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.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Fear and Nausea: Now THAT’S Entertainment!

As I was being turned upside down at sixty miles per hour, I understood why EPCOT Center was never as popular as it should have been.

Perhaps I should explain that.

I have a longstanding phobia of roller coasters and coaster-like thrill rides. I’m okay with simulators; Mission:Space or Star Tours give me no problems. I just can’t handle steep drops, barrel rolls, hairpin turns, and inversions. Nevertheless, everyone’s always saying how much fun these rides are, and how they or someone they know used to feel the way I do, but then they rode <insert coaster name here> and now they can’t get enough of them. And so I bowed to peer (and spousal) pressure, screwed up my courage, and climbed aboard Rockin’ Roller Coaster at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. As the ride took off at sixty miles per hour and sent me though a dizzying array of turns and inversions, I realized that rides like this are specifically designed to trigger your brain’s automatic fear and nausea circuits. I couldn’t just relax and enjoy the ride because the ride doesn’t let you relax. And this is what people consider to be fun. Heck, I could’ve experienced the same level of enjoyment by standing on my head and sticking my finger down my throat. And that, my friends, is why we don’t have EPCOT Center any more.

You see, EPCOT Center’s designers thought that the general public wanted Animatronic dark rides and CircleVision films. It’s easy to understand why they thought so; the dark rides and CircleVision film attractions at the Magic Kingdoms in Anaheim and Orlando were consistently popular with park visitors (although I admit that I don’t get the CircleVision thing. Who wants to stand in line just to go into another room and stand some more?) But unlike Pirates of the Caribbean or the Haunted Mansion, EPCOT’s attractions had a more scholarly tone. Aside from Journey Into Imagination and  World of Motion, there was no fluffy escapist fare. EPCOT Center was designed to engage your brain on a higher level. And judging by the general public’s disdain for EPCOT Center, and its corresponding love for rides like Rockin’ Roller Coaster, it’s safe to say that people don’t want their brains engaged on any higher level. They want them engaged on the level that makes them sorry they had lunch at Pizza Planet.

It’s a point of view that I acknowledge. Just don't ask me to understand it.

Well, my business trip to Orlando at the end of the month has been canceled. However, my wife and I will be heading down there at the end of July to check out the Summer Nightastic festivities. We’ll be there long enough to squeeze in a visit to EPCOT, so I should have some pictures for you and a review of the Coral Reef Restaurant. Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Thoughts on Star Wars Weekends

This past Saturday (June 5) my wife, her brother, and I headed down to Disney’s Hollywood Studios to experience Star Wars Weekends for the first time. Despite the heat, humidity, and crowds, it was an unqualified blast! The best thing about Star Wars Weekends is the wonderful sense of humor the event has.

The fun starts about fifteen minutes prior to park opening when two Stormtroopers appear atop the turnstile plaza and entertain the crowd with their humorous banter. This year, they were joined by Boba Fett:

Throughout the park, there are several Star Wars characters doing meet-and-greets. Some, like Darth Vader and Chewbacca, have designated greeting areas. Others, like Stormtroopers, Tusken Raiders, and Gamorrean Guards, roam freely.

Here’s a picture of my brother-in-law and I with a Stormtrooper:

And here’s a Tusken Raider clowning around Darth Vader’s greeting area while the Dark Lord was on a 5-minute break:

One cool thing about Star Wars Weekends is the fans in costume. Usually, Disney prohibits guests from wearing costumes in the parks, but this policy is relaxed for certain events. We saw several people in very authentic-looking Jedi costumes, one guy in an excellent Lando Calrissian outfit, and someone dressed as Han Solo from The Empire Strikes Back, complete with the late-70s/early-80s hairstyle!

There was also a rather large gentleman I saw sitting on a bench, wearing a white T-shirt, white shorts, and a Clone Trooper helmet. You know how Stormtroopers have different outfits for different environments? There are sandtroopers and snowtrooopers and swamptroopers and even spacetroopers. Well, this guy must have been dressed as a Floridatrooper. You’ve got to admit,the T-shirt and shorts are way more practical than that hot plastic armor! And yes, I do have a picture of him, but to avoid seeming mean-spirited I’m not going to post it.

One feature of Star Wars Weekends that’s become a regular thing at the Studios is the Jedi Training Academy for kids:

I wish the photo op portion of the show was available for adults; I imagine there are lots of guys in their 30s and above who would love to get a picture of themselves crossing lightsabers with Darth Vader. I know I would!

The highlight of Star Wars Weekends, though is the Hyperspace Hoopla show that closes out each day:

It is, in my opinion, one of the best shows at Disney World. Hyperspace Hoopla’s only problem is that not a lot of people are able to watch it in its current venue. The stage is not that far off the ground, so anyone farther back than about three people deep has trouble seeing. The terrace of the adjacent Backlot Express restaurant is a good place to watch from (that’s where we ended up) but again, there’s not a lot of room there. I really hope that the upcoming Star Tours 2.0 refurb addresses this. Alternately, the show could just be moved to one of several locations in the park that are better suited to handling the large crowds that Hyperspace Hoopla always draws.

So, my final verdict: despite the crowds and the Florida heat and humidity, Star Wars Weekends are a can’t-miss event.

One other thing: I may have mentioned in the past that I’m not a big fan of thrill rides, especially roller coasters. My phobia of coasters is matched only by my phobia of large spiders. However, at the urging of my wife and several friends, I decided to take the plunge and ride Rockin’ Roller Coaster. After all, it only lasts one minute and five seconds, how bad could it be? Well, here’s a picture of me after the ride was over.

I’m not vomiting, I’m kissing the ground. More accurately, I’m pretending to kiss the ground for comedic effect. No, roller coasters still do not agree with me. Still, the experience got me thinking about the popularity of thrill rides, what people consider to be entertaining, and how that relates to EPCOT, so that will be a subject of a future post.

Lastly, in three weeks, I’ll be spending three days in Orlando on business, and after trashing the Coral Reef Restaurant a couple of times on this blog, I thought it only fair that I at least eat there one time to see if it really sucks as bad as I think it does give it a fair shake. Hey, I survived Rockin’ Roller Coaster didn’t I? I feel brave. So I made a dinner reservation there, and I’ll be writing about that experience, too. It’ll be my first-ever restaurant review.

Until then, happy trails and thanks for reading!

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Here’s What’s Coming Up Next:

On Saturday, June 5 I’ll be at Disney’s Hollywood Studios for Star Wars Weekends, and next week I’ll post pictures and a review of the experience.

Next, if all goes according to plan, my Clark Kent job will be sending me to Orlando for three days at the end of the month for training on a new software package my team will shortly become responsible for managing. Class is from 8-5, which leaves me free to head to the parks during the evening. I plan on spending one evening at the Magic Kingdom to witness the recently-returned Main Street Electrical Parade and the new Summer Nightastic fireworks show, and the next evening I’ve made myself a reservation at EPCOT’s Coral Reef Restaurant. I’ve been pretty hard on the place in the past, so I figure I really should have a meal there and provide y’all with a firsthand account of it.

Thanks for staying tuned.