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.

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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?

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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?

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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.

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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.

 

May the Force be With You!

It’s Confirmed: Star Wars expansion is coming to Walt Disney World and big changes are on the way.

We all knew it was coming. We have all heard the many, many rumors and now we have word that the big announcement is imminent and should be made official at a huge press gala in a couple of short weeks: Star Wars Land is coming to Walt Disney World!

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J.J. Abrams and his Bad Robot production company have signed on as creative consultants for the new “Universe of Star Wars” project.

Many details are still unknown and the full line up of attractions is not yet clear but we do know a few rather interesting facts, some of which may turn some heads. We also have early concept art and it looks fantastic.

Phase One features many elements of the original trilogy.

Phase One features many elements of the original trilogy.

First of all the plans are multi-year and encompass several phases, each with major attractions and shows. Many of the previous rumors have proven to be true; there will indeed be a Cantina themed restaurant and the Jedi Academy will be greatly expanded located in a permanent structure filled with special effects and state of the art audio video equipment.

The scope however is much larger than previously expected. All the many worlds of Star Wars will be explored, not just Tatooine but also Hoth, Bespin (Cloud City), Degobah, Geonosis, Coruscant, Kashyyk, Naboo and many others. These will be actual three-dimensional practical environments with unique attractions, not simply mentions or video in some larger scale more general attraction.

The first phase will focus mainly on the original trilogy, additional phases rolling out each year after the initial opening will venture into the locales of the prequels as well as the locations of the yet to be produced sequels.

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The ride will last 12 parsecs.

All of this is very exciting and already has both park fans and Star Wars fans (often one in the same) in a frothy mouthed fury, however there are some concerns, most notably the location.

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Space was left for Star Tours at Hong Kong Disneyland but now that Disney owns the franchise they are fighting Shanghai for a whole Star Wars themed park.

Clearly Disney has huge plans for the Star Wars franchise; in both Hong Kong and Shanghai they have plenty of available space to build entire parks devoted to Star Wars. In fact Disney is currently in negotiations with both Shanghai and Hong Kong (whose local governments are partners and co-owners of the parks with Disney) to see which of these resorts gets a full Star Wars park.

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Disneyland Paris will get only a modest Star Wars upgrade keeping much of the Star Wars area it currently has.

Disneyland Paris also has the land but they simply are not in a strong enough financial position to build a third park there. The Parisian Star Wars additions will need to be limited to a modest addition to the existing Star Tours area.

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Tokyo Disneyland is very hemmed in. Star Wars expansions are limited to a new park built on landfill or possibly the parking lot seen behind Tomorrowland.
(Photo courtesy of themeparkguy.com)

Tokyo Disneyland owner Oriental Land Company has made it clear that they are willing to pay for the full park as well… they will need to expand further into Tokyo Bay with landfill, it is possible to do so, however that is years away.

This leaves the U.S. parks and each has it’s own challenges:

Disneyland is very tight on space and has no real way to expand easily. In addition Disneyland is the only U.S. park able to incorporate Disney’s Marvel franchise into the parks due to a complex licensing agreement Universal had in place prior to Disney’s acquisition of Marvel. This means that Star Wars is in essence fighting Marvel for space at Disneyland. There are currently two independent teams at Walt Disney Imagineering developing separate plans; a Star Wars area and a Marvel area… both hoping to get a small expansion space in Tomorrowland (with the removal of the moribund Inoventions attraction). There is the possibility of a third park addition to Disneyland in the nearby area commonly referred to as “The strawberry field” but this is a logistical nightmare and many years away.

Walt Disney World on the other hand still has plenty of space, lots of open land and an all new, all Star Wars park could easily be added here… however the resorts drawing power is pretty much maxed out and Disney cannot justify building a fifth park at this time. Doing so would cannibalize attendance from existing parks, not add to it. Disney is also very jealous of the success Universal has had by adding Harry Potter attractions to the otherwise lackluster Islands of Adventure and soon the Universal Studios parks. This is the path Disney wants to emulate, they want to add Star Wars to one of the current Florida parks and they want to do it NOW!

When we look at the four parks we can rule out Animal Kingdom right away. Not only does it not fit or make any sense thematically but Disney is already adding a sci-fi movie themed area with Avatar (which is still being planned and apparently built). They would never have both Avatar and Star Wars in the same park and in fact the addition of Star Wars could cause further problems for Avatar land anyway… but that is another story.

The Magic Kingdom is also not a good fit… they want a large scale Star Wars presence and unlike Disneyland the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World does not have Star Tours or any other Star Wars themed attractions; it’s out.

