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7 Ways to Radically Improve Walt Disney World

Monday, November 17th, 2014 - by Chris Queen

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The basket of apples appeared on my door step. At first I wasn’t sure where they came from until I saw the note card that read VJ’s Organic Co-Op, Washington, DC. The note inside the envelope read:

Dear Chris,

Try these apples. I guarantee you’ve never tasted anything like them.

Love, Valerie

Valerie? I wasn’t sure who this Valerie was, but I figured organic apples couldn’t be all that bad. I made sure to wash one of them thoroughly, and I took a bite.

Whoever Valerie was, she was right. It didn’t taste like any apple I’d ever eaten, and soon after the first bite, I fell asleep, right there on the kitchen floor!

When I woke, I had all these ideas in my head on how to improve my favorite place on the planet — Walt Disney World. So I wrote them down, and here they are:

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7. An Updated CircleVision 360 Film For China At Epcot

Epcot’s China pavilion does a wonderful job celebrating the rich history of its home country, but there’s very little mention of the successes of the last sixty or so years. Wonderful triumphs like the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and defeating those pesky students in Tiananmen Square don’t get the mention they deserve at Epcot.

To remedy that problem, I propose that Disney replace the current Reflections of China film with an informative and interesting documentary I’ll call Forward: China from Mao to Now. The film will look back at the great history of the People’s Republic of China from the earliest days of the revolution to China’s bright future.

Of course, such a short film would not have time to delve too deeply into certain aspects of the nation, so concepts like human rights and economic freedom would probably have to go by the wayside. But I think a CircleVision 360 movie dispelling the myths about the People’s Republic would be worth seeing, don’t you?

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The 10 Greatest Moments from the Disney Renaissance

Friday, October 24th, 2014 - by Chris Queen

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Editor’s Note: Check out the previous installments in Chris’s series exploring Disney history: “10 Disney Cartoons from the 1930s that Reflect the Can-Do Spirit That Survived the Great Depression,” “10 Ways World War II Affected Disney’s Filmmaking,” “10 Examples Of How Disney’s Productions Reflected The Changing America Of The 1950s,” “Walt Disney’s 7 Most Radical Ideas From His Last Decade on Earth,” “Disney’s Wilderness Years, Part 1: How The Studio Reflected The Chaos Of The 1970s” and “Disney’s Wilderness Years, Part 2: How The Studio Navigated The Hit-Or-Miss 1980s.”

A few years after Walt Disney’s death, the studio he founded entered a creative drought of nearly 15 years. The projects Walt had his hands on had dried up, and the most creative minds in the company were working directly on the theme parks. Ron Miller, Walt’s son-in-law, oversaw the company during most of this era, and, though the studio managed to produce some underrated cartoons and live-action films during this time period, nothing matched the artistry and innovation of the years when Walt was still alive.

When Roy E. Disney and Sid Bass brought Michael Eisner over from Paramount to head Disney — along with Frank Wells — the company experienced an almost immediate injection of creativity. In the realm of animation, most everyone dubs the period beginning with 1989′s The Little Mermaid the Disney Renaissance. (Some people end the Renaissance with the execrable Tarzan from 1999, but for me, this period ends with 1995′s Pocahontas.)

A lot of exciting things took place at Disney during the first few years of the Eisner-Wells tenure, and here are the ten best of them.

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10. Pocahontas (1995)

Pocahontas marked the end of the Disney Animation Renaissance of the late-’80s and early-’90s, as far as I’m concerned. And it’s nowhere near as good as the films that preceded it, largely due to its over-earnestness, Judy Kuhn’s vocal melisma, and the screenplay’s loose play with history.

However, Pocahontas deserves mention because of its firsts. It was the first Disney animated feature based on a historical person, and it also brought the Disney Princess banner to an American character (something the studio did much better in 2009 with The Princess and the Frog). Disney also deserves some credit for turning the dramatic “Colors of the Wind” into a smooth pop hit.

Even though Pocahontas isn’t the greatest of the Disney classics, it does belong among the highlights of the early Eisner-Wells era.

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Disney’s Wilderness Years, Part 2: How The Studio Navigated The Hit-Or-Miss 1980s

Tuesday, October 14th, 2014 - by Chris Queen

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For the past few weeks, we’ve looked at the company Walt Disney built and how it has survived over the decades. We talked about how the studio reflected the can-do spirit that beat the Great Depression in the 1930s, as well as how World War II affected Disney. We’ve also discussed the changing world of the 1950s and how Disney reflected it, and we looked at Walt’s seven most radical ideas from the 60s.

Last week, we delved into what I call Disney’s wilderness years – the period after Walt’s death when the company had exhausted all of its founder’s projects and its output suffered creatively. We looked at the 1970s and how Disney reflected the both the general malaise and the leadership crisis the country faced.

