When AT-ATs Catch A Cold

Possibly the greatest of all Star Wars vehicles is the mighty All-Terrain-Armored-Transport (or AT-AT for short). Huge quadruped machines that lumber across the snow fields of Hoth or play hide-and-seek on the forest moon of Endor. They are simultaneously terrifying and adorable — like great danes or Duffy Bears. One just assumes that if an AT-AT could talk, it would sound very much like Fezzik in the Princess Bride.

Darth Vader: Beware of rebel harpoons and tow-cables.
AT-AT: Maybe they try to turn the… tables.
Darth Vader: The force is with you, AT-AT, but you are a not a Jedi yet.
AT-AT: Anybody want a baguette?

If I had my way, there would be a whole line of cute and ironic AT-AT shirts, similar to those T-Rex-Has-Stubby-Arms things. Probably most of the jokes would be dog-related. Like maybe a Star Destroyer speeding through hyperspace, with an AT-At hanging its head out the window, tongue flapping. #milliondollaridea

To my knowledge, there is only one life-sized AT-AT on this planet, and it resides in Disney’s Hollywood Studios. It looms over the entrance to Star Tours, and its very presence makes the Walt Disney World Star Tours the best Star Tours. Disneyland and Tokyo buildings are rather plain by comparison. Paris is okay, with its full-size X-wing. But nothing beats an AT-AT.

I had a random memory pop into my head today, and it was actually kind of shocking to recall. This AT-AT has been here more or less since Star Tours first opened way back in 1989, which means it turns 25 this year. A few other vehicles have come and gone, including Jabba’s Sail Barge skiff and a full-sized Snowspeeder. But both of those have disappeared, relegated to the Studio Backlot Tour where they are passed off as real movie props (actually, the Backlot Tour is so forgettable now, I’m not even sure if those vehicles are still there). But the AT-AT remains.

Since about 2007, the space formerly occupied by the skiff and Snowspeeder has been replaced by the permanent stage for the Jedi Training Academy. Seven years that thing has been there, which means there are second- and third-grade padawans now who have never known life without the Training Academy. It’s hard to fault Disney for repurposing the space. The Academy show is cute with a lot of good Star Wars references–and even more cute when one of the padawans belongs to you. But the addition of the stage (and the various padawan holding corrals) had a trickle-down effect on that AT-AT.

To me, it doesn’t seem like that long ago, but seven years actually is a long time. And that is how long it has been since that AT-AT ran out of ammo.

Ahhhh-choo!

Ahhhh-choo! Photo courtesy of Flickr

Do you remember this? During the heat of the summer, every so often, that AT-AT would fire up its chin lasers and blast jets of water out onto the hot pavement, much to the enjoyment of kids (okay, adults too) on the ground. Just one of the many things at Disney that would squirt water to cool you off. It was accompanied by the sound effect from the Empire Strikes Back (chizz-chig! chizz-chig!) and the laser cannons would power back and forth. The thing actually shot at you! That blows my mind.

It’s easy to see why it doesn’t anymore. You can’t have water spritzing a four-foot-high stage where a five-year-old is stumbling around in an oversized cloak, waving a giant stick. That’s a lawsuit waiting to happen. But I just can’t believe the effect has been gone for that long.

We still have water squirty things. There’s that Coke Bottle back by the Backlot Tour, the misting Coca-Cola zone in Tomorrowland, the Coke car wash at Test Track. Now that I think about it, Coke really wants you to be wet, for some reason. All they need to do is add a coke bottle to that giant Stitch above World of Disney and they will have cornered the market on uncomfortable soakings.

Now our AT-AT still stands in his imposing, er, pose, but he is like a creature turned to stone, something out of Narnia or Greek Mythology or Cher’s face. There is not even a hint that he actually used to interact with you–albeit in a very specific sort of way. Presumably there are still water pipes trailing up his legs into his head.

I like to imagine that at night, after the park has closed and everyone has gone to bed, he wakes up and lumbers around the park. I think you can even still see a few footprints embedded in the pavement, if you happen to queue up under the Ewok Village. Maybe he and Gertie the Dinosaur get together and splash around in Echo Lake, or try to play that big guitar at Rock’n’Roller Coaster, or take turns trying on the Sorcerer’s Hat.

