Walt Disney's Magic Touches All of Us

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Many of my posts mention or are about Walt’s creativity. Story was at the core of Disney films, television and theme parks. A story for a film had a strong theme, was written for and created with his audience in mind, all with a heavy dose of emotion. But, Walt didn’t stop there. What set Disneyland apart from other amusement parks wasn’t just the quality and attention to detail, but that Walt created a park filled with attractions based on stories.

The Disney Company has continued that tradition more than 50 years after his death. Attractions like the Haunted Mansion, Expedition Everest, Rock ‘n Roller coaster, and Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, to name a few, are all enjoyable because Imagineers like Rolly Crump, John Hench or Joe Rhode started with a story they want to tell. They tell that story using the path we take through the design, music, sound and set dressing of the queue then finish it with the actual ride experience itself as the final chapter. Think how different the Indiana Jones Adventure, Expedition Everest, or Space Mountain would be without all of those elements. I go to other amusement parks (I pause for the expected shock). Their rides (not attractions) start with hours long queues winding through what looks and feels like a parking lot. The only thrill is the ride itself, which typically lasts a couple of minutes or less.

Writing this Blog is a creative outlet for me. I’ve written for work and pleasure for a good part of my life. This year, I am going back to a challenge that I haven’t tried for several years. I’m going to join over 300,00 participants in the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) program and write a 50,000 word novel in the month of November.

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What started out as a dare by a few people in 1999 has become a not-for-profit organization that organizes a worldwide event. The organization is committed to “. . . a world that celebrates diverse voices, and encourages everyone to tell their stories. Their mission statement “National Novel Writing Month believes in the transformational power of creativity. We provide the structure, community, and encouragement to help people find their voices, achieve creative goals, and build new worlds—on and off the page. They also go into schools, libraries and communities through their young writer’s program. If you are interested in learning more, offering support or participating, I recommend checking out their website, Nanowrimo.org. Your local library or community center may offer support for writing participants.

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NaNoWriMo Night of Writing Dangerously, San Francisco

I look forward to the challenge with both excitement and a certain amount of anxiety. I’ve done this twice before.  But knowing what to expect from a month of intensive writing, almost every day, doesn’t make it any less daunting.I tell you all this not because I want applause or a pat on the back (although any support is welcome). But, to be a “winner” I need to write 50,000 words in November (that breaks down to 1,667 words each day).

This effort will probably not give me much opportunity to write my usual, weekly blog. (As I wrote that, I could actually feel the disappointment across the wires of the Internet.) Fear not, oh faithful readers of the Disney Connection. While I may not do a regular Blog post, I am thinking of providing updates on my progress and my experience following in Walt and his master storytellers giant footsteps.

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Choices are always difficult

inkandpaint coverI am spending this week doing some preparation by building a basic story and getting to know the characters that will populate it. I don’t have a title as yet, but the inspiration for my story was the book “Ink and Paint, The Women of Walt Disney’s Animation” and will be set at Disney Studio in the early 1960s.

No one who participates in NaNoWriMo publishes their 50,000 word work without considerable editing and rework. But, hundreds of NaNoWriMo novels have been traditionally published. They include Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants, Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, Hugh Howey’s Wool, Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl, Jason Hough’s The Darwin Elevator, and Marissa Meyer’s Cinder. I hope that my story will eventually be worthy enough in my eyes for me to share it with all of you. For those of you who challenge yourselves to create, I wish you happiness and success in your field of endeavor. And remember “It’s kind of fun to do the impossible”. For those of you who haven’t yet made the leap, “If you can dream it, you can do it. The way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing.”

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From my Collection

You can probably tell from my Blog’s mission statement and how I try to weave Walt into almost every post, that Walt Disney is someone I greatly admire as well as someone I have come to view as a role model. Growing up, I was too young to fully enjoy Sunday nights with Walt, but I watched the many versions of The Wonderful World of Disney. For many years I associated Walt with the Disney movies I saw as a child. It wasn’t until my childhood home began to fill up with Disneyana, (see my post Hooked on Collecting) that I began to see him as something more than the producer of films. I had no sense of Disney history and didn’t make my first visit to Walt Disney World until 1984 and Disneyland in 2005.

Embed from Getty ImagesThe more I explored the history of Disneyland and the early Disney animated films the more I came to respect Walt as more than just a very successful businessman or symbol of a successful company. He was someone with a keen sense of people’s need for entertainment. But rather than just do the minimum to create and produce his products he insisted on quality and attention to detail. His belief that if you give people a quality product they will come back for more. As a man I see someone who stuck to his principles, believed in himself, always surrounded himself with the best skilled, smartest people he could find, believed that people would rise to the challenge, listened to his instincts then took chances, wasn’t in it for the money but for the sheer joy of creation, solved problems and removed obstacles to his success. When I list things like this its hard to believe that was one person.

walk in footsteps meeting signIn an effort to get “closer” to the man, I recently took the Disneyland tour “Walk in Walt’s Footsteps” tour. As I headed to City Hall to check in, I imagined all of the pictures I’ve seen of Walt walking the park during construction and after the park was open, when he could still maneuver without being mobbed by fans. After checking at cute Kiosk in a small courtyard just to the left of the City Hall doors, we met our tour guide, Aulani (yes that’s her name and she is from Hawaii) and confirmed our lunch order, which for the

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Aulani, our tour guide

afternoon tour would be ready when the tour ended. After brief introductions, an overview of the tour and a check on who was from where, Aulani handed out headsets so that we could hear her when things got noisy at different moments of the tour. The group was larger than I expected, maybe 25 people of all ages, shapes and sizes. I suppose I secretly harbored a hope that it would be a private tour. Even with the large group, Aulani did a great job of keeping us moving and together between stops, while staying cheery and friendly.

