What may be?

Several weeks ago Disney announced that Maelstrom at the Norway Pavilion in Epcot was closing down to be replaced by a Frozen attraction. In fact much of the Norway pavilion will undergo changes as they add more Frozen merchandise locations and a meet and greet as well.

Norway-Frozen

We did not have too much to say about it around Parkeology because frankly those actions speak for themselves. To be clear we think it is an idiotic idea that undermines everything World Showcase stands for, continues the “dumbing down” of all of Epcot and is yet another example of short-sided thinking on the part of Disney’s parks division… and we think it will be a massive success that will have them laughing all the way to a very large bank. You see while the competition has to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to painstakingly create incredible realms of immersive fantasy while overcoming crazy logistical obstacles, all Disney has to do is stick two college girls in some costumes in order to create 5 hours wait times.

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I’ll wait four hours but that is it, not one second more! I mean come on… you have to draw the line somewhere.

Disney has an unfair advantage; they have source material, name recognition, generations of trust and industry leadership that any other company on earth would kill for. But that advantage is too easy to rest on… it is tempting to look at the bottom line numbers and see that despite Universal’s Potter additions Disney is enjoying record attendance and easily coasting past everything thrown at it… in fact when you factor in actual revenue spent (meaning not just bodies in the park but how they choose to spend their cash) Disney is so far ahead of anyone else that it is almost a bit sad. It would be like Apple worrying that the latest Casio calculator watch may steal some of the Apple Watch thunder. But guess what? When you rest on your laurels and get lazy that is when Casio comes up and surprises you… and then it may be too late.

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Not new and not from Apple

A Frozen attraction is a great idea. The movie is more than just a huge hit, it is more than just the biggest animated movie of all time (think about that a minute) and one of the biggest movies overall ever. It is a legitimate cultural phenomenon that will go on for generations to come and is a touchstone of young girls across the world. It has the potential to be THE movie for a generation of kids (mostly girls), it may very well be their Star Wars… the movie that they recall seeing as a child that transformed how they saw movies from that point forward. No doubt about it, Frozen deserves it’s own attraction, what it does not deserve is being shoe horned into a fairly small existing space in which it makes no sense to be and has all the ear marks of a rush job retrofit.

Lets get this out of the way… Frozen is not set in Norway. They can say all they want about the fictional local of Arendelle being “inspired” by Norway but the fact is that it is not Norway (and Shane and I know all about Norway!) So now sitting among the really for real locations all around World Showcase we have a purely fictional cartoon location. How is this different than our little April Fools joke a few years back when we broke the news that the many worlds of Star Wars were being placed around World Showcase? It is exactly the same and exactly as stupid (it sucks when your crazy jokes become reality). I guess it is not too much different than Donald Duck and company invading Mexico (another move I hate) but at least Mexico continues to be a real country that exists on this planet… unlike Arendelle.

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Here is a quaint church in really for real Norway. An actual place on this planet.

Does anyone think that the ride will be reworked in any real way? My guess is that the ride system remains the same; they paint the boats “ice blue” add a bunch of mostly static figures and replace the troll with Olaf. Oh and lots and lots of “Let it Go”. Your head will be ready to bust open it will be so full of “Let it Go” by the time you get out of there. You will leave through the new Frozen gift shop taking place of the current and much loved Exit Theater. Then you will have the chance to queue up for 3 hours to meet “Elsa and Anna” and if you are lucky maybe they will have a boutique to get your little girl made up to look like the queen as well. Screw Norway and its centuries of proud history… this will be a Norway pavilion in name alone; and it will crush all attendance records. The pavilion will instantly become the most popular in the park and Disney will tout how they are giving fans what they want because they are so in tune with the pulse of the fan nation… sigh.

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Here is a quaint(ish) church at the Norway pavilion in Epcot. A really for real representation of an actual place on this planet.

I can’t blame Disney on some level; Norway has been in need of refurbishment for many years and the actual country of Norway or its industrial leaders seem unwilling to pay. Here is an opportunity to spend very little and create a massive hit… one that surely will score very highly on every exit survey they take (lets face it, getting a 9 year old girl excited about Frozen is not all that difficult, and if the little princess is happy so too are the parents of said princess).

