Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Disney: A Recap (and some bitching, as always)

Hey Everybody!

The TM and I returned from Disney a couple of weeks back and I think I've finally organized my thoughts enough to write coherently about the trip.

First a couple of general thoughts, and then my likes and dislikes.

Thought 1:
This may be surprising to my readers, but as great a time as I had this trip, I think I'm okay not going again for a couple of years. There are some things that occurred to me during the trip that make me feel like I've been going about it all wrong the last few visits, and maybe I burned myself out a bit.

The thing I need to remind myself is that I'm not a rookie. I'm not going for just a couple of days. I've seen everything several times. I know what I love, and what I can live without. And yet... I attack the visit like a rookie. Every time. I try to cram in everything. I try to plan every day and meal and whatever, and if I'm being honest with myself... I'm done with that.

I could go, literally, 20 more visits without riding Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, and a) I know it'll be there on visit 21, and b) I know that every turn and twist will be the same as it has been for ever one of my previous 15 visits. That's the beauty of Disney World. The classics (for the most part) aren't going anywhere. They so rarely close major attractions. I mean... they don't need to. They usually would just expand. It's not without exception, but you know... even if they were to get rid of Big Thunder? I would be bummed I didn't ride it one last time, but not devastated.

There are a few rides I would be devastated about... Pirates. Haunted Mansion. Kilimanjaro Safari. Soarin. They aren't going anywhere.

My point is... Skipping a ride due to a long line, or to preserve my sanity? That's gotta be something I embrace from now on. Time to take a deep breath. Time to plan less, enjoy more, and not stress about fitting it all in. (That's what she said)

Thought 2:
I can barely tolerate crowds anymore. Like... at all. We chose the 2nd slowest time of year, and it was still really crowded when compared to a shopping mall or whatever. I need to find every way possible to eliminate the crowds from my experience. How do I do that?
a) Bring rain gear - One of the best times we had was after a torrential rain. We had the whole World Showcase to our selves (you know... relatively). Of course two hours after the rain, the crowd was back to normal.
b) Avoid the bus system whenever possible. I hate the buses. They are crowded, and well... crowded. They make me stressed out for like.. 2 hours prior to getting on them. Thats no good. This pretty much leaves us with 2 different hotel choices in the future. The Yacht Club and The Boardwalk. Sadly, these are also much more expensive, so the frequency of visits will need to be adjusted. These two resorts have alternate access to two of the four parks. This appeals to me. They also tend to have generally less crowded buses. And, especially with the Boardwalk, they have interesting things to do when you're not at the park.

Okay, so....

Things I liked:

- The new restaurant in Mexico was the best meal I had the whole time. It was awesome. I'd heard some mixed things about it, but I loved what I got, and the setting is great. It's the new "place to eat and watch Illuminations". Really good stuff.

- The Fantasyland Expansion plans. Seriously, that shit is going to be awesome.

- Best Kilimanjaro Safari experience (annoying people notwithstanding) I've had in ages. It was all about the giraffes this time around, and I really enjoyed it.

- Fucking DOLE WHIP. I mean... I'd always heard about Dole Whip being this thing you got in Adventureland, and I never thought about it much past that. Well... We tried it this time, and my god. It's seriously the best shit ever. I can't believe I waited so long.

- The Wishes Fireworks. I'm not a fireworks guy, but damn.... those are some good fireworks indeed. Very impressive.

- Port Orleans French Quarter. It's probably my favorite of all of the hotels I've stayed in Disney, and even though my comments about the buses are sincere, they shouldn't reflect poorly on this place. It's really nice.

- Finding Nemo the Musical. I know I've talked about it before at least a little, but that's a damned good show for a theme park. Great music. Excellent acting. It's all of the things missing from the poor Great Movie Ride.

- Tower of Terror. I've never been shy about how little I like roller coasters (very little), and the reason for this being the terrifying drops and plummets and whatnot. Well... Let's call this the exception to the rule. We rode it twice in a row, and I seriously laughed like a kook both times. It's so much damned fun. They do this thing where each ride is a little different, because its' on some computer randomizer thing. It's less like falling than like being a giant yo-yo. I love it.

