Bold New Worlds – Seven Dwarfs Mine Train

Yesterday I posted about how strange it is for frequent guests to suddenly have new experiences to enjoy. The Seven Dwarfs mountain has been isolated in the middle of New Fantasyland for what feels like a decade. We all remember when it was just a wee bump of steel in the middle of a dirt pit. And now suddenly here it is with a date to the prom and a tennis scholarship to State U.

Like the rest of New Fantasyland (except Storybook Circus), it is exceedingly pretty. And while I found the coaster to be rather disjointed, the ride is not without its moments.

The dark ride section is pretty great. It has one of those quintessential Disney moments, when Doc starts to call Heigh-Ho and the train creeps ever-so-off-kilter up the lift hill, with the music swelling, and Dwarf shadows marching beside you. That’s the kind of thing that Disney does best. It can give you goosebumps when done properly, and this moment is a bonafide goosebump moment. What Disney Magic used to mean, before the term became so watered down.

The ride is not meant to be a major E-ticket attraction, and in fact it is a little jarring to go from nicely themed kiddie-coaster to amazing dark ride to nicely themed kiddie coaster again. The lines should settle down after the initial newness wears off. In spite of some initial trepidation about the project (back when it was mostly Dumbo and princess greets), I’m a fan of New Fantasyland. I think both Seven Dwarfs and Little Mermaid are worthy additions to the Magic Kingdom. The restaurant is a much needed improvement, and though I don’t care for Story Hour with Princesses, the cottage is at least pretty and well rendered. Storybook Circus is not cream of the crop, but at least it’s an upgrade over Toontown. On the whole, this new area significantly improves the ambience of the Magic Kingdom — especially compared to the medieval tournament tents of original Fantasyland. I’m anxious to see where the Magic Kingdom goes from here.

I had the benefit of exploring these Bold New Worlds almost back to back. As strange as it sounds, I probably enjoyed the initial Harambe Theater District experience more. Harambe offered not just a surprising new set of buildings and landscaping to explore, but it gave me a different view of the old stuff — the view back towards Africa, the return of the geyser rocks, that white access bridge beyond which lies Pandora. But this new, fresh glimpse of Disney World from a different angle will soon fade, and I suspect the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train will have the staying power.

As a parkeologist, I was delighted to discover something in the Mine Train queue which I’m sure went unnoticed by practically everyone else standing in the Florida heat with me. Back in the 90s, I bought a collectible CD of the Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs Soundtrack. It contained two songs on it–scratch tracks of deleted songs from the movie. While listening to the instrumental background music in the queue, I was startled to hear renditions of both “Music in Your Soup” and “You’re Never Too Old To Be Young” mixed in with “I’m Wishing” and “Someday My Prince Will Come.” It shows a welcome attention to the history of the landmark film that inspired the ride.

The Cottage of the Seven Dwarfs

 

 

 

The Great Iconic Food Race

I have a love-hate relationship with Universal Studios. By which I mean, I love to hate them. For an entire decade and a half, they deserved all the hate and then some. Universal Studios Florida was a masterpiece of ugly when it opened. Islands of Adventure left so many opportunities on the table. They were such a source of perpetual disappointment, they might as well have called themselves the Knicks.

For almost 60 years, Disney has been setting the gold standard for how a theme park should operate, and everyone else is forced to copy them or die trying. Other parks could be counted on for the occasional ride vehicle innovation (floorless suspended standing coaster!) or record-setting coaster arms race (tallest wooden looping coaster!) — but these were just variations on the same thing. The real game changers (themed environments, onsite resorts, ride reservation systems, integrated infrastructure, gift shop exits) either came out of Disney or were perfected by them.

