Here There Be Princesses – Tokyo Disneyland

 

A while back Shane gave himself a little challenge. He wanted to find the small hidden areas in the parks that he had never been to before. Not unlike the monsters lurking in the uncharted areas of old pirate maps who knew what these seldom trafficked areas held? Sadly other than getting arrested for inadvertently sneaking into the women’s cast member locker room Shane’s adventures were pretty docile. Perhaps the parks are so well covered that there are no surprises left?

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Fortunately the same cannot be said for the overseas parks. Those parks are filled to the brim with strange swarthy beasts,they are literally bursting at the seams with exotic characters that know no bounds and are always willing to push you to your limits, but enough about the typical Disneyland Paris visitor (oh those crazy Europeans!). Today we are going back to Japan to check out a newish but surprisingly not very well chronicled attraction of Tokyo Disneyland; batten down the hatches you scallywag for here there be princesses.

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Prior to the gutting of the old Castle Mystery Tour I wrote a post about it (click here). Later, as has become the recent Disney tradition, management decided to remove a cool and unique attraction and replace it with something much more common and expected; the castle meet and greet was born. It’s not that the new castle attraction (Cinderella’s Fairy Tale Hall) is bad; it’s just that it is a downgrade from what used to be there. We are not talking Alien Encounter to Stitch’s chilidog eating contest downgrade but a lesser experience for sure. Perhaps what is even more odd is that there really aren’t princesses there after all. There are props suggesting that a princess is near by, that a princess was there but what you mostly see are a lot of semi confused Japanese tourists with cameras wondering why they are not seeing something cooler and questioning where the dragon has gone (something I’d really like to know myself!).

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Basically most of the exploration of the castle has been removed. There is no more tour guide, no more narrow passageways or narrative or really even a basic framework of a story. You walk in to a lobby, hop aboard an elevator (you know the famous story of Cinderella and the golden Otis Elevator don’t you?) go up a floor and then walk through a couple nicely decorated rooms before exiting down some stairs and back out into the cold.

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In those rooms are some interesting dioramas and art work telling some of the story of Cinderella but nothing as clear or comprehensive as the similar dioramas in Sleeping Beauty Castle at Disneyland and they lack the special effects of the Disneyland counterparts as well. They are unique in that each display features a distinct artistic style. They are little works of art each using it’s own medium and approach (paper, metal, mixed media etc.) seemingly less interested in a traditional story telling and more focused on visual distinction. That element is nice, and the displays are all of high quality, as is the entire attraction… but it lacks the sense of adventure and thrill that the old Mystery Castle Tour had. It really lacks any distinct sense of purpose. This all looks and feels like a lovely lobby at a Disney themed hotel rather than a true theme park attraction.

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It’s a bit disappointing really to see that this approach has now crossed the Pacific to the Tokyo Disney Resort as well. For most of its existence Tokyo Disney has lived in it’s own protective bubble seemingly immune to the Disney corporate cost cutting and homogenization of the parks. Now, slowly, we are seeing more attractions shared with the U.S. parks (Turtle Talk, Toy Story Midway Mania) and we are seeing general attitudes that are shifting to be less unique. Still, the execution in the Japanese parks is generally head and shoulders above the U.S. counterparts and the same goes here. Though at the end of the day it is nothing special it is of extremely high quality and obvious care was put into it.

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Chalk this one up as another replacement that I wish never happened… I mentioned Alien Encounter previously and there is perhaps the ultimate example of the Imagination Pavilion at Epcot…what other attractions have been replaced that you wish were still the originals?

Top 20 Theme Park Songs Of All Time

Tonight is Grammy Night, and in honor of that dear old woman who pinched your cheeks and gave birth to one of your parents (not in that order), we all get together and celebrate music.

I’m sure most of you don’t know what is going on with this modern music. It’s all loud rock-n-roll with kids shaking their hips and whatnot. What happened to those bygone days when a “Taylor Swift” was something seen during a riveting bird-watching expedition? I know we all wish we could return to a time of solemn church hymns, but the world goes on without us.