- STAR TOURS. I admit I've never been a great fan of Star Tours, despite the theming. That has all changed since they refurbished it. The changes were inspired. There were all these rumors about it being converted into a pod racing simulator, which sounded cool, but I was also wary of, because pod racing only showed up in the terrible first chapter. Well... There are over FIFTY possible stories (including pod racing), and the story is random. in fact, you'd have to ride it for 6 straight hours to experience all of the stories. How cool is that?! Also, it's 3D now, and incredibly smooth. Darth Vader threw our vehicle with THE FORCE. Awesome.

-Taking Fisheye and Wide Angle photos of my favorite Disney things. The lead photo is a fisheye lens photo of Spaceship Earth. From immediately beneath it. Amazing. Here's a good one of Magic Kingdom:

There were, of course, more things that I liked and have liked for years, but for the sake of brevity, I'm keeping it at these NEW developments.

Things I didn't like so much...

- Most of the rest of the food. It's not that it's bad, but god damn is it overpriced. I wasn't even paying for most of it outside of the dining plan, but they make the mistake of showing us the bills even when we are paying with plan. The Dining Plan is definitely reasonable, and I have no complaints. We ended up using almost all of our snacks during the Food and Wine Festival, whcih was fun, but still... overall the quality of the food wasn't equivalent to the price. Not even close. We're talking about movie-theater popcorn level overpriced. It's hard to remember sometimes that in the end, you're dealing with family restaurants that are glossed up for the location. The food is generally boring.

- Again... the crowds. If I had to choose one specific target? Strollers, Scooters, and Wheelchairs. I would never begrudge someone who really needed one of these things, but FAR too many people were using their strollers are glorified shopping carts. Far too many people were using their scooters as battering rams. Far too many people just loved to stop in the middle of an already crowded walkway and block everything up with their damned strollers and carts and whatever. That shit makes me crazy. I am 100% convinced that I identified several people who were using the wheelchairs as an excuse to get their whole party to the front of lines. I get that you want to bring your little kids. I would never say that's wrong. Just have some fucking respect for others, please. In general, I find people rude. How difficult is it to walk around a poor guy taking one photo. Or, you know... wait for a few seconds. Apparently impossible.

You know... Those are really the two main problems I had this time.

The Flash Photography craze I noted last time seems to have ebbed, thankfully.

Disney seems to be on the right track with their updates. Even the tired-ass Swiss Family Treehouse is being refurbished. The Fantasyland expansion will be great. I'm really looking forward to the James Cameron assisted new land in Animal Kingdom (I think I may have to write a whole blog about that).

There's a million great things to come at my beloved Disney World. I just have to remember that I don't need to do everything every time. I had an amazing time, and I can't wait to go back... Whenever that might be.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Happy Birthday, Walt Disney World.

Yesterday marked the 40th Anniversary of the opening of Walt Disney World in Florida. If you’ve ever visited my blog, you’ll know that this is a big deal to me, and that Disney World is my favorite place on Earth.

To honor this milestone I present you with…

The Top 5 Things Disney World Needs to Do to Keep Moving Forward

Get Back to Basics.

One of the things that has drawn so many people into the Disney Experience over the years is the company’s legendary, outstanding customer service. Heck, I even invoked the Disney Service name when I interviewed for my first job in private aviation, when I knew nothing about planes.

The thing is… that level of service has slipped just a little over the past 10 years or so.

There was a time that nobody came close, and now… well.. they’re still the best, but the margin has slimmed. It’s not unusual to see a cast member texting, or complaining about how long their shift is. I shouldn’t say it’s a common occurrence, but not long ago there was no chance of that happening. It’s not just the cast members running the rides or selling the merchandise… One of my favorite rides for years was The Great Movie Ride at what used to be MGM Studios. The best part of it was that there were actors on the ride, interacting with you… These days the actors suck ass. That’s just an example.

Don’t get me wrong. Disney is still the best at what they do, and we’re talking just tiny tweaks. And even moreso, there are still many, many cast members who wanted to work for Disney for the very reasons I’ve mentioned… It’s why I would like to work for them. The majority of the cast members are top notch, and they love what they do. I just want Disney to make it a point to get back to being so much better than every other theme park when it comes to the customer experience, that the “Wizarding World of Harry Potter” would shut the hell up.

Expand Animal Kingdom.

