Monday, December 28, 2015

Passport to Dreams 2015 Year-End Review

Out And About In The Parks

While 2015 can hardly be said to be a banner year for changes in the parks at least in terms of the sorts of things Disney heavily promotes - new rides, expansion areas, etc - sometimes it's the minor changes that say more than the major ones. I like to describe the theme parks as big clockwork mechanisms filled with tiny pieces that all need to be moving in precise synchronization. Yes, the clock will stop if a major piece gets broken, say when the monorail to Magic Kingdom goes down. But all of those little pieces are just as important too, and if they get all rusty and wonky then even if the clock is still running then you'll know that it isn't keeping good time, that something isn't quite right.

Most of the Walt Disney World parks are more on this side of the equation: there's enough wonky, small pieces that you can tell things aren't quite right, even if it's hard to say exactly what or why. Conversely, 2015 saw a lot of those tiny pieces get improved, and the benefits may not command extensive celebration through the official sources, but once enough small things get improved you can feel the whole park, the whole system, elevated like a boat gently lifted by the tide.

This is a year to applaud small but worthwhile victories.

Remember the Maliboomer at California Adventure? It was the huge, basically unthemed launch tower of the west side of Paradise Pier? As part of the overhaul of the park, it was removed and not replaced. It was a rare case of enhancement by omission; California Adventure was stronger with nothing in its place. Well, 2015 saw one of the biggest things go the way of the Maliboomer of all time.

This was the grossly inappropriate Sorcerer's Hat at the end of Hollywood Boulevard at Disney Hollywood Studios. And while this is a design oriented blog, I'm sure I don't need to launch into a long description of why the hat was a poor choice. It speaks for itself, absurdly perched as it was at the end of the nicest stretch of themed architecture in that park. What I'd like to point out is how unexpectedly refreshed I was to see it gone.

It had been long enough - 15 years - that I had forgotten how that particular piece of forced perspective illusion was supposed to work, and once the hat (and the stage after it) was taken down, I was frankly dazzled by the view, and it's been a long time since anything in that park actually dazzled me. I was totally unprepared for how effective that view was, how correct and symmetrical the Chinese Theater looked at the end of the street. I had forgotten how effective the tiny corridor opening up to a huge central courtyard actually was, and how near the Theater looked from the end of the street, only to seem suddenly twice as far away from you as it really was once you passed the shops. It's a really nifty optical illusion, and by simply being revealed again it elevates the entire experience of walking into that park from mildly impressive to really engaging.

But moreover it was really exciting to stop and listen to guests walking into the park and hear things I hadn't heard in 15 years: "really cool!", or, "what's in there?". The simple fact of removing the hat means that suddenly the entrance to Hollywood Studios is a place of glamour and intrigue instead of an art deco sidewalk leading to a giant blue metal cone. It gives that park back one of its signature subtleties, imparts meaning and intrigue, and is no less important than the castle at the end of Main Street for making guests feel like they paid for something special.

Hollywood Studios is in the midst of an identity crisis. Very soon, basically the entire back half of the place is going to be leveled, and turned into one of those modern day Imagineering extravaganzas modeled on the success of that wizard boy next door. Being a romantic at heart I wish the entire park could be skinned into some sort of Golden Age of Hollywood fantasy, but I know that millennium falcons outsell films noir by a hundred to one. Disney-MGM Studios was once a place of great promise that ended before it ever really got started: Dick Tracey's Crimestoppers, Red Car Cafe, The South Seas Club from The Rocketeer, a Who Framed Roger Rabbit Toontown; all of these things came very close to being. And while at this point any change is better than none, those of us who find the romance of alien world and lightsabers cold comfort compared to the fantasy of the past will have to keep looking.

Speaking of Imagineering extravaganzas, the vaguely anticipated opening of The World of Avatar at Animal Kingdom draws nearer, and from what can be seen by peeking over construction walls, the place looks bananas. Comparable to the astonishing desert landscape created for Cars Land at California Adventure, nothing short of seeing it with your eyes can properly describe just how large this thing is.

