19 September 2017

Where Storybook Dreams Come True

Some of the greatest treasures of Walt Disney World history are the photos of areas as they’re being constructed. They give you a glimpse into what needed to be constructed first in order to get attractions online in time. You can see the bones of a land, attraction, resort, restaurant, or shop, bearing witness to what makes it tick. They are important pieces of historical documentation. Plus, they just plain cool.

This aerial photo of Fantasyland is dated from September of 1971, but with the Magic Kingdom opening on October 1 of that year, I’m leaning towards the idea that the photo was taken slightly earlier in the year but was released in September of 1971. Regardless of the date, there are a lot of cool moments to unpack in here.

Let’s start with the obvious, Dumbo is clearly not ready for take-off just yet, but it’s nice to see him in his original placement. He’s almost ready for flight, but there are clearly some finishing touches that need to happen to the center spindle of the attraction. Not to mention, it appears that the control booth is missing its roof.

Moving over to Cinderella’s Golden Carousel, it appears as if the main draws of this attraction, i.e. the carousel horses, have not yet been installed. However, the beauty of the tournament tent that makes up the shelter of this attraction is on full display.

Pinocchio’s Village Haus is looking good, but his courtyard is definitely a work in progress; as are most of the sidewalk and landscaping elements throughout the land.

A detail that may go unnoticed, but most assuredly deserves mentioning, are the posts of the Skyway between Fantasyland and Tomorrowland. The grain of the photograph makes it hard to tell if the cables have been strung across the posts yet, but to my eye it doesn’t appear that they have. Considering cranes may still be moving in and out of the area, it isn’t hard for me to believe that these would be some of the last elements to be completed.

Last, but certainly not least, is the lagoon of Vulcania just peeking in on the top right. You can see a bit of the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea – Submarine Voyage track, but the lagoon has definitely not been filled yet. Considering the attraction would open two weeks after the Magic Kingdom itself had opened, it’s no wonder this area is still at low tide.

What else do you see, or see that is missing, in this photograph? Each eye is different and every eye is drawn to something different, and that is the beauty of looking back at any project in Walt Disney World. It’s hard to believe this photo was taken over 46 years ago, but it some of the changes that have happened to this courtyard since then feel like they occurred so many years ago. The real point is, history is fun, if you know where to look!

18 September 2017

Sheltered Area in the Bush

Boma has been, for a long time, one of the go to buffets on property. It is one of those meals you make a reservation for when you want a family member to branch out and try something mildly adventurous or you have a friend who’s never been to Walt Disney World and you want them to see how unique any meal can be on property. It has dishes that rise above the rest of the menu, things like Zebra Domes and Watermelon Rind Salad. It has a unique setting and is generally a highly sought after reservation. It also happens to be my father’s favorite place to eat in Walt Disney World, so that makes it a must do whenever he is visiting with us. Except, after our last visit, I’m not sure he’ll be inclined to make that reservation again. To give you the full picture, let’s utilize a good, bad, and ugly system for this review.

Let’s start with the good, and there is still a lot of good to be found at Boma. Many of the dishes, such as the aforementioned Zebra Domes, Pap, Chakalaka, curries, and Durban Style Roasted Chicken, are favorite items of guests for a reason. There are some wonderful components on the buffet, but considering how large of a buffet Boma offers, you do have to know where to look. The desserts are always winners, as are many of the items you wouldn’t normally prepare in your own kitchen or find in an American restaurant.

There is also the environment to consider, a boma is a shelter or corral. Typical usage is for livestock during evening and night hours or for governmental offices in the African Great Lakes region. You try to suss-out how those two got linked, I’m going to keep talking about the restaurant. If you look at the variety of stalls along the Boma buffet and the fencing that surrounds dining areas, you’ll see small shelters, gates, and other signs that point to the traditional usage of bomas. These architectural details may be lost on most, but it does set the table for an intriguing meal.

Now, let’s look at some of the bad elements. Actually, let’s call this section sad, simply because I know how good Boma can be. Maybe we caught the restaurant on a bad night, but the food was bland, and much of it felt like it had gone too far towards the Americanized cuisine route. In particular the majority of the salads and a good portion of the entrees just felt uninspired on our recent visit. While the menu for Boma is extensive and has room for soups, salads, and entrees to rotate, it felt as if everything on the buffet were the exact same dishes I had seen in my past three visits. It felt as if its uniqueness is starting to slip away or, as it is put in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, it’s lost its muchness.

