Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Other Parks: Six Flags Great America

We made our annual pilgrimage to Six Flags' Great America yesterday. We do this because our sons, avid readers (at least during the school year) both, each earned a free ticket. And the park currently is offering a special where if you buy your tickets at Jewel or online, you pay kids' prices. So off we went.

One of my favorite things about the park is this carousel as you walk through their entrance gates. I think it's striking, a park icon of almost (though not quite) Disney quality. It goes back to the original park, when it was Marriot's Great America, and was actually themed to be a mini-USA. I have fond memories of the way the park was in those days when it was brand spanking new. It was not the steel jungle of roller coasters that it is today (they said on the train ride that they have 14 roller coasters, the newest of which is a small wooden coaster that used to be at Kiddieland, called the Little Dipper), and though there were thrill rides in the park, it was milder stuff. The log ride and the boat ride were both there back then, as they are today, and the Whizzer (then called Willard's Whizzer) was on the premises, as were some of the smaller rides like the Orbit (then the Orleans Orbit), the rotating observation platform that ascends its tower, and of course, the train.

They used to have this towering Ferris Wheel, with three arms, and each arm held a Ferris Wheel that rotated independently of the other two. They'd haul us up in the air, turning, as they loaded the next arm's wheel. Great views, and a great place to take your dates. They used to have a roller coaster called "Turn of the Century", which did some corkscrews and was probably their biggest thrill ride at the time. That got replaced by "The Demon", a coaster that does a couple of looks to go with the corkscrew inversions, and is still there today.

Shows were a big part of the park then. "Hometown Square" featured a big theater where singers/dancers would perform a musical tribute to this era, or that era, depending on what the theme was that year. There was always a big parade midday, and Looney Tune characters were all over the place (they still are). There was an iMax theater that is still present also, but was a much bigger deal then (the technology was really new back then).

This year, we went on the Whizzer, the Demon and the American Eagle (their large wooden coaster). We went on Logger's Run once and the Yankee Harbor Boats twice. The boys did the Chubasco Teacups and the Condor and a couple other minor rides. And we took a train ride, for old time's sake, around the whole park. I think that maybe I liked that ride best.

They claim the title of "World's Cleanest Theme Park", which is interesting. Yes, there is no garbage laying around, there are plenty of supervisors walking around with their claws and brooms and such, sweeping up just like the custodial staff. But when you look just off the path, you notice that there really isn't a lot of attention paid to the landscaping. Dirt, gravel, and branches take the place of nicely trimmed grass or groundcover. There are flowers in some places, but not in too many places. All in all, I'd say any Disney park is better kept up and manicured than this place.

But that's not why people are there. They are there for the big roller coasters, like Raging Bull, the Iron Wolf, Batman and Superman coasters, and V2 (Vertical Velocity). That's just to name a couple of their bigger rides.

I still like the image of the carousel best, I think.


Monday, July 26, 2010

Disney Video - 1/3 of the Six Pack

I finally got the opportunity to watch a couple of the videos from the Disney Parks collection that I got about a month ago. The two I watched were (and I don't have them in front of me so I'm doing the titles from memory) Walt Disney World Behind The Scenes and Undiscovered Parks.

I must admit I sort of had a different idea about the second of these two titles; for some reason I was thinking that this one might be more about parks not in the United States that we aren't able to discover. When I was thinking about it, I was thinking that "Unbuilt Parks" might be an interesting subject as well, a documentary on stuff like WestCot and Port Disney, and Disney's America. (I think there is a DVD program there; history, concept art and interviews with Imagineers. People like me would buy it, I believe.)

Anyway, the real subject of this DVD was the lesser known activities available at the American resorts. It discussed things like the "Richard Petty Driving Experience", parasailing on Lake Buena Vista, the "dream suites" at both resorts, and some of the tours that are available, like the "Walk in Walt's Footsteps" tour at Disneyland. It was an interesting DVD to watch, showing some overlooked details and giving a heads-up, sort of, on some things offered by the resorts.

The other DVD was a behind-the-scenes look at the attractions and offerings at the four parks in Disney as well as the water parks. It had some beautiful videography, but there was nothing earth-shattering in the subject matter. They discussed the remaking of attractions like "Test Track" and "The Seas With Nemo" among other things. There were some interesting interviews and some neat shots of the parks being built.

