Here There Be Monsters – Disney’s Hollywood Studios

This series was almost over before it even got off the ground. Last week I made a commitment to visit a different Disney World park each week and seek out some random place which I had never before set foot in. I started in Magic Kingdom, took a tour of the Speedway Grandstand, threw up a little in my mouth, and checked one park off the list.

This week I went hunting in Hollywood Studios, and the whole plan nearly fell apart.

You may not be aware of this, but Hollywood Studios is a tiny park. It also happens to have the least immersive environment. There are very few secluded areas or hidden nooks. There are however, boatloads of giant soundstages which take up half the acreage. And these really can’t be used in my quest, because they are offlimits to guests.

Technically, if one possesses the right gear, the roof of Tower of Terror is “guest accessible.” But also grounds for removal from the park.

Which means I circled the park twice looking for something — anything — to use. One of our readers last week (shout out, Jonmar03!) had a brilliant idea regarding the lockers as a possible location, and I even snapped some pictures of the Hollywood Studios lockers. But I ultimately ruled them out, because a) the locker room at the Studios is abysmally ugly, and b) I’m 95% sure I’ve been in there before. I could have lied and you would never know the difference, but I am nothing if not honest. And devastatingly good looking.

Which means I seriously contemplated going into the Baby Care center, sans infant, to snap a few pictures. I’m 100% sure I’ve never been in there. I’m also 100% sure there is nothing creepier than some random dude strolling into the Baby Care center and snapping pictures. Fortunately, I finally found some place to bail me out.

It’s another attraction waiting area, I guess, though it’s kind of a weird one. It’s a vine-tangled portico outside of Tower of Terror, consisting of nothing more than benches and a series of trestles. Very haunting in its way. A soft, rose-covered hallway opposite the exit to the Tower gift shop.

You are about to discover what lies beyond the Gift Shop. Beyond the deepest, darkest corner of the espresso stand. In the Hallway of Terror.

I actually found it pretty odd, since all it does is wrap behind the espresso stand. There doesn’t seem to be much logical reason for it to be there, other than as a waiting zone for people not riding. The opening starts at one end of the espresso stand, goes behind it, and exits on the other side. It had never even occurred to me that someone would go back there. It doesn’t even lead to a backstage access point, so there’s no operational reason for it. But nevertheless, there were a few waiters lounging on the benches. I even used the drinking fountain that’s back there.

I don’t think it’s much good as a waiting area, since anyone sitting back there is literally hidden from the attraction exit. Hard to rejoin your party when you can’t see them. And I’m now curious to return at night, especially during off season, as I imagine it can be quite secluded and spooky.

The flowering vines filter the afternoon sun in mysterious ways. And there is absolutely no purpose to this thing.

So there you have it! Just like that, we’re halfway home. Only Epcot and Animal Kingdom left. Will we succeed?

Storybook Circus Breaks New Ground

When I think back on all the storybooks I read as a kid, it’s clear that they all had one theme in common. Circus. Even the crappy ones my mom bought at the school book fair came in a three-ring binder.

I finally had a chance to check out Phase 1 of the Fantasyland Expansion over the weekend, several days later than the news sites. There’s pictures everywhere, so I won’t bore you with any of mine. But I will say a few things about the three brand new rides that are now open.

Trust me when I tell you, these three unique attractions are a harbinger of good things to come. I’m thrilled that after all these years, we finally have such quality experiences. It’s hard to believe we’ve seen 40 years of the Magic Kingdom without these, but the future is bright indeed.

First up is a nice family attraction called the Walt Disney World Railroad. Guests board one of four steam-powered locomotives for a trip around the Magic Kingdom. The detail on these trains is stunning, and the length of the track (1.5 miles) has to be some kind of record. Guests looking for stomach-churning thrills might be disappointed, but most Disney fans will appreciate the subtle nods to Walt Disney’s personal history, such as the fact that Walt loved trains. He even built a train in his backyard, and it is said that trains were the inspiration for the original Disneyland. It’s nice to know that this idea has finally made its way into a Disney theme park.

Note the train’s “Walter E. Disney” nameplate. Hardcore fans will recognize this as the name of the company’s founder.