 

After checking that everyone’s headset worked, our first stop was right across the street to the flagpole in Town Square. Aulani played a recording of Walt’s opening day speech which is memorialized on a plaque under the flagpole. She added some more information about unexpected crowds on opening day. The story she told about the flagpole is one that I hadn’t heard before. It seems Disney designer Emil Kuri  found a broken light pole on Wilshire Blvd, hauled it back to the Disneyland construction site where it now sits as the bottom of the flagpole. We then moved through Main St. where Aulani pointed out some of the commemorative windows that are a hidden highlight for Disney history buffs. I had spent a good portion of my morning getting some pictures of the windows, including some down the less traveled side street areas.

Our next stop was at the Hub where we took in Sleeping Beauty’s Castle and were told about the one gold turret that seems out of place in the overall building architecture. For turretthose of you haven’t heard the tale, once Walt approved the Castle design, he decided that he liked the look of a particular turret on another castle so he had the Imagineers add it, even though it didn’t match. He wanted to cover the turret in gold leaf, but Roy told him, “No way.” Not to be denied, when Roy went on a business trip, Walt had the gold leaf added anyway. I’m not sure how much of Walt’s dreams never would have happened if he had a different kind of partner. I’m sure stunts like this annoyed Roy. But, true to his loyalty to his brother, I he found ways to pay to make Walt’s dreams come true. I’m never sure whether Roy gets the credit he deserves.

We walked through Fantasyland with a stop in front of the Sleeping Beauty walk through for a quick description of the attraction’s. Passing by iconic features of Fantasyland like the Carousel, Dumbo, and the open mouth of Monstro, we moved to the front of the line for Alice in Wonderland. I took my first ride on a ride that has been part of the Disneyland landscape since 1958. While a ride on Splash Mountain might have been fun, the Alice ride kept me in the spirit of walking the park as if Walt was with us. The ride is colorful and more fun than I expected it to be. It took a bit of time to get the whole group through in pairs. While we waited, and throughout the tour, Aulani would ask us questions about things like our favorite rides, snacks and when we had visited Disneyland last. True to the title of Ambassador that Walt created in 1965, Aulani was cheery, polite and enthusiastic about her work.

IMG_5627Our next stop was Frontierland. We had reached mid afternoon by this time and, maybe appropriately, this was by far the hottest spot we spent time in. Our guide gave us some information about the Riverboat and the canal that it traverses. She told us that Disneyland’s designers had trouble keeping the River filled using a substance used in earth damns. One of the many design and construction problems the WED team encountered during construction. Then Aulani turned our attention the 5 ton piece of petrified wood that sits between the Golden Horseshoe and the Rivers of America. This piece of geologic history which Walt bought while on vacation with Lillian has a long and storied history. Walt bought it on a trip he took with Lillian to Colorado in 1956. Back then Disneyland wasn’t about thrill rides, pirates or ghosts. Walt saw another opportunity to add to the scenic and cinematic feel that he felt would transport people to different times and places in American life. He was also thinking of adding a natural history area to Frontierland. The rumor that he bought it as an anniversary present for Lillian, I think has been disproved. He had it shipped right to the Park where it still stands.

Next, we snaked our way through the crowds for a much needed rest stop in New Orleans Square. I had the chance to talk to some of my fellow tourers who were all very friendly. Some knew more about Walt and Disneyland than others. But, everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves. Pressing on we stopped in front of It’s a Small World where Aulani provided some historical background on the attraction. This was the second and final attraction we were given a chance to ride. I know that reactions to the mention of Small World elicit responses from “It’s my Favorite and I never miss it” to “Never again. I can’t get that song out of my head for weeks.” I fall somewhere in the middle. I’m very fond of the song and I never get tired of the magical feeling I get coasting through all those little dolls. And, it is part of a dwindling list of attractions that Walt, himself, had an important part in designing. As someone who was lucky enough to ride it at the 1964 NY World’s Fair, it has been part of my life for a long time. (See my post Walt Disney Goes to the Fair and a D23 Gold Member NYC event  where we visited the original site of Small World). I will say, though, that if time is short and it’s a choice between Small World and some other attractions at Disneyland it might get bypassed.
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Our group was split on several boats so we took refuge from the heat, which now seemed hotter after the time in the air cooled building, in the small gift shop at the exit of the disneyland-story_primary1attraction. Our next stop was the building that houses Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln. Since Walt had spent so much time on the Lincoln animatronic, which also debuted at the World’s Fair, and, of course, changed the future of theme parks, it would have been nice to see the show. If you’ve passed by the theater on the way to the rest of the park, I recommend at least stopping in on your way out. Aside from the still amazing Lincoln show, the lobby is full of great Disney and Disneyland historical artifacts, including the model/map that Aulani spent time showing us. Here’s just a small sample of what you can find there.

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The last stop in the lobby was in front of the one of the last picture’s Walt in Disneyland. Near him are pictures of other Americans who, through the same spirit of imagination Walt embodied, have brought creativity, fun and joy to many people around the world. It was a fitting end to a great afternoon around the Park.

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For me the next and last part of the tour was the most impactful – a visit to the apartment Walt and Lillian used during the construction of Disneyland and after the opening of the park until Walt’s death. Our half of the group walked back to the tour meeting area where Cast Members had laid out our labeled lunches along with a special tour pin as a keepsake. Aulani stayed to make sure we were all happy with our meals and then was kind enough to stand for pictures.

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Finally, two docents took us for a look at the Firehouse area below the apartment where we could see the stables where the two horses, Bess and Jess, who pulled the wagon for many years on Main St. were housed.

IMG_5540There’s also a fire pole which is closed off now, but used to start in the upstairs apartment. The story they told was that it was closed off after a curious guest climbed the pole and surprised Walt in the apartment. After a look around at the Fire House antiques, the docents went over the rules – No touching and no photographs other than the one they would take for us.

We were led backstage to a set of metal stairs which lead to the second floor apartment. Down a narrow hallway, we were asked to hang coats and bags on a coat hanger. Against all of my instincts, I resisted taking pictures. So, some of following are not my photos.

