Sunday, January 08, 2012

Passport to Dreams Year End Report, 2011

I seem to recall, a year ago, sitting down to write an article much like this. If I recall, I said something like "every year can't be a banner year". I'm tempted to repeat that, but truthfully things change very quickly at Walt Disney world, so quickly that one can easily lose track from one month to the next even if she isn't limiting her general interest to just one park in the way I do. So while it's hard to describe 2011 as a "banner year" for Magic Kingdom, she truthfully hasn't fared too bad. There's been some mediocre, some good, and some bad tempering it all out.

From an aesthetic perspective, the Magic Kingdom has remained about as good as last year, which is indeed a significant step up from the pit of the late 90s/early 2000s when even banner attractions were going to pot. Thanks to dedicated individuals inside the company at a number of levels, almost every major attraction at the park in the last decade has been refurbished or plussed in some way. Amongst those not yet "upgraded" significantly: the animals on the Jungle Cruise are mostly accounted for and operational, a novelty I haven't enjoyed since at least the mid-90s. Peter Pan's Flight continues to tediously chug along towards obsolescence, long overdue for a total tear-out and rebuild similar to what It's A Small World, across the promenade, received in 2005. And Splash Mountain, a headline favorite of many, continues to prove how poorly built it was back in 1992 by needing constant attention and patches every 6-8 months. One of the reasons the Disneyland version is in much better shape is because those America Sings figures it uses were built by MAPO using the highest possible standards back in 1974. Such is the long-term consequence of corner cutting here and there.

Speaking of Disneyland, I took a trip there in early 2011 and had a generally good time, but not having been there in over five years with a lot of water (including this entire blog) under the bridge does change one's perception of the place. I've been thinking a lot about what I saw there, some of which has already made its way onto this blog, but it's enough to say that I believe the park's high standards have begun to slip while Magic Kingdom has improved, closing the significant gap between the two. Besides the always indifferent Cast Members and rampant local population, I saw plenty of broken figures and effects in major attractions and even the Tiki Room, which was so glorious in 2005, feels dustier and threadbare.

Worst of all is the Disneyland Haunted Mansion, which should be a fantastic show piece, is in deplorable condition. Audio tracks are scratchy, paint is smeared, their Seance Room Leota projection is not only badly out of synch but her floating effects are just plain off, and more. There is no excuse for an attraction which receives a refurbishment twice yearly to install and remove their (tacky) Nightmare Before Christmas overlay to be in such terrible shape. The worst offender of all, and a good indicator of just how far that attraction has fallen, is their Load Area. What used to be a strange, haunted blackness has been filled up with clutter on a J.C. Penny level of show quality. Blue lights leak everywhere, making it perfectly clear where the walls are and spoiling the entrance to their Endless Hall scene. Even in the worst days of the Florida version's negligence, the maintenance crew knew well enough not to shine blue lights all over the flat black interior walls.

Disneyland: step it up. I expect better of you.

Okay. So in the next section I'm going to speak some serious truths about Walt Disney World that some of you, dear readers, may not want to hear. If none of this is to your taste then please skip ahead to the section break. This is no rant, no ruse. It is absolutely true. I'm going to accept no complaining about this next section, so if you don't want to hear it, then don't.

I've noticed a general stirring discontentment online in recent months, spurred by a major announcement nobody really cared much about, an increasingly vague future for Pleasure Island, and Universal showing Disney how it's really done up the road. There have been a number of attempts to lash out at the perceived source of the problem, people like Bob Iger or Tom Staggs who really are mostly out of the loop in regards to Disney's little Florida outpost.

I've been ignoring all of this for years on this blog and tried to focus on things I do like, but it's time that the online discourse really start about Walt Disney World and ensuring she has another 40 years in front of her that involve more things than existing attraction overlays and time share sales. If not me, then who? For years the politics of Disneyland have been vented online, but solving Walt Disney World's problems will need more than a new President and a will and a way.

The Big Picture: What is Wrong with Walt Disney World
Back home in Florida, Team Disney Orlando continues to run the parks with a criminal lack of regard for show. Magic Kingdom and EPCOT are hugely busy parks, there's no doubt. On the busiest days at the end of the year, there may be as many as three times the number of people that can fit into Disneyland between The Magic Kingdom and EPCOT. Despite a steady drift away from Disney towards Universal thanks to Harry Potter, it's not as if Disney is losing money here. But, even with the worst crowds and the best people-moving skills, Walt Disney World Operations is still prioritizing money over quality, and this goes beyond their refusal to hire outside of a minimum-wage starting salary.

