Monday, October 4, 2010

Better Late than Never: Disney World, pt. 1

I'm borrowing the format of this entry from the always-excellent AV Club, wherein a staff member watches/reads/listens to something that by all means they should have done years ago, and gives their impression of it from a new point of view.

I was never really a Disney kid. I'd seen a few of the films about a thousand times, particularly Mary Poppins and, oddly, The Gnome-Mobile. Fun fact: the Mary Poppins kids are also the kids in The Gnome-Mobile, and the opening credits simply list them as the Mary Poppins kids. I missed the new wave of animation that spawned Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Little Mermaid, etc. I did catch The Lion King when they showed it to us in junior high, and loved it. Anyway, being more of the Looney Toons and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles bent as a child, and having parents who avidly disliked crowds and most people, our vacations generally consisted of trips to the Smokies. So as a young adult, when Disney World came up as a subject of nostalgic conversation, I was often met with looks of shock and pity when I told my peers I'd never been there.

Cut to my wife Amy, whose childhood was pretty much the opposite of everything I just said. We've been together for five years, and for about four and a half of that she's been planning on taking me to Orlando to get caught up. I set her back a year or so when I went and proposed to her and we had to plan a wedding, but the stars aligned and we just got back from celebrating our first anniversary at uncle Walt's playground.

I really didn't know what to expect. I love roller coasters, and while a couple at Disney are pretty killer, I knew that isn't their main thing. I also knew that Disney is known for its "imagineers," the special effects artists responsible for decades of weirdly lifelike entertainment, but beyond the Hall of Presidents and what I assume are terrifying child robots in It's a Small World (it was closed for maintenance), I didn't really know what that entailed. So I knew I was going to enjoy myself, I just didn't know how.

Our first park was Magic Kingdom, that of the trademark castle. And yes, despite not being a Disney kid, I got goosebumps the first time I saw it. We've all been programmed to react that way by Disney, and while you could decry it as crass corporate manipulation, I like to take comfort in the fact that people across the world can see that castle and share the same reaction.

Our first ride at Magic Kingdom was Pirates of the Caribbean. It was the first of many rides that we walked straight into without a wait at all. Late September is an excellent time to visit, if you don't mind the constant fear of hurricanes and/or tropical storms (more on that later). While they've updated it with lines about Jack Sparrow and a few appearances by everyone's favorite Rolling Stones-inspired pirate, it seemed largely untouched since it started, wow, in 1967. It's a cute ride, and I can see why it's a favorite, but I certainly would never think to turn it into a film franchise, and I would never in my wildest dreams imagine that said franchise could be so successful. But hey, maybe that speaks well for the incoming wave of board game adaptations. Or no. Not at all.

We were able to fit in everything we wanted to do at Magic Kingdom that day and move on to another park, thanks to the complete lack of wait times. Thunder Mountain is an impressive roller coaster for its set alone, which completely surrounds the ride even though it's outdoors. It would be a great first roller coaster, which I'm sure it has been for millions of children. It's calm enough that a dad was able to turn around and record his daughter's reactions with a camera for the whole ride. They were both laughing the whole time. Space Mountain still holds up as a great coaster as well, with parts reminding me of Metroid and others of 2001. As a huge geek and space nerd, I was thrilled at the conceit surrounding the ride of it being an interstellar space transit system. I would continue to be geekily thrilled throughout Disney, which was not something I expected.

I began to learn what exactly is the attraction of Disney on the Haunted Mansion ride. If you're not scaring the bejeesus out of your guests or trying to push their organs through their orifices with the power of g-forces, you have to tell them a story. This is where Disney excels. In addition to the story is the constant "how did they do that?" effect. Haunted Mansion is a fun, spooky, cute ride through, well, a haunted mansion. Riding two at a time in a hearse/carriage-like car, your view is controlled by how it rotates throughout the ride. Ghosts show up in front of you in different ways, always seemingly right there without the use of 3-D glasses. There's a fun little song too. The centerpiece for me was the ghost banquet hall, where a large dining room is suddenly populated with dozens of ghosts feasting and dancing. I'm pretty sure I know how they did that, but that's no fun is it?

