Disney World . . . Today, It’s Just for Kids, Their Parents, and the Rich

America is a country that has grown up with Disney.  In many ways, it can be argued, Disney’s deep-rooted and generational influence can be considered the spark of America’s cultural imagination.

In the ’70s, Disney and Co.–movies, tv shows, theme parks–were regarded as kid stuff.  Teenagers had no desire to watch any Disney movie, and far less desire to be seen by their peers enjoying anything by Disney.  Then the ’80s happened.  Disney rebounded, largely under the influence of head Mousketeer Michael Eisner, and then he did something interesting: he opened the doors for Disney to entertain adults as well as their kids.  Touchstone Films gave us Disney movies for grown ups, such as Pretty Woman, Adventures in Babysitting (What a Chicago blues-based soundtrack!), Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and Throw Momma From the Train.  Hotels and more theme parks sprang up, with bars and attractions catering to adults.  And finally there was Pleasure Island.

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This official map is circa 1994-1995.

In the late ’80s, downtown Orlando offered Church Street Station, an assortment of (loosely) Western-themed bars and restaurants that drew the after dark crowds away from Disney World for entertainment without the kids.  Disney recognized the need to keep customers on property after the sun went down, so Pleasure Island was created–a man-made island of bars, restaurants and nightclubs designed to deliver a Disney experience to the adults-only crowd.

Disney is a publicly-traded company, and as such has no moral or ethical mandate to its customers, to Disney fans, to children…  Really, its only goal is to constantly grow in order to satisfy its shareholders with revenue and profit.  Under this revenue-based policy, Pleasure Island was closed.  Gone is the mandate or the wish to cater to adults with nighttime, grown-ups-only entertainment.  Current Disney administration is focusing only on children and families, and how to exploit their cash cows at maximum financial benefit to the company.

I went to Disney World with my lovely wife for the first time, after a nine-year absence, in August 2016.  And I saw that a lot of things have changed, and not all for the better.  The property is in a state of flux, with new attractions being built and other attractions getting changed.  But the overall impression I came away with is one of incessant and increasing corporate greed.  The end result is a less satisfying, yet more expensive, vacation experience–one that caters only to an amorphous, generalized, upper-middle class family demographic.

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Disney World has become a children’s Meet and Greet park.  Disney World is all about real estate.  Corporate looks at their property as parcels of real estate with shops, attractions, restaurants, and empty space.  I’m positive that corporate also has a financial goal per each square foot of property.  However they decide what the non-paying attractions or closed attractions are worth, they’ve found a way to get guests to visit areas that have nothing in them of any real value: they create a meet and greet zone so parents can get photos of their kids with various rubberheads . . . costumed characters.  Parents love the photo ops; kids love meeting their favorite Disney characters.  But these zones really don’t add to the Disney experience for grown-ups without children, and their prevalence through all four parks shows that Disney has embarked on a no-cost or low-cost philosophy for creating experiences.  Consider that the Magic Kingdom alone has 21 meet and greet zones.  21.  Doesn’t that mean that there are areas where a ride or attraction could go that would end up bringing in more paying customers in the long-term?  Or is Disney more interested in investing less and catering to a certain demographic?

Result: Bad show for grown-ups, and zero interest from me.

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Forbidden Disney.

Good Food/Bad Food: Theme park food is notoriously bad, but Disney, in certain park restaurants, can deliver some incredible meals.  The San Angel Inn inside the Mexico pavilion at EPCOT deserves the accolades it’s received over the years, including an unexpected endorsement from Jimmy Buffett, who said he loves the restaurant.  We had a great lunch one day at the Liberty Tree Tavern, too; so good that we decided we needed to go back on our next trip.

Not anymore.  In fall 2016, Disney changed the Liberty Tree menu from individual meals to family-style meals.  Why?  Why would they tamper with a winning formula?  Because it costs them less to make a large portion for one table, and then charge the customer more for the family-style experience.

We know, Disney, that you’re in the business to make money.  We get it.  There have been many, many times I’ve just handed Mickey my wallet at the Magic Kingdom turnstiles and told him, “Do me.”

But when you take away from a good experience, and then slap us with a higher bill at the end, that’s really just a slap in the face.  And its a bad experience that we’ll remember.

There is currently no reason to go to Hollywood Studios or the Animal Kingdom.  Large portions of Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom are closed in order for construction of new lands and attractions, including Star Wars land and whatever they’re going to call the land of Avatar.  (Personally, I’m not too sure about Disney’s decision to bank on Avatar and its forthcoming sequels, but I’ll give the place a chance.)  If Disney were to offer discounted tickets because so many things in these parks are closed, I’d take advantage of it.  But ticket prices are the same no matter how many attractions are closed.  My advice: save your money and hit up Universal instead.  Harry Potter land will blow Avatar land away, and Citywalk, with its nightclubs and entertainment, deserves to pull in the adults that Disney now refuses to acknowledge.

