Wednesday, December 30, 2009

What's the difference?

Two posts in one day! How about that! But I'm not going to be around for the weekend, and I wanted to continue my train of thought on this theme park development thread, so here goes:

I have been thinking about WDW and Disneyland Resorts in relation to other parks around the country, and wondering, what is the difference? Not totally from simply a financial success perspective, but from a little different angle. WDW and DLR are destinations; other thrill parks are not.

For my example I used the only thrill park that I am fairly familiar with, that is, Six Flags Great America. It's a lot of fun, and I'm led to believe it is profitable, even if the parent company itself has either filed or is considering filing bankruptcy. And it might even be a destination for some people, sometimes. I don't know of people who make a trip specifically to the area to go to Great America, though I am sure there are people who spend a day or two there in conjunction with a trip to the great city of Chicago, or maybe with visiting family in northern Illinois or southern Wisconsin.

Disney resorts are, on the other hand, destinations in and of themselves. People like me save up for a week at Disney World, spend most of their waking hours at the parks, and eat at their restaurants. Everything's Disney for that week.

At Great America, there is one thrill park, and one water park. There is a large shopping facility nearby called Gurnee Mills, and another enclosed water park close by also. There may be other attractions in the area, but I don't know what they are, and I live here. By comparison, there are four major theme parks, two water parks, shopping and even those other facilities like the Wide World of Sports and the Race Track at WDW.

We haven't even touched on the hotels. Both US resorts have hotels on the grounds with dining options, nice pools, spas, and tons of themed environs to put their guests in the mood for the parks and resorts. Great America has no hotels of their own, though there are plenty of hotels nearby. The hotels help to drive the experience; they become part of the experience at Disney, while they are just utilitarian at Great America.

Disney offers something different; a one-of-a-kind experience for their guests. Both resorts, but especially WDW, are immersive, in that you don't have to leave the grounds. Everything you could want on your vacation is right there. The experiences at the parks are unique as well. There is no park in the world like EPCOT, none like Animal Kingdom, really, either, and there is nowhere that I know of that utilizes the monorail, which may not truly be futuristic transportation anymore, but it still SEEMS like it, and that is KEY. I don't know if Great America offers any sort of character dining; they might, but then again, the Warner Brothers characters just aren't lovable like the Disney pantheon of characters are.

Which brings us to CONTENT. This is probably the most important difference between Disney parks and resorts, and places like Six Flags Great America. Disney has that huge library of movies and characters, and they aren't shy about using our emotional attachment to their stories to pull us into their parks and attractions. Although Great America tries to incorporate Superman and Batman rides into the parks, the themes are lost except for in the very immediate vicinity of the rides themselves. Characters are not enough to bridge this gap; Great America can't use Bugs and Tweety Bird to the same effect as Disney uses its characters and stories.

You really don't have to travel too far to find something like Great America. Thrill ride parks are all around the country. Some are themed better than others. The Hard Rock park in one of the Carolinas has apparently already closed its doors, but it was trying to be themed around music - a pretty loose theme by my estimation. But the point is that if you live in Missouri, you don't travel to Gurnee Illinois to find your thrills, you go to St. Louis, or maybe to Branson. If you live in Ohio, maybe you go to Cincinatti, or maybe up to the Cleveland locale, but you don't drive to Illiois. Etc, etc. You get the point. However, you DO very much fly or drive to Florida or California to experience the Disney difference.

And that, in a lot of words, is why Disney is a destination, and the big thrill parks generally are not. There are exceptions, but Disney gets people from all over, they get repeat customers, and they get people from most demographic segments of society. Perhaps they draw a line at a certain level of affluence, since a Disney vacation is not cheap. But still, they cross over a lot of barriers. They provide an experience that is not duplicated, or even really attempted to be duplicated, by any other park, really, that I know of. (I've not been to Knott's Berry Farm; maybe it does some of this...but not to the level of Disney.)

So, Disney is the model to look at when we're contemplating what sort of park we want to make. Because one of the goals is to become something of a destination, a place where people will travel to visit, maybe as the secondary goal of their trip, but maybe as the primary goal. Again, that's an extremely tall order.

THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG - review of sorts...

(I hate to call these sorts of posts "reviews" because I'm not all that critical normally, but I can't come up with another word to describe them...so "review" will have to do...)

We got out to see Disney's latest "hand drawn" animation film, THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG yesterday. I took my two sons, who were a bit reluctant simply because of the word "Princess" in the title. But I suspected that, just like BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, SLEEPING BEAUTY and other films they've been coerced into watching, they'd be entranced anyway.

And they pretty much were. Some big laughs out of my younger (7 years old) son, and plenty of snickers out of the more worldly 9 year old, also.

As you probably know, the story is set in New Orleans, and starts with a young African-American girl and her wealthy Caucasian friend listening to the fairy tale "The Frog Prince" and then debating the desirability of kissing a frog, whether it will turn into a prince or not. We learn then than Tiana, the poorer of the pair, is the daughter of New Orleans' best seamstress and that her father dreams of opening his own restaurant.

Cut to Tiana, as a young woman, working multiple jobs to save money to fulfill her father's unrealized dream. Seems her father has passed on, and he never did get that restaurant. A prince, Naveen, comes to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, and Tiana's rich friend has her sights set on him. But Naveen gets suckered into a tarot reading from the Shadow Man, who uses some voodoo on him and his servant, which ends up with Naveen turned into a frog and the servant changed into the likeness of Naveen. Circumstances collide and the upshot is that both Naveen and Tiana are turned into frogs, and they have to work their way through the bayous to find another voodoo practitioner whom they hope will be able to help them. Along the way they battle gators, Cajun frog hunters, and finally the evil voodoo spirits that the Shadow Man sends to recapture the frog Naveen.

This was a very good film, with layers of content, nothing too far beneath the surface, but still there nonetheless. I asked my boys afterwards if they liked it, and of course, they really did. I really liked it also. It was an entertaining story with a typical Disney message: Wants are different from needs. (It's funny because in dentistry we deal with something like this in issues we face every day, it seems.)

I loved the music, and the background animation was rich and detailed and exuded a magnetic charm - makes me want to get back to N'awlins. I don't think this film stacks up with the heavy hitters of the Katzenberg/Eisner times, but it's not too far out of the team picture. It's definitely a return to the formula that made Disney famous, then brought them back from the edge. If five stars is the best, I think I have to give this one 4 stars, maybe even pushing 4 and 1/2.

*****

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

So what's on the agenda for this theme park?

In the last few posts, I sort of convinced myself (if no one else) that designing and developing some sort of themed entertainment concept in my part of the world (the Chicagoland area) is possible and while success isn't a given, it isn't totally impossible, either.

I also argued that there were only two types of layout that would work. One would be to more or less copy EPCOT's basic idea of pavilions separated by beautifully decorated common areas and walkways. All "attractions" are located indoors, with perhaps a few notable exceptions (which haven't been determined at all). The other model would be a totally enclosed structure, sort of like Mall of America, or like what developers tried to do with Old Chicago, a theme park in Bolingbrook, IL.

And in the last post, I considered (very superficially) the reasons for failures of amusement parks around the country, and decided that most of it had to do with the places getting stale. Any park of this sort, or even any museum or attraction, has to depend on repeat business. Change is going to have to drive the attendance of these types of customers/guests. The Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago is popular because they are constantly changing the special exhibits and the films that can be viewed there, and because the permanent exhibits occasionally get updated or redone completely in some cases. (For example, there has always been an exhibit on biology, with a heart model you can walk through, on the mezzanine which has been totally redone, and which my family and I will likely see next weekend.)

I have a couple of ideas for content of this project. I think they can be made sufficiently broad to encompass a lot of quality exhibits and attractions. Whether they can support the kind of change that would be required remains to be thought through.

About a year ago, I posted that we had visited Legoland Schaumburg, located near the very large enclosed shopping mall called Woodfield. Legoland in Illinois is a large enclosed space in a strip mall. They charge something between 20 and 30 bucks to get in. They have a walk through attraction at the beginning, with all sorts of large scale Lego creations. They have a dark ride through a Lego-based story (I can't recall the content now), they have a 3-D theater with an animated Lego-type story, they have a "Lego Factory Tour" where you crowd into a smallish room and see Lego's being "created". There is a play area where kids can build with Legos and run their creations on ramps, similar to the facility in Downtown Disney. There is a snack bar, and a Lego store. There are also, spread throughout the facility, several large scale Lego figures built by their artists.