When I rode, it was still in soft opening, and there were a few technical glitches. The train broke down twice (once in Main Street, once in Frontierland) before we returned to Storybook Circus, and it took them a few minutes to get going again. Also, there was a noticeable lack of a preshow to set up the storyline, so I confess there was a bit of confusion regarding just who we were supposed to be rescuing. But these are minor quibbles. Overall, I think guests will be thrilled with this brand new way to see the Magic Kingdom, and the new perspectives that are constantly on display.

Moving on from the train, we come to a bonafide thrill ride, called The Barnstormer. This one has been kept under tight wraps from the Disney folks, and not too many details were leaked ahead of time. We knew that it would star Goofy and be some sort of family rollercoaster, but other nuggets of info were hard to come by. I’m happy to report that Barnstormer is everything you hoped it would be.

The intricately themed ride vehicle consists of 2-person cars linked together on a track, which is powered  to the top of a hill by a chain. Gravity does the rest. There are dips, curves, and even a few air brakes thrown in for good measure, all of which comprise the most heartpounding 60 seconds you’ll ever experience outside of Disney’s famous mountain range.

All of this would be for naught if it didn’t have a great story to go with it, and Disney has kicked up a doozy. Goofy, it seems, is a bit of a daredevil pilot, and he’s invited you to go barnstorming with him. After some recent misfires (Stitch, Laugh Floor), it’s good to see Disney can still put together a ripping good yarn that surprises us with its winning originality and sly references to barns, such as a big actual barn.

Pictured: Barn.

Finally, Storybook Circus boasts the piece de resistance: Dumbo the Flying Elephant. Here is Disney magic at its finest. Guests climb aboard the titular hero from the 1941 animated classic and take to the skies! Disney delved deep into its vault for this character, and it’s refreshing to see Dumbo finally getting some love. What could have been just another Tangled Unbraided spinner ride has become a masterpiece of theming. Guests were queuing for up to 45 minutes for the chance to take a ride on the little pachyderm. I think Disney has a hit on its hands here, and the Dumbo ride stands a real chance at becoming an instant classic, along the lines of Pirates, Tea Cups, and Small World.

Dumbo uses the same tried and true ride mechanism perfected by Aladdin’s Magic Carpets and Triceratops Spin.

If I have anything to gripe about, it’s the guidemap, which features Dumbo prominently on the cover. I’m one of those grumpy oldtimers that grumbles every time Disney mixes and matches images from their various theme parks, assuming (correctly) that most people can’t tell the difference.

As this shot shows, the best views are always to the rider’s left.

The Dumbo on the cover is clearly not from Storybook Circus. Nope, instead it’s a static old shot from Disneyland, which has also been used to promote Disneyland Paris. They’ve cropped it nicely to hide some of the more obvious details, but even though the new WDW version has water, the pavement and trim along the water don’t match this picture, and in this broader shot below, it’s clearly Disneyland’s railing and trashcans.

Strangely, the motion blur of the strollers in the background is much more pronounced than on the guidemap picture. Could Disney be using Photoshop?

Nevertheless, Fantasyland expansion is off to a good start. I’m looking forward to the next phase, when we will finally get something we’ve all been praying for since the days when Disneyland was just an orange grove and a dream: Two giant circus tents! And maybe we’ll even get an Ariel greeting area! One thing’s for sure, the Magic Kingdom is going to look a whole lot different when we’re done.

Here There Be Monsters – Magic Kingdom

Every time I go to Disneyland’s Pirates of the Caribbean, I fall in love with the map. You know the one. The soggy guide map crumpled in a corner, with a coke spilled over it, seemingly missed by every cleaning crew since last Thanksgiving, and still promoting Captain EO on the cover. You can actually read the parade times, if you bend down close enough. That thing is awesome.

But there’s also a great large map that closes the ride, and visible when you first enter the queue. The one with the talking parrot, who also has the parade times, if you know how to ask. Anyway, that map is one of those great old pirate maps showing buried treasure, lost caves, and the nearest Panda Express. And right at the edge of the map, the unexplored territory, with the inscription “Here There Be Monsters.”

My other favorite detail is the shadow of an airplane passing over the island on the lower left.

That line made it into the first Pirates movie. It’s a foreboding and wickedly delightful way to say that you are now in uncharted waters. Someplace where mortals fear to tread. Mortals can’t tread on water anyway, so that makes sense.