The small space felt even smaller with all of us inside. The docent explained the apartment contents and the layout. It’s a very modest studio style room. There are fold out couches on either side where the Disney’s slept, a small kitchenette and a bathroom. An Edison gramophone sits on Walt’s side while Lillian’s sports a standing, antique music box. The kitchenette features a small electric grill where Walt would make grilled cheese sandwiches and a punch bowl and cups used to serve an eggnog type drink called Tom and Jerry. On the walls at the end of each couch used to be photos of each of their mothers. We were allowed to move around the room after the docent was finished. It took great will power not to pick things up, open drawers and have a seat on the chairs. I didn’t feel rushed to get out, but after all the pictures were taken, we were asked to collect our things and head back down the steps.

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Walt’s side of the room

I found myself quite choked up when I looked out the window Walt would have used to watch the crowds come into his Park. I’ve read that seeing all those smiling faces was more important to him than almost anything else he had accomplished.

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Walt’s view from his apartment

I expect that my future visits to Disneyland will be changed by the visit to that apartment. I will certainly not look at the light burning over the fire station the same way now that I know what’s behind it. As a fan of Mr. Disney, I found the apartment to be a very moving experience. Since they only do two tours a day, costing $109, and not every tour gets into the apartment, I feel lucky and privileged that I had the chance to do it. I would rate the tour well worth the cost and the time.

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Iconic photo with City Hall and the Fire House in the background

 

aoltimewarnerSeventeen years ago, America On-Line (AOL), a brash dotcom company, acquired the long-time media giant Time Warner. At the time the marriage of the leading internet service provider and one of the largest holders of media and pictures in the world, was seen as the creation of a 21st century media giant and the future of how we would download, view and use, pictures, movies, news, etc. For those who hadn’t noticed, or weren’t old enough to remember, none of that happened. No one is downloading content. The marketplace has embraced streaming services. The deal is now considered one of the worst mergers in business history.

The Disney Company recently announced the acquisition of a small media company Bamtech, that created Major League Baseball Advanced Media and HBO Now, both successful streaming service offerings. The plan is to create a Disney, streaming service that will offer movies, real time sports and more. What’s going on here? Is the Disney Company trying to right the wrongs of AOL/Time Warner or is Disney simply following a strategy that Walt pioneered back in 1954?

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When Walt founded WED I 1952 (now Disney Imagineering) to build Disneyland he had already put most of his personal wealth in on the line to start development, including using his life insurance policy as collateral for a $500k loan. As ideas for his new park poured out of him and became more challenging, it was clear that he was going to need a lot more money to make it happen. (Final would eventually grow to about $17m) All the banks turned Walt and Roy down. Famously, Walt said, “I could never convince the financiers that Disneyland was feasible, because dreams offer too little collateral.”

Undeterred, of course, Walt looked for creative ways to secure the financing he needed. He was always on the lookout for the next world changing idea he could put to use to Golden-Age-TV-Stampsfurther his own plans. Television in the ’50s had entered what is now considered its golden age. The Today Show, The Tonight Show, Kraft Television Theater, I love Lucy, The Honeymooners and other others had begun to attract large, weekly audiences. As he did throughout his career, Walt was able to look into the future and see that television would, not only, alter how we would consume entertainment, but was an ideal medium for promotion. At that point Walt had conveyed hid Disneyland dream as a story. Now he needed something more, something visually exciting. Fortunately he had a number of talented artists to turn to.

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Walt and Ryman at work

If you’re not familiar with the story, Walt tracked down WED artist Herb Ryman on a Saturday. He explained that he needed a promotional sketch to convince TV executives to finance Disneyland. Over the next 2 sleepless days, Walt and Herb developed the basic layout and design of the Park. With Ryman’s drawing in hand and a proposal, Walt went to the NY TV executives. He was turned down by the two leading networks, CBS and NBC. But, ABC, desperate for programming, agreed to provide a loan and a future credit line in exchange for part ownership of Disneyland and a promise that Walt would provide a weekly TV show for the fledgling network.

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Ryman original drawing of Disneyland

Initially ABC simply wanted to air existing Disney movies on the program. But, true to his character, Walt wasn’t going to be satisfied putting his name on something of mediocre quality. He wanted to do something more creative and a lot more promotional. With the agreement in place, Walt created the first combination of a media content provider and a reliable system to deliver it to a mass audience. Walt’s one hour of “streaming” programming, once a week, preceded the AOL/Time Warner debacle by 46 years and was 37 years before the first public use of the internet.

In addition to updates on Disneyland, the series featured edited or serialized versions of recent films including Alice in Wonderland. Disney was never afraid that TV would cut into film revenues, but would bolster ticket sales when the films were re-released. Original material like the Davy Crockett series would enhance and become part of Frontierland. The same approach worked for Tomorrowland and the “Man in Space” episode.

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It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say that the original Disney/ABC partnership was successful. Disneyland was built, paving the way for Disney to become a successful worldwide theme park franchise which now provides about 20% of the company’s profits. The ABC Disney TV program was the second longest running program in TV history at 54 years and aired its final episode in 2008  (The show had moved to NBC in 1961). Disney paid back the ABC loans after just 6 years in 1960, giving the Disney Company full ownership of Disneyland. I would call that a model for a good business partnership. Both sides got what they wanted and made money on their mutual investments.

I think part of the strategy for the unnamed Disney streaming service is an attempt to undermine existing offerings from existing providers like Netflix and Hulu . But, it’s also possible that Bob Iger and the Disney board hope to accomplish what Walt did decades ago, kind of by accident,  without making the same mistakes AOL/Time Warner made in the early years of the 21st century.

First, The Disney Company would own, operate or direct the delivery system and Disney’s existing library of popular movies, tv shows and documentaries. They could make deals for other content, but, unlike Netflix they don’t have to.

