Saturday, September 19, 2009

Living in Fantasyland

Last weekend, Disney conducted its first "D23 Expo," a fan convention intended to function as a kind of ComicCon for Disney nerds.  Basically, it's a big PR dog-and-pony show where the Mouse can push it's latest and greatest products to its most devoted customers.  And living up to it's promise, the D23 Expo presented an avalanche of information related to both the studio and the theme parks.  Today, I'll start by providing my thoughts on some of the news related to the theme parks, and then follow up in a future post about the studio news.

The irony about the company's theme park presentation is that most all of the information presented had already been circulating around the Internet on various Disney blogs and other fansites.  The surprise then was in finding out which rumors would be confirmed and how many details would be revealed.

The first rumor to be addressed was the potential return of "Captain EO."  For those who don't recall, "Captain EO" was a 3D movie attraction that debuted in 1986 and ran until the mid-90s.  This sci-fi musical fantasy was produced by George Lucas, directed by Francis Ford Coppola, and starred Michael Jackson.  After Jackson's death, somebody had the bright idea to bring back the attraction to capitalize on the nostalgia wave and to provide a replacement for the well-worn "Honey, I Shrunk the Audience" attraction.  This same person apparently forgot that Michael Jackson had a fairly controversial history with children and neglected to consider that perhaps some families might not find sitting in a darkened theater with the man to be all that appealing or appropriate.  On the opening day of the Expo, Disney CEO Bob Iger stated that the Captain EO revival was a no-go.  However, the good folks over at MiceAge have reported that test screenings have definitely taken place and that there is still some talk behind the scenes of bringing the attraction back for a limted run at Disneyland, possibly tied to some sort of charity to blunt the association with Jackson's past controversies.  Personally, I think they'll wait and see how the upcoming Michael Jackson concert film (directed by Disney vet Kenny Ortega) performs before making a final decision.  For die-hard Disney fans, the full attraction would be a compelling curio; if you've ever watched the short film online, however, it doesn't particularly hold up very well.

My Bottom Line: This is a bad idea.  Leave EO in the past and come up with something NEW to put in place of "Honey, I Shrunk the Audience."

Another attraction involving George Lucas also received attention at the Expo.  "Star Tours" is still a reliably popular attraction at the Disney parks in both California and Florida, but it first opened in 1989 and the once state-of-the-art motion simulator ride has become old hat.  Rumors about a makeover have percolated for years, with the most recent version speculating that Disneyland in Anaheim would get a new Star Tours while Walt Disney World in Orlando had decided they were too cheap for the upgrade.  At the Expo, however, Jay Rasulo, Chairman of Disney Parks and Resorts, announced that "Star Tours II" would open in both parks in 2011.  The complete details are unknown, but the new iteration will be in 3D and will feature multiple locations from the Star Wars universe, most likely in a random fashion so that everytime you ride the attraction you get a new experience.  Rasulo also claimed that they would "do things with Star Tours that have never been done in any theme park attraction, at any theme park anywhere."

My Bottom Line: This announcement is long overdue and I hope the new ride lives up to this hype.  Honestly, the parks could benefit from more original attractions based on Star Wars and Indiana Jones, especially Disney's Hollywood Studios in Orlando.  And not simply little shows like the Jedi Training Academy, I mean real attractions.

Without question, though, the biggest theme park news from the Expo was the reveal of the new expansion of Fantasyland in the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World.  Remarkably, this news had also leaked onto the Internet in the weeks before the Expo, much to the chagrin of Disney.  But the official reveal still made an impact because of the scale of the new expansion, the level of detail released, and because fans of the Florida parks have been starved for the kind of new development and attention that more often seems to be lavished on the California parks. 

For those with any familiarity with the Magic Kingdom, the new Fantasyland, scheduled for completion in 2013, will now stretch all the way out to completely contain what is currently Mickey's ToonTown Fair, roughly doubling the current size of Fantasyland.  The new land will include uniquely themed, interactive, meet-and-greet areas dedicated to Cinderella, Belle, and Sleeping Beauty.  Each princess will have their own unique "mini-land."  To me, Belle's mini-land is the highlight here as it will include a new table-service dining location themed to the ballroom in "Beauty and the Beast" and a new counter-service dining location themed to Gaston's tavern.

The two elements of the expansion that have captured the most attention are the new Little Mermaid attraction and the overhaul of the Flying Dumbos.  A grand, elaborate new "dark ride" themed to "The Little Mermaid" is already scheduled to open at Disney's California Adventure in 2011.  It will now be replicated at the Magic Kingdom.  If you have no idea what I'm talking about, imagine a ride like Snow White's Scary Adventure or Peter Pan's Flight, but made more on the scale of rides like The Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Carribean.  The concept art makes it look amazing.

The iconic Dumbo the Flying Elephant is one of the true must-do attractions at Walt Disney World, and yet it can be a miserable experience because of the painfully long line that always precedes it.  The expansion plan would move Dumbo out to where ToonTown is now, but would put TWO Dumbo spinners side by side, separated by a large circus tent that will contain a vaguely described collection of interactive games.  The most intriguing part of the new Dumbo is that there will be no physical line, per se.  I have no idea how it works, but the idea is that you play games until it's your turn to ride.  If they pull it off, it's the kind of outside the box surprise that fans love about Disney parks.

And in 2014, the last phase of the new Fantasyland will debut -- Pixie Hollow.  This will be another richly themed mini-land where you can meet Tinker Bell and other fairies, but the description is left open-ended enough that there could potentially be more attractions added to this area in the future.

My Bottom Line:  Don't wimp out on us, Orlando!  For every wonderful refurbishment like the 2007 upgrade of The Haunted Mansion, there's a Space Mountain, where there were reportedly some grand plans discussed for revamping this classic ride this year but in the end the executives opted for a cheaper, easier route (we won't really know for sure what they did until the ride reopens later).  A similar tale surrounds Spaceship Earth at EPCOT, where fans have spent over a year since it's refurbishment and reopening debating whether the ending of the ride is actually finished or missing something due to a lack of funding.  This is an opportunity to blow us away.  I hope they actually go above and beyond what is depicted in the concept art.  Disney is clearly trying to keep up with the local competition, but that's a good thing.  It's been a long time since the folks at Walt Disney World have done something that truly blows you away.  They now have the opportunity to do that.

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