When I look at what they have to offer, it doesn't sound like much. We'll have to do better than this in our theme park. We have to offer unique attractions that entertain families, that can hold the interest of the teens, and that can be run indoors, since we can't do any massive outdoor types of thrill rides, at least not to start out. It would be cool to add something "like" Rock'n'Roller Coaster later, perhaps, as one of those upgrades, something themed to our park of course.

I don't know how much of my ideas I want to post here. Probably I should just post everything, since I'm non exactly inundated with readers...it's not like anything I post is very likely to end up in the hands of someone else anyway. ("Hey, let's go read that Disney Fan Ramblings blog to get ideas for our new entertainment concept! He's got the best ideas and he's putting them out for us to borrow from freely!!!" Yeah, that's likely to happen...more likely is "Look at the lame ideas this guy has! At last we get some comic relief!" ) Still, I think I'll just keep arguing with myself here and sort of working some of this stuff out in print. Look for more posts on this thread sometime soon...

Monday, December 28, 2009

Why do they close?

A few months ago I posted an entry mentioning that Kiddieland, one of the nation's oldest amusement parks, was closing after 80 some years of operation. Located in suburban Melrose Park, it is a park I visited many times when the kids were a little younger, before we started making multiple pilgrimages to Walt Disney World.

It closed not because it was unprofitable, but because for some reason, Art Fritz, the founder who once refused to talk to Walt Disney (according to the story) about the park he was thinking of building in California, willed the park and its assets to one "side" of his family, and the land it sat on to the other "side". As time passed, the land became more valuable and the part of the family that owned it wanted the park gone so they could cash in on a windfall from its eventual sale. A family squabble, in other words.

I write about its closing here because it seems to be the exception to the rule: Most parks fail because they just don't make it economically. While reading up on Old Chicago on Wikipedia, I noted that the article linked to a list of abandoned or closed amusement parks from all over the world. Some of them were just names on a list; some, however, had their own pages. I obviously didn't read all of them, but the sampling I did read suggested that attendance and downturns in the economy cause most of the failures.

Why is this? After spending the weekend pondering (off and on, at least) the reason(s) parks fail, I think the biggest reason is that they become stale. They don't change, or don't change enough. I can't speak for everyone, but I know from my own experience that you sort of "grow out of" these parks with time. This is especially true if what the park tries to deliver is thrills. There is always a bigger, scarier, more thrilling ride coming down the pike, and probably Six Flags or Cedar Point has it. These parks change yearly, getting rid of some attractions and replacing them with the newest incarnation of a big thrill ride.

Disney does not depend on thrills. It depends on content. Oh, there are some thrills to grab the teens and young adults who crave this sort of thing, but mostly its patrons form an emotional attachment to the rides. I realize it from talking to Disney fans in my patient base, and from reading the discussions at MiceAge - they fondly recall their own experiences as a youth and want their own kids to have those same experiences, or they want to relive those experiences again and again. Emotional attachment.

EPCOT, it seems, depends on the excitement it generated in younger generations to bring back repeat business. I read it again and again, that people were inspired by the content of that park, even if it isn't your classic Disney content. Much like a museum, it depends on stimulating the minds of its guests, and that stimulation is fondly recalled later on. (People currently bemoan the direction of EPCOT, because it doesn't seem to particularly be trying to inspire any more, and if this observation is correct, this direction won't be good for EPCOT in the long run.) It's an emotional attachment again, but from a different direction.

So in order to make a successful theme park in any climate, let alone a cold weather climate, we'd have to continually update and revise the attractions. Change the content a bit, and change the presentation of that content dramatically every now and then. In the absence of the lovable characters that Disney has, we would have to depend on generating excitement, stimulation, even inspiration. Tall order.

***

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

More ramblings on designing a theme park...

In the last post, I sort of rambled on about whether it would even be possible to design a "theme park" for a small midwestern town near Chicago. There are challenges, to be sure. But aren't there challenges anywhere? The major challenge for Walt Disney, it seems, was simply that no one had really ever done what he was trying to do. Everyone said it was a folly; it would not be a success. No way. But Walt proved the naysayers wrong, simply by doing it the way he believed would be best, and, maybe more importantly, the way it would have entertainment value and interest for him.

Then the challenges in Florida, not the least of which was how to build a theme park on swamp land. That challenge entailed a massive engineering effort to drain the land and create "lakes" and "rivers" where marshes had previously existed. He had the economic power to get certain concessions from the Florida state government, basically making him his own local governing agency.

The challenges in the upper midwest mostly involve the weather, assuming that land could be acquired and governments and civic organizations could be gotten on board. There are plenty of amusement parks in this part of the country. But they operate seasonally, closing for good by (at the latest) early November, and reopening in the spring, usually in April for weekends only. I personally wouldn't want my theme park to be a half year enterprise. I'd like to operate year round.

This limitation gives me two possibilities. First, a completely enclosed structure could be built. As I mentioned in a previous post, Disney considered making a theme park in St. Louis, where the weather is a little better than here, but where it is still a factor. When he considered this location, imagineers apparently drew up plans for a four story building, one square city block in size. (A Haunted Mansion was to be the focal point of that park.) Imagineers apparently also pulled out those plans when designing the "World Bazaar" for Tokyo Disneyland.

As some (including the author of Futureprobe, in response to that aforementioned post) have noted, enclosed structures have been done on a large scale. The Mall of America is one such structure. I've never been to that one, but I have been to other large-scale malls (there are many around the Chicagoland area) and one completely enclosed amusement park, done in the 1970's, called " Old Chicago". This park was in suburban Bolingbrook, and consisted of a "mall" with stores around the outside, and a fairly large amusement park in the central open area. Attractions included a rollercoaster with a couple of corkscrew type inversions, a log flume ride, several spinning rides, and other standard amusement park attractions, like a carousel and (I believe) a ferris wheel. That particular park wasn't profitable in the end, partly because the amusement park part couldn't compete with Great America and other area parks, and the mall part certainly couldn't compete with places like Woodfield and Yorktown. Neither one was good enough. About the only thing it had going for it was that it could operate year round, and as a high school kid at that time, I can tell you that it was a popular destination for our group outings and date nights in the winter months.

The second possibility is to mimic EPCOT and design a multi-acre park that consists of wonderful landscaping and pavilions which host the attractions. I am partial to this sort of design, but it too has limits. First, it requires a bunch of land compared to that enclosed structure. Second, the weather will play a role in wintertime usage, where you'd have to contend with snow packed walkways. A day like yesterday, for example, in the Chicagoland area, would see snow falling gently all day. But we've also seen near blizzard conditions.

I suppose that EPCOT in Florida has to contend with hurricane season down there. I was actually at Disney in 2004 (I think) when Hurricane Jeanne hit. We were staying at the Port Orleans, got in a few hours before they closed the airports. The tollway booths were abandoned; you simply drove right through. We got to WDW and were told that the parks were closed (we realized this would be the case) and that we'd better plan on staying in our room all day on Sunday. We provisioned up with cereals and non-perishable foods, a small styrofoam cooler (that we overpaid for) for milk and such for the kids, and some bottled water. Then we got to watch the trees parallel the ground for most of the day, until about 5 or 6 pm, when we could go outside finally. The parks opened the next day, and obviously they weren't terribly crowded.

Anyway, with preparation, and maybe walkways that could be covered, possibly heated, good drainage, etc etc, you could make open spaces that would be as beautiful in the winter as they would be in the summer. I like this idea. But it seems far less do-able to me than simply enclosing the entire structure from the get-go.

Water parks and some of Disney's own location based entertainment ideas seem to suggest that this is feasible. And since we're just pipe-dreaming here, we'll forget about the costs involved for now, and just concentrate on whether something like this could be accomplished from the technical and engineering standpoint.

See? Isn't this fun?

Monday, December 21, 2009

Thoughts on Theme Park Development...

I know, I know...it's a pipe dream to think that I could ever design and develop my own theme park idea into something that becomes a reality. What do I know about the business end, or the creative end, or the development end? I'm a dentist. I know teeth.

Then again, what did Walt Disney know about creating the first real "theme park" experience? What, for that matter, did he know about creating the first feature length animated film? Walt didn't much worry about that stuff. He just "did". He had lots of help, to be certain, and a brother who backed him about 98%. He was successful when he did something, generally, and people came to believe in him, to trust him, to have confidence in his inspirations.