It’s just the sort of thing an AT-AT would do.

 

Animal Kingdom: We Got Next – The Quiet Transformation

In 2007, Disney announced a massive makeover of the ailing Disney’s California Adventure park, located on Disney property in California. The fan community rejoiced. We religiously followed every phase of the project, from the demolition of the Whoopie Goldberg theater, to the removal of the Hub Cap icon, to the eradication of the giant lines spelling California inside the California park located in California, to the tragic deconstruction of the much beloved Maliboomer. Basically, we celebrated the removal of all the crap, and the arrival of good things, such as Duffy the Disney Bear.

In 2009, Disney announced the largest expansion in Magic Kingdom history. The fan community — if not rejoiced — then at least spent the next five years bickering about its success. We religiously chronicled every aspect of the Fantasyland project, from the Tangled restrooms to the Belle’s Village restrooms to the Carolwood Station restrooms to the interactive Pooh queue. Basically we celebrated the removal of all vacant crap, and the arrival of new opportunities for poo jokes.

In 2011, Disney announced that Avatar Land would become Animal Kingdom’s largest expansion since Asia. The fan community revolted, called Bob Iger and James Cameron several vile names, then promptly forgot about the whole thing.

Inspirational proverbs on Animal Kingdom Refurbishment walls -- also the plot of Dumbo.

Inspirational proverbs on Animal Kingdom Refurbishment walls — also the plot of Dumbo.

As we close the book on a summer that contained the last little bit of the Fantasyland expansion, one would expect all eyes to turn to Animal Kingdom for the next massive Walt Disney World project. But nobody seems interested. Over in the Magic Kingdom, guests are packing the Mine Train queue to the brim, making a nicely themed kiddy coaster the hottest ticket around. In Hollywood Studios, executives are riding the success of last winter’s mega-hit to untouchable levels of merchandising opportunities, on a shoestring budget/promotion that must make them giggle whenever they look at Diagon Alley. Over in Epcot, more Frozen seems to be on the way, with everyone playing will-they-or-won’t-they at the Norway pavilion.

Meanwhile, walls have quietly gone up all over Animal Kingdom for what I feel is the most exciting Walt Disney World project since, well, Everest.

Nice panels with animal facts on some of the refurb walls -- but still not as good as the animal bathroom facts at Conservation Station.

Nice panels with animal facts on some of the refurb walls — but still not as good as the animal bathroom facts at Conservation Station.

The apathy probably stems from two things. First, people really seem to dislike Avatar and/or feel that Disney could have picked something more “Disney.” I myself agree that Avatar is not my first (or second or third) choice for a new themed land. But on the other hand, I think people may be acting a little too self-righteous about the Avatar thing, as if we all didn’t see the movie at least once in the theater. For whatever shortcomings the movie has, it is nowhere near as bad as the three Star Wars prequels, a franchise which everyone seems to think is a better choice for a Disney land. It also is lightyears ahead of other Disney sci-fi-with-alien-animals stories (John Carter Land). Nobody seems to be grumbling about how bad Transformers sucked when Universal put in an awesome ride. I think Avatar will ultimately end up being just a brand name, and the allure of the new land will be in the bioluminescence, the awesome creature designs, the alien flora and fauna which will be incredible even if you didn’t care about the weird story of a space marine who plays Cranium Command with a blue version of Dances With Wolves. It’s going to be the Alien Dinosaur Institute, sponsored by a generous grant from James Cameron Corporation. And what could be more Disney than an alien telling of Pocahontas?

Secondly, Avatar Land is still three years away from opening. It’s locked away behind trees and walls. We can’t even see it rising in the distance. So it’s hard to get really excited yet. But there is so much happening around the park — some of which will start opening next year — that I think it may catch some fans off guard.

I took a quick spin around Animal Kingdom this afternoon. There is literally something new happening every dozen yards or so.