My favorite section of Magic Kingdom by far is Tomorrowland, simply because of the awesome name and sleek futuristic decor (which is why Epcot is probably my favorite park). I couldn't stop saying " Tommmmorrowland!" like a cheesy 60s voiceover every time I saw the name. Here you find Space Mountain, naturally, and Buzz Lightyear's ride, wherein you're called upon to rotate your own car as you move through the ride shooting targets. The gamer in me wanted to do this a few times, and Toy Story is actually a franchise I'm up to date on. It's apparently the de facto Pixar area too, since this is where you can see the Monsters, Inc. Laugh Floor. This is one of many 3-D movie screen-shows throughout the parks. It's monster stand-up comedy, based on the ending of Monsters, Inc. when the monsters figure out how to get their energy from laughs and not screams. The impressive thing about this show is that it actually is live, even though you're watching CG monsters on a movie screen. They're animated ambiguously enough to match the live actors who are riffing on the audience backstage, so that you're once again left wondering "how did they do that?"

We moved on to Disney's Hollywood Studios that day, which is a pretty easy park to see in one afternoon. This is home to one of the truly great coasters at Disney, Aerosmith's Rock 'n' Roller Coaster. It's an indoor roller coaster, the highlight of which is the awesome launch at the beginning. The lowlight, and one we were subjected to on several rides, was the intro video. The story thing got a little old after a few days. Sometimes it really is OK to just beat the crap out of me on a ride; I really don't need to know why. But in this one you meet Aerosmith in the studio talking to an engineer, played by a young struggling Ken Marino, and they're running late for a show. Their agent, Illeana Douglas, gets you backstage passes for the show; hence, the roller coaster trip to see them play.

Who knew there was so much work for actors in amusement park videos? We also saw Gary Sinise, Ellen DeGeneres, John Michael Higgins, Michael Richards, Patrick Warburton (but he does show up everywhere), and the voice of Judy Dench. Not bad.

Also at Hollywood Studios is Star Tours, a Star Wars ride, which tragically, heartbreakingly, was not running. It's being updated to include material from the prequels. Which makes perfect sense, because everyone LOVED them and more of our childhood milestones should be affected by them /sarcasm. Still, the huge AT-AT and Ewok village were pretty awesome to see, and I got a picture of me on a speeder bike, and the gift shop was cool.

One more overall impression: the kids. I knew they would be everywhere, and I'm not necessarily a child-friendly person. I want kids, and one-on-one it's usually not too bad, but en masse they tend to freak me out. Not so at Disney, and here's why: the park is theirs. You're on their turf, so it's a little hard to get bothered by them, but honestly it never even came up. It's literally the best place on the planet they could be, and seeing how insanely happy they all are to be there really adds to the experience, cold-hearted young professional or not. And I won't lie, Thursday evening at Magic Kingdom they were all coming for the Halloween party, in costume, and it was adorable. There was one toddler freaking out in the entry room to the Haunted Mansion, which is actually pretty freak-worthy, but given that I did the same thing at a scary show in Gatlinburg as a small child I can't fault him too much for it.

In the next installment I'll talk about Epcot and Animal Kingdom and give my overall thoughts. See! Gorillas eating poop! Hear and feel! The best Michael Jackson video ever!

1 comment:

  1. Well, I'm a bit delayed in reading your Disney posts, but I just had to tell you how much I enjoyed them. I'm just sorry you never got to that 3rd installment. I am a huge Disney fan and have been there tons of times, but I LOVED reading the impressions of an adult 1st-timer. I also really loved what you said about kids at WDW and it being "their park". You are so right! Just wait until you take your own child and you see that joy on his/her face. There is nothing that compares.