Second, Disney can develop and produce new content using exiting movie and TV production entities they own. With the growth and success of original movie and series development by Amazon, Netflix, HBO and others, there is money and market share to be gained from original series and direct to streaming movies. Movies which might have been released through Blu-ray only could now be added to the streaming service with less overhead cost.

Third, there are cross promotional opportunities that can be leveraged between the streaming service, TV, movies and even theme parks, books and merchandise. Disney already does quite a bit of this, but a subscription audience offers more information to mine and the opportunity to re-kindle and leverage interest in older properties.

Fourth, there is an existing audience for much of the content available today. So, unlike other services that must guess what audiences will want, the Disney service will start with an enthusiastic initial subscription audience.

Finally, the information from streaming service subscribers combined with what Disney already has already collected from its own website, theme park magic bands and other sources, improves the Company’s ability to do things like targeted marketing and discount offers. No one would dispute that the power of data unlocks opportunities for the entity that collects and owns the information. Disney would be adding to their already existing about existing and potential customers for anything within the Disney world.

The Disneyland TV series premiered four months before major construction started on the theme park. Walt succeeded in using the Disneyland TV series in three ways: To create excitement for Disneyland by featuring segments about each of the four lands and many of the attractions; Grow and keep the audience for movies and Disney characters to drive merchandising and audiences for future Disney projects; to promote upcoming Disney movies.

These are the same methods and activities that are used by modern media companies. The difference now is that instead of reaching an unknown TV audience of several million in Walt’s day, modern companies like Disney use our connected world to gather very detailed information about us, including our likes, habits, purchasing history and more. They can reach hundreds of millions of existing and potential customers with great accuracy and effectiveness.

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Disney Magic Bands

Leveraging technology does come with plenty of risk. Innovation and the unknown factors which drive user interest and adoption are hard to analyze. Offerings like Instagram can come out of nowhere to eclipse existing offerings. Any remember MySpace now that Facebook rules the social media world? Walt’s gamble on TV could have met with a similar fate. Only will time will tell whether the Disney Company has made the right moves.

 

October 1st of this year marked the 35th Anniversary of EPCOT’s opening day. Since there’s a lot out there on the web to help us relive or discover that landmark day in Walt Disney World history, I am going to stick to my mission statement and explore how one part of the redefinition of EPCOT’s mission statement still may carry some of Walt’s original ideas for what he called “The Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow”. For those who would like to learn about or explore some of the Park’s background which Walt had imagined and planned, take a look at my previous posts The Unfulfilled Promise of  E.P.C.O.T. which offers Walt’s original vision for EPCOT and The Legacy of Walt Disney’s E.P.C.O.T where I look at the parts of his plan that are still evident throughout Walt Disney World.

I’m not sure that we can find any of the actual prototyping that the Community WaltWDW-Water-078 hoped would lure big thinkers to EPCOT and encourage the development of life changing creativity. It’s still has the vestiges of a community in the World Showcase. Visitors can interact with ambassadors from different countries who still bring a touch of far off places to the permanent world’s fair. Granted, they are mostly involved with selling something or showing us to a table and serving food. But, I’ve found it’s easy to strike up a conversation with the expat Cast Members who are usually happy to talk proudly about their home country and what it’s like to spend an extended time in the U.S. There aren’t too many places in the world where you can, if you take the time, immerse yourself in the culture, art and products of 11 different countries.

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Disneyland Small World dedication

Walt didn’t pass up an opportunity to remind us we lived in a larger world, filled with different people. The Disneyland opening ceremony of It’s a Small World featured over 50 foreign consulate representatives along with children wearing the traditional dress of many countries. Some of these children helped Walt pour water collected from every ocean plus major rivers and bodies of water from around the world into the flume, truly symbolizing the attraction’s theme of global unity. That message was re-affirmed at EPCOT’s opening ceremony  with a special “International Ceremony of the Waters”. Cultural representatives from 29 nations traveled to Epcot from around the world. Each one brought with them a container of water from their nation and poured it into the Fountain of Nations.

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EPCOT Fountain of Nations dedication

While the future of EPCOT is still up in the air and will continue to be redefined by 21st century Disney management and Disney Imagineering, I would be hard pressed to call EPCOT a view of tomorrow. That would have required more attention to the club coolexperimentation Walt had hoped would result in something that would change or improve people’s lives. The only real experimentation going on at EPCOT is trying Coca Cola products at Club Cool. That and Disney working on new things to keep visitors coming to the Park while they complete construction on new attractions in an effort to redefine the Park’s story.

However, I believe that Walt and the WED staff of the sixties and seventies, would not be unhappy with one growing part of EPCOT – the festivals that have become annual occurrences. Walt’s vision of EPCOT was shaped by his turn of the century birth and early 20th century life experience. It was filled confidence that science could solve many of the world’s problems.  Nascent space travel programs, the eradication of terrible diseases like polio were in the news every day, as were problems of poverty, hunger and a desire to move up the economic and social ladders in cities, here and around the world. Walt’s life was certainly defined by his generation’s versions of those changes and issues.

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Herb Ryman Concept Art

It does seem, though, that Walt’s original vision of a community that would attract industry and people to solve problems, educate and improve the world by developing and testing new applications of science and technology is giving way to Park that uses technology, some of it created by the Disney company, to entertain. But, that spirit to open people’s eyes to possibilities for a better world is in full display at the three annual festivals that lure thousands to a park that some would ordinarily have passed on (“Too much walking”, “So many attractions are closed”, “The attractions are so old” “Nothing new to see”).