Vikings are fierce and all but they are about to get their asses handed to them by an army or pre-pubescent girls and there is not one damn thing anyone can do to stop it.

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Here is a man wearing a suit made of dolls. It has exactly as much to do with the really for real Norway as Arendelle or Frozen do.

Just as the Disney fans were calming down after the Frozen freak out Disney came along last week and announced that the Backlot Tour at Disney Hollywood Studios was also closing… effective pretty much immediately and with no replacement yet announced. Unlike the Norway situation most fans (including us for the most part) welcome shutting down the Backlot Tour. Yes, this was an original attraction dating back to 1989 but really it’s just a shadow of its former self. When it was new the tour was great fun. It featured not only the water tank and tram tour (then a bit longer than the most recent version and with the promise of more to come… that of course never did) but also special effects demonstrations and extensive walking tours through sound stages and post-production facilities. A bevy of late 80’s celebrities guided us via video screens and the whole affair took several hours to complete. But over the years it was scaled back and simplified, parts were removed, the walking tour was deleted and in general it became just an excuse to bus people out to see Catastrophe Canyon (itself a blatant rip off of the superior Universal Earthquake attraction). The tour takes up a huge expanse of space and the possibilities of what may go there have fans very excited indeed.

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Screw you tram tour… apprantly no one cares.

So here we are, at a crossroads. Is Disney going to blow us away by doing something truly amazing with this land? Are they going to play it safe and do something pretty good or are they going to pull a Frozen on us and stick some cheapie nothing back there so that (on paper) they can point to the expanded attraction count and market the hell out of in essence nothing?

Lets look at the possibilities:

Dream scenario:

I think there is very little chance of this coming to fruition… but it’s not impossible and it is fun to imagine what could be.

If you look at an areal view of the park you can see that about 30% – 40% of the park holds more or less nothing. Starting just past Star Tours you have Muppetvision 3-D, some shopping and dining locations, then the car stunt show “Lights, Motors. Action!” and then a bunch of now closed space that the Backlot Tour took up. Imagine if the closures were not done? Imagine if Disney announced that both Muppets and the car show were also going away. This would free up a huge expanse of space that would be absolutely perfect for the Star Wars land that we all know and hope is coming. It would give them the space to do something amazing. It would be an opportunity to show what they are capable of and with any luck they would nail it. Sure losing Muppets would be sad but it’s old and in need of a refresh… maybe they could even movie it over to the Animation Building and re-theme that area a bit?

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Yes it’s a crazy dream that never is going to happen… but come on, THIS would shut up critics once and for all.

Star Tours would stay exactly where it is likely with a re-worked exterior (sorry At-At), it would serve as the entrance point to a massive world that could span multiple Star Wars locations and truly be a park within a park; beyond anything they have ever done before. Streets of America, Honey I shrunk the Kids playground, Catastrophe Canyon…. it all gets bulldozed. There is so much land there that they could fit half a dozen major rides. There is room for restaurants, shops, attractions, meet and greets and more… all perfectly situated off on it’s own and with endless possibilities… eat me Potter!

More likely scenario:

Alas the dream scenario also would cost a billion or so… well worth it in my mind but since when has Disney been into spending that kind of money at Walt Disney World? Sure, new Fantasyland is nice and all but at the end of the day it is one dark ride a kiddy coaster and some meet and greets… it is not the scale of what Star Wars begs to be. So what else might be going into that now suddenly available space?

Lighting & Mater

They could do worse.

Probably an expansion of Pixar Place… this may not be all bad. For a couple of years there have been rumors of a version of Carsland coming to Florida and clearly there is space to do that now. Muppets would stay, car show would stay (and I guess possibly, just maybe, could even be re-designed into a “Cars” theme. The park would get the major ride from the Carsland expansion at DCA (Radiator Racers) and it would be a big hit. I’d much prefer keeping that unique to California but it certainly would do well in Florida and we know how Disney likes amortizing it’s development costs over multiple parks… and here they certainly could do just that. We also know how they like jamming the animated films everywhere they possibly can (cough… Frozen… cough) and there you go. A nice major addition that few could complain about even if it is not the absolute greatest thing they could do.