Foods, for example, has lately gone on a rampage and removed the door handles from a number of alternative entrances and exits from original Magic Kingdom food courts, forcing all traffic through a single entrance where a phalanx of Cast Members are posted, ready to assault you with menus. This is exactly the sort of cheap aggressive grubbery that used to be associated with Universal.

It makes sense, in some ways, as major food outlets at Magic Kingdom can serve as many people an hour as can some attractions - in a park which can hold 80,000+ people and which is, five or six times a year, as full as that. Attractions are built around a unidirectional crowd flow as well, and I imagine that such methods manage to eek out just enough more customers served and dollars per hour to make it worthwhile to Food Operations, but they do so at the cost of making the meal process as harried as getting on an attraction and doing further thematic damage to the park in that these shops and food service locations no longer feel like real places; they're just one step closer to cavernous mess halls with funnels at the entrance. The days of entering a quiet side door of Columbia Harbour House are long gone; the handle's been replaced by a sign with an arrow. I guess we're lucky the door is still there at all.

But if we really want to get at what's wrong with Walt Disney World, we need look no further than the common stroller parking area for the perfect example.

These areas are badly needed at almost all times, and for over half the year resemble vast seas of plastic in a way that seems quite excessive. Nearly all of them are marked with cheap, wooden, folding A-frame signs:

In fact nearly every facility at Walt Disney World has at least one of these things:

I don't doubt that they are perceived as being needed, although every early Walt Disney World training guide I've ever seen clearly states that nobody will read signs anyway (every Cast Member will tell you this is so) and so the parks generally refrained from overloading them in common areas; Universal was and is especially bad about sign overload. What raises my ire is what these temporary signs look like. They look terrible.

There used to be an ironclad Walt Disney World rule that if any sign was going to be used for more than three weeks, it needed to be transferred off an A-frame and made a permanent fixture manufactured by the Walt Disney World sign shop. These digital printout A-frames do not count, and many of them have been in use for years and years.

I have no doubt that the business divisions which use these signs would love that have nice permanent ones, but the cost of manufacture and design for a really good, Disney-quality sign is quite high, and these divisions just don't have money to spend. They can hardly afford to staff attractions like Country Bear Jamboree, which closes early, or Swiss Family Treehouse, which is not staffed at all.

Now hold on there. Why should Magic Kingdom Frontierland Operations have to pay the Magic Kingdom Sign Shop money to make them a sign? Why can't that just be written off as an expense of operating the park? How many guests through the Main Entrance turnstile at $90/head does it take to pay for a simple stroller parking sign on a stick? And why is money circulating through all these sub-departments from one area to another when guests can't perceive the difference and it all ends up going to the same parent company anyway??

Walt Disney World is a vast and bewildering bureaucratic system where every theme park is set up like a self-sufficient business entity; for example: a strip mall. Magic Kingdom is one. Animal Kingdom is another. Transportation is another.  Each one of these has a "Vice President". They all ostensibly answer to Meg Crofton, but if you notice, she's also a "Vice President". There is no President. The next person on up the line is several levels of bureaucratic strata above them; an Al Weiss or a Tom Staggs.

Each one of these "strip mall" business entities not only are in competition with each other, but within each are individual departments, like shops in the mall, which are responsible for their own budgets, that money being parceled out amongst them using methods so obscure it can only be likened to Alchemy. So Frontierland Foods is in direct conflict with Main Street Operations, and so on and so on. All of them are in conflict with Imagineering, who often have to jump through hoops to placate any of them when it comes to designing anything. You liked the rocking chairs on Main Street? Too bad, Operations didn't. Certain areas, like Entertainment, have excessive amounts of money and regularly spend it on expensive free bees for their Cast Members like lovely jackets and shirts. Meanwhile, Operations hasn't got enough money to replace the microwave in their break rooms and they have to rely on cheap jack folding signs.

There is nobody piloting the ship. Nobody charting the course, nobody keeping things on the ball. Every area is being nickled and dimed to death and the people who ostensibly should be stopping them have no power or time to do so. That huge stage in Tomorrowland was built and paid for by Entertainment, who hardly even bothered to ask WDI if they should. It became a fiasco, just like the Adventureland stage across from Pirates, which causes huge traffic flow problems in front of the attraction and was built so quickly that the proper safety precautions were not taken to ensure that it was safe to perform on. I'll let you Google what the unhappy result of that carelessness was. There are standards in place with nobody to enforce them; an art director or supervisor can ask Operations to buy a better sign, but there's never money to do it. Magic Kingdom has to pressure Transportation to keep the monorails running so people can get to or from their theme park. It is an insane way to run a business and it is killing Walt Disney World.