Somehow in the last 5 years, Universal has managed to steal a huge slumbering dragon treasure straight out from Disney’s nose (or under it, if you want to be less gross — but the metaphors stay mixed)

Yes, yes, the so-called “mini-parks” are all well and good (SeaWorld just opened their own copycat this past weekend). But mini-park is just a different branding of the typical Disney land (as in Tomorrowland, Frontierland, etc.), and no different than the kind of mega-themed experiences that Disney has been doing pretty much since Eisenhower was in office. But with Wizarding World of Harry Potter and now the upcoming Simpsons area of USF, Universal has discovered the gift that keeps on giving: highly recognizable unique food items.

How Disney missed this one, I’m not sure. They are usually so far ahead of the game when it comes to making a buck that it is stunning just how this little market has exploded in the last half-decade, and it’s all thanks to Universal. They wisely recognized that every kid and adult in the country who has ever read a Harry Potter book (which is probably every kid and adult in the country) is not only familiar with butterbeer, but would love the opportunity to try some. So they mixed up a cream-soda concoction and sold them that exact experience at its one-of-a-kind theme park destination.

"My, this is delicious! Now who's up for another ride on the Hippogriff?"

“My, this is delicious! Now who’s up for another ride on the Hippogriff?”

Don’t think Butterbeer is a big deal? All you have to do is look at the competition. Disney wasted no time rolling out their own weird marshmallow drink at New Fantasyland, called LeFou’s Brew, highlighting it in the marketing materials. And SeaWorld promptly rolled out a South Pole Chill “infused with Vanilla flavor.” Will it ever stop? Yo, I don’t know. Turn out the lights and it’ll glow.

There’s just one problem with LeFou’s Brew and South Pole Chill: Nobody has any idea what the frick those things are.

Butterbeer has an audience primed to desire it. They’ve been desiring it for years, and never had anybody bother to offer it to them. Universal saw that market and it quickly became one of their biggest success stories. It was so popular, they couldn’t make it fast enough. Not so the frothy concoction named after a very minor character in a 20-year old movie, who never had any association with any beverage anyway, other than as a prop in a song and dance number for the villain. It’s not a must-have drink. No kid is popping in the DVD of Beauty and the Beast and salivating over that time LeFou spilled some foam on Gaston.

I don't know about you, but I take one look at this picture and see dollar signsWhat I find fascinating is that Universal has already spotted a second opportunity to do the same thing, and again it’s sheer brilliance. Duff Beer will be served at Simpsons-land. The fake refreshment that launched a thousand pop-culture t-shirts now lands at Universal, again in a one-of-a-kind unique tasting extravaganza. I predict their sales will be huge.

Especially if they can get Hillary Duff to promote it.

Especially if they can get Hillary Duff to promote it.

I commend Universal for coming up with these pre-made markets and incorporating them into their parks. It’s the kind of opportunity the Mouse dreams about: Not just getting people into their parks with a slick entertainment offering, but finding something they are not only willing to pay for, but pleading to pay for. You expect the Harry Potter ride to be included in your admission, but not a single person would ever think that Butterbeer should be gratis. We’re conditioned to pay for food. If you’re not a raccoon, it ain’t free.

Disney keeps trying to find a unique food item. Carsland brought us the Cones (Chili cone queso, etc.) I’m sure Avatar will bring about Pandoraberry Plunge or something. But they keep bumping into the same trap of making the food an extension of the existing theme, rather than finding something that can be a focal point. I’m wondering if they even have any food items at their disposal that they can capitalize on. Is there anything in the entire Disney pantheon as iconic as Butterbeer or Duff’s Beer?

Let me know if you can think of anything. The best I’ve come up with is Poison Apples and Flubber, neither of which sound all that appetizing. Maybe Pooh’s Hunny Ice Cream or something (served in a plastic Hunny pot). It has to be better than Old Yeller Jerky though.

 

Circus Bear Mix-Up

I have no wish to rant about Storybook Circus, but there’s Another Part of Me that wants to. Circuses may have been magical in the first half of the 20th century, but today they conjure up negative associations with animal cruelty, carnival freaks, and child endangerment. Which come to think of it are pretty much the three defining characteristics of both Dumbo and Captain EO.

