Walt Disney's Magic Touches All of Us

Archive for April, 2017

Report on D23’s “Behind the Scenes” NYC Event

D23-logo-official-fan-clubAs a Gold charter member of the D23 Disney Fan club I longingly read accounts of the many member events in California and Florida. Tours of the Disney Studios, Walt’s office, lunch with Imagineers are all things I’d love to do. But, since I live in New York it’s not practical. The D23 organizers have done some wonderful events in NYC. Just last year, I was fortunate enough to be in the audience for the 25th Anniversary showing of Beauty and the Beast at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall, where Angela Lansbury sang. Before that the Fanniversary tour landed in NYC with highlights from the Disney archives.

As good as those events were, D23 they cooked up a whole day of fun and interesting experiences for 40 lucky Gold Members this past week in NYC. They called it, “D23 Behind-the-Scenes Experience: Magic in Manhattan & More”. And more it was!

We began the day by joining the rest of an enthusiastic audience at a taping of ABC’s The chew openingChew at studio near Lincoln Center. For my wife, Jackie, and I, it was our first experience at a television taping. We were surprised at how small the set space was, and how many people it takes to create a one hour television show. Cameramen, stage managers, food stylists, cooks, stage hands, sound engineers, a DJ, and lighting technicians were everywhere. As wed23 chew set 3 waited, the 5 stars made their way onto the set, introduced by the comedian, R.C. Smith, who kept us laughing the entire morning as he got us warmed up and taught us how to clap and laugh on cue. Finally, Clinton, Carla, Michael, Mario and Daphne sat down to tape the four segments of a show called Simply Perfect Sweets. They are very relaxed, chatting among themselves while reading segments from the teleprompter, all the while having stage managers waving time warnings in front of them. At the end of each segment, dozens of people appear from doors and behind set pieces, like an ant army, to clean up, add new food ingredients, move cameras, apply makeup, shift lights and more. R.C. kept d23 chew set 2our energy up as we hungrily watched the front row of “tasters” sample the dishes that were prepared by the hosts. Meanwhile, Mario, Clinton and Michael chatted with members of the audience. If you watch the show, you’ll notice that Clinton has a different jacket on for the last segment. He and Executive Producer Gordon Elliot were admiring a coat, worn by an of the audience member, so he exchanged it for the one he was wearing for the last segment. Following the taping, we watched Clinton and Carla do promo spots for use by other ABC programs. Then we took a group photo with the stars.

 

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d23 event snackAfter giving us some much needed snack bags and a gift bag from The Chew, we boarded a bus for our trip to Flushing Meadows Corona Park. Ford23 chew bag those of you who are not aware, Walt Disney and his WED Imagineers created four of the most popular pavilions for the 1964-65 NY World’s Fair. It’s a Small World debuted at the Pepsi pavilion, Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln was the standout at the Illinois pavilion, GE’s Progressland featured the Carousel of Progress and for Ford Walt created the Magic Skyway. At the Park, we were introduced to Mitch Silverstein, Gary Miller and Stephanie Bohn, volunteers who working to preserve the iconic NY State pavilion (made even more famous by its role in the MIB movie). Mitch ny state towersand another volunteer who happens to be a Disney World guide, took us for a tour of the fairgrounds, pointing out the locations of the Disney designed attractions and telling stories about the fair.

For me, this was one of the highlights of the trip. Walt took advantage of the work at the Fair to push his WED geniuses to invent and perfect much of the technology that continues to be the backbone for many of the Disney theme park attractions. I’ll start with Mr. Lincoln, the invention that ushered in the age of Audio-Animatronics. There are now thousands at Disney and other theme parks around the world. The boat ride through Small World, was a precursor to Pirates of the Caribbean, Frozen Ever After and Living with the Land entertaining thousands of people in a day. And the ride system that guided cars through the Magic Skyway, eventually became the People Mover with similar systems still in use at the Haunted Mansion and Spaceship Earth. As important to Walt, three of the attractions, Carousel, Small World and Mr. Lincoln were added to Disneyland while many of the Audio-Animatraonic figures from Skyway, were re-purposed for other Disneyland attractions.

COP then and nowsmall world then and now

Because of our schedule we didn’t get to the Ford or Illinois locations. We ended our tour of the historic fairground with a very special opportunity to go inside the NY State pavilion. The structure is still in a bad state of repair, hence the hard hats we are all wearing in the picture. You can learn more about the pavilion preservation effort here.