I keep thinking about this subject. Some nights I "think" myself to sleep with planning such a project. I usually skip right over the hard part - getting started. In my pre-sleep daydreams, I'm usually at the point of figuring out what's around this corner or that bend, in my park layout. The devil isn't so much in the details of the park. It's in getting a start.

I don't know the history behind other themed entertainment developments like I do about Disney...not saying I'm some sort of Disney History expert or anything, just that I know how Walt got from point A (his dream) to point B (actually starting). He had a studio behind him. He had a relationship with another studio, ABC. He had access to a talented group of artists and builders - the "Nine Old Men". He had ways to get credit from banks to help fund his idea. And last, he had a pretty large stock of creative content to draw upon. In my opinion, it's the CONTENT that drives most of the theme in his theme parks.

I don't have any of these things. I'm not a very good artist. I don't have any big organization to stand behind me. I don't necessarily have people around me who are interested in doing this sort of thing (my 9- and 7-year old sons don't really count...though they'd probably be willing to loan me that contents of their piggy banks to make a park). I certainly don't have a body of content to draw theme from.

Can it be done without this content? When you think about the other rivals to Disney for the theme park dollar, mostly you come up with Universal Studios parks. They're doing the Harry Potter thing, and they are drawing their content from numerous sources, everything from Marvel comic heroes to Dr. Suess. I've not been to Legoland California, or to Knott's Berry Farm, but I did go to Santa's Village in the suburbs of Chicago. They used a theme without a ton of content. The park was the "North Pole" (sort of) and this was Santa's land. That has the makings of a pretty strong theme, and indeed, the park was profitable for many years. It closed in the last 4 or 5 years, but I have fond memories of it from my childhood.

Disney's own EPCOT sort of does it without using Disney's body of content. I posted elsewhere that EPCOT might be the only Disney park that would be reproducible in another location. So maybe it follows that a theme park that uses EPCOT as its inspiration could work elsewhere. Even in a cold climate.

Because that's where I'm interested in placing this imaginary theme park. I want to do it in my small city, not too far from Chicago. When I rule out the climate, I think the area has a lot to recommend it. It's within an hour of two pretty big airports. A third airport is proposed, and if it gets developed, it would be pretty close by. It's close to a world class city with plenty of other things to do. It has a pretty good source of labor. It's by the crossroads of two major highways, and it's accessible by Amtrack as well.

It has a few things to make it not exactly ideal also. The weather here can be beautiful, but it can really stink too. While the crime rate isn't sky high, we have our share of "bad" neighborhoods. The downtown is perhaps on its way up, but it isn't too far from its bottom still. Did I mention the weather? Right now there is about a half inch of snow on the ground. Not bad, considering last year at this time, we had about an inch of ice underneath all the snow.

What makes me think this area could become a tourist destination? Well, what made Walt think that Orlando, Florida or Anaheim, California could become tourist destinations?

When I was getting out of dental school, I asked a physician friend of mine if there was "room" for me to come back to this town and practice dentistry. He said to me that there was always room for quality, that doing quality work would make me successful and it wouldn't matter how many other dentists were around this area.

I think I could apply that sort of thinking to a project like this. Quality will out. If I or someone else could develop something that's worth seeing, people will come see it. Heck, they drive to the middle of Iowa to see the "Field of Dreams" from the movie. I think if it's good enough, local residents will go to it. And maybe, if it's really good, like almost Disney-good, people would come from other parts of the country to see it.

I still know it's a pipe dream, but it doesn't stop me from thinking about it.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Roy E. Disney RIP

Just a quick entry to note the passing of Roy E. Disney, son of founding Disney brother Roy O. Disney and nephew of Walt Disney, at age 79. He was born on January 10, 1930, and passed away on December 16, 2009, after a bout with cancer. Rest in peace.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

My sons publish their second "Disney Times"...

I mentioned in an earlier post that my sons (mostly the older one but the little one wants to be in on it too) were "publishing" a "magazine" called "The Disney Times". Their first one was all hand-drawn and hand-written, but it was quite nice. They aren't the best artists, and most of their descriptions were on the order of "It's the coolest ride in Disney!"

They recently "published" their second edition. This time I helped with typesetting in WordPerfect. My older boy has learned how to find and capture pictures from the internet, and he wrote all the text and selected the pictures. I more or less formatted it for him, but he was selecting fonts and such. I'm proud of his effort, so I scanned the pages. One didn't transfer when I emailed it to myself at this computer, but here are the first three pages of "The Disney Times", written by a 9 year old (with some assistance from a 7-year old and from Dad...)





If I get the chance I will try to upload page 4 later (which is on Animal Kingdom Lodge). Maybe I have a budding magazine/book publisher on my hands...

Monday, November 30, 2009

The Kingdom Keepers YA novels

Last year I picked up an autographed copy of Ridley Pearson's THE KINGDOM KEEPERS: DISNEY AFTER DARK at Borders. I'm sort of a sucker for autographed books; if I even suspect I might like the author or content, I usually snap it up.

I later posted a review on Amazon.com, and here is the text of that review:

THE KINGDOM KEEPERS by Ridley Pearson is a young adult book about a group of kids who are chosen to "become" holographic guides at the Magic Kingdom. But somehow their holographic existence begins to sort of intrude upon their real life existence. And they find out from an old Imagineer that the Disney villains are coming to life, more or less, and are gaining energy enough to really make some trouble for the parks and for the world at large.

This sounded to me like a promising premise, and I think it could have been - if Pearson had not left SO MANY darned loose ends and introduced so much stuff that just didn't seem to go anywhere in the end. One of the worst ended books I've ever read. I had to go back and reread the last couple chapters to see if I missed something, but I didn't. It was just a bad ending. Very fast read, I probably knocked it off in a couple of hours total reading time. I don't know if the author just got sloppy, or was introducing a bunch of plot elements to set up sequels (which have come and which I haven't read...but may). As I say, it had promise, but didn't live up to it in the end. I really wanted to like this book more than I did.


As you can see, it wasn't my favorite book. I haven't read many young adult novels (though as my son gets older, I am pretty sure that is going to change), so I don't know if it is common to plot and write this loosely. I've read other stuff by Pearson, and found his other work to be okay. Not great, but not bad, either. Readable.

When my son read this book, though, he zipped right through it and loved it. So we picked up KINGDOM KEEPERS 2: DISNEY AT DAWN for him this weekend. As he is engrossed in his first Harry Potter novel at this time, I picked up his new book and read it. Like the first book, it didn't take me much time to finish it. I started it Saturday and finished it Sunday, in limited reading time.

All in all, I'd say that the second book is a much better book than the first. While loose ends were left in this book, the main plot points were all tied up much more neatly than in the first. Those loose ends actually made me want to read a sequel this time.

In this one, the DHI kids (if you haven't read the first, DHI is an acronym for "Disney Host Interactive") are back, and once again are pitted against some of the Disney villians, who have sort of come to life and are trying to get some sort of existence beyond the Parks in Florida. This time, most of the action takes place in the Animal Kingdom, where Disney is preparing holographic animal hosts, just like these teens are for Magic Kingdom. Wayne, the old Imagineer, is once again on hand to provide guidance and technical assistance through the Virtual Magic Kingdom (VMK) world, which was closed by Disney when they realized that these villains were using it to gain a level of control over the parks themselves.

The first book and this book were both really good ideas. In my view, however, the first did not execute the idea well at all. The second book executes the ideas much better. Maybe it isn't the best book I've ever read, but it's pretty good.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Carl Hiaasen's NATIVE TONGUE

A couple months ago I picked up THE MOUSE THAT ROARED, a Disney critique of sorts, at my public library. In the comments section, George Taylor of Imaginerding mentions that Carl Hiaasen had written a book about a theme park in Florida called "The Amazing Kingdom", and this is the book.

NATIVE TONGUE features developer Francis X. Kingsbury, who has built a popular theme park in the southern part of the state (I think it's down that way, since he mentions the Keys quite a bit), a competitor, if you will, for the tourist dollars that Disney pulls into Florida. There's been a crime, however; the last two blue-tongued mango voles in existence have been stolen from their display, and the ensuing investigation into the theft leads Joe Winder, a newspaperman who has burned out and is now working for the Amazing Kingdom as a PR flack, into a lot of drama.

