Monday, December 27, 2010

My Year at WDW-In Which I Actually Say Something Nice About The Tarps

During the weekend that bridged the end of July and the beginning of August, when the Florida heat is so intense that merely turning your air conditioner down to “medium” can cause you to faint from heatstroke, I did a very stupid thing: I went to Disney World. Walt Disney World is a bad place to visit during the summer because, as any hardcore Disney fanatic will tell you, large chunks of it are located outdoors. A few posts ago, I made fun of the Team Disney Orlando executives for forgetting that little factoid when they gave the green light to Stitch’s Supersonic Celebration.  Well, as I baked in the sun while walking through Future World’s large unshaded expanses, I started to realize something: the designers of EPCOT Center forgot it, too.

EPCOT Center aficionados like me are always waxing poetic about the grand open spaces Future World used to have, especially in CommuniCore Plaza, and angrily denouncing all the visual clutter that’s ruined once-magnificent sightlines. Now, I still maintain that the tarps and whirlygigs in Innoventions plaza are unsightly, to say the least:

It looks like the nineties took a dump in the middle of Future World, and nobody cleaned it up.

But the tarps do occasionally serve a useful purpose:

Shade. Ditto for the hideous awning-looking thing that was bolted onto the front of the former World of Motion pavilion during its conversion to Test Track. Sure, this:


. . . is infinitely more attractive than this:

. . . but at least there’s some shade to be found under that giant ugly awning.

Of course, Walt’s original EPCOT concept offered a more elegant solution: the shopping area that inspired today’s World Showcase would have been enclosed and climate-controlled. No ugly tarps or giant Erector-set pieces required. One more reason why I’m envious of the version of myself that lives in the alternate universe where Walt’s EPCOT City actually got built.

Oh, one more thing. In addition to all the man-made clutter that’s popped up on Future World over the years, something else you’ll occasionally hear complaints about is clutter of the natural variety, by which I mean trees. Because EPCOT’s trees have not had the decency to remain the exact height they were when they were planted in the eighties, scenic vistas like this:

Now look more like this:

Okay, so the newer picture isn’t taken from the exact spot as the old one (I didn’t have the old photo with me for reference when I took it, also I think there’s a pretzel stand there now) but you get the idea. Anyway, I have no problem with this. Trees grow. That’s what living things do. Sure, they may obscure what might have been a postcard-perfect picture, but I don’t think that’s a good reason to chop them down or whack them in half.

And those are my thoughts about visual clutter at EPCOT. Insert a witty and clever ending here.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

futureprobe reviews TRON:Legacy

UPDATE: For the funniest TRON:Legacy review on the Internet, click here.  You can see a lot more of Doug Walker’s amazing work on Now, on to the review:


By now you’ve read the reviews by people who are Experts In These Things. They’re all pretty much the same: TRON:Legacy is visually impressive but light on story. And I suppose they’re right. But why is that a bad thing? If all we wanted was to watch a story being performed on a screen, we could stay home and watch television. Or even YouTube. But we go to the movies to have an experience we can’t get at home, and TRON delivers that. In spades.

So why isn’t that going to be enough to make this movie the giant commercial success that would have had Disney considering a TRON makeover of Tomorrowland? After all, Transformers 2 had a putrid story and impressive visuals, and it made $400 million bucks. True, Transfomers commands greater nostalgic affection, overall, than the original TRON ever did. But the Transformers films had something else that the mass market loves: stupid comic relief. Oh, TRON:Legacy has a tiny bit of it, in the End of Line nightclub scene. But the makers of the film cared too much about staying true to the story they were trying to tell to cram in obnoxious characters that serve no purpose other than to entertain the people who find Larry the Cable Guy intellectually stimulating, and for that the box office returns will suffer.

Oh, one more thing. Very early in the film, before we go down the computerized rabbit hole, ENCOM’s board of directors are congratulating themselves on the release of their flagship operating system which costs more than the previous version, but whose only new features revolve around making it impossible to distribute for free. A suggestion by Bruce Boxleitner’s character that perhaps the company should treat their customers better and become a better corporate citizen, the way it was when Kevin Flynn was running things, is quickly dismissed by the greedy executives. I know that this wasn’t the filmmakers’ intention, but it really felt to me like a very on-the-nose commentary on the way Disney runs its theme park business these days.

More than anything, TRON:Legacy’s impressive visuals made me wish Disney would rip out Tomorrowland’s busy Flash Gordon jangles and replace them with the sleek electroluminescent look we saw in the film. It’ll never happen, of course, but wouldn’t it be something?

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Horizons Resurrected

So there’s this guy Chris Wallace, and he has an amazing idea: re-create Horizons, one of the most immersive and amazing theme park rides in the history of the planet, as a 3D virtual model, and he’s blogging his progress.

I’m sure that anyone reading this will want to head right over to his site immediately. Here’s the link:

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Why Stitch’s Supersonic Celebration Really Failed

Most hardcore WED-heads (myself included) are not huge fans of Stitch.


It’s not so much the character himself we dislike, it’s the way that Disney has tried to force him upon us. For the past few years, the company has been shoving him in our faces at every opportunity, as if to say “THIS IS STITCH! HE IS VERY POPULAR! YOU WILL LOVE HIM AND ADORE HIM AND TAKE OUT A SECOND MORTGAGE TO BUY ALL HIS MERCHANDISE!” So naturally we threw back our heads and gave a hearty laugh last year when Tomorrowland’s new show “Stitch’s Supersonic Celebration” was taken out and shot after less than two months. Some fans saw it as proof that Disney’s slow-witted management had finally realized that Stitch is not as popular as they thought he was. However, I think that that there was another, more basic reason for the show’s failure.

Stitch’s Supersonic Celebration premiered on May 9, 2009. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Floridian weather patterns, that’s the time of year when temperatures began to creep up from Merely Warm to Unbearably Hot And Humid. Now, through the magic of Google Maps, let’s take a look at the prime location that Disney selected for Stitch’s twenty-five minute show:


Image borrowed from Google Maps

Notice the abundance of concrete and the lack of any shade or seating. I’d argue that Stitch’s Supersonic Celebration was no more insipid than any other stage show in the parks (confession: that syrupy wishy-dreamy show at the foot of the Castle makes me retch) but it failed because people had to stand in the hot sun for a half hour to watch it. Never mind that it’s hard to see a video screen in the bright sunlight.

Of course, this means that the Team Disney Orlando executives are even more clueless than we thought they were. It’s bad enough that they they prefer to ignore common sense and make decisions based solely on spreadsheets and focus group data. Every large corporation does that. But the simple truth that nobody wants to stand for thirty minutes on a large unshaded concrete slab in the middle of summer is an inescapable fact of life in Florida, and the idea that Disney could spend maybe thousands or millions of dollars to develop a show that ignores that makes me think that the group of executives we call Team Disney Orlando is, in fact, a group of trained seals that communicate by clapping their flippers together and barking.

