28 March 2018

Grand and Miraculous

There are some views that never get old, such making that turn around Epcot to see Spaceship Earth and then approaching it from the parking lot. The words “grand” and “miraculous” aren’t just a portion of the attraction script in those moments; it is as if they were tailor made to describe the feeling of seeing Spaceship Earth. It is a feeling that never seems to get old and, no matter how many times you may visit Epcot as a visitor or a local, one that never seems to get any less intense.

There are a variety of ways with which we see Spaceship Earth, from walking up, to touring around it on a monorail, from across World Showcase Lagoon, and even as the backdrop for a water show in Innoventions Plaza. As is the case with today’s photo, however, there are some views of Spaceship Earth that we can no longer get.

I’ll be the first to admit that this view originally stumped me. I was certain it was Future World West, pre-The Living Seas, but I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why I couldn’t see the monorail beam in the photograph. Rather than go with my gut, I tried looking at all other possibilities first. It was only when I pulled out my 1982 EPCOT Center map and compared it to an aerial photograph that my original hunch was confirmed.

Prior to construction beginning on The Living Seas, this watery section of EPCOT Center, complete with curved planters, was easier to recognize as there was less development in the area. Also, the hill used to create a boundary between the park and the bus depot, group sales, and package pick-up on the outside of the park would later be removed as The Living Seas was constructed. This area also fell in between the monorail path and Spaceship Earth, which may feel like they’re right next to one another in this area, but there is a surprising amount of space there.

While this view itself may have changed dramatically over the years, and it was a stellar view judging by this photograph, there are thankfully a ton of vantage points throughout and outside of the park of Spaceship Earth. The landscape and vistas of Walt Disney World are constantly changing, but it’s nice to be able to look back and see what once was, while still being able to enjoy what we currently have.

27 March 2018

Classic Stories

There are no two attractions that are the same. What I mean by that, and yes I am aware of clone attractions across the globe, is that at Walt Disney World there are no two attractions that went through the same design and creation process, there is no cookie cutter system for boat, omnimover, or rollercoaster attractions, and that it is their uniqueness which makes them special. However, the trend of shortening attractions, or creating attractions that have a shorter duration out of whole cloth, has become more prevalent over time. This is a trend that I wish we could move away from.

I understand that by creating shorter attractions, or shortening attractions current attractions, you can decrease the amount of time guests are waiting in line, at least in theory. The turn-around is better, which means less grumpy guests in the queue and guests that can experience more attractions throughout a day. When it comes to managing a theme park and meeting guest expectations, I can see where this strategy is advantageous.

In recent years there have been published news reports that humans, as a whole, are losing their attention span. A closer examination of those figures, however, shows that we don’t actually have a specific deficit when it comes to our attention spans, and we certainly do not have an attention span that holds for less time than a goldfish. Rather, our attention span is more accurately measured when it comes to taking part in a specific task and what expectation we bring to any given scenario. Returning back to the arena of Walt Disney World, this means that if we’re expecting to be engaged for 10-20 minutes and our minds are stimulated and interested in what the attraction is presenting to us, then our attention is held.

Ellen’s Energy Adventure is a great example of this theory. It was a 45-minute attraction prior to its close, and it was constantly shutting down due to guests climbing out of their ride vehicles, most often because they had a child who could not wait to go to the restroom any longer. While the length of the attraction was exceptionally long, it also didn’t hold everyone’s interest. The dinosaurs were great, but that was a relatively short section surrounded by longer film based entertainment that wasn’t as engaging to guests, especially 20 years after it had opened. Conversely, the captivating look at American history known as The American Adventure will keep guests in their seats for the entire 30-minute duration of the show. That may seem like comparing apples to carburetors, but it is all about connecting to guests through appropriate storytelling tools.

Sticking with shows for a moment, there are some shows that have manage to stick around through the years, but have, to use the television movie vernacular, been edited for time. Specifically, I’m thinking about the Country Bear Jamboree and the Enchanted Tiki Room. The original versions of both shows have runtimes that are approximately five minutes longer than their current iterations. While it keeps guest wait-times down, I can’t remember a time recently when I saw either show filled to capacity, and both shows meet the criteria we set above of being engaged for the entire time guests are in the respective theaters. While the material, i.e. the songs, performed in both shows may not be as recognizable as they once were, the use of effects and comedy in both is enough to hold the attention of even the most fidgety person I know.