It's pretty clear from the outset that Hiaasen is dead set against further development in Florida, especially around the Everglades and the Keys. This tale is all about the sleaze and the greed surrounding the development of the Amazing Kingdom, and a subsequent project which will see the destruction of coastland habitats to make way for a housing development and a golf course. Winder finds himself involved with a senior citizen eco-terrorist, a possibly-insane ex-governor who now lives in the swamps, and various synchophants for Kingsbury, who is himself not what he appears to be.

Although by comparison Disney looks pretty good next to the scandal-ridden, borderline criminal enterprise that the Amazing Kingdom hides, there are plenty of backhanded slaps at the company - especially evident is Hiaasen's disdain for any corporation or entity who would re-engineer the land for their own purposes without regard to the pre-existing ecology of the region. I'd say that definitely includes Disney. The fact that Kingsbury is more or less jealous of what Disney has accomplished in Florida is a pretty good slap by itself.

I think the idea that Disney is out for profits at the expense of whatever gets in its way, including the environment, is pretty obvious to most people. Even when they do something like the Animal Kingdom, it involves a massive re-creation of the landscape. It may be a reservoir for plant and animal life, but it is far from natural. Still, I don't share Hiaasen's disdain for the company or what they've done to accomplish what they have accomplished.

Hiaasen is a very talented writer, with a flair for characters, dialogue and setting. I've read a handful of his (currently reading LUCKY YOU, and I'm not sure of what the others I've read are titled - the titles sort of run together for me) and been well entertained by all of them. NATIVE TONGUE was no exception. A really good story right to the finale.

What it says about Disney is open for discussion. But for me, I know I'll keep reading Hiaasen. I'm just surprised it took me this long to get to him.

Friday, November 13, 2009

A link to a Disney Bibliography

I love collecting the titles that relate the history and technical stuff, and even the criticisms of Disney. At 2719 Hyperion there is a pretty good list of titles that any fan of Disney parks should consider owning. I know that some of them are a little pricey, but I think I want them all eventually.

Here's the specific link to the post: Bibliography: Walt Disney World History

*****

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

To tide me over...

...till the next Disney trip...whenever that might be. (None are currently planned.)



The view across the lagoon...



France!


Italy!


This last one is at the China pavilion, looking out from the back. (Thanks to George Taylor for the correction in the comments...)

***

Monday, October 26, 2009

Scientific American - Vertical Farms

The recent (November 2009) issue of Scientific American has many interesting articles,but the most interesting of them to me was one titled "The Rise Of Vertical Farms". This was not the first time I'd heard of this concept; in fact, I mentioned it in this blog entry from last October, when I saw the concept at the Museum of Science and Industry.

The article lays out some basic ideas, including the author's estimate that "a one-square-block farm 30 stories high could yield as much food as 2,400 outdoor acres, with less subequent spoilage." The article also suggests that this sort of farming could reduce fossil-fuel emissions and could begin to treat wastewater as a resource to provide the necessary water rather than a by-product that necessitates disposal.

Most cities have areas that such a project could be built. The use of such facilities would allow farmland to return to "its natural grassy or wooded state", and that this would be "the easiest and most direct way to slow climate change." (I'm sure the farmers will be thrilled to allow all their land to be unused except for returning to woods and prairies, but that's a separate and different issue.)

Up-front investment would be costly, but so it is in most new applications of technology. Is it the sort of thing that should be looked into? Invested in with tax dollars? Why not, if it helps our environment, and us, in the short term? The other issue is whether there is a will to do something like this. A lot of the research has been done, much of it by NASA. IIT in Chicago is apparently working up the details of a plan for the city of Chicago at this time, and other cities are interested also.

The author describes three main ways to grow the food: drip irrigation, hydroponics, and aeroponics. Hmm. Where have I seen these in action, sort of? Oh, yeah! The Land pavilion at Epcot! Even some of the pictures in the article look vaguely familiar, since I've seen those plants hanging in mid-air getting a mist blown on their roots, or being grown in tanks of water.

Could this be a very interesting theme for The Land pavilion, which could really use some upgrading? With Soarin', a renovated Livin' With The Land, and perhaps more up-to-date exhibitions of current, cutting edge land use concepts, I think people would be plenty entertained and educated in that pavilion.

Monday, October 19, 2009

One year and 10 days...

Hey, I missed it!

I started this blog last October, on the 9th to be exact, so I've now been writing entries for the titular amount of time! This is the 71st post! I went back and re-skimmed some of the posts from that first month (I especially liked my posts on Tomorrowland Direction, and on Tomorrowland and Pessimism in Science Fiction.) I've had some clunkers, and perhaps more than my share of off-topic entries on subjects other than Disney-related material.

I had one post back there where I mentioned that I was still trying to "find my voice", and not surprisingly, I still really haven't found that one single topic where I can write (and write often) passionately about. I learned how to post photos at some point, and a few posts ago, I scanned in (and posted) six pictures I took while in WDW for my first time in or about 1975. I've had a couple posts about various Midwestern attractions we've been able to visit.

I'm no closer than I was in my first post to actually designing my own theme park, though I do have a few more ideas. I find that I'm a below-average artist, and can't really render the visions I have in my head into any sort of attractive concept art. But I'm still dreaming about this particular subject.

We probably won't be getting back to Walt Disney World until late 2010, so I'll have to content myself with other blogs (especially the ones on the left of this page) and my Disney book collection.

So concludes post number 71. I (if no one else) look forward to the next 70 or so posts...

Friday, October 16, 2009

A few more House on the Rock pix...

Here are some more photos from our visit to House on the Rock in Wisconsin:



This one is of an old dental office. The chair is pretty old; the instruments are not. (Trust me, this one I know about...)



There are "music players" spread out through the exhibits, ranging from small machines to room-sized displays. You can plug tokens into these players and listen to them. This was one of the big ones.







These photos are from the area called either "Streets of Yesterday" or "...Yesteryear". It was a quaint walk through an old-time Main Street of a small town. It looks better in person than it photographs...at least when the camera is in this photographer's hands...someone who has no huge talent for photography... Main Street, USA, anyone?



The last one is of the "Japanese Gardens" which you can view on your way from the Visitor's Center to the attraction, and then again when you are returning from the attraction to your car. Very pretty, lots of detail.

It's a unique attraction, very interesting to walk through.

*****

Monday, October 12, 2009

House on the Rock photos

We visited House on the Rock in Spring Green, Wisconsin, over Labor Day. For those who are unfamiliar with this attraction, it is a unique home designed by Alex Jordan, incorporating the natural surroundings into the house itself. The House features several interesting rooms and is highlighted by a cantilever room that extends over the wooded land below. Then there are the collections, housed in warehouse-like buildings around the House, where odds and ends are amassed in several rooms. Visitors tour the facilities, buying tickets to three separate areas of the attraction, and then walking through, reading about the various collections in the handouts provided. Not all the items are authentic, but it's an interesting journey.

One of my favorite rooms is the "Organ Room", I believe it is called. It is a dark room evoking steam-punk imagery, with different organs placed throughout the tour. Here are a few pictures of this room.






Wednesday, October 7, 2009

First Disney visit, circa 1975/1976, photos

Before I had a family, I had only been to a Disney theme park one time, and that was during my sophomore year in high school when I visited with our high school band. Of course, at that time, the only park in Florida was the Magic Kingdom, and my memories were pretty sketchy. I remembered riding on the overhead tram. I remembered doing Space Mountain. I recalled the WEDWay Peoplemover. I had some memories of 20000 Leagues Under the Sea, but not of riding on it.

Yesterday, I came across these photos from that trip. I quickly (and badly, as you can see) scanned them, and though the quality is pretty poor, I think they're sort of cool, looking back in time like this.










Here's why I guess we didn't go on 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea: It was closed, and drained. They must have been doing maintenance.



Tomorrowland, with the WEDWay PeopleMover sign, and an America the Beautiful sign evident.








