The Complete Canonical List of the Best Animated Film Tie-Ins Ever – Part 1

Friday, November 7 will be a momentous day here at the Parkeology offices. You can probably guess why.

On that day, Big Hero 6 will be officially released into theaters, the 54th animated feature from Walt Disney Animation Studios.

There is perhaps nothing more synergistic than Disney animated features and theme parks. The parks are loaded with rides based on movies, restaurants based on movies, shops that sell merchandise from the movies, an entire attraction called “The Magic of Disney Animation” which is about the making of the movies. Without animation, there would be no Disneyland. Animation is the lifeblood of Disney parks. Animation and maybe also ice cream.

The 54 animated features are sort of like the 47 rides of Walt Disney World — something that can be methodically endured, conquered, and critiqued. Good, bad, all of the above — and in spite of all the classics, there is a surprising amount of bad on the list of 54.

For the first time in theme park history, somebody has decided to choose the absolute best park tie-in that ever existed for every animated feature. It’s something you didn’t even know you wanted, but now that it’s here, you will soon wonder how you ever lived without.

It’s going to take a few posts to get through all these. I will be going in descending order by release date. The older movies, by definition of them being older, have more options to choose from. So it will be more climactic to finish up with the original classics.

But first you have to suffer through…

#54 – Big Hero 6

Prepare to hug lifesize Baymax in a character greeting area heading to Disneyland! There’s also one heading to Hollywood Studios, but I give the edge to Disneyland, since it’s also repurposing the Captain EO theater into a preview theater. So there’s that.

See what I mean about anti-climactic? The movie isn’t even released yet! Until this movie becomes a mega-hit, we likely won’t see the closure of any classic Epcot dark rides so that we can get our own Big Hero 6 adventure. Speaking of which…

#53 – Frozen

You’ve sung the songs. You’ve worn the princess outfits. You’ve been labeled “the creepy cross-dressing man who sings show tunes.” Now it’s time to pick the best theme park tie-in to the biggest animated hit of all time.

Sure, we have that new Epcot E-ticket on the way, but that’s a few years off. Over in Hollywood Studios, they just ran an entire summer promotion centered around Frozen, complete with cardboard Olafs, an ice skating rink, and soap bubbles on Hollywood Boulevard. We also got that hastily thrown-together Frozen Sing-Along in the Premiere Theater, which turned out to be a surprisingly engaging experience (eat your heart out, American Idol).

But the best Frozen tie-in is already history. The Frozen Fireworks show used as part of the Summer of Frozen Fun had its last performance in September. Those songs! Those fireworks! That giant Sorcerer’s Hat backdrop! The show will be missed. The hat not so much.

54_frozen

Photo by SpreadTheMagic

#52 – Wreck-It Ralph

Ralph and Vanellope Von Schweetz had their own walk-around characters, but the coolest park tie-in for this genius video game tale came in the form of … a video game.

Fix-It Felix Junior arcade cabinets made appearances at Disneyland’s Starcade and Disney Quest, where you can still play them today.

54_wreckitralph

Photo by insidethemagic

#51 – Winnie the Pooh

Thank God for character greeting areas, or some of these movies would really be scraping the bottom of the barrel. Of course Winnie the Pooh is all over the place in theme parks. For awhile, he was bigger than the princesses. But tie-ins for this somewhat forgotten feature in the Pooh pantheon were limited to the character greeting spot at the Magic of Disney Animation (recently home to Wreck-It Ralph, with Baymax landing soon).

#50 – Tangled

Here we are five movies into the list and we’ve still yet to see a bonafide attraction, except maybe the Frozen fireworks. Tangled is not the movie to break that streak. But it is with a strange sense of delight that I get to put a restroom on the list.

Rapunzel’s Tower forms the backdrop to Fantasyland’s Tangled-themed pitstop area, complete with phone charging stations and a nice little “Where’s Waldo?” game with the chameleon.

54_tangled

Photo by Brett Kiger

#49 – The Princess and the Frog

Tiana and Naveen got themselves a thematically appropriate riverboat show in New Orleans Square — Princess Tiana’s Showboat Jubilee — which is the pinnacle of their park achievement. The show didn’t last very long, but like many things in Disneyland, it made great use of existing park landmarks. The characters still pop up for greetings here and there, but the song-and-dance show still takes the cake.

 #48 – Bolt

Oh, Bolt. You left us too soon. The movie wasn’t a failure, but Bolt is practically non-existent in the parks, other than as a plush toy at the Emporium. Could that possibly be the best tie-in from the movie? A stuffed animal?

No, I won’t allow out. Bolt’s biggest impact is on his card for Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom, the interactive game in Florida. Bolt’s power (like in the movie) is his Super Bark. Hold that card high, Bolt fans. You’ve precious little else to cling to.

54_bolt

#47 – Meet the Robinsons

Yeah, this one is pretty much in the same boat. There are several park references in Meet the Robinsons, but not many Meet the Robinson references in the parks. I’m going to fall back on the old stand-by: The character greeting area.

This honor goes to Bowler Hat Guy, who by now is actually a very rare character. He’s usually only out for special events like Marathons or Overnight Villain Parties.

54_meettherobinsons

Photo by Castles, Capes & Clones

#46 – Chicken Little

Screw it. I refuse to pick the short-lived walk-around Chicken Little and Abby Mallard characters, who like Bowler Hat Guy are special events only, nowadays. I don’t even like Chicken Little the movie.