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The oldest one is The EPCOT International Food and Wine Festival. F&W expands the on the menus of the permanent World Showcase restaurants and adds culinary offerings from additional countries, including Belgium, Australia, Brazil, Greece, India, Ireland and others. Visitors get the chance to sample foods from around the world without reservations, big meal prices or long time investments. Themed offerings like Brewer’s Collection, Cheese Studio, Chocolate Studio, or Coastal Eats, make it possible to sample and learn more about culinary, ingredients, beverages, styles and regions. The festival features more than 100 inventive chefs from many countries and the Disney World property, exposing us to ingredients and preparation techniques we might not have had an opportunity to try. As someone who loves to cook, I’ve come back from the Festival or seen reviews of dishes, ingredients or techniques that I can incorporate into my own cooking. Food has become an ambassador, perhaps encouraging or inspiring some to guests to visit other places in the world.

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Flower-and-Garden-Festival-2017The same spirit of invention and education can be seen at the Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival. The Festival promotes the beautification our world. It’s also an opportunity to teach existing, new and innovative ways to translate professional landscape ideas and techniques to our homes and gardens. I would say anything that helps to reduce the destruction of green areas of our fragile planet is good for the Earth and good for us, its inhabitants. No one who visits Disneyland can miss the importance flowers, trees and other landscaping played in Walt’s vision for a modern them park. At the earliest stages of Disneyland construction, the team started planting, to insure Walt’s vision of a beautiful park would be realized on opening day.

Walt Disney World was an even bigger job to tackle, since much of the parks are built on what was once swampland. At WDW, trees and greenery are used to separate and keep the theming in place. Trees at the Wilderness Lodge, for example, keep guests glimpsing, close by, non-wilderness sites like the Future World architecture. In the Festival Center they present, they have a section called Horticulture Heritage which gives guests a peek into the importance Landscape had and has at The Magic Kingdom. To put a bow on things, Garden Rocks, a mini music festival, runs concurrently. Natural beauty and music are good ways to get us to disconnect from our devices and use our senses to rediscover the world around us.

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EPCOT_FestivaloftheArts_STYLEGUIDE_111416The most recent addition to the EPCOT is the Epcot International Festival of the Arts.  First presented in January 2017 it featured pieces from Disney historical artist Mary Blair and Herb Ryman art of Epcot, to current Disney artists Joe Kaminski and Costa Alavezos. I think it’s great that guests are being introduced or reminded of the artistic legacy that helped to build the entire Disney empire. Guests are not only surrounded by incredible visions, they’ll watch the creative process live. New art is created and revealed each weekend, so guests can look forward to a new experience every time they go. Other presentations include music and food. Study after study has shown how important the arts are to children and our overall happiness. Since 2018 will be only the second year of this Festival, I’m sure much will change as it has for the other two, more mature events. I would expect, given the planning and thought that Disney puts into all of its projects, that the Arts Festival will offer guests more reasons to visit EPCOT. This is the only EPCOT festival that I haven’t had the chance to experience for myself.

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We’ll never know whether Walt’s original vision and purpose for EPCOT would ever have been realized. Recent and announced changes will continue to take the park in new directions that indicate movement away from the prototype community Walt had hoped to create. The Disney organization still l has a lot of work ahead to re-imagine the Park so it remains relevant and popular with guests. Walt had hoped that the Magic Kingdom would help to pay for the development and operation of his Community of Tomorrow, which was where he wanted to focus time attention and the financial means of the Disney Company to change the way we live. That lofty goal will need to be replaced by a more traditional Disney theme park that needs to attract guests and their vacation dollars in a park with unique entertainment value. There has been a recent flurry of announcements about changes to EPCOT including an update to Mission Space, a new ride based on Ratatouille, and replacing The Universe of Energy with a Guardians of the Galaxy coaster. There have been hints and rumors at more changes. I look forward to seeing the new park succeed.

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Walt presenting “The Florida Project” 1966

Fixer-Upper.pngI wrote an earlier post about my D23 Expo experience. It was shortly after the Expo closed and much of the piece was about the positive experience I had. Now that we are a couple of months from the Expo, I still have very good feelings about the 3 days I spent in Anaheim. If someone asks me if I will attend the next one, I would say, unequivocally yes. But, as with all things in life, nothing is perfect. I believe that with time, comes wisdom. So, now that there has been some time since the Expo I think I can speak objectively about the aspects of the event that still leave me less than satisfied and some thoughts on what might be done to improve upon what is already a very good event.

I think some level setting and caveats are necessary to put my comments and thoughts into the proper perspective. I’m only commenting about this year’s Expo. This was my second after attending the 2015 Expo, so I’m using that for comparison. Second, when I attended in 2015, I had not been to a Fan event like this since the first Star Trek Convention in 1972 (I was a trekkie before I was a Disney Fanatic). Third, I’m 57 years old and live in the New York City suburbs. Finally, I went to the Expo a second time because I thoroughly enjoyed my first visit.

I did not go to the Expo as a reporter or critic looking for bad or things or breaking news to write about, but as a fan. I didn’t do any real time tweeting or live streaming so I could just have fun. Why does any of this matter? If you poll a thousand Expo attendees you’ll get a thousand different opinions and experiences, so my thoughts are my own. I think these factors will be important so my readers can put my comments into perspective. Otherwise, it’s like reading a bad steakhouse restaurant review from someone I didn’t know is a vegetarian. Now that we’re all roughly on the same page, let the commenting begin.

Hall D23 Sessions

Since, they are a big part of the Expo’s draw, I’m going to start with the large Hall sessions. I did want to attend the animation and live action sessions , but I did not get in (last year I saw both, plus the Legends presentation). My issue is not with the limit on seats (no matter how big the room, someone isn’t going to get in). I was on line outside the convention center by 5:30 am both days for those Hall D23 sessions and was told, upon arriving, that no more seats were available. As frustrating as it was, nothing was going to get me to camp out on floor of the convention center. Why, I ask, should that preclude me from having any chance to get into those sessions? Maybe Disney should set it up like an episode of Survivor. Anyone who can’t stay awake for 24 sleeping hours, sleeping on a concrete floor doesn’t get in? I had the same morning schedule last expo and had no trouble getting a seat.