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Disney’s Wilderness Years, Part 1: How the Studio Reflected the Chaos of the 1970s

Thursday, October 9th, 2014 - by Chris Queen

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We’ve been looking at the output of the Disney organization by decade, from the 1930s to the ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s, and this week, we’re looking at the 1970s. Everyone who experienced that decade has an opinion about its culture, or lack thereof. From polyester leisure suits to Pet Rocks, the ’70s were the decade of disposable culture (in spite of some true classics like The Godfather films and Star Wars). I consider myself more of a child of the ’80s, since that’s when I came of age, but I remember my younger childhood in the ’70s — especially a lot of the music — fondly.

Much of the culture of the decade reflects a certain escapism. From the disco kids partying their troubles away, to the punk rockers flipping a middle finger at pretty much everything, to the banal pop of the mainstream, much of the music of the era plays on a desire to get away from the troubles of reality. Movies and television share a similar escapism — witness the endless disaster films and idiotic sitcoms of the day.

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Walt Disney’s 7 Most Radical Ideas From His Last Decade on Earth

Monday, October 6th, 2014 - by Chris Queen
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Walt on the set of The EPCOT Film in October 1966

Over the last few weeks we’ve looked at how Disney and its productions reflected, and sometimes influenced, the times. We’ve seen how Disney mirrored the can-do spirit of the ’30s, how the studio overcame the challenges of World War II in the ’40s, and how Disney changed with the times in the ’50s.

By the time the 1960s rolled around, Walt Disney appeared to have done it all. He had elevated the cartoon from an opening-act short to a feature-film art form. He had conquered live-action movies and embraced television, and he even revolutionized the theme-park experience. But Walt wasn’t done — in fact, it looks like he saved his most radical and powerful ideas for the last years of his life. And here are seven examples to prove it.

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7. Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color (1961-1969)

After a seven season run for Disneyland on ABC, Walt wanted to explore different options. His greatest desire was to broadcast a show in color. Even though ABC had broadcast the show in black and white, Walt insisted on filming most of the segments in full color because he believed color would add long-term value to his productions. Rival network NBC had begun to promote color series heavily since parent company RCA made color television sets, and, after a brilliant sales pitch from Walt, the network bit.

Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color ran for eight seasons before undergoing a retooling and title change. During those seasons, Walt took advantage of the new and exciting world of color programming when few producers were willing to branch out, especially in the earlier years. Once again, Walt willingly blazed a trail, and once again his pioneering spirit paid off.

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10 Examples Of How Disney’s Productions Reflected The Changing America Of The 1950s

Monday, September 29th, 2014 - by Chris Queen

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In my last two posts, we’ve looked at how Disney reflected the 1930s and the 1940s. As the studio emerged from World War II and into a new decade, it faced a changing nation. In their insightful book A Patriot’s History Of The Modern World, Volume II, Larry Schweikart and Dave Dougherty write:

Long-held and oft-repeated notions that the 1950s were a decade of sameness and conformity in the United States miss the revolutionary changes occurring in the decade – radical shifts that, fundamentally, may have altered America and the world far more than the superficial changes of the 1960s.

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Far from reflecting a widespread sameness among Americans, life in the 1950s witnessed a burst of new businesses, consumer products, artistic expression, and social cross-pollination.

Disney ‘s productions from the 1950s reflect this rapidly changing America, and here are ten examples.

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10. Matterhorn Bobsleds (1959)

Walt had two needs to fill: one was a way to promote the upcoming film Third Man On The Mountain, while the other was an attraction to fill space on a hill between Tomorrowland and Fantasyland. He remembered the majesty of the Matterhorn when he visited the set of Third Man On The Mountain, and the Imagineers designed a roller coaster based on the mountain.

The resulting attraction became the first steel-tube roller coaster, providing a smoother – yet still thrilling – ride than the traditional wooden coaster. Disney changed the way we think of thrill rides and opened the door for endless possibilities. The Matterhorn Bobsleds still bring excitement to this day. Check it out:

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The Top 10 Things to Do in Cleveland

Saturday, July 12th, 2014 - by Paula Bolyard

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Maybe you’ve never considered spending your hard-earned vacation time in Cleveland. It’s certainly understandable because many people only know the city as the “Mistake by the Lake” or the home of the burning Cuyahoga River. But things have changed on the North Coast, and you might be surprised at all the cultural attractions the city on the shores of Lake Erie has to offer — great food, museums, theater, and more. The RTA buses run between most Cleveland locations and Uber just announced that they’re starting service in Cleveland, which will make getting around even easier.

Here are the Top 10 Things to Do in Cleveland:

10. Little Italy

Historic Little Italy is on Cleveland’s East Side, located on “Murray Hill” not far from Case Western Reserve University. It features charming restaurants and bakeries, art galleries, and frequent festivals and art shows.  Our favorite restaurant there is Trattoria on the Hill. If you go, try the Shrimp & Gnocchi Trattoria, which features their gnocchi served in Trattoria’s homemade cream sauce with mushrooms, scallions, and a hint of cayenne pepper. If you’re not in the mood for pasta, try the Spinach & Prosciutto Pizza with black olives, white garlic sauce, and feta cheese.