It says something when the best park tie-in for the movie is the movie’s own promotional billboard. And that’s what I’m going with. They painted the side of the Playhouse Disney soundstage in Hollywood Studios to be a bright blue sky, and then painted a hexagonal tile that had fallen from it. A promotional mural. That’s the best you can do, Chicken Little.

54_chickenlittle

#45 – Home on the Range

Shoot me now. The movies are getting dreadful, and the park tie-ins are getting worse. The best tie-ins to date have been a fireworks show and a character show. And this flick about three cows (one of whom is Roseanne Barr) is not likely to blaze any trails.

Judy Dench voiced another one of the cows. Can I call her Spaceship Earth narration a tie-in? Jennifer Tilly (the third cow) played Madame Leota in the Eddie Murphy Haunted Mansion movie. Can I use that?

Okay, fine. I guess I will have to go with the Little Patch of Heaven makeover that Disneyland’s Big Thunder Ranch received around the time the movie was out. I think it had cows. Because theming.

54_homeontherange

Photo by Castle, Capes & Clones

#44 – Brother Bear

Brother Bear came out in 2003. Disney — who loves any story where someone turns into a bear to hilarious effect — figured they had a probable massive hit on their hands and promptly rethemed their Redwood Creek playground area of California Adventure into the Magic of Brother Bear, complete with totems, character greetings, and an amphitheater show.

Children everywhere rejoiced and quickly made it the most popular playground in that section of the San Francisco area of a forgotten theme park.

In 2009, Disney rethemed this playground around the Pixar movie Up, which is about a 70-year old man.

If that’s not the definition of a successful theme park tie-in, I don’t know what is.

54_brotherbear

Photo by Castles, Capes & Clones

#43 – Treasure Planet

I’m going to be honest with you. This is the first one where I could literally think of nothing. I had to google, and even still, all I could turn up was a walk-around B.E.N. character in Discoveryland at Disneyland Paris. Kind of sad, since this movie is way better than Home on the Range and Brother Bear.

54_treasureplanet

Photo by Loren Javier

#42 – Lilo & Stitch

Finally! This is the first movie on our list with some real attractions to choose from! I know you are extremely excited. Let me temper your enthusiasm by reminding you that the two attractions in question are Stitch’s Great Escape in the Magic Kingdom and the Stitch version of Turtle Talk in Hong Kong Disneyland.

I’m going to give it to Stitch’s Great Escape, since the animatronic is cool. But I do so under protest, since Stitch’s Great Escape is possibly the worst attraction in the entire Magic Kingdom.

54_liloandstitch

Photo by Express Monorail

#41 – Atlantis: The Lost Empire

In 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, your submarine passed through the lost city of Atlantis, whose tottering columns betrayed the hand of man. It was awesome.

Unfortunately, it had nothing to do with the animated feature.

I don’t know. I kind of hate this movie. So out of spite, the best park tribute is an article done by a wonderful website called parkeology. Which delightfully shows nothing remaining of Atlantis. Which is how it should be.

#40 – The Emperor’s New Groove

We end this first batch of movies not with a bang, but a whimper. Scraping the bottom of the barrel for yet another foam-head. This time, it’s everyone’s favorite mimbo, who had his own meet-and-greet outside the Animation building at Disney’s California Adventure.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you… Kronk. The Eighth Wonder of the World.

54_emperors_new_groove

Photo by ste3ve

Part 1 Summary

So yeah, you can’t wait for the rest of these, right? I mean, we covered 14 movies and the biggest full-fledged attraction we had to offer was the reviled replacement for Alien Encounter. In the process, we got rethemed playgrounds, petting zoos, a fireworks show, a trading card, a restroom, a billboard, seasonal entertainment, a video game, and 5 character greeting areas. This is scintillating stuff.

Is it any wonder Disney gets a bad rap for failing to capitalize on its recent movies?

In the next round, we’ll turn the page back to the 1990s. I guarantee you’ll remember some of those movies. The question is: Will you remember anything they spawned in the parks?

Stay tuned…

 

Near Misses

We have made our way through nine of the top ten Disney Theme Park Controversies (T.T.D.T.P.C.) but before we reveal number one let’s take a look at some of the other contenders that just missed the list.

To catch up with the rest of the list click HERE

1982-epcot-ticket-sm

The original ticket to the coolest place ever.

• The gradual bust consistent loss of the original EPCOT Center.

We have already discussed the Figment debacle as well as the very sad fate of Horizons but what about the park as a whole, especially Future World? EPCOT Center suffers from many of the same problems as the Magic Kingdom’s Tomorrowland; when you try and predict the future you will not only fail but also become dated very quickly. In some ways it is surprising that Disney took on the challenges of Future World give that by the late 70’s they already knew how impossible it was to keep Tomorrowland fresh. For the first 8 years or so Future World was an amazing place filled with legitimately forward thinking ideas and some actual science. Over the years things inevitably did age and in an effort to move the park to long term sustainable ground much of the futuristic elements were slowly removed.

The Energy Pavilion got a comedic makeover.

The World of Motion became a thrill ride.

The Living Seas pavilion was filled with cartoon characters.

The Wonders of Life pavilion went away completely (though to be fair this was a late-comer than never truly fit the original vibe of EPCOT Center to begin with).

Communicore became leased out advertising space and so on…

What we saw was a complete distortion of the original intent of EPCOT Center; even the name was changed to simply Epcot… no longer was this the center of the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow… now it was just a meaningless made up word.

