The World’s First Traffic Jam

In the classic EPCOT Center attraction, the World of Motion, they based an entire show scene around the idea of the World’s First Traffic Jam, complete with animatronic chickens.

But Disney World’s First (and Worst) Traffic Jam happens every night at the Magic Kingdom. I don’t spend a lot of time musing about the future here (too many old haunts to visit), but I do find it interesting that Disney has finally turned its eye towards the colossal log jam that develops seemingly every single night at the Magic Kingdom. It’s like they’ve suddenly come awake to the problem, after 40 years.

As a local, I will tell you that Magic Kingdom is by far the most involved park to visit — and you know why. The parking lot is a mile away from the park itself. Going to the Magic Kingdom requires an investment in time just to get through the gate. And if you want to go home after the fireworks (i.e. when everyone else wants to go home), it requires even greater stamina.

It’s well known that Walt want the park situated as far from the everyday as possible. The monorail and the ferryboats represent a decompression chamber. As you sail over the Seven Seas Lagoon or glide in through the Contemporary atrium, the real world melts away, replaced by a fantasy land of make believe. It’s all well and good until the kids are tired, your feet are shot, and sixty thousand strong are streaming towards the monorail station.

It seems like in the span of a few months, they have embarked on major efforts to fix this.

First we have the Main Street Back Alley coming to life over behind the Plaza Restaurant. They’ve always used this backstage area as an alternate route through Main Street during heavy crowds, but now they have plans to theme it, which I am all for. It’s interesting to think of Main Street gaining another corridor, and it should be fun to see what they come up with. Anyone who has ever been stuck on Main Street during Wishes will welcome this new path.

Not only that, but the entire Hub is being expanded — hence the recent draining of the moat. I’ve heard grumblings about the loss of green spaces, but I really think Disney has absolutely no choice in this. Either cancel the fireworks, or create a bigger viewing area. Pick your poison. All it’s going to take is for some nutjob to shout “bomb!” during the nightly performance, and there will be a mass panic with lots of injuries due to the body-to-body crowds. And on peak nights (Fourth of July, New Years), you literally cannot move. It’s horrible.

Those efforts help with traffic inside the Magic Kingdom, but they’re doing things outside as well. When I arrived at the TTC earlier this week, Wishes was just about to kick off — meaning the Monorail system was about to get put under heavy load. They actually routed those of us coming into the park onto the Resort Line. It was frustrating for me, because now I had to wait for it to stop at Poly and Grand Floridian on my way in, but I’m sure the reason was to allow faster turnaround of the Express Monorail.

And finally, there is a new Ferryboat dock under construction, both at MK and at the TTC.

The new dock, still under construction at Magic Kingdom. The ferry in the distance is docking at the original dock.

The new dock, still under construction at Magic Kingdom. The ferry in the distance is docking at the original dock.

Ferries are really their best way to add capacity. You can’t add another monorail track without a lot of expense, but you could conceivably add more ferries without much more cost than just the boat itself.

It did get me to thinking about other ways in which to solve some of their problems. I don’t have much of an answer for the monorail/ferry overload. For years I’ve wished for a bridge and sidewalk over that small canal at the end of the Walkway Around the World (the one which houses the Electrical Water Pageant during the day). This would allow me to walk to the Grand Floridian, and from there continue on to the Polynesian and the TTC. It’s a ridiculously long walk, I know, but on the bad nights I wish I had the option. I hate waiting in interminable lines.

For the Fireworks problem, I’d like to see them expand the show a bit. They’ve made the Castle the centerpoint for years, but why can’t they have multiple unique viewing spots? Some fireworks that are centered around Space Mountain or Big Thunder or the Riverboat? That would disperse crowds throughout the performance, freeing up some of the logjam on Main Street. When I was at Disneyland a couple years ago, the Christmas fireworks had fake snow, with several snow points at different spots in the park. We ended up at Small World, and it was much more relaxing and the fireworks were just as good.

Anybody else have some ideas for how to improve the bottlenecks? Maybe we need a third transportation mechanism at the Seven Seas Lagoon. Ziplines over the water? An underwater tunnel? End-of-the-day Monorail FastPass? Maybe we can crowdsource a solution to make life easier. With all the changes happening to Magic Kingdom these days, a better exit strategy would be among the most welcome.


