Five Windows Into Rides

They say the eyes are the windows to the soul. I’m sure this must be true. I like to imagine my soul looking out on the world through the twin portholes above my nose in the corner penthouse of my head. I draw the drapes when it’s bedtime. Install hurricane shutters whenever I’m working with power tools. Hire little guys in white uniforms to dangle from my forehead and give my eyes a good cleaning with a saline rinse and a squeegee every so often, as if I am a giant walking skyscraper who likes to run metaphors into the ground.

If Disney World has a soul, it has to be the classic attractions. More specifically, the rides. We love the rides. They are the reason we go. Disney thinks we go because of the dining and the golf or whatever, but no, it’s the rides.

We call things rides that aren’t even rides (“Next let’s go ride Hall of Presidents”). We have favorite rides, best parts of rides, memories of past rides (Mansion, the catapult launch, two-track Toad).

We’ve turned the concept of the ride into something to be conquered. “I rode the Tea Cups twelve times!” or “These idiots are trying to ride all 47 rides at WDW in a single day!” (well, I guess it’s 46 now. Thanks for nothing, Maelstrom and Backlot Tour).

Rides have a mystique about them. You line up, you get in the car, and then your adventure into the movies is about to begin. You careen around in darkness or through amazing landscapes. You grip the safety harness through the high-speed loop. Scream when the witch pops out. Laugh at the goat with the stick of dynamite.

Sometimes we just soak it all in — the sounds of the Smuggler’s Cave, that herd of wildebeest on the hill, Michael Eisner hitting a golf ball. Rides by their very definition transport us.

And then we’re back to the most dangerous part of our journey: The return to civilization and my attempt to dock this boat.

Rides are active: Stow your belongings in the underseat compartment. Step carefully onto the moving walkway. Pull on the yellow strap, but do NOT pull down on the safety bar, please. I will lower that for you.

Rides are so cool, that there are rides within Disney World whose primary appeal is to look in on other rides. If eyes are the window to the soul, then these five windows provide some of the best glimpses of the soul of Walt Disney World. It’s a chance to observe a ride in its natural habitat — not staged observation decks, but almost hidden peepholes. Many times, the people on the ride don’t even know they’re being watched. We get a kick out of it.

And that’s what makes these windows almost as popular as the bananas growing on both sides of the boat.

San Angel Inn Waterfront

There’s no actual pane of glass, no etched opening that would denote a literal window. But the diners at the San Angel Inn in Epcot’s Mexico pavilion are practically a show scene all unto themselves for the Gran Fiesta Tour.

As the boat leaves the loading zone, it travels into the Mexican night, winding its way past an ancient pyramid on the left, heading for a tunnel into the jungle. On the right is a festive Mexican village, with a restaurant right on the waterfront. The lighting is dim (it is night, after all), and the tables are far enough away that everything is shrouded in shadow. But those are real people eating lunch, and if they have the prime tables, they spend a lot of time watching the boats go by.

Nothing helps you work up an appetite like a temple of human sacrifice.

Nothing helps you work up an appetite like a temple of human sacrifice.

The idea is not original to Epcot. Disneyland was doing this with the Blue Bayou and Pirates of the Caribbean for more than a decade before Mexico opened (the original boat ride was called El Rio del Tiempo). But it is just as effective in Mexico as it is in New Orleans Square. Unlike Pirates of the Caribbean, where the most exciting show scenes are tucked away beyond the waterfalls, San Angel Inn diners are treated to the very best scene of the Gran Fiesta Tour. The pyramid is a masterpiece, and the quiet boats and distant drums perfectly set the stage for an exotic meal. They got lucky. A table overlooking Donald Duck’s cliff-diving scene probably wouldn’t have the same allure.

Walt Disney World Railroad Through Splash Mountain

Here we have a true window. As the train nears its Frontierland Station, it passes into a tunnel through the heart of Splash Mountain, and on the right, the wall opens up to reveal a glimpse down into the Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah finale of the log ride.

This is one of those cases where the casual rider is unaware that another ride might be passing through just overhead. You can technically see the railroad from the boats if you’re looking for it, but most people aren’t. They’re watching those singing chickens and the pig playing piano.

Unlike the San Angel Inn viewing, which shows you the start of the ride, this one shows you the end. Maybe the train needs some narration with a spoiler alert. This isn’t a lingering glimpse of Splash Mountain, since the train is moving, but it does provide an intriguing vantage point that the riders in the boats don’t get of the scene.