Certainly the fan community is impressed. All it takes is one Carolwood Pacific reference and Disney will have us all eating out of their hands. And that carpet in the gift shop! Such beauty we have never seen before! Judging by my blog reading list, there have been reams of paper spent on the Big Top Souvenirs carpet (because who doesn’t print out their blog reading list?) But I’m a jaded old cat, so I say talk to me again in six months and let’s see how that carpet is holding up.

I tend to lump Disney geeks into three categories. At the top you have the really passionate fans who know everything about everything. They write blogs and stuff. They’re well aware that there used to be a Mickey Mouse Club Circus at Disneyland (it sank into the swamp), a Circus Fantasy parade/show (it also sank into the swamp), and an EPCOT Daredevil Circus (it burned down, fell over, and then sank into the swamp). But Storybook Circus stayed. These people would have spotted the Carolwood reference a mile away, without any self-congratulatory help from the official Disney Parks Blog. These people know that the original idea for Storybook Circus came from a 1972 model for Dumbo’s Circusland, and if you check out the pictures, you can see just how similar the idea is. It’s easy to see why the 1972 version was never built: It lacked a 60-second, barn-themed kiddie ride.

Flight of the Hippogriff

Practically de rigueur after this stunning masterpiece of theming!

In the middle are the normal fans. These folks may not know everything, but then again, they also have lives. They can name most of the major Imagineers (especially those with outrageous names like Xavier, Yale, Rolly, and Jim). They have some appreciation of history. They can quote Haunted Mansion word for word. They’re either transitioning into obsession, or are self-aware enough to recognize that a career in circus rants isn’t as exciting as it sounds.

At the beginner level are the Hidden Mickey guys. These are the people who just love everything Disney, including its lesser films like Anastasia. They know about all the secret things in Florida — the hidden tunnels and the collapsible castle and so forth. They also know that discovering three random, vaguely conjoined circles is either a super-secret hobo language invented by Leonardo DaVinci himself, or a possible indication that you live in an Olympics host city.

The Last Supper

Do you see it??

I don’t despise the Hidden Mickey fans. We were all there once, right? But the main point of the Internet is to find some other group to feel superior to, and the hidden mickey crowd just happens to be the Rebecca Black to our Justin Bieber. Also I find it terribly amusing when they stumble off the bunny slope onto the Black Diamond trails.

True story. This happened at Storybook Circus a few weeks back. There I am, minding my own business, when suddenly I recognize two of the most famous faces in all of the Disney podcastosphere (not exactly the population of China, but still!). George and Jeff from Communicore Weekly are in line behind me at Dumbo. I’m friends with these guys online, but had never met them in person. It helped that they were both wearing these:

Oswald EarsSo we’re spending a few minutes catching up, introducing the families, etc. And some more people rush up, who shockingly recognize none of us. They just want to know where Jeff and George got those awesome ear hats. The guys politely explain that they got them at the Emporium on Main Street. The lady is thrilled. She is a huge Disney fan and recognizes how unique these items are. She wants to know what that picture is on the little badge. “Oswald the Lucky Rabbit,” Jeff replies. He points to her companion’s Oswald t-shirt. “Just like you have there.” This woman is talking to two mega-fans who hosted their own live sold-out fan-event at Epcot, and one Parkeologist who makes up fake interviews with the sheep in Impressions de France. If there’s another level of Disney nerd above us, it’s reserved for people whose last name ends in “Lutz.” “Oh no,” she says. “That’s not Oswald. That’s Mortimer, before Walt changed him to Mickey.”

Like I said. Bunny slope.

Anyway, I have gotten so far off topic by now with my celebrity name-dropping, that I’m not even sure what my point was. Oh yes, Disney geeks and Storybook Circus.

