Posted Tuesday, September 20, 2011 at 9:41p Pacific Time
Disney announced "AVATAR-land" today, headed for the Animal Kingdom some time in 2014 or 2015. Though Disney didn't say so, it's been positioned by press and fans as the company's response to Universal's super-successful Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
I don't buy that: I don't think Disney truly needed to respond to Harry Potter either financially or creatively. It's not clear Disney's lost business to Universal; indeed, they may be benefitting from overall increased vacationing in Orlando. And artistically, sure, Harry Potter is excellent. But does the creative war that goes on between the two companies really matter to anyone besides us theme park geeks? I don't think so.
So while I don't think there's a business need to one-up Universal, here's what Wizarding World did do: it provided Disney a template for the next generation of theme park experiences. Over-the-top attractions, while still important, are a little less so now. What matters most in this new world is the themed environment: immersive, fantastical…transporting.
And it's here, in creating Avatar's over-the-top alien world, where Avatar-land might—might—succeed. It'll be beautiful, no doubt. Its fluorescent forests and animals will look amazing at night, solving one of Animal Kingdom's biggest problems by giving people a reason to stay after the giraffes go to sleep. (I'm envisioning a high-end restaurant overlooking a glowing Pandoran forest…mmm, could be amazing.)
But as beautiful as the world of Avatar is, it is a little…creepy. I'm not sure I want to bump into 10-foot-tall Na'vi walking around the park. (For that matter, will 5-year-old children want to?) I'm not sure I want to eat Pandoran food. If Disney was looking to respond directly to Harry Potter, then Avatar is a fairly weak comeback. (Much better would have been, say, a Star Wars Land over at Hollywood Studios, Star Wars being one of the only properties that's in the vicinity of Harry Potter in terms of fan base and loyalty.) But if what Disney was looking for was an shot-in-the-arm for Animal Kingdom specifically, especially to give it more nighttime activities…well, Avatar's a decent choice.
A brilliant choice? No. The world of Avatar doesn't seem to mesh with the feel of a Disney theme park. Should Disney be populating Animal Kingdom, a park that's supposed to be about the very real topics of animals and the environment, with fantasy creatures? Probably not. And for those reasons, Avatar-land feels like a business decision more than a creative one.
Yet I'm cautiously—very cautiously—optimistic. I admit, I do want to see what a real-life Pandora looks like. If enough other people do too, and Disney figures out a way to make 10-foot-tall blue aliens feel at home in a Disney park (I'm getting a little queasy even typing that sentence) then maybe it can be something special.
The Story Behind Wishing Stars: a GPS Adventure You Play at Disneyland
Posted Monday, September 7, 2009 at 4:31p Pacific Time
When I was little, whenever my Dad, brother, and I were out for a drive in our family's elaborate 1970s customized van, we used to play a game we called "Disney World Rides." Basically, it was a variant of "20 Questions," except the answer was always some attraction/shop/you-name-it at Disney World. It was an intensely fun game, not because it was actually that great of a game, but because it gave me an excuse to think and talk about Disney World, which was what I wanted to be doing all of the time. (I even remember, with my Dad's help, writing a very simple version of the game that played on the shiny new Atari 800 home computer we purchased around that time.)
It's now 30 years later, and it was time for "Disney World Rides" to grow up. I've written a game called "Wishing Stars" for the iPhone, and thanks to today's technology, it's way more of an adventure than "Disney World Rides" ever was. The premise: dozens of Wishing Stars have been hidden around Disneyland (Disney World, too, coming in November), and it's your job to find them. How do you do that? Solve clues that will lead you to locations where the virtual stars are "hidden." (Using the GPS magic packed into your iPhone, the app can figure out whether you're standing in the spot that the clue is leading you to.) You can see it in action at http://wishing-stars.com/demo.
What I'm most excited about is the opportunity to lead people to the hidden, under-traveled places that I love at the Disney parks. I've always felt Tom Sawyer Island/Pirates' Lair was an undiscovered gem; with the creation of a Wishing Stars Quest that takes players there...voila! Players will now have an incentive to discover it.* Disney World's Electrical Water Pageant is one of my favorite experiences, yet virtually unknown to most. A new Quest in the upcoming Disney World release of Wishing Stars will solve that problem.