Another option would be a similar major expansion with Pixar but with an all-new ride, perhaps the Monsters Inc. coaster we have heard a lot about over the past few years. Either way the location of the Backlot Tour lines up perfectly with Pixar Place and would make for an easy expansion while losing very little and gaining a lot. Of course this makes less room for the eventual Star Wars addition (unless they are thinking much larger… like expanding outside of the current park boundaries or- gasp – it’s own park altogether).

Most likely scenario (and please let this not happen… PLEASE):

Years ago I would have bet Disney would aim high and go for one of the previous options… but Disney of today especially in Florida seem to have very different priorities… and spending a lot of money is certainly NOT one of them. So this leads to what is actually the most likely scenario and the absolute worst one I can think of: Adding a cheapo Pixar expansion; a clone of those in Paris and Hong Kong. Listen, I have been to both of those parks and I can tell you unequivocally that the Pixar Place kiddy areas are amongst the worst things Disney has ever done. They are going back to the original execution of Disney’s California Adventure by taking off-the-shelf amusement park rides, painting them Disney colors and slapping a cute name on them. They have no business being in Disney parks and exist solely to add capacity and to give the marketing guys some quick ammunition. It is easy to pass them off as something new and special but they are not special… they are as far from special as you can get. But I know that the similar Bugsland stuff in DCA does reasonably well for them and the Pixar stuff in both Hong Kong and Paris have served an effective purpose. By far the easiest, cheapest and worst option would be duplicating it at Disney’s Hollywood Studios.

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Here we see the Pixar Place expansion Disney added in Paris and Hong Kong… oh wait, this is a pile of garbage. Our mistake.

This puts us in a bad position. It would be very hard to maintain any amount of enthusiasm for the park if this is what they decide to do. Perhaps this in addition to one of the other expansions would be OK but this alone amounts to more or less a slap in the face. It would be clearly announcing that they no longer care about the fans or even future fans… that they are going for the simplest and easiest way to market without any real desire to deliver unique or deep or creative experiences for guests. They might as well light a match to the park.

Who knows what will actually happen? I guess they will announce something soon and all we can hope is that they choose wisely. I think the D-23 Expo next summer will bring big Star Wars park news… whether the Backlot Tour closure is connected to that or not we will have to wait and see. Maybe they will announce a modest Pixar Place expansion now only to surprise us with a larger Star Wars expansion later?

What we know is that change is afoot and they have the opportunity to do something great here… or to do something that disappoints many for an easy short-term gain.

Is this going to be more of the same or mark the turning point when they get serious about the new properties they have and how to incorporate them into the parks?

Will they squander the one property they have that has the potential to redefine what a theme park experience can be or will they blow us all away and re-establish their position as the leaders and innovators of the industry?

Keep your fingers crossed… and May the Force be with them.

 

3 Delightfully Low-Tech Effects in It’s A Small World

The complexity of modern theme park rides is sometimes beyond comprehension. Imagine a ride like Test Track, which must cycle through a consistent, steady stream of vehicles, across a ride track that is constantly changing speeds throughout. It famously took them months to get the kinks worked out.

The same with Indiana Jones Adventure, which not only varies its speed, but sticks a motion simulator on top of a moving platform, and then randomizes everything for good measure. The Gringotts coaster at Universal has the same challenges on a massive scale, moving vehicles running every which way, synchronized to film elements.

All it takes is one little hiccup and everything grinds to a halt. The computing power on each individual ride-thru probably involves more calculations than the first moon voyage. And while I love that theme parks continue to push the threshold for effects that can be safely repeated for millions of guests, year after year, I confess I have a soft spot for ride gimmicks that are both exceedingly clever and exceedingly simple.

The Pepper’s Ghost effect in Haunted Mansion may be the most well known. It’s about as simple as you can get — but so extraordinarily effective, almost as if the reflective properties of glass exist for no other reason than to portray ghosts in theme parks.

It’s a Small World turns 50 this year, and while no one thinks of anything in that ride as being high-tech, there are some integral parts of the attraction which actually required some clever mechanical gadgets to pull off. The beauty of these things is that you aren’t even aware of there being a gadget. It’s just part of the scenery that you take for granted. The other cool bit is that since these things are so mechanically simple, they don’t require an atmosphere-controlled data center with a rack of high-speed servers to keep the whole ride from going 101. They just work, baby.

