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.

pleasureislandmap
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.

evil-mickey-mouse

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.

2o2er38
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.

3_bb_cw_margaritaville_lone_palm
You can find me in Margaritaville, at Universal Citywalk, just an UBER drive away from WDW.

Disney Springs lacks a real Disney experience.

dis-sm

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.

disney-springs
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 . . .

adventurers-club1

BRING IT BACK.

Gatorlando

castle

The photo above, from today’s USA Today, shows you just how close the Grand Floridian Resort is to the Magic Kingdom.

The beach at the Grand Floridian, of course, is the site where an alligator snatched a two-year old from his father’s hand while the family walked just inside the waterline.

monorail
USA Today

The attack occurred roughly forty or so minutes after sunset, and the gator pulled the child under after briefly tussling with the frantic father.

You’ve probably already absorbed all of this from cable or online news sources, so I won’t rehash any more of it.  So I’ll say something unexpected:

Statistically, this should have happened long ago.

I do not think this is Disney’s fault.  Signs were placed along the hotel’s beach warning guests not to enter the water.  You have to ask yourself why those signs are there.  It’s a man-made lake; there are no riptides or undercurrents; and not much of a danger.  Unless there’s something in the water.

This editorial in the New York Daily News gets a lot of things wrong.  Writer Shaun King, an admitted Disney World fan and frequent guest, along with his family, to Disney’s forty-square mile property admits that they had never once thought there would be dangerous alligators anywhere on Disney property.  How could there be?  This is Disney, for god’s sake!  Nothing bad ever happens here!  (Really?  Read this, this, and this.)  And then, to find five alligators in the lake?  That’s simply horrendous!

I can’t speak for the powers-that-be at Disney World, but after working at a major theme park and by studying Disney Parks for four decades, I can make some educated guesses about the signage along the beach.  First, they want you safe, so they clearly tell you that you shouldn’t go in the water.  Second, they don’t want to scare the bejesus out of you, so they don’t even whisper the word alligator to anyone.  They want you to keep coming back,  and frequently; not too scared to never come back.  This is PR basics.

The big secret is that there is no secret at all.  Alligators were already on the Florida swampland that Walt bought up in the mid-’60s, and they’re still there now–and they’re plentiful.

final map
ABC News Online

In summer of 1986, I watched from the deck of the Empress Lilly (at the then Walt Disney World Village) as tourists threw bread from their dinner tables at a three-foot long gator waiting to be fed.

Shortly before Christmas in 1991, I took the monorail from the Grand Floridian to go Christmas shopping for my wife in the Magic Kingdom.  The monorail track can be seen starting right above the upper right corner of the Grand Floridian box in the map above, leading to the station almost directly below the D in Walt Disney World.  See that star you passed on the way?  I placed that on the map.  I was standing in the monorail and happened to look down through the window.  That man-made canal is where Disney docks the Electrical Water Pageant, and that star is where I saw a gator basking in the shallows along the shore, its tail curled in a black question mark.

My wife and I both saw a gator in 1992, when Disney’s Coronado Resort first opened.  As annual passholders we were invited to tour the property, and an employee warned us away from a shallow pool only feet away from us in the grass.  “It’s a gator,” he said.  “We’ve already called to have it removed.”  All we could see were the ridges of its eyes just above the surface.  We crept around it.

On the road that guests drive to get to Fort Wilderness, there used to be a guardhouse less than a quarter mile past the camping resort.  It was customary back then to have the doors open on each side of the guardhouse so the guard could wave to the drivers as they passed by.  One night, an employee told us, the overnight guard heard a noise close beside him, and a gator stood in the road, hissing at him.  He exited through the other side of the guardhouse, and when the gator followed him–and entered the guardhouse–the guard slammed the door shut, then ran around and shut the other door, trapping the gator inside.