The last two were shots from the old Aerial Tram (what was it called?) that terminated in Tomorrowland, I think. I'm really not sure. As I've said before, I remember more about what the girls from the high school band from the New England area looked like than I do about the Disney experience, much to my disappointment today. But there they are, imperfect shots that they are. They're all I have of that vacation.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Thoughts on Giroux's book

I am the first to admit that I am sort of a Disney apologist in that I want to view the company in a good light. I am realistic in that I understand and accept that the first and main goal of the Walt Disney Company is to make money for its shareholders, and that some of the biggest shareholders are the board members and senior management. This arrangement is good and bad, I suppose, in that it rewards the decision makers (disproportionately, perhaps) for making the decisions that determine whether the company makes money, and thus whether the shareholders' value increases and their dividends are paid. On the other hand, perhaps it places too much a premium on making Disney a "growth" stock, with the emphasis on increasing share values, instead of an "income" stock, with the emphasis on providing a steady predictable dividend stream.

But I wasn't writing here to debate the pros and cons of the direction the Disney Company is taking, with respect to their business decisions. I was thinking about the subtle abuse of their "trust" that Giroux is alleging in his book THE MOUSE THAT ROARED. Specifically, I've been thinking about some of the evidence he puts out there to suggest that Disney has an agenda which includes promoting a specific set of values, including a rather sexist take on things and even a racist take on the world.

I returned the book to the library, so I may have some lapses in memory, but if I recall correctly, one of his main points to show that Disney was (in the 1990's) using racial coding was examining the movies ALADDIN and THE LION KING and looking at specific characterizations, especially vocally. He suggests that all the "bad guys" in ALADDIN speak with heavy Middle Eastern accents, and that the bad guys in LION KING speak sort of "ghetto" English, accented toward either African-American dialect or Hispanic dialect, while the good guys speak with English or American accents.

At first glance, this would seem to be true, especially when you consider that Whoopi Goldberg and Cheech Marin voice the bad hyenas that do Scar's bidding. But then you look a little deeper, and you notice that Scar himself doesn't speak with this sort of accent, and no one's "badder" than him. Maybe they're given these voices in an effort to be, oh, say, maybe funny? Maybe less threatening? It would seem logical that they wanted these figures to be funny since they hired as voice actors a prominent African American comedian and a fairly prominent Hispanic comedian. And the accents distinguish these characters from others, give them their own persona. It's unfortunate that it can be taken as racial "coding", but if they made them all sound like Simba, what would set them apart?

Okay, so you could argue that maybe they should have reversed the accents. They could have given Simba the African American voice and the hyenas the "white middle class" voices. I suppose that might have worked, but Disney does know their audience, and Giroux is on target when he points out that "white, middle class" probably describes the main audience. Remember, this was in the 1990's, too. I can't counter the argument, except to say that perhaps they figured the hyenas wouldn't be funny enough to not be overly threatening with that vocal characterization.

And in ALADDIN, it might be true that many characters in the movie speak with Arabic accents, while Aladdin, Jasmine, and the Sultan do not. (Neither does the "bad" bird, Iago - though we might wish he does after listening to enough Gilbert Gottfried.) Then I thought, does Jafar have a heavy Arabic accent? I admit it's been a while since I've seen the movie, but I thought he had a more cultured, almost British snob, accent. Am I wrong?

As for the rest of the characters, I just don't remember that many other "bad guys" in the movie. The guards? I don't remember what they sounded like, to be honest. But I probably wouldn't be surprised to listen to them and hear an Arabic accent, since they are, well, ARABS! Again we go to the fact that Aladdin doesn't speak with this same inflection. Again, I would suggest that they want to make him identifiable with their target audience.

Giroux points out early, and then reiterates throughout his book, that his is but one reading of these Disney texts, and others are possible, and not everyone will get this out of the movies. He also is careful to point out that he doesn't consider Disney to be some sort of "evil empire". I was sort of shocked (?) after reading some of his analysis because it was so far from my own experiences when watching (and enjoying) these two movies. He also discusses POCAHANTAS, MULAN, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, and HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME, but his criticisms are not painted in the same racial brush. He accuses Disney of sexism in its portrayal of it's females through all of the movies, even Mulan, but in that I can more or less see his point. I even agree with it, even though I attribute their use of it in telling the stories they tell to something less sinister than trying to influence the values of their viewers. I figure it's got more to do with marketing the kind of stories they want to market, and tell the kind of stories they know how to tell.

All in all, it seems it's a lot of analysis to tell us something we already know: Disney is/was trying to sell more tickets, more home videos, and more merchandise, and is/was targeting the audience that they thought would give them the most of their hard earned money.

Giroux also analyzes PRETTY WOMAN and GOOD MORNING VIETNAM, and if I can come up with anything coherent about them, I'll write it up. (Not that this little essay was totally coherent...thanks for suffering through it if you got down here...)

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

THE MOUSE THAT ROARED by Giroux

I thought it would take me longer than it did, but I finished the book THE MOUSE THAT ROARED - DISNEY AND THE END OF INNOCENCE by Henry A. Giroux already. It wasn't a long book, clocking in at 173 pages, with many of them being pages of sources and footnotes. It's a well documented work, done from an academic perspective. Not my usual cup of tea.

But it was still interesting, even if I found myself skimming various paragraphs of argument in order to get to his point. The book consists of an introduction and 5 chapters. The intro is titled "Disney's Troubled Utopia", and it takes the approach that one cannot separate Disney as a teacher and a purveyor of values and knowledge from the mega-corporation, and that this is the angle that the book will cover.

The five chapters are titled "Disney and the Politics of Public Culture", "Learning with Disney", "Children's Culture and Disney's Animated Films" "Memory, Nation and Family in Disney Films", and "Turning America into a Toy Store". Giroux seems to be arguing that since Disney is tying its marketing and sales to the idea that they are the embodiment of American patriotism, responsibility comes with the content they deliver. That content is imprinting upon young minds and shaping them into some Disney version of a consumer; that is, one who will buy lots and lots of Disney products. I can't say I disagree with this point, but wonder how much of an effect they are actually having on young minds. And I think that some of the responsibility for this issue lies with parents. Disney is, after all, a corporation beholden to the interests (ie, turning a profit) of their shareholders. When he discusses their control over the news, however, and the potential for abuse (like the tale he cites where, after acquiring ABC/Cap Cities, the upper management killed a 20/20 piece that was going to be critical of the new owners), I feel there is a significant potential for abuse. And there is a responsibility by the company to keep editorial content free of corporate control.

The rest of the book seems to be a lot of analysis suggesting that Disney is in it for money and not for the best interests of the public. I would suggest that most of us already know this. The same holds true for every corporation. Ostensibly our government is supposed to be in it for the public's interest, and I believe that generally they are. Where do we draw the line with a corporation? I suppose when they actually break a law. You can't blame a guy for trying, as the saying goes. They want to sell tickets to their films, they want to sell their videos, their toys, and they want to have people visit their theme parks and properties. That's what they do.

There is a bunch of interesting analysis of Disney's cartoons and then also of two pictures that I believe were released through Touchstone: Good Morning Vietnam and Pretty Woman. Giroux gives the reader the most sinister of readings of underlying messages for all of these films, claiming racism and paternalism, suppression of women's rights, and a whitewashing of culture to promote white middle class culture...which also happens to be the target for Disney's corporate marketing strategy. I suppose it's one way of looking at it, and Giroux points out early on that it isn't the only way, that not everyone will get these messages out of the cartoons or films. But it also seems to me, based on the type of analysis, that one could make a scholarly analysis of almost any fictional work and find similar undertones if one wishes.

All in all, it's a thought provoking book, but it often seems to be talking about stuff I never got from the company or from its films. Still, I'd recommend it to anyone who is interested in "Disney Studies".

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

TEAM RODENT by Carl Hiaasen

I was on Amazon.com a few days ago, and since I've purchased some Disney books from them recently, and have a few others on my wish list, the recommendations the site has for me sometimes includes books on subject Disney. This last time, for some reason, a few of the books recommended appeared to be critiques of Disney of some sort, and I was interested.

One of the recommendations was for TEAM RODENT by Carl Hiaasen, who I've not read before. His work is one of the holes in my experience with fiction reading. I keep meaning to correct that, because by all accounts he's very witty and funny.

He's also a resident of Florida (he lives in the Keys, or at least he did when this book was written in 1998). And as such, he's had quite a lot of experience with Disney and their dealings with the Florida government. He obviously is not a fan of Disney, and the subtitle of his book is "How Disney Devours the World". I didn't want to buy the book from Amazon, but fortunately, my library had a copy, and I checked it out.

I read it in about an hour. It's only 83 pages, and it's not like it's small print or anything, so it wasn't much of a feat to do this. Also, as I suspected, Hiaasen is an entertaining writer, quite good at his craft. It is funny and thought provoking even while being critical.

