space with his rainbow-beam hand lasers and a bunch of Muppets. Captain EO is sort of big news for us Retroists, and before I go into too much detail it must be first adknowledged that the return of this attraction was, and is, provisional. Of course Jackson died last year and this was a big reason for the return of this show, as was the overall poor attendance of the lame-brained, annoying Honey I Shrunk the Audience 3D show. That that attraction, based on a movie series nobody cares about anymore and which actually, embarrassingly took over the entire Imagination pavilion, has finally been laid to rest accounts for half of my enthusiasm for Captain EO. The other half is that I was surprised to find I actually liked it.

Now nobody's going to mistake Captain EO for high art, but one of the reasons I find it so refreshing is that it is so unlike the bulk of cinematic product being extruded by Hollywood today. I grew up at the tail end of the height of the post-Lucas Hollywood, where big absurd fantasies with elaborate special effects sequences dominated the summer Blockbuster. Today when we look at a movie like Willow or Legend it seems outrageous that it was made at all, not only for the pure overachieving scope of the movies but the fact that at their core they're based around such simple premises. This is the Lucas doctrine at work and of course he had a lot to do with what's both good and bad about Captain EO. It is a cheerfully laughable film.

So that may account for a lot of my positive reaction to the movie. I have no particular attachment to Michael Jackson or his brand of mid-eighties mischief, but here is clearly a personality who is a cultural force to be reckoned with, making a movie for teenagers at the last possible moment before youth culture went permanently ironic. It was directed by Francis Ford Coppola and shot by Vittorio Storaro, who ten years earlier had last been on a cocaine bender somewhere in southeast Asia making Apocalypse Now. EO can reasonably be slotted alongside Thriller from 1983 and Bad from 1987, both of which were also directed by major talents - John Landis, fresh off An American Werewolf in London, made Thriller an overambitious atmosphere piece and Martin Scorsese made Bad right before embarking on The Last Temptation of Christ. With beautiful miniatures by Industrial Light and Magic which look marvelous in 3D and bankrolled by Eisner-era Disney, this is a prestige attraction from another time. It may be a cultural dinosaur but it is as slickly oiled an entertainment machine as can be desired and in 3D, widescreen, and 70-millimeter, watching it it's hard not to eulogize a Hollywood machine which has totally abandoned this mode of entertainment.

From a directorial perspective, Coppola's choices are appealing. Wide shots play in depth at the appropriate moments and the film is very well paced, feeling far shorter than Honey I Shrunk the Audience despite being about the same length. Storaro of course is an immensely talented cinematographer, and although I can't make any claim that either of these men took this project very seriously, their superior talent is up on the screen. Whoever was calling the shots on the 3D effects also clearly was patterning them on the more memorable moments in Magic Journeys, the Murray Lerner 3D picture which opened with EPCOT in 1982, which was ever stranger and freakier than EO. Fuzzball fluttering around recalls the children's kite from Journeys, EO's rainbow beams recall lightning being shot out of the screen by a witch, and even the beautiful opening shot of Journeys, a slow crane down through tree branches, is replayed in reverse at the very end of EO.

It's also frankly a memorable piece of hokum. Despite having not seen the movie in at least eighteen years I never quite forgot the opening asteroid exploding in your face (at least as exciting as the similar 3D effect that opens It Came From Outer Space) or the memorably menacing Supreme Leader sticking her claws through the screen. This still is scary stuff for kids but it makes Captain EO's eventual triumph all the more pleasing. The cultural semantics moving inside concepts like transforming an H.R.-Geiger-knockoff-planet into a vaugley Greco-Roman paradise populated by choreographed dancers with Flock of Seagulls-haircuts are probably too bizarre and complex to unpack here, but it makes the film an honest and unabashed hoot. Would Disney today feel embarrassed to present audiences with a cuddy red Whatsit with butterfly wings who gets his own closeup during a musical number to sing "We are Here To Change the World"? Would cultural watchdogs today jump all over Hooter, a bizarre slobbish diminutive elephant wearing a wife-beater tee who throws food at the screen?

Captain EO is to be taken entirely seriously.