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Star Wars weekends are already very popular at Disney Hollywood Studios.

So the clear and obvious choice is Disney’s Hollywood Studios Park. It is based on movies, it has Star Tours and a small Star Wars themed area already and it is the home of the very popular Star Wars weekends every year. Yet there are problems here too… SIZE. Simply put they do not have the room they really need or want within the tight confines of the existing park. Even if they would remove the Indiana Jones Stunt Theater and take that entire area of the park near Star Tours it is still too small for Disney’s grand plans. There has been talk about removing the back lot tour and the Lights Motor Action stunt show and expanding in that area but it is not directly connected to the existing Star Tours area and is still not large enough. Some have suggested building out of the park, into the existing parking area and surrounding undeveloped land. While this looks totally feasible on a map the reality is different. Disney has recently conducted land studies and surveys and it is clear that the high water table will not allow this type of development. In essence much of the land immediately surrounding the studios park is swamp. This waterlogged terrain cannot support an expansion.

That leaves one park… yes, Star Wars is coming to Epcot!

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Phase one fits nicely between China and Germany and is huge. Phase two will hold part of the large mega coaster as well as the Jedi Training space. Phase three slots in between Germany and Italy. Phase four wraps behind Italy and phase 5 will hug the current backstage boat docks. The docks will be relocated and the waterways themed as the swamps of Degobah. Future expansion may continue across the full breadth of what is currently known as World Showcase.

When the Disney executives looked at the Walt Disney World parks Epcot not only had the most land to expand on but they also felt it best fit the theme that Star Wars offers. You may expect Star Wars to be placed within the Future World area but in reality it is coming to World Showcase.

World Showcase not only has an abundance of open space but the many diverse worlds of Star Wars fits the travelogue theme of this area. Now instead of only traveling around the globe guests will enjoy visits across the worlds represented in the Star Wars films. Accordingly World Showcase will be renamed Galactic Showcase in an effort to better describe its new expanded theme.

World Showcase is currently home to 11 international countries represented in separate pavilions. The addition of Star Wars will add at least 5 more themed areas expected to cover everything from the dunes of the desert planet Tatooine to the wintery slops of the ice planet Hoth. In fact as the Star Wars franchise expands there could be as many as 10 unique Star Wars themed pavilions added along the current World Showcase lagoon. These pavilions will be inersperced with the existing country pavilions but may also be connected in the rear area behind the current country pavilions. This would form one huge Star Wars park within a park wrapped around and connected to World Showcase.

This impressive new addition will be known as “The Universe of Star Wars at Epcot”.

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Disney plans on rolling out a wide range of new snacks and concessions including R2D2 popcorn buckets and “Droid Drinks”…

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…Princess Leia and Jabba the Hutt cupcakes…

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…and a very unique “Dark Side” burger. The plan is to have as much Star Wars themed food as possible so that the new “Galactic” pavilions can participate in the annual Food and Wine Festival held At Epcot.

Also of note is the plan to have walk around characters, a Star Wars themed night time lagoon spectacular and lots of shops as well.

What we know so far:

• The proposed name of this expansion is The Universe of Star Wars at Epcot. I am sure we will all simply call is “USW”

• World Showcase will become Galactic Showcase

• Attractions based on all the Star Wars movies including the not yet produced new movies.

• J.J. Abrams will serve as creative consultant

• A new “mega coaster” will be part of phase one. This coaster is designed to “Put the Universal coasters to shame” and will wrap around, behind and through not only the Star Wars pavilion but also the neighboring World Showcase pavilions.

• The new coaster will be named “The Kessel Run” It is a multi looping coaster that will be the largest in Florida and one of the largest in the world.

• Phase one will fill the doublewide expansion zone located between the China and the Germany pavilions.

• Construction is to begin fall of 2013 and the first phase will be completed by 2015. Additional phases will open annually and be rolled out in stages, similar to how New Fantasyland has debuted.

• A “High end fine dining” restaurant will be part of phase one. It is housed high above Epcot in a recreation of the Cloud City seen in The Empire Strike Back. It will be a rotating venue affording 360-degree views.

• A major press event is expected later this month.