That is why I have an entire ipod playlist called “Theme Park Music,” by which I mean “Disney Theme Park Music” since I’m not going to be caught dead listening to the Poseidon’s Fury Overture. Can you imagine? How embarassing!

No, I have straight up awesome Disney theme park music, which causes me no embarassment whatsoever. And with a vast array of attractions to choose from, from almost 60 years of parks on 4 continents (Japan is a continent, right?), I hereby submit my top 20 theme park songs of all time, and dare you to disagree.

Disclaimer: While some of these are instrumental, I tried not to include entire ride scores, such as Radiator Springs Racers, which varies based on the show scenes. I also steered clear of songs made popular first in Disney movies upon which attractions were based, so no Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah or anything like that. Obscure songs that finally found fame only in the parks, however, are fair game.

20. Mickey Mania

Back in the 90s, there was a Magic Kingdom parade called Mickey Mania. Roger Rabbit himself called it a “def jam.” And what a def jam it was. Packed with 90s lingo and driven by a rockin’ 90s dance beat, the theme music was infectious and happy. None of the Magic Kingdom parades since have come close.

19. Tokyo DisneySea Theme Song

The only reason I’ve heard this song is because Teevtee brought me back a soundtrack CD during one of his hundred trips across the Pacific (I swear he owns stock in Japan — or owns his own personal submarine). I’m actually not sure if this song makes any appearance in the park on a regular basis. It might have been used only during Opening Ceremony celebrations and shows. But it is stirring and uplifting in the way all those goofy Disney park celebrations are.

18. Another Part of Me

This song appeared as a single on Michael Jackson’s 1988 Bad album, but it was first introduced as Captain EO’s grand exit song in 1986. It’s got a great 80s vibe, and it is impossible to say the song title without adding Jackson’s signature hee-hee at the end, because that’s how it is sung. So groovy.

17. Tapestry of Nations

Part of the Millenium Celebration at Epcot, this theme song to the parade of the same title is mostly instrumental, with some choral chanting providing the lyrics. It somehow manages to be stately and playful at the same time. It is best listened to while envisioning bizarre oversized puppets.

16. Two Brothers

This brief, gut-wrenching musical interstitial to the Civil War portion of the American Adventure features haunting female harmony and is not about the Sherman Brothers, though their favorite colors were blue and grey, and neither of them could ever get cannonballs to mind.

15. If You Had Wings

Had wings, had wings. You heard it in your head even as you read the title. The ride is no longer with us, but this extended omnimover commercial for Eastern Airlines had one of those ethereal 70s theme songs that seems to come from the land of dreams. Its successor, the Dreamflight theme song, wasn’t bad either, but this Magic Kingdom classic still rules the skies. It can still be heard in instrumental form as part of Tomorrowland’s background music loop.

14. New Horizons

The original incarnation of EPCOT Center was loaded with stirring, forward-looking theme songs for its pavilions, and the Horizons theme song was one of the absolute best. It mixed bellowing female vocals with a child’s choir singing that famous Walt quote “If you can dream it, then you can do it (yes you can, yes you can).” If space travel ever becomes affordable in my life time, this is the song I’ll be listening to as I break away from Earth’s gravity, right before the alien bursts out of my chest.

13. There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow

Carousel of Progress’s theme song was heralded as a masterpiece, exiled for a short time, and then re-instated. In that sense, it has a lot in common with Napolean. It is unrepentantly optimistic, which seems to be a theme running through a lot of these park songs. You can practically feel your seat rotating underneath you as you listen to this song, no matter where you are.

12. We Go On

Another Millenium song on the list! This one caps the end of Illuminations: Reflections of Earth. When that central torch of fire rises from the glittery LED panels of our Earth opening like a flower, you’d swear you’re at the closing ceremonies of the Olympics. And whether you’re already smiling in pride at the finale, or still scowling about that convention crowd which somehow managed to fence off all the prime viewing locations around the lagoon, this song will make your heart soar.