For dessert, stroll down Mayfield Road to Presti’s Bakery for a cannoli or a delicious gelato.

The Feast of the Assumption is the biggest event of the year in Little Italy. Held in August to commemorate Mary being taken to heaven, the festival is an unusual combination of Catholic religious ceremonies, carnival rides, fireworks, lots of incredible Italian food, and heavy, heavy drinking.

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10 Ideas For How I’d Build a Star Wars Land at Walt Disney World

Thursday, July 10th, 2014 - by Chris Queen

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The rumors of a forthcoming Star Wars land at Walt Disney World keep raising their heads from time to time. So I thought it would be fun to put myself in the Imagineers’ shoes and (to use their term) blue-sky some ideas for a Star Wars land at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Here’s what I came up with…

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10. A Mos Eisley Cantina Restaurant

One of the prevailing rumors surrounding a potential Star Wars land at Walt Disney World (and other parks) concerns a restaurant based on the Chalmun’s Cantina at Mos Eisley. A.J. Wolfe over at Disney Food Blog has discussed the idea of a Cantina-based quick service space potentially coming to Disneyland Paris as well as to Orlando.

This idea has a ton of potential. I can picture an animatronic version of the band playing music from the films and dishes themed to the Cantina, along with menu items that conjure up life on Tatooine. Of course, a Walt Disney World Cantina would have to be much more family-oriented than in A New Hope, but I imagine how much fun a Cantina could be for fans of all ages.

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More Star Wars Land Rumors Buzzing Around Walt Disney World

Tuesday, June 17th, 2014 - by Chris Queen

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I’ve reported in the past about rumors of a Star Wars land coming to Walt Disney World. Over at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, two attractions are closing in the near future, and these closings are leading some writers to speculate that Disney is making way for a Star Wars land at DHS.

Disney Dining is reporting that the American Idol Experience, which opened to much fanfare in 2009, will close in early 2015:

The close is not that surprising.  The show has never really gotten solid traction and it seems Disney is ready to pull the plug.

A statement was posted between the Walt Disney World Company:

“After more than five successful years, The American Idol Experience will be coming to a close at Disney’s Hollywood Studios theme park in January 2015. Our partnership with FremantleMedia and 19 Entertainment has been a great addition to the park and we are very appreciative of the amazing cast and guests who have devoted their time and talent to make this experience special and memorable. We are incredibly proud of the more than 2,000 Dream Tickets that have given guests a chance to live their very own Cinderella story and audition for ‘American Idol.’”

Over at Disney At Work, sources report that the long-running Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular will close soon as well:

My sources also suggest that Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular is also slated to close at the end of the year. All of this is happening to make way for the major Star Wars additions coming to Disney’s Hollywood Studios. It will surround that end of the Echo Lake corner of the park, and supposedly extend further out as well, though in what direction(s) is uncertain. What is coming in remains to be formally announced, as the attraction is also being tied to a very anticipated follow-up series starting in 2015.

What’s interesting about the closings is that nearly all the vestiges of Disney’s Hollywood Studios as a “behind-the-scenes” park will be gone. Instead of the original park idea of a glimpse behind the magic of the entertainment industry, DHS is increasingly becoming a park about the movies, music, and television programs themselves. Do both closings point to a new Star Wars land? Of course, the outcome remains to be seen, but I’ll keep you in the loop.

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10 Free Ways to Have Fun at Walt Disney World

Thursday, June 12th, 2014 - by Chris Queen

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Let’s face it: a trip to Walt Disney World can cost a lot, but it’s absolutely worth it. But you may not know that not everything at Disney World is expensive. Resort guests can take advantage of several experiences that enrich the trip but don’t cost a thing. (Non-resort guests can take advantage of some of them too.)

Here are ten free ways to have fun at Walt Disney World…

10. Enjoy A Boat Ride Around Bay Lake.

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Guests know that transportation is a huge part of the experience at Walt Disney World. From classic trains and old-school ferryboats to innovative monorail and linear induction technology, getting around the parks and resorts is a big part of the fun.

Taking the boat that runs from the Magic Kingdom to the Contemporary Resort to Wilderness Lodge to Fort Wilderness is a nice way to cool off with a breeze and take in the sights around Bay Lake. In addition to the resorts, check out the “ruins” of River Country and Discovery Island, both of which you’ll see along the way, and marvel at the road that passes under the canal between the Seven Seas Lagoon and Bay Lake, near the Contemporary Resort.