I could quibble about how long the lines were to get food, but long lines at a buffet in Walt Disney World, especially one with a dining room as large as Boma, are to be expected, if inconvenient.

To talk about the ugliness of Boma almost physically hurts me, because this restaurant has represented so many good things to me and my family. Throughout the course of our meal I witnessed countless wait staff that were completely apathetic to the families and groups they were serving. Rarely did our waiter come by to check on us, which was less a problem for us, but other waiters were doing similar things to guests around us and I could feel the contempt and frustration radiating off of them. In addition, when they we did see staff interacting with their tables, and someone at the table had a question (about specific wines or alcoholic beverages, or about specific dishes), they seemed wholly uninformed. Thankfully, I did see wait staff retrieve kitchen staff when it came to allergy issues.

Animal Kingdom Lodge, as a whole, is a study in brown and tans, and how to utilize these color schemes to the best of their abilities and create a way to impart the message of what it is like to live on the savanna. A study in tan can lead to blandness, but that isn’t something that you typically see at Animal Kingdom Lodge, but it is precisely what I witness at Boma. The culinary adventure Boma once offered seems to have lost its way in a number of respects. I hope that they’ll take the good that still resides inside the corrals, build upon it, give their cast members new life, and once again return it to the fun and delicious experience I know it can be.

14 September 2017

Team Banshee

There is a wealth to Pandora that cannot be measured in dollars and cents, as has been showcased through film and attractions. The creatures and land are so fascinating, it’s no wonder that the Pandora Conservation Initiative has shown an interest in the moon, writing books and conducting experiments that can be seen throughout the lab section of the Flight of Passage queue. While the scientific discoveries and studies are more than enough to occupy any resident of the organization, there is more to life than just work. When it comes to the residents of the Valley of Mo’ara, there is also softball.

It isn’t just the scientists that get in on the sport, the folks over at Alpha Centauri Expeditions (ACE) also get in on the game. In fact, the lab’s team, known as Team Banshee, is a fierce rival with the ACE Guide’s team. Based upon some of the evidence throughout the lab, which we’ll get to momentarily, both the Pandora Conservation Initiative and ACE must have more than one team, and I’d also be willing to bet that the Pandoran Research Foundation has a team or two as well, not to mention the expats who now call Pandora home.

Getting back to the lab, there are a number of notices that speak to Team Banshee’s preparations for the upcoming season. Not the least of which is the flyer affixed to the desk promoting the team’s practice. Upon closer inspection it is revealed that this is actually for the mandatory practice for anyone wishing to be on the team this season, so show up or you’ll be in the stands! The bottom line of this flyer actually speaks to another element hinted at above, and that is Team Banshee’s rivalry with the ACE Guides team. It reads, “We can beat the ACE Guides this year… If we practice!” Clearly, taking practice seriously was an issue last season.

Moving over to the bulletin board at the same workstation, there are actually two pieces of information that figure into Team Banshee’s softball pedigree. The first is a sketch in the bottom left corner of the board that depicts a banshee and a softball glove with ball. The drawing is from Topher, who also happens to be the first baseman and team captain. This note has clearly been here for a while, as it is from the team captain wrapping up the previous year and speaking to preparations occurring in between seasons. It reads, “Even though we fell short to the ACE Guides this year in the semifinals, I know we can get in some work in the offseason. It was an honor serving with you all on the field.” That is some solid captaining right there.

The second piece related to Team Banshee on the bulletin board comes from the lower right corner. Here we have a note from Dr. Ogden herself. The note announces, “Team Banshee – Finally! Our new mugs have arrived. Come to my office to get yours. Thank you – and keep up the great work!” Now, at first glance I’d think this is just your typical office swag, likely the Pandora Conservation Initiative mug that can be seen throughout the queue and in the gift shop, or even the mug variation seen in Dr. Ogden’s office during the briefing video later in Flight of Passage. However, considering that the note addresses Team Banshee is pretty specific, and I’d like to think that she ordered mugs to thank the team for their hustle last season, even if they did fall to the ACE Guides.

Last, but certainly not least, is the ball that is displayed on the bookshelf just before leaving the lab area. Here on a traditional wooden base is a ball with multiple signatures that has been encased and mounted. The nameplate reads Team Banshee, leading me to believe this ball is signed by the entire team to commemorate the season. Whether it is from this past season or another prior season is anyone’s guess, but win or lose Team Banshee definitely has some team spirit.