11. Monorail Song

This is old school Disneyland, and purely instrumental. Never the less, this is a jaunty accompaniment to a world on the move. If the orchestration sounds like it was written in the 60s, that’s because it was. I first heard this track (monorail – track – get it?!) as a segment background from one of those Disneyland TV shows. They were showing the newly added monorail. Little did I know it really was called the Monorail Song. Happy and awesome it is. No idea why I suddenly sound like Yoda.

10. Energy (You Make the World Go ‘Round)

The original Universe of Energy’s pre-show closed with this 80s ballad about gas and stuff. The song’s message: We are nowhere without energy. It’s also a misnomer, because it is Gravity, not Energy, which makes the world go round. But why let science get in the way of a good theme park song? But on the other hand, you could substitute the word “Gravity” for “Energy” if you want, and the song still sounds the same. But Ellen’s Gravity Adventure sounds weird, since comedians are known for their levity. But then you could also swap the word “Levity” for “Gravity” and… anyway.

9. Yo-Ho Yo-Ho (A Pirate’s Life for Me)

Pirate ghosts from centuries ago are kicking themselves for not thinking up this song themselves. This infectious sea chanty is what all pirates simply must sing from here on out, until the end of time. It is the perfect accompaniment to Pirates of the Caribbean. The ride looks a lot more cruel and dark without this rousing chorus to lighten the proceedings.

8. Baroque Hoedown

The best use of electrosynthomagnetic musical sound ever recorded. This is the song Deep Blue listens to when it goes to bed. Hard to believe that something so synthesized could be so delightful, but one cannot imagine the Main Street Electrical Parade without the blips and bleeps and squawks of Baroque Hoedown trickling through its various permutations. It’s at its best when fusing in other songs, Grand Old Flag or Disney music or that hilarious circus pipe organ.

7. Fantasmic!

The show Fantasmic has several musical numbers, but it’s the theme song (which is untitled on the official albums) which knocks it out of the park. From that first glittering word “Imagination,” the song slips into your subconscious and takes flight, with pounding trumpet fanfares and sweeping orchestrations. Still gives out goosebumps even years later.

6. Soarin’ Over California

Another all-instrumental selection, which serves as the backdrop for the entire ride. It’s the same melody over and over again, with slight variations based on the scenes we’re flying over. It perfectly captures the feeling of drifting through open air. My favorite part is the cloppity-clop rhythm that kicks in during the desert scene with the riders on horseback.

5. Canada (You’re a Lifetime Journey)

This is the most beautiful song on my list. When they changed up Canada’s Circle-Vision movie a few years back, I was worried the natural splendor of the country would be lost in frantic Martin Short shenanigans. But the filmmakers wisely kept the same ending, with a new recording of the closing song. The current incarnation is a little too “American Idol” at times, but it’s hard to beat the melody.

4. Grim Grinning Ghosts

Haunted Mansion’s jubilant celebration of the macabre is noteworthy for its many permutations throughout the attractions. Sinister and foreboding in the lobby, discordant in the ballroom, and full-on party-mode in the graveyard. The lyrics are delightfully twisted, and the beats of the verses are nicely punctuated by those pop-up dead heads in the ride. And sung by Thurl Ravenscroft (Tony the Tiger, the Grinch) himself, for a nice deep sound.

3. It’s a Small World

You knew this was coming, right? The theme park song everyone loves to hate. But don’t be a hater. This song simply is Disney. A simple round with simple lyrics and simple ideas — do you know how hard it is to create something so perfect and enduring? It is repetitive, but that’s part of the goal, the cohesiveness that makes this ride an enduring classic. Like Grim Grinning Ghosts and Yo-Ho, this song as has an extraordinary ability to rework itself a dozen times during the course of your boat ride. My favorite is the far-off island serenity of the South Seas version, with those hula dancers shaking to the beat.

2. Tomorrow’s Child

This song has a twinkle in its eyes, a melodious sonnet to the ideals behind the original EPCOT Center. It was jettisoned from the Spaceship Earth descent sometime in the 90s, when Jeremy Irons’s narration replaced Walter Cronkite’s. It’s a darn sight better than listening to that interactive Siemens cartoon that plays over the finale today.

