Showing posts with label Theme Parks. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Theme Parks. Show all posts

December 3, 2018

Talking Movies on The Tomorrow Society Podcast

Tomorrowland remains an underrated gem and deserves more attention.

This site has been quiet lately, with the exception of my detour into Stargate Origins earlier this year. That doesn’t mean I’m not still involved with talking about movies, however. My focus these days is The Tomorrow Society, a blog and podcast focused on the world of theme parks. It’s a different sphere yet still veers into the world of movies periodically.

On The Tomorrow Society Podcast, I speak with authors, filmmakers, and experts that work behind the scenes on theme parks. Two of my recent episodes might interest you because the guests work in the film world. They’re still connected to Disney, but the conversations dive into the process of making movies. Here i a quick summary of each episode; John Walker and Mark Mancina had a lot to say about their careers in movies.

Episode 60: John Walker, Producer of The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, The Incredibles 2, and Tomorrowland

My latest podcast was just released today and focuses on the box-office disappointment Tomorrowland from 2015. I talked with Producer John Walker about making that movie and why it wasn’t a bit hit. I’m a big fan of Tomorrowland and believe it deserves more attention. We also cover John’s work with Brad Bird on The Iron Giant and the two Incredibles films.

The music of Moana from Mark Mancina holds up really well to repeat viewings.

Episode 55: Mark Mancina, Composer for Moana, The Lion King, Tarzan, Training Day, and Speed

Back in October, I was thrilled to speak with composer Mark Mancina about his diverse career. The talented musician has brought his interest in progressive rock to scores on popular films like Speed and Training Day. He’s also worked regularly on Disney films, most recently Moana. We talk about Mark’s background plus the music for The Lion King, Tarzan, and a variety of projects.

If you’d like to learn more about everything that I’m doing at The Tomorrow Society, you can go to or follow me on Twitter or Facebook. You can also subscribe to The Tomorrow Society Podcast on Apple Podcasts.

February 12, 2014

The Disneyland Story by Sam Gennawey

A trip to Walt Disney World has become a rite of passage for many families with young children. Super Bowl winners announce “I’m going to Disney World!” on TV right after the game. People drop thousands of dollars to experience the “magic”, meet Mickey Mouse, and ride Space Mountain. But what about the original park that spawned it almost 60 years ago? Disneyland is still very popular and draws huge crowds in California, yet it’s sometimes forgotten amid the rush to Florida. I visited the park as a kid in 1985 but didn’t return until a brief stay in 2012. That recent trip was an eye-opener about the differences between the two resorts. Both have plenty of charms, yet the original feels so different. It’s a lot smaller, but there’s an authenticity that can’t be recreated. Walt Disney had a direct hand in its creation, and there was nothing else like it in 1955. While you can’t go anywhere and escape Disney these days, the original park was a risky proposition. It became an incredible success, but there were plenty of obstacles before it even got off the ground.

The history of Disneyland is chronicled brilliantly in Sam Gennawey’s The Disneyland Story: The Unofficial Guide to the Evolution of Walt Disney’s Dream. Released in November, the book offers a comprehensive look at the park’s evolution into the place it is today. It’s essentially a biography of Disneyland that documents the ups and downs of keeping it relevant to new generations. Despite the wealth of information, this book never feels like a dry history lesson. Gennawey balances well-known anecdotes with material that’s barely seen the light of day. It’s a well-researched look at a place that’s still remarkable today.

A challenge with many Disney history books is the lack of depth because the writers are too close to the material. They restate myths and are so enchanted by the marketing idea of “Disney magic” that they never get beyond the surface. This isn’t an issue with this book, and that relates to Gennawey’s background as an urban planner. He loves the parks but can look beyond the charms and discuss them on a larger scale. The challenges in complying with the city of Anaheim are sometimes just as interesting as the attractions. Disney could be ruthless in getting the government to go along with its plans, though the obstacles grew larger as the city expanded. Gennawey also wrote the excellent book Walt and the Promise of Progress City about Walt Disney’s plans to build an experimental community in Florida. Walt died before it came to fruition, and the result was a much different EPCOT. Gennawey brings a similar mix of fandom and intellectual curiosity to this project.