The Transportation Codex

In many ways, Walt Disney World is a labyrinth. People used to get lost at Animal Kingdom, did you know that? When it first opened, visitors literally couldn’t find the exit and Disney went through and added a whole bunch of signs and stuff, a few months after opening. Apparently the intentional layout — designed to invite exploration — proved too much for the average family from Iowa. You can still find skeletons of lost souls if you know where to look. People who simply curled up behind a lemonade cart and gave up the ghost. It’s tragic, really.

But aside from just finding your way around, the labyrinth metaphor extends even to those of us who know the parks backwards and forwards. As our understanding deepens, our eyes are opened to new wonders we never knew existed. It’s a giant tootsie pop, and the more we lick, the closer we come to some gooey David Bowie center.

It takes a long time to peel back these layers of the onion, and even though I’m mixing metaphors, I advise you not to mix tootsie pops and onions in real life, because it is not pleasant. But mixing David Bowie with anything is always okay. Anyway, layers… Sometimes the most trivial items can take hold of a man’s fascination and drive him deeper and deeper into new levels of obsession.

On the surface, you have all the reasons people want to visit the parks. Top notch thrill rides, family time, autographs from sweaty college kids. Gradually you begin to understand more about the Disney approach to theming and storytelling. You dig deeper, buy your first Hidden Mickey book. You start collecting insider knowledge, and before you know it, you’re part of a weird fan community on the internet.

But it never stops. There’s always another layer, just beneath the one you’re currently standing on. And sometimes it’s hiding in plain sight.

Do not be fooled by those unofficial transportation collector cards! Accept only the real thing!

I recently obtained the above card during a trip to the Magic Kingdom. I have visited the Magic Kingdom in all the decades of its existence, and not once have I ever been offered an Official Walt Disney World Transportation Collector Card. I never even knew they existed. It wasn’t until I finally had a kid that an attendant approached us and secretly offered us two of these priceless relics for free!

My 2-year-old promptly obliterated one of them, but I salvaged the second one, and was prepared to pass it off as nothing more than those silly little “Magical Moments” they like to give to kids. Now that I have a son, I’m more aware of these things than ever. Mickey stickers are handed out like gateway drugs on every corner. He got some lame Autopia driver’s license, a monorail pilot’s license, a whole bunch of crap from Innoventions, and even a “Compensatory Star Tours FastPass for your Entire Family When You Finally Grow A Few More Inches.”

These things are harmless really. A chance to distract kids with bright pictures while waiting for mundane things like riding the monorail or failing the height stick. They’re cheap bits of fluff, hold attention for approximately 58.4 seconds, and then are quickly disposed of. I can imagine the moms and dads of America finding this stuff wadded into the crevasses of their suitcase the next time they pull out the luggage for a family trip. It probably garners a brief, nostalgic memory of their Disney trip eight months ago, and then gets promptly tossed in the garbage.

I took the card, marveled at Disney’s assumption that anyone (even a 2-year-old who can’t read) would think a Transportation Collector Card was even going to cause a blip in the attention radar, and turned it over to read the back.

Fun facts about both monorails AND crickets! And a hidden mickey, for you hidden mickey freaks! Did you find it?

There is absolutely nothing of interest here to fans. Even if you didn’t know the maximum speed of a Walt Disney World monorail, did you really care? And who doesn’t know who Jiminy Cricket is?

I admit the Pinocchio Village Haus Hidden Mickey fact is okay, but you wouldn’t rush straight there to hunt for it. The card is a bit of garbage, just as we thought.

Except for that little line: “17 of 25.”

I stopped and re-read it. This isn’t just a bit of monorail fluff. This is one of an entire series. A series of collectible cards built around the Walt Disney World transportation system! Somebody sat down and painstakingly designed the entire set. Distributed it to various modes of transportation around property. Dared me to collect all 25!

Our brains are trained to ignore this stuff. Through experience and societal evolution, we have built-in filters that send this kind of manufactured puffery right past our logic circuits and into the garbage disposal. But if you give logic a chance, it can sometimes blow your mind.