That is what is wrong with Walt Disney World. Not just the signs, but the whole culture of spending and squabbling and cheapness and unaccountability it is an example of. In light of all this, asking for something like, say, a new parade, no matter how badly it is needed, is like complaining you can;t get a cup of sugar because the entire bakery is burning down. The good news is that there's lots of people in multiple levels of Walt Disney World who do still care, and who fight every day to maintain standards, but these voices are lost in the total storm of narrow minded apathy that governs. There needs to be wide sweeping change in every layer of the hundreds of levels of bureaucracy, and a concept of spending money to make money, and a concept of shared destiny before anything can happen. And it's because The Magic Kingdom isn't just the Haunted Mansion, it's also the merchandise shop at the exit, the restaurant across the way, and the attraction down the street, too. The Walt Disney World show is every gear moving and ticking away in harmony - not stuck in a deadlocked budgetary frame.


2011 at The Magic Kingdom

Who is Buried Here Again?
The most controversial new arrival at the Magic Kingdom this year was the new interactive queue for the Haunted Mansion, which set off frenzied firestorms in some departments and relatively few, often half-hearted counter defenses in others. When established classics are messed with, we as fans often feel totally without defenses and intentionally cut out of the loop. Suffice to say that almost everything than can be said to damn this new addition, has been said, and many times at that. So I am not going to reiterate those arguments.

Let's address the single biggest best thing than can be said about the alterations, and it is a technical thing, so it has managed to escape the attention of a lot of online commentary, and that is that the incredibly inefficient and confusing wheelchair access system for the Haunted Mansion has finally been dealt with. This was in fact the primary goal of the entire effort, believe it or not, and it has been very successful. For the first time in the entire attraction's history in Florida, wheelchair parties may enter normally with the rest of the group before splitting off to the alternate access point, which has been rebuilt with a two-way access corridor in the former "Chicken Exit" / Control Tower area, complete with very nicely done thematics which blend the Mansion's Victorian parlor entrance areas and stone Gothic crypt exit areas as well as can be reasonably expected.

This means that many many people who otherwise have had very minimal needs are finally able to experience the entire attraction the way it is intended, from the opening of the front doors, on to the Foyer, Stretch Room, and so on. This is indeed a very big Win for a particular subset and it is no less important to them and indeed the operation of the entire attraction than everything that came with it.

Now. Everything that came with it. First we tackle the big one: the new queue.

Some people do love it. Others absolutely hate it. There has been an astonishing amount of digital ink spilled on this tiny area this year - some of it quite articulate, so I'm not going to go through and pick it apart bit by bit. I'd like to steer a course between the two poles and contextualize my thoughts. I don't believe that this queue means that the Mansion is ruined, nor do I think it's the end of the world, but I had a severely bad reaction to it at first. I've spent most of the year talking this out with various confederates and I believe I can finally offer a coherent take on it besides simply shouting an incredulous "why?"

There has been a lot of attention devoted to discussing what the queue compromises about the Florida Mansion, but comparatively little has been devoted to discussing what the new queue adds.

For the first twenty years of the operation of the Magic Kingdom, the Haunted Mansion felt truly remote from Liberty Square and situated on an expansive estate (right). In the next twenty years, the Mansion's "Operational Infrastructure" has crept its' "property" out further and further, yet much of this is truly "junk themeing" that only makes the area feel smaller, whether that be weeds that crowd away a once sweeping lawn, two of the worst placed trees at Walt Disney World, a totally superfluous gate, or the ill-advised and frankly hideous Fastpass structure from 2000. By opening up the area to the West of the house, taking down some overgrowth, and adding estate-like courtyards and landscape details, some of this lost territory has been regained. The West side of the Mansion facade can finally be appreciated again, and some sense of the house as a large, dimensional place has returned.

Indeed, the sweeping approach from the river and the winding path through the courtyard, with the forest seeming just barely held back beyond the westernmost wall, is fantastic textural stuff. Ever since the green 1972 canopy was expanded and replaced with the ludicrous red canopy, it's been incredibly difficult to even see the Mansion from underneath it, and the new extension offers wonderful views of the house and the river in ways which make me, for one, very thankful for small things. It's been a photographer's dream, like an entire new part of the house has just now been uncovered.

Furthermore, the landscaped hill and forced-perspective graveyard that seems to spill down its side is a thing of beauty. In our minds the large graveyard we see at the end of the ride has always been "behind" the house in some vague sense, but now it seems to be psychically connected to what we see at the front of the house in a very real way - even if the distinction between the "family plot" outside and the "public cemetery" out back, never fully well developed anyway, seems to now be blurred. Now that the weeds and flowers and bushes have grown in a bit, it's a very cool visual and it gets the Haunted Mansion attraction proper off to a terrific start. It also better hides the always incredibly prominent show building, which many will see as a very good thing.