A similar modification has been taking place on the waterways of Walt Disney World. Attractions such as it’s a small world, Splash Mountain, and Pirates of the Caribbean have experience times that fall between 8 to 15 minutes, and aside from the logjams that can occur at the exit of each attraction, guests are generally entertained and engaged throughout the entire journey and are left coveting more or wanting to jump right back on the ride. Although I will admit the inability to jump out of one of the boats like the ride vehicles of Ellen’s Energy Adventure is a fair deterrent to anyone wishing to cut their voyage short. Yet, the latest water adventure presented at Walt Disney World, the Na’vi River Journey, is a brief 5 minute tour. Given the reaction to the attraction in its first year of operation, I can’t imagine there is any guest who would bemoan a few more minutes of meandering down Kasvapan River. The problem with creating shorter water attractions is that the ability to lengthen them, even if Disney wanted to, is a logistical nightmare. Instead, guests are left wanting more and daydreaming about what could have been in perpetuity.

Our attention spans are not shrinking, nor are they shrinking in our children, but attractions continue to treat guests as if we can only handle the briefest of adventures. I don’t suspect that my solitary word is going to move them into the direction of creating longer attractions and shows, but this trend towards shorter experiences is something I have noticed becoming more prominent over the past decade, and it is something I wish would do a full-stop and reversal. The more time guests get to spend in a world, revealing the depth of its story, the more we want to invest of ourselves in that world and the more we engage our imaginations of what could be. I suppose, in the end, all I’m asking for is that guests not be talked down to and to be given a chance to engage longer, not shorter, narratives.

26 March 2018

Daily Village Life

Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge is home to a number of safari elements for those willing to brush past the initial veneer of what is found in the lobby, pool, restaurants, and main guest area. There are animals present for photo safaris, cultural icons, a look at historical travel to the continent, and folklore, all waiting to be discovered. Aside from the animals, however, there may be no greater abundance in the resort than the artwork that can literally be found around every corner. For those uninterested in touring the entirety of the lodge, the Sunset Overlook offers a wonderfully cultivated assortment of art, history, and photographs, including a selection of carvings from the Yoruba people.

The Yoruba people live in a multitude of countries, but the densest collection of Yoruba individuals live in Nigeria, where they make up no less than 21% of the population. The Yoruba people are some of the finest artisans in Africa, and are known for their ornate carvings on all variety of surfaces, metal work, beaded crowns and other beadwork, and theatrical arts. In spite of this wealth of skill and mediums, what can be found in the Sunset Overlook is known as thorn carving, or thornwood carving.

Thorn carvings began around the 1930s in Nigeria and are commonly referred to as “tourist art,” as they began to come into the commonplace during the influx of travelers and explorers that made their way to the country. These visitors would want small tokens of their travels to take home with them. A majority of these carvings capture everyday activities, such as chores or leisurely endeavors. The two examples here feature men rowing a boat and two people engaged in a game, meal, or chore of some sort.

They thorn carvings exist on the fringe of Yoruba artwork, not because they are cheap or looked down upon, but more so because they are taken on by serious artist to show the lighter side of life, almost like a way to occupy their time between larger projects. Typically, the wood utilized to make these comes from the ata or ogungun trees, with thorns that can reach upwards of five inches long, with an elasticity that makes for easier carving. It is the miniature size of these artifacts that makes whatever details they can be imbued with so incredible. In fact, when you look at the figures, and the proportions the artists had to work with, the only way to identify the mouth, nose, eyes, ears, and other facial features is either through bumps or tiny dots, and any expression of feeling is going to come more from body language or the scene itself rather than the minimal facial features.

There are a vast number of art forms to be found all through the Animal Kingdom Lodge, many of which are unfamiliar or that are created with materials that are not common to guests. For a brief introduction to all that awaits throughout the lodge, the Sunset Overlook is the place to visit. Most of the day, the overlook is quiet, save for the occasional family on their way to the balcony on their own photo safari. I for one, love exploring the shelves and cases and seeing what artistic work I can learn more about!