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Mary Blair: Unsung Disney Artist

Tuesday, May 27th, 2014 - by Chris Queen

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She developed the unique color palette for many of the iconic Disney films of the 1950s. She produced some of the most evocative artwork from the Disney Studio’s 1941 South America trip. She created the characters for a beloved classic Disney Parks attraction. She outshone the men she worked with – including her own husband. Yet for some reason, Mary Blair doesn’t have the household name she deserves except among Disney aficionados.

With his new book The Art And Flair Of Mary Blair: An Appreciation, animator and historian John Canemaker hopes to change that perception. (I’ve waited nearly two years for this book’s release, and it was worth the wait.) Canemaker explores a woman with priceless talent who led a difficult, sometimes tragic life – an artist who has gone woefully underappreciated. As Canemaker writes on one of the book’s final pages:

The general public’s knowledge of Mary Blair’s name and her art is limited. Only one of her children’s books is still in print, and the hundreds of conceptual paintings she made for animated films are stored at the Disney studio or are in private collections.

Mary Richardson was born in Oklahoma in 1911, but her family moved to Texas when she was a young girl. The daughter of an alcoholic, she asked for money from the family budget to purchase art supplies because she knew that her father couldn’t then spend it on drinking.

Her talent earned her a scholarship to the famed Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles, and there she met Lee Blair, whom she later married. The Blairs harbored dreams of becoming fine artists, but the obvious need for money led them first to Ub Iwerks’ studio, then to Harman-Ising/MGM.

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The Executive Behind Walt Disney World’s MyMagic+ Will Leave The Company

Thursday, May 22nd, 2014 - by Chris Queen

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Disney Parks has announced that Nick Franklin, who held the cool title of Executive Vice President for Next Generation Experience at the company, is leaving Disney after 17 years. Franklin spearheaded the massive My Magic+ effort and has served the longest on Disney Parks Chairman Tom Staggs’ Executive Committee.

“Nick let us know that after 17 successful years with Disney, he wanted to help other companies innovate in how they provide products and services to their customers, much like he did here in leading the development of MyMagic+,” Disney spokeswoman Kim Prunty said. “We want to thank Nick for his tremendous accomplishments throughout his tenure with Disney.”

In 2009, Disney tapped Franklin, then the head of its global business and real-estate development teams, to lead a secretive project that was referred to internally as “NextGen.” That work ultimately produced MyMagic+, the many-tentacled technology project at Walt Disney World that includes a reservation system allowing visitors to book attraction times up two months before their trips and microchip-embedded wristbands that interact with sensors installed throughout the resort.

Franklin served as essentially a CEO for the MyMagic+ project, and his team grew from 35 to more than a thousand employees. The company has already hailed Franklin’s efforts as a success, despite rumors that the effort went over budget and took longer to implement than expected. Disney is looking to expand the program beyond Walt Disney World.

Although Disney executives have been hesitant to discuss MyMagic+’s financial performance, they say Disney World visitors are embracing the technology. The company’s chief financial officer, Jay Rasulo, told analysts recently that more than 75 percent of guests staying in Disney-owned hotels are now reserving ride times ahead of their trips, as are more than 25 percent of day visitors.

The company says that guests who plan more of their trip schedules in advance ultimately spend more time and money at Disney World, rather than visiting rival attractions. The project, which includes enhanced data collection, is also designed to make purchases easier and to give Disney more personal information about its guests, ultimately leading to more spending on food, souvenirs and other items.

Franklin also negotiated the deals that led to Hong Kong Disneyland and the forthcoming Shanghai Disneyland.

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The Ultimate Disney Parks Collectors Item Is Now On eBay

Monday, May 5th, 2014 - by Chris Queen

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Check out what I came across on eBay. This is the real deal. It’s the front car of Monorail Red from the Mark IV line, which ran at Walt Disney World from 1971-1989. Can you imagine what a cool conversation piece this would make for the front yard? Unfortunately, I can’ t get my hands on $189,000 for it – or a way to get it from Florida to Georgia, for that matter.

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Breaking Disney Parks Rumor: Is Soarin’ Getting A New Film?

Thursday, April 24th, 2014 - by Chris Queen

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Anyone who has visited Walt Disney World or Disneyland knows how cool Soarin’ is. In an earlier post on the 10 things you must do at Disney World, I referred to Soarin’ as “a feast for the senses” and “an engineering marvel.” The uniquely immersive attraction opened at Disney’s California Adventure in 2001 and at Epcot in 2005. Both attractions use the same incredible film highlighting sites up and down the state of California.

We’re now hearing a rumor that Soarin’ may get an update. The folks at WDWMagic, one of my favorite sources for Disney Parks news, rumors, and gossip, reports:

The use of the film from Disney California Adventure was felt by many as a temporary stop gap until Disney could shoot a movie specifically for the Walt Disney World edition of Soarin’, or a new version that could include both the east coast and west coast. We are now almost 10 years since opening, with the same California based film playing.

