Animal Kingdom: We Got Next – The Quiet Transformation

In 2007, Disney announced a massive makeover of the ailing Disney’s California Adventure park, located on Disney property in California. The fan community rejoiced. We religiously followed every phase of the project, from the demolition of the Whoopie Goldberg theater, to the removal of the Hub Cap icon, to the eradication of the giant lines spelling California inside the California park located in California, to the tragic deconstruction of the much beloved Maliboomer. Basically, we celebrated the removal of all the crap, and the arrival of good things, such as Duffy the Disney Bear.

In 2009, Disney announced the largest expansion in Magic Kingdom history. The fan community — if not rejoiced — then at least spent the next five years bickering about its success. We religiously chronicled every aspect of the Fantasyland project, from the Tangled restrooms to the Belle’s Village restrooms to the Carolwood Station restrooms to the interactive Pooh queue. Basically we celebrated the removal of all vacant crap, and the arrival of new opportunities for poo jokes.

In 2011, Disney announced that Avatar Land would become Animal Kingdom’s largest expansion since Asia. The fan community revolted, called Bob Iger and James Cameron several vile names, then promptly forgot about the whole thing.

Inspirational proverbs on Animal Kingdom Refurbishment walls -- also the plot of Dumbo.

Inspirational proverbs on Animal Kingdom Refurbishment walls — also the plot of Dumbo.

As we close the book on a summer that contained the last little bit of the Fantasyland expansion, one would expect all eyes to turn to Animal Kingdom for the next massive Walt Disney World project. But nobody seems interested. Over in the Magic Kingdom, guests are packing the Mine Train queue to the brim, making a nicely themed kiddy coaster the hottest ticket around. In Hollywood Studios, executives are riding the success of last winter’s mega-hit to untouchable levels of merchandising opportunities, on a shoestring budget/promotion that must make them giggle whenever they look at Diagon Alley. Over in Epcot, more Frozen seems to be on the way, with everyone playing will-they-or-won’t-they at the Norway pavilion.

Meanwhile, walls have quietly gone up all over Animal Kingdom for what I feel is the most exciting Walt Disney World project since, well, Everest.

Nice panels with animal facts on some of the refurb walls -- but still not as good as the animal bathroom facts at Conservation Station.

Nice panels with animal facts on some of the refurb walls — but still not as good as the animal bathroom facts at Conservation Station.

The apathy probably stems from two things. First, people really seem to dislike Avatar and/or feel that Disney could have picked something more “Disney.” I myself agree that Avatar is not my first (or second or third) choice for a new themed land. But on the other hand, I think people may be acting a little too self-righteous about the Avatar thing, as if we all didn’t see the movie at least once in the theater. For whatever shortcomings the movie has, it is nowhere near as bad as the three Star Wars prequels, a franchise which everyone seems to think is a better choice for a Disney land. It also is lightyears ahead of other Disney sci-fi-with-alien-animals stories (John Carter Land). Nobody seems to be grumbling about how bad Transformers sucked when Universal put in an awesome ride. I think Avatar will ultimately end up being just a brand name, and the allure of the new land will be in the bioluminescence, the awesome creature designs, the alien flora and fauna which will be incredible even if you didn’t care about the weird story of a space marine who plays Cranium Command with a blue version of Dances With Wolves. It’s going to be the Alien Dinosaur Institute, sponsored by a generous grant from James Cameron Corporation. And what could be more Disney than an alien telling of Pocahontas?

Secondly, Avatar Land is still three years away from opening. It’s locked away behind trees and walls. We can’t even see it rising in the distance. So it’s hard to get really excited yet. But there is so much happening around the park — some of which will start opening next year — that I think it may catch some fans off guard.

I took a quick spin around Animal Kingdom this afternoon. There is literally something new happening every dozen yards or so.

It starts in the parking lot, where a new expanse of asphalt is beginning to spread over what was once a grass field. Call it the largest parking lot expansion in Disney history. As a fan, it will be fun to speculate what the new lot will be called, because obsessing over parking lot names is what fans do best. Personally, I’m rooting for Leonopteryx Rex, because I think that will be the hardest for tram drivers to pronounce.

The front of the Tree of Life is encircled with walls. It’s Tough To Be a Bug is actually under refurbishment while they work on the tree. Rumor says that some components of the nighttime makeover will be added, transforming the Tree of Life into the Mother Tree or whatever the heck that thing in Avatar was called. Or maybe just as background to the Rivers of Light nighttime water spectacular.

Welcome to Wall Land

Welcome to Wall Land

Here a crew is seen power washing a cement tree in full view of the public. Because magic.

Here a crew is seen power washing a cement tree in full view of the public. Because magic.

Speaking of that, walls are now up around the lagoon from Dinoland all the way around to the Gibbons viewing area in Asia. This is to install viewing zones for the Rivers of Light, which seems to me to be a massive amount of viewing. Not quite up to the sheer mileage of the Illuminations viewing spots, but on par with World of Color in DCA. Portable dams are also installed in the lagoon itself in preparation for the fountain installations.

