Friday, December 18, 2009

FastPass Insanity

Way back on March 18th I promised a post on the plusses and minuses of FastPass. However, I didn’t feel like writing about that, so I wrote about a bunch of other stuff instead, prompting an anonymous commenter to say “hey, whatever happened to that FastPass post you promised?” Well, now that I’ve taken two trips to WDW since Labor Day, and am looking forward to a multi-day trip in about two weeks, I’ve got FastPass on the brain again. By the way, if you don’t know what FastPass is or how it works, here’s the Wikipedia article.

Although the system was introduced in 1999, the first time I ever saw it was on our October 2001 honeymoon. Disney didn’t do a great job explaining it to casual parkgoers, and since we were less than two months out from 9/11, the parks weren’t that crowded and there wasn’t much of an impetus to use it. We made another trip in 2004, and since crowd levels had rebounded, the lines were long enough that we took the time to read the inserts in our park maps that explained how this FastPass thing worked. Judging by the huge amount of people we saw waiting in Standby (a.k.a. non-FastPass) lines, most folks did not do the same, which leads nicely into the first section of this post:

The Plusses of FastPass

The biggest advantage of FastPass, indeed its raison d’etre, is to allow you to bypass long attraction lines. One of the reasons it works so well is that 95% of the people in the parks at any given time aren’t using it. As usual, that figure isn’t based on anything other than my own personal observations, but I’m confident that it’s pretty close to the truth. Otherwise, why would the standby line for Peter Pan’s Flight (which, if it extended straight out from the attraction entrance, would probably stretch to the Canary Islands) be full of families with cranky children who want to get on the ride right now, or else they will scream?

So, FastPass is a system that allows you to bypass long lines, and it works so well because most people don’t use it. Therefore, those of us who do are essentially profiting from the ignorance of those who don’t.  That’s a big plus in my book. Now, time for . . .

The Minuses of FastPass

Why don’t more people use FastPass? Basically, it’s because the majority of them are on their first and only trip to Disney World, and they’re keeping one eye on their hyper-excited kids while using the other eye to squint at their park map to figure out the best way to get to Splash Mountain and where the bathrooms are and how to fit in all these rides that the kids want to go on right now before their 12:30 reservation at the Liberty Tree Tavern (and just where on the map is that, anyway?) They just don’t have the time or energy to read and digest that paragraph on the back of the map that explains what FastPass is all about.

Now, a trip to Disney World has always involved some complexity. But back in the days before FastPass, pretty much the only bit of “strategy” a savvy parkgoer needed to employ was to avoid the lunchtime rush by hitting Pecos Bill’s during the 3:00 parade. Regardless of who you were, your route through the Magic Kingdom would look something like this:


The only decision to make was whether you headed left into Adventureland or right into Tomorrowland after you walked up Main Street.

FastPass, however, has added another wrinkle. A savvy parkgoer will make a beeline for a couple of the park’s most popular attractions, obtain FastPasses, then go find other things to do until the FastPass return time. As the return time approaches, they’re obliged to hightail it to the attraction from wherever else they happen to be, even if it’s on the other side of the park.  The added complexity of dining reservations may cause even more backtracking and mad rushing. A savvy Disney parkgoer’s path through the Magic Kingdom now looks like something from the Family Circus:


The problem gets even worse at EPCOT, because EPCOT is so huge. Whereas EPCOT’s generally ovoid shape meant that your path through the park would invariably go something like this:


. . .a savvy use of FastPass leads to lots of darting back and forth across Future World, like this:


“What’s the problem with that?” you might ask. Nothing, if you’re an fatigue-proof 19-year-old with no kids. But EPCOT and the Magic Kingdom are not small places. Zipping back and forth across them, juggling FastPass return times and dining reservation times is as hard as the work most of us do at our jobs. I don’t know about anyone else, but I go on vacation to relax.

However, Disney World is the American consumer mecca. And a key tenet of the American consumer lifestyle is instant gratification, so a system to make the gratification of experiencing a Disney attraction a little more instant was bound to be a hit. However, I’ve hurried back and forth across crowded theme parks, clutching my FastPass trying to resist the temptation to break into an all-out run, only to collapse exhausted at the end of the day. In two weeks, we’re going to take it a little slower.

Sure, I may grab a FastPass or two, but only to give to my wife for her Disney trip scrapbook. Let everyone else hurry like they’ve got a time clock to punch. We’ll be taking it easy.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Apocalypse EPCOT: The Dark Future I Just Thought Up

I’m sure Team Disney Orlando has seen undeniable economic benefits from their practice of simply closing up huge chunks of EPCOT real estate: the Wonders of Life pavilion, the upstairs ImageWorks, and the Millennium pavilion, to say nothing of large chunks of vacant Innoventions exhibition space. These actions, though, were all taken when the economy was in better shape than it is now. What might the suits do in the future to preserve their profit margins (and their executive bonuses)? Come with me now to an apocalyptic future, and I’ll make up the answer to that question before your very eyes . . .

