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???


The Last Scary Adventure

I was reminded this week of a long-standing mystery. One of those obscure things that is always nagging at the back of my brain. And I realized that the time was fast approaching when I might never get an answer. More about the mystery later, but you see, we’re about to lose another one, and the internet doesn’t really care this time around.

Congratulations, Snow White. You held on longer than most.

There wasn’t much hoopla when the Mickey Mouse Revue left. Things were still too new in 1980 to consider the show a classic. Think of it this way: Stitch’s Great Escape — that universally reviled blemish on the face of the Magic Kingdom — has made it 8 years already, just one year shy of the Revue’s tenure.

It took until 1994, when Disney completely botched the closing of the 20K Lagoon before fans started to take notice. The Subs were announced as being “temporarily closed.” But then “temporary” dragged into a matter of years, and finally 20K was wiped off the park map completely (speaking of which, welcome to that rare club, Drew Carrey. Say hello to Wonders of Life for me).

Wishing Wells are being put on the endangered species list. At least we still have a full-size version over by Cinderella Castle.

Things exploded in 1998 when Disney decided to be upfront about their next Fantasyland execution and announced that Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride would be replaced with Winnie the Pooh. Proclaiming that Disney had finally become just another corporate leech, feeding on the popular character of the day (apt criticism at the time), and with a burgeoning online community ready to unleash their pent-up feelings of abandonment, “SAVE TOAD” became a rallying cry for fans everywhere. I’m surprised there weren’t fans chaining themselves in front of the bulldozers, for all the furor Toad brought. I can only think of a few other times that fans were so up in arms about a Disney announcement. The closing of Horizons was one, and just as warranted. The other time was when Disney announced they were bringing McDonald’s into the parks, proving that sometimes, fans can be ridiculous.

Not counting the blue tights, there are at least two deadly weapons featured in this section of mural. Can you find them?

It didn’t seem to matter that the Pooh ride turned out to be a quality replacement. The Skyway closed a year later, and there was another uproar, though not as major. The Skyway never featured any of the  storytelling or details as the other closures. Plus, it was a slow-loading linear ride that had already been copied in dozens of Six Flags around the country. It was not perceived as a major loss.

We’ve now gone 13 years since losing an original Fantasyland attraction, but this week, on June 1, Snow White’s Scary Adventures closes for good.

Don’t cry for me, Argentina.

At some point a couple years from now, she’ll make a return. Or at least the Seven Dwarfs will, in the form of a “family” coaster that looks suspiciously brief and designed to make people sick. I’m not entirely sold on the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train. The mountain and surrounding area will definitely be an upgrade to Scary Adventure’s Renaissance Fair architecture. But I have concerns about the ride itself. Barnstormer clocks at exactly 1 minute (including 30 seconds on the initial lift hill), and this looks to have about the same footprint. I’m hoping Disney surprises me.

Wait time until next Snow White ride, 2.4 years.

When all is said and done, we’ll still have a Snow White ride in some form, and it should be pretty enough, if that Fantasyland model currently exhibited inside One Man’s Dream is any indication. But I’ll always lament the loss of the traditional dark ride. As a kid who grew up going to Disney, the dark rides are the reason I fell in love with the place. Sure, some were better than others. Mansion and Pirates and Pan will always be cream of the crop, and even though Snow White may be one of the Magic Kingdom’s weaker dark rides, it’s still infinitely preferable to me than something like Laugh Floor, Stitch, or the glorified carnival rides (Teacups, Dumbo, Carousel).

Because I don’t anticipate being able to make it to Magic Kingdom later in the week, I took my last ride on Saturday. Yes, it made me sad. All those little details that I’m never going to get to see again:

Such as the signs of the zodiac that surround this Magic Mirror at the start of the ride (too dark to show in this picture)

  • The spell components on the witch’s book near the cauldron.
  • The gold tooth in the skull.
  • The special pie for “Grumpy” on the table.
  • The way the candles are just half-dimensional props glued to the wall, with blacklight paint to give the illusion of luminance.
  • That lightning crack illuminating Snow White held by the scary trees (a simple effect that still fascinates me.
  • That mirror effect with the Queen/Witch spinning around, with the Witch’s hands in the air like she’s at a Metallica concert.
  • That happy little dancing frog.

And the way that candlestick in Dopey’s hand is always vibrating. Is there a spring in it or what? Why are the dwarfs stationary, but the candlestick is bouncing?

And what about those details that are no longer there, victims of the many refurbishments that have come and gone?

With all those pigeons she kept attracting, no wonder she had to clean the steps so often. Fair is fair.

A few of my favorites:

  • See the Queen hovering over Snow White from window in the above picture? She used to hover over you as you enter the castle, opening and shutting the curtains. It was part of the earlier incarnation of the ride, when the guest played the role of Snow White, and the little princess never appeared herself.
  • Those warning signs about how “The Witch Appears In This Attraction” (you think it’s scary now…)
  • That fantastic room of strobe light explosions that you travelled through simulating the witch’s death-by-diamond-boulder (followed by a prompt and immediate exit of the ride).

A Fantasyland tradition: Entering/exiting under a bridge (see Mr. Toad, Pinocchio’s Daring Journey).

At least the mine car vehicles haven’t changed, each one still faithfully named after one of the Dwarfs. This was another Fantasyland dark ride tradition, though I suspect more people are familiar with Doc, Dopey, and Grumpy than Mole, Ratty, and Badger. I expect when we get the new Mine Train coaster, this is one tradition that will continue. If not, shame on them.

My last ride was on the Bashful car. He has to be one of the top six or seven dwarfs of all time.

Now about that mystery I mentioned earlier… The mural at the loading zone is a nice piece of work. Fantasyland murals are another lost art, though we should see a return to form when the Little Mermaid opens this year. Snow White has multiple murals, many of which are pictured throughout this article. Awhile back I noticed something that appears in the mural directly before you enter the building, officially leaving behind the part of the ride that is exposed to the outdoors.

This crest hangs over the doorway, and it is a flat painting, not a dimensional object. See that snake in the lower left corner? There are initials there: WCS.

What could they mean? Did the muralist sign his/her work? I’ve searched all over, but I can’t find the name of the painter(s). I posed the question to the fantastic Filmic Light: A Snow White Sanctum site (seriously, you should check it out, it’s brilliant), and they couldn’t find the answer either. I’m hoping by posting it now, with so much attention surrounding the end of the ride, that maybe somebody out there knows what those letters mean.

Also, who is that freakishly tall white woman with all those bearded guys?

Until then, I guess it’s time to let Snow White, fresh from the ranks of the dead, ride off into her glowing castle with the guy in blue tights. Maybe we can build a glass coffin over the site until the Mine Train coaster opens in a couple years. I won’t mind giving the ride a kiss later, to see if it will wake up.

A shame that after all that, only two dwarfs came to say goodbye.