So why did it not make our list? It has taken place over many years and is still going on today… even World Showcase is now being affected (Mexico and soon Norway). It’s too broad and slow of a process to be considered one controversy… though I do feel it is sad and as a whole one of the worst things ever to happen to the parks.

20kmk2_s

Seriously pretty

• Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea: Submarine Voyage

20K as it was known was perhaps the most beautiful attraction Disney ever created. It was housed in a magnificent lagoon fed by waterfalls and filled with a fleet of incredible Jules Verne inspired (and Harper Goff designed) submarines. For a child it held real magic. As a young kid I recall visiting the parks and thinking it was so cool that in one day we could fly to Disney, then be on a monorail and a boat before we even enter the park! Once inside the Magic Kingdom we could go below the sea and a fantastic adventure… it blew my mind, it was magic, anything could happen. But 20K took up a huge piece of valuable land, it was a very low capacity ride, it was extremely expensive to operate and maintain and it had the added hindrance of not being easily accessible for disabled visitors.

Many fans were very sad when it was abruptly closed in 1994 under the guise of refurbishment (the permanent closure was made official in 1996). For well over a decade the lagoon sat unused and that made its closure even worse; it had not removed to build something new, it was removed simply to save money.

It did not make the list because there were other attraction closures that made even bigger waves… but 20K will always be a personal favorite of mine (and the first attraction I worked on way back when).

As an aside a similar fate awaited the Submarine Voyage at Disneyland. In 1998 and for the same reasons as 20K the attraction as suddenly closed. This time however the management was toying with alt’s original park and many Imagineers took personal offense at this. Quickly Walt Disney Imagineering erected a sign in the lagoon announcing the imminent construction of an attraction based on the Disney animated film Atlantis” The Lost Empire. This was a rogue action not approved by park management and with no real solid truth behind it; it was in essence a protest by the Imagineers. Atlantis tanked at the box office and the sign was quickly removed. The lagoon sat empty for 7 years but after a regime change a glimmer of light appeared. In 2007 a new version of the attraction themed after Finding Nemo opened. It lacks much of the charm of the original but the subs remain alive at Disneyland (for the moment at least) and the Imagineers can chalk this one up as a win.

Ugly1

Seriously ugly

• Dinorama at Animal Kingdom

When Animal Kingdom opened there were two undeniable facts:

1) It was an incredible park with and incredible theme.

2) It was VERY short on attractions and most people barely spent half a day there before they felt that they had “seen everything” (On the other hand I spent days on end exploring the place).

They needed more attractions, especially those aimed at kids. The chief designer Joe Rohde will tell you that they also needed some kinetic movement for the park, that trees and shrubs were not enough to keep people moving throughout the lands. However the truth is simply that Dinorama provided a quick “fix” for early complaints. Much like we later saw with DCA by adding off the shelf carnival rides Disney could up the attraction count very cheaply.

Today Dinorama is an eyesore for the park. It contains two kiddy rides and some midway games. It also prevented the building of the much larger and more elaborate dinosaur excavation themed roller coaster originally planed for the Dinoland area.

Ultimately other controversies overshadow this one so it missed the top ten… I’d still love to see it go the way of the T-Rex though.

disney-fastpass

Tickets, Apps, Reservations and rubber bands… sounds like fun

• Fast Pass confusion

The introduction of Fast Pass caused all sorts of confusion and complaints amongst guests. While fans quickly adapted to and exploited the system it took years and years to educate the average guest. In fact a decade later many first time visitors were still clueless and did not understand how to use it.

Enter Fast Pass+… an even more confusing and involved system that now requires making reservations for rides before even leaving on your trip, wearing a RFID chip embedded wrist bands and carrying a smarty phone to access a Disney mobile app. Disney claims they did this to make vacations simpler. I think they did it because it makes spending money easier. Guests now do not even need to reach for their wallets… just a wave of the magic band and you have charged dinner, or a snack or that t-shirt you kind of like to your credit card. I am sure studies have shown that this ease of purchasing raises total bills by a significant percentage. The billion dollars they spent building the system will come back in spades… if they can get people adjusted to using it.

It did not make the list because we really don’t know what will happen yet and though it has caused a great deal of confusion it has not caused that much controversy.

Wilson

Chief Wilson Matua will keep you safe… and don’t forget to recycle!

• Message of conservation at Animal Kingdom

When the park first opened Disney was intent on letting guests know that this was not a zoo and more so they were taking active efforts to educate visitors about conservation. This was evident in many ways from donations to wildlife foundations to not using plastic straws in the park. Perhaps the biggest and most controversial implementation of this idea was the original storyline of Kilimanjaro Safari.

The very first story-line not only had guests chasing down poachers but actually riding by the hulking corpse of “Big Red” the matriarch of the reservation’s herd of elephants. Before the park opened Disney decided that actually seeing a dead bloodied elephant was too graphic and so the corpse was removed. However the message of poaching and conservation remained. Many guests complained about this either not understanding or agreeing with its message. After more than a decade the conservation message was toned down and now instead of a poachers camp we see more animals and the ride ends without having any direct conservation story at all.

While this is interesting and an example of a dilution of the park’s original messages it just was not a big enough issue to make the top 10.

space_mtn_apr19

The future is kind of rusty

• Disneyland’s New Tomorrowland circa 1998

As mentioned earlier Tomorrowland has always been an issue for Disney. Keeping it new feeling is a very difficult proposition. In the mid-nineties Disney was reeling from the financial failure of Euro Disney (see both DCA and Disney’s America entries on our list). Tomorrowland at Disneyland had not seen significant changes since 1968 and this had to addressed, yet management did not want to spend money on the parks… so the budget for the New Tomorrowland was slashed.