This is Future Guy’s Doom Bunker!

The year is 2015. Unemployment still hovers around 10%. The President of the United States is Mr. T. Shrek 5 has just won the Oscar for Best Picture. At Walt Disney World, the “free admission on your birthday” and “give a day, get a Disney Day” promos are distant memories. The current promo “Buy a $200 One-Day Admission Ticket, Get A Fastpass to Mickey’s PhilharMagic” is not the big success that management had hoped. Executive bonuses are shrinking. Something must be done!

Deep in the executive restroom, while perched on a diamond-encrusted toilet in a solid gold stall, an executive comes up with a series of cost cutting measures for EPCOT! Before he can forget what they are, he grabs a piece of gold-foil Charmin from the toilet paper dispenser and scribbles out his ideas. Let’s take a trip now, through the Future World of 2015:

Spaceship Earth: The touchscreens in the ride vehicles are replaced by Etch-A-Sketches. During the descent, visitors are invited to use them to “create their own vision of the future”.

Universe of Energy: Ellen’s Energy Adventure becomes a “human-powered” attraction as the large “moving theater” ride vehicles are removed and visitors are now required to walk through the show.

Mission Space: The simulators no longer spin, or even move. Riders are told to sit in them and make spaceship noises with their mouths for five minutes.

Test Track: The complex ride vehicles are replaced with Power Wheels. The resulting ride-in which guests putt-putt through the faux-automobile testing facility at a coma-inducing three miles per hour-is billed as a more family friendly experience.

Imagination: The entire pavilion, ride and all, is shut down. Disney bills this as an opportunity for guests to “create their own experience”, since they can walk around the dark, nonfunctioning pavilion and imagine whatever they want.

The Land: Soarin’s machinery is removed, and guests are encouraged to run around in the empty warehouse-like space with their arms sticking straight out, pretending to be airplanes. The Living With The Land boat ride is also modified to become a “guest-powered experience”. Oars are installed on the boats, and riders are required to row. The plants are removed from the greenhouses, and mounds of dirt are put in their place. Disney justifies this by pointing out that the ride is called “Living With the Land” not “Living With The Stuff Growing In The Land”.

The Seas: The tanks are emptied. The windows looking into the tanks are tinted blue and decorated with painted-on fish and coral.

Innoventions: The old exhibits that are currently collecting dust in the Imagination pavilion’s old upstairs ImageWorks are hauled out of storage and installed here. Except for the rainbow corridor and the pin screens, because people might actually enjoy those. When guests tire of playing with the vintage 1982 technology (none of which will be plugged in or even dusted off), they can visit the rest of Innoventions’ exhibits, which consist of a couple of repurposed McDonald’s play areas, two bouncy castles, and a row of Nintendo 64s that only have the game Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire.

The Fountain of Nations: Now just a guy with some Mentos and Diet Coke.

Are these just the insane ramblings of a guy who’s a half hour late for his lunch break? You bet they are. But if you subscribe to the “many worlds” interpretation of quantum physics, then you know that somewhere in the multiverse, they’ve already come true.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Seas With . . .Ariel?

I’m not too secretive about the fact that the ride-thru portion of The Seas with Nemo makes me want to bang my head against the wall of my “clam-mobile”. However, if Project Gemini had gone forward, The Seas pavilion might be home to another animated Disney character: Ariel.

What was Project Gemini, you ask? For a full overview, I encourage you to read Jim Hill’s 2003 article on the subject. Briefly, though, it was a plan to totally remake Future World to appeal to young people. There would be more thrill rides (at least two, including one called Time Racers that would be installed inside a gutted Spaceship Earth) a “Junior Autopia” for the little kids in front of Test Track, and a hedge maze between The Land and the Imagination pavilion. And trees. Lots and lots of trees. Also, The Living Seas, which at this point was being actively neglected by Disney management, would be rethemed around Ariel and the cast of The Little Mermaid.

How would this have been handled? According to the article I linked to above:

“Ariel, King Triton and Sebastian are slated to serve as the new hosts of the aptly named "Under the Sea" pavilion. The new pre-show (as well as the bulk of The Living Seas revamped exhibits) will now stress how we must all learn to live in harmony with the world's oceans. Not over-fish or pollute ... or we risk destroying this precious resource forever.

I'm told that Seabase Alpha will now be repositioned as the finale of the "Under the Sea" show. To show us all how idyllic the future could be if we really do learn to live in harmony with the ocean.”