But even better than the future home of blue cat individuals has been the change evident at Animal Kingdom over the past year. Disney's clearly cashing in the whole donut for Avatar, and in the meantime Joe Rohde has been using the extra money swimming around to improve almost everything that was already in place in the park. As a result, Animal Kingdom has quietly elevated itself from an ambitious effort to the best themed attraction in the United States.

Some areas required nothing but a doubling down and removal of tacky elements, like the brightly painted safari animals covering the buildings in the center of the park. Others, like the already excellent Harambe, have been tripled in size in a manner consistent with the excellent standards already in place. The new Harambe, with its repurposed British colonial fort, new port, railway line, and expanded neighborhood out back, now can fit comfortably alongside Disneyland's New Orleans Square and Universal's Diagon Alley as one of the best things of its type that can be experienced anywhere. Once you factor in the remarkable accomplishment represented by the Kilimanjaro Safaris back in 1998 as part of the "land", it becomes even more impressive.

Out at the front of the park, the central area in front of the Tree of Life has been smartly rebuilt. Animal Kingdom canceled its' parade, which at first may strike one as a loss, but the gain was that WDI took the initiative to replant the open area in front of the tree into a tree-shaded courtyard with whimsical touches and in the bargain exposed a waterfall off to the right of the tree that had been there since 1998 but had been impossible to see from its intended angle. Again, these are tiny fixes, but they make Animal Kingdom a delight to visit, which isn't something I ever thought I'd say.

Speaking of making places inhabitable, as Downtown Disney became Disney Springs this year, what I previously thought was impossible finally happened and that area actually became a pleasant, even pretty walk. The changes here are too numerous to encapsulate and aren't even complete, but the walk from West Side into the Marketplace (finally after many years renamed the Village Marketplace; hooray for history) is now full of rich textures, unique architecture, and most importantly a sensation of relaxation. While the West Side will likely never be perfect, new tenants and a new look has returned to this property a sense of relaxation and charm that went away in the 90s.

One of the best things to do is free, and it's to walk through the new Boathouse restaurant to the dock bar out back, then walk down to the water where two dozen or so beautifully maintained vintage boats are there just for you to look at. It feels like old Disney, when Magic Kingdom and EPCOT had things out to see just because they were cool and weird.

 The Boathouse Restaurant is owned by the same CEO who made his fortune through Rainforest Cafe and the similar T-Rex next door, but the Boathouse is as personal and charming as Rainforest Cafe is unfortunate and tacky. He built the place and put the boats out on display because he thought it would be cool, and the difference is like night and day. Frankly it reminds me of the fact that 90% of Disneyland, and by extension the Magic Kingdom, is the way it is just by virtue of the fact that one guy with the financial clout to back his ideas wanted to build stuff he thought would be cool. We need more of that these days.

Trader Sam's Grog Grotto

I will never get over the removal of the Polynesian waterfall. Never. And while I'm in agreement that the Polynesian needed a refurbishment and that most of the hotel now has a fresh feeling it hasn't had in years, none of those factors stack up nearly as much as the fact that the lobby is now a charmless, dead place. So while gaining an excellent bar does not exactly "make up" for gutting the most distinctive thing about the Polynesian, it is a darn good bar, and deserves a bit of celebration outside the scope of my indefinitely extended waterfall mopery. Walk clear past the charmless tiki state and indifferent pile of rocks; head directly for some liquor, because Trader Sam's Grog Grotto is pretty darn good.

An excellent addition in 2015, at least for those of us who enjoy strong drinks in dark places, was the opening of the east coast outpost of Trader Sam's, the popular tiki bar which began life at the Disneyland Hotel in 2011. I quite liked the original incarnation in California, and I like the version at the Polynesian as well. On nights when business isn't too strong and the wait staff aren't constantly shouting, it's even near the Tiki Bar ideal of dark, strange, and contemplative.

Most of us who enjoy the trappings of faux-exotica got the itch from the Enchanted Tiki Room, so it's interesting that the imitation has swung back around to be a legitimate source for an imitation of an imitation. Of course, the original tiki kitsch was itself an imitation of the real thing, spiced up with foods that imitated oriental dishes and drinks the imitated caribbean punches, so what previously was a direct line between inspiration and imitation has turned into a mobius strip. That's part of what's awesome about Tiki: it's simultaneously absurdly convoluted and unreasonably dedicated to casualness.