Probably. But audiences looking to feel superior to Captain EO are missing out on half the fun. There is so much retro EPCOT Center atmosphere oozing out of that theater now, with a darkened, synth-laden waiting area, absurd theme song and purple, purple, purple, that it's almost criminally depressing not to be able to jump right next door and ride Journey into Imagination or play in the Image Works. But what Captain EO represents most to me is hope. The film, of course, is optimistic in a way that mass-market entertainment no longer is - Captain EO is a messenger of peace who triumphs over evil with his cute companions and awesome dance moves. The attraction is a revitalization of a film which looked hopelessly dated in 1994 when it was removed but which to us today seems more classically dated. Since EO has appeared on the scene in EPCOT, Kodak has departed as sponsor of the pavilion, the glass Imagination pyramids have begun to change colors again and a new attraction within seems like it may finally arrive and put the embarrassing last twelve years out of our minds. Maybe what EPCOT really needs is a little more EO and a little less of everything else. GRADE: embarrassingly, A-

COMMENTS: Walt Disney World needs to start working harder to maintain her standing in an increasingly competitive environment. Her Captain EO science project was great for her circle of friends, but does the rest of the class really enjoy it?


Passport to Dreams, Slowly and Only Sometimes - Looking back over my roster of posts this year, I've noticed that my rate of output has slowed considerably. It's about twenty-two posts, or a rate of about one every 16 days. Of course those numbers are skewed because three of the posts were nonsense or filler and four of them are really one post which I stretched out to last a month. Actually, despite what I wrote way up at the start of this artickle, blog-wise this has been a banner year for me, and some of these rank amongst my favorite accomplishments. My visitation stats have been fairly consistent, so I must be doing something right and major thanks should go to Cory Doctorow at BoingBoing, who said this about me:
"...might just be the most insightful culture and art writer I've ever read."
I really have no idea what to do with praise like that, but I am very honored!

In other news, you'll notice I've also joined an Ad network, Main Gate, who advertise specifically for the Disney circuit and so far have proven to be reliable, amiable and excellent. One look at the list of bloggers served by Main Gate and you'll see that, aside from Passport to Dreams, they are all excellent resources and reporters. This also puts me in the hilarious position of having Walt Disney World advertising on my site at the same time I'm criticizing them. You may enjoy this however you see fit. Please know that each click supports Passport to Dreams by subsidizing my otherwise financially crippling habit of buying old Disney World stuff on eBay, the same stuff that allows me to write history articles like those you see below. I'm not too proud to tell you this, so go ahead, click through and enjoy.

I've much belatedly switched to a new Blogger template and decided that cream on navy blue is just a bit too much to ask for people reading my 15,000 word dissertations. I'm doing my best to make the template as memorable as possible, and now that I've got a new color scheme to play with, expect to see more of my signature silly rotating banners and more bizarre obtuse references to things nobody remembers.


Buena Vista Obscura at 2719 Hyperion:
Captain Cook's Hideaway (plus followup)
The Lake Buena Vista Story: Part One
The Lake Buena Vista Story: Part Two
The Lake Buena Vista Story: Part Three
The Lake Buena Vista Story: Part Four

History and Esoterica:
Mr. Franklin's Travels
Snapshot: The Great Southern Craft Company
Take Your New Disney Friends Home!
The Host Community
The Art of the Hall of Presidents
Snapshot: Olde World Antiques
Shakedown at the Magic Kingdom
Good News from the Vacation Kingdom

Theory, Dissection and Commentary:
An Aesthetic Profile of Caribbean Plaza
History and the Haunted Mansion
The Case for the Florida Pirates
Nine Shrines of the Magic Kingdom
The Third Queue

Rank Silliness:
One if By Land, Two if by Sea... Now It's 1973!
I'm Not Dead Yet
Showdown at Castle Court
Special Thanks To: George Taylor, Michael Crawford, Mike Lee, Scott Otis, and everyone else who either listened to me blather or helped me get my info together enough to post.

You Should Be Reading: Long-Forgotten, a Haunted Mansion blog that's way smarter and more interesting than I am.

Thanks very much for being a part of my efforts here at Passport to Dreams in 2010 with all of your links, your discussion, comments, and support. It means a lot to me and see you in the New year!


Photo Credits: Exprcoofto (via Discussion Kingdom), Disney Parks Blog, MouseInfo
This post is part of the Disney Blog Carnival. Head over there to see more great Disney-related posts and articles.