I say all this because when it comes to Walt Disney World, there are very few uncharted waters. Fans like us live at the parks, and some of us even get prosecuted for it, because you are not supposed to be on Tom Sawyer Island after dark, hiding under a bridge and hoping nobody finds your sleeping bag and the tins of franks-n-beans you stashed in the bushes behind Aunt Polly’s. I personally go to the parks on average 2 or 3 times a week, and have been doing so since I moved down here several years ago. There are some people who are even crazier than I am. I began to wonder if it is even possible that there are places inside the parks that I have yet to visit.

You read things on message boards about supposed fans who have never seen Hall of Presidents or something, despite dozens of visits. I find such things inexcusable. So I proposed a little challenge for myself. I wanted to see if I could find a hidden corner of Walt Disney World that I had never before set foot in. One a week in each of the four parks.

Obviously there are going to be some limitations. We have to think small in scope. There aren’t going to be any attractions that I haven’t seen at least once. I’ve even seen Disney Jr. a few times, which is extremely uncomfortable for a lone adult male waiting in line, pretending to buddy up with a few preschoolers (come on, people, I’m only kidding — if I’m going to buddy up with preschoolers, I’ll do it at the Honey I Shrunk the Kids playground by offering them free candy, like any rational person). But it can’t be too small in scale, like a park bench that I’ve never sat on, or a paver block that I’ve never walked over. It’s got to be a legitimate room or place. Oh, and it has to be someplace all guests have access to. No backstage areas. No Future World corporate lounges. And since I’m technically allowed in only half the bathrooms, those can’t really count either.

I predict that Epcot will be the easiest for me. There’s a restaurant or two in World Showcase that I’ve never eaten at, and a couple Innoventions exhibits too (mainly because most Innoventions exhibits do not allow you to eat in them). But the other three parks are indeed a challenge. Part of the problem is that if you’ve never been to a place, it’s hard to imagine yourself being there. There must be blind spots, but I’m rather blind to them. So this week I started with the park I thought would be the hardest (if I’m going to fail, I’d rather do it quickly).

I walked all over the Magic Kingdom, and visited all my old haunts. The little courtyard tucked away at the entrance to Pirates. The recessed smoking area off to the right of Space Mountain. The overpass seating area of Columbia Harbor House. It took all evening, but I eventually did find someplace I’ve never set foot in.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Tomorrowland Indy Speedway Grandstand!

Futuristic Indy racing is nowhere near as popular as Futuristic NASCAR.

For those of you unfamiliar with this little gem, it’s a waiting area (I think) for people who don’t want to ride the Speedway with everyone else in their party. Like grandstands at real auto races, this one gives you a breathtaking view of a concrete loading zone, complete with authentic exhaust fumes and obnoxiously loud revving engine noise. Here you can curl up for a nap, breastfeed your infant, and catch up on your carbon monoxide poisoning, all in the comfort of what is usually baking Florida heat.

It is the most ridiculous waiting area ever devised. Not mobile enough to get yourself in and out of the tiny Autopia cars? Just mount 8 or 9 concrete steps and stretch out on our gleaming aluminum benches for some quality downtime! I was fortunate to have my visit at night, and it was miserable enough, but I can imagine this place is pretty well intolerable in the middle of the afternoon.

What could be more riveting than watching the slowest, non-racing-est part of the ride? Also, it affords an excellent opportunity to contemplate just how dreadful those background billboards are.

The Grandstand isn’t hidden. You walk right past it whenever you exit the ride. And there are even signs directing you to its location. I’m sure many of you have even been there. But for whatever reason (such as the fact that I hate the Speedway like France hates deodorant), I had never visited it before. And now I can cross it off my list. There were no monsters, but I kind of wish there were.

Next week, I’ll bring you another undiscovered territory, which I will then claim for king and country, in spite of the fact that there are thousands of natives already living there. In the meantime, what places in the parks have YOU never set foot in? Give me some details in the comments, I promise not to scoff at you. And will you just go see Hall of Presidents, already? It’s not that bad!

There is nothing sadder than watching a miniaturized of stop-and-go traffic, and having absolutely no one to share it with.