I wish the east coast drinks were poured heavier in the way they are out west, but overall I think the Grog Grotto is an all-around improvement on the original model. I love that the entrance to the place is an inconspicuous door with a small sign that opens up into another world, and I find the bar bites to be far better than the fast food served in Disneyland. But the real win is the outdoor patio. At Disneyland, if you sit outside you're missing all the fun, but that's at Disneyland where you're in the middle of a hotel from the 60s in the middle of Anaheim. At Walt Disney World you're on the shores of the Seven Seas Lagoon with the Magic Kingdom glittering across the water and, later on, a personal elevated view of the Electrical Water Pageant. That mean you're in one of the finest man made environments ever constructed, never surpassed. Best of all, tables are almost always open outside. When it comes to a few fortifying drinks before heading into the human jungle of the Magic Kingdom, Trader Sam's isn't just an improvement, it's a new tradition, and they don't mint those every year.

Sailing the River of Time

It's time to be honest here guys: El Rio del Tiempo wasn't very good. I loved it deeply and I miss it, but it just wasn't very good. There was a condescending attitude throughout El Rio which no amount of interpretive dance retellings of Mayan and Incan civilizations could disguise; its Mexico was a Mexico of charmingly foreign shopkeepers selling worthless trinkets and mariachi serenading white tourists in hot tubs. It all climaxed with a gloriously ghoulish finale where Mexicans became weird marionettes endlessly circling under artificial fireworks.

With the exception of the lovely, mysterious atmosphere created by the opening tunnel tableau with the mysterious Mayan priest materializing out of a tomb, Gran Fiesta Tour takes most of what was good in El Rio (the sets) and improves it with more color, more action, and more variety. It better presents views of modern Mexico and adds a sense of fun and color that the mostly mysterioso, dour El Rio never attempted. The trouble was, it really didn't have an ending. Nearly ten years later, all of that was fixed with the return of the Three Caballeros figures from Mickey Mouse Revue.

In some ways it's actually strange to have something in the center of that room that you really, really want to look at. There never was anything wrong with the Marionettes in El Rio, but they always were upstaged by the fiberoptic fireworks and Mexico City mural. The initial climax of Gran Fiesta Tour was just another screen in the back of a stage, and I always found the animation on that final screen to be less inspired than the rest of the animation in the attraction, and especially weak compared to Ward Kimball's masterpiece song sequence from the 1946 film.

There's now something that neither El Rio nor Gran Fiesta Tour had in that space: a real sense of payoff, that you rode the boat and reached a goal for a darn good reason. I always felt that El Rio climaxed with the appearance of the Mayan priest and basically coasted, evenly but unremarkably, until it ended. Had the team behind Gran Fiesta Tour found a way to retain the sense of shrouded mystery in that opening tunnel and then transitioned into the steady build of the rest of the ride, with this addition I'd be comfortable saying that Fiesta is a better ride than El Rio. As it stands, the new finale puts them on about equal footing in my mind.

Mind you, my heightened esteem for the ride is a reflection of my admiration for the Three Caballeros figures. These fellows aren't just historically relevant, they're awesome. Mickey Mouse Revue was long gone by the time I first stepped foot in Magic Kingdom, so my exposure to Mickey Mouse Revue was limited to pictures and video. It was not only hard to guess the size of the actual figures, but how they would look in motion. These guys have that elusive X factor that seemingly everything that WED and MAPO would turn out at the height of their powers had. They're cute and they look incredibly alive. And they move so well that many people have been led to believe that they  have entirely new interior functions, which isn't true. MAPO was just darn good at building these things and Tokyo Disneyland was darn good at maintaining them.

Kudos are also due to WDI East for the figure finish on the existing animatronics, of course, which have never looked better, and a snappy new animated performance. But really, this is the sort of enhancement that we shouldn't have to wait ten years for at Walt Disney World.