Well now it seems we are closer than ever to a new film for Epcot’s Soarin’. In the next month, film crews working on the new film are planning flights over Walt Disney World, and specifically Epcot. It is speculated that this new footage will be part of a Soarin’ over the World, which will include sights from around the world, including Disneyland and Walt Disney World.

Keep in mind that we haven’t heard anything remotely official from Disney yet, and also that rumors of updates to the attraction have been around for years. WDWMagic even admits that speculation has been around almost since Soarin’ opened. But wouldn’t it be cool to see new footage? If you’ll indulge me to dream a little, wouldn’t an experience that changes every time you ride Soarin’ – like the new Star Tours – be so much fun?

What are your thoughts, Disney Parks fans?

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Disney and the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair, Part 6: ‘A Living Blueprint Of The Future’

Monday, April 21st, 2014 - by Chris Queen

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We’ve made it to the end of our series on the 1964-65 World’s Fair and Disney’s influence on it. If you’ve missed the rest of the series here’s where you can find the rest:

Part 1: ‘The Kind Of Service We Can Offer’
Part 2: ‘Something No One Has Seen Or Done Before’
Part 3: ‘I Won’t Open The Fair Without That Exhibit!’
Part 4: ‘At The Intersection Of Commerce And Progress’
Part 5: ‘It Says Something Very Nice’

In this segment, we’re going to look at the legacy of the Fair on Disney’s theme parks. As we discussed in the first week of the series, Walt Disney used the New York World’s Fair as a sort of testing ground for an East Coast Disneyland concept. The success of the Disney-designed pavilions convinced the company that their secret land purchases in Florida would pay off. As Jeff Kurtti noted in Since The World Began, his (sadly out of print) account of Walt Disney World’s first 25 years:

Ninety-one percent of the guests at the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair attended at least one of the Disney shows. And although critics scoffed at Disney’s creations, their popularity convinced many in the Disney organization that the theme park concept was fundamentally reliable, regardless of geographic location.

Since the Fair, Disney has opened a resort with five theme parks in Florida, expanded Disneyland to a second theme park, opened a two-park resort in Tokyo and single-park resorts in Paris and Hong Kong – with a resort in Shanghai set to open in late 2015.

Each of the four pavilions that Disney designed and built for the Fair have left their mark on the Disney brand over the past 50 years. It’s A Small World, with its inimitable spirit and charm, has made its way to all five Magic Kingdom-style parks and has been consistently popular since its Disneyland debut. That attraction also inspired and informed the spirit of World Showcase, the half of Epcot in which various nations show themselves off to guests, living in harmony along World Showcase Lagoon.

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Disney and the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair, Part 5: ‘It Says Something Very Nice’

Monday, April 14th, 2014 - by Chris Queen

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Welcome to Part 5 of our series on Walt Disney’s contributions to the 1964-65 World’s Fair in New York City. If you need to catch up on the rest of the series, here’s where to look:

Part 1: ‘The Kind Of Service We Can Offer’
Part 2: ‘Something No One Has Seen Or Done Before’
Part 3: ‘I Won’t Open The Fair Without That Exhibit!’
Part 4: ‘At The Intersection Of Commerce And Progress’

This week we’re looking at an attraction that made its debut at the World’s Fair and is still beloved today – It’s A Small World. It’s one of the attractions that appears at every Disney resort, on three continents. Because of its ubiquity all over the world, according to Disney, the title song “is always playing somewhere around the world.” During the course of a 16 hour day in any one of the parks, the song plays 1,200 times. Love it or hate it, It’s A Small World is one of the quintessential Disney attractions, but it almost didn’t make it off the drawing board.

A scant nine months before the Fair, Pepsi approached the Disney Studios requesting that the Imagineers develop an attraction that the company would sponsor to benefit UNICEF. Bob Thomas picks up the story in Walt Disney: An American Original:

A Disney executive, believing that three projects were more than enough to occupy WED, sent the Pepsi-Cola people to an engineering firm that specialized in children’s playgrounds. Walt was angry when he heard about it. “I’m the one who makes those decisions!” he declared. “Tell Pepsi I’ll do it!”

Walt detailed to stunned Imagineers his plan for “a little boat ride” in which guests would see simple, childlike figures representing the cultures all over the globe. He enlisted some of his most trusted artists to design the attraction. Mary Blair, whom Walt called his “favorite artist,” imprinted her unique stamp on the look of the ride. Marc Davis oversaw the animatronics, while his wife Alice and Joyce Carlson designed the costumes for the dolls. Claude Coats engineered the layout of what Walt would call “the happiest cruise that ever sailed.”

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Disney’s Billion Dollar Theme Park Gamble

Wednesday, March 12th, 2014 - by Chris Queen

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Guests travel to Walt Disney World seeking the ultimate vacation experience, and Disney continues to develop new ways to deliver the best possible vacation. The company has invested over a billion dollars in their MyMagic+ system, which employs wearable technology and RFID (radio frequency identification) chips to fine tune and customize guests’ experiences. Disney has high hopes for MyMagic+, but so far many guests aren’t sold on the idea.