A highlight is an extensive section where Gennawey walks the reader through each land during the park’s opening day. It’s remarkable to learn about some of the odder attractions (they had mule rides!) that were considered a big deal at the time. Walt continually tinkered with the parks and kept adding new things at a rapid pace. For instance, he didn’t have the time or money to do a real Tomorrowland in 1955, so it was nearly empty at the opening. Four years later, he added the submarines and the Monorail plus the Matterhorn nearby. That major expansion changed the face of the park and started it on the path to what’s present today. The Fantasyland dark rides were so different than the current versions of classics like Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride and Peter Pan’s Flight. Attractions have been repainted, torn down, and extended into something that resembles the original but fits the modern age.

A surprising chapter looks at Disney’s original ideas for the second gate that eventually became California Adventure. Their ambitious plans for a DisneySea park would have been amazing, and it’s sad to realize that some of the attractions that are thrilling visitors in Tokyo could be in California. They also had plans for a west coast version of EPCOT that would have been intriguing. I also expect that the current issues at EPCOT in Florida might not be there if it had a sister park at Disneyland. It might have strengthened the brand and given them more pressure to keep it relevant. Like California Adventure’s low-budget approach when it opened, those projects might not have been so ambitious by the time they were constructed. Even so, it would have been amazing to see what happened.

The Disneyland Story is aimed at Disney fans interested in more than the standard marketing materials. That means it’s basically written for me, and I was sad to finish it. There isn’t anything on par with this book in print, and having so much fascinating material in a single book is so refreshing. This is clearly a passion project for Gennawey, yet it reads like a professional and nuanced portrayal of a beloved park. I dare any Disney fan to read this book and not immediately want to make their travel plans for California. The park’s 60th anniversary is next year. Who’s with me?

Photo Credits: 1 by Sam Gennawey, 2 and 3 by Jeff Kurtti

January 8, 2014

Disney Transportation: Looking to the Future of Progress City

Spaceship Earth at EPCOT

This post has moved to a new location at The Tomorrowland Society, a blog that takes an intelligent look at theme parks and their future. You can access it through this link.

November 13, 2013

Ride the Movies!: The Evolution of Universal Orlando

This post has moved to a new location at The Tomorrowland Society, a blog that takes an intelligent look at theme parks and their future. You can access it through this link.

October 16, 2013

Pandora Rising: Avatar at Disney's Animal Kingdom

Two years ago, Disney surprised theme-park fans by announcing a deal to bring a land based on James Cameron's Avatar to their Animal Kingdom park in Orlando. It was a box-office hit and had great visual effects, but this wasn't Star Wars or another beloved franchise. Cameron had produced one film that was admired yet not loved. Looking beyond the imaginative look, the story was too familiar. Would guests clamor to visit Pandora in the same way they'd flocked to Universal Orlando's Wizarding World of Harry Potter? The odds seemed unlikely, and speculation has been rampant that it would never happen. After saying little about Avatar since the announcement, Disney finally released concept art and some details last week at their D23 Expo in Tokyo. Fans who've decried the idea for several years now seem ready to embrace the new land. After no announcements at the California expo a few months ago, they're relieved to hear anything concrete.

Why create a land based on Avatar? There are several main reasons for Disney. First, they're dealing with an aggressive Universal and could lose business when the second Harry Potter expansion opens next year. Disney's attendance remains strong, but it's only a matter of time before the crowds venture across town. The second need is specific to the Animal Kingdom, which hasn't had a significant new ride since Expedition Everest in 2006. It's a beautiful park with amazing wildlife, but the high ticket prices warrant more than impressive zoological exhibits. A big-budget expansion in an underused section of the park can draw huge benefits and reduce the congestion near the other headliners. It removes the "half-day park" label from the Animal Kingdom and makes it a top destination. Disney's revamp of their maligned California Adventure park has worked wonders and dramatically affected the Disneyland resort. They're hoping for a similar impact with this expansion.