It’s also as close as Walt Disney World gets to having something like the Grand Canyon Diorama or Primeval World out at Disneyland. It’s presented in a very similar fashion, with large panes of glass on one side of the train–though the glimpse is way more abbreviated.

PeopleMover Through Buzz Lightyear Space Ranger Spin and Space Mountain

The PeopleMover is a ride that almost seems to have no purpose other than to showcase other rides. You’re circling the rooftops of the Tomorrowland, with the narration calling out the Carousel of Progress, the Laugh Floor, X-S Tech (oh wait). You do get a nice overhead look out at the Tomorrowland Speedway, but the highlight of the ride is when it bisects straight through the heart of Space Mountain.

The rollercoaster’s twin tracks flank the People Mover during the initial ascent. The rockets are pointed up, cranking past the satellite prop and the control tower, while the PeopleMover continues on its steady path. Occasionally, a rocket will careen by much closer to the TTA track. The image of passing through Space Mountain is so iconic that guide books continue to recommend first-time-Mountain-riders take a ride on the TTA first, to see if they think they can handle the thrills.

Stormtrooper 1: Do you know what's going on? Stormtrooper 2: Maybe it's another drill.

Stormtrooper 1: Do you know what’s going on?
Stormtrooper 2: Maybe it’s another drill.

While Space Mountain is probably the highlight of the PeopleMover, it’s not finished offering up other windows. As it heads out of Space Mountain and around the Carousel of Progress, it gives a nice backdoor glimpse into sections of Buzz Lightyear Space Ranger Spin.

This is another prime example of people on the ride being totally unaware that they are being watched. The view from the PeopleMover into the Buzz Lightyear panorama is actually much more appealing than the ride-level view, since you can see the scope of the alien landscape more clearly (down inside the ride, it just looks like mass confusion).

Ah, the very picture of clarity.

Ah, the very picture of clarity.

And something I’ve always been fascinated by are the rotating Z targets visible right outside the PeopleMover window–and which are often completely ignored in the ride itself. I always thought Disney should make those targets worth more.

The Garden Grill Rotates Past Scenes from Living With the Land

This is another Epcot dining experience, but unlike Mexico, the guests on Living With the Land are likely oblivious to the restaurant watching them like a great eye in the sky.

Busy as always.

Busy as always.

The Garden Grill is basically a giant lazy susan, slowly rotating throughout your meal. Beneath it, the canopied boats pass through dry deserts, humid rain forests, windy prairies. Eventually the boats veer off on their own course through the greenhouses, but diners in the Garden Grill are treated to the best themed parts of the ride, and at a leisurely pace.

It's like an episode of the Truman Show.

It’s like an episode of the Truman Show.

As an aside, remember when the Garden Grill was called The Good Turn? That name made much more sense, since it evoked the restaurant’s most distinctive feature. The Garden Grill just sounds bland (what do you grill from a garden anyway?)

Pinocchio Village Haus Overlooks It’s a Small World

Now my favorite window, which isn’t exactly hidden. It’s plainly visible from Small World as your boat exits the loading dock. Just a few panels of glass, behind which you’ll often see diners at Pinocchio Village Haus looking down at you.

They should offer FastPass for these tables.

They should offer FastPass for these tables.

In some respects, my favorite window is also the most bland. No Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah finale, no laser targets or blasting spaceships. Not even a stoic mayan pyramid. Just brightly colored boats in a brightly lit loading zone, setting sail on the Happiest Cruise That Ever Sailed.

So bright. So happy.

So bright. So happy.

I think my fondness for this window stems from childhood. Pinocchio Village Haus was the go-to restaurant of choice for my family–usually in the later hours of evening, when the sky had turned dark and the Magic Kingdom was twinkling with a thousand tiny lights. The Village Haus is a large restaurant, but only a few tables have this view. Here my brother and sisters and I could stare down at the ride beginning happily below us, take note of the short evening line, and get excited that while it might be dark now, the day wasn’t over yet.

That’s the power of rides.

 

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?

Star-Wars-Land-Possibility

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.

GarbagePile

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.

 

The Future Ends Today

The list of Top Ten Disney Theme Park Controversies continues today with #2.

If you just joined us click HERE for the first 8 entries on our list.

2) Horizons is shuttered and demolished

Take a beloved fan-favorite attraction. An attraction built on a huge scale. An attraction designed by some of Walt Disney Imagineering’s greatest. An attraction that showcased everything Disney does best. Then suddenly shut it down… permanently. And then for good measure demolish the building in full view for the world to see. No problem right? It’s a perfect storm for fan frustration.

horizons-ryman

Herb Ryman could capture the essence of an attraction in concept art like no one else ever could.

