The Transportation Codex

In many ways, Walt Disney World is a labyrinth. People used to get lost at Animal Kingdom, did you know that? When it first opened, visitors literally couldn’t find the exit and Disney went through and added a whole bunch of signs and stuff, a few months after opening. Apparently the intentional layout — designed to invite exploration — proved too much for the average family from Iowa. You can still find skeletons of lost souls if you know where to look. People who simply curled up behind a lemonade cart and gave up the ghost. It’s tragic, really.

But aside from just finding your way around, the labyrinth metaphor extends even to those of us who know the parks backwards and forwards. As our understanding deepens, our eyes are opened to new wonders we never knew existed. It’s a giant tootsie pop, and the more we lick, the closer we come to some gooey David Bowie center.

It takes a long time to peel back these layers of the onion, and even though I’m mixing metaphors, I advise you not to mix tootsie pops and onions in real life, because it is not pleasant. But mixing David Bowie with anything is always okay. Anyway, layers… Sometimes the most trivial items can take hold of a man’s fascination and drive him deeper and deeper into new levels of obsession.

On the surface, you have all the reasons people want to visit the parks. Top notch thrill rides, family time, autographs from sweaty college kids. Gradually you begin to understand more about the Disney approach to theming and storytelling. You dig deeper, buy your first Hidden Mickey book. You start collecting insider knowledge, and before you know it, you’re part of a weird fan community on the internet.

But it never stops. There’s always another layer, just beneath the one you’re currently standing on. And sometimes it’s hiding in plain sight.

Do not be fooled by those unofficial transportation collector cards! Accept only the real thing!

I recently obtained the above card during a trip to the Magic Kingdom. I have visited the Magic Kingdom in all the decades of its existence, and not once have I ever been offered an Official Walt Disney World Transportation Collector Card. I never even knew they existed. It wasn’t until I finally had a kid that an attendant approached us and secretly offered us two of these priceless relics for free!

My 2-year-old promptly obliterated one of them, but I salvaged the second one, and was prepared to pass it off as nothing more than those silly little “Magical Moments” they like to give to kids. Now that I have a son, I’m more aware of these things than ever. Mickey stickers are handed out like gateway drugs on every corner. He got some lame Autopia driver’s license, a monorail pilot’s license, a whole bunch of crap from Innoventions, and even a “Compensatory Star Tours FastPass for your Entire Family When You Finally Grow A Few More Inches.”

These things are harmless really. A chance to distract kids with bright pictures while waiting for mundane things like riding the monorail or failing the height stick. They’re cheap bits of fluff, hold attention for approximately 58.4 seconds, and then are quickly disposed of. I can imagine the moms and dads of America finding this stuff wadded into the crevasses of their suitcase the next time they pull out the luggage for a family trip. It probably garners a brief, nostalgic memory of their Disney trip eight months ago, and then gets promptly tossed in the garbage.

I took the card, marveled at Disney’s assumption that anyone (even a 2-year-old who can’t read) would think a Transportation Collector Card was even going to cause a blip in the attention radar, and turned it over to read the back.

Fun facts about both monorails AND crickets! And a hidden mickey, for you hidden mickey freaks! Did you find it?

There is absolutely nothing of interest here to fans. Even if you didn’t know the maximum speed of a Walt Disney World monorail, did you really care? And who doesn’t know who Jiminy Cricket is?

I admit the Pinocchio Village Haus Hidden Mickey fact is okay, but you wouldn’t rush straight there to hunt for it. The card is a bit of garbage, just as we thought.

Except for that little line: “17 of 25.”

I stopped and re-read it. This isn’t just a bit of monorail fluff. This is one of an entire series. A series of collectible cards built around the Walt Disney World transportation system! Somebody sat down and painstakingly designed the entire set. Distributed it to various modes of transportation around property. Dared me to collect all 25!

Our brains are trained to ignore this stuff. Through experience and societal evolution, we have built-in filters that send this kind of manufactured puffery right past our logic circuits and into the garbage disposal. But if you give logic a chance, it can sometimes blow your mind.

Think about it. Can you even name 25 different modes of Walt Disney World transportation? Monorail, bus, tram, ferry, boat… seriously, I’m running out now. I guess you could start splitting the boats out into different styles. The smaller launches that service Poly and Grand Floridian. The Friendships at the Epcot resort. Maybe Magical Express gets its own card.

Yet some evil genius not only came up with 25 modes of transportation, he planted collectible cards at each one of them all over the property. A game about the most boring aspect of a Walt Disney World vacation. Unadvertised. Available only to cute toddlers. When the attendants don’t have anything better to do. An audience that has no concept of just how logically confounding these items are that they hold in their grubby little hands. It’s downright diabolical.

Now that I know these other 24 cards exist, there’s a part of me that’s obsessed with finding them. What if there are modes of transportation that I never knew existed! What if this is like Scientology, where only the Level Five fans get to use the Blizzard Beach pack mules, or the Downtown Disney transporter room? Are there Freemasons hang-gliding off the Contemporary rooftop as we speak?

It’s like stumbling onto an entire DaVinci code treasure hunt, buried in the unassuming transportation infrastructure of a massive resort complex.

The quest is on, ladies and gentlemen. And in this short of a race, there’s no prize for finishing second. I will solve this puzzle through the sheer power of my own magnificent brain. Forget those complete sets of Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom spell cards. Those things can be had for mere hundreds on eBay. But a complete set of Walt Disney World Transportation collector cards? You can’t put a value on that.