I’m probably one of the most unabashed supporters of Disney’s Animal Kingdom Park, but even I admit that it’s not a full day experience like Magic Kingdom or Epcot, and it doesn’t have the big giant draws that Studios has. (With the exception of Expedition Everest, which is awesome.) There’s just not a lot to do. If you don’t want to get absolutely soaked, you need to skip one of the biggest rides, in Kali River Rapids. If you’re bored with watching animals in their natural environment, you’ll skip the Kilimanjaro Safari. If you aren’t interested in taking the full hour or so needed to go to Rafiki’s Planet Watch, you’ll skip that. Basically there are only a couple of big draws in the park, and I’d venture to say that only one of those actually entices people to go to AK. This has got to change.

Fortunately (I think), the company just announced a big expansion to the park based on the film “Avatar”, which.. while I initially was very disappointed in, but once I thought it through more, and realized that it’s more likely to be based on the world of Pandora from the film (and the upcoming 2 more films that take place elsewhere in that world), the more excited I am. This opens up a whole world of possibilities, even potentially re-starting the “Beastly Kingdom” expansion that has long been discussed. See? Disney’s listening to me already.

Spruce Up The World Showcase

The World Showcase at Epcot is one of my favorite things about Disney, and it’s clearly the Tofu Muchacha’s favorite out of anything. There are so many cool shops and attractions, and the architecture and theming is really cool. One of the things that impressed me the most about Disney as a 13 year old first timer was how all of the countries were populated entirely by people from their respective countries (i.e. The Germany Pavilion is entirely staffed by Germans).

So, what do I mean by “spruce up”? Well…

There are 2 things that need to be done, definitely.

First, there’s spot way out there by Germany and China that is simply called “The Outpost”. This very clearly has to be developed into another country. Some countries that never got through the planning stages are Israel, Russia, Venezuela, and the UAE. My personal vote would be something like Brazil… Something completely different than all of the other countries. As it is right now, there’s just this semi-offensive area that vaguely represents a white bread African hut with generic misters and whatnot. It’s just lazy. Get a country in there. There hasn’t been a new one since The Norway Pavilion was opened in 1988.

Second, Disney needs to go systematically through each pavilion and determine if there’s anything that can be added or improved to the existing country pavilions. For example, while many of the counties have either movies (China, Canada, France, Norway) or exhibits (China, Japan) or Rides (Norway, Mexico) or… national embarrassments (USA), there are several that don’t really feature any sort of attraction to speak of (Britain, Italy, Germany, Morocco).

Let’s talk briefly about the aforementioned “National Embarrassment”. Currently the largest pavilion and the gaudiest show in the park, if not at Disney World is The American Pavilion, and the attached show “The American Adventure”. Yes, it’s impressive. Yes, it’s sort of vaguely emotional. Still…. I think it’s inexcusable. It’s like throwing your own birthday party and then giving yourself a better gift than anyone else gave you. We should all be embarrassed. We should all skip “The American Adventure”. I mean… I think it’s more than anything a redundancy. We’re LIVING The “American Adventure” every fucking day. It’s like a vanity plate on a Hummer. (Says the guy with the vanity plate).

Figure out The Studios.

When I first visited Disney World in 1993, my favorite park was Disney’s MGM Studios. It had this magical Disney feel that combined the romanticism of movies just around the time I was first developing a love for movies and movie making. There was all of this “old Hollywood” charm that I probably enjoyed more than any 13 year old straight kid ever did. Oh, and the rides were all fresh and fun and new. As in…everything was at the most, four years old.

Now? Not so much.

Don’t get me wrong, there are still many, many things I love about the place. I think the visuals of the place are absolutely incredible, even down to the fact that the original layout was a Hidden Mickey visible from space. They had Star Wars and Indiana Jones. They had the best shops in the whole of Walt Disney World (That’s actually probably still true.) It was really freaking awesome.

Sadly, as the emphasis of the part became more weighted toward the dual thrill rides of Rock’n’Roller Coaster and The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, the rest of the part went neglected for a little too long. The Great Movie Ride, once one of my favorite things about Disney World (in fact you will have seen it appear very high on my “Favorite Things” lists leading up to two past Disney vacations) has not been updated for like… ever. The acting is bad. The movies featured aren’t that recent, or even that relatable at this point. There’s really not a lot of things to “do”, but rather a crapload of things to “see”. This is problematic, because it makes it difficult to navigate the whole park in a day. You can certainly experience the 5 (that’s right, only 5) rides and attractions:

The Great Movie Ride
Tower of Terror
Rock-n-Roller Coaster
Star Tours
Toy Story Mania

If you go in looking to only do those 5 things, and you get there early on an light day, you’re done by noon. The problem is… there are something like 19 shows. There’s no way you can ever see 19 shows in one day. Maybe not even two. There’s just so much waiting in lines, and then waiting in audiences. It’s just become this sort of boring park.

