Friday, January 28, 2011

25 Years Ago Today

On January 28, 1986 the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded seventy-three seconds after liftoff, killing all seven astronauts aboard. Millions of people have died since that day, and their deaths are no less tragic, to be sure. But, even though I was only seven years old then, I still remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when I heard the news.

I wrote about the Challenger tragedy at length last year, but I encourage everyone to take a moment today to remember Dick Scobee, Michael J. Smith, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, Ronald McNair, Christa McAuliffe, and Gregory Jarvis.

Never forget.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Some Thoughts on the Tiki Room

First of all, you may have noticed that the blog has acquired a glowy new TRONified look. Although I enjoyed TRON: Legacy, the main impetus behind the visual overhaul was making it look better on larger monitors.  If you’re using a monitor that runs higher than 1600x1800, you’ll notice that the background image is no longer tiled, meaning that the blog no longer looks like a GeoCities website from 1995. Please let me know what you think of the new look by voting in the poll to the right. Thanks!

Now, on to the Tiki Room. On Wednesday, January 12th a fire broke out in the Tiki Room’s attic and damaged several animatronics before it was extinguished by the sprinkler system. The Disney fan community reacted with shock and dismay, until we learned that no one had been hurt, and the fire was in the “Under New Management” Tiki Room at Walt Disney World. Then we reacted by dancing the Funky Chicken of Joy in front of our computers. This created problems if we happened to be in a public place.

Michael Crawford over at Progress City U.S.A. has written an excellent article about the fire and what changes may come to the Tiki Room as a result. Like many of us, Michael hopes that Disney might decide to go ahead and bring back the original show for the park’s 40th anniversary. After all, they’ve already done it at Disneyland, and the current show is disliked by both hardcore fans and casual vacationers. However, the way I see it there’s just one teeny tiny little problem: the reason the old show went away in the first place was that it became unpopular. People were staying away from it, or getting up and leaving in the middle of the show. If it were brought back, mightn’t the same thing happen again?

I’ve never been to Disneyland, so I have no way of knowing how popular the show is with audiences there. However, it’s a well-known fact that a larger percentage of Disneyland’s visitors are Annual Passholding locals who are quite intolerant of classic attractions being replaced by crass commercials for current Disney franchises. By way of contrast, the vast majority of Walt Disney World’s customers are one-time-only casual vacationers who can’t  tell the difference between a classic Disney attraction and a hole in the ground. Many of these folks have never seen the original Tiki Room and have no warm, fuzzy memories of it. Sure, in the ‘60s, ‘70s, and even into the ‘80s, singing Animatronic birds were kind of impressive. Now, not so much. Modern audiences might very well turn their noses up at the classic Tiki Room, just like they did in the ‘90s. (Although many of these same people think reality television is entertaining. The world is stupid.)

On the other hand, Captain EO seems to have picked up a whole new generation of fans who weren’t even born yet when it debuted in 1986, and that show lacks the timeless quality of the original Tiki Room. Maybe the same thing could happen in Adventureland.  Personally, I think that the best-case scenario would be a “remastered” version of the original show. Make the Animatronics a little more lifelike, with the smooth, fluid movements you see on the newer models. And, although it pains me to say this, the show may need to be condensed a little to hold the attention of modern A.D.D.-addled audiences.

And those are my thoughts on the Tiki Room. As always, thanks for reading and commenting. I hope the new look doesn’t hurt your eyes.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

My Year at WDW-The Seas with Nemo (and His Computer-Generated Friends)

Like most Disney attractions, the Seas pavilion went through a number of changes between the initial concept and the final design that actually got built. One feature remained constant, though, from the early concepts:


. . . to the final ones:


The aquarium. From the beginning, it was the Seas’ central attraction. But EPCOT is a Disney park, so visitors would have been pretty disappointed if the Seas was just an aquarium. Something else was needed to draw them in.

In the early concepts, visitors were transported to the aquarium viewing area via an immersive dark ride hosted by Poseidon, God of the Sea. By the time the pavilion actually opened in 1986, it had been scaled down to a short Hydrolator trip and a three-minute Seacab ride. Jim Hill says this was because corporate sponsor United Technologies was too cheap to fund the original concept, while Martin Smith’s Living Seas Ultimate Tribute video implies that WED decided on their own that the Poseidon-hosted dark ride was too fanciful and opted for the more academic tone.

The Living Seas, with its preshow film/Hydrolator/Seacab ride combination, did a good job of drawing in visitors, at least until the departure of its corporate sponsor. Forced to fund the pavilion’s operation on their own, Disney went into aggressive cost-cutting mode.  The Seacab ride was deactivated and walled off, the Seabase began to take on a dingy look as routine maintenance was scaled back, and visitors began to stay away from the pavilion. People began to grimly refer to it as “The Dead Seas”. Fans began to wonder if the Seas would suffer the same fate as the Wonders of Life.

You know what happened, of course. Disney pumped some money into the pavilion, and in 2007 it reopened as The Seas with Nemo and Friends. Was any attempt made to make the pavilion’s new theme fit in with the rest of Future World? No. Does the ride-thru attraction have any point other than to say “Hey kids, here’s Nemo!” and rehash the plot of the movie? Again, no. However, after making multiple trips to EPCOT last year, I have to admit that the Nemo rehab, ill-conceived though it was, has succeeded in one important area: drawing people back to the Seabase.