And that gets me thinking. You know how people are always starting silly irrelevant Internet petitions to get corporate executives to resurrect a TV program that no one was watching or something like that? Well, I have a much better idea: let’s just send buckets of fish to the Team Disney Orlando office building with a note that says “Fix Journey Into Imagination and there’s more where that came from”, or “Want more? Fix the Carousel of Progress.” I can’t believe I didn’t think of it before.*


*Note: That suggestion was made purely for satirical purposes. Under no circumstances does futureprobe endorse the sending of buckets full of aquatic or other life forms to the Team Disney Orlando offices. I can’t believe I actually had to say that.

Monday, December 6, 2010

My Year at WDW: Animal Kingdom

Between 1981 and 2007, I made maybe eleven trips to Walt Disney World, most of them before 1990. However, I was able to afford an Annual Pass in late 2009, and since then I’ve taken ten trips. As a result, not only do I know the best places to go the bathroom, but my perspective on the parks has undergone something of a metamorphosis.  My next multi-part ongoing series, entitled “My Year At WDW”, will delve into that new perspective a little bit.

Let’s start with Animal Kingdom.

When the Magic Kingdom opened in 1971, it was missing a lot of the attractions we think of classics: no Space Mountain, Carousel of Progress, or PeopleMover, no Pirates of the Caribbean, and no Big Thunder Mountain. By the time the park celebrated its twelfth anniversary in 1983, all of those attractions had been added, and the Magic Kingdom as we know it today was largely complete.

Animal Kingdom opened in 1998 with only two rides, a smattering of shows, and lots of room for expansion. Surely, all kinds of stuff must have been added in the twelve years between 1998 and today. Let’s compare an 1998 guidemap and a 2010 guidemap and marvel at all the new attractions the park has! Well, there’s Expedition Everest, that’s a big one. Asia has gained Kali River Rapids-a little on the short side, but good on a hot day-and the Maharaja Jungle Trek. Over in Dinoland, they built that Chester and Hester’s Dinorama thing that nobody likes. And that’s it. Two rides (one of which is built around an Animatronic that doesn’t work as advertised) a walkthrough attraction that’s not much different from something you can see in one of your better zoos, and a cheap carnival area. And hey, the cheap carnival area is all concrete and metal, making it one of the best places to enjoy Florida’s blistering summer heat! To make things worse, the park’s only dark ride, Dinosaur, has had so many effects deactivated over the years that it’s hardly worth experiencing. Check out Martin Smith’s excellent Dinosaur tribute video for more details on that.

Another issue that I have with Animal Kingdom is that it’s basically the Star Trek: Voyager of Disney World parks. It’s the one they never should have built. The idea was that a fourth park on property would induce people to extend their vacations. Instead, it’s just cannibalized attendance and maintenance dollars from EPCOT and the Studios. If you want to hear more about this, I encourage you to check out Episode 46 of the WDW Fanboys podcast for a very insightful discussion on it.

My personal feeling is that while there are some nice things at Animal Kingdom, it’s just not worth my time. The executives obviously feel that having the Disney name on the park is enough to overcome its shortcomings, and that spending any money on the place is unnecessary. Fine. If Team Disney Orlando doesn’t want to spend any of their money on Animal Kingdom, then I definitely don’t want to spend any of my money at Animal Kingdom. Unfortunately, my wife likes the place, so I’m sure I’ll be dragged there at least once per trip. But I sure won’t be buying any merchandise or eating any expensive table service meals there.

And that’s it for Animal Kingdom. Next week, I’ll take a look at another park.

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Minicot Project

As I mentioned in my last post, I had the extremely good fortune to take the Undiscovered Future World tour recently with the guys behind the Minicot project. What is Minicot, you ask? Well, rather than tell you about it, I’ll just show it to you. Or rather, I’ll let YouTube show it to you:

Now, if only somebody would give these guys several million dollars and a 5-story, 130,000 square-foot building, I’ll bet they could come up with a pretty excellent re-creation of Horizons.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Undiscovered Future World Tour Reviewed

Okay, first of all I know the Disney literature calls it the UnDISCOVERed Future World tour, but I refuse to spell it like that. It looks like the Caps Lock key got stuck. I’ve wanted to take this tour ever since I first learned of its existence a few years ago, and when we got Annual Passes last year I vowed that I would do it before they expired.

If you’re an EPCOT geek (and if you’re reading this, I assume you are) then you have to realize that you’ll find very little that’s new or informative in the script that your guide is required to recite, and really that’s to be expected. You do, however, get to go into some really cool areas where your average park visitor is not allowed. For example, the Living Seas VIP lounge:

Sorry for the poor picture quality; my camera isn’t very good in low-light conditions. I was surprised by how large the lounge is. It’s easily as big as the Coral Reef restaurant, probably bigger. In a perfect world, it would be converted into an exclusive lounge for EPCOT Center aficionados, and the password to gain entry would be “George McGinnis”.

You also get to go into Mission:Space’s Mission Control and take a close-up look at the control console prop that you can see from the queue:

The level of detail is very high; the buttons all work, and some of the little video screens are playing the footage of the bird that always set off the alarm in Tomorrowland’s old Mission to Mars attraction.

You also get to go into the (surprisingly small) backstage area at Universe of Energy. There are a couple of unused pterodactyl Animatronics stored there, and they’re the only thing you’re allowed to photograph backstage, as long as you don’t photograph them from an angle that reveals more of the room.

The best things on the tour, though, is the stuff the guide doesn’t point out to you, the little pieces of EPCOT Center that litter the backstage areas. Things like a Magic Journeys-era sign with Figment on it that tells guests where to deposit their 3D glasses after the show, a prop from Kitchen Kaberet, or what looks to be a vintage Universe of Energy operations manual sitting on a shelf in a back room. That’s the stuff that really makes the Undiscovered Future World tour worth the money.

I must admit, though, I felt kind of like an invader in some of the backstage areas, particularly in the Cast Services building. When they’re onstage, Cast Members are expected to stay “in character” at all times, and be friendly, cheerful, polite, and happy regardless of what’s going on in their lives. Backstage, away from the prying eyes of demanding Disney vacationers, they can decompress a bit and drop the Public Relations smile for a moment. All the Cast Members we met were exceptionally friendly, of course, but I still felt like an intruder.

A few of my online friends encouraged me to ask the guide to take us to the old upstairs ImageWorks. We had a large group, though, so it really wouldn’t have been feasible. However, I had a good fortune to have a couple of the guys from Minicot in the group with me.  These guys have, among other things, built a scaled-down Soarin’ replica at their home in Minnesota. I’ll have more about their impressive work in my next post.

So, is the Undiscovered Future World tour worth the time and the money? Absolutely. Your casual Disney visitor would probably find it rather boring (except the part where you get to ride Soarin’ via the VIP entrance, that is) but in the absence of a true EPCOT Center Geek’s tour, Undiscovered Future World is the next best thing.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Whatever Happened to the City of the Future?

In September 1966, the original Star Trek debuted on NBC, and gave this blog one reason to exist. In October, Walt Disney gave it another one: the EPCOT project.

From Vimeo via EPCOTMedia

Not many people love EPCOT Center more than I do, but if I could take a one-way trip to a universe where Walt’s original concept was realized and EPCOT was a city instead of a theme park, I wouldn’t even hesitate. The way I see it, PeopleMovers beat Omnimovers every time.