Workplace teams and rivalries are great, whether its whiffle ball at an annual staff retreat (which I happen to have the trophy from sitting on my desk), or bringing a bit of home with you 4.4 light years across the galaxy. Team Banshee may have gotten beat last season, but they have high hopes for this upcoming season, and maybe even a stronger will to practice harder. Pandora is a harsh place to live and work, but all work and no play…

13 September 2017

A Concert for the Eyes and Ears

Theme is more than just an idea that holds a story, attraction, or land together. It isn’t just the architectural stylings accurate to a time and place. It isn’t just the little details affixed to tables and walls. It is all of these components working together to create a quilt-esque tapestry that creates an experience for guests on an individual and group that is immediately identifiable. The role of music and sound within these theme park experiences is very often downplayed or overlooked. We search for these loops of concentrated music when we return home, from resorts, lands, and attractions, but so often when we are living in that moment they are simply white noise in the background.

This is precisely the role that they were meant to play. That isn’t to say that there isn’t a value to it, but its main role is to keep guests immersed in the story they currently reside in and keep out the other tales happening just beyond their view. From Big Rock Candy Mountain in Frontierland in full view of Big Thunder Mountain to the haunting tremble in Vera Lynn’s We’ll Meet Again floating through the lobby of The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, there is emotion in the music selected and how it is played. The aforementioned Tower of Terror’s loop seems to play off in the distance, almost like an echo, calling to you from some unseen corner of the haunted hotel.

Consider for a moment that any single park can have somewhere in the neighborhood of 15,000 speakers. That is a lot of sound being pumped into spaces large and small, and yet they never seem to collide within our ears. Story is the driving force here as well. Buffers, such as noises of the jungle between green spaces, the roar or tinkling of water features, or even music that could call both lands home are utilized as dissolves. That is, the melt away one atmosphere and slowly replace it with another. Certainly every rule has its exception, but for the most part the ability to hear another land, or even another attraction, from a separate space is almost unheard of, save for where it would make sense, a la being able to hear the skippers on the Jungle Cruise from high atop the canopy of the Swiss Family Treehouse.

The soundscape of Walt Disney World, or any Disney theme park, doesn’t only rely on music to sell its story wares. Throughout DinoLand U.S.A. there is a soundtrack that would be considered traditional scoring, using an orchestra to set the mood. Yet, if you listen closely that score is layered with the otherworldly sounds of insects, many of which have been amplified to make you feel a big closer to the prehistoric insects we all imagine existed when dinosaurs roamed the earth. Screams, both real and speaker projected, emanate from the Tower of Terror, while the sounds of prayer can be heard through the temple areas of Asia. The hum of a machine from the future or the voices of a radio broadcaster, each sound layered in over the music gives the guest the feeling of a world that is occupied. Even if they cannot see the resident, they know that they exist and it only serves to further heighten the realistic nature of a space.

The most recent addition to Walt Disney World, Pandora, changes this methodology up in a way that doubles down on how important sound is to a space. Within the general space of the land there is not a single musical cue. You will hear a heard of beasts calling back and forth to one another from a variety of distances. A viperwolf’s growl and the sound of rustling underbrush lets you know that you are not alone. The screaming cry of a diving banshee will send you for cover, or just cause your heart to skip a beat. This is a soundscape of another world, where music, as we will see in the Na’vi River Journey, is sacredly important to the people who live here. Yet, that music does not permeate into the wilds of their world, and so the creatures of this world are given prominence in the audio storytelling. It’s a shift in how we expect Disney to handle background audio, but that doesn’t mean that it is the end of music in lands as we know it, it simply means that Imagineers have another tool in their storytelling arsenal now.

Music is important to all of us, we have our own personal soundtracks whether we know it or not. Our favorite song that sends our foot tapping and sets us on a path to take on the world, the hum of the mini-fridge in our office that keeps time with the slowly ticking clock, or the cricket song on a lazy summer night where we are just enjoying some company; the soundtracks we live by our many and varied. When it comes to the theme of any space within Walt Disney World and the immersive nature of their stories, not detail is too small to not be considered, right on down to sounds and music we hear, and how and when we hear them.