There's hundreds of areas around the resort that could use improvements that aren't demanded, but still needed, still meaningful. It takes all of the thousands of tiny excellences moving in harmony to build the sense of remarkable show and quality product that Disney once excelled at. Small, meaningful passion projects with dedicated teams striving for excellence needs to be the rule, not the exception.

Captain EO Returns To His Home Planet

Let's take a moment here to appreciate that for a little over five years, Disney has been inflicting Captain EO on otherwise unassuming tourists. Bigger, tackier, and yet somehow more heartfelt than anything our modern age would be likely to try to pawn off as a normal piece of entertainment, Captain EO has been consistently pulling good attendance numbers but also has been consistently scored low on polls. That's not surprising, because the very nature of such a film is that it must resonate strongly with a statistically small portion of the audience. Bringing back Captain EO in the first place may have been a strange choice for 2010, but since then it has grown into a cult film, fiercely loved by a small subsection of its audience.

It's funny that Disney has a cult film to begin with, Disney being as wholly dedicated to the most palatable, most widely popular manifestations of popular culture as any entertainment company on earth. it's doubly funny that it's Captain EO, which in 1986 was something of a distillation of the most middle of the road taste possible: a music video produced by the creator of the most successful motion picture series of all time, starring the biggest pop star on the planet. A 2015 equivalent would be a YouTube reaction video directed by Peter Jackson starring Lady Gaga and lots of explosions. Yet the world turned, and this gigantic expensive glazed ham somehow aged into the finest cheese possible. It was ludicrous, bereft of taste or tact, and I loved every deranged minute of it.

So rather than mourn the passage of Captain EO or opine on its replacement, I'd like to celebrate that it was here at all again to begin with. and that it resonated with the few it did. Indeed, it's impossible to claim that it's anything less than supremely irresponsible to be presenting such a strange film to 2015 audiences at all. Sometimes, popular taste moves on and things which once seemed like a normal, logical part of everyday life are revealed later to be batshit insane. That was Captain EO. It was too weird to die. In a world where artisanal kale salads are the norm, Captain EO was a tuna lime gelatin loaf, an antique of a time long since passed. Now that the Second Age of EO has passed, I salute it passing here while recognizing that it was a bizarre aberration to begin with. I was delighted to enjoy it for the five years that I did.

Farewell, Hooter, Commander Mog, the Supreme Leader, Idy and Odie, and Fuzzball. May you repose peacefully beneath a fried egg, a chain of sausage links, and a marshmallow until the end of days.

Magic Kingdom's Minor Changes

It's been a long time since I've really had to fuss too much over the condition of the main park of my interest. Yes, it wasn't that way even ten years ago, but I think it's safe to say that the era when we have to be constantly concerned that WDW is going to shutter our favorite attractions at any moment has passed. The ones that survived the 90s survived and the rest seem sufficiently popular enough to be bulletproof. Meanwhile the Studios and Epcot share less and less of the pie of visitors every year, and Disney seems more and more reluctant to present visitors with anything out of place in their keystone park.

In other words: this park is slammed, and every year it seems to get worse. Don't expect anything to change, at least in the next five to seven years, as Animal Kingdom, Studios, and eventually Epcot's re-expansion efforts go online. As pleasant as New Fantasyland is aesthetically, it's increasingly clear that only the Dwarfs Mine Train is actually pulling its weight in the numbers department. What Magic Kingdom needs is a couple of brand new huge attractions, probably one on each side of the park, to start sopping up demand. The park was designed back in the 70s to accommodate around 35,000 people daily. Fastpass and the declining popularity of former attendance drawers, combined with the fact that twice that number regularly descend on the park, means that Disney's window to be proactive with this park passed about six years ago.

The good news is that it's now easier to count the attractions that have not received some kind of major cosmetic upgrade than it is to count those that have. In the realm of those that opened when the park was young, it's pretty much down to Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Tom Sawyer Island, Peter Pan's Flight, and Carousel of Progress. Big Thunder has needed a gigantic facelift for going on ten years now, on the scale of the work done at the attraction in Disneyland recently. It's been on and off the schedule for next year, but the park may be trying to delay it until after Avatar opens at Animal Kingdom in a year and change.

