Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Disney Video - The 6 Pack Is Here!

I'm happy to report that the Disney Parks DVD 6 pack has arrived from Amazon today!

I won't have time to watch anything from this collection for a while, since I work late tonight and tomorrow and then we're off for a bit. But I'll be looking forward to viewing and enjoying the programs.

I'll report on them as I watch them, as there is very little chance I will be able to watch more than one or maybe two at a time.


Monday, June 28, 2010

Disney Bookshelf: The Hidden Magic of Walt Disney World Review

I finished The Hidden Magic of Walt Disney World and had a lot of fun reading it. I know that when we go to Orlando in November, I will bring this book along, and even if I don't carry it around the parks, I'll probably skim over the section on whatever park we'll be visiting on the following day, maybe making some notes into my iPhone (yeah, I've joined the 21st century and got the new iPhone 4!) on things to look for the next day. My sons love this sort of interplay; they love looking for the myriad of hidden details to be found in all of the parks.

One of the things I love about the parks is the attention to detail, with an Imagineer's eye on accuracy, be it regional, historical, or technical. You go into Fantasyland and you know that its themes are sort of clumped together (the midieval fair and the German village) but seamlessly, and with an attempt to make things as real as possible in the theme park environment. Same with the countries in Epcot, or the streets in the Studios. They really do try.

This book points out many illustrations of their attempts to "keep it real". I really liked that. In my last post I was less than halfway through the book and I said that I knew a lot of things that Susan Veness pointed out, but the flipside of that, more evident as I read on, was that there was a LOT that I didn't know, too.

I was entertained by her descriptions of the various lands in the parks, and informed by her interludes with various Imagineers. The "timelines" presented at the end of each chapter on a particular park were also interesting. I didn't know much about when things changed in parks, and what was there before what's there now came into being.

I'd recommend this book to anyone who loves to visit the parks. It's a good before-bed book, because it is easy to put it down and come back to it later, and I think it will be a handy guide to have with when actually visiting. Meanwhile, it's nice to take the virtual trip through Walt Disney World that Veness provides.


Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Blogs - Disney's America series on SamLand's Disney Adventures

SamLand's Disney Adventures has finished the Disney's America series with Part 9. The final post provides an index of sorts to the previous 8 segments.

I found it to be an interesting, well-researched article on a topic that captures my fancy - the making of a Disney-quality park in a cold weather climate. Interestingly, the article points out that experts at Disney believed that the park would only be able to be open 8 months out of the year and that Disney would be hard-pressed to operate profitably under those conditions.

There is a link at the end of SamLand's series to an article about what has happened in the area since Disney pulled the plug, along with a lot of insight into the objections in the area to such a project. This was a great "perspective" piece that shows the proverbial "other side".

I've often wondered (sometimes on the entries in this blog) how Disney would have approached the challenges that building in a relatively cold weather climate would have entailed. Ex-Imagineer Eddie Sotto mentioned in a long exchange on the WDWMagic discussion forum that while he didn't work on Disney's America, they did face some similar issues in Paris, and they dealt with some of them by incorporating "Arcades", enclosed walkways on either side of Main Street USA.

I think, however, that the only way to manage the challenging issue of the weather is to enclose the entire park. Of course, this limits size. At one point, Disney was considering building "Riverboat Square" in St. Louis, and according to D23 magazine and other sources, the development would have been a one square city block area (which I figure is a little more than 9 acres), in a four story building. Would this be enough room for a theme park? I suppose it would be if you know what you want to put into it, and there is always the possibility of expansion in the future, adding outlying buildings with neat transportation systems to get to them, much like a large airport works.

Anyway, bop on over to SamLand's Disney Adventures if you're interested in the history of this project.


Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Disney Animation - recent films

We all know what Pixar is capable of. They just seem to top themselves with almost every release lately. I didn't see any way that a story about a man who floats away on an adventure in his house supported by thousands of balloons was going to be good, but it was not only good, it bordered on greatness.