Hiaasen seems to have a major problem with a few parts of the Disney story. First is the way they strong armed (his characterization basically, not mine) into accepting Disney as a government entity in Florida, with the Reedy Creek Improvement District. I don't know, though - if I could get the same sort of power, wouldn't I want it? I guess that's the point - no other corporation could have gotten the same types of power, the same lack of oversight. He tells a story about some kids goofing around on Disney property, being chased off the property at high speed by a security officer with flashing red lights, and crashing about 1 mile off the property with fatal results. The family of the passenger (who died) sued, and Disney was, as usual, very close mouthed about the involvement of their security forces in the incident. The security officer says she never left Disney property with their vehicle, and the accident happened a mile off the property, but I suppose that if you had someone chasing you at high speeds, you might keep going for a mile or two before you were sure you'd lost them. The suit apparently went nowhere.

This sort of story really seems to frost Hiaasen. But I think it's the sort of thing that can definitely have two sides. Disney really did NOT do anything wrong technically, though chasing a couple of kids who hadn't really caused any harm might be questionable judgement on the part of the security officer. And when did it become okay for kids to avoid authority figures? Especially kids who are tresspassing in the first place (or so it appears)?

Another of Hiaasen's peeves with Disney is their determination to make over everything to their own value system and sense of esthetics. That's okay, too. He doesn't have to like it. Just like we Disney fans should be clear on the fact that the world isn't a Disney fantasy, and should make sure that reality is part of our kids' cultural upbringing, not just homogenized versions of that reality. But Disney is, after all, out to make a buck. A lot of bucks, actually...and if they're selling something that people want to (and the key word there is "want") buy, why should we begrudge them that?

In the end, it seemed to me to be a fairly mild diatribe from a talented writer who just doesn't quite "get" Disney, nor does he want to. He makes some points, but in the end, mostly I found myself saying, "So?" Disney fans (myself included) pick it for the entertainment value of a vacation, for the entertainment value of a family film, for the enjoyment we get from their products and their synthetic world. Sure, things can go wrong, and sometimes they do. But basically we go for the emotion, the feelings we experience when we go.

My next book appears to be more critical, longer, harder to read. It's a title called THE MOUSE THAT ROARED by Henry Giroux. We'll see how that one plays out.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Kiddieland Closes

Just a quick post to note that Kiddieland, one of the (if not THE) country's oldest amusement parks, closed its doors for good on Sunday, September 27th.

Kiddieland was not a park for "big kids". Teens who like the coasters and such are not going to love it, but for those toddlers and elementary school kids, it was a good choice to ease into the whole "ride" thing.

There was a small coaster there, an old, vintage carousel, a miniature train that ran around the park, even into the parking lot, a log flume ride, an antique driving cars ride, a Ferris wheel, bumper cars, and a slew of little rides for the little ones. One thing I loved about it was that they allowed you to get soft drinks for free all day. This could be a godsend on a hot August day.

I blogged about it .back here, but wanted to post a quick update and say my goodbyes. I think the park will be missed...

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Paleofuture blog post

I enjoy perusing the Paleofuture blog; the author always has some interesting items about the past's views of the future.

Recently he posted this entry about Epcot and Horizons. It's called My First Thoughts on Paleo-Futurism, or How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love Disney. If you're interested, check it out.

*****

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Hidden Mickeys?

I was looking at the Main Street Gazette and was amused to see the article about Hidden Mickeys and the books by Steven Barrett. My kids love this little game. They start seeing hidden Mickeys everywhere they look. A few examples:



These are at the top of the walls of the Italy pavilion in World Showcase. I don't think they are real "Hidden Mickeys" but to my son, they are.

The rest of these are at the Animal Kingdom Lodge



This one is the form made by the logs in the lobby. I think this one is actually in the book. (Sorry it's so dark. My brightness edit of the photo didn't save for some reason and I was too rushed to do it again.)



Something hanging up there in the rafters. I don't think this one is in the book, and it may not count, since the circles don't touch (like the ones at Epcot).



These are some sort of surfboards hanging from the ceilings in the lobby of AKL. I think they're in the book, too.

If you get bored standing in line or waiting for something or other, pretty much anywhere in the resort, this game can be a godsend!

***

Monday, September 14, 2009

Disney on Ice - That's Nice!

We attended the Saturday September 12th performance of Disney on Ice: 100 Years of Disney Magic, at the United Center in Chicago. One night after arguably the greatest basketball player ever, Michael Jordan, got inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame, we went to see his statue outside the UC, and got some nice pix of the kids in front of it. And we checked out all the banners, the retired numbers - my kids thought that stuff was pretty cool.

But that wasn't what we were there for. The main event was the ice show. I wish I would have brought my camera, but I forgot it, and my wife only got pictures of the kids. So you'll have to trust me when I say it was a very good show. Maybe not the best I've ever seen, but a lot of fun. The basics are as follows: Mickey, Minnie, Donald and Goofy take the audience through classic Disney tales, with a couple of Pixar tales tossed in for good measure and one scene built around the classic attraction "it's a small world". My kids liked the part featuring the Incredibles; my wife and I liked the "it's a small world" part best.

We had a lot of fun; it was sort of like going to Disney without actually going there, for one night. Even down to the expensive merchandise and snacks. (The cotton candy DID come with a neat crown which the kids are fighting over.) The performers might not be the best skaters (as in Olympic perfection on their moves) in the world, but they're professionals and they do a very good job. My only quibble was with the costume of Mr. Incredible. It really didn't look much like the guy from the movie. But that's pretty minor. Sets were well done, and the production quality was high. We had great seats, and I'll be kicking myself for a while about not bringing my camera and getting pictures for this entry.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Walt Disney - The Man Himself

A while back I read a pair of biographies on Walt Disney, the first being WALT DISNEY: THE TRIUMPH OF THE AMERICAN IMAGINATION by Neal Gabler, and the second one called THE ANIMATED MAN, by Michael Barrier. Aside from some controversy about Diane Disney Miller (Walt's daughter) not liking the portrayal of Walt outside of the business by Gabler (which I noted on Barrier's website), the two books were quite similar in their portrayal of Disney the man, in my view.

What I learned about Walt: He wasn't a great artist. But he was a driven motivated individual who didn't let much stand in the way of achieving his dreams. He started with almost nothing except some ideas and some drawing skills. His real genius came in his ability to take a story or a drawing or any sort of play and add to it, or subtract from it, or change it, and almost always make it better.

He was a man who didn't really fit in with the Hollywood folks. He was not highly educated, and behaved as a common man, probably part of his huge appeal to Americans and probably part of his ability to understand what everyday folks would enjoy. He was a family man, loving his daughters and his wife even when he didn't have a lot of time to dote on them.

He was an intense guy who could by sheer force of will accomplish things that others would just scoff at. He made color short cartoons when no one else thought that it could be done profitably. He made a feature length animated film that stands up with some of the best films of all time (SNOW WHITE). He saw the importance of TV and used it to his advantage. And he dreamed up this thing called a "theme park" and made one that was different from anything anyone else had ever tried. All the while being told that he couldn't do it, couldn't make it work.

Had he lived, what would EPCOT have become? Would it have actually have become a lightning rod for advancement? A model of utopia? What other new venues of entertainment would have intrigued him?

I came away impressed with the man, even as I always admired his work without really knowing anything about it. Those books, along with my visits to the theme parks, have inspired me to put some thought into Disney - the man AND the company.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Disney Fiction by Cory Doctorow

Wandering around the Disney blogs, I came across a link for a free download of Cory Doctorow's book, DOWN AND OUT IN THE MAGIC KINGDOM, and after reading the blurb, proceeded to download it. Reading it in that format, however, was just too annoying, and since there was another book I was wanting to order from Amazon, I sorta packaged this one in and had enough to get the free shipping. So I bought it, and even though it was available on my hard disc for free, I feel it was money well spent.

The idea of a science fiction novel set in Disney World, or any Disney park, has always appealed to me. I try to write some fiction now and then, and have kicked around my own ideas for such a novel, but I never came up with a good enough premise. Now I don't need to. Doctorow has done it for me. I can't imagine a better tale in this setting.