A recent MSN Money profile on MyMagic+ reveals the technology behind this new system, Disney’s expectations for the program, and guests’ decidedly mixed reviews.

It’s a sweeping reservation and ride planning system that allows for bookings months in advance on a website or smartphone app. Bracelets called MagicBands, which link electronically to an encrypted database of visitor information, serve as admission tickets, hotel keys, and credit or debit cards; a tap against a sensor pays for food or trinkets. The bands have radio frequency identification (RFID) chips — which critics derisively call spychips because of their ability to monitor people and things.

That tracking power also is what makes them so important for Disney’s $14.1 billion theme park and resort business. Intelligence collected using the bands coupled with what visitors input into the related My Disney Experience app and website — all voluntary — help Disney determine when to add more staff at rides, what restaurants should serve, which souvenirs should be stocked, and how many employees in costume should roam around at any given time. Data about customer preferences could be used to craft e-mails or text messages alerting them to restaurant menu changes or sudden openings for reservations in an expedited queue at Space Mountain or the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror.

The goal is to offer people what Tom Staggs, head of the company’s parks and resorts unit, calls “a more immersive, more seamless, and more personal experience” — allowing Disney employees to address a child by name, for example, or wish someone a happy birthday.

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Disney Raises Theme Park Ticket Prices Again

Wednesday, February 26th, 2014 - by Chris Queen

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Over the weekend, Disney Parks announced a ticket price increase for Walt Disney World, effective this week. From the Orlando Sentinel:

Disney’s Magic Kingdom guests will have to fork over a few extra dollars for single-day park admission.

The tickets will cost $99 for adults and children 10 and up.

This $4 price hike keeps Magic Kingdom the most expensive Disney park.

A one-day ticket for Epcot, Animal Kingdom and Hollywood Studios will go from $90 to $94.

“Our pricing reflects the high quality and breadth of experiences we offer and our ongoing commitment to investing in our parks,” Disney spokesman Bryan Malenius said Saturday. “We offer a variety of ticket options that provide a great value, and find that most guests select multi-day tickets that offer additional savings.”

This increase was the second in less than a year. The company did not announce a hike in prices for Disneyland on Saturday, but insiders expect an increase in the not too distant future.

Many of the Disney fans I’ve spoken with bristled at the higher prices, but it’s worth noting that purchasing multi-day ticket packages can ease the blow a little – and the no expiration option, though expensive, allows guests to save tickets for years at a time.

Over at Theme Park Insider, Robert Niles put the price hike in perspective:

As long as more people keep going to the parks each year, theme parks will keep increasing their prices. Disney World’s attendance is up, so it’s just supply-and-demand for Disney to raise its prices. If you think Disney World’s gotten too expensive, don’t bother complaining. Disney’s looking at attendance numbers when setting prices, not people moaning online.

The fact of the matter is that dyed-in-the-wool Disney fans and other guests who really want to visit Walt Disney World will suck it up and pay the higher ticket prices. Even with the increased admission, Disney World still provides a tremendous value.

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5 Attractions I Wish Were Still At Walt Disney World

Saturday, February 15th, 2014 - by Chris Queen

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As someone who has traveled to Walt Disney World more times than I can count, I’ve seen attractions come and go. Disney closes and changes attractions for many different reasons – some rides become outdated, while others diminish in popularity or become too difficult or expensive to maintain. Other attractions go to make way for new ideas.

The Disney Dining site (a terrific site fill of great tips and fun list posts) recently produced their list of ten Walt Disney World attractions they wish were still around. While I agree with the spirit of their list, I didn’t agree with the placement of some of the attractions on the list, so I gave in to the temptation to create my own list.

Many of these selections stem from sheer nostalgic value, but I really do miss these rides. If you think of other attractions that you think should be on this list, feel free to share in the comments section below.

5. 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea (1971-1994)

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The submarine ride 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea captured my imagination as a kid. In typical Disney fashion, the attraction was set up to immerse guests in believing they were in the depths of the ocean even though they were only a few feet underwater. Disney closed the submarine ride in 1994, but they didn’t fill in the lagoon for a few years. Part of New Fantasyland sits in that space now, so I suppose it’s a worthwhile tradeoff all these years later.

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Designing A Monorail And Kidnapping A Vice President

Thursday, February 6th, 2014 - by Chris Queen

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The monorail systems at both American Disney theme parks serve as testimony to Walt Disney’s exciting futuristic vision. Monorails played a central role in the urban utopia of Walt’s Florida Project (and later on at Walt Disney World, of course), but many guests may not know that Disneyland has had its own monorail system since 1959.