But the more interesting discussion is what Walt Disney Animation is capable of. I was reading a post titled "In Betweeners" at the Disney news blog, Blue Sky Disney, and Honor Hunter gives a pretty interesting accounting of what the folks at Walt Disney Animation Studios are up to right now, and what they've been up to in the last few years. Specifically he mentions Bolt and The Princess And The Frog and the problems they've had with release dates (going up against stiff box office competition) and with marketing.

What might be more interesting is the comments section of that same post, where his readers aren't shy about giving their own opinions about WDAS. Specifically, they are not shy about voicing their disdain for these films. On the flip side, there are others who really enjoyed them and say so.

I'm in this latter camp. I really liked the little dog and I also really liked TPATF. In the latter film, I thought that the music was a strong point (and I'm a musician, though not much of a music critic). I thought the story was solid enough. Yes, it's a bit of a rehash of other Disney features. But many of them have been pretty much a rehash of each other, going back to Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. They're all about the main female character finding true love in a strong male character. Prince Naveen was a bit of a departure from the usual prince in that he's a frivolous guy who has to develop himself, while Tiana is the industrious hard worker, not at all a dreamer, unless you count owning her own restaurant in the same class of dreams.

Bolt told a bit of a different story, no romantic entanglements in this one. Likewise with the underrated (in my opinion) Meet The Robinsons, which also told a story without the traditional romance angle in it. Stories about coming of age, of maturing, of being true to yourself, of having confidence in yourself and your friends. They both worked for me on a pretty high level. Did either of these have the "classic" or "artistic" punch of something like The Lion King or Beauty and the Beast? No, I wouldn't argue that, but they are better than "mediocre" as one commenter characterized all three. Even The Wild was a cut above (not a really big cut in its case) some of the animated fare out there from studios not named Dreamworks or Pixar. (Though I think I'd agree with anyone characterizing The Wild as a mediocre film.)

I suppose there is room for improvement, but Disney's Animation Studios still are coming out with quality films, in my opinion.


Monday, June 21, 2010

Midwest Attractions - Navy Pier Chicago

Father's Day brought me a visit to Chicago's Navy Pier, noted by several sources as the number 1 tourist attraction in the city. I certainly believe that, judging by the volume of out-of-area visitors on the Pier on Sunday.

If I have my history correct, Navy Pier was originally known as "Municipal Pier #2" and was to be one of 6 such piers, with the goal of continuing Chicago's importance as a major international port. It was the only one actually built, however, and was renamed Navy Pier sometime later. (All that is left of Pier #1 is a string of worn wooden pylons, about 50 yards to the south of Navy Pier.)

It was unused for quite a while, and then the city began using it for concerts and events. The first "ChicagoFest" and a few subsequent ones were held on Navy Pier. It must have been in the later 1980's or even early 1990's that Chicago renovated it and turned it into a huge tourist attraction.

Yesterday we started our visit with lunch at the chain restaurant, Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., which is a fun place to eat (and drink). Their menu is, of course, mostly shrimp dishes, but they have a few other things as well, and some tasty non-alcoholic drinks to go with the stronger stuff. Other restaurants on the Pier are Riva, Harry Caray's, Charlie's Ale House, the Billy Goat Tavern, Capri's Italian Kitchen, and Dock Street Cafe. There is also a food court with a McDonalds and several other "fast" food type items.

We were thinking that a boat cruise sounded good yesterday, and had plenty of choices. Sea Dog cruises can take you on high speed cruises on the lake and up the river. Shoreline Cruises offer sightseeing rides, also on the lake and river. The Odyssey, Spirit of Chicago and Mystic Blue offer dinner cruises on the lake. Several charters sail from along Navy Pier. We decided to take a cruise on the tall ship Windy, a schooner that rides along the lakefront, telling architectural and pirate stories, and it was a very nice cruise out on the lake.

There are some rides at Navy Pier, including the huge Ferris Wheel, a swing ride and a carousel. There are some lesser rides, like a bouncy-type "frogger" ride and a motion simulator (not up on top like the rest of the rides) and a maze attraction that I wouldn't pay for ever again. (My kids were in and out of it in like 5 minutes.) You can play miniature golf, and there is an Imax theater and a Shakespeare theater, and Cirque Shanghai performs here. There is a stained glass museum, and the Chicago Children's Museum is located here.