The First Disney Pixar Movie

2012 is the Bizarro Year.

This year, we hailed California Adventure, Hong Kong Disneyland, and the Magic Kingdom as shining beacons of incredible theming. Tokyo Disney Sea’s newest rides are a transplanted carnival game thing and a Magic Carpet spinner.

At the box office, Spiderman and Batman got beat up by second tier superheroes like Iron Man and Thor.

George Lucas managed to rekindle the excitement for millions of fans across the globe. And also released Red Tails (remember that? Yay, Disney gets it!)

And Disney Feature Animation and Pixar decided to dress as each other for Halloween.

Back in the summer, Pixar released its first real “Disney” movie: A princess story involving a magical transformation, female empowerment, and jaw-dropping fairy tale visuals. The only things missing were a wise-cracking monkey and Alan Menken.

On Friday, Disney Feature Animation will release its first real “Pixar” movie, about a tall, lunkish character who gets fed up with being the bad guy in his own life story and tries switching careers.

Also called “The Michael Eisner Story”

Brave did decent, but not “Pixar Juggernaut” box office. Meanwhile, I’m predicting Wreck-It Ralph turns out to be the biggest Feature Animation hit in almost 20 years ago. It has all the elements of the best Pixar films: A unique world. A touch of childhood nostalgia. Geek street cred. Strong voice casting. And that killer, killer idea that makes audiences want to see it, such as pairing a multi-Oscar winner with the star of Jungle 2 Jungle.

There’s a buzz around Wreck-It Ralph that was never there for Princess and the Frog (a return to hand-drawn animation!), Bolt (Miley Cyrus is — or possibly has — a dog!), or Meet the Robinsons (something vaguely goofy that kind of has to do with time travel and a genius family but it’s hard to talk about oh just go see it!). One has to go all the way back to the heady days of the early 90s, when Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and Lion King reacquainted audiences with the magic of Disney animation. Oh, and Rescuers Down Under. Mustn’t forget that.

Like any cyclical business, it was feast or famine. After the Katzenberg glory years, Disney started putting out things like Brother Bear, Home on the Range, and Chicken Little. All of which went on to become some of the most timeless classics ever watched by Roseanne Barr. That allowed Pixar to step in and steal the animation crown, along with Dreamworks, which somehow is well respected in spite of releasing both Shark Tale and Bee Movie.  It somehow seems wrong that after 80 years of making animated features, Disney Feature Animation owns only 5 of the top 40 highest grossing animated hits, and one of those is a live action movie starring Bob Hoskins. Only Lion King is in the top 10.

If Wreck-It Ralph can deliver the goods story-wise (and from everything I’m hearing, it does), then it’s a good indication that Disney Animation might be all the way back. Tangled was a very strong effort a couple of years ago, but Ralph has “breakthrough” stamped all over it. It’s the sort of movie Pixar used to make, before they got distracted with movies that were either all about marketing (Cars 2), or impossible to market (Brave). Those movies still did well at the box office, but not up the standards Pixar had set for itself.

If Ralph does blow people away, it opens up a whole new franchise of opportunities for the theme parks. Imagineering already has Marvel stuff ready to go. You just know they’re going to do the same with Star Wars (and of course Howard the Duck). But the world of video games may be the most untapped intellectual property in the theme park universe. And no, Toy Story Mania does not count.

For the first time in history, virtually the entire relevant theme park demographic has grown up with video games. There are still a few older park goers who didn’t, but families and their kids have never known a life without Mario and the rest. I’ve been saying for years that Legoland should have been licensing video game characters for their rides, to define themselves as the true “Toy Land” in the theme park lineup. Now Disney has a chance to do it for real.

Wreck-It Ralph is starting to make the usual “new release” appearances in theme parks. The merchandise is on the shelves. The “making of” displays are up in the Magic of Disney Animation. The character greeting area opened on Sunday. The first “inappropriate touching” lawsuits were filed on Monday.

Fix It Felix game at Hollywood Studios.

But there are signs that this could turn out to be more than just another Up or Wall-E. Those movies came and went with the same character meet-and-greets and art displays. Once the movie disappeared from theaters, so did all the park stuff. You might find an occasional Wall-E for sale at Mission Space, or Dug photo op, but there’s no real demand. Ralph can change all that.

I haven’t seen it myself, but apparently there are rows and rows of “Fix-It Felix” game cabinets dominating one floor of DisneyQuest. If any attraction could use some rejuvenation, it’s DQ. Can you imagine it re-themed as a true “Video Game Park,” with Ralph as its host? Imagine it stripped of its current disjointed levels, replaced with familiar themed environments from Mario Brothers and Zelda and Halo and Skyrim. Get rid of old polygon attractions like Virtual Jungle Cruise, or wildly irrelevant Mighty Duck pinball activities, and replace them with supercharged video game experiences. Why not a FPS (First Person Shooter) Lazer Tag arena themed to the classics of the genre? How about a Mario Kart (or Sugar Rush) go-kart track? Maybe even a life-sized, human-catapult Angry Birds experience?

I know I’ll be in line this weekend for Wreck-It Ralph, and I’m sure many of you will as well. With Carsland, Fantasyland, Lucasfilm, and the Avengers, Disney is already having an incredible year. I think Wreck-It Ralph may turn out to be the icing on the cake.