I think the bulwark of the main queue is similarly aesthetically unobjectionable. Some of the tributes and references go a bit over the top, in my opinion, similar to what one would expect in a fanfic, although I see them as having undue prominence, perhaps, mostly because I am myself a fan and those nods are directed at me. Even if I'm not sure I approve of him being included outside the attraction, I touch the One-Eyed Black Cat every time I walk through the queue. Just a few steps later we come across one of the best tableau: a side gate that leads direct onto the lawn where a number of gravestones poke out of the grass, along with some rusted and vine-entwined shovels. It's a lovely thing, and the sort of moment one could linger by forever, and it feels like a real thing in a real world. Yet the fact that it's placed in direct proximity to an opportunity to touch a bass-relief of a cat and hear it yowl at you gets to the crux of the problem with the entire new expansion.

I'm going to use a single thing from the queue as a way of an example. Here we have the "Sea Captain Tomb", lovingly dubbed by fans/adversaries as "King Squirty":

Now, blot everything you know about what this thing does out of your mind for a moment and just look at it. It's sculpturally wonderful - recalling the gothic mansion interior attraction's use of mythical monsters in decorative details, is at least as sculpturally rich, and it's a pretty funny, morbid joke. Truthfully, I can't believe Disney let this one out the door - it's a very explicit representation of a corpse floating in a bathtub. In fact, the rest of the attraction doesn't get anywhere near that sort of direct death scene gag outside of the Ghost Host's skeleton dangling above the Stretch Room. Imagine finding such a monument in a real cemetery - you'd be shocked. Imagine if upon examining the monument closely, you discovered that water were running down the sides of it, apparently out of the tub.

It's a really morbid idea - delightfully so, and so it's perfect for the Haunted Mansion. There's just one problem. Instead of being creepy, instead of water trickling out of it the way it seems to be designed to do, this tomb is zanily squirting you with water!

 Wait, back that train up. Where did that come from??

And worse, there's a goofy voice coming from inside the tomb, which totally contradicts the visual of this corpse floating in the tub.

And there's bubbles! And sneezing! A ghost gravestone that sneezes on you outside the front door of the house. This is the thematic equivalent of going into the Haunted Mansion and visually defacing things with a Sharpie.

What happened? A visual worthy of a great ride has been compromised by an apparently unrelated agenda of somebody's idea of "interactivity". Two totally unrelated concepts have been joined at the hip. I cannot believe that those responsible for creating the visual appearance of that prop would've wanted it to be squirting water and blowing bubbles. Somewhere between the concept of the visual element of the queue and the physical one, there was a massive meltdown and all that careful work was radically compromised by silly and stupid elements. The baby, the bathwater, and the whole damn tub were thrown out with it.

What the Haunted Mansion Queue represents is a commendable effort which is mired in its own inconsistency. I cannot reconcile that the same group of people who put such work and care and love and detail into that queue also wanted there to be goofy ghost sneezes and a cloying interactive voice straight out of Dora the Explorer. But for what it is, the experience leaves very little impression on you. You walk through and still end up next to a closed set of double doors with just an echoing wolf howl and a graveyard to contemplate. And what a graveyard it is now. At least that still feels the same.

John Hench once said.... a lot of things, especially about consistency. The Haunted Mansion Queue is an inconsistent effort. Had they trusted the original designers and those people on the team who cared deeply enough to craft new visuals in the spirit of the original they would've ended up with a better product. They would've saved money, effort, and face. As it is the entire experience became sort of a very public fiasco.

Disney doesn't have a good track record of handling fiascoes well, whether that be inventing public relations fictions about why rides have closed (Pooh toys and sink holes, I'm looking at you), or simply throwing their collective hands in the air and abstaining all responsibility. But you know what? What's bad about that Haunted Mansion Queue can be fixed. Easily. Disconnecting a speaker, bubble machine, and ghost squirt gun can be done overnight. The "Poetess" lines can be re-recorded in an afternoon. Most of my objections could be corrected with very very minor, but meaningful, tweaks.

Let's be totally clear: these aren't just my objections, they're the objections of a significant portion of the specialist niche - the very people who are targeted by things like references to Captain Gore and the One-Eyed Black Cat. You can't give with one hand and slap with the other. I say let the people who clearly knew what they were doing give it another shot without those voices advocating for squirting tombstones and zany popping books in the room and see if we cannot see a radical change. It will take only a little effort to make this effort worthy of the effort that went into it. GRADE: C+

Following You Home 
Truthfully, a potentially more destructive element was added to the Mansion at the same time. What happens outside the attraction happens outside it, but once those doors open and we move inside there is a very definite "reset" button that gets hit in our subconsciousness. But the Hitch Hiking Ghosts are right in the flow of the attraction, and right at the tail end of it, where an obvious misstep will linger much longer in the memory. Part of the power of the original effect was in its simplicity; one could not be totally sure whether the hitch-hiking ghosts were menacing or comic.