Walt had wanted a monorail for the opening day of Disneyland, but his team had a difficult time finding a feasible plan for one. It took a trip to Germany for inspiration to strike.

During a visit to Europe in the Summer of 1957, Disney’s engineering group examined the experimental monorail developed by the Alweg Corporation, near Cologne, Germany. After further investigation, the group reported to Disney that this design appeared to offer the best prospects for economy, stability, and all-around practicality…

Walt asked Alweg to build a monorail for Disneyland, and he tapped Bob Gurr, an Imagineer who had worked on nearly all the other vehicles at the park, to work with the German company. Walt was pleased with the result and greenlit the Disneyland Alweg Monorail System, which opened June 14, 1959.

 This “Highway in Sky” featured two trains, each with 3 cabins and the now-iconic bubble top in front. Walt Disney’s hope was not only to provide a scenic journey above Disneyland, but to create a solution for mass transportation needs all around the world.

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Disney Parks From The Air Over The Years

Thursday, January 30th, 2014 - by Chris Queen

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By now, most people have heard the story of how Walt Disney initially came up with the idea to open a theme park. When he took his daughters on daddy-daughter trips to amusement parks around Los Angeles, he sat on a bench while Diane and Sharon rode rides and lamented the lack of activities for the entire family. The original idea for a small “Mickey Mouse Park” across the street from the Disney Studios has grown to two huge resort destinations in the United States, one in Europe, and two in Asia with a third coming soon.

Aerial photographs show us in a fascinating way how much the American parks have grown over the years. Take Disneyland in Anaheim, California, for instance. The original Disney theme park opened in 1955 on 160 acres near sleepy orange groves and is now 300 acres in the heart of Southern California’s bustling metropolis.

The photo below contrasts Disneyland in 1955 with today. Notice how undeveloped the area around the park was, and compare it to the urban sprawl that even in the late 50s bothered Walt and led him to build Walt Disney World in Florida. You can also see how the parking areas have moved to make room for hotels and additions to the park – including a whole new theme park, Disney’s California Adventure, which we’ll look at next.

Disneyland

Disney initially built Disney’s California Adventure Park on 67 acres at the southern end of the Disneyland property in 2001. The company retooled the park and expanded it six years later. The photo below shows the growth of the park between 2003 and today. While the growth may not look that drastic, you can notice in particular the growth in the southeastern part of the park as well as the major expansion of the Grand Californian Hotel at the center left of both images.

California Adventure

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Will Tomorrowland See A Makeover From ‘A Long Time Ago In A Galaxy Far, Far Away’?

Saturday, January 11th, 2014 - by Chris Queen

Tomorrowland

Back in the summer, I wrote about the rumors that Disney has plans in the works for a Star Wars-themed land at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. So far, we haven’t seen anything more substantive than those rumors. But since Disney acquired Lucasfilm in 2012, fans and theme park experts alike have speculated how the company would fold its new acquisition into the theme parks. Now, rumors have begun to swirl that Disney is planning a rehab of Disneyland’s Tomorrowland influenced by the upcoming Star Wars: Episode VII.

The typically reliable MiceChat recently offered up a full update on Disneyland’s traffic numbers during the Christmas season (up!) and the park’s plans for the future. For those who like change, there’s apparently good news. Some of it is definitely coming, but it may not happen as quickly or be as drastic as Star Wars fans may have hoped. On the bright side, however, much of it may involve specific details from Episode VII, as the Disneyland crew recently was given a rundown on the plot and new characters that will be introduced to incorporate into their designs.

Apparently, the Tomorrowland remodel has been split into two phases… The first phase will involve relatively simple cosmetic alterations. The Astro Orbitor, [sic] that giant eyesore little kid’s ride pictured above, will be ripped out, along with the deserted track from People Mover. The buildings will also all be redone to look like a giant space port. Then, down the road, phase two will involve scrapping Autopia and replacing it with a speeder bike ride, putting some kind of spaceship walk through on the People Mover track, installing a new Astro Orbitor [sic] closer to Space Mountain and more, all positioned in the backhalf of Tomorrowland.

For Star Wars fans, this rumor (sorry, regardless of the source, it’s still just hearsay) could generate some excitement, and hopefully it will lead to changes at Walt Disney World as well – whether the changes be to  Tomorrowland at the Magic Kingdom or to Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Adding a long popular franchise that just happens to be part of the Disney family into the parks is a wise move for both the creatives and the business people.

I couldn’t help but chuckle at the comments at the end of the article, where commenters complained that a Star Wars patina is a bad addition to Tomorrowland, since the films take place “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.” Of course, these folks have lost sight of the fact that Tomorrowland at both American parks isn’t exactly futuristic today. Imagineers have given Tomorrowland in both California and Florida – along with portions of Disneyland Paris and Tokyo DisneySea – a charming retro-futuristic vibe, influenced by science fiction from Old Hollywood as well as the works of Jules Verne. Art Deco flourishes abound throughout both lands, and other touches show a decided 20th century sense of style. It’s not strictly futuristic, but it is a distinct feel for these lands.