If EPCOT Center was an exploration of our optimistic future shared by a united world then Horizons was a crystallization of that future. It was the crown jewel of EPCOT Center. It was the single attraction that represented the spirit, the hope and the goals of EPCOT Center (and Walt Disney’s personal ideals) more than any other.

horizons 1 bis

The marhcing bad of the future, here today (or in 1984 at least)

Each of the other Future World pavilions focused on a singular idea or industry: Communications, Agriculture, Imagination, Transportation and so on whereas Horizons encapsulated them all into one glorious mega-attraction. Poised like a spaceship on the brink of take-off Horizons was architecturally unique, a beautifully detailed and skillfully executed vision of the future. It was an exciting and unifying vision of things to come and a knowing nod at our past visionaries. Using a side facing Omni-mover ride system Horizons picked up where the Carousel of Progress left off. Guests explored the future of life on Earth, both on land and under the sea, before leaving terra firma and venturing into outer space. It was a long attraction with an abundance of technology and deft storytelling… in other words it was classic EPCOT. Though Horizons debuted a year after the park’s grand opening, and had its budget and scope reduced along the way, the end result immediately made it a classic and the first attraction many think of when discussing EPCOT Center… and then it was gone.

horizons-01

Horizons had a bit of everything, from comedic robots to Omnimax screens to Pepper’s Ghost “holograms” to orange scents, it showcased everything Disney did so well.

The exact reasons for the closure are murky at best. We know that Horizons lost its sponsor (General Electric) and that is never a good sign for an attraction. But there is a lot more to it than just that. The most popular theory or excuse is that the building was collapsing upon itself and that the land beneath it was hiding a sinkhole necessitating its removal. Some say that Disney management felt the attraction was corny, old-fashioned and passé. Others claim that it simply came down to dollars and cents and that Disney needed the space and a fresh start in order to attract a new sponsor. No one outside of Disney really knows the true reasons why Horizons was so unceremoniously dismantled but we do know that it sent fans into a tizzy.

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Horizons_Full_768

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These are honestly hard for me to look at… just so sad.

This was the first time in history that a marquee “E-Ticket” attraction was not only shut down, but the entire building was razed erasing any trace of its existence. A new version was not being created, the building was not being re-used, and instead the entire shebang was simply being deleted.

Horizons

Perhaps more than any other now extinct attraction fans have kept Horizons alive in their hearts. Fan-made DVDs, tribute web pages and even fully recreated interactive virtual rides have been created to keep Horizon’s message optimism for the future going strong. If you are old enough to know the original spirit of EPCOT Center then you know that the loss of Horizons was almost unimaginable. It was ripping the very heart out of the park and in fact Epcot has never been the same since.

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You should check this out if you have not already.

Horizons was closed in December of 1994. A year later it suddenly re-opened unchanged (thwarting many theories that it had to be closed due to pressing safety issues). Horizons remained open while both World of Motion and Universe of Energy were closed (due to a bad mismanagement of refurbishments brought on by major design issues with the new Test Track ride) but by 1996 was no longer operating on any regular basis and by the start of 1999 was closed for good. In 2000 the Horizons building is slowly, painfully demolished.

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Roomba my ass!

Today Horizons lives on in the memories of the legions of fans that so fondly recall the power of the message it carried. Far more than a thrill ride or a cavalcade of special effects, Horizons had a soul. A few relics of the attraction have survived and Disney occasionally trots out the robotic butler figure for display on special occasions. Most of the attraction found it’s way to a landfill and a few parts oddly ended up rotting in the Parisian sun (click here to see what I mean).

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I have no tattoos… but if I were ever to get one…

I recently met a park enthusiast in his twenties, he considered himself a fairly hardcore fan. He had visited the parks annually since he was a kid; I could relate. Then I found out that he had never even heard of Horizons… it meant nothing to him, that was a bit sad for me to hear. Sure he was probably 7 or 8 when it shut down and likely never rode it, but to never have heard of it at all was a shock. We all want our heroes and our most vivid memories to live forever… but they cannot.

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As loud and sustained as the fan community complaints may have been Disney knows that eventually they will all subside and that new generations of fans will come in replacing the jeers of the old guard with cheers for the newest and “best” attraction to come along. Such is the theme park circle of life.

Did you ride Horizons? Do you miss it?

For the next entry click HERE