I have four more of these DVD's to watch. They are more like advertisements for a Disney vacation, but as I said, the images are at times stunning, and the picture quality, even in DVD (not BluRay), is excellent. If the other four are more or less like these two, I will feel I've gotten more than my money's worth for this 6 DVD collection at a price tag of under $30.00


Thursday, July 22, 2010

Checking out the blogs...

I don't do a lot of linking posts, but this week I found several interesting posts on various blogs that I thought I'd call attention to.

Over at Progress City, Michael Crawford reports on the history behind the designing of Disneyland in his post The Ryman Centennial - The Phone Call. Lots of art and an overall interesting post!

Samland is reporting on the events at the Disney Family Museum in San Francisco in his posts titled "Disneyland 55 - A Birthday Celebration at the Walt Disney Museum Part 1 and Part 2. I believe a Part 3 is forthcoming. (link added on 7/28/10)

The World According To Jack at has two posts on the Port Orleans French Quarter resort - Part 1 and Part 2. This resort holds a special place in my own heart because, even though we haven't stayed here but once, that stay was our first stay as a family (and my first stay at all) at a Disney resort.

The Imagineering Disney blog has a great post called Disneyland In 1955. Lots of great photos of all the lands.

It's Golden State Month over at Voyages Extraordinaires where Cory Gross has written several very interesting articles about California history.

In the absence of much of interest around here, take a look at some of these entries. They'll keep you entertained.


Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Disney Film: TOY STORY 3

I am happy to report that I did in fact make it to see Toy Story 3 in the theater, and in 3D to boot!

First let me say that this may be the best of the three excellent animated features in this series. It blends a touching story, plenty of action and suspense, and well done humor together seemlessly into a film that makes you forget that you're watching a movie about toys that come to life when their owners aren't present, just as the others in the series did. But for some reason I liked this one more. Maybe it's the fact that I've just seen this one and the others occupy a somewhat fuzzier, more distant corner of my memory by now. Maybe it's that this is the only one I saw on the big screen. (I'm sure I didn't see Toy Story 2 in the theater, and I'm pretty sure I didn't see the first until its VHS release.)

I am pretty sure, however, that it had nothing to do with the fact that I saw it in 3D. I really didn't think that the video gimmick added anything to the showing, unlike, say, Shrek Forever After or How To Train Your Dragon, both of which benefitted from the strong 3D effects. TS3 did not need the gimmick nor do I feel it helped make the film better in any way.

I think other blogs have probably discussed the subject matter already, but in a nutshell: Andy (the toys' owner) is going off to college, and there is a lot of uncertainty among the toys about what will happen to them. It boils down to three choices: Attic, curb (for garbage pickup) or be donated. When miscommunication between Andy and his mother results in the toys (except for Woody) being deposited at the curb on trash day, the toys decide for themselves that they'd prefer donation, and figure out a way to get to Sunnyside Day Care. Woody ends up with them in an effort to make them understand the mixup.

But all isn't peaches and cream at the daycare - it's run by a stuffed bear called Lotso and his baby doll enforcer Big Baby, and the toys end up getting "played with" by the violent toddlers. They decide that Woody was right and that it would be better to go back to Andy's house and be stored in the attic, but it isn't that easy. And therein lies the excitement and the fun of this tale.

I would recommend this one to anyone. It is a worthy conclusion to the Toy Story saga and is again among Pixar's best, which is saying a lot. I don't doubt the Lamp anymore (after UP!)but it is still good when they prove the expectations to be well-founded.


Monday, July 19, 2010

Central Park, New York's Theme Park

New Yorkers call Central Park their "gem" and they are right - it is an oasis of nature nestled among the skyscrapers of Manhattan.

Well, that's not strictly true - it's actually north of most of the biggest buildings, and it is mostly surrounded by the residences and museums of the city's Upper East and West Sides. But it is quite a place, beautifully sculpted into the landscape of Manhattan. Restful areas like the Turtle Pond and Strawberry Fields are hidden next to athletic fields, man-made lakes and streams, and lots of walking paths weaving through the mature woods.

Central Park was supposed to be more than simply an open, green space in the asphalt jungle - it was also intended to be a work of art, and I believe it does succeed on that level. A walk around it immerses you in the place, relaxes you and entertains you - all things that good artwork do.