Wow… that was a lot of background for my point… sorry..

They’ve made strides, certainly. Star Tours has been re-done to with a new theme and new movie. Pixar has taken up residence, which is kind of awesome. The American Idol experience is a fun diversion (especially if you make it onto the “show”), though I can’t imagine much more shelf-life of it, especially after Idol finally takes it’s final bow. I believe there’s been talk of updating the Indiana Jones Stunt Spectacular (woefully outdated still featuring Raiders of the Lost Ark, which is the same thing it was when I was 13), to be a Pirates of the Caribbean Stunt Show. That would be awesome.

Seriously, though… come on, guys….update the Great Movie Ride. Add more rides to the Pixar area. Where’s that Monster’s Inc roller coaster? Maybe something new with the Muppets?

It’s getting almost to the point where the visit to The Studios is perfunctory, and not anticipated with the glee it once was.

Think “Long Term Legacy”.

Listen… I am a capitalist. I have never been offended by a company (whose goal is to make money) trying to make money. I believe that there’s no inherent higher call to be charitable or anything like that.

But what I don’t like, specifically with Walt Disney World, is when the company chooses to capitalize on short term, fad type things, and focus less on the long term things that will last a long time and will create that nostalgic feel that keeps people coming back year after year and generation after generation. This, again, is what separates Disney from their “competitors”. Disney creates stand-alone iconic rides like “It’s a Small World” and “The Haunted Mansion” and “Pirates of the Caribbean”. Rides that spawned films. The competition creates rides based on popular movies. The problem with that, is that those movies fade most of the time, and then you have this dated ride. Think “Twister” at Universal. That was a cool attraction, but I guarantee that most of the teens at Universal have never seen the movie.

My preference is to see less advantage taken of the “Princess” fad. Or the “Pirates” fad. I understand that the company wants to make the money when the money is there to be made, but I wish they’d sometimes do a little better to integrate theming and more lasting motifs into their money makers. I can think of two examples of where this sort of “brand marketing” failed, and crowds either complained long enough to change things, or that time is coming soon..

The Enchanted Tiki Room is one of the legendary attractions at Disney World. Walt himself famously talked to a mechanical parrot, teasing the attraction. About 15 years ago, they decided that the classic version of the ride wasn’t cutting it anymore, so they added the currently popular Iago from Aladdin and Zazu from The Lion King. Not to say that those weren’t both great movies. They are. Still… the show never had the same timeless resonance that it once did, so while the interest was briefly increased, ultimately it petered out.

The other example is the once great “Alien Encounter”. Now… I understand why they got rid of that attraction. Ultimately the Magic Kingdom is a park for kids more than anything, and that was a damned scary attraction. But it also was awesome. And unique. And not tied to anything in particular, so had it been in a different environment, it could have lasted as long as they wanted. So they replaced it, almost entirely with a watered down version featuring Stitch. I LOVE Stitch, but this is one of the dumbest things in the whole park. People hate it. Everyone hates it.

Damn, I’m rambling today.

So I guess my final point for this is that Disney knows how to make money. They know they can make money by constantly changing their target and going after whatever is the most popular thing at any given moment in time. They could also choose to seek out the possibly harder to find, but ultimately more valuable timeless classic. I just wish they’d quit so blatantly going after the first, and start going after the second again.

I know I sound like I’m complaining here. I mean… I feel that way. You have to know, though, that I struggled coming up with these 5 things. There are so many amazing things that I always talk about, I sometimes feel like it’s okay to talk about the ways they can still improve. Walt Disney himself famously said “Keep Moving Forward”.

Disney does it the best. They’ve got the best idea people, the best artists, the best everything, and that’s why I go back as often as the TM will allow me. All of the things I suggest are small in proportion to the magic the place makes every day.

Happy Birthday, Disney World. My favorite place.