Jules is a member of the Bitchun Society, a government and life system where death has been conquered, energy and resources have become plentiful and apparently inexhaustable, and wealth is measured by Whuffie instead of by how much money one has. (We're not told how this comes about, exactly. It's just the way things are. If this bothers you as the reader, that the background for how these things have come about is not really explained, the book might not read as well for you.)

Jules has, in this part of the story of his life, realized his childhood dream and he now lives in Disney World, part of the ad-hoc committee that keeps the Haunted Mansion running. It seems that somewhere along the line, the cast members and fans at Disney sort of took things over from the shareholders, throwing them out and putting Disney parks in the hands of those who love them the best.

Another ad-hoc committee, which has recently finished a refurbishment of Pirates of the Caribbean, has just taken over the Hall of Presidents in Liberty Square, wresting control from Jules' own ad-hoc committee. Right before this happens, Jules is shot to death, and it appears that this new ad-hoc committee has something to do with it. They appear to be innocent, but in this age of clones, backups of one's mind, and no death being exactly "final", how would one really tell if they are responsible or not?

Jules becomes obsessed with the idea of protecting the Haunted Mansion from the new ad-hoc, which, it seems obvious, wants to spread their brand of rehab, which involves direct mental tie-ins to the guests. No more will the animatronics and the details have to come from the physical world; they can now be blasted directly into the minds of the guests. And it is a great experience...but one that Jules is determined to keep away from his beloved Haunted Mansion.

I don't want to give anyone the sense that this book is only about Disney. It's not. Disney World is, in my opinion, a major part of the book, but this is also a story about accomplishment, friendship, and the meaning of life, in a sense. With all of what we seem to value so highly today rendered almost meaningless, people in the Bitchun Society have to find different ways to make life interesting, to make it worthwhile. Jules strives to figure out, throughout his experiences after he's "killed", just what it is about life that still makes it worth living.

For me, this was a lightning-fast read, with engrossing characters and settings and plot. And one of the most interesting characters in the book was Disney World itself, as it might exist in a far flung future as a revered work of art as much as a simple fun place to go. I wish I could experience it again the way I did that first time.

Here's an interesting interview with Doctorow and a review of sorts of the book:
Cory Doctorow's Bitchun' World - P2P Gone Wild

*****

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Eddie Sotto and Imagineering Disney

I was pointed to this by another blog but for the life of me I can't remember which one. I wanted to specifically link to it because I am interested in these sorts of discussions.

Eddie Sotto "sits down" for an interview with Imagineering Disney and discusses a lot of things related to his thoughts on what Disney could or should be doing with their properties, not necessarily considering fiscal feasibility, just blue sky stuff. If you haven't read it, here's the link: WWED? Armchair Imagineering with Eddie Sotto

One bit caught my eye, because I had said something similar in an old blog post about Future World and Tomorrowland makeovers. While they should BE green, they shouldn't make "Green" a part of the "show", so to speak. In other words, they should just have green practices, but not necessarily hit the visitors over the head with the efforts made to conserve, recycle, use alternate energy sources, etc etc.

A really interesting read. Mr. Sotto has tons of great ideas.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

D23 magazine and cold weather parks

My 3rd issue (well, 2nd for me - I bought the first at the Disney store) of D23 came a couple of days ago and I finished a fairly thorough read of it last night. Some good articles, including a nice on on the Blue Bayou and its genesis, and one on the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco's Presidio.

I really enjoyed the cover story on the Haunted Mansion, which told bunches of interesting stories gathered from interviews from Imagineers involved in the building of it. One of the neat tales was about Wally Boag (the star of the review in Frontierland) suggesting that they put a phone booth out front, have it ring periodically, and when someone answered it, have the "caller" make a scary phone call from "inside" the Mansion, which hadn't opened yet.

Another tidbit, almost sort of buried in the article except for the fact that there was an illustration of the blueprint of a portion of the project, was that a Haunted Mansion would have been the "weenie" of the imagined indoor theme park in St. Louis. Of course, this park never got past the imagineering stages as the "Florida Project" became Walt's and the company's focus, and we all know what happened there.

I was interested in the details: the park would have been a totally enclosed, one city block structure, 4 stories high, and would have contained representations of New Orleans and St. Louis Squares. It was not detailed much further than this, and on the map that they pictured, there was an allusion to a "basement attraction" but no others besides the Haunted Mansion were discussed. It was also to have a Blue Bayou-type ceiling.

Far as I know, there is STILL nothing like this in the world. But perhaps there should be.

Friday, July 24, 2009

A Visit to Six Flags Great America

My sons won free tickets to Great America in Gurnee, Illinois, for a reading program at school, and yesterday was the day I took off work and we drove up there to spend the day.

I can remember when Great America opened. Back then, it was called Marriot's Great America, and at least a few of the rides that debuted with the park are still there today. The theme, obviously then and now, was that various areas are patterned after different regions of the country. The "lands" consist of Carousel Plaza, Orleans Place, Mardi Gras, Yukon Territory, Yankee Harbor, Hometown Square, Southwest Territory and County Fair. Some predictable attractions are in predictible areas; for example, the Logger's Run is in the Yukon Territory, and the Yankee Clipper flume ride is in Yankee Harbor. And of course, the very nice double decker Columbia Carousel is in Carousel Plaza. A railroad station and a live theater are located in Hometown Square, and various shops and restaurants are themed to the areas in which they are located.

There are a lot of coasters in this park. Here's a list:


  • THE DARK KNIGHT - indoor dark coaster


  • SUPERMAN: ULTIMATE FLIGHT


  • RAGIN' CAJUN - spinning family coaster


  • VERTICAL VELOCITY


  • BATMAN: THE RIDE


  • WHIZZER


  • VIPER - wooden coaster


  • RAGING BULL


  • THE DEMON - two loops and two corkscrews


  • IRON WOLF - standup looping coaster


  • AMERICAN EAGLE - wooden coaster


  • The Whizzer is original to the park, when it was called Willard's Whizzer back in those days. There also used to be a huge, three-armed Ferris Wheel but that's been gone for years. The only other ride I can think of that is no longer there (I'm sure there are a lot of them) is the Tidal Wave, a high speed coaster where they shot you through a loop, then up, then you do the same thing backwards.

    They advertise that they have been voted the "cleanest park" in either North America or in the world. I have my doubts, but in years past it was NOT a clean park at all, and this year it looked pretty presentable. Much cleaner than in the past, and there were a lot more employees walking around picking up trash. Some of this is probably due to the fact that their attendance is down, but still.

    All in all, a pretty good day at the park.

    Monday, July 20, 2009

    Kiddieland Closes in September

    This NOT just in...but I thought I'd drop a quick blog entry about it.

    Kiddieland, one of the oldest kid's amusement parks in the country, is closing for good in September of 2009. This park is located in Chicago suburb Melrose Park, right next to the horse races at Maywood. It's been in business for over 80 years now. I went there when I was a kid, a time or two, and we've taken our kids there several times until they got spoiled by the grandeur of Disney and grew up too much to really appreciate the rides there.

    Let me tell you a little about the park: It has one roller coaster called the Little Dipper, an old looking wooden ride that for some reason is more fun than similar sized rides at, oh, say, Great America. It has a smallish log flume ride, an "Autopia" style old car ride where you or your kid drives a vintage car around the track. It has a train ride, quite undersized but still rideable for adults, which goes through the parking lot and then weaves around the property, through a tunnel with a low clearance. It has a number of rides for toddlers. It has a vintage carousel, and then another German Carousel where riders mount cars, trucks, bikes and motorcycles, and even rockets. There are some spinny rides and an old-ish Ferris Wheel. And, a real plus to the value, the park offers free sodas all the time. Believe me, on hot days this could be a godsend.

    Apccording to the article in the Chicago Tribune fom July 12, 2009, there is a dispute between sides of the family: Mom (daughter or daughter in law of the founder, Art Fritz) and brother own the land and have refused to renew the lease of Kiddieland, apparently because the land should be more valuable than the lease provides for, on the one side, and her children (Fritz's grandchildren) on the other side, as owners of the park. Apparently the park has been profitable, charging around 20 bucks for an adult admission (IIRC, it's a little less than that), less for kids, and there's always a promotion going on. So it's closing, and the rides are up for sale.

    Apparently the owners would like to sell everything intact, as a whole, to one buyer who might open another "Kiddieland" somewhere. (If I had any money I'd consider trying to open an amusement park down around where I live in Chicago's southwest suburbs...that is, if my wife let me...)