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D23 Unisphere cropped

After a final picture in front of the iconic Unisphere,  we re-boarded the bus and were given the second very special D23 gift, these limited edition reproductions of photos and postcards from the World’s Fair.

d23 vintage postcards

Our next stop was a well needed lunch at Trattoria Dell’Arte in Manhattan, where we enjoyed a three course meal. We also received our third gift, an event inspired picture containing 23 NY/Disney related images and a copy of the special event restaurant menu.

We took the quiz on the bus to guess what the icons represent. If you want to know what all the icons stand for in the image? The answers are here.

d23 event credentialWe took a short bus ride to the Times square area, where we received our next present, a newly designed earhat with the familiar I Love NY logo. We all put them on and took the picture below. With about 30 minutes until our final tour leg, we took our D23 event credential into the Times Square Disney store for a little 50% off shopping spree.

D23 Times Square.jpg

At 4:00 we re-assembled in front of the New Amsterdam Theater. Taylor  told me that this D23 event was inspired by the 20th anniversary of Disney’s re-opening of the theater after a lengthy restoration. On the theater marquee was a special message welcoming D23 Aladdin (1)our group.  Inside, sitting in the front rows of the orchestra where we were treated to a historical overview of the theater from it’s opening in 1903, to its long time use by the Ziegfeld Follies, then a slow decline, along with the rest of 42nd street, in the 1970s, then the theater’s closure and, finally, it’s rebirth as a Disney managed theater. We were led onto the stage, which is now hosting the Broadway version of Aladdin. The many complex workings of automated sets, trap doors and shown walls were explained and we saw many famous visitors who have signed their names on the theater’s walls.

Our next theater stop was a room Ziegfeld used at the back of the orchestra section. In the room, were props and costumes from many of the Broadway shows that Disney has produced, including Beauty and the Beast, Mary Poppins, Little Mermaid, Aida, Lion King and Newsies. We could touch and try on whatever we were found interesting. Some of the popular pieces were the $7,000 dollar lion king masks and props from Mary Poppins.

The day ended with a wonderful cocktail reception in the lower part of the theater where there was wine, beer, soda and delicious tapas. Our final gift, was an Aladdin playbill signed by the cast.

d23 signed aladdin

I can’t say enough about the logistics managed effortlessly by Tyler and Jen Marie. Even with the difficulties of keeping track of such a large group, NYC traffic and the many different stops during a very long day, they remained up-beat, personable and, most of all, fun. Everyone in the group, some had traveled from as far as California, were all great fun. We traded stories, talked about our Disney interests and enjoyed each other’s company during our NYC road trip. My thanks to Tyler, Jen Marie and the D23 organization for putting together one of the most interesting and enjoyable days my wife and I have had in Manhattan.

Have you attended a D23 event? What was your experience like?

Since I’ve barely scratched the surface of the Disney effect on the NY World’s Fair, I’ll use next week’s post to dig deeper into the four attractions that, for many, have become symbols of the historic Fair years.

The Legacy of Walt Disney’s E.P.C.O.T.

Last week in my post The Unfulfilled Promise of E.P.C.O.T. , I theorized about how Walt’s plans for E.P.C.O.T. (Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow) could have been realized. Unfortunately, Walt died weeks after completing a 25 minute film which outlined his ambitious plans for the immense tract of land Disney had acquired in Central Florida. Following Walt Disney’s death, Roy Disney, his older brother and the long time financial wizard of the Disney company, committed to completing at least a part of his brother’s Florida dream, the theme park section of the property. Walt had agreed to use the theme park to fund future development of the Community of Tomorrow.

original 1967 Epcot modelUnfortunately, without Walt’s stewardship and charismatic leadership, the Company decided the City of Tomorrow was was unmanageable and the EPCOT part of the project became what it is today, the second theme park in Walt Disney World, dedicated to technology in “Future World” and the “World Showcase”, a kind of permanent world’s fair. While many would view Walt’s early Epcot logoE.P.C.O.T. vision of a working community, showcasing American ingenuity as unfulfilled, Walt’s ideas and hopes for a showcase of innovation have had lasting impact on cities and people in general, as he had hoped.