Think about it. Can you even name 25 different modes of Walt Disney World transportation? Monorail, bus, tram, ferry, boat… seriously, I’m running out now. I guess you could start splitting the boats out into different styles. The smaller launches that service Poly and Grand Floridian. The Friendships at the Epcot resort. Maybe Magical Express gets its own card.

Yet some evil genius not only came up with 25 modes of transportation, he planted collectible cards at each one of them all over the property. A game about the most boring aspect of a Walt Disney World vacation. Unadvertised. Available only to cute toddlers. When the attendants don’t have anything better to do. An audience that has no concept of just how logically confounding these items are that they hold in their grubby little hands. It’s downright diabolical.

Now that I know these other 24 cards exist, there’s a part of me that’s obsessed with finding them. What if there are modes of transportation that I never knew existed! What if this is like Scientology, where only the Level Five fans get to use the Blizzard Beach pack mules, or the Downtown Disney transporter room? Are there Freemasons hang-gliding off the Contemporary rooftop as we speak?

It’s like stumbling onto an entire DaVinci code treasure hunt, buried in the unassuming transportation infrastructure of a massive resort complex.

The quest is on, ladies and gentlemen. And in this short of a race, there’s no prize for finishing second. I will solve this puzzle through the sheer power of my own magnificent brain. Forget those complete sets of Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom spell cards. Those things can be had for mere hundreds on eBay. But a complete set of Walt Disney World Transportation collector cards? You can’t put a value on that.


Merchandise Mashup

I may not be the biggest fan when it comes to turning Disney theme parks into a shopping mall.  I still miss the days when the shops actually carried unique, one-of-a-kind items.  It was a simpler time, when the experience meant more than spreadsheets, spending trends, and maximizing ROI (which I think stands for “Roy Oliver Isney”)

But while I disapprove of seeing the same “Walt Disney World 2011” sweatshirt sold everywhere from the Emporium to Yankee Trader to Mitsukoshi, I do have to admit, I’m developing a grudging respect for the merchandising folks’ ability to create interesting products, even if they end up homogenized on every resort gift shop shelf.  Here are a few favorites from my rounds this weekend…

Whoever thought up the idea of character mash-ups should be awarded a medal by the merch department.  Their best work is usually during events.  Especially Halloween, when you’ll see Mickey dressed as Captain Hook, Pluto dressed as Scar, or the Seven Dwarfs as each of Kevin Spacey’s kills in “Seven.”  They’ve also done Star Wars Weekend mash-ups, which give us Goofy as Vader, Donald Duck frozen in Carbonite, and Dumbo as a Bantha (fingers crossed).

But I came across this Minnie Mouse plush over the weekend and thought it was an inspired sort of bizarre.  In case you can’t tell, that’s Minnie decked out in Marie gear.  Yes, Marie, one of the kittens from Aristocats.  Marie has been steadily climbing the charts as a best selling character, in spite of her movie being utterly forgettable.  Blame Japan (they love them some cute kittens).  I don’t mind it so much, as she is obscure enough for me to love also.

What about this M&Ms knockoff?  There’s actually a whole line of rip-off candy that has rolled out lately.  Dark chocolate, milk chocolate, mints, etc.  All themed in some way to a Disney character.  This one had a special, obvious park connection, made even more awesome by the Spanish echo of the famous monorail saying.

Oh, and speaking of monorails, this next one is officially my favorite new thing about Cars 2, speeding into theaters this summer:

Yes!  It’s a monorail as a Cars character!  Dang, he looks friendly.  They’ve got him slapped on a ton of merchandise at the Studios, and it’s sheer awesome.  For me, Cars is one of those movies that keeps getting better the more times I watch it.  I’m totally psyched about Cars 2, and now I’m wondering if the Tronorail wrap will get replaced with this guy.

Could it possibly get even more awesome?  The answer is yes.  Yes it can:

Yeah, it’s the same Cars-ified monorail, but now we get a Cars parking lot tram too!  Seriously, if they start Cars-ifying all the ride vehicles, my bank account is going to take a hit.  Right now they’re just images on activity books and lunch boxes, but if these things come out as toys, I predict big sales.

So now I guess this makes two merchandise-related posts in a row.  First the balloons, now the mash-ups.  I guess it could be worse.  I could be posting about vinylmation.