07 September 2017

Notify Marshal

Fort Wilderness has a long a storied history, filled with more tales than a campground nestled on the shores of Bay Lake should have. It’s filled with swimmin’ holes and steam trains, lawnmower trees, campfire sing-a-longs, and musical revues, romantic ideals of a time gone by and the untamed nature of the land and people who first ventured west. It has all the comforts one could ever hope to find in a campground, and some that are just plain modern, such as movies under the stars, golf carts, and electrically lit sea serpents. The trading posts, however, have always been a bastion for the western ways, and you have to look no further than the postings on their exterior walls to see it.

Many of the postings on the Meadow and Settlement Trading Posts are identical, with only a slight variation here and there. Some are enamel advertisements for goods, such as Butterfly Brand Golden Pumpkin, but the majority of the posters are tied to Wells Fargo and other staples of safety and travel in the west or notices of rewards for wanted men.

While looking back through history you could find a name or two that pops up, typically it isn’t in the same context as the posters here. In fact, unlike the faithful poster reproductions from the now defunct western scene of the Great Movie Ride, many of the names plastered on the walls of the two trading posts are fabricated, although I’m willing to bet they may have real-world counterparts tied to the Disney name in the 1970s.

Fort Wilderness is a great place to meander through, to slow down and enjoy the quiet solitude of nature. Getting from one point to another in the campground is not always fast, even with internal buses and golf carts, and that is entirely on purpose. With that in mind, let’s take a leisurely stroll through the postings from the Settlement Trading Post.

05 September 2017

Pandora's Natural Abundance

When I first heard the menu offerings for Pandora’s quick service restaurant, Satu’li Canteen, it goes without saying that I was most intrigued by the bowl offerings. Mix and matching proteins, sauces, and bases just seemed like a culinary undertaking I wanted to get it on. What I was a little less enthusiastic about were the Cheeseburger Steamed Pods – Bao Buns. It seemed like a simple, yet creative, way to get less adventurous entrees on the menu to appease a wide variety of diners. While that may very well be what they Steamed Pods are, but there’s more to the story.

The official menu description of the Cheeseburger Steamed Pods reads: “Steamed Cheeseburger Pod stuffed with Ground Beef, Ketchup, Mustard, Pickle, and Cheddar Cheese served with Crunchy Vegetable Slaw and Vegetable Chips.” The tale of how that filling came to be, however, takes us back to the storytelling expertise of the Executive Designer and Vice President, Creative at Walt Disney Imagineering. Surprise, surprise; that is Joe Rohde. According to Rohde, the cheeseburger pods filling based upon a hamburger hash that has been served up at Joe Rohde’s house for a while now. His wife had wanted their boys to learn how to cook, and hamburger hash was the first attempt with all of the components, bread, condiments, cheese, etc., being scrambled together in a skillet and served up hot. Leave it to Joe to have a hand in everything from the way moss covers a wall to what they’re service up in Pandora’s main eatery!

For me, however, I tasted another memory when I bit into the Cheeseburger Steamed Pods. For me it took me back to La Tropicana in Ybor City. This Cuban restaurant has been a staple of the Latin community in Ybor City, and the larger Tampa Bay area since 1963. For me, I grew up on their devil crabs, Cuban sandwiches, and, what I tasted when I bit into the pods, stuffed potatoes. Now, let me be clear, the stuffed potatoes from La Tropicana are mashed potatoes, stuffed with a picadillo filling, that are breaded and fried. The Cheeseburger Steamed Pods are not that, but the meat mixture found inside them was reminiscent of the stuffed potatoes of my youth.

The filling of the Cheeseburger Steamed Pods, with all of the condiments mixed in and some well-placed spices, tastes less like a cheeseburger than one would expect. The filling is good and a fun way to present the dish. The pod, or bao bun, is a lot of breading to partake in. As many I was with noted, some sort of dipping sauce for the pod would be great to make it a little more palatable. The other components of the meal, the crunchy vegetable slaw and vegetable chips, were both fair side dishes. The chips could have used a bit more something, whether that was crisping them up a bit more or some other form of seasoning, they were utilitarian, but nothing to write home about. The vegetable slaw, meanwhile, stood out with its vinegar dressing and fresh vegetables. It didn’t send sparks through my mouth, but it was definitely a noticeable improvement over some of the other slaws around Walt Disney World.