The agreement Disney negotiated with the state of Florida gave the Disney Company municipal control over everything that would go on inside the resort’s 25,000 acres. The entire “City” is overseen by a Disney controlled RCIDgovernment called the Reedy Creek Improvement District. Walt Disney World is said to require an equivalent level of supporting infrastructure like Pittsburgh or Cincinnati, with populations of around 300,000 people

In the broadest of definitions, Walt Disney World itself is a City that fulfilled some of Walt’s idea about how to improve urban living. Many of the services a municipality provides are managed and carried out centrally. The efficient WDW transportation system moves guests, employees and contractors without additional cost from one location to another. Since all activities are centrally managed, transportation can be moved as service demands change, even during peak usage periods. I’ve lost track of how many times an event in NYC can disrupt the very well run NYC subway system or street traffic, even when it is known in advance, like a presidential visit or Christmas tree lighting.

One of the most recognizable symbols of Walt’s E.P.C.O.T. and the WDW today is the sleek, quiet Monorail which made its debut at Disneyland in 1959. It was a fixture on the Disney World property from opening day, connecting the Magic Kingdom to the Ticket and Transportation Center and the original 2 hotels, The Contemporary and The Polynesian. The Disney World system was extended to connect to EPCOT Center when it opened in 1982. The original E.P.C.O.T. design would have leveraged the monorail to a much greater extent too efficiently move people across the longest distances in the City. The Disneyland system was one of the earliest modern monorails in the world. But, many years after it’s adoption by Disney, Monorails continue to be employed in a variety of environments, both public and private, around the world.

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Unlike the city of NY Robert Moses helped to create in the 1960s, Walt imagined a city where people were more important than automobiles. So, he designed his City with an underground transportation center that would separate regular car traffic and Side_Diagram of epcot designmaintenance traffic from the living, working population. He then directed the early designs of Disney World to include “backstage” areas of the parks and hotels. The backstage includes tunnels that run under the Magic kingdom called Utilidors. The
mmutilidorsUtilidors reduce the impact of regular maintenance on visitors and do away with unnecessary car traffic throughout the Magic Kingdom. One of Walt’s motivation for the E.P.C.O.T. underground levels and the “Utilidors” under the Magic Kingdom were primarily to solve an atmospheric and image problem. He hated that a costumed cast member from one Land, say dressed for FrontierLand would be seen walking through FantasyLand in Disneyland. Cast members in the Magic Kingdom can move, invisibly, from one part of the park to another. But the underground labyrinth also improves basic “city” functions such as the movement of material, goods, personnel, garbage and provides storage that ordinarily would take up valuable on-stage spaces. Similar underground systems are used throughout the world to hide power, trash removal and other infrastructure support systems.

One of the ways Disney makes use of Utilidors is for trash collection. Most of us take its collection for granted. In fact, it is one of the most pressing and difficult tasks a city undertakes. Anyone who has lived through a garbage collection strike can attest to how quickly uncollected garbage becomes visually unappealing, smelly (especially in warm weather) and a safety issue. Then there are the inevitable health related consequences that can quickly become epidemic if not properly addressed. The logistics of moving huge trucks efficiently through crowded urban areas, creates its own set of problems for city dwellers. What city car driving, residents are not impacted by alternate side of the street parking rules that enable trucks to remove huge amounts of trash from normally crowded streets quickly. Finally, there is significant cost in manpower, equipment and associated maintenance, and fuel.

The Disney engineers took their cues from Walt’s philosophy of removing auto traffic from populated parts of the city. A Swedish Automated Vacuum Assisted Collection wdw avac(AVAC) system literally sucks trash at speeds of 60 mph from various points in the Magic Kingdom underground through the Utilidors. Fleets of vehicles far from the guest areas transport trash where it is either recycled or put through solid waste processing. Following the success at Disney World, this same system was installed in two other US locations. One is on Roosevelt Island in NYC, which was designed in the 1970s, about the same time Walt would have been working on E.P.C.O.T., as a similar “utopian” city. The roughly 12,000 residents of the island benefit from the same invisible, quiet, odor free system that moves waste throughout the Magic Kingdom. The third location is a residential tower in New Jersey, also installed in the 1970s. Other systems have been in use in Barcelona and Stockholm.

One look at some of the concept art for E.P.C.O.T. and you see Walt wanted his City to be beautifully green. Attention to landscaping was one of the design elements that turned Disneyland from a fair full of rides into what we now know as a theme park. And it green epcot overheadwould have been another way to make the E.P.C.O.T a better place to live than most of the cities then and now. New York City may have Central Park, but Disney parks are literally covered with natural greenery and flowers, including elaborate topiaries and natural pictures. Walt would have been immensely proud and encouraging of the Living with the Land attraction at EPCOT. Farming demonstrations of different growing techniques fit with his ideas for making E.P.C.O.T. a living laboratory. A variety of growing techniques including high density fish farming, vertical produce growing, Aeroponics and pest management lab are in use. Tons of food grown in the greenhouses are served at restaurants in the park. Teaming with the US Department of Agriculture and NASA on several projects was exactly the kind of Public/Private partnership that Walt had hoped would spur real innovative, practical invention.