Performances for the kiddies are in the main area, near the front by the Children's Museum and the Imax theater. More adult performances are located near the end of the (almost) mile long pier, in an outdoor beer garden.

Bikes are available for rental on the Pier also, and something new is a hot air balloon ride, which appears to be similar to what they've got at Downtown Disney.

How does all this connect up to Disney? Well, I guess it doesn't, except in the sense that perhaps there are ideas here for things that work to entertain and even educate visitors. But it was a fun day anyway, and we may try to get back there later this summer.


Thursday, June 17, 2010

Disney Bookshelf - The Hidden Magic of Walt Disney World

I picked up a copy of The Hidden Magic of Walt Disney World by Susan Veness about a week ago. I was "alerted" to the existence of this book as something more than a travel guide by a blog entry that suggested that it put the "magic" back in Disney vacations for someone, and followed the link to Amazon, where I read a bit more about the book.

It was not a book I was thinking I needed, but when I had a 15% coupon at Barnes and Noble, and I came across this book in their travel section, I picked it up and started leafing through it. It sounded promising enough that I put down the other book I was going to use my coupon on and ended up purchasing this one instead.

I'm not reviewing it at this time, not exactly. I'm only about a third of the way through it. But I am enjoying reading it. It's the perfect before-bed reader for me, something I can put down with a minute's notice, something I can skip around in. It has a lot of interesting (to a Disney fan) minutae about each park. Ms. Veness references conversations or interviews with ex-Imagineer Eddie Sotto in several places, and these stories are always interesting.

One of the reviews on Amazon suggested that there are many inaccuracies; that "myths" are presented as facts and some of the things she points out may not even exist. I haven't found any such glaring problems myself, except one, which I'm not sure about its accuracy. The author talks about the references to "Tom Morrow" in the parks (Epcot and Tomorrowland in the Magic Kingdom) and says that the name is a tribute to an Imagineer who worked on the Mission to Mars attraction. I have never heard this before, and have always assumed that "Tom Morrow" was just a not-so-subtle play on the name of the land - "Tomorrowland". (If anyone knows the truth of this one way or another, feel free to leave a comment.)

Anyway, I am not disappointed in the book and in fact am finding it entertaining and interesting so far. Some of the die-hard fans of Disney and the parks will probably feel that the information is too basic, and I too find I know most of the things mentioned, but it's nice to have it all collected in one place!


Friday, June 11, 2010

The Morton Arboretum

Another midwest (Chicagoland) attraction is the Morton Arboretum, located in suburban Lisle, Illinois on 1700 acres off of Route 53. This land was apparently the estate of the Morton family (of Morton Salt riches), and is now a not-for-profit botanical gardens, emphasis on trees. A tree museum, in other words.

I really enjoy botanical gardens in general. They seem so relaxing to walk through. This one is fun for kids, too. There is a "Children's Garden" with ponds and water features, climbing "tree houses" and pumps and gadgets the kids can work. The tadpole pond, literally teeming with the little immature frogs, is a highlight; kids can take off their shoes and socks and wade in the pool, and reach in to touch the tadpoles if they can catch them (which is not easy, so not too much danger to them).

Directly across from the Children's Garden is their Maze, constructed of various hedges, high enough that a nearly 6 foot tall adult can't see much over the tops of the hedges. It eventually leads to an elevated viewing platform, the payoff for traversing the maze. My kids LOVED this maze.

Currently they feature a sculpture collection called Steel Roots, a collection of large works depicting actual root systems of trees, cast in metals. The artist, Steve Tobin, has created something visually striking and totally in sync with the environment.

They also feature concerts during the summer months, by various local and national musicians.