I went into my first dining experience at Satu’li Canteen thinking it was going to be a rather unmemorable experience, but what I found instead was a trip down my own personal memory lane. I’m certain that a majority of guests will not have that same experience during a meal of the Cheeseburger Steamed Pods, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give them a try. If you like burgers around Walt Disney World, then you will enjoy these pods. Think of it this way, these pods are just a new delivery system, where none of the condiments will slip off of the bun and onto your shirt!

31 August 2017

Tell a Good Story - Issue #4: Enchanted Tiki Room

Spoiler Free Synopsis: Narrated by the magical talking tree, Tangaroa, the Enchanted Tiki Room welcomes a few special guests to their own private island each week. Over the course of the week these tales include the famously forgotten actress, Agnes, and her dog Alfred, the money-can-buy-us-happiness Randy family, the unlucky in love, Wally, the volunteer host for the show, Chip, and Saoirse, a little girl who just wants her father’s attention. Each family or individual are in need of something, whether they know they are searching for it or not. Whether it is love, trust, freedom, or self-worth, the island has something to teach each guest. And the winged inhabitants are not immune to the problems plaguing their guests, or the significance each tiki bird has to one another. When the show starts to crumble and the lava starts flowing, will the lessons learned be enough to save them all?

Disney Source Material: Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room is, unsurprisingly, the main source of inspiration for the Enchanted Tiki Room tale. More specifically, with its garden filled with an array of tiki gods, including Tangaroa, this story is prominently drawn from Disneyland’s 1963 version of the attraction. The story of this attraction is legendary, from Walt Disney’s fascination with a mechanical bird in a cage toy that gave him visions of a dinner show, a show that would eventually drop the idea of including a meal and become the Enchanted Tiki Room attraction with not only singing feathered friends, but also drumming figures, singing tiki gods, and crooning flowers.

While the Disneyland version of the attraction is the primary muse for the story, there are other Adventureland staples to be found within these pages. Not the least of which is the Magic Kingdom’s Little Orange Bird from the Sunshine Tree Pavilion. While no Citrus Swirls were served or harmed during the making of this comic, the Little Orange Bird does have a substantial role in the story, giving both coasts’ Adventureland some skin, err, feathers in the game.

Marvel Storytelling: If the tale told in the synopsis above leads you to consider the television show Fantasy Island, you would not be alone. It is clear that the story and morals presented in John Adams’ comic were directly inspired by the show that ran from 1978-1984. In fact, eagle-eyed readers will even be able to spot Fantasy Island's cameo playing in the background of the tiki birds' dressing room.

Given the task of taking a cabaret show featuring birds, flowers, and tiki gods and giving it a backstory and plot is not an easy task, and the cracks show here early. Flipping between no less than half a dozen stories contained over the course of five comic issues makes it very difficult to become attached to the characters or to keep up with the current location in their individual story arcs.

The art team is headed by Horacio Domingues who does an excellent job translating well known locations and characters to the page. Domingues is backed up by a deep bench of artists including Sotocolor (colorist for issues 2-5), John Tyler Christopher (background design art), and Brian Kesinger (cover artist), and this doesn’t even begin to touch the wealth of variant covers and the artists tapped for them. The vibrancy of the tropical island is clearly captured in each panel, which can be tricky considering just how much green is to be found in a jungle.

Bonus Time: Here is where things get a little more disappointing. Previous volumes had included letters from a who’s who at Disney or Marvel, or both, to talk about the experience of putting the story together or tales from the namesake attraction’s history. In Enchanted Tiki Room, however, there are no such stories to be shared. Additionally, the wealth of variant covers, while amazing in their own right and handled by such artists as Jason Grandt, Jody Daily, and Tom Morris, leave very little room for the concept art we have come to expect from a Disney Kingdoms volume. A two page spread from Marc Davis and Rolly Crump is almost the full extent of historical artwork we are given.

Conclusion: I’ll keep this brief. The Enchanted Tiki Room was high on my personal list to read and review, but it let me down profusely. While there are some masterful artists who have worked on the attraction and this book, there is a scarcity of archival information shared and good art isn’t enough to save poor narrative in this instance. The story itself is so fractured there is very little of the heart and whimsy that have made the attraction appealing to so many for more than 50 years.  Released at the end of 2016, this is also the most recent Disney Kingdoms chronicle and, with no news of potential upcoming storylines, the Enchanted Tiki Room may be the tale that halts the presses.

Further Reading:
Tell a Good Story – Issue # 4: Enchanted Tiki Room