Each Florida Disney park has its own systems that centrally monitor everything in each park. Under Cinderella castle, systems monitor everything from lighting systems, stage curtains, fire protection, security and power systems and attraction queues. Through a Digital Animation Control System (DACS) it also controls and synchronizes the movements of hundreds of audio-animatronic figures in the attractions. It’s not hard to draw direct lines between this approach, adopted when the Magic Kingdom opened and the building management systems that are part of every new commercial design or have been retrofitted into older buildings. Centralized systems require less manual management, improve energy efficiency and security. This same approach is taken by most city police departments that have deployed security cameras. I would be surprised if every major theme park in the world doesn’t make use of these kinds of systems, whether for attraction control or for security.

Walt’s last planned project would have far exceeded anything he had tackled before. It’s been interesting to learn that the Florida Project and E.P.C.O.T. was intended to do more than just entertain and make money. Walt was taking his can-do attitude and visionary ingenuity along for what would have been an exciting and, perhaps, world changing ride. I’ve touched on a few obvious areas where his ideas about how to improve cities were executed to the benefit of many people. Next time you take a monorail in an airport or comment on the cleanliness of a Disney theme park, remember, it may have all started with a mouse, but it ended with a man who had vision and a desire to make the world a better place.

Epcot spaceship earth

EPCOT’s Spaceship Earth geodesic sphere

The Unfulfilled Promise of E.P.C.O.T.

Walt Disney is appropriately hailed as a genius for his work in animation, film, television and theme park design. In an earlier post, Ahead of His Time . . .Again , I touched on some of the some of the qualities that encouraged many to call Walt a genius (including his own wife Lillian in a 1953 McCall’s article). However, his untimely death may have robbed him of the opportunity to excel in an area for which I don’t think he has been given much praise, but might have been his most important contribution to the world – innovation in the field of urban planning and design. Since when, you might ask, did Disney become an expert in cities? He wasn’t. But he was keenly observant and talked about the problems he saw in the way people lived and worked in 20th century cities. Walt’s genius was not being the best artist or director or architect. The skills that made him successful, among others, were, an uncanny ability as a motivational leader and a savant-like sense of what people wanted and needed. It’s those qualities that may have allowed him to succeed at rethinking the American city where others have failed.

Walt Disney purchased 43 square miles of mostly swamp land, roughly twice the size of Manhattan, in the middle of Florida in the early 1960s. The results of his visionary foresight and the hard work of his surviving brother Roy, is a resort complex that includes 4 theme parks, 2 water parks, more than 25 hotels, shopping plazas, golf courses and the infrastructure necessary to support a city about the size of Pittsburgh or Cincinnati .

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Current Walt Disney World Resort Map Link to map .PDF

Walt Disney World is an amazing accomplishment by any measure. But Walt’s aim was not just to build Disneyland East. In fact what we now know as the Magic Kingdom and its original 2 hotels was intended to be just a fraction of what he wanted to do with all that space. Phase one of the “Florida Project”, the theme park, was going to fund his grander plan — E.P.C.O.T., Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. In his own words:

“EPCOT will be an experimental prototype community of tomorrow that will take its cue from the new ideas and new technologies that are now emerging from the creative centers of American industry. It will be a community of tomorrow that will never be completed, but will always be introducing and testing and demonstrating new materials and systems. And EPCOT will always be a showcase to the world for the ingenuity and imagination of American free enterprise.”

Epcot drawing

Master Plan drawn by Walt Disney, 1965-66       (c) The Walt Disney Company/The Walt Disney Foundation

Disney, lands of fantasy creator, wanted to take on the complex, often thankless, ever evolving job of solving the problems, many of which persist, inherent in modern cities AND make life better for everyone. In typical Disney fashion, he didn’t want to fix what he thought was already broken in an existing city. He was going to start from scratch. As you can see in the above image, don’t confuse the EPCOT of today or even what it was when it opened in 1982 with what Walt had in mind. In fact, what we now call Walt Disney World was only intended to be one tiny part of the final plan. You can see WDW in the upper left hand corner of the composite image below.