We know the names of some of the other attractions, shops and dining venues but don’t have specific details. Some of them are:

• At At Attack

• Something simply called “The Force”

• Mon Calamari Seafood and Snacks

• The Dark Side

• Coruscant Customs and Curios

• Chewy’s Churros

• Red Leisure

• Speeder Bikes of Endor

• Dex’s Diner

• Wickets Ewok Village

• Porkins Big and Tall

• Jabba’s Juice Hut

• Greedo’s Big Shot

One of the most interesting points of Phase One is how the “Kessel Run” coaster will be clearly visible from virtaually all locations in Epcot and will rise above not only the Universe of Star Wars area but also some of the old fashioned World Showcase pavilions. In the concept art we can see a little of China to the left behind the people and Germany to the right. This gives a good sense of the massive scale of this project. While some will surely complain that this somehow hurts the authenticity of the World Showcase pavilions we at Parkeology applaud it. After all, that is one big mofo coaster baby!

May The Force Be With You!

A Day Long Remembered

There’s a part of me that is afraid to write about Lucasfilm and Disney. If there are two obsessions I have shared since childhood, it is theme parks and Star Wars. And not always in that order. There’s a good reason why I created parkeology.com and not bloggathehutt.com. For one thing — in spite of making up that name on the spot, off the cuff, just now – I did a google for that title and found out there is already somebody writing as Blogga the Hutt. Also, I’m trying to coin a new phrase, “did a google.” T-shirts coming soon. But probably the main reason I don’t write a Star Wars blog is that I live in Orlando, FL and not Marin County, CA. I love both topics so much, I basically turned the whole decision over to geography.

The most appropriate Halloween image I could come up with.

Growing up, I would go to Disney once a year if I was lucky. But we had Star Wars on VHS all year long. If someone put a gun to my head and said “Pick between Disney theme parks or Star Wars movies,” my first reaction would be “That is a really weird thing for you to be basing your homicidal tendencies on,” but my second reaction would be “If I choose the parks, do I get to keep Star Tours?”

So yeah, I’m afraid to write about this, because I have a sneaking suspicion everyone will be writing about it. It’s all we’ll talk about for the next 5 years or however long it takes for them to finally decide which piece of Hollywood Studios they’re going to rip out to put in that Cantina restaurant, which everybody and their cousin knows has to be coming, because it has popped up at least 16 times in my Facebook feed.

And I’m not sure I want to hear everybody talking about it, you know? Because I feel like it’s sorta my thing. Like I’m the only one in the world who truly understands just how awesome this is. How could anyone out there truly have the same grasp and appreciation for both of these subjects that I have? They don’t deserve to get to talk about Star Wars and Disney together! I’m the one who built a scale model of Epcot in the same room where I filmed my shot-for-shot remake of Empire. I’m the one who took all my Star Wars action figures on Disney vacations with me. I’m the one who first drew up some Cantina restaurant concept art, lightyears before anybody thought of that idea. And I’m the one who suffered the shame when my mom said “You are a college graduate! Stop bringing your action figures into the parks.” In so many ways, this is culmination of a lifelong childhood dream. I’m the only one whose opinion matters!

This is absolutely wrong, of course. When you think of crazy fan bases, it’s hard to find two more rabid than Disney and Star Wars. You can’t walk 10 feet in Orlando without tripping over a Disney fan. And I really wish the city would do something about that, because I’m sick of all these passed out people cluttering our walkways. And you can’t go anywhere in America without bumping into a Star Wars geek. We’re everywhere. Young, old, black, white, male, female, it doesn’t matter. Disney and Star Wars are all-consuming, and the overlap is inevitable.

I suppose it comes down to jealousy on my part. It’s like it’s my wedding day, and all my friends suddenly are getting married too. This is supposed to be my special day! And now I have to share it with every Disney fan on the internet.

It would be silly to for me to try to communicate what this means. Every fan knows what this means. Harry Potter? Ha! It was cute while it lasted, Universal. Hollywood Studios resurrected from the dead. A 1-2-3 knockout punch at the box office (Pixar-Marvel-Star Wars). And I am desperately fighting the urge to tell you all my ideas for Star Wars rides. Oh, I’ve got them. Have no doubt about that. So do you. So does everyone.

So what can I contribute to the discussion? Is it possible for a little blog like this one to add anything to the crush of expert analysis that has already hit the interwebs? I think the one perspective I can offer is that I have no perspective. When it comes to this deal, I am all-in. Blindly faithful. No downside to be found. To me, this is Christmas Day, and I’m the Nintendo 64 Kid (just do a google). My thoughts did not immediately jump to whether this is a Potter killer, or what will happen to Avatarland, or jokes about Jar Jar (okay, maybe one joke), or that motherlovin’ Cantina Restaurant. That will probably all come later. Today, I’m just going to enjoy it.

Disney now owns Star Wars. How cool is that?

The bad Photoshop image I have been waiting a lifetime to create.