This gets to the underlying challenge: you see people using their phones while waiting in line on Space Mountain, playing Tetris and browsing Facebook. But wouldn't it be great if what people were doing on their phone could immerse them further into the Disney experience, rather than distract from it? By taking people to the places that make the Disney parks special--as well as providing some "in-queue quests" that can be played while waiting in line--hopefully Wishing Stars will be a true enhancement to a park experience rather than a distraction.
I hope those that are intrigued will try it out. Let me know about your experience! For the latest in Wishing Stars news, you can follow me on Twitter at http://twitter.com/wishing_stars. And I'm going to be at the D23 Expo, so those of you who'd like to talk about the game can meet up with me in person! (Twitter is the best way to coordinate...)
* The dragon drama on Pirates' Lair over the summer kept me from including the Pirates' Lair Quest in first release of the game (one of the Wishing Star locations was hidden by construction walls!) But now that things seemed to be fixed, my Pirates' Lair quest will be included in the next update!
Disneyland Spelling Errors
Posted Friday, June 19, 2009 at 4:11p Pacific Time
I was at Disneyland a few days ago, and my friend Dave Cobb pointed out a spelling mistake in the newly-reopened Sleeping Beauty Castle Walkthrough. On every one of the storybook pages on display, Aurora's Prince is named "Phillip"...except on one (I think it's the one near the mirrored display of floating spinning wheels) where he's referred to as "Philip." Unfortunate, but I guess it's not too hard to imagine how it happened.
I was surprised, however, when I later uncovered an even bigger spelling inconsistency at Disneyland. Every Disney fan knows that the dock from which you sail the seas of the Caribbean...
...and many who've visited the brand-new Pirate's Lair know that the new pirate hangout (and home of the Fantasmic show) is...
Wikipedia notes that Lafitte's name has been spelled both ways. If I'm being generous, maybe I could blame it on rich theming: perhaps the timeframes depicted in the Pirates of the Caribbean ride (the timeframe of the "swamp" area, specifically) is a different one from that depicted on Pirate's Lair, and maybe different spellings of the name were in vogue at the different times?
Or, more likely, the "Laffite" of Laffite's Landing isn't really Jean Laffite the pirate (why would he have a "landing" in the swamps of New Orleans?), but rather one of his descendants, and perhaps the name is more commonly spelled with two F's by modern Louisiana residents?
Yes...yes...that must be it. The detail those Imagineers put into those attractions is amazing!
D23: What Does It Mean?
Posted Tuesday, March 17, 2009 at 1:43p Pacific Time
With the uptick in popularity of events like Comic-Con, I suppose it was inevitable that Disney would take control of its relationship with fans and launch an official fan club. And it's a perfectly reasonable thing to do: why shouldn't Disney own that relationship, and why shouldn't it make a little money off it? The more important question to the people who read a site like LaughingPlace: will D23 benefit Disney fans?
I think it's probably a wash. Yes, the D23 Expo will certainly be fun to go to, but some of that fun will almost have to come at the expense of shows like NFFC. Similarly, there's no way that a fan site will score an Imagineer interview if there's a waiting space in an upcoming issue of "Disney 23 Magazine." Fans will be getting a strengthened "official" relationship at the expense of a relationship with weaker independent Disney sources. Whether that's good or bad is hard to tell at this point, but the quality of Disney 23 Magazine and the Expo will decide.
Where I have an issue with D23--and, admittedly, it's a minor one--is on the subject of membership. Disney has no shortage of clubs it wants you to join, among them: Club 33, the Disney Vacation Club, Annual Passholders. (I'm sure there are others I've forgotten.) Disney is arguing for the umpteenth time that I need to pay a premium to elevate to the exalted status of "member," when those benefits seem slight, especially considering the two biggest aspects of D23--the new magazine and annual expo--are also accessible to non-members.
Furthermore, even for a company like Disney that turns out hundreds of products a year, there's only so much "special access" that can be granted. With my D23 membership Disney promises special access to events, merchandise... indeed, the same sorts of access that have been promised to so many other clubs. (Pity the poor Disney folks who have to figure out who gets first dibs on, say, a new attraction opening or an artist signing. I can imagine the D23, DVC, AP, and Club 33 marketing managers getting into a tussle.)