But frankly overall, the place has been looking really sharp for a very long time. While I don't care for the current shortened version of the show, on the technical level Country Bear Jamboree looks terrific, and even the neglected old Carousel of Progress - which I was on a boycott of for about five years due to Disney's refusal to do anything with it - as recently as three weeks ago was looking surprisingly bright and smooth. Even the long-forgotten show scenes along the back stretch of the Rivers of America have gotten upgrades and refurbishments recently, for probably the first time in over twenty years.

In early 2015, the Sunshine Tree Terrace and Aloha Isle swapped locations and menus, meaning that Dole Whips are now dispensed by the exit of the Tiki Room and Citrus Swirls may be purchased near the front of Adventureland. As a historically minded type I'm supposed to be angry about this, but I'm not really - it makes good sense. Sunshine Tree Terrace has always had an unusually huge counter and a short line. The Dole Whip, meanwhile, despite having been scientifically proved to be vastly inferior to the Citrus Swirl, has always had more of a following. It can be chalked up to a bigger social media presence or perhaps just the American sweet tooth at work, but it is what it is. And while  it seems unfortunate to cut off the Sunshine Tree Terrace from the Sunshine Pavilion, there's some compensatory developments.

To begin with, I like the new sign for Sunshine Tree Terrace better than either the Aloha Isle sign or the 2012 version of the Terrace sign. Aloha Isle's new sign also retains the 1960's lettering reintroduced for the Orange Bird roll out in 2012, so I've got no problem with that.

But besides relocating the historic Orange Bird figure to the new Terrace location and giving him an awesome sign, the move did accomplish one thing which has long been on my wish list for Magic Kingdom: put up some decor in the juice bar. It's long been little but a bare room with some bamboo wallpaper, and once the bird was relocated on a new shelf he was joined by shelves of vintage citrus juicers, plastic fruit, and even a new chalkboard showing which fruits have recently arrived in stock. Many of these props seem to have been leftovers from Disney Springs' expanded margarita bar, but I don't mind. Some theming is better than no theming, and that's just one more original Magic Kingdom interior that's been tastefully embellished to be more in line with our modern conception of a "theme park".

In the department of "things only I care about", earlier this year there was general online consternation about the closure of the "Island Supply" shop in Adventureland in favor of a third party vaguely themed Sunglass Hut outfit. It's as lightly themed as the previous shop in its space was, and as lightly themed as the shop before that was, and so the changeover resulted in little more than a disinterested shrug in Passport HQ.

And then they went and changed something which had long been a bone of contention with me, which was that every store in this spot since at least 1972 has used a banner for a shop sign. I've never liked the look of it and like it even less with the covered patio that was added to the front of the store in the 90s:

And just as annoying to me was the missing light fixture on the side of the adjacent facade which has been missing for literally as long as I could remember. I used to call it in back when I worked at Magic Kingdom (in the previous decade!) only to be told that there was no such missing lamp!

So, here's the happy ending: the renovation of the facade included not only a permanent sign not on a tarp (!) but a replacement, appropriate lamp on both sides of the facade! You can call that a hollow victory that appeals to people who do things like take pictures of every light fixture in the park, but it's something that no longer needs to annoy me when I enter the park and walk through Adventureland.

Pirates of the Sunken Boats

Pirates at Magic Kingdom has really lost its way. In 2006, the nonsensical movie overlay imposed a narrative on the ride that makes no sense, and did worse aesthetic damage to the ride by removing various details that made the Florida Pirates the Florida Pirates.  Then, in 2012, even more random stuff was added to tie into the release of the On Stranger Tides movie, including mermaid projections in the water and a mermaid skeleton on Marc Davis' otherwise perfect "Dead Man's Cove" scene. Meanwhile, 2006-era Jack Sparrow figures sat unnaturally cheek to jowl with Pirates constructed in 1973 and still chugging along by the grace of quality, if fifty year old, engineering.