Disney tried to avoid the issue of an aging future in much the same way they did at Disneyland Paris… by making it more about the past and how the future was envisioned years ago. Space Mountain and much of the land was painted a muted copper / aged bronze look… fans hated it. Little of substance was improved within Tomorrowland; Honey I Shrunk the Audience replaced Caption Eo, the Autopia received updated cars, and Circle-Vision was closed. The general public’s take was that it was uglier and more confusing than ever before… but the biggest failure was the one new large-scale attraction being introduced.

Rocket Rods was intended to be the centerpiece of the new land. It took over the WedWay People Mover tracks and was meant as a high-speed thrill ride above Tomorrowland. Budget restraints prevented the tracks from being modified and the results were a technical nightmare. The Rocket Rods rarely worked and when they did the ride was a short, herky-jerky mess. It was closed for good in 2000 making it one of the shortest-lived attractions in Disney’s history.

Alas it missed the list because most of it has been restored or changed at this point and there is very little left of the botched 1998 redo. This is another example of how short-sided budgetary decisions cost Disney much more in the long run.

tikiroom

Why?

• The Tiki Room Under New Management

We have seen it several times on the list: when they mess with classic attractions people get mad.

In this case Disney took one of the most classic attractions ever (The Enchanted Tiki Room) and removed all the songs and characters people knew and loved. They replaced them with movie tie-ins and along the way insulted the original show.

Eventually a small fire closed the attraction and rather than spending money to re-create a show no one liked Disney relented and brought back the original show (although an edited version).

It missed the list narrowly as the concept was already covered with several other entries.

mg_6102

pointless

• It’ a Small World now starring your favorite Disney character!

When Hong Kong Disneyland opened it was yet again a park severely impacted by the financial troubles of Euro Disney (how could one park affect so much for so ling!). It was given a small budget and that budget did not allow many attractions to be built. Rather than taking the DCA approach of filling the park with cheap rides they simply did not build many at all. Predictably fans were not pleased and crowds failed to come. Disney once again found themselves in the position of needing to quickly add new attractions. In this case the classic It’s a Small World was chosen to be added to Fantasyland.

This was a fine idea but in an effort to introduce the Chinese to the Disney characters, many of which they had never been exposed to, Disney added several of their animated stars to sing alongside the Small World dolls.

This was generally not seen as too great of an issue… it was happening thousands of miles away, it was a new version of the ride and specifically being used to introduce Disney to a new audience… but when that same plan came to Disneyland it was not accepted with open arms.

Fans argued that adding the characters specifically flew in the face of what the ride was about. It was meant to be a celebration of children from the world over singing in unity. The characters drew attention away from the overall message and made it into a sort of “Where’s Waldo” of Disney attractions as guests hunted for the new character additions. It introduced a pure fantasy element that the original never had. While Small World was fantastical and fanciful it still was about the real people of real cultures… suddenly we had mermaids and talking fish sharing space with the boys and girls of the world.

Many fans were vocal about not liking the changes but those complaints were ignored and the characters are still in Disneyland though they have not made their way to Walt Disney World as of yet.

It was a big one but it missed the list simply because the top 10 were even bigger.

magic_original

If you look closely you may spot a puddle of my tears

Magic Shop(s):

Shane will make fin of me for this but the Magic Shops (yes there were two) at the Magic Kingdom were to me what the Swiss Tree house is to Shane. They represented a special place that I visited every trip.

I am including it here for strictly personal reasons… I am sure virtually no one else even noticed that they were removed… but it is symbolic of a monumental shift in how the parks were being run.

Prior to this (sometime in the mid 90’s) Disney allowed little shops or quiet spaces to exist in the parks. They were not churning out high dollar per square foot totals but they enhanced the over all experience. In the case of the House of Magic (which also sold masks and jokes) kids could pick up a gag and play a prank on their parents or pretend to be a monster for the day. It was another element of escapism and I have many fond memories of times spent in the shops and the results of the purchases made there. I fooled my dad into eating a super hot version of salt-water taffy on one trip. On another I learned a card trick that wowed my family (legitimately) to the point that they had me showing waiters at the various restaurants. There was always something special about the stores. They were not selling Disney shirts; they were in essence selling memories. These memories perfectly mesh with the feeling of fantasy that the park itself has.

I view the closure of the magic stores as a sign of the shift in tone for the parks. They became a little less about providing great memories and a little more about squeezing every dollar out of the parks that they could… and that to me is the biggest controversy of them all.

To see the number one most controversial move click HERE!

 

Teevtee’s Top Ten

It always has struck me that the phrase “paying homage” is a bit disingenuous.

It may sound very nice and may imply that the person “paying homage” to someone or something is in fact crediting the source and showing respect, however in truth it’s just a fancy French way of saying “stealing”.

For example Disney’s Catastrophe Canyon is “paying homage” to Universal’s Earthquake attraction.  It does this fine homage by ripping off every element, every effect and every plot point and then claiming it as its own. No two ways around it its just plain theft but it sounds a lot nicer this way.

CC

Paying homage since 1989

Well today I will be paying homage to fellow blogger Tom Bricker who earlier this month posted a list of his “Top 10 Disney Experiences (So Far)”.

Tom and I have a few things in common: Tom is an avid amateur photographer and he spends a ton of time on his various park shots (I presume he is the guy you seeing lugging a tripod all over the parks as you rush by to get on the next ride).  I happen to be a professional photographer working in a very different field (commercial advertising).