Nice paneling on these refurb walls on the trail between Dinoland and Nemo.

Nice paneling on these refurb walls on the trail between Dinoland and Nemo.

At Everest, the walls take a decidedly Asian turn

At Everest, the walls take a decidedly Asian turn

Behold, the beauty of the portable dam

Behold, the beauty of the portable dam

There were some Imagineers toodling around in a speedboat. When they spotted me taking pictures of the portable dams, they zipped away!

There were some Imagineers toodling around in a speedboat. When they spotted me taking pictures of the portable dams, they zipped away!

Returning for just a moment to Discovery Island, the main shop on the right is being readied for a huge expansion. Ground has been cleared, and vertical construction should begin soon (or may have already begun behind the walls.

Why, it's some Disney construction workers, back from lunch!

Why, it’s some Disney construction workers, back from lunch!

Not pictured, a new animal exhibit is being readied on the path from Discovery Island back to Africa, rumored to be the new home of the Cottontop Tamarins.

In the back of Africa, more ground is being cleared next to Zawadi Traders/Mombosa, which is rumored to be another full-service restaurant.

Side note: Mombasa is my favorite Animal Kingdom shop. Sorry, Chester and Hester.

Side note: Mombasa is my favorite Animal Kingdom shop. Sorry, Chester and Hester.

Not pictured, infrastructure work has begun on the Safari itself, in preparation for the Nighttime version of the Safari.

The first phase of the massive expansion actually opened earlier this year, when the Lion King show moved to Africa. The pathway to Pandora is inaccessible, of course.

Beautiful panoramic vista of the pathway to Pandora, obscured by ugly green canvas screen.

Beautiful panoramic vista of the pathway to Pandora, obscured by ugly green canvas screen.

And at last we come to the walls of the main entrance to Pandora. The foliage is so thick that you literally can’t see anything behind it, just the top of a trailer of some kind. Disney has also turned this into a smoking section — probably to discourage anyone from trying to go back there.

Beyond these smokers lies a vast world of blue elves.

Beyond these smokers lies a vast world of blue elves.

All these various projects should open in phases over the next several years, which will make coming to Animal Kingdom a slightly different experience every time. So much of it is dedicated to turning this park into a nighttime destination as well, which I think will be a huge treat for guests, since Animal Kingdom is already an enchanting place after dark, and a pretty rare opportunity in its current state.

I guess the point of all this is: Even if you don’t care about Avatar the movie, I think Animal Kingdom is poised to become the most exciting park project in the last decade, and if you spend too much time scoffing at giant blue people, you’ll miss the fun watching the transformation.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go back to stalking the new Starbucks location.

 

Bold New Worlds – Harambe Theater District

In 1998, I flew down for a long week at Walt Disney World. My third such long week trip in as many years. Only this time was different. This time, there was a whole new theme park waiting for me.

People say Animal Kingdom is a half day park. That trip, I spent half the week there. That sounds nuts to the average tourist, but I got lost in the details. We spent days just diving into everything. I rode Countdown to Extinction seven times on that trip. I can’t remember how many Safaris. For a Disney fan accustomed to soaking in the atmosphere, it was exhilarating to have that much new territory to explore. It didn’t matter that there were only three rides.

When Everest was being built, I haunted the construction site, celebrating each new bathroom as it opened, each cleared path, each planted rice field. It was an ancient kingdom being unveiled before my eyes. It’s a different sensation than when they simply refurbish an existing area. It’s a movement into the frontier, into virgin Walt Disney World territory, never before developed. When you practically live in the parks, it’s hard to describe how strange it feels to suddenly have a new place to go.

The Harambe Theater District (aka the new home of the Festival of the Lion King) opened a few weeks ago. I was there the day after the walls came down, and I am happy to say, it is a perfect, seamless addition to the original Harambe village. It feels like a part of Opening Day 1998–as rustic and timeworn and meticulously detailed a section as you will find.

Harambe Theater District

Favorite details include:

  • An operating license for the theater, issued by the fictional Harambe government and displayed on the wall near the Stand By queue for Lion King.
  • In the new gift shop, there’s an old tape deck on a top shelf, loaded with a cassette of the Lion King.
Were they even still making tapes in 1994?

Were they even still making tapes in 1994?

  • On the balcony overlooking a theater sits a large boombox, whose owner must have wandered away. And if you stop and listen, you realize that’s where the area music is coming from.
Apparently Harambe is able to get more radio stations than the Safari trucks

Apparently Harambe is able to get more radio stations than the Safari trucks

  • Then there’s this view of the old geyser field, not visible since the Discovery Riverboats made their final journey around Safari Village more than a decade ago. You can see the geysers here at about the 6:30 mark.
No longer spouting fire

No longer spouting geysers

  • And finally there’s this path, still off limits to the public, wrapping around behind the exquisitely themed restrooms.
Like the tunnel to Toontown, a world of blue cartoon figures awaits just beyond.

Like the tunnel to Toontown, a world of blue cartoon figures awaits just beyond.

You know where this path goes. To the next bold new world. Pandora in 2017.

 

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.