My theory is that Imagineering often aims for the mid-level of geekiness because most Imagineers are themselves in this level. They work for the company, so they have a decent amount of knowledge. And they were probably fans growing up, because it’s a weird career choice otherwise. But it’s also their job. We all like to say we’re passionate about our jobs, but I’m guessing most of us aren’t obsessing about the rich history of Accounting or collecting Teacher trading cards. Imagineering has its share of obsessive geeks of course, and probably its share of hidden mickey lovers too, such as whoever dreamed up Paradise Pier (that’s actually insulting even to hidden mickey lovers). But most Imagineers probably don’t come home from work, trim their mustache, change into vintage Smoke Tree Ranch pajamas, and dine on chili and beans (I’m not the only one that does this, right?)

I don’t really fault them for this. In the end, it’s not how much Disney history you know. It’s whether you can built a great Disney attraction. Yet it still bothers me when they miss an obvious reference to Disney lore and culture. Take this, for instance.

Humphrey the Bear

One of the posters outside the gift shop.

Now the funny thing is, in many circles, this is actually considered a successful example of Imagineering geekiness. Humphrey is practically unknown to the vast majority of the people visiting Storybook Circus. I’d wager that 99% of the people there think this is just a random bit of artwork made up specifically for the circus poster, and that Humphrey has no history outside of this one-time use. Of course, Disney geeks know Humphrey starred in a few National Park inspired shorts several decades ago, and he has actually been making a bit of a theme park comeback (Humphrey merchandise was on sale in Frontierland not too long ago).

Lambert the Sheepish Lion

Hard to call someone who thinks he’s a sheep a “Man Eater”

Humphrey isn’t the only obscure character referenced in Storybook Circus posters. Lambert the Sheepish Lion, from a 1952 short film, gets his own poster, as does Salty the Seal, who originally starred in Mickey’s Circus all the way back in the 30′s. There’s even some character referred to as “Goofy” whose origins remain unknown.

But Humphrey bothers me. Not because I dislike Humphrey (I love Humphrey! Humphrey’s the best!), but because they have a whole 30 minute featurette sitting in their library, whose entire plot revolves around a circus bear. Bongo the Circus Bear is not just a major theatrical effort for the company. It’s also SEO friendly.

Bongo the Circus Bear

His whole shtick is that he’s good on a Unicycle! It’s like Humphrey is pulling some Single White Female switch on him!

You’ve heard of Mickey and the Beanstalk, of course. The Sir Mickey’s shop in Fantasyland already references this film. What you may not know is that it was only one half of a feature length movie from 1947 entitled Fun and Fancy Free. It was released during Disney’s anthology period, when money was scarce because of some war or something. It had two segments, stitched together with some Jiminy Cricket transitions. The Beanstalk made it into the parks. Jiminy made it into the parks. But Bongo has disappeared completely.

It’s strange to me that Imagineering built an entire Circusland in the parks, and had an obvious need for some kind of circus animal to not only add some background, but to also be the main face of their candy apple counter inside Big Top Souvenirs (Humphrey appears on the signage there too). They wanted a bear, and instead of tapping the only circus bear in all of Disney theatrical history, they opted for the comic foil of a stuffy park ranger.

John Muir

The Chuck Norris of Park Rangers.

Bongo, I feel like Imagineering owes you an apology. Either nobody over there has ever bothered to watch all 51 canonical Disney animated features (I’m not the only one that has done this, right?), or they’re all a bunch of Humphrey groupies.

I suppose I will just have to forgive this oversight, and accept that Bongo is never going to be the kind of breakout star we all hoped for, even though they did see fit to give him a Vinylmation. It’s like Bill and Ted, or Bosom Buddies. One guy goes on to get all the glory, the other guy is stuck waiting for the reunion show. And anyway, at least Humphrey is still a genuine obscure Disney reference, so it’s not a total failure.

Unlike that Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom game. Disney, have you fixed this blatant Dalmation error yet???