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No campfires allowed

I do have a theory. It looks like the first Expo to feature Marvel content was 2011. Disney acquired Star Wars in 2012 which means that the first time we saw any of the Lucasfilm properties at an Expo was 2013. My limited knowledge of the Comicon/Sci-Fi world, which go back to the seventies, is that some fans camp out for many days for a chance to see, get or do something that has limited availability. I’m not sure that the typical Disney fan has had decades of built up enough disappointment to get them to go to those lengths for a chance to get a preview that will be publicly announced right after the session anyway. So, my theory is that the Marvel/Star Wars fans have been ready and prepared to camp out since 2011. This group has begun to push the day before/early morning windows for those sessions. I’m not blaming the fans. But, I’m not sure the D23 organizers have made adjustment to account for these new fan tolerances to discomfort and lack of sleep. That means, that for future Expos, since I’m unwilling to sleep over or get up too much earlier, I will expect not to be attending those sessions. It’s a shame, since there was something special about being in a room with so many like-minded fans and feeling the excitement for the announcements or surprise star appearances.

My suggestion, because of the popularity of the sessions, would be to offer a reservation system for select sessions. At least I know would know beforehand whether I was getting in. I would be less disappointed, Disney would get a happier convention attendee, the D23 staff would answer thousands of less questions and complaints and maybe I spend some extra money on the show floor. Everyone wins. Not everyone get a table at Be Our Guest, and we all manage to make adjustments and have a good time. Why should this be any different?

The Morning Wait to Enter the Convention Center

IMG_5909Does D23 still think that it’s possible for all the people waiting, in the morning, outside the convention center to get it inside in time for sessions scheduled to start at 9 or 10  am? It’s not like being at the rope drop at the parks. I might not get the first ride on Space Mountain, but I’ll get to ride. Not so with the autographs sign-ups or other sessions. My 5:30 am arrival did get me in just in time for the 10 am sessions. But, the multitude behind me, who were unwilling or unable to get there that early were out of luck. I understand that D23 is trying to please many different kinds of fans and I appreciate the number and diversity of sessions and other live presentations. I also realize from my many years of business conferences, that you can’t get to everything. But that 9 am start time no longer takes into account the massive crowds that they have to move through a couple of doors in the morning.

I’m not a logistics expert, but my suggestion is to take advantage of the fact that there are many different reasons that attendees get there so early. Some want to get to a session, some wanted a voucher for a meet and greet later that day, some were interested in getting to the show floor to buy something in limited supply or others wanted to get into the Hall D23 sessions. Why not create different lines for different purposes? If I have no interested in the limited edition pin at the Dream Store, but want to get to a 10 am session, why do we have to have to fight to get through the same door?

Session Participants

While on still no the subject of sessions, I was not all that disappointed that I didn’t get into Hall D23 presentations because I had such a great time at the other smaller ones. Overall, I found the content to be first rate including the speakers and the presentations. However, other than a brief, often hard to understand introduction of the speakers by the moderator or host, the names of the participants are nowhere to be found. Not in the official app, on the website or anywhere else that I can find. I realize that the sessions might change as things get closer to the Expo. But, how hard would it be to update the app? Or, at least put the participant’s names on the screen so we can remember who we’re listening to both during and after the session.

Queue Management

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Which Queue?

Now, about those lines. We Disney theme park people know how to wait on lines. It comes with the territory. To help people avoid accidental line cutting and keep some kind of order to the waiting, D23 does have those “End of Queue” signs that the cast members dutifully hold up. I know I’m not the only one who had to ask “Is this the line for. . .?” I did get the wrong information once. So, how expensive could it be to have the sign what everyone’s waiting on line for? Overall, I could do with an Expo where I didn’t have to constantly ask for information and directions. I’ve been to one time business conferences that were clearer about where and when things would happen. How about  a daily agenda sign outside the different rooms? It may seem like something very small. But, when you’re trying to make decisions as session availability changes, quickly being able to determine that you’re waiting in the right place can make things easier. Disney is supposed to be experts at this kind of queue and information stuff. They do it every day at the Parks. Why not do it at the Expo as well?

Charter Member Lounge

This year I was disappointed that they did not offer food and drink for sale in the Charter Member’s Lounge. Free water and coffee were the only choices. Often, they were empty. Yes, it was a nice quiet place away from the chaos, but I did like the convenience of purchasing something to eat or drink.

Companies like Disney don’t stay successful if they aren’t always looking for ways to capitalize on things they do well and minimize or eliminate mistakes. I know that the Disney company no longer accepts unsolicited ideas because they’re afraid of rights suits later. I’m not sure how the Disney D23 people go about correcting some of the shortcomings of the Expo. I filled out the D23 survey they sent and tried to be as specific as I could. I hope they take the criticism to heart and continue to improve the Expo experience for everyone. I do expect that I will go back again for the next Expo. Not only do I enjoy the Expo itself, but it gives me an excuse to go to Disneyland, which I wouldn’t do otherwise, being an East Coast person. I’d love to hear about your Expo experience, good or bad. Perhaps, my Blog will get so much attention that someone from Disney will sneak a peek at what we have to say. I’ve collected some of my D23 Expo photos here, if you’re interested.