The key factor in making the Avatar land a success is developing multiple attractions that please different types of guests. Universal's first Harry Potter expansion was really just one new ride, but they deftly re-themed two others to make it seem larger. Disney doesn't have that luxury. The images show a boat ride through Pandora that hopefully will match the success of classic attractions like Pirates of the Caribbean. There also will be a high-tech banshee simulator possibly in the vein of Soarin'. Another key element will be the theming, which needs to be immersive on the scale of Cars Land. All the shops, restaurants, and other structures must connect to the theme to create the right atmosphere. If the environment feels right, it could win over cynics who don't even like Cameron's film. The challenge is spending the resources needed to separate Pandora from the rest of the park. It must fit naturally in the overall scheme while standing alone as an individual land.

A major challenge is maintaining the excitement during the lengthy construction time to make the plans come alive. Disney Parks Chairman Tom Staggs has cited a possible opening time of early 2017, which is still more than three years away. They'll need some additional upgrades to the Animal Kingdom to keep guests happy in the meantime. Staggs' announcement also described a nighttime show and evening version of their headliner Kilimanjaro Safaris attraction, so those changes might come sooner. If not, fans will probably get antsy during this extensive timeframe. My reaction is mixed, though I'm feeling more optimistic after learning more about this ambitious land. I still don't love the Avatar deal and its place in the Animal Kingdom, but there's still potential for something great. Cameron is planning to release sequels around the same time as this opening, so it could lead to big returns if everything comes together well.

It's clear that the future of the major theme parks is buying intellectual properties and putting them in the parks. Signature Disney attractions like Space Mountain, the Haunted Mansion, and Big Thunder Mountain aren't tied to a specific franchise, but they come from a different era. Disney's purchases of Marvel and Lucasfilm show the company's direction moving forward. The fierce competition will benefit visitors and should lead to incredible attractions. The downside of these massive acquisitions is an increase in ticket prices to pay for the expensive rides. They've priced out many visitors, and the costs should only continue to rise in the future. If you can afford the trip, there should be plenty to see in the next decade. Rumors have swirled for years about Lord of the Rings, and it seems like just a matter of time until that franchise joins the others in one of the major parks. It's sure to be amazing, if any of us can afford the experience.

April 3, 2013

Podcast Spotlight: The Season Pass

If you’ve read this blog for very long, you probably know that I’m a serious fan of theme parks. There are few things that I don’t enjoy about them, particularly when they’re done well. I usually keep this obsession to myself since most people believe they're just for kids. Beyond the experience of visiting the parks, I’m also intrigued by the extreme volume of behind-the-scenes work needed to create a seamless attraction. Way back in 2008, I was thrilled to discover the Season Pass Podcast. This intelligent show is a lot more than a fan project and gives an insider’s perspective on the industry. Founder/Co-Host Doug Barnes and Co-Host Brent Young are experts on the business side yet still love visiting them. This rare combination lifts the Season Pass above the crowd of theme park podcasts. Unlike the huge crop of Disney shows that paint a rosy view of everything, Doug and Brent give their honest opinions on new attractions. They aren’t afraid to say it when blockbuster rides and shows fall short of expectations. Their discussions with experts of all ages are candid but maintain the excitement about the latest offerings.