The revamped version of the scene features floaty CGI ghosts pulling unusual tricks of varying degrees of effectiveness. The integration of the CGI projected ghoulies and the mirror illusion is pretty effective, even if the ghosts themselves can be said to be, accurately if flippantly, too Tex Avery and not enough Marc Davis.

Part of the associative power of the original scene was its riff on the American tradition of the phantom hitch-hiker tale; these ghosts were riding with you, exactly like in a car, and it was hard not to think of that ghost sitting in the back seat as you drove home that night. That stayed with you in a deep place. These new version don't quite ride with you; they're too busy being silly. They sort of float above you and remove your head, which is cartoonish and not quite as sinister as it sounds, almost like they're satirizing the equally ludicrous but much better aesthetically integrated "Black Widow Bride" scene that's dominated up in the Attic since 2007.

From a technical perspective, I think this effect is fine, and judging from verbal reactions of other passengers, seems to be successful. But I'm not so sure. At the very least these new ghosts are indeed digital projections, and unlike rod puppets, the projections can be changed easily and at any time. Perhaps some future enterprising Imagineer will restore a Haunted Mansion finale in a more dignified vein. GRADE: C-

Mice in the Hotel
For some time now,  Magic Kingdom has been shifting her character meet and greets about, taking here, moving there, sometimes even banishing a few characters to EPCOT. What on the outside perhaps looks like shuffleboard, is on the inside more akin to a game of chess - a very tight game of chess. In the past several years, many of the Magic Kingdom's "twilight spaces" - poorly utilized spaces, former food courts, shops, and attractions - have been rethought or filled in. With the closure of Mickey's Toontown in Feburary, many of the character meet and greets fled to other quarters - including a bizarre and hilarious period when as many as four Mickeys could be found around the Magic Kingdom at once, in such unexpected places as alongside Splash Mountain and inside the Hall of Presidents. One should not underestimate the mouse's ability to draw a crowd or cause Entertainment managers to sweat bullets.

The largest remaining "twilight space" in the Magic Kingdom was the Walt Disney Story show building, built behind the Main Street Hotel facade in 1972 and housing an attraction which ran for twenty years. For the last twenty years, the space has been poorly used. One attraction theater was converted to run cartoons and sell timeshares, the other boarded up and used for meeting space and Cast theatrical productions. In 2009 the entire Walt Disney Story show building was closed off and an elaborate tear-out procedure began. What opened there earlier this year can hardly be recognized. This by itself is an extraordinary relief. All too often "new" attractions seem to be little more than crumbling old attraction infrastructure with some new stickers and paint.

This Mural....
 ...once knew better days.

Now, I'm not opposed to character meet and greets, and I'm resigned to their continued presence in this and other theme parks. But I don't think it's an unreasonable demand to ask that, if said meet and greets must be conducted in their current state - with attendants, queues and timed interactions - that they be conducted in reasonably appropriate environs. This is all too rarely the case. Aladdin greets guests in Adventureland in front of a prop door (it once led to a shop) which junk has been scattered around. In his former digs, Mickey held court in the "Judge's Tent" (which made no sense) at "Mickey's Toontown Fair" (which made even less sense) amidst a roiling pit of puffy fiberglass "cartoon" props and the worst design choices in the entire park. He's now landed on Main Street, which could have been a disaster. It's become one of the best things to happen to the park in a long time.

Let's set aside the touchy issue of what he's doing on Main Street for the moment. If Goofy is permitted in Liberty Square then there's no real reason to object to Mickey on Main Street, and whatever slight aesthetic damage is done to the park with this choice is insignificant compared to the massive aesthetic triumph of tearing out Mickey's Toontown Fair. Since the Judge's Tent was due for demolition, Mickey had to be moved elsewhere, and a large, prominent, empty space at the very front of the park was probably operationally mandated before even a single sketch was drawn up. If we take all of that as givens, the resulting attraction is a triumph. It's probably the most texturally complex experience on Main Street.

Victorian Gingerbread and Mickey Mouse don't really go together, but this attraction makes it all seem to work. It accomplishes this primarily through including just enough visual texture and detail to make the Town Square Theater location seem credible, but enough that's just this side of fantastic enough to make Mickey's presence unobtrusive. He appears in a room too stacked with details to possibly take in all at once, and although many of these details are cute references or throwaway gags, they're done on a level of perceptibility which means they seem to exist for more reasons than their own sake. I often complain that current Imagineers substitute props for ideas. These props are ideas, and they greatly contribute to the excellence of the experience.