I’d love to hear your thoughts, positive or negative about your D23 Expo experiences.

beast confusionThere are days when I feel as if there are forces trying to control how I think. No, I’m not going around wearing a tinfoil hat. And, I’m the last person to spread rumors or subscribe to websites claiming the government is using mind control methods on us like fluoridating the water (See Kubrick’s brilliant movie Dr. Strangelove for more on that cold war plot). But, because I subscribe to a number of Disney and non-Disney sites, I have noticed an increase in the number of emails that feature a “Best of” or “Worst of” or top ten, or top whatever list. Just like the 24 hour news channels are forced to fill the space with talk to keep us watching, it seems like everyone believes that we incapable of making up our own minds about things. So, in order to drive people to their sites, they have to tell us what to think.

listerineIn the past, product and service companies were the ones telling us that our breath was bad, we needed a better car or reminding us what cool people were wearing this year. I can understand a component of selling that needs to convince us to buy their product. This same approach has now become a staple of many Disney related and other websites. The Internet explosion has made us all information junkies. How many of you Disney fans have clicked on a list link thinking that someone knows something about Disney that you don’t, only to be terribly disappointed by the rudimentary nature of the list? In some cases they don’t even seem to care that much about what they’re espousing as the “best”. Where’s the inside info? I thought it was going to totally change my Disney plans or what restaurant I would eat at California Adventure or my outlook on life.

Critics have been at this for more than a century. Certainly, movie box office receipts are affected by reviews. And there’s no doubt that Broadway shows have seen their lives cut Anton-Ego-reviewershort by sharp tongued newspaper critics. Because the price of some of these tickets has become prohibitively expensive, I, for one, don’t want to regret spending my hard earned nickels and dimes, or in the case of a Broadway show, this week’s paycheck, on a bad production. On the other hand, I have thoroughly enjoyed some things that the “knowledgeable” reviewers thought were terrible. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. My choice to not see “Home on the Range” or pass on “Roger Rabbit’s Car Toon Spin” wasn’t based on other people’s opinions, but my sense that they were not going to entertain me based on the description.

I’m not the ultimate expert on everything Disney. I’m interested in what others think or learning something new. Some people look forward to Stitch’s Great Escape the way I can’t wait to get back on The Carousel of Progress. No amount of lists are going to convince me the CoP is an anachronistic boor and a waste of my precious time at WDW. I recently received an email from a reputable travel source touting that they had ranked every single ride at Walt Disney World. The article starts with, “This [meticulous] ranking of every [stellar must-see] 3D attraction, [perfectly] themed roller coaster, and out-of-this-world flyer will help you plan the [perfect] trip for speed demons and boat ride obsessives alike. (highlights are mine) Keep in mind that there are no real criteria for the ranking, except for the writer’s opinion. I will bet the money in my back account that my agenda for my last Disneyland vacation is very different from yours. Comparing the Prince Regal Carrousel with Space Mountain is like saying steak is better than chicken.

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Can you take a vacation to a Disney theme park without consulting someone else’s list for what you should experience? I say yes, you can. There are plenty of websites that provide more than enough information about attractions, shows and restaurants for almost anyone to decide. (Here’s a list of the one’s that I look at regularly) Is there a possibility that you’ll be disappointed? Sure. But, whoever told you that life was always guaranteed to deliver on all our expectations? It doesn’t mean that your whole vacation will be ruined by finding that It’s a Small World was not for you. Doing even the smallest amount of research would have easily told you that it wasn’t going to be a thrill ride. Doesn’t mean you won’t enjoy yourself. At a recent trip to Disneyland I rode Alice in Wonderland for the first time. As a great admirer of Mr. Disney, shame on me for not riding one of the attractions that was designed during his lifetime. I enjoyed the attraction, but probably would not go out of my way to ride again. But, I wasn’t kicking myself for taking the time to give it a try.  Just as I’ve tried Stitch’s Great Escape but will definitely, not go on it again. The point is, neither ride is likely to be on anyone’s top ten. But, I made up my own mind. I didn’t have someone make it for me.

As much s I enjoy a Disney theme park trip, It think approaching every trip just like the last one is a sure fire way to make the the parks seem boring. Adding some new things and leaving time for the unexpected is just the ticket to making each trip more fun and memorable. It’s more than likely that my “Best of” list, including which parks to visit, where to eat and what attractions to ride are going will include some favorites and a rotating list of other things to do. Not only are there new attractions and shows to check out, but there is probably a different mix of people going. I’m getting to the age where the addition of younger children will make it necessary to start adding rides like Dumbo back into our itinerary. And, one never know what kind of surprise you  might stumble upon. Character interactions, street performers, maybe even some Disney magic provided by a cast member.

Even though life might be a crap shoot sometimes, you shouldn’t take someone else’s word for what might entertain or enlighten. Going on a Disney theme park vacation or seeing a Disney movie is a choice in the first place. I’m guessing if you want the thrill and adventure or white water rafting on the Colorado, you wouldn’t have picked a Disney vacation in the first place. Over the years our Disney theme park vacations and moviemice dice choices have changed as our kid’s ages and our tastes have changed. Walt’s original premise for Disneyland was for it to be a place the whole family could enjoy together. You don’t have to choose to spend the day watching your kids on the Carousel. They get to ride Dumbo and others get Space Mountain. Everyone ends the day having enjoyed themselves. Perhaps you ended up liking the Indiana Jones Stunt Spectacular more than you thought you would.  Part of the enjoyment of a Disney theme park vacation is making it your vacation. Not someone else’s idea of what the vacation should be.

yodaYes, we are an information addicted society today. With all of that great information, literally, at your fingertips, wisely you should use it my young padawans. Don’t think for one moment that someone else’s idea for a fun Disney theme park vacation will match your idea of a good time. Do some research and make your own choices. Only that way can we keep the mind controllers from making everyone’s theme park experience the same. Besides, part of my strategy for my trips to Disney involved waiting the least amount of time on line as possible. If everyone goes only to the same attractions and shows that are deemed “the best”, we’ll all be standing in line forever.