21 March 2018

Invasive Species Study

There is a lot of beauty to be found throughout Pandora, from creatures to culture. This is especially true if you’re looking through the lens of nature reclaiming created environments, a key message found throughout Disney’s Animal Kingdom. The lab section of Flight of Passage explores many different facets of the educational components of the park, including conservation, reintroduction, and natural restoration. There is even an experiment that looks at invasive, non-native species introduction to Pandora.

Known as the Velocivirus, it is part of the Pandora Conservation Initiative's Invasive Species Study. It is kept in an active quarantine bubble, so while this spiny, inky black blob is able to move around on a large, futuristic Petri dish-like surface, it isn’t going to be able to run rampant around the moon. It is a strange bug, I’ll grant you. It uses micro-vibrations as a form of echolocation and to move about, it latches on to healthy tissue and, like a hemorrhagic virus, it attempts to dissolve the tissue it finds. The colonial-cooperative virus has a whole new environment with which to wreak havoc, and the researchers at the Pandora Conservation Initiative have yet to find a way to eradicate the virus. It is worth noting that the small sample visible in the lab is far from the only specimen around.

The Velocivirus reached Pandora by hitching a ride on one of the various spacecraft that have made their way to the moon, specifically near the exhaust areas of the vehicles. To ensure the invasive species doesn’t make landfall, the ships are supposed to fire their thrusters prior to entering the atmosphere. As that requires burning up a lot of fuel, and fuel costs money, you can see why some less conscientious, penny-pinching individuals could maybe forget to follow procedure. This is similar to how we ended up with pythons, Cuban tree frogs, green and black spinytail iguanas, or kudzu as just a few of the invasive species to be found in Florida alone.

Humans tend to be the link in how these invasive species are introduced into non-native environments, through a desire to bring something new with them, carelessness, or indifference to the harm they could be causing. Luckily, there are also humans on Earth, as well as on Pandora, who are always looking for ways to make things better. Education is a critical function of any conservation effort, and the Velocivirus an allegory for many of the problems we face on our own planet, some of which are chronicled in other sections of Disney's Animal Kingdom. Of course, all you have to do is look across the lab to see efforts to reintroduce and protect endangered species.

Kudos are to be given to Joe Rohde for how much attention to detail and storytelling that he shares, which turned us on to this little story to begin with.

20 March 2018

Why Limit Happy to One Hour

The Polite Pig is known for, well, all things pig. And that is before anyone mentions all scrumptious sides and desserts that taste like they’re home-cookin’, but only if your cook at home was a James Beard recognized chef. Oh, and they’re also known for having a collection of bourbon so vast, that a tear comes to my eye when I look at my little shelf. Basically, The Polite Pig has a lot of things to say “please” and “thank you” for, and today we’re looking at two of the sweeter options on the menu.

For starters, we need something to drink, all good meals start with a good drink. With the variety of options, between bourbons, beers, and craft cocktails, there is a lot to consider. However, it’s not every day that a restaurant has cocktails on tap, which The Polite Pig does. With that in mind, and wanting to see just what these Small Batch Cocktails would be like, I opted to try out the Sweet Tea Old-Fashioned.

A concoction of bourbon, sweet tea syrup, and bitters, this isn’t your traditional old-fashioned. When it comes to an old-fashioned, I do tend to be a bit of a traditionalist. That said, this version of the cocktail was very smooth and not as astringent as a typical old-fashioned would be. It actually works very when paired with barbecue that, depending on your sauce preferences, can be vinegary and definitely savory. With the Sweet Tea Old-Fashioned, you get the sweetness that makes this very easy drink, but also those familiar spices from the bitters, which feel like an extension of a good barbecue rub. I’m not going to say that this is the be all-end all of cocktails, but for what you’re having and where you are, it is a decent offering. Plus, if you really want your traditional old-fashioned, you can always pick your bourbon and have the expert bartenders whip you up one.

Staying with our sweet theme, we’re going to skip appetizers, entrees, and sides and move directly on to desserts. While there are a couple of options here, from Chess Pie to Carrot Cake, we opted for the specialty of the house, the Orange Blossom Honey Cake.