The Main Street Hotel facade - probably the most handsome on Main Street - has been totally refurbished and looks superb. Most importantly, the ugly Exposition Hall marquee has been scrapped, which fixed a long, wide horizontal sign across a facade which is designed in entirely vertical architectural expressions, from tall pillars to tall doors. The new sign, although not quite as nice as the original Hospitality House sign, actually harmonizes with the architecture and is quite pleasing and handsome. Vertical banners have been added as well which help clue guests in as to what may be found inside, and although some have decried these they are, to my eye, inoffensive. They harmonize with the rest of the building and add a pleasant kinetic element when there is a breeze.

 Seriously, who thought this sign was a good idea?

Moving inside, the attraction's crowd flow has been totally reversed. Rather than entering through the south veranda and exiting through the old Gulf Hospitality House lobby, guests now enter a totally reworked vestibule. Many of the original WED decorative and design elements have been retained, but the shop has been contained on one side of the entrance and the Town Square restaurant on the other, which greatly helps the attraction entrance feel like it has a reason for existing. Some very fine textural work here and in the new entrance area is on the nose without going too far - the attraction becomes increasingly visually richer the deeper one proceeds into it. The yellow, white, and gilt darkens to a suitably Victorian brown and red, then onwards to beige and bricks in the exit shop - an orchestrated use of color here really pays off. As one is shuffled through doors and corridors, the anticipation of meeting Mickey is more strongly felt here than in any other "Meet Mickey" attraction yet made.

Where the attraction fails it does so graciously. Some areas are still a little too bare and free of ornamentation, although this can be fixed. The rear theater space is a black void of nothing - currently used for Princess meetings, although they will be moved to Fantasyland before the year is out and the space can be properly finished (see what I meant about a chess game?). The queue space is ludicrously massive, as if in the planning stages the entire Napoleonic army was expected to descend to meet Magician Mickey. Since the Princess space isn't really designed to be anything, it moves very slowly, but a smart and efficient series of rooms on the Mickey side, plus an additional greeting room for Mickey (up to four), means that waits rarely stretch to the extremes this attraction entertained while in Toontown. It is not only better designed and pleasant to see, but it hosts more people in a better experience.

Nature abhors a vacuum. So do I. In a park as densely visited as the Magic Kingdom is, there should not be a square inch of wasted space. This new attraction fixes many longstanding problems - operationally and aesthetically - all at once and it does so very pleasantly in a way which does not contradict the rich theming around it and finally finds a purpose for a major Magic Kingdom facility which has not been under a lucky sign in over a generation. If there were more things happening like this at Walt Disney World, it would be a much better place. GRADE: B+

 "The Walt Disney Story" Theater B awaits demolition
after twenty years of neglect.

Likes To Be Seen and Loves To Be Heard -
The return of the Tiki Room was the big surprise of 2011, proving that Walt Disney World may still have some surprises in her even to bored, jaded commentators such as myself - even if said surprises came about through total freak, act-of-God, insurance bait calamities.  As I've said in my previous article, it's a very very commendable effort, what WDI has done with the show, although I must admit that I think I'm grading this a bit more leniently than I think it deserves. After all, what makes the "new" old show work is really nothing that was done for it in 2011 - it works for the same reason the Disneyland show never stopped working and never stopped playing. And I could be complaining that it took an act of God situation to put the real Tiki Room show back in Florida - truthfully they should've closed the offending Under New Management show immediately and let the Disney faithful run the people responsible out of town, tarred and feathered. I don't care. I'm just happy it came back at all.

And the Florida Tiki Room, it's a thing of beauty, even if the fountain in the middle of the room never did make a re-appearance - consider it a lingering scar to remind us of the price Under New Management came at. It's also nice to see such a fresh looking show regardless - with bright feathers, good lights and a robust sound system to back up the 1963 show, it works its wonders all over again. The recent attention has even brought out some nice surprises buried in the old Wathel Rogers animation from 1971, such as a very refined use of diagetic "sound" from the "Glee Club" during the show's signature number - beaks clack and clap and really seem to be clicking out the rhythm of the song, at least compared to the much vaguer movements seen at Disneyland earlier this year by this author.