While my blog focuses on movies, there are connections between the visual arts and theme parks. The artists working behind the scenes are telling a story and using every means at their disposal to create an immersive world. Doug and Brent understand that even the greatest technology only works if it matches the story that’s being created. While the script is usually thin for a high-flying roller coaster, even those rides are set within a narrative framework. In more than 220 episodes, the Season Pass continues to dig into every aspect of the amusement industry. They don’t simply focus on the giants like Disney and give plenty of time to Six Flags, Cedar Fair, and other companies. They also bring in representatives from the manufacturers that build and design the attractions. This expansive approach keeps the shows intriguing even if I’ve never visited the covered park. It takes a crazy amount of effort to cover such a large quantity of projects. The persistence has paid off and delivered remarkable guests like Bob Gurr, Jerry Rees, Garner Holt, and so many others.

A key factor in the Season Pass' success is the personal connection that Doug and Brent make with listeners. Several summers ago, Doug packed his family in a van and embarked on the “Wheels on I-80” tour. They visited a ton of parks all over the country and interacted with listeners along the way. I was lucky enough to meet up with them at Six Flags St. Louis to take in some rides, and it was a blast. The down-to-earth qualities of the hosts and their frequent guests make it more than just a cool show. Doug seems intent on building up the community and connecting with fans as much as possible. That takes even more dedication, and it’s trickier when it isn’t his full-time job. It’s challenging enough for me to find time for this blog, and doing a podcast with many different guests is so much tougher. Brent is the visual effects supervisor and co-founder of Super 78, and that industry experience gives him great insights about the process of making an attraction. Frequent participants like Robert Coker and Nick Hutson bring even more knowledge and passion to the table.

The Season Pass continues to expand its scope and look for interesting ways to explore the industry. Disney expert Chad Emerson presents the Disney Files to closely examine specific elements. The Seasoned Pros episodes bring together a panel to rate their favorites in categories where every fan has an opinion. The topics have included the best dark rides, steel coasters, and most beautiful parks. Although certain picks come up frequently, there’s hardly a consensus on the top choices. The hosts also frequently record live from the parks and bring us closer to the action. Although it lives in a specific niche, there’s so much variety to please anyone who’s interested in the industry. The show has evolved considerably since its humble beginnings, but the goal remains the same. Doug, Brent, and the entire gang are passionate about the industry and keep looking for new ways to explore it. A podcast is a perfect venue for this type of show, and they make the most of it.

December 19, 2012

Vintage Disney: The EPCOT Film

This post has moved to a new location at The Tomorrowland Society, a blog that takes an intelligent look at theme parks and their future. You can access it through this link.

December 14, 2012

Top 5 Movie Amusement Park Scenes

Amusement parks live in a similar realm to movies because they both use visual and audio techniques to convey a particular feeling. Even your local Six Flags park is creating a specific atmosphere; it just may not be a friendly one. This connection makes it interesting when the two worlds collide on the big screen. The crossovers aren't always great and are often painful. There are memorable exceptions to this general rule, however. These moments use this setting just right and enhance the main story.  It's strange that there aren't more classic examples of amusement parks showing up in movies. It feels like there's more that could happen than what we've seen. For this list, I'm looking at movies shot at real parks or a set designed to resemble them. Futuristic creations like Westworld or Jurassic Park aren't what I have in mind. Let's check them out before we reach the next big drop!

Honorable Mentions, Before Sunrise and The Living Daylights - Prater (Vienna)
Located in Vienna's Wiener Prater park, the famous Wurstelprater park (known as Prater) appears frequently in movies. Its giant Wiener Riesenrad Ferris wheel even makes multiple appearances on this list. It's an excellent spot for romance since it moves really slowly and offers a majestic view. Richard Linklater's charming Before Sunrise depicts a growing connection between Jessie (Ethan Hawke) and Céline (Julie Delpy), who meet randomly. They spend an evening strolling through the city and share an intimate moment in this park. There's also a tender moment on this Ferris wheel in The Living Daylights with Timothy Dalton's James Bond and cellist Kara Milovy (Maryam d'Abo). This scene ends much differently with the murder of a key contact, but there's a similar feeling. It's such a change from its silly predecessor A View to a Kill and a step in the right direction.