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Map Courtesy of Walt Disney’s Original E.P.C.O.T website,  Disney Master Plan applied to current satellite view of WDW, map by Jack Barnes. Edited by NhojSenrab (c) Google Earth

In my job, over the past eight years, I’ve worked with and around state and local governments across the country. I can tell you from experience, local government is most interested in finding an equilibrium between groups competing for services and attention. Thus, there is little time or money left over for innovation or experimentation. Even if there are resources to try new things which might improve citizens’ lives, the decision making process to prioritize and take all interest groups’ needs, wants and demands into account, typically slows things to a snail’s pace. The result is often a watered down product or service with which no one is happy. How was Walt’s approach going to be different? While there is quite a lot of documentation, including plans, models, a promotional film and Walt’s own words, his death put an end to any chance that his dream might be realized. So, what follows is supposition on my part.

To remove the hectic, disorganized state of cities at that time, Walt was going to put innovation at the forefront of his City experiment. Walt was a true believer that anything could be accomplished, any problem could be solved, if the right amount of focus, imagination and resources were brought to bear. That might sound ridiculously optimistic. But remember, this is the same man who succeeded almost every time the rest of the world had already counted him out. And, in typical Disney style, he wasn’t going to trot out the same old methods, which he knew to have already failed. That’s why I believe he stood a very good chance of being successful at this undertaking. Here’s why.

092712_FS_FromTheArchives_EpcotOrigins_WaltsEpcot_3.1tagFirst, Disney negotiated an agreement with the state of Florida, whereby there would be no permanent residents (voters), just renters in E.P.C.O.T. and the Corporation would function as the governing body. The City would be run by Disney company and could make decisions unilaterally. What, no input from the constituents? Remember, this wasn’t an experiment in improving democracy. It was going to be a living laboratory whose purpose was to find new ways to improve city living. Yes, living in E.P.C.O.T. might was not be for everyone. A requirement for living in E.P.C.O.T. was that all inhabitants had to be employed and responsible to maintain the living blueprint.

Theoretically, only those who saw residency as an opportunity or an adventure would apply. It’s possible that the offers of reduced crime and poverty in this controlled city would be a draw to the right people willing to give up control for guaranteed employment and a chance to work in a very vibrant environment.

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Concept Art for Residential Housing

Second, Disney wanted to spur innovation and advancement through partnership with private industry. In the 1960’s the high cachet, respect and trust for the Disney name would have made it easy to bring in big, corporate sponsors/investors who would have welcomed the association with the Disney name. One of premises of E.P.C.O.T. was to give American industry a free hand to try new things and then have a captive audience on which to test them. Imagine what might have developed in a haven where more Bell Labs, Westinghouses, GEs and idea factories like IBM would have thrived. I think corporate America would have wanted in. The corporate idea factories would undoubtedly have a large pool of highly skilled people from a variety of fields drawn to the dynamic work being done.

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Concept Art for Typical Industrial Park

Third, a successful experiment would have drawn worldwide attention, which would have encouraged the kind of public/private partnerships that are so vital to the development of innovative ideas in urban planning and design. Today the partnerships are often difficult to achieve and so rarely show measurable success. Most involve primarily monetary support from private industry, with much of the planning and execution left to less capable government management. Having a good idea is one thing. Seeing it through requires deep pockets and the option of abandoning an idea that shows no merit. Government, sadly, has neither the money, the political will, or the legal ability to kill a project after it has already been funded.

walt film for epcotFinally, given Walt’s penchant to change the rules of the game as he went along, it is highly likely that E.P.C.O.T. would have gone through many changes, just like Disneyland. However, his firmly held beliefs that the power and skill of American industry could be harnessed to improve people’s lives would have remained a driving force behind whatever would have emerged. In the decades since his death, we have all been touched by achievements in public/private partnerships. Some of them have come from military necessity like GPS and others in the realm of health have materialized through Federal encouragement like improvements in artificial limbs. It’s no secret that private industry will be drawn to projects that have money making potential.

It is not far-fetched to think that the same innovative drive that produced solutions for male impotence or invisible gold fish could have worked as Disney envisioned. E.P.C.O.T. had the potential to positively affect people’s lives in ways we can only now speculate. Certainly, Walt’s track record gives us ample evidence that, as impossible as the task may have seemed, through his visionary leadership and skills as a seller of ideas, it would have succeeded. And since he never promised that the plan would be etched in stone, he would have continued to tinker and improve his plan as it was being created. Here is a link to the 25 minute promotional piece Walt filmed weeks before his death.