Everyone knows about the puppet theater and the Central Park Zoo and the outdoor Shakespeare theater. There is also a small amusement park near the south end of the park, and there are rowboats available for rental so you can take a short float trip around the lake. There is a nice carousel and a chess/checkers pavilion. A couple of restaurants are in the park and others are right outside.

What I knew about Central Park I mostly learned from movies, like Disney's Enchanted among others. And as I walked through the park, I could almost see Amy Adams breaking out into song on one of the pathways, or the Prince leaping from a bridge only to cause a massive bicycle crash (with him at the center of it). Real life intruding on movie fantasy!

Though the weather was oppressively hot when we were there, this was a place where I would like to spend more time, and explore more thoroughly.


Saturday, July 17, 2010

Disney On Stage: Mary Poppins in New York

Yes, I know they're not very good pictures! I took them from the top of a double decker bus as we drove past. Hence the bad angles and the slight blurriness. (Of course, some of my other pictures are a little blurry maybe I'm just sorta unsteady with the camera.)

But there it is anyway: The New Amsterdam Theater on 42nd Street, just a half block west of 7th Avenue, which is in the heart of Times Square, pretty much. And of course, the main attraction there: Mary Poppins.

We'd seen it before in Chicago, but we wanted to do a Broadway Show while in New York, and we needed one that was definitely appropriate for young (8 and almost 10) kids. And we knew we all liked it, and it had been almost a year since we saw it. So Disney got our vote for our Broadway experience.

If you're interested in what I thought about the musical, you can
read about that here. So what I'll say about this production is that the theater is really gorgeous. It's small, and we had excellent seats on the main floor, about 20 rows back. I could see everything. They supply booster seats for the kids (mine didn't need them, since we were able to position them behind small kids who were on booster seats) which is great since a lot of the audience members were small children who would have been blocked by a row of adults in front of them.

The production itself was similar - the sets were even more lavish in this theater but otherwise it was the same. The performances were all excellent. In Chicago we saw the original Broadway performers (I think), Ashley Brown as Mary and Gavin Lee as Bert. Here in New York we saw Laura Michelle Kelly, who was the London star and who sings on the CD you can buy at Borders. She was excellent and has a spectacular voice.

I wonder how long it will be till Disney remakes the movie using this plot instead of their Walt Disney plot? I think it might actually be worth remaking if they give us this story, which I'm led to believe is more like the book than the movie was. (P.L. Travers apparently signed off on this one, something she never really did with the movie.)

Anyway, it was a very good experience, worth every penny of the (rather expensive) ticket price!


Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Disney Bookshelf: PROJECT FUTURE Book Commentary

Having been interested in the process of how the Walt Disney World Resort came to be in Florida, I was excited to see the announcements about Chad Denver Emerson's work, PROJECT FUTURE: The Inside Story Behind the Creation Of Disney World and went looking for it immediately. Of course, the brick-and-mortar bookstores didn't carry it, so I finally ordered it from Amazon (with some other things) and had it in time for our trip to New York. I was then able to read it on the plane and before bed at the hotel.

What I got was a fascinating, if a bit dry in style, account of the events surrounding the decision to move ahead with the project, then of the intrigue and subterfuge used in acquiring the approximately 27,000 acres in central Florida, and the legal maneuverings that preceded the unique "Reedy Creek Improvement District" and the idea that Disney was acting as the government for their own land, creating their own regulations and building codes, issuing bonds for improvements to the property, and incorporating two municipalities in the area. The book spells out the planning of the development and details the construction process until the Magic Kingdom opened in 1971. Well known names abound throughout the story, name Marvin Davis, Card Walker, Roy Disney, Joe Potter, Harrison "Buzz" Price, and of course Walt Disney, but the story gives names to the many behind-the-scenes players like Paul Helliwell, Jack and Bill Demetree, Robert Price Foster, and Roy Hawkins, who all played important and substantial roles in the land acquisition and the legal maneuverings before construction even began.