Consider this: Remember, the land area of Walt Disney World currently stretches (they sold some land a few years back) about 40 square miles.  To get a grasp of how big that is, look at it this way: It’s the size of the city of San Francisco.  There simply is no way Disney or anybody could build resorts and theme parks on top of forty square miles of Florida swampland, the natural habitat of Alligator mississippiensis, and get rid of gators entirely.  Florida is known for these monsters, so I find it naive that anyone would not expect that, even though they may not see any, alligators are always somewhere close by in the mid-Florida scrublands.  I mean, are visitors to the Serengeti shocked that there are lions roaming wild?  Hell, the Everglades still has panthers, not to mention a host of non-native Burmese pythons breeding out of control.  The wild is alive, and Florida is ground zero for the unexpected.

I don’t blame Disney, and I don’t blame the parents, either.  What happened is the clash between nature and civilization.  The gator did only what it would naturally do (even though they rarely attack humans); and who could fault a family, walking along a man-made beach on a lovely night, for not going in the water, but merely wading at the edges?

No matter.  A boy is dead and a family is broken.  Lawsuits will be filed, I have no doubt.  Money will be passed and settlements made.  Then corporate lawyers will order more signs, more fences, and perhaps even walls built around the resorts to insure that this never happens again.

It was bound to happen eventually.  I just don’t know why it didn’t happen sooner.

Disney’s Hyperion Barf

The Powers That Be at Disney announced on November 18, via their Disney Parks blog, what the future of the late, lamented Pleasure Island entails.  And the vision of Disney’s imagineers is shops, restaurants, a walkway, and . . . dull.

You can read the online announcement here.  What they don’t say is they’re pretty much taking the wrecking ball to the waterside portion of Pleasure Island and expanding it into an attractive walkway that connects the Downtown Disney Marketplace — shops and restaurants — with the Downtown Disney West End — shops and restaurants.  By adding . . . um, shops and restaurants, the Disney bean counters expect to make a lot more money than Pleasure Island ever did, since PI was basically a cash cow only from sunset to 1 a.m.

This may indeed be a huge financial enhancement for the Bank of Walt, but it is another huge blow to Disney fans who want some grown-up entertainment in there that captures the Disney imagination.  Go to the announcement.  The important thing is not their press release verbiage.  It’s the reader comments.

Only two days later, and the news has garnered almost 300 comments.  (These are comments that are safe and non-critical.  There are tons of comments that the Disney censors didn’t post . . . including one of mine that was analytical.  Guess they didn’t like me mentioning revenue and profit margins . . .)  And if you go through them all, you can see for yourself that at least 9 out of 10 want only one thing — something that will fit right into the vision of Hyperion Wharf without a hitch.

They want the Adventurers Club.

Seriously, in light of the Adventurers Club fans across the world, their vocal opinions . . . what do you think the Bank of Walt will do?

Get real.  Profit margins will beat fans every time.

The seat at the bar on the left is where you would usually find my wife on any given night between 1991 and 1992.  I would be occupying the seat to her right.  Our friends and favorite bartenders, Jackie and Ray, would be pouring in front of us while Darin, Mike, Bob, Phil, Tim, Andy, Art, Kris, Phran, Sheila, Leslie, Joan and others made magic come alive all around us.

It’s gone now.  But we have wonderful memories.

Rusty’s Fix for the Economy

First, go read this blog on The Daily Beast about the Disney Philosophy and how it could help create jobs and turn the economy around.  Go ahead.  I’ll wait…

man, you read real slow

Now, what was missing?

I’ll tell you: concrete ideas.

So why don’t we do this?  Let’s look at Walt Disney World and Disneyland and see how they make magic that is profitable and that will create jobs — and let’s do that across the country.

I only have a few ideas, so I’m depending on you to send me new ones.  And better ones.

1.  Create MANY new venues of home entertainment.

Every media conglomerate in the country can do this — but they’re not.

In every depression and recession, people will gladly buy food and necessities, but not many luxury items…unless it’s pure entertainment — entertainment that gets their minds off how bad it all is.