Tom has a love of the parks and of course so does Parkeology. Tom has traveled to see the overseas parks, as have I on several occasions (including right now).  So I think we would get along just fine.  None of this changes the fact that I am now stealing  paying homage to his idea but it makes me feel a little less bad about it.

Actually we love Top Ten lists around here and I know Shane is working on one about the Top Ten facial hairstyles of Audio Animatronic figures (I bet Famed Naturalist John Muir wins… but don’t tell him I told you). The idea of this list is also extremely personal… as personal as could be in fact.  It is MY top ten… not yours… though we would love to hear about your favorite park moments as well.

John Muir

Look at that famed beard

So here we go… From the Parkeology home offices my top ten most meaningful or memorable park memories in sort of kind of no particular order (though it is a top ten so I have to number them anyway):

10) New park anticipation

AK

Disneyland was opened long before I was born, and Walt Disney World opened when I was a kid… too young to understand. The opening of EPCOT was special and the opening of Disney-MGM Studios was great fun but perhaps a let down as I was in college at that time, past the perfect age window for such an event.  But when Animal Kingdom opened in 1998 things were different.  The Internet allowed me to follow it with great anticipation every step of the way. I was newly married at this point and visiting the parks had become something my wife and I both relished, here was the opportunity to see it happen from scratch.  I read all about it and looked forward to it and I will always remember the morning that we visited during its grand opening. Arriving at the gate before sunrise and seeing the sunrays pierce through the sky illuminating the dew filled leaves all around us. Hearing the exotic instrumental music waft through the pre-dawn air, I still remember the smell as well, kind of a citrus thing. We had such incredible anticipation and even though the park (which even today is often considered a half day affair) was not fully built out we spent DAYS there. For us the park was the experience… the levels of detail, the textures, the lack of signs (now they are everywhere) and feeling of true exploration… they nailed it.  And then we ran into Joe Rohde, the man chiefly responsible for designing the park.  All together it has created tactile memories that I hope never to forget.

9) Attempted Proposal

I’ve been married for a while now, since 1997.  I had gone on several really great trips to Disney with my now wife and so in the mid 90’s it seemed like a natural to propose to her at Disney.  I’ve never been a particularly lovey dovey kind of guy.  I tend to find most non-park related Disney things to be too saccharine sweet for my taste and certainly a faux romantic castle proposal was not going to happen.  However Disney meant a lot to us and I wanted to incorporate it in a unique and special way.  The Disney Yacht Club hotel allowed you to rent an old-fashioned wooden Chris-Craft speedboat to drive around Crescent Lake and the waterways around the resorts and Epcot.  Moreover you could do this at night during the Illuminations fireworks and laser show.  Well this sounded great to me!  What could be more special than romantically cruising the calm waters of Epcot as the resort lights shimmered off the tranquil planes of Crescent Lake?  As classical music drifted through the still night air I would find the perfect moment to slow the boat to a wake-less crawl and propose as the fireworks erupted in the background… it was going to be PERFECT.

breathlessII

Hold on…. tight

This goes to prove that not every memorable moment has to be a good one.  The reality of what happened was not quite what I had imagined it to be.  First of all I would not be driving the boat, rather, we were informed, we would be passengers in the back seat as a Disney “captain” piloted the craft. Perhaps not the worst thing in the world… surely he would be a well trained and discreet. Then a young “dude” showed up looking like a reject from the X-Games.  His idea of a romantic cruise was a full-tilt high-speed “extreme” tour of the lake making sure that he hit every wake possible in an effort to catch some air.  Speaking of air it was unseasonably cold and the constant spray of ice-cold water pelting us did not exactly create a romantic mood.  As our daredevil captain swerved and swayed we were tossed like rag-dolls.  Frigid, soaked and seasick we were thankful that he slowed down and headed close to Epcot for the start of the show.

This was going to be my time… I may not have had the leisurely paced prelude that I was expecting but now it was going to all fall into place. Our captain brought us under the bridge to the very edges of the lagoon; these were prime seats for the spectacle soon to unfold.  I fumbled in my pocket to make sure I had the ring ready to go, I waited for the music to start and the romance to begin… and then:  BAM!  BOOM! WHOOSH! A deafening cacophony of fire erupted all around us. We were not near the fireworks we were IN the fireworks.  Bombs exploded, the sky turned red and areal reports thumped our chests as heavy smoke soon engulfed the entire area.  We were in the middle of what seemed like a war zone.  I could not hear anything other than ringing in my ears.  Our eyes watered as the smoke overtook us.  Soon we could not see our hands in front of our faces. We were dizzy and dazed while the captain high tailed it back to the resort dock.

breathless

It’s called Breathless for a reason… smoke tends to make you that way

Weeks later I proposed back at home on the couch.  Not what I dreamed of but looking back I would have it no other way.  It was something that could only happen at Disney.

8) Dad time

In the early to mid 80’s… shortly after Epcot opened my father had a series of work related meetings in Orlando… which gave me the opportunity to tag along and spend the days alone as an adolescent in the parks.  We would meet up later in the evening and this led to several of my fondest Disney memories.

BVP

Buena Vista Palace: Home of giant lobsters and phones of the future

There was the time I made him ride Space Mountain over and over until he was gripping his glasses so tightly the lenses popped out mid-ride.  We got off the coaster and he put on his frames sans lenses.  Funny and all, but he had to wear prescription sunglasses indoors and out for the rest of the trip. As an aside Disney found both lenses and mailed them back to us on different days… amazing.