I must admit, it’s bittersweet (okay, more bitter than sweet) to look back on a time when Disney’s creative energies were focused on urban planning and futuristic transportation systems rather than merchandise sales. But thanks to the Internet, an innovation Walt Disney never could have imagined, the good ideas that made up the original EPCOT project are still floating around in the electronic ether, waiting to be discovered by new generations. Maybe one day they’ll resurface, and we’ll get our pedestrian-friendly city of PeopleMovers and Monorails after all.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Gangsta Mickey?

Disney fan community, I owe you an apology. You see, on Saturday, October 16 I was standing in EPCOT’s Innoventions Plaza a few minutes before rope drop, and I overheard a couple of middle-aged ladies behind me decrying how today’s kids don’t know the words to the Mickey Mouse Club song.

“Before long, they’ll probably bring it back as a rap song,” I joked.

The ladies laughed.

“Gangsta Mickey!” I said, certain that Disney would never do anything so ridiculous.

They laughed even more.

I should have kept my mouth shut, because Disney obviously has listening devices hidden throughout the parks, and whenever a tourist, their brain functions dulled by the phenomenon I call Vacation Stupidity, says something like “I wish there was a show where Stitch ate a chili dog and then burped in your face,” or “You know what the Tiki Room needs? Gilbert Gottfried!”, it sets off the Bad Idea Alarm at Disney Corporate Headquarters, and the Imagineers are ordered at gunpoint to bring this idea to life.

How else can you explain the show Disney Dance Crew, which debuted one week later in Anaheim? Perhaps you are not familiar with Disney Dance Crew. Allow me to enlighten you:

If you’re like me, your reaction to that show went something like this:

Normally I try to have at least one positive thing to say about the stuff I criticize, but this time I’ve got nothing. Nothing at all. Disney Dance Crew is nothing more than a pathetic attempt by a committee of middle-aged suit-wearing white men to appeal to a young audience they don’t understand and don’t particularly like. It’s more degrading than reality television. And it’s all my fault.

Still, I guess we should just be thankful that Mickey didn’t come out holding a gun sideways, or introduce Minnie as his “’ho”.

Oops, I’d better not say that when I’m on the parks. I don’t want to set off the Bad Idea Alarm again.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Into the Vault: WDW’s Tencennial

Walt Disney World’s 40th anniversary is quickly approaching, and there’s been quite a bit of online discussion about what the Company will or won’t do to honor it. However, I was going through an old shoebox full of family photos and souvenirs recently and uncovered some stuff from a much earlier anniversary, WDW’s tenth. Dubbed the “Tencennial”, it was celebrated from 1981 to 1982. Back then, my family would make more-or-less annual visits to the Vacation Kingdom, and our spring 1982 trip fell right in the middle of the Tencennial festivities.

On the way into the Magic Kingdom, guests were greeted by a special Tencennial sign and decorative banners:

Yes, the camera-shy kid on the right is me. There’s so much retro goodness in this picture: the Tencennial sign, the Mickey-themed floral arrangement, and the old-school WDW shopping bag on the ground next to us. Also, check out the blue-and-white banners above the Magic Kingdom sign.

It’s a safe bet that visitors to Disney World next year will see the 40th anniversary logo plastered on everything. As you can see in this next picture, the same was true during the 10th anniversary:

Check out the 10th anniversary logo on the cup! I have no idea where in the park we were when this picture was taken. If anyone out there thinks they know, please leave a comment.

Finally, here’s a special treat: visitors to the Magic Kingdom in early 1982 were given a four-page pamphlet advertising all the 10th anniversary-related festivites in the park. It included a plug for the Walt Disney World Village and the EPCOT preview center, and I was able to make some high-quality scans of it. Click the pictures for larger versions.


That’s all for now. Over the next few weeks, I’ll have more pictures of Walt Disney World past. Thanks for reading!

Friday, October 15, 2010

Star Tours 2: It’s Going To Be All Right

At first, the news that Star Tours was going to get that long-awaited 2.0 upgrade got a pretty positive reaction. However, there have also been some negative comments (on the Internet? Impossible!) and some genuinely worried fans. After all, George Lucas doesn’t exactly have the best record when it comes to improving things:


Case in point

Star Wars fans haven’t forgotten how they were bitterly disappointed by Episode I . . .

For some, this face still haunts their nightmares.

. . . and how that disappointment turned to anger when Episodes II and III weren’t much of an improvement. But what was wrong with the prequels, really? Pretty much everything but the special effects. Well, guess what? Star Tours is really nothing more than a special effects reel with synchronized cabin movements. Plot doesn’t matter all that much, and whatever acting there is will be peripheral to the main experience. The only thing I worry about is the 3-D.

You see, Disney and Lucasfilm are not the first people to think of putting a 3-D movie in a motion simulator ride.  When I visited Busch Gardens Williamsburg in the mid-90s they had one. And it made me nauseous. Sure, the technology has come a long way (and I can’t remember if the Bush Gardens ride used stereoscopic 3-D or the old kind with the red-and-blue glasses) but based on my past experience I’d say it’s definitely possible that Star Tours 2.0 will make more guests queasy than version 1.0 did.

Aside from that one minor concern, though, I predict that Star Tours 2 will mostly avoid the pitfalls to which George Lucas’ more recent Star Wars projects have fallen victim. After all, it’s not like it’ll be a five-minute reel of Greedo shooting first, conversations about midichlorians, and Jar-Jar antics.

At least I hope not.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Resisting Your Inner Rooney

Most people have heard of Andy Rooney. He’s been doing his Grumpy Old Man act on 60 Minutes since Alexander the Great was President. If by chance you haven’t experienced the Joy of Rooney, then let me enlighten you:

Wasn’t that perfectly awful? I never knew someone could be so angry about having survived to see the 21st century. I couldn’t help but think of Mr. Rooney, though, after witnessing the reaction within the Disney fan community to the news that WDW’s The Many Adventures of Winnie-the-Pooh will be getting a new queue with video screens and interactive elements. The small corner of Twitter-sphere where I live was all a-grumble with negative comparisons to the current version of Spaceship Earth and general complaints about Disney attractions with video screens of any kind. From all the vitriol, you’d think that Pooh was a beloved decades-old attraction, instead of the thing that replaced Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride in 1999.

I’m a little more sympathetic to the howls of protest over the installation of an interactive queue at the Haunted Mansion. After all, the Mansion is a classic attraction with generations of fans. But the immediate denunciations of the changes to Pooh really surprised me. Sure, the way that video screens are utilized at Journey Into Dr. Nigel Channing’s Imagination is extremely cheap (like everything else on that ride), and I’ve read some very well-thought-out negative opinions of the screen-centric Toy Story Midway Mania, but the fact is that all this newfangled interactive stuff is the future, just like Audio-Animatronics were the future in the mid-1960s. Can you imagine a frequent Disneyland visitor complaining about Pirates of the Caribbean in 1967, saying that these Audio-Animatronic things were just another gimmick and that Disneyland was better before they started popping up everywhere?