It starts in the parking lot, where a new expanse of asphalt is beginning to spread over what was once a grass field. Call it the largest parking lot expansion in Disney history. As a fan, it will be fun to speculate what the new lot will be called, because obsessing over parking lot names is what fans do best. Personally, I’m rooting for Leonopteryx Rex, because I think that will be the hardest for tram drivers to pronounce.

The front of the Tree of Life is encircled with walls. It’s Tough To Be a Bug is actually under refurbishment while they work on the tree. Rumor says that some components of the nighttime makeover will be added, transforming the Tree of Life into the Mother Tree or whatever the heck that thing in Avatar was called. Or maybe just as background to the Rivers of Light nighttime water spectacular.

Welcome to Wall Land

Welcome to Wall Land

Here a crew is seen power washing a cement tree in full view of the public. Because magic.

Here a crew is seen power washing a cement tree in full view of the public. Because magic.

Speaking of that, walls are now up around the lagoon from Dinoland all the way around to the Gibbons viewing area in Asia. This is to install viewing zones for the Rivers of Light, which seems to me to be a massive amount of viewing. Not quite up to the sheer mileage of the Illuminations viewing spots, but on par with World of Color in DCA. Portable dams are also installed in the lagoon itself in preparation for the fountain installations.

Nice paneling on these refurb walls on the trail between Dinoland and Nemo.

Nice paneling on these refurb walls on the trail between Dinoland and Nemo.

At Everest, the walls take a decidedly Asian turn

At Everest, the walls take a decidedly Asian turn

Behold, the beauty of the portable dam

Behold, the beauty of the portable dam

There were some Imagineers toodling around in a speedboat. When they spotted me taking pictures of the portable dams, they zipped away!

There were some Imagineers toodling around in a speedboat. When they spotted me taking pictures of the portable dams, they zipped away!

Returning for just a moment to Discovery Island, the main shop on the right is being readied for a huge expansion. Ground has been cleared, and vertical construction should begin soon (or may have already begun behind the walls.

Why, it's some Disney construction workers, back from lunch!

Why, it’s some Disney construction workers, back from lunch!

Not pictured, a new animal exhibit is being readied on the path from Discovery Island back to Africa, rumored to be the new home of the Cottontop Tamarins.

In the back of Africa, more ground is being cleared next to Zawadi Traders/Mombosa, which is rumored to be another full-service restaurant.

Side note: Mombasa is my favorite Animal Kingdom shop. Sorry, Chester and Hester.

Side note: Mombasa is my favorite Animal Kingdom shop. Sorry, Chester and Hester.

Not pictured, infrastructure work has begun on the Safari itself, in preparation for the Nighttime version of the Safari.

The first phase of the massive expansion actually opened earlier this year, when the Lion King show moved to Africa. The pathway to Pandora is inaccessible, of course.

Beautiful panoramic vista of the pathway to Pandora, obscured by ugly green canvas screen.

Beautiful panoramic vista of the pathway to Pandora, obscured by ugly green canvas screen.

And at last we come to the walls of the main entrance to Pandora. The foliage is so thick that you literally can’t see anything behind it, just the top of a trailer of some kind. Disney has also turned this into a smoking section — probably to discourage anyone from trying to go back there.

Beyond these smokers lies a vast world of blue elves.

Beyond these smokers lies a vast world of blue elves.

All these various projects should open in phases over the next several years, which will make coming to Animal Kingdom a slightly different experience every time. So much of it is dedicated to turning this park into a nighttime destination as well, which I think will be a huge treat for guests, since Animal Kingdom is already an enchanting place after dark, and a pretty rare opportunity in its current state.

I guess the point of all this is: Even if you don’t care about Avatar the movie, I think Animal Kingdom is poised to become the most exciting park project in the last decade, and if you spend too much time scoffing at giant blue people, you’ll miss the fun watching the transformation.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go back to stalking the new Starbucks location.

 

This Sad and Lonely Crocodile Will Eat You

I think I read somewhere that journeys into the jungle are supposed to be dark and intense. Nobody ever says “I’ve returned fresh from the jungle.” They always come back half-starved, half-mad, half-naked, and half-bumpy from parasitic insects. But I’m starting to get suspicious about the Jungle Cruise. Maybe it’s just me, but it seems like some scenes are less than realistic.