There was the time we tried on Star Wars masks at the then sleepy Disney Village and seeing my Dad in some crazy alien mask was somehow just cool. But I think the one I recall the most is a visit to the Outback Restaurant at the Buena Vista Palace Hotel within the Disney hotel plaza.  These hotels are still there but not advertised nearly as much as they once were.  These were official hotels in as much as they could use Disney transportation but were all owned by lower cost alternatives to the Disney resorts.

Outback

Matches at restaurants, remember that! If not click here

The Outback was not the chain we are familiar with today but rather a more upscale steak and seafood house.  My dad ordered a MASSIVE lobster for himself, like 4 pounds of crustacean that he could not finish and then had to cram into the small refrigerator in the room.  Something about this has always stuck with me.  Later that night we called my mom using a “futuristic” speakerphone telephone booth they had in the lobby.  Some other time on one of these trips we ended up sitting side by side at a booth designed for couples at the top of the hotel in a fancy romantic restaurant.  I was 14 or 15 and only had sneakers and felt way underdressed.  Between sitting next to my Dad and the athletic footwear I was a fish out of water but those situations often lead to the most vivid memories. It was really about spending time with my Dad I guess, little moments and odd things can end up meaning a lot.

7) Secret Club

Club 33

Still the coolest door in all of Disney

I had first read about Club 33 at Disneyland when I was in college.  Back then it really was a very secret private club at Disneyland that not too many people had ever heard of, even die-hard fans.  This was prior to the instant communications of the Internet and for a guy much more familiar with Walt Disney World the concept of this club was incredibly intriguing.  I dreamt of going but it costs tens of thousands of dollars to join and had a ten-year waiting list.  You needed to be a guest of a member to get in.  I would walk past the ornate “33” sign on my visits to Disneyland and feel great jealousy of those privileged few who got to walk through the discreet doors. To cut to the chase just last year I finally had a chance to visit.  The food was typical average country club fair and way overpriced. The room was somewhat cramped and dated and the overly formal service was out of step with the casual setting of a theme park… and I loved it.  I loved everything about it. I loved that it was dated, I loved that the microphones originally installed in lights to interact with guests were still there, I loved that though Walt Disney never lived to see it’s completion I could see a 60’s era Walt hanging out up here with a Scotch on the rocks in hand looking out and surveying what he had created. It was exactly as it should be.  With news that it is all changing with a dramatic remodel and expansion I am forever grateful to have had the chance to see the original version and to walk through that door for myself.

6) Passing it on

WDW40

Come on, is that not the cutest? And the little girl is OK too.

Unlike Shane, I do not live a smoked turkey leg’s throw from the parks.  They are still trips for us.  We adopted our daughter when she was 9 months old but by the time we visited WDW with her for the first time she was a walking and talking, exploring and adventurous two year old.  She ran around the parks with reckless abandon and was totally fearless.  It was wonderful sharing experiences with her that were old hat to us (not the Tea Cups AGAIN) but brand new sensations to her. However the moment that I will always remember was a simple photo-op.  We were in the China pavilion at Epcot and I lifted her up to pose for a snapshot.  She wrapped her arms around me and pulled me tight smashing my cheek up against hers… it was totally unexpected and that photo and memory of pure love will always be meaningful to me.

5) WDW47

Shane and I have been friends for close to 20 years.  It is just amazing how time flies.  As we extensively documented last year we had never met face to face until there was finally an event of such magnitude that it forced us together.  WDW47 was an exciting, impossible adventure that has now inspired others to attempt it and I am sure eventually surpass it.  But we were the first.  We took on a challenge that was just so nuts that we had to try it, and we came SO CLOSE. (If you don’t know about WDW47 watch this)

WDW47

Come on, is that not the cutest? And the guy in the white hat is OK too.

This was the first time I had ever spent so much time in the parks with someone who knew as much about them as I do (well ALMOST as much).  It was an incredible time spent with a great friend.  After the fact, Shane told me that this day was perhaps his greatest day ever in the parks.  I know that he was just wrapped up in the moment but nonetheless the fact that he felt that way and enjoyed his time with me as much as I did with him meant the world to me. For a weekend, WDW47 was the most popular story on the Orlando Sentinel web site and we even became huge celebrities in Norway from it… but that’s a different story.

4) The greatest park ever

By the time 2001 came around I had been to all the parks in the U.S. many, many…MANY times and my wife and I had also checked out Disneyland Paris a couple of times. But Tokyo was lurking out there; it seemed so far away, so exotic so… well, so Japanese.

TDS

Looking at this stuff just never gets old. This was basically the view from our room.

I had always wanted to visit but in terms of Disney Tokyo Disneyland seemed too close to the Magic Kingdom to make the effort worth it (a poor assumption BTW).  But then Tokyo Disney Sea opened and it was going to be unique and new and unbelievable.  For years leading up to that time the embryonic stages of the Internet buzzed with anticipation and speculation as to what this wonder would really be like. The old AOL message boards (where I first met Shane) would debate every minutia of every concept art piece or press release that came out.  It was too much to resist… I could not stand knowing that this place existed on this planet and not see it with my own two eyes… and so our trip was planed for early spring of 2002… and then September 11th happened… and people were scared.  (We actually flew to Disneyland in September 2001 very shortly after the attacks and the paranoia and fear were real and palpable).  But we pushed on and in April took off for what has become one of my all time best Disney memories.