Sure, there are legitimate issues to be had with the way that new technology is being implemented in the parks, and a lot of the folks complaining about it are people I respect tremendously who write blogs infinitely better than this one. But I think we need to realize that times (and theme-park audiences) have changed. While describing the nightmarish crowds that Walt Disney World experienced on Thanksgiving Weekend in 1971, the book Realityland relates that people were waiting in line for two hours to see the Country Bear Jamboree. There’s no way Mr. Average Theme Park Visitor of the Year 2010 would be willing to do that, not for the Country Bears.

Obviously, it’s really tempting (and fun, to be honest) to go all Andy Rooney when confronted with the fact that the world has changed and forgotten to bring you along for the ride, and in the case of pop culture abominations like reality TV it’s totally justified. But maybe, just maybe, we should try to suppress our inner Rooney sometimes, just long enough to try a new thing and see if it really is worthy of the disdain we were so ready to heap upon it.

Of course, if really is as bad as we feared, then all bets are off.

Friday, October 1, 2010

28 Years Ago Today . . .

. . . EPCOT Center opened to the public. And what better way to commemorate it than with a series of vintage videos? First, the Today show’s preview:

I love how they tell kids to “leave their mouse ears at home” because they won’t see Mickey or any of his friends. And even though a chunk of the old Sunrise Terrace restaurant is taken up by the Character Spot, and The Living Seas and El Rio De Tiempo have been “toon-ified”, EPCOT has still not been taken over by licensed characters to the extent that the other parks have.

Next, here’s a taste of the park’s opening ceremonies:

If there was one thing we were sure of in 1982, it was that the future would include lots of interpretive dance and disco-inspired white spandex jumpsuits! Still, the 21st Century is only ten years old; I suppose that stuff could still make a resurgence. With any luck, I’ll be dead by then.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Why Disney Needs a Visionary (but not the George Lucas kind)

Most companies that produce goods for public consumption, be they entertainment companies like CBS/Paramount or consumer electronics companies like HP, operate in pretty much the same way. They conduct tons of market research to determine exactly what kinds of things schlubs like us want to buy, and based upon the results of that research they either formulate products for our consumption or concoct an ad campaign to sell us the stuff they already have. Market research is very important to the serious people in suits who run these companies, because on their own they frankly have no idea what we wormlike members of the public want. They understand us about as well as we understand the Mucous Beings of Planet Glornax.

Now, companies that operate in this way do manage to produce useful things. I’m writing this post with Windows Live Writer on a Dell PC running Windows 7, and it works pretty well for me. However, when I drive around the college town were I live, I never see cars with Dell or Microsoft bumper stickers. You know what logo I do see, though? Apple. Those white Apple stickers that come with new iPods are in car windows everywhere. Outside of some professional sports franchises, no business organization in the world commands loyalty and affection like Apple. Every time they launch a new product, it dominates the 24-hour news cycle. Major news magazines like Time and Newsweek fall all over themselves to devote cover stories to how awesome the new product is. Apple’s success is even more amazing when you consider that the company was pretty much dead in the late ‘90s. What changed? The answer, of course, is Steve Jobs.

Unlike its competitors, Apple makes innovative products that we never knew we needed. Sure, during their late ‘80s-to- mid ‘90s Jobs-less period they came out with some impressive devices like the PowerBook and the Newton, but overall the company’s succession of traditional CEOs who ran things in a traditional way was an unmitigated disaster. Because he was one of Apple’s founders, and because the company was in such poor shape when he returned in 1997, Jobs was able to force Apple to do things his way. In fact, the way that Steve Jobs runs Apple reminds me of another company with a charismatic founder who had a unique way of doing things: Disney.

Like Apple today, Disney during Walt’s time was famous for giving us amazing things we didn’t even know we wanted, like full-length animated movies, the modern theme park, and Audio-Animatronic shows. After Walt’s passing in 1966 enough of his creative energy remained in the company (in the form of people who had worked with him) to give us some pretty amazing things, among them EPCOT Center and a new bunch of animated films that have become modern classics.

However, just like Apple in early 1997 Disney is largely coasting on its reputation these days. The uniqueness that Walt brought to the company he founded has largely been drained away by traditional corporate executives that can’t blow their nose without consulting a focus group. Unfortunately, unlike Apple Disney has no legitimate competitors, at least not in the theme park industry. It’s not going to slide into oblivion unless a visionary CEO comes along and saves it. And anyway, there aren’t a lot of visionary CEOs out there to be had. It’s easy to point to specific things that Disney is doing wrong: Team Disney Orlando is too cheap, the Disney Channel is nothing but vacuous shows aimed at ‘tweens, etcetera. However, the overall problem is that Disney is the kind of company that needs to be helmed by a visionary CEO with the unquestioned power to do whatever he wants, and it does not have that. Disney needs a Steve Jobs. Or even a Mark Cuban. If it never gets one, you can be sure we’ll see more of this:


And less of this:


And that would really be a shame.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Tow Mater vs. Someone You Never Heard Of

Two posts ago I talked a little bit about Duffy the Disney Marketing Bear, and how his marketing campaign seems to be borrowing from the Transformers/He-Man/GI-Joe playbook from the ‘80s that used commercials disguised as entertainment to sell toys to kids. Now, I’m going to tackle a somewhat-related topic: how Licensed Characters have taken over Disney theme park attractions, and why it’s kind of our fault.

Pretend for a minute that you’re a movie studio executive, and that you’re asked to give $200 million of your studio’s money to someone that many film critics consider to be one of the worst directors in the business. The proposed script for the movie reads like it was written by a super-caffeinated person who has only a passing familiarity with linear thought. It features two prominent characters who are obviously racist caricatures, a small, annoying character who vigorously humps the leg of the female lead, and a main character who spends most of his time running away from explosions while shouting scintillating dialogue like “Whoa-whoa-whoa-whoa!” and “Wait-wait-wait! No-no-no-no!” Now, if you have any common sense at all you will laugh in this director’s face and ask him if this is some kind of April Fools’ prank, and maybe even inquire as to what kind of complete idiot he thinks you are. And you would probably get fired, because the director is Michael Bay, many of the characters in question are giant robots, and the movie is Transformers 2, which turned a budget of $200 million into a worldwide box office gross of over $800 million, and that doesn’t count the profits from merchandise and DVD sales.

Yes, Transformers 2 may have been universally reviled by critics and ripped apart on the Internet, but it was a huge hit with the average  moviegoing public. You probably won’t admit it out loud, but you probably went to see it. I know I did. In fact, if the last decade or so has taught us anything, it’s that movies based on recognizable and beloved licensed characters are virtually guaranteed to make money, no matter how bad they are. Theme park attractions are a lot like movies, when you think about it. Both cost many millions of dollars to make and must appeal to a broad audience. So, since the general public love its licensed characters, what are you going to do if you’re Disney and you own a huge stable of them? Obviously, every time you need to create a new attraction or rehab and existing one, you’re going to cram a licensed character in there! After all, the people have voted with their wallets; it’s what they want. And if you’ve made a habit of going to see movies featuring licensed characters, then you’ve voted with your wallet, too.