The pulps and comics flourished in the depression and during World War II.  It was the golden age of cinema, and for good reason — they kept churning them out, no matter ROI or profit margin.  People needed to be entertained for a few hours in order to forget the poverty of their lives.

Create new cable channels.  Make low-budget movies that the masses will enjoy.  Really, if SyFy can make Sharktopus movies that people will actually watch, why can’t every media conglomerate start making more shows, more cable channels, more films, more plays, more books, that will not only create perhaps thousands of more jobs, but bring in revenue for everyone?

It takes money to make money.

2.  Create new venues of mass entertainment.

What if every major city had an area that was a mini-Las Vegas?  Not necessarily incorporating the gambling aspect, but an entertainment/recreational district lodged philosophically somewhere between Vegas and the French Quarter?  A Disney’s Pleasure Island-like area — where grown-ups could go to movies, hit a bunch of niche nightclubs, restaurants and bars, shops, music halls and theatres.

Planning.  Construction.  Service and retail.  Hotels.  Jobs and revenue.

3.  Create tourism destinations.

Look to Hay-on-Wye for this inspiration.  One man had the idea to create a Booktown — a single town where people all over the world could come and find used books — perhaps books they had been seeking for years.

Used books are a resource that are found cheaply and sold, in the cheapest cases, for perhaps 300% their cost.

Why aren’t American towns, located off interstates on the way to Florida, on the way to D.C., New York, L.A., Houston, taking advantage of their locations to become a destination, instead of a rest stop?  One town could encourage the growth of bookstores.  Another could concentrate on antiques.  Another could concentrate on art — imagine a place where there’s an art show every weekend.

Stores will be created, restaurants started, gas stations built.  All of that means Planning.  Construction.  Service and retail.  Hotels.  Jobs and revenue..

4.  Theme your potential profit areas.

Take old downtown areas and theme them accordingly.  Creative landscaping and traffic flow is what the current wave of outdoor Town Centres is all about.  Why aren’t our small towns considering #3 above and theming their walking/retail districts accordingly, with consumers in mind?

Make your town a destination — not a drive-thru.

Landscaping jobs will be created initially, leading to new retail venues, job growth, and long-term revenue.

5.  Create a lineup of festivals and concerts all year long.

Make sure you have a draw to your region where people will be entertained, as well as willingly spending their money on food and retail.

The Innsbrook area here in Richmond benefits every summer from a mid-week series of concerts.  People come to the West End/Innsbrook area, some eat, then go to the concert, eat and drink there, then drive out and continue partying at the closest restaurants and bars.

Create places that people want to visit.  It creates jobs, it brings customers and revenue, and consumers will want to come next time.  The value of Top of Mind Awareness is inestimable.


Your turn.  Send me your ideas.  Lets talk.

Tales from some Grim Grinning Ghosts

Everybody who’s ever been to Disneyland or Walt Disney World has a favorite attraction. Mine has always been and will probably always be the Haunted Mansion.

Like the geek I am, I’ve always been interested in the origins of the Mansion, both in terms of its special effects and whatever sources were influences to its designers. I covered most of the FX in two articles I wrote for Storyboard Magazine way back in 1989 (under my real first name, Howard).

Specific influences, however, have been harder to confirm. I guessed years ago that the Hallway of Doors was based on a scene in Robert Wise’s 1960 film, The Haunting. Just this year, one of the Mansion’s designers admitted they studied The Haunting for ideas.

Now I’ve stumbled upon a couple of other possible influences, these from the ’50s, that I never would have guessed. But they make perfect sense, especially to Imagineers who had been pimply-faced comic readers a few years before.

You be the judge:

Madam Leota’s seance:

The caretaker at the graveyard:

Were these the inspirations for the Hitchhiking Ghosts and their mirror alcoves?

The Ghost Host (note the elongated angle and the portraits on each side):