Pirates finally got its shot in the arm this year. Long outdated technology was finally upgraded, from digital sound with new speakers, to LED lights, and fully upgraded animatronics. It's actually startling to remember that at one point this ride's illusions were considered to be wildly impressive and lifelike. As part of the refurbishment, all of the pirates figures were removed and rebuilt and many of the sets refurbished. Everyone came back with new costumes, new hair, new skin, many with new insides, standing in completely refreshed sets. Some of the pirates and townspeople now have dark complexions more appropriate for what one could expect to see in the Caribbean.

All of the faces and hands of the pirates are painted with techniques that were first introduced at the Hall of Presidents in 2009 to give their faces the impression of actual skin instead of painted rubber. The Auctioneer was replaced with a new(ish) figure entirely, and has a new look closer to Marc Davis' concept art and the most impressive animation I've seen in a version of this ride yet. Even minor touches like the lighthouses in Bombardment Bay and the torches in the queue have new, improved fire effects. The result is startling: the ride looks and feels like it was built yesterday. It's all great, great news.

Old-Timey People Warn: YOU WILL GET WET!

Now for the bad news: a few years ago Magic Kingdom decided to buy a new fleet of boats for the attraction, made of a lighter weight plastic instead of the old fiberglass and metal. The reason for this, besides the age of the fleet introduced in the 90s, was to try to combat the increasing weight the boats are required to carry. As you may know, Pirates of the Caribbean's ride system is designed to accommodate boats of five rows a piece. Back in the 90s, the load area was redesigned and new six row boats were introduced to improve capacity at the attraction. Operations still wants to fit as many people in the boats as possible, but with people being much bigger than they were in 1973 when the attraction was designed, it's a delicate task to balance the new boats with the old ride infrastructure and still end up a ride that works as intended.

To be blunt: they did not succeed. The new boats drag too low in the water to begin with, and if balanced just right make a terrific splash when they go down the ramp into the lower floor of the ride. And to make things worse, they take on water.

The result, combined with the inappropriate introduction of Fastpass to the ride as part of the troubled MyMagic+ rollout, means that Pirates almost always has a slow moving line and breaks constantly. I've read elsewhere that Magic Kingdom is currently trying a "back-up" plan to help the boats, and I've been in one of the new boats which was bone dry and went down the drop as smooth as glass. Being a former Pirates ride operator, that impressed the hell out of me. But I've also been in a boat that dragged far too low in the water, barely made it over the drop, got stuck twice in the ride, and was flooded with almost eight inches of water when the boat behind mine, empty and floating at normal draft, pushed a wave of ice cold chemically Pirates water into the row by bumping us from behind.

Furthermore, the damage done in 2006 still has not been undone. The cannons on the fort facade no longer fire, which is integral to setting up the story inside. The "soldiers in the fort" dialogue in the queue still plays too low, and is drowned out by the inappropriate use of the "Pirates Overture" music instead of the music selected by the designers of the ride in 1973. The music which was selected in 1973 is known as "Pirate's Arcade" and is only meant to play in the queue's entrance tunnel. The parrot on the facade has been M.O.A. since 2006 and really needs to be brought back. The talking skull before the down ramp was removed for no good reason, and his wiring and speaker is still in place behind the wall. The skull is a key character in every other version of the ride, and his absence at Magic Kingdom makes an already somewhat weak ride even weaker.

The mermaid projection effect seems to have gone away with the new refurbishment, which is perhaps for the better, but there's still a mermaid skeleton and wrecked boat cluttering up Dead Man's Cove. The mermaid skeleton was re-staged in the refurbishment and looks better, but still weirdly out of place. The middle pirate skeleton in the same scene, with the sword in his back, was replaced in 2005 with a new figure whose head is weirdly raised. This is fallout from a plan to have this pirate skeleton talk, which was abandoned. It looks silly and really ought to be changed.

"I'm not dead yet!"

The same year, Disneyland restaged their Cove scene to more closely resemble Marc's concept art, which is just more evidence how disorganized and rushed the Jack Sparrow project was. Also introduced in 2006 was a new piece of music for the Cove scene, obviously written for Disneyland's grotto sequence in mind, where the atmosphere always has been melancholy and mysterious. The trouble is, Marc redesigned the caves in Florida and intended it to be dark, and scary - that's why there's a low ceiling and used to be very dim lighting. The "Grotto" music from 2006 never quite fit right in Florida, and I think WDI knew this. They replaced it with the sound of singing mermaids in 2012, which is closer to spooky, but still needlessly distracting.