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You can find me in Margaritaville, at Universal Citywalk, just an UBER drive away from WDW.

Disney Springs lacks a real Disney experience.

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Disney Springs is the Orlando tourist’s version of Rodeo Drive: upscale shopping, imports, trendy retailers, and $$$$-$$$$$ restaurants, all designed to separate you from your money under the illusory umbrella of a Disney experience.  The stage entertainment is as good, if not better, than outdoor stage shows in the theme parks; but there’s not much Disney about Disney Springs.  Instead, it’s the very clean, modern feel of an outdoors “town center” shopping experience, and very little in the way of a signature Disney experience.

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Map from Christmas season 2016

 

The West Side is largely unchanged, in terms of layout and landmarks, on the far left in the above map.  Also largely the same is The Marketplace, which is what is left of the original Lake Buena Vista Marketplace, over on the far right.  In the center are the new areas that define Disney Springs; so new that in the smaller map above, the Town Center is given no details.  The Landing is the refurbished area that was once the late, great Pleasure Island, and the new area below that, Town Center, was the Pleasure Island parking lot.  Two giant and ugly behemoths dominate the landscape when you drive by, the Orange and Lime parking garages.  For a company that prides itself on aesthetics and pleasing the guest’s eye, the parking garages simply block the line of sight.  The dynamism of the West Side’s skyline could have continued down the line with Town Center’s skyline, but Town Center is completely hidden by these gargantuan, grey boxes, and any excitement the skyline could have generated to those driving by is completely negated.

Shopping.  Dining.  Lights and colors.  Disney Springs looks great, and the times we went, it was always packed.  The stores were not; but there were a lot of people looking around.  So what’s missing?

Dancing.  Laughter.  Music.  Comedy.

Nightclubs.

The all-adult experience is missing.

And so is a true Disney experience.

The magic just isn’t there.

Disney Originals are best.  Every person who goes to any Disney park has their very own, favorite ride.  Today, regarding the parks, we are in a Disney era where the commercially-viable idea is king; where Disney properties are not only milked for every penny of profit, but squeezed–squeezed until all the creative lifeblood is drained from them.  Twilight Zone Tower of Terror is going to receive a thorough overlay, changing the attraction from an original, spooky idea to a concept based on a currently hot property, but one that may not last the test of time.  Norway is displaced to make room for Frozen.

It’s arguable, of course, but I believe that time has shown us that Disney’s best attractions are not those based on movies or shows.  They’re the original ideas that germinated under Walt, or sprang up shortly thereafter.  Here’s Wikipedia’s list of current Magic Kingdom attractions:

The attractions in red are the ones I see as Disney’s singular original park attractions.  By that I mean, they’re not based on any movies or shows, but instead sprang from the wishes of Walt Disney himself or from the minds of his Imagineers as original concepts.  And they are the best.  And they are the favorite attractions of most guests.

If this is the case, why doesn’t Disney get their Imagineers to come up with original attraction ideas any more?

Because they are afraid to take risks with original ideas, and instead want to invest in what they consider sure things, even though they may only be for the short term.

Considering how WDW basically destroyed Pleasure Island and, especially, the Adventurers Club–perhaps the most original attraction since Big Thunder Mountain in the 1970s–with slow deliberation (because their nightclubs only pulled in revenue for less than half a day’s operating hours), for them to create such an incredible venue as Trader Sam’s–on both coasts–makes me wonder . . . How?  Was it the promise of alcohol revenue?  Were the special effects easy to create and inexpensive to maintain?

I have no idea.  But Disney World needs more originality, and to take more chances.  If Trader Sam’s shows them anything, it’s that they have adults wishing to spend their money on Disney’s singular brand of entertainment.

Why not give grown-ups some original venues in the parks, too?  And some cool nightclubs in Disney Springs?

Oh, and . . .

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BRING IT BACK.

Pleasure Island memories

This is it, people. If you’ve been to Disney World since the spring of 1989, you’ve seen the searchlights, you may have even been there, dancing and drinking. The rack cards were in every Disney bus; the commercials were on every hotel TV and every Orlando station.

Pleasure Island, the premiere destination for adults visiting Disney World, is closing in three short days.

This blog at the Orlando Sentinel was the inspiration for tonight’s entry about hot summer nights, and hedonistic pleasures, and tropical islands — even if they’re man-made. Submitted for your consideration is my own list of 19 years of Pleasure Island memories. I hope you and your families have many, and that they are good ones.