I've blogged about the types of things that could be part of a theme park or entertainment complex, and I'm always looking at things with an eye on which things might work well integrated into my own (thought experiment) theme park. I think there are things found in this botanical gardens that could work in either an indoor or as an outdoor adjunct to such a development. I think it would be an excellent addition to Disney World, actually...something for adults who are not with children (or are with older children) to do for possibly a low additional admission fee. It is something I think my wife and I might do at times, rather than going to Animal Kingdom, something that could be part of making the hotels more of a destination in and of themselves, for those who might not want to visit theme parks every day.


Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Disney's America

Disney's America was going to be a theme park in Virginia, and had as an important part of its mission raising awareness of our country's history, located as it would have been in close proximity to the nation's capital and to important civil war battlefields and historical sites. The version of history that was to be presented in the park is something that we'll never quite know - about all we can be sure of is that it would have had a Disney spin on it.

I've been interested in this park and its imagineering because it would have been located not in the temperate areas like other Disney theme parks in the U.S., but in a region that has seasons (and those seasons last for months!). The way they would have handled the cold weather months interests me a great deal. I blogged about it back here and wondered aloud (so to speak) about some of the issues that would face Disney as they tried to run a theme park in all different climates.

I had intended to wait until all the parts were written, but the SamLand blog has been publishing a nine part series on this park. He's through part 7 now, and all the other parts are indexed at the beginning of this post. Here's the link to SamLand's Disney's America post. I'll be posting a link again when the series is complete.

Go one over there and give it a read. It's worth your time, I think.


Movie Review - Prince Of Persia

We went to see Prince Of Persia - The Sands Of Time at our local multiplex yesterday. If the crowd was any indication, the movie is not doing well. There were 8 viewers in the audience for Tuesday's 1:15 pm showing. The film was consigned to one of the smaller theaters in the complex.

I wasn't really sure what to expect - I know the reviews haven't been glowing, based on my reading of Blue Sky Disney's article titled Persian Reviews. They weren't all bad; as Honor Hunter points out, they are a bit of a mixed bag, some positive, some mediocre, nothing really terrible. And I wasn't sure if the movie would be inappropriate for my soon-to-be 5th and 3rd graders.

Going in with lower expectations is not such a bad thing, because I was pleasantly surprised by the film. It entertained me for almost 2 hours, and I found the story complicated enough to be interesting, but not so much to be incomprehensible. There was plenty of action, too. I thought, from the trailer, that it might be sort of like an Indiana Jones movie, but it was way more like Pirates of the Caribbean in feel. And for good reason: It is, after all, a Jerry Bruckheimer film.

Like those Pirates movies, I don't think it needs a second viewing, but also like those films, I would be interested in following Prince Dastan's exploits in the future. I found the film's leading lady, Gemme Arterton, to be easy on the eyes, and I liked the comic relief provided by Alfred Molina's sheik character. No one looked very Persian or Arabic in this cast, but after a bit I really didn't care. Jake Gyllenhall did look like he watched Viggo Mortensen's performance as Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings trilogy a few times; he almost looked like him at times, and he moved a lot like him when carrying the sword.

All in all, I wasn't a bit disappointed. I find it sort of odd that the movie isn't doing bigger box office, and I'm a bit puzzled by some of the negative reviews. I guess those reviewers want more than I do from their action/adventure movies.


Thursday, June 3, 2010

Theme Park vs. Amusement Park

Over Memorial Day we took a quick jaunt to the southwestern region of Michigan. We like this area because of the wineries in the area and the cool little lake towns. Our kids like it because of the Saugatauk Dune Rides and Michigan's Adventure Amusement Park. We did a little of all of these things on this trip.

But the idea behind this post was to compare two parks that are in this area. I'd guess there are probably more, but I wanted to highlight the two we've visited. First is the Michigan's Adventure Amusement Park, near Muskegon, MI. It is a park with modest thrill rides like a suspended coaster called the Iron Hawk, a couple of big wooden roller coasters, one of which is billed as one of the longest wooden coasters in the country, and a coaster that turns you over a couple of times called the Corkscrew. There is a water park that is included with your park admission, and there are a couple of water rides, one called Grand Rapids which is a white water ride that soaks some of its riders, and one called Adventure Falls, that is just a plunge down a big drop ending in a huge splash.