5. Strangers on a Train - created for the movie (Chatsworth, California)
Constructed on a ranch, the amusement park in Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train is the setting for two of the best sequences. The first involves the homicidal Bruno's (Robert Walker) pursuit of his prey through a Tunnel of Love. Certain portions were shot on an actual fairground, but the transitions are seamless. When Bruno finally reaches the helpless woman (Laura Elliott) on the Isle of Love, it's a shocking moment. Hitchcock presents the scene as a reflection in her glasses, which just enhances the impact. The other remarkable sequence involves Guy (Farley Granger) trying to stop Bruno on an out-of-control carousel. The crazy part is that a carousel operator actually crawled under the ride in a very dangerous stunt. While it spins right above his head, the guy lays flat and tries to stop the impending crash. It's one of Hitchcock's best films and uses the setting to its full potential.

4. National Lampoon's Vacation - Six Flags Magic Mountain (Santa Clara, California)
The classic road-trip movie, Vacation spoofs the traditional family trek to Disneyland in California. I can sympathize with the enthusiasm of Chevy Chase's Clark Griswold, who's more excited about the trip than anyone. He wills them all the way to their final destination and faces the ultimate disappointment from the happy moose. Shot at Six Flags Magic Mountain in Santa Clara, this massive park wasn't so over the top back in 1983 but still works for the movie. The Colossus and Revolution coasters that appear are still running today. Although the scenes at Walley World only appear at the end, they make an impact particularly for theme-park fans who see a lot of Griswold in their own fandom. 

3. Adventureland - Kennywood (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania)
When I was in high school and college, I worked in the summers at the St. Louis Zoo in the outdoor stands that served snow cones and ice cream. Nearly everyone who worked there was young and didn't take the job too seriously. We were outside every day, and only now do I realize just how good we had it. Adventureland captures a similar feeling of being at the point just before the responsibilities of adulthood. Historic Kennywood in Pittsburgh plays the role of the fictional title park and is the perfect setting for the coming-of-age story. Writer/Director Greg Mottola (Superbad) clearly has a personal connection to the material, and that motivation is felt in every scene. Jesse Eisenberg plays the arrogant yet well-meaning lead perfectly, and it's just fun to hang out in this quirky local park.

2. Hanna - Spreepark (Plänterwald, Germany)
Joe Wright's 2011 thriller was one of the true surprises of last year. Hanna concludes with a showdown between the title character and Cate Blanchett's Marissa Wiegler. It takes place at an abandoned park with crazy-looking rides that seem even odder because they're no longer in use. This place was the location of Spreepark, which originated under a different name in East Germany back in 1969. It closed back in 2001 due to huge debts, but some of the attractions remain in that spot. It's the perfect environment for the final confrontation between characters with lots of bad blood. The cinematography and art direction are striking throughout the movie, and this ending fits perfectly within this stylized world. I expect that more people will continue to discover this great action movie in the upcoming years.

1. The Third Man - Prater (Vienna)
When I started compiling this list, there was only one possibility for the top slot. The conversation where Harry Lime (Orson Welles) explains his worldview to Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) is one of the great scenes in movie history. While they ride the Wiener Riesenrad, Lime's candid statements about the "dots" walking below give a clear look at how a powerful figure can justify his actions. Setting this discussion at a place of amusement is perfect because it contrasts so sharply with his cold opinions. Welles only makes a brief appearance in this film, but it resonates so strongly that it's easy to forget the limited screen time. He receives one amazing scene, and that moment lifts the entire movie to greater heights.

I'd love to hear your thoughts about this list. Did I miss the signature moments from Zombieland or The Karate Kid? What are your favorite amusement park scenes from movies? You should also check out past Top 5 Lists if you've missed them.