• 1989 • We expected a French Quarter of night clubs and fun, and were not disappointed. Maria and I found the Adventurers Club, and like the day I stepped out of my dad’s car in 1971 and saw the color of the blue, blue Florida sky for the first time, I realized I was home. We were greeted at the door of the Adventurers Club by Graves, the butler, as portrayed by Andy Clark (Andrew B. Clark in Woody Allen’s Radio Days). We sat immediately at a mezzanine table overlooking the main room and wondered just what the hell was going on. Then Maria and I noticed a man on the opposite side of the mezzanine, looking down. Leather jacket, leather hat, whip. I asked Graves, “Is that who I think it is?” Graves said, “Yes sir. Dr. Jones frequents the Club on his days off from University.”

Later that year, different vacation. The Club opened at 7. Still daylight. We were the only ones in there, sitting at the bar. Fletcher Hodges came out (an actor named Michael, who soon thereafter moved to L.A., and the next time we saw him was in a men’s room in a hilarious Halloween episode of Roseanne), placed some PI matchbooks on a barstool and started spinning them into wildly and madly oblivion. Later that night (I believe) we were still at the bar when a bunch of suits with walkie talkies came through, escorting Bob Hope on a tour of the Club. Maria still regrets not getting his autograph for her middle sister. But hell — who wants to bother Bob Hope?

• 1991 • We moved from Hampton to Orlando, got annual passes to the parks and Pleasure Island. Maria’s 60 year-old mother visited once, and we danced and partied on PI, and our main memory is of her sitting in the giant beach chair outside XZFR’s, smiling, smiling, smiling.

• After ’89 or so, every night at PI was New Year’s Eve. The PI Marching Band marched through the Club every night, down PI. At midnight, a curse was placed on the Club, and when it was successfully removed by the chanting of the audience, the band would strike up and confetti would be blown through the Salon, mirroring the celebration outside. When the confetti stopped, it was after the outbreak of the Gulf War, and the public was told it was because children were getting scared by the indoor fireworks. Who did they think they were kidding? It was budgetary, and the clean up crews were tired of doing their jobs.

• My friend Mike Speller started out at the Club in ’89, even doing previews for Michael Eisner, and if you remember any of the promos or commercials from that time, he was the guy in the waiter’s suit and gorilla mask. He and some of the other guys portrayed Marcel, the Club’s simian valet, who would occasionally enter the salon and pick lice from the female visitors’ hair.

We didn’t really become friends until we moved there. Then two bartenders, Ray and Jackie (all named Nash at the AC), became our close friends, and they (well, primarily Jackie) brought us into the actors’ circle. Mike and Darin DePaul (follow the link if you want, but it does not chronicle his successes on stages across the country or Broadway…or the upcoming Meryl Steep movie…) quickly became two of our best friends, because we somehow connected. There was a mutual bond between us all that extends to this day. I miss them both. I was Darin’s best man, and I don’t think I could have lived a prouder day.

• The real New Years Eves. they were best at the beginning and got cheap at the end. Dancing in a conga line with Buster Poindexter. Larry “Bud” Melman going to every club and saying “Happy Goddamn New Year!” Paul Schaffer and the World’s Most Dangerous Band. Weird Al. Joan Jett. Peter Gabriel and Roseanne Arquette touring the Adventurers Club. Buffets at every night club, two free drinks, and free party favors, starting at $65. By the last year it was over $125, no drinks, no buffets, and no party favors. At the right place, at the right time. Trying to get out of the PI parking lot jam, jumping out of the car, white shirt, red vest, black pants, stopping traffic, waving cars, then jumping back in the Bluesmobile and shouting, “Hit it!”

• After every night at PI, Maria and I would pause just pass the Empress Lilly and look across the water at the Lake Buena Vista Villas. My parents took us there in 1980, and then we took my mother in 1986. By the time we moved to Orlando, both were gone — and we would stop and silently say goodnight to them, watching the reflections of the villa lights rippling on the lake, and wondering why.

Now the villas are gone, too.

• Darin, playing Emil Bleehall, nerd extraordinaire, at the Adventurers Club. He comes up and asks me a stupid question, to which I reply one of HIS lines — and he replies, in character, “Hey, thanks for nothing, fuckface!” I nearly spit out my gin and tonic — which, by the way, was comped by my friends.

• Mentioning that we wanted to see the comedy show to one of our actor friends; and suddenly we’re escorted from the Adventurers Club and backdoored into prime seats at Comedy Warehouse. We met a LOT of wonderful people!