1. Golden Dream

Patriotic songs seemed to have disappeared as a genre for U.S. songwriters to explore. Golden Dream may be the last true American anthem. The song is about greatness, and it achieves greatness itself. Full of optimism, but not the goofy Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow kind. This song knows where American has come from and knows where it is going. When it wraps up the American Adventure, with the sun rising behind the Statue of Liberty, you find yourself almost busting with national pride.

So there you have it. The definitive list. How does this compare to your list?

 

 

The sad end of an era

In 2011 when Steve jobs died I felt sad.

I never met him, never had any contact of any sort with him and yet I was sad. He touched my life through his work at both Pixar and Apple. It was a strange experience to feel a read sadness for the loss of someone I did not know at all.

For a long time I have wondered what it would have been like to be around when Walt Disney died. Hard to believe since I am feeling so old these days but I am too young to have even shared the earth with Walt so much have been at an age to have any understanding of who he was when he died. I know Walt the way most of us do; through his work, his legacy and the archives of mostly black and white films and photos. And yet his work and his actions have had a huge impact on my life, the lives of my family and the lives of millions of people the world over. Seeing Walt die would have crushed me.

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Today we got news of something nearly as sad, that Tony Baxter is leaving Walt Disney Imagineering… and it is again very strange for me, especially since no one has died! Tony Baxter was the first real connection I had to Walt Disney Imagineering. He was the name and face that I could put on the process and the “magic” that Disney created in the parks. In essence he was (and is) my Walt Disney.

I was a kid when my family first visited Walt Disney World, back then it was simply the Magic Kingdom and a couple of hotels and it was a truly inspiring place to be. The times were different, the company was different the world was different. I think that I got lucky in some ways being the age that I am. I was the PERFECT age to see Star Wars on my 9th birthday with my friends and father. Likewise I was the perfect age to be introduced to Walt Disney World when it was new and almost naive in its innocence and optimism. I was an early teenager when EPCOT Center opened and I got swept away in its bright view of the future and its “anything is possible” point of view. These things impacted me in immeasurable ways, they in fact may be the single largest influences on my life outside of my immediate family. One thing they had in common was Tony Baxter.

My appetite for all things Disney park related was ravenous. I had an unquenchable thirst to learn how it was done and who did it. Somehow Tony Baxter was our ambassador. He put himself out there, spoke to the fans, gave interviews and was an endless source of inspiration. He was the then current link to the Imagineers who created the parks to begin with and everything he touched turned to Gold.

Big Thunder Mountain, Splash Mountain, the original version of Imagination at EPCOT, New Fantasyland at Disneyland, Star Tours, Indiana Jones, Disneyland Paris… the list of his achievements goes on and on and reads like a greatest hits list of Disney’s past. Tony became a hero figure to me. He was the guy who really made his dream come true… who started as a kid scooping ice cream on Main Street and rose to the greatest heights within WDI. For years I have worried about how Tony would leave, knowing he had to eventually. I hoped it would be with great fanfare and reverence as an old man, carried out on the shoulders of the younger generation he mentored. Instead as it turns out he has been forced out by a fearful group of current management who in all likelihood are tired of hearing an old timer talk about how it used to be, and should still be.

The news has made me sad, I mean really and honestly sad. Sad in a way that has taken me by surprise in its intensity. Tony leaving Disney is like Walt Disney leaving Disney; hard to imagine.

Tony is a true fan of Disney. He is not a guy in it for the paycheck. He is not a hired gun. He cares deeply for Disney and it shows in everything he ever did for them. Here is a guy who replanted olive trees that once stood in Disneyland at his own home just so that piece of Disney history would not be lost. Calling him the ultimate fan is a huge understatement.

Tony:

Thank you for all you have done to carry on the magic. Thank you for the inspiration you gave to millions of kids that you never saw in person but that you touched in real and meaningful ways. Thank you for the chance to pass these same feelings down to my daughter (whose favorite ride BTW is Big Thunder, who was very excited to be tall enough to ride Indy for the first time last month and whose first “big” ride was Splash Mountain). Thank you for passing along the ideals that built Disneyland to those who may not have understood them otherwise. Thank you for being open and available and simply for caring.