October 26, 2012

30 Years of EPCOT: An Appreciation

Spaceship Earth

When EPCOT opened on October 1, 1982, Walt Disney World was a much different place than the giant Orlando resort that exists today. The land owned by Disney included more than 27,000 acres, but only a small part was being used for guest areas. The Magic Kingdom had opened 11 years earlier, and the destination included several impressive resorts along with a water park and campsite. It was very popular, but the idea of building a second gate was still a risky proposition. Instead of simply copying their earlier efforts, Disney took a different approach and built a theme park that remains completely unique today. To honor this anniversary, I'm stepping away from my normal blog topics to highlight what's arguably the most original creation in the history of the amusement industry. Thirty years later, I'm looking back at an incredible place that remains one of my favorite spots in existence.

I first visited EPCOT in the summer of 1984 at the age of eight, and I fell in love with the place. Even though some of my favorite rides are gone, the experience hasn't dissipated over the years. Modeled partially after the famous World's Fairs of the 1960s in New York and Montreal, EPCOT combines an optimistic look at the future with intricate displays of countries around the world. Given the difficulties involved with creating such an ambitious park, the ultimate success was remarkable. It has an unfair reputation as being "boring", and Disney has worked to modify the park to make it more exciting. I've never thought that the changes were needed, but I understand why they've occurred. EPCOT is one of the few places I could visit and not do any attractions. The grand and stunning structures like Spaceship Earth look even better at night and create an atmosphere that's never been duplicated. When you add in the diverse food and drink options from across the globe in World Showcase, the result is a must-see destination.

Walt Disney in the original EPCOT film

"I believe we can build a community here that more people will talk about and come to look at than any other area in the world. I'm sure this Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow can influence the future of city living for generations to come." - Walt Disney

The original EPCOT ideas were presented by Walt Disney himself in a film recorded in 1966 just two months before his death. His vision was much different than what the company ended up building 16 years later. Walt wanted to build a city of the future that used the latest technologies to change how cities functioned. It was an ambitious and expensive project that could have failed spectacularly, but skeptics thought the same thing about Disneyland in 1955. It would have been interesting to see what would have happened if he'd lived to see the "Florida Project" come to life. Walt knew that the Magic Kingdom was necessary for the site to function, but he was a lot more interested in EPCOT. Sam Gennawey's remarkable book Walt and the Promise of Progress City provides an in-depth look at his plans and whether they could have worked. It's a fascinating read if you're interested in urban planning or Disney history. When the company decided to tackle EPCOT, they tried to incorporate Walt's vision while making sure it would also generate profits. It was a tricky balance that didn't work for everyone, but I think it's a great combination.

A postcard for Horizons, EPCOT's best extinct attraction

Looking beyond the history, the EPCOT of the 1980s had a group of dark rides that incorporated the latest robot technology known as audio-animatronics. The centerpiece was Spaceship Earth, which chronicled the history of communication as you rode inside the giant sphere. This ride has gone through various incarnations, but it retains its original style to this day. My personal favorite was Horizons, a fun look at visions of the future in the past and looking ahead. Its centerpiece was a giant pair of Omnimax screens that would remain impressive today. It ended with the novelty of getting to choose your route back to Earth. A different point-of-view video would play in front of you depicting space, sea, or desert; this fun device foreshadowed the interactive rides of today. Sitting next to Horizons in a wheel-shaped building was World of Motion, a light-hearted look at the history of transportation. Both of these rides have been replaced by more thrilling attractions. The newer rides are good fun, but they lack the same connection that I'd developed with the earlier ones.

I could spend a long time raving about each attraction, but that territory has been covered by many writers. There are plenty of people with similar stories; they visited EPCOT as a kid and haven't been able to shake the experience. Even when Disney makes questionable moves like adding characters from Finding Nemo to its Living Seas pavilion, the park continues to thrive. The grand structures still have plenty to offer, even with diminished results. That location is a massive aquarium with all types of marine animals, despite the influx of movie characters. Even marketing gurus can't eliminate the park's original aura. While these comments might feel silly, it's hard to explain just how effective it remains. I love strolling among the futuristic structures at night while the area music plays. With some minor tweaks to a few attractions, EPCOT could return to its former glory. The engineering involved with its construction was a remarkable achievement. Steve Alcorn and David Green chronicle the massive undertaking in Building a Better Mouse, an intriguing book that explains the insane amount of work necessary to meet the opening date.