Even when the pavilion was The Living Seas, the main attraction wasn’t the Hydrolators, or the Seacab ride, or the preshow film featuring that female narrator with the amazing voice. It was the marine life inside the aquarium. But there really isn’t any point to it being there if no one is compelled to come look at it. During the handful of trips I’ve made since the Great Nemo Rehab of 2007, the Seabase has always been packed with excited families, even on days when the ride-thru attraction was a walk-on. And the families weren’t all crowded into the waiting area for Turtle Talk, either; every window into the aquarium was lined with kids staring into the water with amazement. I heard far more cries of delight at the antics of the dolphins than I did on the ride when Nemo and his friends appeared. Without exception, every kid I saw was much more excited to see a real shark prowling the reef than they were to see Animatronic Bruce and his artificial cohorts. And that’s why I have to admit that The Seas with Nemo and Friends is ultimately a success.

From its initial concept to the finished product, the purpose of EPCOT’s Seas pavilion was always to inform and educate people of all ages about the incredible array of life beneath the ocean’s surface. And when I see the Seabase area full of kids eager to look at and learn about the marine life in that massive aquarium, I’m forced to admit it’s accomplishing that purpose. Maybe it’s not going about it in quite the way I would prefer, and maybe if Disney had stuck with the original concept and built the pavilion with a big and elaborate dark ride I wouldn’t even need to write this. But love him or hate him, at least Nemo and his Computer-Generated friends are getting kids excited about a piece of the real world (specifically, the piece that comprises 70% of the globe). Maybe it’s only an unintended benefit of a rehab that Disney did primarily to sell more Nemo merchandise. But it’s proof that the spirit of EPCOT Center is still finding ways to shine through.

Monday, January 3, 2011

My Year at WDW-Security as Theater



When I was a little kid, I was afraid that there was quicksand in my backyard. Was it because the soil conditions in my area were especially conducive to the formation of quicksand? Nope! It was because of the scary depictions of quicksand in realistic documentary programs like Gilligan’s Island and the Johnny Weismuller Tarzan films. While I was tiptoeing around the backyard worrying about nonexistent quicksand, my mom was inside worrying that the Roadrunner cartoons would make me drop an anvil on my sister. Our brains seem wired to fear ridiculously improbable things.

It’s even worse if it’s something that’s highly publicized. The abduction and murder of Kimberly Leach in 1978 and Adam Walsh in 1981 made parents during my childhood terrified that their local malls and playgrounds were infested with evil kidnappers ready to snatch their children the second the parents’ back was turned. The Disney parks have always had an excellent reputation for safety and security, and their carefully-crafted atmosphere has usually been pretty good at causing visitors to discard those kind of fears. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, though, had such an overpowering effect on the American psyche that no amount of Disney theming could make park visitors forget about the newfound danger of terrorism. So management had to do something to make their customers feel safe so that Walt Disney World (and Disneyland, too) continued to be a desirable destination. You know what they came up with: bag checks.

X-ray machines and metal detectors would have been too expensive (and it’s not like they stopped the 9/11 hijackers) but the bag check stations outside the park entrances are sufficiently reminiscent of airport security checkpoints to cause vacationers to relax, secure in the knowledge that all those strangers in the Space Mountain line with them have passed through the bag check successfully, and are definitely not terrorists. After all, if they were terrorists, then the security guards at the bag check stations would have found a brick of C-4 or an AK-47 in their backpack, right?

Obviously, Disney has always had security at their parks. Currently, the New York Times story about the Magic Kingdom’s line-monitoring command center is generating some buzz. If Disney puts that much effort into monitoring attraction lines, how much more seriously do you think they take security? After all, a violent incident like a mugging, a rape, or an armed standoff would damage the company a lot more than a long line for Dumbo. (And no, I’m not implying that Disney cares more about its corporate image than the physical safety of its customers) Much like all the other backstage operations that keep the parks running smoothly, security is practically invisible. But it works. The real world doesn’t stop at Disney’s property line, and I’m sure that people have managed to smuggle drugs or even weapons onto the property. But despite the fact that Walt Disney World is visited by something like 17 million people per year, how many violent crimes have happened there? (The Celebration murders don’t count, since Celebration isn’t part of the resort) Despite the fact that, in the Magic Kingdom the number of people per square foot often rivals the busiest parts of New York City, there aren’t problems with pickpockets or muggers.

Ah, but what about terrorists? I’m sorry, but if you seriously think that a retiree in a policeman costume shining a flashlight into a backpack will be any deterrent to someone who’s so determined to kill people that he’s willing to blow himself up to do it, then you’re not just suffering from Vacation Stupidity Disorder, you’re suffering from Full-Time Stupidity Disorder! The only bad guys a bag check is going to thwart are the cartoon villains that menace Mickey Mouse.

After 9/11, our very natural feelings of fear and insecurity were heightened by media people breathlessly imagining all the ways a prospective terrorist could attack. Radioactive dirty bombs and attacks with biological weapons were favorite scenarios. Almost a full decade has gone by, and with the exception of the anthrax mailings (which were not a coordinated Al-Qaeda attack but the work of a lone crazy person in the U.S.) none of that stuff has happened. And even if Disney World were targeted by Al-Qaeda, or just a single psycho acting alone, there are plenty of places they could strike besides the parks. A bomb or biological agent would kill just as many people in a crowded monorail station, a ferryboat, or even in the bottleneck created by the bag-check stations as it would inside the Magic Kingdom.

The bag checks are a show designed to create an illusion. They’re not a real security checkpoint any more than the Astro Orbiter is a real space voyage. Their sole purpose is to quiet the fears of panicky vacationers whose brains have slipped into Reduced Functionality Mode, and ease them into the frame of mind that’s most conducive to consuming mass quantities of twenty-five dollar T-shirts and ten-dollar hamburgers. They’re like a night light to ward off monsters under the bed. So, even though Disney’s Illusion of Security Show is inconvenient and contributes little or nothing to park security, I expect it to stick around forever. Because as old as people get, they never quite stop believing in monsters under the bed. Or quicksand in the backyard.