Here are three of my favorites

Spinning and Dipping Magic Carpets

You see multiple versions of these throughout the ride, but the “Asia” room is probably the most obvious. As you float past the Taj Mahal and that weird multi-limbed shadow puppet lady, magic carpets circle over head, while simultaneously rising and falling like galloping horses.

The circling part is easy. It’s just a turntable with cables suspended it from it. It’s easy to take the dipping for granted, but how exactly do they pull that off? Maybe some motors to individually raise and lower each carpet. Motors aren’t exactly high-tech, but there are four carpets on each each turntable, so that’s four motors that might potentially break down. And what if they aren’t synchronized perfectly? Then you have carpets that don’t seem to smoothly follow the same path.

But fortunately the Imagineers came up with an ingeniously simple solution. There’s a little arm up there mounted under the turntable, which turns in the opposite direction. The noses of the carpets are tethered not to the turntable, but to the arm, which continuously shortens and lengthens the various cables by virtue of its offset axis. It keeps the carpets in perfect synchronicity and gives them the undulating motion of a ride on an invisible rollercoaster. It’s a few moving parts, some pulleys, and some cable. Low tech, low maintenance, perfect motion.

A Whole New World

A Whole New World

 One Blazing Sun

There is just one moon and one golden sun, which we have already exposed as being a complete falsehood. But one of my favorite effects is the sun in the South America room, which might also be Mexico, even though that is in North America, but Small World geography never bothered me much.

This sun is actually one of the few dynamic suns in the ride. It has beams which seem to continually radiate light, in spite of the fact that thing is made out of plywood. It’s not done with electronic light controls or programmable armatures, but rather with our familiar old friend, Mr. Turntable.

First you have the static sun, which is just a plywood Mary Blair-esque sun cutout. It sticks out from the wall a bit, with its sunbeams spiraling around it in a series of triangular spines.

Behind it appears to be another cutout sun of the same pattern, but mirrored, so that its spines are angled the opposite direction. As the turntable rotates, it exposes progressively more of the of the sunbeam with each degree, creating an optical illusion that the sun’s rays are pulsating outwards.

Ripsaw Sun

Ripsaw Sun

Cyclist on Tight Rope

I’m actually not sure if this effect has been removed entirely, or has just been under refurbishment lately, but in the last room (Antarctica, where all the children of the world go to suffer a horrible frozen death), you can see a cable strung between the walls across the channel. This cable should be home to a circus performing cyclist doll, who wheels back and forth across the thin thread (the cable is still there by the cyclist has not been seen for awhile).

One look at the cable’s thickness and you can see that this actually is kind of an incredible feat. The have some kind of animatronic-mannequin-whatever literally cycling a tightrope over a boatful of guests. One might be tempted to assume that the guy is anchored to rope, but it’s clear that he’s moving back and forth. Why are they so sure that he won’t fall off?

Part of it is balance. The cyclist himself is probably very light. He carries a long pole crossways, upon which two other acrobats are dangling from each end. These guys are probably weighted so that their heaviest mass is actually drooping down below the wire, the sheer force of gravity keeping them firmly tugged down so that one of them can’t suddenly shift above the wire and upset the applecart. It’s a simple system of counterbalances.

That’s all well and good, but how does the cyclist then move back and forth? Do they have a little motor in there making the guy pedal? As we’ve already said, complex motors are prone to break down, and this one would need to keep the cyclist moving backwards and forwards, always hitting his mark.

But fortunately the answer is much simpler, and even though there is a motor involved, it’s basically back to gravity.

One end of the cable is designed to raise and lower between a span of about twelve inches on the wall. Lower the cable and you create an incline, the cyclist starts rolling downhill. Raise the cable and you’ve now reversed the incline. He cycles backwards the way he came. It keeps him moving along the same path.

No cyclist pictured, but you can see the slit in the wall where the cable is raised and lowered.

No cyclist pictured, but you can see the slit in the wall where the cable is raised and lowered. That faint white line cutting diagonal across the top half of the picture is the tight rope.

Summary

None of these three tricks are all that spectacular when you look at them, but the cleverness of them has always fascinated me. Check them out the next time you’re on the ride.

 

When AT-ATs Catch A Cold

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ahhhh-choo!

Ahhhh-choo! Photo courtesy of Flickr

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

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

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

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

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

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