The "become a member" mantra was old already, and to me the D23 membership cards and certificates feel like obvious gimmicks. Would anything have been lost had Disney simply announced a first-class fan magazine and expo, rather than yet another club to join?
How Disney could really please its customers
Posted Sunday, February 22, 2009 at 7:38p Pacific Time
This past week Disney announced restructuring and layoffs.
In its press release, Disney claimed that what guests want more than
anything is a "One Disney" experience, a relief from the multiple
reservation systems and support infrastructures that each park sports
today, but presumably, will not sport tomorrow. To accomplish this,
they're going to consolidate many parallel park operations under one
I don't know enough to say whether the consolidation makes sense; on paper, it likely does. But here's what I do know: the idea that Disney guests desire a "one Disney" experience is silly, at least for the 99.5% of Disney park guests that visit only the park nearest to them.
Demolish Club 33?
Posted Tuesday, September 23, 2008 at 11:46a Pacific Time
A few years ago, a friend invited my wife and me, along with another couple, to use his Club 33 membership for a day. I loved everything about it. Well, almost everything. The food--while good--wasn't the best I've had at a Disney resort (the Napa Rose at the Grand Californian blows it away), but in every other way I was in heaven. I loved the free entry into the park that his membership granted us; loved entering through the club's secret door; loved the fact that I could get a better-than-average meal inside of Disneyland; loved that I could take a break from the hustle and bustle of a day at the park; and loved most of all the fact that I could drink a martini and peer out a window overlooking my favorite place in the world. It's every Disney fan's dream to live in Disneyland: this felt, a little bit, like a fulfillment of that dream. Yet Club 33 troubled me in a way I had a hard time resolving.
When the Cinderella Castle Dream Suite opened in the Magic Kingdom in 2006, I was excited as anyone to see what it would look like...yet disturbed that it might be the beginning of a trend towards premium attractions for the ultra-rich inside a park that I've always believed was for everyone. Things like this have been rumored in the past (I wrote about my fear of special FastPasses available only for resort guests a while back). Then I realized: isn't Club 33—the place I loved visiting, the place created by Walt himself—the real beginning of this trend? Is the "elite" Club 33 in conflict with what I think Disneyland is supposed to be?
I believe it is. (And I suspect that if Disney today tried to build a super-premium private club in a park, the fan community wouldn't be terribly enthusiastic about it.) But that doesn't mean I think that Club 33 has to be demolished. What I enjoyed about Club 33 wasn't its exclusivity, but rather, the opportunity to have a leisurely meal in beautiful surroundings at Disneyland. I got nearly as much satisfaction out of eating at Walt's in Disneyland Paris, a restaurant similar in design to Club 33, yet accessible to anyone who bothers to make a reservation.
How do you feel about Club 33? Does a private club inside the park clash with what Disneyland stands for? And if it doesn't, should there be more Club 33s—along with other "members-only" attractions, including DVC-only perks—opening up in the Disney parks?
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tags: Disneyland Resort Food and Dining, Grand Californian Hotel, Disney Vacation Club, Disneyland Paris, Magic Kingdom, Disneyland Resort, Disneyland Resort, Other Disney Destinations, Walt Disney World
Disney's New Caribbean Beach: Theming Without a Sense of Time or Place
Posted Thursday, July 31, 2008 at 6:30p Pacific Time
You may have seen this article in the Orlando Sentinel about updated theming to the Caribbean Beach resort. The illustration depicts beds styled like boats. A table themed as a giant compass. It's decked out top-to-bottom in Pirates paraphernalia, yet I think this room has the concept of Pirates' theming all wrong. Here's why:
Do you imagine that the pirates of Pirates of the Caribbean sleep in beds styled as boats? Did they do that in the movie? Of course not, so why is that the case here? It's the equivalent of the Cinderella Castle Suite offering up a giant glass slipper as a bathtub.
You could argue that what I'm asking for might demand an unappealing level of realism—do people really want to stay in what passed for a bedroom on a pirate ship?—and, of course, nobody wants that. But it seems like there's a middle-ground that would feel like a room out of the Pirates world while still preserving the "fun" that this concept thinks it's offering up.
Theming, at least the way Disney has traditionally defined it, goes beyond "styling" to communicate a sense of time and place. What time and place does this room take me to? Nowhere, unfortunately, except the Caribbean Beach Hotel circa 2009, or maybe a kid's bedroom. Not the world of Pirates of the Caribbean.