For instance, the Nile and Amazon and the Mekong rivers don’t actually connect in real life. I can’t believe the Imagineers did not construct a story device to cover this clear logic flaw. If it were me, I would have had a better transition rather than just “Now we’re on the Mekong.” Seriously, how hard would it have been to introduce a little exposition to smooth that over?

"Now the engineer will put you into hypersleep. Don't worry, it will only seem like a second or two to you."

“Now the engineer will put you into hypersleep. Don’t worry, it will only seem like a second or two to you.”

And other scenes are not so realistic as well.

We had a little argument going in the Parkeology offices a few months back — one I’m going to drag out into the public, because there’s nothing more interesting than reading about two park geeks bickering like old women on the internet.

It all stems from a wonderful little video that has been making the rounds for awhile now. This thing is pure beauty, one of the best films I’ve seen this summer next to Guardians of the Galaxy and watching Michael Bay abuse my childhood (because hey, I wasn’t using those memories anyway). It’s a restored home movie of Walt Disney World from 1972 courtesy of our friends at retrodisneyworld.com. It is jaw-dropping.

There’s a lot I would like to comment on about this film, but one thing that really blew me away was a shot of the Jungle Cruise at the 9:15 mark.

If you watch the clip, it is of a crocodile in the Indian Elephant Bathing Pool, who happens to be literally gushing fluid from some kind of tear ducts behind his optical orbs. And then the film moves on to a showering elephant, which is totally unrealistic. Elephants are notoriously stinky.

We tried to find an explanation for this crocodile from 1972, which boiled down to two camps. One was that the animatronic had sprung a hydraulic leak. The other correct view (my view) is that the crocodile is weeping crocodile tears.

The notion of crocodile tears may or may not be a myth. Now the phrase means something like faking pain in order to lure unsuspecting victims close enough to be eaten — in which case Dinorama is a good example.

But nobody seems to really believe this. And even if they did subscribe to some sort of reptilian saline secretion, they certainly wouldn’t buy the idea of a crocodile blubbering like the Bellagio Fountain, dousing elephants with a bucketful of sorrowful lachryma.

Yet as far back as the 14th century, explorers were raving about these deceptive beasts. As described in the awesomely-titled Curious Creatures in Zoology:

In that country and by all Inde be great plenty of cockodrills. These serpents slay men, and they eat them weeping; and when they eat they move the over jaw, and not the nether jaw, and they have no tongue.

Now I have a special fondness for English that sounds as if it were written a long time ago back when men thought the moon was made of cheese, and the one good thing that has come out of this debate is that I will henceforth call these creatures “cockodrills” from now until the end of my life. But one thing is for certain: the idea of crocodile tears is at least consistent with beasts from the wild jungles of India, and since is the bathing pool of Indian Elephants, a super-soaker cockodrill is perhaps a reasonable inclusion.

Everyone knows the moon is made of Eric Idle.

Everyone knows the moon is made of Eric Idle.

One of the coolest aspects about this cockodrill is that it existed in 1972, but I never noticed the weeping until I watched the video. I knew there was a cockodrill in the ride scene, but I figured he must have gotten replaced or broken over time. But when I rode Jungle Cruise last week, I made a point to look out for him and sure enough, he’s still there, and still spouting off on cue like Tammy Faye Bakker.

This parkeologist's camera captured the cockodrill in breathtaking, non-weeping action -- in full-on blurred-sasquatch mode. Are the tears real or myth?

This parkeologist’s camera captured the cockodrill in breathtaking, non-weeping action — in full-on blurred-sasquatch mode. Are the tears real or myth?

How I never noticed him before, I don’t know. I must have been distracted by all those wacky skinny-dipping elephants. The cockodrill is somewhat relegated to background scenery, tucked off on the left side of the boat just as you exit the sunken temple. He’s got a couple of juvenile elephants nearby, so maybe he’s hoping for a snack. But his jaws still open and his eyebrows are still crying.

Give him a look the next time you ride. He really is making quite a mess of himself.