Ah, but why must Disney always simply do whatever the rest of the entertainment industry is doing? Why can’t they dare to be different, blaze new trails? It worked out pretty well for them in the past, after all. I’ll be taking up that topic in a post next week. Thanks for reading!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

This Looks Familiar . . .

Today, the tech blog Gizmodo published an article and some images of a new HP tablet. As an EPCOT-lover, the picture of the tablet’s back side really caught my eye:


Hey, what better way to make your product look futuristic that to mimic the look of one of the most futuristic things in the world? For the record, Spaceship Earth’s aluminum-encased look was futuristic back when Apple was still encasing their products in beige plastic.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Duffy Bear, meet Optimus Prime

In a new effort to give EPCOT’s World Showcase more kid appeal, and to give the parents of said kids an exciting new opportunity to shell out more money for merchandise, Disney is bringing in reinforcements from Japan . Duffy the Disney Bear, a teddy-bear-like character who’s been very popular at Tokyo Disneyland, will get his own Meet-and-Greet on October 4th, at the gateway to the World Showcase. Also, Duffy will be for sale in each World Showcase country, wearing a country-specific costume.

A lot of old-school Disney curmudgeons like myself are irritated by this. Unlike Mickey, Donald, the PIxar characters, or the princesses, Duffy did not begin life as a character in an animated feature. He started as a piece of merchandise, and now he’s being promoted as though he were a “real” character all for the purpose of selling toys to children. Those of us who grew up during EPCOT Center’s 1980s heyday just can’t remember a marketing campaign ever targeting children this way:


Optimus Prime disagrees

Except the most treasured pieces of our childhood, that is. Yes, the 1980s were chock-full of toys that were given their own Saturday-morning cartoon shows for the express purpose of marketing them to children! Transformers, He-Man, GI-Joe, My Little Pony, Rainbow Brite: these things that virtually defined childhood for anyone who grew up in the ‘80s weren’t created to bring joy to little kids, they were there to wring money from the parents of elementary-school children. None of that mattered to the kids, of course. We just loved our licensed characters and the cartoons in which they appeared. We may have known that the cartoons were only created to market the toys, but we didn’t care. Personally, I wouldn’t be surprised if Duffy gets his own Disney channel show or direct-to-DVD feature in the near future.

Of course, the whole Duffy thing does seem to point to a disturbing mindset on the part of Disney Parks management, a mindset that the parks exist primarily to sell merchandise and the attractions are simply there to implant a desire for whatever is sold in the gift shops they exit into. Speaking as an adult, I find this kind of thing to be crass and almost offensive. But back when I was a six-year-old, and the Hasbro corporation was using a red-and-blue truck that transformed into a giant robot to separate my parents from their money, I thought it was the coolest thing ever.

Next time, I’ll be talking about Disney’s tendency to tie almost every new attraction into a licensed character, and why this is all our fault.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Technology Unchained or The Symphosizer: 2083’s Answer to the Magic Trackpad

The creators of Star Trek:The Next Generation envisioned a 24th century full of comfortable environments where technology, although heavily utilized, was very much in the background, deemphasized. Gene Roddenberry called this philosophy “technology unchained”. It wasn’t exactly a new idea, however. For almost four years before TNG’s 1987 premiere, Horizons at EPCOT Center had been giving thousands of people per day a three-dimensional look at just such an environment. Let’s take a trip to the world of 2083, as we imagined it in 1983:


The Nova Cite apartment was my favorite Horizons environment. It’s also the one that holds up the best twenty-seven years later. Some production designers tasked with creating a futuristic environment make the mistake of cramming it with complicated-looking futuristic equipment, as if its occupant had just gone on a shopping spree at the local Best Buy. Such displays tend not to age well. The best “future” technology is something that looks simple. Let’s take a closer look at the Symphosizer:


I know, you can’t wait until 2083 so you can have your own periwinkle leisure suit with matching plastic booties

The only visible controls are 14-16 large colored keys that don’t appear to move or depress in any way. It would be easy to deride it as a cross between an old Simon game and a Fisher-Price My First Piano, but its apparent simplicity could very well be deceptive. After all, who in 1983 would believe that a telephone in 2010 would look like this:


. . . or that the computer mouse, a very cutting-edge device in those days, would be replaced by something that looked like this:


Could anyone familiar only with early-1980s technology look at those pictures and get the slightest idea what those devices were or how they worked?  Most likely, they’d simply dismiss them as nonfunctional slabs of plastic and aluminum. So it is with the Symphosizer. If we were to go back and slap an Apple logo on it, most people today would instinctively realize that it must be more complex than it appears. In fact, maybe the “Symphosizer” isn’t really its name. Maybe it’s called the iMusic.

It’s good to know that, in the world of 2083, Steve Jobs (or more likely, his brain downloaded into an iPad) could still be coming up with ideas. Or at least taking credit for them.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Beginning

If a new Star Trek series ever materializes, we’ll learn about it a year in advance. Before we watch the first minute of the pilot episode, we’ll already know everything about it (and probably the next few episodes, too) thanks to the Internet. In 1987, of course, none of that was possible. The only way one might learn that a new Star Trek series was in development would be through a magazine or newspaper article or maybe a television report. As a nine-year-old kid, I didn’t have access to a lot of magazines. Our local newspaper, the St. Augustine Record, was much smaller in those days and didn’t offer much national entertainment coverage. And since my mother firmly believed that too much television would turn me into a brain-dead juvenile delinquent, I didn’t get to watch tons of TV, either. (Then again, it’s not like there was much to watch. We didn’t get cable until 1989.)

My point is that I had no detailed information about Star Trek:The Next Generation before it premiered on September 28, 1987. In fact, I only knew two things: it was set almost a hundred years after the Original Series, and there was going to be a new Enterprise. I’m sure that Starlog or another magazine probably had an issue chock full of pictures and interviews as the premiere date approached, but I never saw it. In fact, the only picture I remember seeing is this one, in the Entertainment section of a Time or Newsweek magazine in a doctor’s waiting room:

 1st_tngcast[1] Why do half of them look grim, and the other half look stoned?

Who were these people? Why did the crew of the new Enterprise include old bald guy, a dude with a womens’ hair accessory on his face, and a teenager in an ugly sweater? I had no idea. But as soon as I got home I Googled “star trek the next generation” and—actually, no I didn't, because, as I might have mentioned, there was no Internet. Also, we didn’t own a computer and “Google” was not yet a verb, just a misspelling of the number “googol”. What I really did was wait until “Encounter at Farpoint” premiered on September 28. I may have seen a few brief TV promos beforehand (I distinctly remember one that described Worf as “the friendly Klingon”-and even as I type that I can hear Worf’s voice in my head saying “I protest! I am not a friendly Klingon!”) but that was it.

It is safe to say that I was stoked beyond belief for the premiere of the new and improved Star Trek. And I was not disappointed. Star Trek:The Next Generation instantly became my new favorite show. “But how can that be,” you ask, “given the fact that most of TNG’s first season was so bad it induced seizures in laboratory animals?” I’ll let you in on a little secret: nine-year-olds are notoriously poor judges of quality. At this point, I was only aware of two categories of Star Trek episodes and movies: the ones I was allowed to watch, and the ones I was not allowed to watch because my parents deemed them too violent or whatever. I enjoyed “Spock’s Brain” just as much as “Balance of Terror”.