Here's the bottom line: Pirates in Florida is not Pirates in California. There's no time travel in the Florida ride, and never has been. You see a fort being attacked. You enter the fort and hear the soldiers discussing the fact that the pirates are attacking. You load into a boat to evacuate through the secret back entrance to the fort, which happens to be through a cave where we learn pirates buried treasure long ago and are perhaps returning to claim it. As we load into the boats we can see the boat filled with pirates out there on the ocean, coming to attack the fort! We slip through the caves and when we emerge outside there's that ship we saw when we got on the ride, and it's right there attacking the town. There's no way to turn this sequence of events into the Disneyland ride, not even by closing our eyes and stomping our feet. Pirates in Florida needs to be its own thing, and it was, from 1973 to 2006, when it was made into an even paler reflection of what's out in California.

Enough. Let's do right by this ride. Bring all of the weird unique stuff back, and we can even keep Jack Sparrow in the bargain. The ride currently looks better than it ever has, but it makes no sense and I think audiences respond to that fact on some deep, unspoken level.

Lounging on the Veranda

The Twenty-tens may prove to be some sort of renaissance for unanticipated Disney World resuscitations, with the Orange Bird of course at the top of that list. Arguably a physically bigger deal is the return of the Adventureland Veranda, a marvelously atmospheric counter service location at Magic Kingdom which was shuttered in... July 1994. It's back, now called Skipper Canteen, weirdly enough themed to the Jungle Cruise, and I think it looks terrific. The sign outside is a bit excessive, but once you get inside, it's all beautifully textured work, with a great deal of Dorothea Redmond's interior designs still intact.

The only lost opportunity here seems to be losing use of the actual verandas for which the restaurant is named, on the east side of the facility facing the hub. The furthest-flung veranda was actually demolished for the project, and turned into a new set of indoor bathrooms to service the Canteen. They were wrapped in a new facade which appropriately mirrors the 1971 architecture, and so this strikes me as an acceptable loss. But the other two verandas, one directly off the main pedestrian pathway, remain. It strikes me that they could be filled with tables and returned to use as expanded seating for the relocated Sunshine Tree Terrace. If this is indeed the plan then I would be comfortable saying that there truly was nothing lost in the changeover.

The Hub On The Park Goes Round And Round

The Hub is the heart of Magic Kingdom, in the sense that it's the geographic center. It was, once upon a time, incredibly photogenic.

The way the Hub used to work is that there was a curtain of trees screening off the castle from Main Street. This makes good sense because the castle was part of Fantasyland, and such was "elsewhere". The effect was dreamily evocative: a tall castle floating out from behind a curtain of trees, nearby yet emotionally far away, real but somehow inaccessible.

The trees served a real purpose besides looking nice. What I think happened is that the designers of Magic Kingdom noticed that from a distance, the bottom of Cinderella Castle looks flat as a board:

But the minute you shift off to the left or right, the forced perspective of the towers kicks in, and you end up with an incredibly dynamic looking structure:

Basically by planting the trees where they did, WED was forcing you to approach the castle to get the closer view from the best possible angle. When you're climbing the ramps to walk through the castle, the way the towers shift and seem to grow and loom over you almost induces vertigo. It's a really remarkable effect that too few are allowed to see today.

As I've covered extensively on this site before, the trees came down, and while I'm not willing to call the sight lines necessarily better or worse, they are different, and they changed the way the Hub felt. The Hub had previously been open lawn with a forest in the center, and it was now open lawn and a lot of concrete. It was unbearably hot nearly all the time, and almost never pleasant. And worse, it became a gridlock constantly, especially at night during fireworks. Experienced Magic Kingdom goers knew very well to just sit down in Liberty Square or something and wait.