    One interesting story in the article in the Tribune: When Walt Disney was planning his Disneyland park, he called Art Fritz to possibly discuss those plans. Fritz had the sort of park that Walt was considering building - fun for the whole family. Fritz, however, had no interest in discussing things with Walt, telling him he was "too busy to get involved with that. He made his park and Walt should make his own. He kind of blew him off", says one of the grandkids.

    One less option for family entertainment in the Chicago area. It will be missed.

    Here's the link to that article:  Kiddieland's Farewell Summer

    Wednesday, June 10, 2009

    UP!

    I took the boys to see this film yesterday, not sure what to expect, but I promise, I won't doubt the Lamp again. I wondered what they'd do with a bunch of automobiles. I wondered how they'd make a story about a rat and food interesting. And I wondered about this one. What could be so good about a crotchety old man who floats his house with helium balloons? I wondered if the previews might show the best parts of the movie.

    (I hope that my comments don't spoil any plot bits for anyone who might be reading...then again, what am I worrying about? That would only be an issue if I had readers...)

    As usual, my wondering was off base. The folks at Pixar have told a touching story about these characters without hitting you over the head with any of the sentimental stuff. I was touched by the opening sequence where Carl meets Ellie, grows up and finally grows old with her, then loses her, and the loss becomes such a huge hole in his life, a hole that he doesn't want to fill.

    But he's forced to fill it, unwillingly, as Russell, the Wilderness Explorer Scout, is carried along for Carl's adventure. Even the big colorful bird (improbably tagged "Kevin" by Russell) and the floppy eared, loyal pooch named Doug help to fill it. In the end, this is a movie about having a family, and Carl finally gets a sort of family to help fill in that big hole that Ellie's loss left him with. I could go into more depth about the ways that this theme is developed, but that isn't really my purpose here. I'm not big into deep analysis.

    Suffice it to say that this was a success, and may be the Lamp's best to date.

    The short film that preceded the feature was called PARTLY CLOUDY, and it fit right in with UP thematically. My boys love these little shorts; they have the funniest bits of, say, Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner with the emotion of a Disney short subject. This one was a worthy addition to the collection of Pixar shorts.

    A big thumbs up for UP!

    Monday, June 8, 2009

    Mary Poppins - The Musical



    We went to see the Disney/Cameron Mackintosh presentation of Mary Poppins at Chicago's Cadillac Palace Theater last week, and it was a resounding hit with all members of my family. My two boys, Disney nuts both, were entranced by the music and the action, and my wife thought it was one of the best musicals she's ever seen.

    I have to agree with my family members. It was a triumph! Spectacular scenery and effects, wonderful performers and a familiar story made for a really entertaining afternoon. It features the stars of the Broadway version, Ashley Brown as Poppins herself, and Gavin Lee as Bert. Almost all of the familiar songs from the Disney movie (except "I Love To Laugh") were part of the show, though reworked into the story in slightly different order and to slightly different purposes.

    The story itself is different than the one told in the movie. I've not read the P.L. Travers book, so I can't say how closely it follows that story. But as most Disneyphiles know, Walt and Ms. Travers didn't see eye to eye on the version that Disney brought to the screen, and she hated the final product. When she was approached about bringing the story to the stage, she allowed it on the condition that no one from Disney would be involved in the creative process. I don't know how strictly this was interpreted, but it did apparently preclude the Sherman Brothers from writing new songs for the musical (though they were still writing in the nineties when this began to be conceived, according to the Wikipedia article).

    Anyway, the story they've come up with is in fact better, deeper, darker, and more emotional than the Disney version. There is more about George Banks' own problems and how they reflect on the Banks household. There is the undercurrent of marital discord, however understated it might be. And there is a more realistic, believable reason for Mr. Banks' concerns about his job at the bank.

    The sets were outstanding. The Banks house opens to the audience like a lifesized dollhouse, and the park and the bank sets were really well done. I wondered how they would handle "Jolly Holiday" without animation, but they did it with color, and it was a very effective number.

    And when Mary Poppins flies off into the sky, it connects you right back to the beloved movie.

    I don't know if we'll get the chance, but I'd love to go see it before it leaves Chicago.

    Wednesday, June 3, 2009

    D23 Magazines and gifts

    I thought my membership gift for D23 was the cute little fan they sent with my membership card, which I thought was a nice thing to have but sort of cheap... But today, the real membership gift came - a very nice lithograph of Mickey Mouse, suitable for framing, if one does that sort of thing. (And we might do just that, because my kids love the Mouse...)

    Because I was a late joiner, they started me with the summer issue, with Donald Duck on the cover. So I hurried over to my Disney Store, where I was able to obtain a copy of the first issue. I gladly forked over the 16+ dollars for the magazine.

    And I read them both. I have to say, I really enjoyed them. Both magazines were packed with details, well written stories, and nice photos. I don't remember the specifics at this time, but perhaps I'll blog about the content in another future entry. (Or the way things have been going lately, maybe I won't...)

    Wednesday, May 27, 2009

    "Why Western River Went South" by Jim Hill Media

    A while back I linked to one part of a series on Jim Hill Media, titled "Why Western River Went South". I was looking for links to the proposed theme park development in St. Louis that Disney considered, then dropped, before putting all the corporate eggs into the Florida basket.

    The discussion in that segment that interested me in that post was mostly about how they would have built a cold weather, indoor amusement park along St. Louis' riverfront. But today I went back and reread it, and realized that there was an incredible story that I had just touched upon by reading that post. It was the story of an attraction called Western River Expedition, the brainchild of Imagineering Legend Marc Davis, that never got built.

    Today I read the entire article (I had a long period of inactivity at work) and found it to be very interesting. It's in ten parts, and there is quite a lot of detail in the story.

    I'm linking to the "search" page on the Jim Hill Media site where you can see all nine parts, and go from one to the other. The parts are not listed in order, so remember which one you just read before you go back to look for your next target.

    Give it a read if you have a bit of time and haven't read this already.

    "Why Western River Went South", Jim Hill Media



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    A Visit to Michigan's Adventure Amusement Park

    Over the Memorial Day weekend, we decided to take a quick jaunt to Michigan. We enjoy the southwest corner of the state, with its quaint towns and beaches, attractions and especially the wineries. We usually seem to end up there at least once a year, and this was our first trip to the area of 2009.

    This year we decided to go a little further north along the Lake Michigan coast to Muskegon, Michigan. We didn't find much around Muskegon to recommend it as a destination, but our real purpose for going that far north was to visit Michigan's Adventure Amusement Park, which our kids were excited about doing.



    Michigan's Adventure is one of the Cedar Fair parks, which include Cedar Point, King's Island, and Knott's Berry Farm among others. I've never been to any of their other parks, though I've heard really good things about Cedar Point (in Sandusky, Ohio) and Knott's Berry Farm (near Anaheim, California). It was, on this Sunday before Memorial Day, very uncrowded. Almost all the attractions had no wait, the lone exception being the Shivering Timbers wooden rollercoaster. (Once was enough for me on it, anyway. It shook so much that I had a headache and a neck ache when I got off it.) They have several coasters, none overly large. Their biggest (besides maybe Shivering Timbers) appeared to be a suspended coaster called Thunderhawk. There were several others, including the Wolverine Wildcat, the Corkscrew, Zack's Zoomer, one called the Mad Mouse (not running when we were there) and a kiddie one called the Big Dipper.




    There was also a nice selection of other rides, including a Ferris Wheel, a swing ride, a driving ride, a whitewater raft ride, a log ride, and a whole bunch of spinning rides. They also feature a nice water park which is included in your admission, with plenty of slides and tube rides, a lazy river, and three wave pools.



    The park was very clean, and there were a whole bunch of employees running around, including security and lots of management types. One sit down restaurant (a counter service place) was in the park, and plenty of other little stands and carts to buy food and drinks, including "Dippin' Dots". At $25.00 per person admission (less $3.00 per person because of a coupon we found in one of the brochures we picked up at the Michigan Welcome Center) with a parking fee of $8.00, I wondered how they can be profitable, especially if crowds like Sunday's are normal for a good part of the year.

    I could see going back to this park on our next visit to southwest Michigan. Combined with attractions in Saugatauk and Holland, and with Warren Dunes State Park and Beach and all the wineries and shops, it wouldn't be difficult to fill up a week in the area.