Next week, I will continue this exploration of Walt’s E.P.C.O.T ideas and look at, what, if any, ideas have found their way into the Walt Disney World resort and other unexpected places. There is some very good material available to anyone who is interested in exploring this topic in more detail. Here are some links to look into:

The Original Epcot

Esquire Magazine – Inside Walt Disney’s Ambitious, Failed Plan to Build the City of Tomorrow

Business Insider – Walt Disney’s original plan for the place George Clooney’s “Tomorrowland” is based on was a creepy futuristic dystopia

A WORLD OF TOMORROW: INSIDE WALT’S LAST DREAM (D23 membership required)

A Foodie Travels in Walt Disney World

As I plan our vacations, (we’re planning one for Peru right now), once we’ve figured out where we’re going, pick a hotel and book a flight, I usually spend a lot of time choosing restaurants. I love good food and happily return to favorite restaurants and dishes. But, I also like trying new things. On a recent trip to Spain, we ate at our first Michelin three star restaurant, Akalerre, in San Sebastian. Not only was the food great, but it was an akalerre viewexceptional dining experience – impeccable service, beautiful, imaginative plating and a killer view. I know I’m not going to find Michelin starred restaurants at Disney theme parks. But, as an admitted foodie, I still spend considerable hours planning and picking restaurants for our Disney trips. So how does a foodie like me navigate the good, bad and pedestrian at the Disney theme parks? Before I answer, I’d like to offer some Walt Disney context.

Most theme parks before Walt built Disneyland (and still today) offered spartan, self-serve, cafeteria style food locations, with carnival style food – hot dogs, hamburgers, popcorn, soda and ice cream. I consider this food as fuel, not the pleasurable experience I hope to have when I eat. Those of us who like thrill rides, hold our noses, stand in line and eat purely for energy. Other theme parks like Hershey Park and Busch Gardens Virginia, which I visit now and then to get my roller coaster fix, are beautiful. But, food choices are about convenience and suffering through the best of the worst.

Walt knew that to keep people in Disneyland, and to make maximize his profit, he would have to offer food, snacks and other refreshments. That was just good business. But, that wasn’t enough for Mr. Disney. He extended the same approach he took to attractions and the overall design and beauty of the park to restaurants and snack bars by integrating the eateries into the overall theming of the Land they were in. During the early years, you could go to the Tahitian Terrace in Adventurland or Casa de Fritos in Frontierland. And because he was the first to bring sponsors into a theme park, he managed to present unique food and snack offerings. Early restaurants included Aunt Jemima’s Kitchen (pancakes at a theme park?, check), Welch’s Grape Juice Bar and Sunkist Citrus House (that’s what passed for a healthier choice than soda back then). Take a look at this post from the Disney Food Blog for a more detailed look at early Disneyland restaurants and menus.

As someone who places a lot of importance on food during my vacations, how do I manage in an environment designed to deliver quantity (more than 1.6 million turkey legs are sold each year at Disney World) not necessarily quality? First of all, before you all start screaming at your screens, there is very high quality, inventive food to be found at Walt Disney World. Victoria and Alberts, Jiko and Narcoossees are examples of wonderful places to dine and deserve the high praise they receive, from critics as well as guests. They are also very expensive and should be treated as experiences that should savored and given the time necessarily accorded any fine restaurant. At some point, I hope to visit them all. The Disney theme parks do offer a wide variety of menus and price ranges.

Most of my reservations are for dinners, with the occasional lunch or breakfast, depending on what we have planned for the day. Breakfast is usually eaten at the hotel’s quick service restaurant like The Mara at Animal Kingdom Lodge, Capt. Cook’s at the Polynesian, or a food court, if there is one. Lunch is planned around the park we will be in, or back at the hotel if we are taking a break.

Where then, do I spend my hard earned dollars on food WDW? While quality of food is very important, I tend to gravitate to restaurants that also offer good atmosphere and Sci-Fi_Dine-In_3great theming. Since I live very close to NY City, there really isn’t any kind of food that I can’t eat, almost whenever I want. I can find a good hamburger in many places. But Hollywood Studios is the only place I can eat a good one, sitting in a “car” at The Sci-Fi Drive-In. I can eat a pork or lamb chop in many restaurants, but only at Be Our Guest, can I dine in the Beast’s castle.