Starting early last year and lasting for what felt like forever, the Hub was rebuilt into a double-Hub arrangement. What was once open lawn and a meandering moat was re-graded into extra wide walkways. Fountains, new railings and street lights, directional signs, and fireworks viewing areas were added. A new, somewhat themed bypass by added on the East side of Main Street, open almost every night and allowing an accelerated escape from the park during gridlock conditions. Extra wide walkways and paths are clearly and carefully divided up into "standing" and "walking" zones, allowing traffic to flow around fireworks or parade spectators.

What can be said about the new hub? To begin with: it works. In my experience traffic has flowed so smoothly through this operational machine that I no longer need to worry about when I'm set to arrive at Magic Kingdom or when it will be possible to leave: you can escape, or even cross the park during the worst of conditions, which I'm sure will be relief this holiday season.

As for the aesthetics, this is another place where I expected the worst and got a good compromise instead. The new Hub is really not like the old Hub in any way, and this is a case where I think that's okay. During the day, the fireworks viewing corral appears to be a carefully manicured Versailles-like garden; at night, the gates swing closed and traffic is kept tightly controlled. Brand new, surprisingly impressive fountains bubble alongside new walkways, giving the whole area a somewhat Tivoli-esque atmosphere.

Imagineering has seemingly combated the fact that the middle of the Hub seems doomed to remain an open concrete circle by placing huge trees everywhere else. It's actually kind of startling: you can look across the hub now and not see any of the buildings in the individual lands now because there are simply so many trees in the way. Many of these are outfitted once again with the traditional twinkle lights, giving the new area just the right level of nostalgia. Lawns have been retained, but now studded with trees and rambling flower beds, giving certain areas a pastoral feel. The illusion of the castle rising from behind a forest has returned - now viewed from the outside of the Hub looking in. Even the original directional signs on the West side of the Hub have been retained, and given new graphics and paint.

Not everything is perfect. There's half a dozen absurd utility poles poking up around the hub outfitted with bright lights to illuminate the sidewalks before parades begin; these were there before but look less appropriate than ever. Areas which once were expansive lawns are now tiny slivers of grass.

But really this is the sort of thing which had to be done, and you can only hope will be done tastefully. I think it looks very good, and unique. And whatever the aesthetic qualities, it's a huge improvement operationally. What was previously a rather pale imitation of Disneyland's Hub now feels like its own animal, with its own sense of grandeur and odd little details. To my eyes, having grown up with the Magic Kingdom, it sometimes slips into absurd overkill. Someone else seeing it for the first time could see it and think it's an incredibly bold, inviting open space. I'm willing to bet that both interpretations are correct in their own way.

In Summary

2014 was a bad year for Disney theme parks folks, and frankly out at Disneyland the bad news continued with the revelation that the back half of their Frontierland was going the way of the Rocket Rod for Star Wars. In Florida, it felt like things that have finally been rolling down the pike for a long time started to happen, and it's all, in my mind, for the sum better. Epcot still needs a reason to exist, but Animal Kingdom has quietly gone from my least favorite of the Florida parks to my second favorite since about 2007. Disney seems committed to keeping the only parts of the Studios worth saving - the atmospheric front - and gutting the rest for new stuff, which really should have happened twenty years ago. And Magic Kingdom has finally started to retain, or even bring back, its unique charm.

I give the bulk of all this year's work a hearty approval. You earned a solid A, everyone. And Santa, if it isn't too much to ask, could we please begin work on next year's wish list?

Passport to Dreams Magic Kingdom Hit List:
 - Remove Magic Carpets of Aladdin and restore Adventureland
 - Demolish Keel Boat Landing & Mansion Fastpass Structure...
      - rebuild that section of riverfront, remove clutter, add trees
 - Gut Main Street Confectionery and restore vintage theme
 - Refurbish and Replace attraction posters at Entrance
 - New Decor and Layout for Pecos Bill Cafe
 - Plant more trees in Town Square
 - Reopen the Diamond Horseshoe with Live Entertainment
 - Restore and create a new show for Carousel of Progress

And finally, three personal requests:

 - Bring back the hands on the final door in the Haunted Mansion Corridor of Doors
 - Return of the 1980 Liberty Square music year-round
 - Please, please, the return of this:

Passport to Dreams Old & New Year End Essays
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