It was opening weekend at Michigan's Adventure, and it was a great weekend to go there - lines were non-existent and the crowds were sparse throughout the day. Food choices are limited around the park though they do have one counter service restaurant as you enter the park. There's plenty of activities for kids of all ages.

The theme park in this area is called Nelis' Dutch Village, and it pretty much is what it sounds like. It sits off of Rt 31 as you go through the town of Holland, Michigan. You feel like you're walking into a small rural town in the Netherlands, where they still make their sweets and their cheeses by hand, and where other exhibitions show the making of Dutch wooden shoes, brooms, candles, and woodworking pieces.

The "cast members" (to use a Disney term, not necessarily the one used there) are all dressed in period costumes, and they put on a clog dancing show among other things. There are exactly two rides: a swing ride and a carousel. They are operated by the same guy; he closes one and opens the other, and the kids interested in riding move from attraction to attraction. There is also a petting area and a bunch of animals for the kids to check out.

It's a cute little place, takes at most two or three hours to go through and see most of the things there. There are shops where you can buy Delftware and other merchandise from the Netherlands and from local artisans. And of course there are the shoes. My boys each have a pair of wooden shoes, bought here, with their names burned into them. Of course, by now, they're too small for them to actually wear, but they're a neat thing to have, I think.

One place is a non-stop quest for thrills, moderate though they might be to the extreme amusement park fan. The other is a relaxing immersion in Dutch culture. I have some pictures (not from this trip because this time we actually skipped the Dutch Village) of the theme park, and will post them at some future time. You can find my pictures of Michigan's Adventure here.


Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Redesign of Tomorrowland book


A quick extra post: I received an email about this book, which sounds sort of interesting. The book is titled The Redesign of Tomorrowland by author L.N. Smith, and the description says that the author uses imaginary possible rides in a redeveloped Tomorrowland at the Magic Kingdom (or at Disneyland, I suppose) to explore new and futuristic concepts.

Has anyone heard of it? Any info is appreciated!


My Top Disney Dining Choices


Now that our reservations are all made, I thought I'd do my own top WDW restaurants list. I just have my impressions from our previous visits since we don't go THAT often and there are a bunch of restaurants we haven't tried yet. But here are my faves:

  1. Le Cellier

  2. This is an excellent steakhouse that I personally feel rivals the preparation at some of the best steak restaurants I've been to, including David Burke's and Capital Grill in Chicago.

  3. California Grill

  4. A signature dining experience at Disney, the menu here offers enough twists on the usual to open eyes. A really tasty treat.

  5. Le Chefs de France

  6. We have never had a bad experience here in three visits. The food has always been good if perhaps a bit overpriced.

  7. Yak and Yeti

  8. We've really enjoyed this Asian themed restaurant in Animal Kingdom. Food and service have always been very good.

  9. 50's Prime Time Cafe

  10. Okay, the food isn't anything special, particularly, but the place is totally fun.

I could go on, I suppose, but I wouldn't necessarily put the others on a "best of" list. Tony's (at the Magic Kingdom) is okay, and I need to experience Coral Reef again before I put it on my list. I was not impressed with San Angel Restaurant in the Mexico pavilion, and while I liked the Japanese restaurant, I've had better outside of Disney. The ambiance of the Sci Fi Dine In is great, but the food is average at best. (Even so, we like to go there BECAUSE of the ambiance.) The one that was tough to decide on for me was the Moroccan restaurant - it was very good the time we ate there, but it is another of those that I need to experience again before putting it on a "best of" list. And neither my wife or I are fans of buffets, so Crystal Palace and the Liberty Tree Inn (?) don't make it.

I almost put the Columbia Harbor House on my list, even though it isn't a table service restaurant, because I love that hummum sandwich they serve. We will be trying Sanaa on our next trip (at Animal Kingdom Lodge) and maybe even Jiko if we get the chance, so they may make the cut next time.

Bon appetit!