I do accept lesser quality and, even, pay a premium for a Disney style experience. Good examples of this are San Angel Inn. At best, the food no better than a chain Mexican restaurant. But entering through the marketplace courtyard sets the scene for the san-angel-inn-restaurante-disney-orlandorestaurant in the same way Main St. USA prepares us for the rest of the Magic Kingdom. That’s pure Walt Disney design. I love the illusion of eating outside, inside, with the stars overhead and the mesmerizing Aztec temple scenery and active volcano. And, while waiting for a table we can take a ride on the delightful Gran Fiesta Tour.

Similarly, I will put up the so-so food, the unnecessary check in line (we all have a reservation) and rushed service at the Hoop De Doo revue. The many large tables to service and they need to get everyone served so the show can start on time makes it tough to provide good service. However, I find the showing funny and charming and, happily, go back again and again.

There’s not much in the Magic Kingdom that I rush to visit. If I’m looking for a fast lunch or late dinner, I’ll go to Columbia Harbour House where you can get some unique offerings like a lobster roll or Hummus. And, although it offers very limited seating, Casey’s Corner has great Hot Dog choices, if that’s what you’re craving.

In Animal Kingdom, the only restaurant I’ve returned to is Flame Tree Barbecue. The BBQ is so-so. But the seating has great views of the water and Expedition Everest. flame tree(Unfortunately, you can no longer sit here and eat a smoked turkey leg. A shame, since you have to eat it on the move everywhere else in WDW).  It’s hard for me to leave without a colossal cinnamon roll from Kusafiri Coffee Shop & Bakery, which I usually take to go and eat later.

Warm-Colossal-Cinnamon-Roll-2-Kusafiri-Bakery

I’ve already mentioned Sci-Fi Dine-In, which is a family favorite. My other favorite at the Studios is the Brown Derby. I love the golden age of Hollywood vibe which fits the general theme of the park. The recreation of the former Hollywood landmark is like going back in time. The service is first rate and, overall, I’ve found the food to be consistently very good. We’ve had some memorable meals at the Derby, including one with my 88 year old father on his first trip to WDW . He told some great stories from his youth about brushes with organized crime, his family’s deli being robbed robbed twice by the same guy and how pinball in the back room was played for money in the 1930’s.

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The Kramer family at the Brown Derby 2015

But, I digress. In addition to San Angel, there’s another restaurant, big on theming and smaller on food –Biergarten Restaurant. Once again, the outside, inside feel of being in a German mountain village is magical and you can’t beat the show with your meal. But, biergartenJPGthe food, meh. It’s ok if you like meat and potatoes and mediocre ballpark food. And, other than strudel, what’s with those other desserts. Not exactly like being in Germany. On the brighter side of Epcot food , there’s Restaurant Marrakesh with its raucous
atmosphere, belly dancer and a menu of interesting choices.

marakesh

Moving up the quality food chain, Coral Reef serves up very good seafood and a killer view of that amazing undersea world.

Many of our favorite meals are in the resorts. Anything in Animal Kingdom Lodge gets a slot in our meal lineup. Combine a beautiful resort, with African animals, a great buffet with unusual and well prepared choices at Boma or the very African menu at Jiko and you’re in for a wonderful meal. At the Grand Floridian, we like the bright surroundings and straight forward food at The Grand Floridian Café. The Polynesian attracts us, if we’re not already staying there, for breakfast at Kona Café and the crazy atmosphere and inventive drinks at Trader Sam’s Grotto cocktails and a relaxed meal. Finally, the food and service are top notch at Artist Point at the Wilderness Lodge.

I hope this has been an interesting, thought provoking, albeit very quick tour of some of our favorite food stops in Walt Disney World. Food means different things to people when they are at the WDW Resort complex. For some, it’s quick service fuel to get through the long days. For others, it’s about the characters. For me it’s about good food in interesting surroundings. I, for one, am glad that the Disney people have continued Walt’s fun and integration of food with the environment. In my mind, that’s what sets the Disney theme parks ahead of the rest and the reason I’ll keep going back for seconds.

mickey waffle

The Pirates Paradox

Disneyland is celebrating the 50th  anniversary of the opening of The Pirates of the Caribbean attraction in New Orleans Square in Disneyland. This was the very last Disneyland attraction for which Walt had direct input.

It was some of the most groundbreaking work ever put together for a theme park attraction, taking advantage of many things Walt and the people of WED learned from their work on the 1964 NY World’s Fair. This included the boat, ride system from Small World and Audio Animatronics from Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln. The Pirates attraction is so popular, there is a version in almost every Disney park in the world. An entire Land is devoted to Pirates in Shanghai Disneyland, anchored by the ride in its newest manifestation. And let’s not forget the on-going movie franchise which continues to pack in the people.