Look, I’m no fan of The Little Mermaid, but I still have to admit that sounds a heck of a lot better than the Nemo pavilion we ended up getting. It would used popular animated characters to teach kids about the impact of human behavior on the oceans.

Come to think of it, why couldn’t they have done this with Nemo? As bad as some of the Project Gemini ideas were (turning Spaceship Earth into a Space Mountain-like ride, for example) the Seas idea was really on the right track. Of course, the pavilion might have ended up being painted pink, but that would have been a small price to pay.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Superman: Skinny and Pissed

It amazes me how often well-established companies utterly fail at the one thing they’re supposed to do well.

Comic books are a visual medium. It’s not enough to tell a good story, you have to provide good pictures to go along with it. In fact, generally speaking a comic with good art and a bad story will sell better than one with a good story and bad art.

One of the ways that comic book companies like DC and Marvel attempt to maintain reader interest and drive sales is by having Big Events, which are kind of like the comic-book versions of summer blockbusters. These events usually have overblown names like Our Worlds at War, Infinite Crisis, Final Crisis, and so forth. Along with the announcement of such an event, it’s customary for the comic companies to release a piece of art from the event as well, to set the comic book fans a-salivating.

Yesterday, DC announced their big “event” for 2010, a Superman-themed storyline entitled “War of the Supermen”. Although I’m not a regular reader of comic books, I am a big Superman fan, so this naturally piqued my interest. Then I saw the accompanying piece of art:

warofthesupermen“Mommy, why does Superman look like he has the runs?”

Rather than getting me excited about the upcoming event and causing me to want to know more, the only question I have after seeing this picture is “Why does Superman look like Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory?”

It would be like if a new Transformers movie were announced, and the teaser poster looked like this:


It amazes me that a company like DC that’s been a leader in its field for the better part of a century still has trouble grasping basic truths such as “people don’t like ugly pictures” and “Superman is not skinny”. Fortunately, the above picture is the cover on a book that DC will be giving away for free as part of something called “Free Comic Book Day.” Which was a good move, because I can’t imagine anyone would want to pay for it.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Captain EO, please don’t kill Dreamfinder

History lesson:

1982: EPCOT Center opens to the public. The ride-thru attraction at the Imagination pavilion is not yet complete, but the Magic Eye Theater is showing the 3-D film Magic Journeys.

1986: Magic Journeys is replaced by the Michael Jackson vehicle Captain EO. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola and produced by George Lucas, with music by James Horner, the 17-minute film cost an estimated $30 million to produce. By way of contrast, one of the biggest films of 1986, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, cost only $25 million.

1994: Captain EO looks more and more like a relic of the 1980s. Michael Jackson is not as popular as he was eight years before, and the film’s special effects look crude when compared with new movies like Jurassic Park. Therefore, Captain EO is replaced by Honey, I Shrunk The Audience, a more lighthearted presentation that makes the audience feel like they are part of the show.

2009: Fifteen years later, Honey, I Shrunk the Audience is a creaky relic of the 1990s, and its 3-D effects pale in comparison to those found in the newest films from Pixar and DreamWorks. To make matters worse, park visitors are staying away from the ride-thru attraction as well. Clearly, something needs to be done. Fortunately, Disney has a foolproof plan. Amid rumors of a return of Dreamfinder to the Imagination pavilion, Disney execs decide to . . .bring back Captain EO?

I’m not kidding about this. You can read it for yourself right here. Disney really has its finger on the pulse of America. Why, when the popularity of American Idol peaked and was on its way down, Disney decided to spend millions of dollars on an American Idol attraction for its Hollywood Studios park. And now that the surge of interest in Michael Jackson that accompanied his death is subsiding, Disney evidently feels it’s the perfect time to bring back Captain EO. You know, because Honey, I Shrunk the Audience was so old and dated!

There’s an excellent post up at EPCOT Central about why Captain EO’s return is not a good idea, and I have no intention of rehashing the excellent points it makes. What bothers me, though, is EO’s return might scuttle a much-needed refurbishment of the Imagination pavilion. Although it might be initially popular, within a year (or perhaps sooner) after its re-release EPCOT visitors will be as disinterested in watching Michael Jackson defeat an alien despot through the power of dance as they currently are in being shrunk by Rick Moranis. However, I’ve spent enough time in corporate America to know how executives think. And if someone proposes an Imagination rehab after the re-installation of Captain EO, they’re liable to ignore all the evidence that said rehab is a good idea, and veto it because “Imagination just got a new show”.

You  might protest, “Surely the Disney executives would never be that short-sighted!” Are you sure about that?


Neither am I. I really hope that Captain EO doesn’t kill Dreamfinder. If he does, though, I’m sure we could just get Jonathan Lee Riches to sue him.