For those of you that don’t know, orange blossom honey comes from bees that use the pollen from orange blossoms when they’re in bloom. It is a light-colored, incredibly sweet honey that also has a wisp of citrus flavor in the background. Growing up in Florida, surrounded by strawberry fields and orange groves, this is my favorite type of honey. What the Orange Blossom Honey Cake does is that this honey and ramp it up! It is very sweet, but still retains, and maybe adds a bit more of, the orange flavors. The cake is dense and heavy, but the flavors are light. The frosting is also thin, which shows just how much The Polite Pig knows about baked goods. With as sweet as this cake is, it definitely doesn’t need an overabundance of frosting. If you like sweet desserts, and I cannot stress how sweet this cake is, then the Orange Blossom Honey Cake is definitely for you. If sweet isn’t necessarily how you like your desserts, this may not be for you. I for one, loved this dessert and cannot wait to get my next slice.

From my experience at The Polite Pig, this restaurant lives at the corner of Savory Lane and Sweet Street. It is unlike many barbecue places I’ve been to, and I’ve seen my fair share, and it is a well-placed addition to Disney Springs. When it comes to living Sweet Street, they have got you covered, whether it is desserts or cocktails you are looking for, The Polite Pig has something for your sweet tooth to bite into.

12 March 2018

Tour of the Production Facilities

A bunch of soundstages may not look particularly interesting when examined from the air, but there’s a lot happening on the production side of Disney-MGM Studios in this photograph. Taken prior to the park’s opening, what you can’t see are that whole departments like costuming and wardrobe, animation, backlot streets, crafts, and production offices are already in full swing. As the working portion of the studio, these elements had to be up and running long before Disney-MGM Studios opened.

The main facility building in the complex included a tunnel large enough for the trams that would be coming as a part of the Backstage Studio Tour. You can see the entrance to it in the uppermost building in this photograph. This is where costuming and props were housed and where guests partaking in the tour could catch glimpses of costumes of Captain EO or Breathless Mahoney in those early days as the tram drove by.

Of course, not even the route for the tram portion of the tour at this point. Notice to the far left where the load and unload roundabout is still under construction in what is now the queue area for the Star Wars Launch Bay. Also, if you trace a line straight up beyond the Earffel Tower, you can see some construction taking place just before the tree line. This is the spot that will become the oil-rich, but accident prone area known as Catastrophe Canyon. Following along the top of the production complex, you can see more work happening before you reach the edge of New York Street. This is where Residential Street, including the beloved façade of The Golden Girls’ home, will end up being constructed.

Elsewhere inside the park, you can just see the entrance to the Great Movie Ride at the left edge of the photograph. In fact, this photo was taken so far away from Disney-MGM Studios’ opening that the top of the Chinese Theatre still hasn’t been attached yet.

While this photograph may not look like much, it’s got it where it counts. This nondescript warehouses and buildings were already producing content for Disney’s film, television, and theme park enterprises ahead of the park opening. Once Disney-MGM Studios opened, however, they found ways to become part of our memories forever.

07 March 2018

Star-Studded Tuck-Away

Simple and elegant are two words we hear thrown around together quite a bit, but I’m not sure that they go together very easily. That is to say, if something is elegant it probably took quite a bit of time, while if something is simple it shouldn’t take too awfully long to assemble. One place I’ve always thought was simple and elegant is the Hollywood Brown Derby, nothing seems overstated, food and décor are well-executed, but not complicated for the sake of being complicated, and there is a luxuriousness that fills the dining room and then menu. The question for the past few years, at least for me, is does that sumptuousness extend beyond the walls of the Hollywood Brown Derby to the exterior lounge, simply named the Hollywood Brown Derby Lounge.

On the style side of things it is a mixed bag. Yes, the high-top tables mixed with your standard dining set do give the lounge a certain energy, which is helped along by the style of the tables themselves and the black linen napkins. The exterior walls and doors of the Hollywood Brown Derby lend their elegance to a meal or drink at the lounge, as do the oaks draping themselves over the walkway and half wall on the other side. However, sit there for too long and the pyrotechnics and sounds coming from the Star Wars: A Galaxy Far, Far Away show tends to take away from the proceedings. As far as atmosphere is concerned for the Hollywood Brown Derby Lounge, the end result is a mixed bag.