Sell Disney World if Oil Hits $160-a-Barrel? Who Makes This Up?
Posted Monday, June 23, 2008 at 6:05p Pacific Time
I first saw this rumor on Kevin Yee's MiceAge posts, and I've now seen it repeated a half-dozen times elsewhere: Disney's accountants have done a study saying that if oil reaches $160 a barrel, there's no way the company can turn a profit on Walt Disney World. And in that environment, Disney should just sell the resort to a third party, then collect license fees from said third party.
Is this just completely made-up, because the idea sounds, well, preposterous. If it isn’t profitable for Disney to run the parks in that environment, why would it be profitable for anyone else to run them either, given that they’d also be saddled with licensing fees to pay to Disney?
Maybe this makes sense if Disney sells to Exxon. Otherwise, what am I missing here?
Trees in the Magic Kingdom, continued
Posted Tuesday, April 29, 2008 at 9:43a Pacific Time
A quick follow-up to my previous post bemoaning the lack of trees at the Magic Kingdom's central hub. Yesterday's MiceChat photo update depicts the very progression I'm talking about. (Search for the words "Walt Disney World" about 3/4ths down the page and you'll find it.) Note that even in the 1997 photo, it appears the larger trees are still there.
Faux Space Mountain Attraction Poster
Posted Monday, April 14, 2008 at 10:20p Pacific Time
Those of you who are either attraction poster or Space Mountain fans might be interested in a new poster I just produced, designed to celebrate the days back when Space Mountain was the end-all be-all of Disney rides. You can find more details over at my personal blog; you'll also find downloadable versions of the poster that you can print out for yourself.
Hope you enjoy it!
Trees in the Magic Kingdom
Posted Saturday, April 12, 2008 at 8:29a Pacific Time
I found this photo on Flickr, and besides being a photo of a very cute kid, it reminded me of something I miss at the Magic Kingdom whenever I visit now: trees. Specifically, trees at the Hub.
The Hub trees back in 1975 were big, beautiful, and made the place feel very park-like, a little destination unto its own. When I'm there now, it feels desolate: a place to walk through, but not particularly a place to hang out and relax.
Where did the trees go? Perhaps they simply died; I'm guessing the more likely reason is that they were victim to the fireworks shows that came to dominate the Magic Kingdom's evening agenda in the '80s and '90s. Back in 1975, when this photo was taken, fireworks shows were relatively rare occurrences; management hadn't stumbled onto the fact that fireworks were key to getting people to stay in the park all evening, and spend extra dollars on food and sweatshirts needed to withstand the chiller night air. Trees make it hard to see fireworks; as a result, today we have shrubs.
Not a complaint, exactly...if my hypothesis is correct, the loss of the trees probably makes sense (at least, for those people that enjoy fireworks shows more than I do.) But I miss the way it looked back then.
UPDATE: Not long after posting this, it occurred to me that the tree removal might have as much to do with the stage in front of Cinderella Castle as the fireworks show. Now that, I have to say, I do have a problem with. Ignoring the question of whether the shows are ever any good, not only would it be a travesty to have knocked down some beautiful trees for a show that only a small percentage of visitors actually want to see (the shows are inevitably geared to six-year-olds), it's not appropriate to ever close off the primary entrance to Fantasyland, let alone do so four times a day. (Walking through the castle is one of the defining experiences at a Disney park.) Okay...end rant.
Two Great Jungle Cruise Experiences
Posted Monday, December 31, 2007 at 4:01p Pacific Time
Jungle Cruise is a must-see when I visit a Disney park, but I can count on one hand the number of outstanding Jungle Cruise skippers I've encountered in the past ten years. In fact, I can count them on two fingers, those two fingers representing Emily and Ian, who guided my family around the world's most exotic and treacherous rivers during my December trip to Disney World.
Our first trip through, Emily delivered the standard Jungle Cruise spiel like a female Sam Kinison, punctuating the ride's high points with yelling that you'd think would be annoying, and might be were it not hilarious. After the cruise with Emily, my 3-year-old niece seemed entranced by the ride; as the park was relatively empty, we asked for--and got--a repeat trip. And Emily switched out with Ian. Ian was even more remarkable, gliding around the front of the boat like a compact Jim Carrey crossed with Fred Astaire, yet also prone to breaking out in Gilbert and Sullivan-style light opera. If it sounds crazy, it was, but it was crazy-good.