Can Artists be Champions?

usopen logoI spent the last couple of weeks watching the great tennis being played at the US Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows (Also the site of the 1964 World’s Fair that Disney headlined). I love sports in general. But there’s something about the competitions that are head to head. There’s no one out there to count on but yourself. Tennis doubles down on the mano a mano-contest by forbidding coaching during the matches other than supportive yelling and clapping. If one of the players finds him or herself on the short end of the score, it’s up to him or her to come up with a new game plan or get themselves out of a negative mental funk. The champions, like Nadal, Federer, both Williams and a select handful of others can  do both, which is just one of the qualities that separates them from the pack.

goofy tennis

Certainly, practicing plays a part in a person’s success at any endeavor. But, success, is different from being recognized as the “best” at something. In sports, being the best is measured by wins and or statistics – most home runs, lowest E.R.A., most touchdowns thrown, etc. Being the best is more complicated to qualify in the arts. Beauty, as well as entertainment value, humor, scariness, dramatic quality, are found in the senses of the beholder. One person’s favorite painting is at the bottom of someone else’s list. I’ve heard people refer to Walt Disney as the best producer of animated features or the best theme park designer. There can be no argument that Walt was successful beyond the expectations of most people. But, was he the best?

ub iwerksWalt was quite comfortable admitting that he was never the best at drawing or animating. In fact, by the time he had come up with idea for Mickey Mouse and instilled him with the characteristics that would make a drawing one of the most recognizable icons in the world, it was Ub Iwerks and others who ultimately brought him to life. I’ve not heard any recollections of him doing any drawing that ended up on the screen once he had hired others to do the work. And, yet, it is his animated products for which he is most remembered.

I thought it would be an interesting exercise to see if I can we draw any parallels between the qualities that help athletes succeed on the tennis courts and the kind of success Walt achieved.

330px-Michelangelo_-_Creation_of_AdamCreativity – Tennis players are more like improvisational actors, creating as they go and responding to their opponent’s work. Great tennis players use creativity to surprise the other player. Since creativity is the essence of any artist’s work. In many cases, art is creating something out of nothing. It might be carving David out of a block of stone, mixing pigment with oil to create the Sistine Chapel, sitting at a lifeless piano and writing “Feed the Birds” or using language to write “To Kill a Mockingbird”. Walt’s creative fortes were developing ideas, sometimes through improvisational thinking in response to work by others in his creative field. From his earliest successes like the Alice Comedies to Disneyland, Disney found ways to improve

multiplane

Multplane Camera

on the success of others. The multi-plane camera brought depth to his animated work. Snow White pushed the limits of an audience’s attention span for animated shorts. And, of course, Disneyland went well beyond the amusement parks that had been around for more than a century and improved on even the most successful ones of their time like Luna Park in Coney Island.

Adaptability – Tennis players, like most athletes, never know just which of their skills and abilities will respond on any given day. So, not only do they need to adapt their game plan to take advantage of a good backhand one day while the forehand can’t find the inside of the court. But, at the same time, great tennis players quickly adjust their game to the strengths or weaknesses of their opponent. Players who can’t adapt have little chance of winning if their serve isn’t working and they have no other options. Walt’s success was dependent upon his ability to adapt to changing audience’s tastes and interests for entertainment. We all like to talk about the times when he was right. There were, however, times when he missed the mark, like the much criticized film Victory Through Air Power and the Pack Mules at Disneyland. But, he was right about feature length animated films, family focused, live action features, audioanimatronics, and theme parks.

1180w-600h_020116_oswald-hungry-hobos-short-q-and-aMental toughness – The difference between winning a losing for tennis players of roughly equal skill is whether they can capitalize on any advantage their opponent presents or whether, when presented with a losing situation, they can continue to fight rather than giving up. Walt demonstrated this ability many times during his life and his career. Early on he had several failed attempts at starting his own business. Once he managed to succeed and build his studio, he had to maintain his positive mindset when confronted many times with money problems, intellectual property control problems with Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, an animators strike, and having his studio commandeered by the US military during WWII.

Striving for excellence – The same mental toughness pushes professional tennis players Walt Disney, Filmproduzent, USAto improve their game. During daily, focused practice sessions the best players maintain the better parts of their games and try to improve upon their weaknesses. That kind of dedication is only possible if the player wants nothing more than to be the best he or she can. It also means giving up some parts of what many of us would consider a normal life. It might mean doing without personal relationships, education, strict diets, and other things most of us consider fun or important. Walt never seemed to want anything other than producing the best products he could. The only way he could know if he was achieving excellence was his own judgement, until someone would pay him for the work and/or an audience would respond positively. As a result, it seems that he developed a very for excellence. The more he succeeded, the higher his standards became. This was evident in how hard he pushed the people who worked for him and, perhaps, how stingy he was with compliments. He also spent many nights and weekends sleeping in his office and giving up time with his family.

Practice – Tennis players spent countless hours every day on the court and working on their fitness. The difference between winning and losing can be stamina and the ability to execute simple and difficult shots when arms and legs are weary. Practice also instills muscle memory, so the player to be confident executing shots and allowing him or her to focus on mental toughness rather than the physical act of hitting the ball. Disney used the Silly Symphonies shorts to help his animators and others to learn and practice the skills that he knew would be needed to finish Snow White. During Disney’s lifetime, would-be animators worked under through an apprenticeship doing clean-up cleanupwork (cleaning up the extraneous lines animators left behind), then moving on to in-betweening (animators did the key poses then the in-betweeners would fill in the drawings needed to smooth out the movements), then they might get an opportunity to draw lesser characters before moving on to lead animator. All of this work was not only necessary to complete the thousands of drawings needed to complete an animated feature, but provided practice needed to insure they had the skills to move on to more complex work.

It might be possible to compare artists to tennis players in this way. And, in a way, the comparison shows that Walt was a champion. But, Walt’s most important qualities lay in his ability: to dream big like he did with Snow White and finally Disneyland; choose the right people for the right jobs, even if they may not have exhibited all the skills required to complete the job, like he did with X Atencio when he asked him to write the lyrics for “Yo Ho, A Pirate’s Life”. But, I believe the most important part he played in his own and other’s success was his ability to inspire and lead people. He had an uncanny ability to get others to see and believe in his dreams. As a result, they probably excelled more than if someone else had asked.

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