Mira Costa Pool

Wet-N-Wild Tokyo… oh wait, no, it’s the Mira Costa pool.

We went for it big time and stayed at the Hotel Mira-Costa… a room dead center looking out over the lagoon and directly into Mount Prometheus; the volcanic icon of the park.  We arrived late in the evening and so I had to stare out of that window and see the park and smoldering volcano bathed in a purple glow without actually being able to enter it for a full night (talk about a way to build anticipation).  When the dawn came my wife and I lined up at the special hotel park entrance and the excitement was electric… this was not the first time in the park just for us but also for the vast majority of the Japanese locals around us.  It was a communal kind of buzz that is hard to explain.

It’s amazing how the last 13 years or so has changed the demographic of the average visitor. At the time we were quite literally the only non-Japanese we saw the entire trip.  Now it is not uncommon at all to see Americans, Europeans and visitors from other Asian countries as well as Australia all over the park.  You cannot chuck a rock without hitting an American plodding around the place, but at the time we felt very special and unique.  And of course the park did not let us down, perhaps it even exceeded our expectations, as did Tokyo Disneyland, which was amazingly clean and well run.  I realized that visiting Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo DisneySea is really like going back in time.  It is revisiting the way Disney ran its parks in the Walt and post Walt pre-Eisner eras.  Everything was perfect, everything worked, and everything was the way you wanted it to be.  I have been back multiple times since and in fact, depending on when you read this, I may be there right now… it’s great each and every time… but the first time will always be something special. As an aside we really fell in love with all of Japan and its people and have similar non-Disney related memories of our visits there in general. Having the opportunity to bring our daughter there has been a special memory in and of itself.

3) Dodging the Grand Prix bullet and saying hello to Mike

I was 18 and working at Walt Disney World on Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.  That was awesome enough but a specific series of events led to this memory:

Grand Prix

Not only is it hellish to work at but it was also partially responsible for the collapse of WDW47… some day Grand Prix… revenge will be mine.

First of all I dodged a major bullet when I was hired. After general training I was sent along with a group of other new hires to a manager’s office where we were assigned our positions.  Now I knew I was already lucky to be working on an attraction as opposed to say janitorial or food service… nothing wrong with those but I really wanted to work a ride.  We sat around hoping for something great… maybe I would get Haunted Mansion or Pirates! Then the positions were announced, my whole group would get either a rotation of smaller Fantasyland rides (think Dumbo and the Carousel) or we would get the dreaded Grand Prix.  The Grand Prix was outdoors surrounded by diesel fumes and loud motors all day… no cover… the sun beating down on you on blacktop in Florida in the summer… with motors roaring around you all day, every day.  My heart sank.

Then the phone rings and I hear the supervisor talking about “20k”, short for Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and how they needed someone to fill a spot.  This was an E-Ticket baby!  This was a marquee attraction and I wanted it… badly.

20kpostcard

The new Fantasyland stuff is OK but honestly this was better

As he was talking on the phone I just burst out; “20k!  I’ll Take it… can I work on it?”  He cupped the mouthpiece of the phone, looked a little confused and asked “You want to work on 20K?” … “YES I DO!” and so the proverbial squeaky wheel got the grease.  My compatriots were off to work carnival rides while I would be piloting the freaking Nautilus… SUCKERS!

Yet that is not the actual memory, as great as it is.  Later in the summer new CEO Michael Eisner came to visit us… he was now the star of the Disney Sunday Movie taking up Walt’s old position as host (nah, no ego on Mr. Eisner). They were going to air the actual movie Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and needed to film his intro on our ride.  Once again being shy was not going to get me anywhere… I started campaigning to my lead that I HAD to be involved.  I was into film and video and lighting… that was my thing and so I would learn so much from this.  That’s what I said at least, and while actually true my real motivation was just to be in and around the action.

So they closed the ride, brought in a huge crane with a camera mounted on the end.  Myself and three other guys got to ride the Nautilus out into the lagoon while standing at attention on the back of the boat.  Michael (as he was introduced to us, no “Mr.” Eisner at Disney) stood up front and read his lines.  Take after take we stood at attention until Mike finally nailed his scene. From meeting him and having the CEO of the company call me, the lowest level park employee, by my first name and then myself calling him by his, to seeing it air on TV months later was all awesome.

20K is sadly long gone but my memory will be with me forever.

2) Dawn of a New Disney Era

There have been at least two watershed events in my life that I was lucky enough to be the PERFECT age for.  I was 9 years old when Star Wars opened.  I saw it in a huge theater with a group of my friends and my Dad on my birthday… it was a big deal.  I love that I had that communal experience and that I was young enough to really be blown away by what I was seeing but old enough to remember it all vividly.

Dawn

Likewise when EPCOT Center opened I was 14, the sweet spot for that park. It really was the “Dawn of a New Disney Era” as the marketing slogan went; it was so very different than the Magic Kingdom but still steeped in all of the history and values that Disney was known for (and I mean Disney the man, not the company). Click here for another take on early EPCOT

My first visits to EPCOT Center are collectively some my greatest memories.  It was so exciting, so optimistic, so futuristic and somehow simultaneously foreign and familiar.  I was old enough to be given free reign of the place, free of the shackles of tagging along with the family.  I sprinted from pavilion to pavilion crisscrossing from Future World to World Showcase and back. It was an empowering experience and the type of thing I hope my daughter can find somewhere somehow.

epcot 82

This would be easy to make fun of… but I just don’t want to, it’s STILL cool.