The bottom line is that Disney knows what it’s doing. The success of the Star Tours attraction and the Star Wars Weekends events demonstrate that Disney’s partnership with Lucasfilm paid off handsomely long before Disney bought the studio. I can’t help but believe that adding a bit of Star Wars influence to Tomorrowland (and a Star Wars Land at Hollywood Studios – please, please, please) can pay off even more.

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Disney’s Tasty, Controversial Turkey Legs

Thursday, January 9th, 2014 - by Chris Queen

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Of all the food options available at Disney Parks, many guests swear by the Jumbo Turkey Legs. I’ve never had one myself, but according to some guests, the Turkey Legs are a sure bet for a savory treat.

Like other famous Disney Parks snacks – the Dole Whip and the Mickey Ice Cream Bars – the Turkey Legs have spawned a merchandise industry all their own. The Turkey Legs made their debut in the late 1980s and have increased in popularity over the years – so much, in fact, that the New York Times featured the treats in a recent front page article.

Disney parks are about selling memories, and a spokeswoman, Angela Bliss, noted that foods like turkey legs play “an integral part in the storytelling.” For instance, at Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Orlando, they have been sold as “dinosaur bones.”

Disney is also in the business of making money, of course, and a jumbo turkey leg sells for up to $11.79.

Naturally, something that so many guests enjoy is going to generate some controversy. On one side, Disney executives fear that the Jumbo Turkey Legs steer guests away from more healthy snack options. (Because we all spend our vacations seeking out health food.)

Still, some executives at Disney’s corporate offices worry that the craze is starting to obscure their efforts to improve overall food offerings and nudge customers toward healthier items. Of the 12 million children’s meals Disney serves annually, for instance, more than 50 percent now come with milk, juice or water instead of soda. Disney has also sharply reduced salt in its children’s meals.

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Each leg is roughly 720 calories with 36 grams of fat, according to a supplier, Yoakum Packing.

On the other hand (or leg, if you prefer), some poultry industry watchdogs and other assorted killjoys have expressed their concern about the sheer size of the Turkey Legs. In a response to the Times piece, Karen Davis of United Poultry Concerns wrote:

Why are these Disney theme park turkey legs so big? Turkeys have been artificially bred to grow so large that their legs, big as they are, cannot support their body weight.

The disability of turkeys bred for the meat industry is well documented in the scientific poultry literature.

Clearly Ms. Davis didn’t read the whole article, because if she had, she would have read that the legs come from tom turkeys, which are much larger than the hens we see around our Thanksgiving tables.

Despite the frenzy, it looks like Jumbo Turkey Legs are here to stay at Disney Parks. Any item that sells in the millions (Disney projected that they would sell two million of them in 2013) is bound to withstand controversy.

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What Role Did Walt Disney World Play in the Breakup of the Beatles?

Thursday, December 19th, 2013 - by Chris Queen

John Lennon

Thousands of people spend their Christmas vacation at Walt Disney World each year. Nearly 40 years ago, one of those vacationers was John Lennon – and that trip included a historic event.

In 1974, John was in the midst of his 14 month separation from Yoko Ono – a period he called his “Lost Weekend” – and he decided on a whim to take son Julian and assistant/girlfriend May Pang to the Magic Kingdom. He booked a room at the Polynesian Village Hotel, now called Disney’s Polynesian Resort.

Meanwhile, in London and New York, attorneys had finally put the finishing touches on the contractual paperwork that would solidify the Beatles’ breakup. The contract was four years in the making, and the other three Beatles were ready to sign.

After years of red tape and millions of dollars spent, the official dissolution papers were drawn up and ready to be signed off on at the Plaza Hotel in New York in 1974. George and Paul had arranged to fly in and be present, while Ringo signed the necessary documents at an earlier time, while still in England.

So as George, Paul, Apple lawyers and business managers grouped around a large table to dissolve the partnership, Ringo was on the phone to confirm that he was alive. Meanwhile, everyone in the room was curious about John’s whereabouts. This seemed especially ironic, given Lennon lived within walking distance of the Plaza Hotel.

The attorneys furiously worked to determine John’s whereabouts. May Pang picks up the story:

On December 29, 1974, the voluminous documents were brought down to John in Florida by one of Apple’s lawyers.

“Take out your camera,” he joked to me. Then he called Harold to go over some final points.

When John hung up the phone, he looked wistfully out the window. I could almost see him replaying the entire Beatles experience in his mind.

He finally picked up his pen and, in the unlikely backdrop of the Polynesian Village Hotel at Disney World, ended the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band in history by simply scrawling John Lennon at the bottom of the page.

And that’s how Walt Disney World bore witness to rock history.

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