The France pavilion in World Showcase at EPCOT.

I've barely mentioned World Showcase, but there's plenty to enjoy there. As a kid, I wasn't as excited about this section since it mostly involved shopping areas. There are a few rides and some impressive movies, but it's more of an adult environment. My perception has completely changed over the years due to two factors: interesting cuisine and beer. While the prices are high, the different countries offer food and drinks from all over the world. I understand this area is easily derided for its cookie-cutter takes on international culture. Disney fans even utter ridiculous statements like "We don't need to travel abroad; we can just go to EPCOT!" Even so, World Showcase has a cool atmosphere and is a great place for adults to take it easy. Unlike the Magic Kingdom, you can avoid the logjams of screaming kids. I'm a parent but still try to avoid getting stuck in that type of crowd. It might not seem like a place for her, but my three-year-old loved World Showcase because there's so much to see. The highlights for me include the indoor Mexico pavilion (with a tequilla bar!), the lush and quiet gardens of Japan, and the intricate details in France.

Future World at night in EPCOT

It's easy to dismiss EPCOT for its idealistic view on the future and simplified cultural offerings. If you look a bit further, it remains one of the most stunning creations in theme park history. The fact that Disney spent around a billion dollars in the early '80s to create a place not geared towards kids is remarkable. My feelings are stronger because of nostalgia, but that doesn't lessen the achievement. It's been disappointing to watch Disney let certain rides go or replace them with inferior experiences. That said, I have a feeling there may be a shift in the works. The company is facing serious competition from Universal and doesn't seem willing to compete with them on thrill rides. What better place to offer counter-programming than EPCOT? It remains popular and should continue to inspire younger visitors like it did for me nearly 30 years ago.

July 5, 2012

We Are Here to Change the World: Michael Jackson as Captain EO (1986)

Since my current marathon focuses on the '80s, this is the perfect time to discuss one of the theme-park gems from that era. Opening on September 1986, Captain EO is a 3D movie that appeared in four Disney theme parks around the world. Michael Jackson stars as the title character in a silly outer-space journey to save the world. The King of Pop belts out several tunes and shows the power of song and dance to overcome any evil. The $30 million production was actually directed by Francis Ford Coppola and produced by George Lucas, so there was some serious power involved. James Horner wrote the score, and none other than Angelica Huston plays the Big Bad. The 17-minute film incorporated the typical 3D effects with smoke, lasers, and other in-theater effects to increase the fun. Let's start this look at the movie with the voice-over introduction that opens the story:

"The cosmos. A universe of good and evil, where a small group struggles to bring freedom to the countless worlds of despair. A ragtag band, led by the infamous Captain EO..."

The story opens by presenting the silly creatures on this spaceship. We have several robots, a double-headed pilot, the owl-like being Fuzzball, and the wonderfully named Hooter (Tony Cox). This clumsy blue guy resembles a small elephant but stands upright. He also has a problem with flatulence and inadvertently causing trouble. Getting the dramatic entrance on a rising platform is Captain EO, who gives a determined speech to rile up the ragtag bunch. Clad in a flashy white suit, he doesn't seem like your typical space hero. Jackson gives a laughably unconvincing "we're the best!" claim that isn't supported by their immediate crash.