In my next post, I’ll talk about TNG’s pilot episode “Encounter at Farpoint”; my impressions of it in 1987, and how it shaped my view of what futuristic technology looked like, a view that heretofore had been influenced mainly by the Original Star Trek and EPCOT Center. Oh, you might have noticed that futureprobe has a Twitter account now. I plan on using it mainly to let people know what blog-related thing I’m currently working on, and perhaps I’ll also include the odd EPCOT-related thought or tidbit of info that isn’t “big” enough to warrant an article here. I included the Twitter gadget on the right-hand side of the page so you don’t have to actually go to the Twitter website if you don’t want to. I’m not really into the Twitter thing (which makes me a member of the Internet Amish, I know) so it probably won’t be updated very often. For now, though, I’ll leave you with this, the original “Encounter at Farpoint” promo spot that ran immediately before TNG’s world premiere:

Friday, August 27, 2010

A New Feature

2010 has been a busy year for EPCOT. The World Showcase received a rare new addition with the opening of the Via Napoli restaurant this month, and the expanded Hacienda de San Angel is scheduled to open in September. In Future World, the return of Captain EO managed to shamelessly capitalize on the death of someone Disney would undoubtedly ignore were he still alive, and remind us of why some things from the ‘80s are best left there.

I’m not privy to any inside information, but I predict that 2011 will be a much quieter year for our favorite park, primarily because most of the company’s attention (and money) will be focused on the massive Fantasyland expansion project now underway in the Magic Kingdom. I seriously doubt that EPCOT will get any new additions until after Fantasyland is completed. Don’t be surprised if there’s a subtraction, though. On my last visit to EPCOT on a hot and crowded Sunday, every Future World attraction had a longer-than-average wait time. Except one, that is: Journey Into Imagination With Dr. Nigel Channing. Throughout the day, the tip boards in Future World consistently showed no wait time at Imagination, even as the temperature climbed close to 100 degrees. No lie: I saw more people drink Beverly at Club Cool than I saw enter the Imagination pavilion. When people won’t even enter your attraction to escape the Florida heat in August, you’ve got a popularity problem. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Disney’s bean-counters notice this and turn Imagination into a “seasonal” attraction a la Sounds Dangerous, reopening it only if Test Track, Mission:Space, and Soarin’ all break down at the same time. Maybe after the Fantasyland project is completed, Journey into Imagination will get the upgrade it so richly deserves. We can only hope.

In the meantime, I’m rolling out a new continuing feature here at the blog, a Star Trek: The Next Generation retrospective. It won’t be an episode-by-episode review; there are enough people on the Internet who do that sort of thing, and the vast majority of them are better writers than I am. Rather, it’s going to be a recounting of what it was like to experience TNG’s seven-season run as it happened. Too many reviewers make the mistake of evaluating the show by modern standards, and that’s not really fair. Simply saying that TNG’s first couple seasons were badly written and full of 1980s cheesiness is like making fun of Vanilla Ice; it’s too easy and anyone can do it. Clearly, the show was able to garner enough of an audience to allow it to survive to its third season when it really got good.

Just as it can be hard to remember when EPCOT Center was brand new and untouched by the ravages of Eisnerian cost-cutting and 1990s attempts to be “hip”, it can also be difficult to imagine a time when Star Trek only consisted of a cancelled television series from the ‘60s and four movies. A new series with unfamiliar characters seemed like a very risky proposition. Over the next few months, I’ll be looking back on some key moments in TNG’s evolution from an uneven not-quite-sequel to the original series to the launching point for the rest of the Star Trek franchise.

I hope you’ll stick around.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Most Amazing EPCOT Redesign Plan You Will Ever See

There have been lots of ideas, over the last few years, on how to improve EPCOT. Some, like WDI’s Project Gemini, were meant to erase the park’s stodgy, academic reputation and make it more popular with teenage thrill-seekers. Others, like those put forward by Disney aficionados outside the company, aim to make the park into an updated version of the EPCOT Center they remember from the 1980s. All the ideas, though, boil down to a list of attraction refurbishments and additions.

Well, a guy named Peter Schaab has come up with a comprehensive redesign of the park that goes much, much further. It is, quite simply, the most far-reaching, visionary plan to re-focus and re-imagine EPCOT that I have ever seen. If Walt Disney were to try to remake the existing park to conform more closely to the spirit of his original EPCOT idea, I don’t see how he could do better than this. Sure, there are a few aspects with which I don’t personally agree, but that shouldn’t detract from the project’s breathtaking awesomeness.

I’m not going to go into the details of Mr. Schaab’s work, because it really demands to be seen for itself. Go to this site: Read everything, watch the videos, look at the pictures, then download the PDFs and read them all. You’ll be glad you did.

Friday, August 6, 2010

The Coral Reef Reviewed


The Coral Reef Restaurant at EPCOT’s Seas pavilion has always held a certain appeal for me. The whole idea of dining under the sea, like the underwater restaurant patrons in Horizons’ floating city scene, is just so darned cool. From the time I first heard of its existence when the Seas pavilion opened in 1986 I’d always wanted to eat there. However, a few things held me back.

For one thing, the tiny selection of menu choices didn’t really excite me. I’m from the coastal town of St. Augustine. When a seafood restaurant there serves you its “catch of the day”, you’re actually eating fish that was caught that day. There are lots of restaurants there whose menus overflow with shrimp, crab, lobster, whatever you want. You know how many seafood entrees the Coral Reef offers? Four. And one of them, the Lobster Ravioli, probably has way more pasta, tomatoes, and sauce than lobster.

Also, the negative reviews the place had received tended to put me off the Coral Reef. Words like “disappointment”, “mediocre” and “overpriced” kept popping up (although complaining about things being overpriced at Disney World is a little silly. It’s like going to a Michael Bay movie and complaining about the explosions). After repeating some of those negative comments here, I felt that I at least ought to try the place and see if the criticism was warranted. So, I had lunch there last weekend, and this is my report:

It should be noted that I’m not a food snob. Menus with strange, unidentifiable items like “Compote of whipped Marscapone in a Spaetzle reduction” don’t make me feel like I’m in a nice restaurant, they make me feel like I’m in a Klingon restaurant. As Forrest Gump might say “Never eat anything you do not know what it is”. So, don’t expect me to talk about food like it’s a job applicant: “This escargot is certainly efficacious, but it has an almost ideological conflict with the arugula.” Not gonna happen.