Seeing the incredible talents of those same Imagineers who pioneered the field now let loose to create the next generation of attractions was exhilarating. The scale was so massive; the rides were so grand it truly was Mecca for a kid like me.

I had spent a couple years waiting for EPCOT Center to open.  At one point they opened up the monorail and let visitors ride out to and through the as yet unopened park and it was like sweet torture to be so close and yet so far away from the big grand opening day.  I poured over the Abrams EPCOT book taking in every nuance of every piece of concept art.  I imagined what it would be like to walk in those paintings and actually be able to touch and feel those incredible looking places. This coincides with a period of time when I took several closely spaced trips to the parks (see number 8) and so I got to see the rapid evolution of EPCOT Center.  Imagination, Horizons, The Living Seas… each new addition was better than the last.  The park was unstoppable.

Epcot book

I’ve posted this like three times… seriously get it

I recall my mother getting up crazy early and leaving the hotel well before the rest of us (my brother, my father and myself) in order to run to the Worldkey video kiosks and make dinner reservations for the family in France or Italy or Japan. It seemed like anything was possible, anything could happen at any time.

You could explore the depths of the sea or the depths of your imagination.  You could travel in time or in space.  You could visit the far corners of the world that you may never actually see. Most of all you could experience a pulsing almost electric sense of hope, optimism and excitement that simply does not exist today. I used to pretend to travel through time when I crossed the bridge connecting Future World to World Showcase and then again as I swept through World Showcase. Every ride was pure and sincere in its intent.  There were no “hip” in-jokes or attempts to be a thrill park; it was all about looking forward to what seemed to be an impossibly great future.

There will never be another place like the original EPCOT Center. For 8 years or so the future was accessible in the present and the possibilities were limitless and I got to experience it all.

1) The first time (of course)

Every fan’s first trip to the parks is probably going to rank fairly high on a list of park memories, but I have a specific moment of that first trip that really stands out to me:

My dad had a business trip down to Orlando in the mid seventies.  Walt Disney World had opened a few years earlier and was getting lots of press.  Many families living on the eastern side of the U.S. had never been to Disneyland and had only a vague understanding of what it really was.  My father found himself visiting the Magic Kingdom while on this trip and came back with stories of Pirates, Presidents and transparent ghosts.  Being one of those families who had never been to Disneyland this was hard for me to digest.  I was a kid, maybe 7 or so… the closest I had been to Disney World was a pirate themed restaurant at the Jersey Shore… this was another world.

So off we went and while my first steps into Walt Disney World are lost to time this one event has become a touchstone of sorts for my family: My first ride on Pirates of the Caribbean.

Pirates Poster

Tell me again why I want to risk death or dismemberment?

My Dad had told us all about pirates attacking boats and sacking a town but I just could not compute what this meant.  I clung to my parents and did not want to go on this hellish trip no matter what they said.  Why on Earth would I want to be attacked by Pirates?  Why would I want to risk being shot at or stabbed?  Why would I want to drop down a waterfall and face living skeletons?  I cried like a baby, I did NOT want to go.  I begged and pleaded to skip this nightmare. We worked our way through the dark caverns of the queue as I made a last ditch effort to convince my parents that this was not for me… and then we went… and then it all changed.

Over the duration of that one ride, and perhaps really just the opening moments of that one ride I suddenly understood… it made sense to me. This was not real; this was a living fantasy.  This was going down the rabbit hole into a real-world Wonderland.  This was entering Willy Wonka’s factory and anything really could happen. This changed everything.

Vintage Pirates

The start of something big

The rest of that trip and the many more to follow were full of (I generally hate this phrase) magic.  It was a little kid being given the power to control where we went and when.  It was a kid having things he could previously only imagine materialize and become tangible. It was everything that later became important to me in life unfolding in front of me; whimsy and imagination, creativity and hard work, understanding that incredible things can happen and realizing that the smallest things can have the biggest impacts.

Decades later my inaugural ride on Pirates of the Caribbean is still my strongest and most meaningful Disney memory.

 And more

Frankly I could make a top 50 list.  So many memories of special trips with my family; of buying trick hot candy from the now extinct magic store (don’t get me going) and fooling my Dad into eating it. Memories of riding Big Thunder Mountain a dozen times in a row with my mother and now again with my daughter (at HER insistence not mine). Eating fried ice cream at the old Golf Coast Room, the special occasions on the Empress Lily or studying the maps that used to hang in every resort room and dreaming of what the never built hotels would look like. Riding the monorail with Ron Howard (total random coincidence) and giving him park tips and directions around the park or sneaking to the very top of the castle to peer down Main Street (I worked at WDW at the time).

More memories of riding in the front of the monorail and then recreating that again decades later with my own child. Swimming in River Country, buying crazy masks with my brother or crazy hats with my friend and then wearing them all day long. Our visits to Disneyland Paris or of riding any new ride for the first time. Being at the grand opening of Hong Kong Disneyland or simply strolling out of a quiet and empty park late at night. Disney has the ability to create legitimately special and long lasting memories for all of us.  It is not about selling up-charged character dinning meals or autograph books either.  At its simplest, Disney can create environments and occasions that are conducive to special things happening.  They give you permission to be silly, to be stupid in the best possibel way and to find delight in the smallest of things. I hope they never totally lose sight of that.  It is not about marketing, it is about allowing things to happen that can never happen in the “real world” and that is real magic.

Have any special memories of your own be they big it small? Let’s hear them.