But the real happy ending here isn't that I personally got what I wanted back, it's that it was done well and is a success. Instead of playing to a ghost house of bored parents, toddlers and others, the Tiki Room is packed nearly all day. During the Holiday peak season, reported estimated queues of 20 minutes made the rounds through the social networking circles. And when was the last time you saw a line for the Tiki Room? But that show is a birthright of the Magic Kingdom, it's one of the things that makes that park -  and Disneyland - what it is. Walt Disney was right and quality does last. But don't believe me. Ask Iago, last seen being carted out of the attraction as a charred hull on his way to a far too late retirement to the junkyard of metric tons of garbage Imagineering from his era. GRADE: A-

.....And The Other Stuff
Besides those big changes, 2011 saw a few other newsworthy items at the Magic Kingdom. To my eyes the biggest deal was the closure of Mickey's Toontown Fair in February, which finally ends nearly twenty-five years of garishly awful aesthetics  behind the Grand Prix Raceway. The immediate result of this was the rapid and belated movement of Mickey to Main Street, followed by an extended shuffling-about of character greeting locations, which at least for the moment has landed Tinkerbell in the Adventureland Veranda, which is a terrible choice but at least is using the space, and will eventually lead to the closure of Snow White's Scary Adventures which will become an elaborate complex to house all of the princess "girl interest" characters. I think it's unfortunate to lose the Snow White ride, which was always a favorite despite the fact that it simply hasn't been very good since the half-cooked 1994 'upgrade'. Yet getting the Princesses inside a controlled area of four walls and out of the rest of the park, where they loiter around like homeless persons in such unfortunate areas as Liberty Square and Adventureland, will be a large step forward in increasing the thematic unity of the park itself.

The Fantasyland Skyway structure, which in my mind was amongst the very best of WED's efforts at the Magic Kingdom in 1971, was demolished this year. It's site is slated to become a relocated bathrooms with a new, auxiliary path lading towards the Haunted Mansion around the previously-inaccessible area behind the Yankee Trader shop, directly through the plot of land originally reserved for a "Haunted Mansion Arcade". This will allow a northbound outlet for traffic leaving the Haunted Mansion - which is absolutely needed, as this area is a horrendous traffic snare on even medium attendance days - as well as clear the way for a reconfigured queue for Peter Pan's Flight.

As sad as it is to lose the Skyway chalet, this author is resigned to face facts that no guest has seen the interior of it since 1998 and without a chain of brightly-colored buckets chugging in and out of its handsome mouth, there was little reason to keep it around. Efforts to reutilize it as a restaurant or Meet and Greet area came to nought, and in the middle of 2011, all that beautiful wood was torn down to the slate foundation. I'm sure, with the passing of time, that the new path will come to seem normal, even natural, much like those bridges that skirt the northern boundary of Frontierland's riverfront. The path could even provide a pleasant new transition to Liberty Square, and since there appears to be no danger of filling in the original Harbour House breezeway, I will have little reason to complain on any further historical grounds. This is the sort of ambitious crowd flow plan that would've been axed out of pure cheapness ten years ago. Still, it hurts a little to know that all these years later I'll never again get to walk through the half round tunnel, past the trickling stream, and then up the narrow steps to the Skyway chalet while the Florida sun sinks low behind the Frontierland pines to the West. It was a blessed space but, much like the Fantasyland Submarine Lagoon which lived out a final shameful decade as nothing but a glorified retention pond / litter dump, I'd rather see the park use all of the space it's been allotted than let just another empty former attraction crumble away.

El Pirata Y El Perico, the mainstay taco bar across from the entrance to Pirates of the Caribbean (because I typed this aloud, some Disneylander who's never been east of the Rockies just started writhing around in torment), underwent a number of aesthetic changes this year, reopening as Tortuga Tavern, which is themed to, or so I'm told, some of the, um, Junior Adult novels based around the films inspired by the attraction which sits across the street. I have no way to verify this, but it is of no relevance to me anyway, because it turned out pretty cool.

El Pirata was once only the most eastwardly of the establishments along the north side of Caribbean Plaza, which opened in mid 1974 along with two shops, the Golden Galleon and Princessa de Cristal, which shared a secluded courtyard. In 1998, concurrent with the expansion of Pecos Bill Cafe which similarly absorbed original Magic Kingdom themeing by the ton, El Pirata evicted both shops and remodeled both into dining rooms, then joined the complex's north wall to Pecos Bill's south wall by way of a huge ramp and some suspect theming. Of course, El Pirata immediately went to seasonal status, making it one of the best places to get away from the crowds at Magic Kingdom, as it's in operation for probably less than 40 aggregate hours a year. One wonders how much money Disney could be making with those dining rooms and courtyards if they were still shops, but that's just crazy talk.

I'm not one to go out of my way to praise movie tie-in theming, but ever since the Pecos Bill expansion robbed this area of so much character and identity, it's been a rather sad place, like the last person to leave the party. If you're going to do synergistic tie-ins, you should do them like this. Nearly everything that was added is well judged and does not overwhelm the original architecture, unlike many of WDI's ill-advised "enhancements" of the 90s. These are small touches but they mean a lot, and run the gauntlet from nice new tile trim on upper balconies around windows and doors that blends in perfectly with the original WED designs, to well-built, custom-made but unobtrusive "themeing". The former Golden Galleon space features dozens of melted candles in bowls and vases and much improved "tavern" decor. An upper level has an overturned table and empty bottles, perhaps the first reference to drunkenness out of Disney in a very long time. The courtyard has some new lights, bullet holes, and a nice little tableau on an upper balcony. Best of all, the new, pleasant nautical background music is the sort of thing Wagner would have compiled back in the 70s, sedate, calming, and in perfect theme and taste. It may still hardly be used, but there's a little more class and life in the Tavern now.