Our lunch reservation was at 1:45. We checked in about five minutes early and were given a beeper that would go off when our table was ready. (Okay, it’s technically not a beeper since it doesn’t beep, only flashes little red lights, but calling it a “flasher” makes it sound like a creepy dude in a trench coat.) Unlike some of the reviews I’ve read, the staff at the front desk was quite friendly and attentive. Within five minutes our “beeper” went off, and we were escorted to our table by a nice guy named Antonio or something. As we walked, he rattled off a memorized spiel about how we were now going “under the sea”, pausing to remind us to watch our step each time we stepped down one of the restaurant’s three tiers. I don’t blame him for the tacky memorized spiel, I blame Disney for making their employees say crap like that. I mean, it’s obvious that we’re supposed to be under the sea, there’s a giant aquarium right in front of us! We were pleasantly surprised to be seated at a table right next to the aquarium. Just on the other side of the window from where were were sitting, a large sea turtle was resting. He stayed there throughout our meal, occasionally swimming up to the surface for a lungful of air. The tank was teeming with ocean life; we saw sharks, rays, and several varieties of fish. Best of all, the old Living Seas area music was playing over the restaurant’s PA system! Unfortunately, the noisy conversation from the restaurants other patrons worked against the quiet peacefulness that the aquarium, the restaurant’s subdued lighting, and the area music were trying to create, but it’s not like Disney can put a Cone of Silence over every table.

I was already familiar with the menu and knew what I wanted to order. Before we left home, my wife had printed out the menu and highlighted a couple of items that she might like to order as well. This was a good thing, because whenever we eat at an unfamiliar restaurant she tends to be paralyzed with indecision. Unfortunately, she left the printout at home. So it took quite a while for her to figure out what she wanted. Our server came back to check on us at regular intervals, but I never got the feeling that he was getting impatient. He was very helpful when my wife had questions about the menu, and finally she decided on a Caesar salad with chicken, with Ranch dressing instead of Caesar. I ordered the New York Strip, cooked medium-rare.

One of the knocks on the Coral Reef is that the portions are too small. I’d have to disagree with that; I found them to be quite sufficient. I didn’t have any food left over (except for the watercress, which I chose not to eat) but I wasn’t hungry after I finished eating, either. My wife’s Caesar Salad came not with just cut-up pieces of chicken, but with an entire chicken breast. We both enjoyed our entrees very much. My steak was grilled to perfection, and the potatoes were very tasty as well. My wife enjoyed her salad very much, and she absolutely loved the Chocolate Wave she ordered for dessert. She said it was even better than Le Cellier’s Chocolate-on-Chocolate Whiskey cake. High praise, indeed! Our only quibble was that the Bloody Mary my wife ordered had too much vodka in it for her tastes.

So, would I recommend the Coral Reef? I can honestly say it’s the best table-service restaurant in Future World. And if you really want a steak and can’t get a reservation at Le Cellier, then the Coral Reef isn’t a bad second option. The atmosphere is wonderful, even if it does get a little noisy in there. I really wish they’d transplant the menu from Fulton’s Crab House (or even Red Lobster), but as long as they serve a good steak I’ll probably be eating there again at some point.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Return of Captain EO

Although I visited EPCOT Center a couple times during Captain EO’s original run, I never got to see it. Its return, therefore, gave me a unique opportunity to experience a classic EPCOT attraction as an adult, unencumbered by any childhood memories. On Sunday, August 1, I experienced Captain EO, and here’s what I thought of it:


There are some things from the 1980s that will always be awesome, like The Empire Strikes Back, The Wrath of Khan, and The Goonies. There are things from the '80s that are cheesy but still fun, like Knight Rider, the first season of the original Transformers cartoon, and Mr. T. And then there are things that should never, ever, for the love of all that is holy, ever see the light of day again. Things like the Garbage Pail Kids, films by Golan-Globus, parachute pants and Captain EO.

Sweet mother of Optimus Prime, where do I even begin? How about the preshow? They're using the old 1986 preshow here, which is sort of a making-of montage. It's got shots of sets being built, Francis Ford Coppola directing, and dancers in leotards and leg warmers. Also George Lucas. Lots of George Lucas. You can tell that they were very proud, back there in 1986, to have George Lucas associated with the project, because he shows up in the preshow video more than anyone else. He's always pointing at things, making descriptive hand gestures, and telling people what to do while they listen with rapt attention, basking in his genius. This is meant to make the viewers feel that they are about to witness a spectacle of pure visionary awesomeness, but after the Star Wars prequel trilogy and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, we know that the only reason any self-respecting filmmaker would have George Lucas on their project is so they could listen to his advice and then do the opposite of whatever he said.

Well, the preshow is over soon enough and it's time for the main event. It begins with a dated special-effects shot of a starfield and a glowing, 3D galaxy-looking thing. The narrator tells us about a brave band of rebels who fight the forces of darkness (hey George Lucas, I wonder where that story point came from?) and as he talks a whitish rock appears on the screen. It's a 3D rock, and as the narrator talks about the rebels and their brave leader, it just keeps spinning towards us. It was on the screen for so long that I started to wonder if maybe the rock was the rebel leader the narrator was talking about. I got the impression that the filmmakers really wanted us to be impressed with this 3D rock of theirs. Anyway, just when it seems that the rock is floating just beyond the tip of our nose, it's destroyed by a laser blast from Michael Jackson's spaceship.

Despite what the narrator says, Michael Jackson, uh-I mean Captain EO, doesn't appear to be a brave rebel leader. He's the commander of a ship full of cheesy comic relief Muppet creatures, proto-Jar-Jars basically, who seem to be low-level space delivery boys. They're less like the Rebel Alliance and more like UPS. Only instead of brown shorts, Michael wears something much more embarrassing. Also, he delivers every one of his lines with a high-pitched, quivering tone that makes it sould like he's about to break down and cry.

After a space battle that plays like something from Star Wars if it was made with less money, they crash on a forbidding alien planet and are taken captive by guys who look kind of like the Borg. The Borg take them to the Supreme Ruler, who looks like a cross between the Borg Queen and the Wicked Witch of the West. After she threatens them, Michael breaks into a song-and-dance number where he reveals his superpower: with an energy blast from his hand, he can turn the Borg creatures into dancers with fabulous outfits and 80's hair! He's like a superhero: 80's Hairstylist Man! Zap! You've got a mullet! Zap! You've got a jheri curl! It's hilarious, but not on purpose.

Finally, Michael turns the Borg Queen into Angelica Houston, and everyone goes home happy, except for the audience who realizes that they've just found the answer to the question, "what could be worse than Honey, I Shrunk the Audience?" Look, I understand that Captain EO is popular at Disneyland. But southern California spends most of its time on a very different plane of existence than the rest of planet Earth. Once the "newness" of Captain EO wears off, it'll seem just as dated and out-of-place as it did in 1993.

In fact, it already does.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Pastel Pajamas and Future Cities

One reason why I liked EPCOT so much as kid was because it reminded me of something else I loved: Star Trek. EPCOT Center of the 80s and the Star Trek films of that same period shared remarkably similar design aesthetics. How similar? Well, take a look at some of the Cast Member costumes for CommuniCore circa 1982:

communicoreuniforms        Image borrowed from ImagineeringDisney

. . . and notice how they bear more than a passing resemblance to this:


The costumes for the late-70s TV series Space: 1999 share the same aesthetic. Pastel pajamas were once considered to be very futuristic. But the similarity between early-80s Star Trek and early-80s EPCOT didn’t stop with the wardrobe. Compare Horizons’ apartment of the future . . .


. . . with Admiral Kirk’s apartment in a 23rd century San Francisco high-rise:


The Horizons apartment looks a little more futuristic (probably because the EPCOT guys had a bigger budget than the production staff of Star Trek II did) but the similarities are quite strong.