To be fair to the other skippers I've seen, most of them are at least adequate. A few are good; at least one or two have been outright terrible. But Emily and Ian were inspired; seek them out next time you're in Florida.
In Defense of Space Mountain
Posted Friday, November 30, 2007 at 8:17p Pacific Time
In my most recent column, I made what I'll admit is a totally outrageous claim: that Walt Disney World's Space Mountain is the best version of the ride anywhere. I knew before I said it that most Disney fans disagreed with me. I had a hard time believing it myself. I mean, Paris's Space Mountain is the most beautiful, right? And Disneyland's revamped version is the most modern. How could WDW's be best?
"Placemaking" at Disney's California Adventure
Posted Thursday, October 18, 2007 at 6:24p Pacific Time
Walt Disney World: Six Days and Counting
Posted Sunday, September 16, 2007 at 2:14p Pacific Time
Splash Mountain: the Write-Up
Posted Friday, September 7, 2007 at 9:40p Pacific Time
16 Comments permalink link with comments
tags: Disney Books, Disney's Tron, Tokyo Disneyland, Universal Studios, Magic Kingdom, Disney Movies, Other Disney Destinations, Non-Disney Parks, Walt Disney World
FastPass Fairness in the Magic Kingdom
Posted Wednesday, September 5, 2007 at 10:03p Pacific Time
Things Only I Seem To Like: Disneyland's Winnie the Pooh
Posted Monday, September 3, 2007 at 12:44p Pacific Time
The "Partners" Statue...a clarification
Posted Sunday, August 19, 2007 at 9:49a Pacific Time
*A Fred Moore-style Mickey would have gone a long way towards making Mickey seem more alive. Picture the bouncy, expressive Mickey from "The Brave Little Tailor" and realize how far from ideal this sculpture really is. Roy Disney's statue at the front of the park is considerably better than Walt's--I'm guessing the sitting pose makes it much easier to convey a sense of comfort and life--though I don't think Minnie fares much better here than Mickey did.
Ghost Host: Up Close and Personal
Posted Saturday, July 28, 2007 at 10:52a Pacific Time
"Of course, there's always my way..."
How many hundreds of times had I heard that phrase, while standing in the Haunted Mansion's stretching room or listening to that Ron Howard Haunted Mansion LP as a kid, without ever taking notice of it? Yet I remember, about ten years ago, standing in the stretching room, hearing the Ghost Host utter those words, gazing up to see that swinging corpse in the rafters and all of a sudden realizing: "My way? What the heck is he talking about?"
Questions entered my head in rapid succession:
"His way...the hanging corpse...is that how the Ghost Host died? Suicide...?"
And most interestingly: "Is that the body of the Ghost Host hanging up there right now?"
More questions than answers, and none of this had ever occurred to me before. Besides leaving me feel profoundly enlightened, it also left me feeling incredibly obtuse. Was I--after spending hundreds of hours thinking about this place--the only one in the room who didn't know the meaning of "my way?" (A quick check with my brother standing next to me--who should know the attraction only a little less well than I do--revealed that he'd never thought about it either. So maybe we're both a little slow.)
Just recently, the story took a step forward for me. The Haunted Mansion blog Ghost Relations Department has a post that claims that a particular Haunted Mansion portrait is the likeness of the Ghost Host. And what's displayed in the painting? A creepy, undead-looking gentleman with a tell-tale noose around his neck. Ah-ha. (The post doesn't, however, make any allusions to the "my way"-noose relationship: either they missed it, or it's such an obvious connection that it went unstated.)
Based on the assertion that this is the image of the Ghost Host--which I have no reason to doubt*--it seems clear that the Ghost Host did die by hanging. Was it suicide? Don't know. Is that his body, hanging up there in the rafters? Don't know that either. But just for my own personal satisfaction, I'm going to assume that it is: I like it that way.
There are still questions to be answered (though they likely never will be), but am I the only one who didn't put two-and-two together about the backstory of the Ghost Host?
* GrimGhosts.com also indicates that this image is a representation of the Ghost Host. (Search for the second occurrence of the term "Ghost Host" on the page.)