Caring about what you do may be the most rare of all traits and one thing is for sure… Tony cared… and still does.

WDI will never be the same.

Here is Tony’s letter to his fellow WDI employees… He is a class guy:

AN OPEN LETTER TO FELLOW IMAGINEERS

Decades ago, Imagineering had the bold notion to start the 21st century 18 years early by unveiling the “future” at Epcot in 1982. This positive look at tomorrow had a numbing effect on the bleak vistas depicted in George Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984. As a kid beginning my career at Disneyland in the mid 1960s, both of these “futures” were far off from a universe where Disneyland was the only Disney park, Mr. Lincoln was a state of the art attraction, and everything operated under Walt Disney’s guidance.

Today, while there is a new set of “futures” to explore, the time has come for me to evolve my role at Walt Disney Imagineering. Beginning this February, I will be transitioning to a position as a part time advisor. While I will not be here on a regular basis, I will continue to be available to any and all of you as needs arise. Though my time will be limited, my passion for the magic WDI creates will be just as strong.

Since early last year, I have been thinking about what I would say to all of you when this time arrived. It has been a wondrous 47 years spanning the opening of Walt Disney World to Big Thunder and Star Tours … from Epcot’s original Journey into Imagination to Disneyland Paris and Indiana Jones. The Imagineers I have known and shared these times with have provided invaluable experiences not to be found anywhere else on earth.

As one of the lucky second-generation Imagineers, I had the unique opportunity to experience firsthand the core philosophies of our company. I was fortunate enough to work with Claude Coats, Marc Davis, John Hench and the many others who built this industry alongside Walt Disney. I was able to soak up their wisdom and partner with them on creative projects. I have passed forward many of their key philosophies, and as our culture and scope have evolved, I have tried to balance my support of these foundations, with the business of charting “what’s next.” Now the 21st century brings a new reality … for the first time, the younger generation is master of the key technologies driving the future. While upcoming generations deal with tech tools that are evolving almost daily, many of Disney’s keystone philosophies remain stable and relevant. These philosophies help define our creative edge to a world that is eager for aspirational content. With no particular order, here are five that continue to inspire me, and I think you may find useful in shaping “creative futures” for the years to come.

Creating Lasting Experiences – Legendary Imagineer Marc Davis once said, “We don’t really have a story with a beginning, an end or a plot … It’s more a series of experiences … building up to a climax.” Guests still want to be astonished, and our best attractions deliver that wow factor with visions and emotions. I always start with the notion that it is the 20th repeat ride, not the first that is the most important. Park experiences are by nature less able to focus on linear stories and tangible feelings than motion pictures. Unlike a movie, what separates an OK attraction from a great one is that people find themselves “in” the great ones. They have been taken to a place they couldn’t have imagined without Disney. How intriguingly we craft the level of guest engagement has direct bearing on desire for an umpteenth ride down the same track.

In Fantasyland, a simple line of dialogue heralds the beginning of one of the most aspirational ride experiences ever created; “Come on everybody … here we go!” After riding Peter Pan, futurist Ray Bradbury was moved to write; “Walt, I’ll be eternally grateful that you made it possible for me to sail from a child’s window, out over moonlit London in a galleon on its way to the stars!” Despite the fact that by today’s standards Peter Pan’s technology is dated, its mystique has remained unwavering. The WDI challenge is finding ways to ensure today’s more sophisticated experiences have similar intangible qualities that provide groundwork for lasting appeal.

Sincerity – One of Walt Disney’s ways of overcoming what sophisticates tended to see as corny or sentimental was his absolute belief in sincerity. Defending Disney’s signature animation style in the movie Cinderella, Walt expressed what is to me a true hallmark of the Disney difference: “You have to believe in the honesty of Cinderella’s world, or you will not believe in the magic as it unfolds around her either.” The power of sincerity to win over an audience is “front and center” in the new Cars Land. Here, a truly believable environment fuses with the fantastic to give rise to new reality.