Finally, compare the architecture of Future World (and the view outside the narrators’ apartment in Horizons) to this view of 23rd century San Francisco from Star Trek IV:


Is is just me, or do the geometrically-shaped buildings remind one of Future World?

In June 1984 I saw my first Star Trek film, The Search for Spock. I had only ever seen the television show before then, (usually on my family’s 15-inch black-and-white-TV) so needless to say it make quite an impression on my six-year-old self. Three months later, in September, my first trip to EPCOT Center made an even stronger impression. Their aesthetic similarities made being in Future World feel like a walk though 23rd century San Francisco. Horizons’ scenes of futuristic living seemed to fit in well with the Star Trek movie universe, too. It seemed like I was seeing the stuff that was hidden just beyond the edges of the movie screen. The early ‘80s were an interesting time. Space adventure films were in vogue thanks to the success of Star Wars, and the new Space Shuttle seemed poised to make space travel routine. It was a fantastic treat to be able to see EPCOT Center while its vision of the future was still “current”. I’ll never forget it.

Well, I’m continuing to make little tweaks to the layout here. The background image I’m using is 1600 pixels wide, which may very well be narrower than the horizontal resolution of the monitors many of you are using. So, if you’re seeing white space along the left and right edges of the page, please leave a comment telling me what resolution you’re using, and I’ll try to adjust the background image accordingly.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Yet Another Facelift

Ever since Blogger unveiled their new Template Designer, I’ve been itching to give this place a facelift. I had some spare time over the last couple days, and now here it is: futureprobe 4.0. This place has already had more rehabs than the Imagination pavilion!

My wife and I will be spending the weekend of July 31-August 1 at Disney World, so the following week I’ll post reviews of Captain EO and the Coral Reef Restaurant, along with pictures of some of the new additions to the World Showcase. As always, thanks for reading!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Huffing and Puffing Around the World

EPCOT’s World Showcase is delightfully innocuous, a place where you can lightly sample the music, food, and gift shops of other cultures in a mall-like atmosphere. You’re never forced to leave behind the comfortable familiarity of the USA. However, World Showcase does push you out of your American comfort zone in one important way: it makes you walk long distances.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Imagination: the Rumors Are A-Swirling

With the return of Captain EO, EPCOT’s Imagination pavilion is once again the subject of rumors. Cast members working at the pavilion have been telling people that Kodak’s 28-year sponsorship is coming to an end, and this rumor is being repeated on more than one message board. Others speculate that Captain EO’s return might refocus attention on this otherwise neglected pavilion, perhaps leading to that long-awaited fourth refurbishment. What’s really happening? I haven’t the slightest idea; as I’ve said in the past I’m not a Disney insider, just a blogger with opinions. That being said, here are my opinions:

Monday, June 28, 2010

Isn’t It About Time Disney Had a Competitor?

Well, Universal Studios Orlando’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter has finally opened, and it really shows what Disney Imagineers can do when they’re given a free hand. It’s just a shame they had to go work for Universal to get it. Kevin Yee’s review was especially effusive about Potter’s centerpiece attraction, a coaster/dark ride called Forbidden Journey that’s unlike anything Disney has right now. One line from his review especially caught my eye: “The ride itself spares no expense.” Spares no expense? You know, there was a time when Disney spared no expense. It wasn’t that they spent money recklessly, but a visitor to the parks or resorts never got the impression that the company was sacrificing customer experience to save a few bucks. That is not the case anymore. Let me cite just one recent example: the return of the Michael Jackson vehicle, Captain EO.

During its first run at the Disney parks, the show had in-theater smoke and laser effects that accentuated the action onscreen. Responding to the rumors last year that EO would be returning, Disney CEO Bob Iger said “It’s the kind of thing that, if we did it, would get a fair amount of attention and we’d want to make sure we do it right.” What happened? You know what happened: Captain EO opened at Disneyland on February 23 without the smoke and the lasers, and there’s no reason to believe they’ll be present at EPCOT or any of the show’s other venues at Disney parks around the world. I’d understand if the show was only going to be around for six months or so (actually, no I wouldn’t. This is Disney, for Pete’s sake, not Six Flags!) but the word is it’s going to be around for one or two years. The in-theater effects may have just been a gimmick, but I’d argue that this twenty four-year-old show needs all the help it can get.

Now, in all fairness things have improved from their late-90s, early-2000s low, when even basic maintenance was obviously being neglected just to save a few bucks. But a basic fact of the business world is that nothing puts the fear of God (or their customers) in a company like some serious competition. Another unfortunate fact is that a company that’s been without competitors for a long time will generally fail to recognize them when they materialize. For a real-world example of that, look no farther than Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer’s initial reaction to the iPhone. He laughingly dismissed it and expressed satisfaction with Microsoft’s current smartphone strategy. Never in his wildest dreams did he imagine that the iPhone would race past Windows Mobile like it was standing still and three years later Microsoft’s share of the smartphone market would be somewhere close to zero.

That’s why I’m worried about Disney. Florida’s Magic Kingdom has long been the most-visited theme park in the world, and the Walt Disney World Resort is Florida’s most popular vacation destination. Judging by Team Disney Orlando’s disinterest in making substantive improvements to the property, it seems obvious that they can’t imagine things any other way. On the WDWMagic forums not too long ago, Disney videographer extraordinaire Martin Smith listed just a few projects that the Orlando executive team has vetoed in the last three years:

  • Imagination 4
  • Space Mountain 2.0 (ostensibly with onboard audio, like the Disneyland version)
  • a World Showcase project
  • an Illuminations replacement called Skydance
  • a “Lucasland” area at Disney’s Hollywood Studios
  • a new attraction at Animal Kingdom

Why were these projects vetoed? From what people in the know are saying (and let me emphasize that I am not one of those people) the executive train of thought goes something like this: “Walt Disney World’s parks are some of the most visited in the world, so why should we try to improve anything when we can just spend the money on executive bonuses instead?”

“Ah, but what about the Fantasyland expansion project now underway about the Magic Kingdom?”, you ask. A lot of people may disagree with me on this, but the Fantasyland project is not Disney’s response to Harry Potter. It’s a response to the fact that on the busiest days of the year, the Magic Kingdom reaches its maximum capacity and is forced to turn away customers eager to enter the park and spend money there. Don’t believe me? Consider this: The Wizarding World of Harry Potter didn’t take anyone by surprise; it was years in the making. Disney had plenty of time to ready up a slate of offerings to compete with it. And what did we get for this, the Summer of Potter? Captain EO and the Main Street Electrical Parade! Zip-a-dee-frakking-doo-dah. (Pardon my Caprican)

The best thing that could happen to Disney right now is for The Wizarding World of Harry Potter to be such a huge hit that Universal is inspired to bring the rest of their parks up to that same level of quality. Hopefully, Universal sees Disney’s complacency and smells blood in the water. If they could start to steal visitors from Disney, to the point where the parks actually see attendance decline, maybe that would bite Team Disney Orlando in its most sensitive spot: right in the executive bonus. Maybe then they’d turn the Imagineers loose to make some of that old-school Disney magic.