• Writing a complimentary letter in 1990 to the AC manager, and the next time we visited, it was displayed in a shadowbox near the bathrooms (really, where it belonged).

• The story was that newcomer Emil Bleehall just arrived to Pleasure Island from Sandusky, Ohio. The actor portraying him would start out walking from the far end of the island (near the long-gone Fireworks Factory), suitcase in hand, and ask his way, interacting with bystanders, to the Adventurers Club. One of my regrets: I never saw a single actor do this. We were always in the AC before or after.

• 1989 • Spur of the moment: on the mezzanine, I opened a drawer of the desk. Inside was a handwritten letter from Graves to one of the Club adventurers. Funny. Unique. I kept it. It’s in a desk drawer here in our own library right now, waiting for someone to find it.

• Ray, the bartender, and his magic tricks. He wasn’t great, but he was FUN; and he was the best at impressing semi-drunk 20-something babes at the main bar. This boy put the ooooooo in smooooooth. He’s now at the Outer Rim Lounge at the Contemporary resort. Say Hi from Rusty.

Kristian Truelsen, actor and sender of semi-annual Christmas cards, God bless him, pulls me away from the bar, hands me a cup of water, says, “Let me sit on your lap and you drink this water, okay?” I say okay and he leads me to a chair facing the poof — the poof is the big couch surrounding the statue of fishing Zeus. There he sits on my legs, I place my right hand below his neck as though he’s a ventriloquist’s dummy, and I proceed to say, “I will drink this water as my dummy talks.” I drink the water, I move my hand, Kristian opens his mouth dummy-style, and water pours out of it.

I laughed for days. During the Clinton campaign, he, I, Darin and Mike attended an Orlando Clinton/Gore speech, then had lunch at Orlando’s best ever restaurant, the original Pebbles. Kristian regaled me with Lateral Thinking Puzzles, all of which I remember 16 years later. Damn you and your perfidious influence! DAMN YOU!!!!

• Dinners at Portobello. It was then Portobello Yacht Club; now, menu changed, just Portobello. Dinners in the restaurant were always good. But appetizers and drinks sitting at the bar were even nicer; talking with the maitre’d and the wait staff, the thin pizzas, ordering dishes that weren’t listed on the menu! Damn, I love personal restaurants like that.

About ten years ago, having medium-rare tuna for the first time at a table for two. It may have been the night Maria had Halibut in Grape Sauce, which she craves to this day, but it has never since been offered. A group of about 10-15 walked past our table, and at the end of the line was a deeply tanned, wavy-haired, shirt open to his belly, Wayne Newton. They sat at the big table way in the back. I said to Maria, “Maria, that was Wayne Newton.” She said, “Who?” I said, “The guy at the end of that big group. Wayne Newton.” She craned her head and looked and said, “Yeah. Right. Sure.”

My own wife still doesn’t believe me.

• There are other nights and other years, like the night an Imagineer, on an endless expense account, bought us a bottle of Dom Perignon; the night a woman flashed her tits for cameras at the beach club and smiled at me as I laughed at the sight; the night my bro-in-law ruined Art’s “table-hopping” line; dancing in 8-Trax to disco music I used to hate; the hookers that would show up, not looking like tramps, but ultra-sophisticated escorts; the one and only time we saw the shrunken heads over the AC bar shiver; learning that the Cage, what 8-Trax started out as (a teen club) was the most violent-prone place on property; the nights talking with the private animator who’d call ahead to the AC to put his Coronas in the freezer; Darin’s best night, where he imitated all of the actors at the Club, and Darin’s last night, where we surprised him by driving to FL in a 12-hour spurt; the one-way mirrors in the mens room of Fireworks Factory; Len, who valet-parked our cars for at least five years then went on to law school (YOU OWE US!); the 1992 Miami refugees of Hurricane Andrew who came to Orlando for electricity, a hot bath and a cold beer (you are remembered!); the cheap FX in the AC — did you know the Colonel’s voice is not amplified by a microphone, but by the echo effect of a highly expensive…plastic cup? The night after actor Phil Card’s vasectomy, when he went around to every woman in the Club and pronounced that he was “built for pleasure.”

And should I even mention seeing Pauly Shore?

Naaaaaaah.

I will miss you, Pleasure Island. The big, leg-moving Jessica Rabbit sign, the giant beach chair, the games no one really played, the cheap souvenirs, the expensive animation souvenirs, the coin-operated boats, the shrimp bars, the Jazz Club and the cigars, the Neon Armadillo, the roller-skating, the half-naked women, the imagination that has now given way to annual budget goals.

Pleasure Island is dead.

Long live Pleasure Island.