Adventureland got the lion's share of the change this year, with an all-new bridge which debuted in the Spring. There is one incredibly obvious thing about the bridge and one not so obvious thing about the bridge. The first is that its totally flat, which is pretty weird, if you ask me. But the new bridge is not only flat, it's also quite different, despite recycling almost all of the original props.

When Disneyland opened in 1955, the push for July 17th meant that most of the Adventureland pedestrian area was decorated with off the shelf stuff from Oceanic Arts. This being the era it was, this meant skulls. Lots of skulls. Skulls on sticks, animal skulls, etc. The 1971 Adventureland, due in part to the more subtle touch of Dorthea Redmond, was a more refined place and so a new, very simple, but handsome gate in a pop-tiki style was introduced. In fact, outside of the skulls in the headhunter's camp on the Jungle Cruise, there was no scattered evidence of cannibalism to be found anywhere in the Florida Adventureland.

Forty years later, this new bridge is more in line with the Disneyland original, with a prominent animal skull and even a pile of human skulls to welcome guests. One of the skulls even has a huge puncture hole in the top of it's cranium. So we traded a 100% decrease in bridge curvature for a 100% increase in skulls. You know what? I think it was a fair trade.

 ...but skulls!!!!

And finally, the Swiss Family Treehouse was lovingly rebuilt this year, and shockingly enough opened with absolutely no characters in it, except for confused guests. Railings everywhere have overall been made more idiot-proof, meaning studier and with more nets, and there's lots of wonderful new woods, props and textures all through the island. The lighting scheme has been repaired and indeed added to, so at night the attraction seems to beam bright welcoming light out in all directions, and more than once this party overheard confused guests drawn inside this "new" attraction by bright lanterns and the echoing strains of the Swisskapolka. It warmed my heart.

By the way, a long-gone prop was restored during the refurbishment: an elephant rifle once again hangs at the ready in the boys' room. Between the elephant gun, skulls on the bridge, drunkenness at Tortuga Tavern, and absurd ethnic accent comedy in the Enchanted Tiki Room, Adventureland has suffered a quadruple increase in political incorrectness. Maybe there's hope for the world yet. GRADE: A-

Foxxy's Grade: For all the huge improvements and not so huge improvements, Walt Disney World is falling behind in the long run even while they improve in the sort run. This cannot be ignored. Ludicrous interdepartmental politics, general cheapness, and poor long term planning means the spirit of Paul Pressler is still very much alive at Walt Disney World, and now there's thousands of Pauls, not just one. I'm going to call this category "Vision". It can also be thought of as the "Don't Be An Idiot" grade. Walt Disney World needs to shape up in many areas, from crumbling transportation infrastructure to management malaise. Things have gotten worse a whole lot faster than they've gotten better. I give Walt Disney World an F for Vision.

Haunted Mansion Interactive Queue: C+
Haunted Mansion Interactive Ghosts: C-
Meet Mickey on Main Street: B+
Walt Disney's Enchanted Tiki Bonfire: A-
Upkeep and Maintainence: A-
Not Being Idiots: F


Comments: We all know which grade is holding Miss Disney World back. It's time this was addressed. She can do everything else fine but she doesn't listen to her friends and ignores the advice of her peers. She has 40 more years ahead of her and they could be great, but the last 20 have been nothing but tiny steps forward and huge leaps backward. It's time she stop climbing this hill. - Foxxy, Jan 2012


2011 at Passport to Dreams Old & New: (mostly old)
Mysteries of the Second Floor
Marines Capture Coke Corner
Frap-Off at the Village

History and Esoterica:
The World Cruise
Palate Cleanser
Fireworks of the Universe
People I've Met in the Past: Part One
People I've Met in the Past: Part Two
Other Kingdoms to Conquer
The First Decade in Maps
Hanging at the STOLport

Commentary and Theory:
Rubber Spider Revue
Every Cloud Has a Silver Lining
Fire in the Night: The Pre-Eminent Attraction-as-Art
Start to Shriek and Harmonize

In the Spirit of Fairness: Walt Disney World Grades Me: "F-----!!!! ur a jerk!!!!! jeez"


Passport to Dreams Year End Reports: 2011 2010 2009