Valuable Mental Real Estate – Awhile back there was talk about the elusive “Disney Difference.” What the “difference” is may be open to various interpretations, but I see it centered on cultivating “Valuable Mental Real Estate.” Since the early days at the studio, Disney has excelled in focusing diverse talents on plussing core ideas. Enhanced value stems from something as simple as the emotional appeal of Epcot’s Figment character in comparison to hundreds of other generic dragons. When the whole team undertakes a mission to make “our dragon” stand out in every way, mental real estate values go up.

At Imagineering, where we must deal with equal parts of controlled insanity and disciplined evaluation, this can be complicated. Years ago, who else could have come up with the crazy idea for Flying Saucers and then make the concept work! (Sort of). Piloting flying saucers is every kid’s dream, and in spite of the ride’s technical shortcomings, people will forever recall the Flying Saucers as an E ticket. This rides aspirational, “bucket list”, once-in-a-lifetime intrigue, more than made up for any less than stellar performance.

Disney Hallmark Values – Current culture and the structure of our company are vastly different from the time when I began my career. Yet within that dynamic, hallmark values continue to add major appeal to today’s more socially sensitive content. Disney’s feature Beauty and the Beast shared many hallmarks with its ancestor Snow White, but it spoke to a vastly different audience with a finer tuned voice. Likewise, the more recent Tangled fuses traditional Disney values with relevancy aimed at a new generation.

Beyond the WDI walls, Pixar and Marvel achieve a consistency of success in their fast paced arenas. Each Pixar team is confident enough in their individual productions to freely reach out and tap into links that insure Pixar’s hallmark differentiators are a part of every project. Marvel has taken a different route, tasking individual creative teams to bridge their storylines under an overarching and epic saga. Regardless of the diversity of deliverables, hallmark values are key to all Disney entities, and everyone needs to be alert to where they reside, and how and why to fuse them to the DNA of a project.

Mentoring – At both ends of a career one of the most important working relationships is achieved through mentoring. When you are in your 20s and 30s it critical to find a mentor you can admire and trust. What proved most valuable for me was a mentoring partnership that skipped a full generation. A wide age gap creates a cross-generational opportunity for two-way learning. A young mentee sees a mentor’s still bright light as support for his or her own growing visibility, and the gap vanquishes the sense of competition. In a complementary way, a mentor’s satisfaction is fueled by the growing knowledge and skills transferred to their younger partner. My mentor was Imagineering legend Claude Coats, nearly four decades my senior. For Pixar director Pete Docter, his mentors were animation giants Joe Grant and Ollie Johnson. Pete and I absorbed as much knowledge as we possibly could during a period of growth in our careers. I would like to think our esteemed mentors also drew inspiration from our curiosity and unexplored visions!

A mentorship is not a few hours of counseling every so often; it is pulling together on real projects, with business/creative goals and knowledge gains to be made by both sides. This is the partnership I had with Claude Coats, and we remained lifetime friends because of our shared working time together.

Going Forward – No company is perfect, and like any other corporation Disney has its own politics and challenges. We are artists, engineers, managers, filmmakers and musicians. But our company is unique; there is no place like it on earth. We are lucky. At the end of the day, it is my hope that this letter will add to the special culture that I have been privileged to grow in. I see the probability for that happening in my interactions with younger Imagineers like Michel, Josh, Zach, Dylan, Laura, Manuel, Vanessa and Brandon, which are beyond rewarding to me. At a time when “unlearning” is as critical as “learning,” it’s important to listen to the way these people think and enjoy the things they do. Creativity I have mined from their game-changing perspectives, now effectively influences my own design process. I hope that when their careers peak some decades from now, they will look back on our time together as I value the time I was able to spend with Claude Coats.

And now it comes down to the point at hand. I am not suggesting that I could be a mentor to you all, but that said, you should all have someone you can turn to in this manner. I do hope to be available to help support your ideas, give advice or even join a team whenever appropriate. My role will be one of supporting your visions in the best way I can, and encouraging you to maintain and build upon this already special place. I will have availability, and if you would like my assistance in any way, please e-mail Bruce Vaughn’s office to request my time.

This is not a goodbye, but hopefully a letter of introduction to the many of you that I have not yet had the chance to meet personally …

Tony Baxter

Feb. 1, 2013