I don't think Disney fans wonder about why Disney wanted the structure of controlling the government processes for their land too much, but I think some people assume it was at least in part to circumvent certain codes for building and land use. It wasn't, not at all. Most of Disney's construction far exceeded existing standards. What they wanted was the ability to "innovate", to experiment by using better materials, better systems, new modes of transportation, and new ways to build their facilities. They got it and used it to create their city of the future. As we all know, it didn't turn out the way Walt, or maybe even Roy, envisioned, but it turned out okay.

I recommend this book to any Disneyphile, and anyone interested in the entertainment industry and its history.

Monday, July 12, 2010

What I didn't take into consideration...

About 6 months ago I was writing a whole bunch of entries about my pipe dream of developing a theme park in my hometown, near Chicago, Illinois. (Disclaimer: Even as I wrote them, I figured the chance of me actually doing anything about this dream was about .001% - only because there's about the same chance that I might become an astronaut this was pretty much all a thought experiment.) (If you want to read them look at my December and January archives.)

Anyway, I was on vacation last week in New York City (more blog entries to come about things from that trip that may or may not relate to Disney...) and read my newest acquisition, Project Future, by Chad Denver Emerson on the flight there and then before bed for a few nights, finishing it on Wednesday (I think). A very interesting, if a bit dry, book about the process of getting Walt Disney World's construction off the ground, in the purchasing phase of the project, and in the legislative phase also, which I'll be writing about in a little more depth in the future.

But it occurred to me as I read it that there was something I neglected to take into consideration as I wrote my arguments (with myself) that it was possible to develop such a theme park in my part of the country: the guests, customers, whatever you want to call them. What would make them want to come here?

When Disney opened their theme park in California, it was really the only game in town. There were certainly other amusement parks in California, and in the United States, but NOTHING like Disney, which was a place where one could go to experience the worlds of those beloved films that had been produced by the studios. That "new" communication medium, television, was also available to promote the parks, and Walt Disney used it effectively, before anyone else really even knew its power.

So I think Disneyland did become a destination, not just because of the park but because of the location of the park, in a part of the United States that was a desirable vacation destination. And when Walt Disney decided to build the Florida Project, he was thinking in terms of creating another huge tourist destination. "Control" was a word used a lot throughout the Project Future book. He didn't want the cheesy motels and food stands that had blighted his park in California. He wanted guests to come stay with him for a while, and go home satisfied. Even after his death, a lot of the strategy focused on making WDW a tourist destination rather than simply a stop. And it was a strategy that worked.

So what would make a theme park in my part of the country a "destination"? Unfortunately, nothing, at least not the way I've imagined it. I've been thinking in terms of a single indoor theme park with a high level of quality attractions enclosed and a strong overriding theme. I've been thinking of a single hotel, possibly attached to the park. I've been thinking of an indoor/outdoor water park attached to the hotel, accessible to hotel guests and as part of the park ticket. I've been thinking about a botanical gardens/greenhouse complex, a walk-through attraction aside from the park. Is that enough?

I don't think so. If it were, Six Flags Great America would be a destination. It's a fun amusement park with a low level of theming, with an attached water park included with park admission, and a ton of hotels around it. There is a large shopping complex/outlet mall called Gurnee Mills. And though I'm not aware of everything in the area, I am pretty sure there are a bunch of low level tourist-trap type things to do.

The Wisconsin Dells is a tourist destination, mostly due to their mix of huge water park hotels, their nature based outdoor activities (boat tours of the Dells and "Duck" tours of the area), a couple of smaller amusement parks, and plenty of tourist trap activities like miniature golf and go-carts and panning for "gemstones", not to mention a winery and an Indian casino nearby and the Tommy Bartlett Water Show and a ski "resort" (Christmas Mountain) all in the area. It's an area that gets plenty of traffic, albeit mostly from the surrounding midwest states, year around.

What is there to recommend my town as a destination other than my imaginary park and entertainment complex? Well, there is a nice minor league baseball stadium with a pretty bad independent Northern League baseball team playing there. There are two casinos, a Harrah's and the Empress casinos. There is a world class city within an hour of the area, and a lot of other attractions within 45 minutes. But not much right here.

Why would people choose to stay at my imagined hotel? Answer: They probably wouldn't. There just isn't enough to recommend the park or the area as a long term destination, long weekend or week-long trip. It's the part I really didn't think about enough.

More thought is needed on this subject. Thanks for reading, if you got this far...