In terms of food offerings, let’s start with a staple of the Hollywood Brown Derby, the famous Cobb Salad. Served on a bed of finely chopped greens, the salad includes turkey breast, bacon, egg, tomatoes, crumbled blue cheese, avocado, chives, and Cobb dressing. This isn’t a tossed salad either; everything is perfectly portioned on top of the greens so you can see the vibrant colors, even if that is simply highlighting multiple shades of green, and textures of the salad. The dressing on the side is also a plus, as you can add as little or as much as you wish. This is a rich salad, in case you couldn’t tell from the egg, bacon, and avocado in the description. It truly is one of the more elegant salads out there, and the simple presentation helps.

Moving on from the classic to something with a modern flair, we also want to look at the Braised Beef Arepas with roasted red pepper and Fresno chili coulis. The three arepas are presenting in a particularly beautiful arrangement, with the layers of red, yellow, brown, and green all being visible and contrasting well off of one another. The beef is fork tender, while the cornmeal arepas are earthy and delicious, and I could drown a whole loaf of bread in that bright layer of roasted red pepper! The simplicity here comes from the ingredients and presentation and it definitely something to aspire to.

Can the Hollywood Brown Derby Lounge live up to the refined expectations of the namesake restaurant it is attached too? Probably not, but that doesn’t mean it should hang its head like a dejected and forgotten sibling. The food alone proves that something can be simple and elegant when it comes out of a kitchen. If the ambiance is lacking that same sense of comfortable luxury, it isn’t for a lack of trying. Overall, the Hollywood Brown Derby Lounge creates its own thing, and it is well worth visiting for a smattering of the great food and drinks it has to offer.

06 March 2018

Star Tours Flight 55

One of the benefits of a ride system like Star Tours, in it’s the Adventures Continue version, is that there are new destinations and sequences that can be added in regularly. This was part of the plan since the attraction was refurbished in 2011. Since that time several sequences have seen tweaks to include new characters, from launch scenes to holographic figures, and two new destinations have been added: Jakku and Crait. While characters and locations from the episodic films continue to be highlighted, little has been done to include some of the more prominent features from other films and media. There are a couple of standouts that are worthy of inclusion, and we’re visiting them today in a blue sky daydream.

Jedha – Home to Jedi temple ruins, the scourge of the galaxy, a militant rebel faction, religious faithful, and Imperial strip miners, there’s a lot of ideas to play with here. Sure, some of the geo-political elements may not make it into a quick minute and a half fly-through, but the scenery is something to behold. Plus, with a problem on the horizon, also known as a test of the Death Star’s capabilities, it’d be nice to spend a few moments conversing with K-2SO.

I’m going to throw the caveat in here that I thought about Rogue One’s other featured planet, Scarif, but with a shield gate and imminent destruction threads converging, I thought putting guests in the same no way out scenario as the film’s leads would be problematic to say the least.

Lothal – Give guests a flyover of the gorgeous grasslands, complete with loth cats and loth wolves, a head-to-head with Grand Admiral Thrawn, and an obvious cameo of the Ghost, and that’s a winning combination. There is no escaping that this would require a bit more work as the environments we’ve seen of Lothal until now have been for an animated show, but I trust the talents of Imagineering and Lucasfilm that this wouldn’t be too much of a challenge.

Taanab – Alright, I’m going to put my cards on the table. Lando’s line about his maneuver at the Battle of Taanab is where this comes from, and I’m not so certain we won’t see this play out in the upcoming solo film. However, all of this is just my way not so subtle way of getting Donald Glover to appear in the attraction as Lando. Does anyone have a problem with this?

Mandalore – The home of Boba Fett and Sabine Wren, and a host of other characters critical to the stories of Star Wars. This rarely unified clan planet is the stuff legends are made of and has captivated the minds of enthusiasts since Empire Strikes Back. The planet and its people have been highlighted in both The Clone Wars and Rebels animated series with enough fodder to make any Star Tours flight one guests will never forget.

The wonderful thing about our favorite far, far away galaxy is that the possibilities for Star Tours are endless. Even if the only stick to movies and other visual media, there are countless destinations that we will still never see. That’s always been the wonderful thing about Star Wars, it has the room for all the stories you can imagine and then some. Of course, being able to visit a few of these distant planets that we’ve all seen and dreamed about wouldn’t be so bad either!