This attraction is usually on everyone’s must do list for a Disney vacation. Visitors flockpirates closed to this attraction and cry real tears when it is unavailable during maintenance periods. But, what is it, that after 50 years and countless, repeat rides and the proliferation of competing, high tech, high thrill them park rides, that still attracts us? After all, in theme park years, it’s an outdated, and un-spin tingling throwback to a simpler time in vacation entertainment?

Maybe it’s Walt’s hands on involvement in every aspect of the attraction, including taking it from its early planning stage as a walk-through wax museum-like experience to what we now have today. But, while Walt’s guiding hand was undoubtedly important, it’s

walt and mark davis pirate

Walt with designer/animator Mark Davis and an unidentified Pirate

easy to point to the many Disneyland attractions that were abandoned shortly after the park opened and since then, that all had Walt as part of the design team. Perhaps it’s the attractions ability to manage as many as 2,400 guests an hour. Because, who wants to waste their precious, expensive theme park time waiting in line. Uh, but guests will wait forever to experience Peter Pan’s Flight, an equally family friendly attraction, which only services a paltry 800 guests an hour. Can’t be because the queue is in out of the sun.

Many other WDW and Disneyland attraction queues are either inside or protected from the sun. And, while Disney Imagineers continue to make breakthroughs in Audio Animatronics and there have been only a few high tech additions to both US versions, WDW and Disneyland attractions like Star Tours, Soarin’ and Fantasmic make much more liberal use of technology. So what makes Pirates of the Caribbean such a fan favorite?

Marc_Davis pirates storyboardHere’s my take. As with all of Walt’s successes, whether it was animated or live film or theme park attraction it begins and ends with telling a great story. The attraction plays like a novel or movie. It has an opening that sucks us in, like the first sentence of a book.

 

pirates_skulls

Psst! Avast there! It be too late to alter course, mateys.

It may not be Dickens, “It was the best of times . . “, but, it makes us want to go on. Next we get a little thrill to move us to the edge of our seats compliments of a drop (or two) in the dark. Then we are eased into the Pirate world through scenes that develop place and time. The setup is followed by an eye-opening “curtain up” into the pirate world.  The first unforgettable scene depicts the shelling of the fort by the Pirate ship.

Pirate ship

Throughout the ride there’s humor and constant eye candy to keep us engaged in each of the scenes as the story unfolds. Each ride offers an opportunity to discover something new. Finally, there’s a socko, fire climax and the final scenes close out the story. All this takes place in a completely immersive experience of visuals, sound effects, dialogue and music. Who needs virtual reality when fantasy-reality can make us feel like we have entered into the world of the story.

Convinced yet why you keep riding again and again? Well, there’s more. Walt insisted that no detail was too small to be overlooked in the design and creation of park attractions. (Disney Imagineering continues this practice today). Canons don’t just fire from the Pirate ship, you feel the rush of air and see and hear the canon balls hit the walt with pirate headswater. When a Pirate shoots a gun, it doesn’t just make a noise, there’s an associated ping as the musket ball contacts an object, which might move as physics cause and effect demands. Costumes are finely detailed and crafted and each of the pirates have distinct facial characteristics. Most are appropriately dirty and whiskered .

While there is focus in each of the scenes on the primary action, like the Auction, across the river to our right are the potential bidders, calling out, laughing and making noise. In the Sacking of the Town scene, one of the bound prisoners shivers while waiting his possible turn to be dunked in the well.  Who hasn’t secretly fantasized about hopping out of the boat and boarding the ship in the harbor or exploring the town and finding out what’s behind those doors and windows. As many times as you ride Pirates, you might still discover new things.

So, we’ve looked at story, costume, makeup and set dressing. The last part of any good movie is the soundtrack. Not only does X. Atencio’s simple melody add to the chaos and activity in , but, I don’t think anyone leaves the attraction without humming the tune or trying to sing the complicated lyrics. As far as I’m concerned, this is the cherry on the sundae. That song is in your head forever.

Pirate musicians

So even though Pirates of the Caribbean is not the highest tech or thrilling attraction in the Disney parks, it maintains its status as one of the most loved and talked about creations of Walt Disney and his team of Imagineers. I look forward to experiencing it again and hopefully, getting a chance to experience the newer versions of the attraction in other countries.

pirates poster

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