Showing up to raise the pressure is their boss Commander Bog (Dick Shawn), who appears as a holographic head. Apparently, this isn't their first troubled mission. While being pursued by alien ships in a Death Star-like trench, they manage to stay alive while slamming into the surface. Their ultimate survival depends on Hooter jumping to press a red button. This isn't so easy for the diminutive alien. The in-theater laser effects and motion-controlled seats help to draw us into the big action scene. While they may seem a bit dated when compared to newer attractions, they still pack a good punch. After landing, he grabs a trash can for a disguise, which doesn't work so well. EO's gang is captured, so presenting "the gift" to the evil Supreme Leader (Angelica Huston) may be very difficult.

Hanging from a giant mass of twisted metal, the Supreme Leader is quite the imposing figure. Her giant finger nails are perfect for reaching out and grabbing a 3D audience. The situation looks bleak for EO's group, but then he reveals the gift, which she must "not only see, but hear". Look out, here comes the King of Pop! I knew they hired that guy for a reason. After some convincing and expensive stop-motion animation, the group turns into an impromptu band. Hooter nearly ruins the day once again, but he recovers and gives EO the chance to turn the metal creatures into cheesy '80s dancers. Apparently, his powers also deliver information on choreographed dance moves. It's wonderfully hokey and ridiculous, but I challenge anyone to not start tapping your feet to the grooves of "We Are Here to Change the World".  EO seems ready to prevail, but then the Supreme Leader brings out the big guns. These enemies mean business, but a last-minute save by Fuzzball does the trick. EO releases some more dancers, and these guys have the best moves yet. When the funky bass line kicks in, you know that our hero's ready to uncork his greatest routine ever.

I know that Captain EO is dated and ludicrous, but that doesn't mean it isn't great fun. Even when it's watched at home on the small screen, this cult favorite retains the enjoyment. When Jackson belts out his Bad tune "Another Part of Me", it's a pretty infectious experience. I wouldn't call myself a devoted fan, but something about this short movie fits with his style. When a fairly young Angelica Huston is ultimately revealed, it makes little sense, but I'm totally on board at that point. Jackson throws out some dancing punches, and you know that EO has saved the world. What evil can compete with the power of music and dance? It transforms an ugly sci-fi planet into a bright, heaven-like land. EO and his team soar into space, ready for their next challenge.

Captain EO gave its last performance at EPCOT in 1994, and its other presentations ended their run a few years later. It was replaced by Honey I Shrunk the Audience, which originally drew large crowds but had become dated in recent years. Following Jackson's death in June 2009, Disney recognized an opportunity to bring back this attraction. They solved the problem of needing to replace the current show and knew the move would please the devotees. Captain EO returned to all four parks during 2010 in a tribute version that didn't retain all the original in-theater effects. However, they beefed up the sound and provided an experience that might even improve on the original set-up. While this seemed like a temporary move to capitalize on the revived interest in Jackson, it continues to run today. I made it a point to visit this attraction when we went to EPCOT this past February, and it remains highly entertaining. It offers an interesting look at a specific time period when Jackson remained at the height of his power. Before the scandals and other craziness, he was able to star in a new Disney attraction and draw major interest. The crowds aren't piling into the theater at the same level today, but the smaller groups seem to be having a great time. I expect that Disney will replace it at some point, but I'm glad they gave fans who grew up in the '80s another chance to check out this movie on the big screen.

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June 15, 2012

Top 5 Theme Park Attractions Based on Movies

For this week's Top 5 List, I'm combining two of my favorite passions, movies and theme parks. In the right hands, rides and shows adapted from films can expand on the source material and put us right inside the story. I should clarify that I'm not referring to the basic marketing of coasters (i.e., Batman, Mr. Freeze) that have little connection to the original. Six Flags is a master of this type of naming and the rides may be fun, but that isn't enough to make this list. The Disney and Universal parks have shown a superior ability to create highly entertaining and unique attractions from both great and mediocre movies. There have been some flubs along the way (Stich's Great Escape, Twister), but the majority are impressive. I should also mention that rides adapted into films like Pirates of the Caribbean don't qualify, even if certain movie elements were added to the show later. Finally, I've skipped anything that I've never ridden like the new King Kong encounter pictured at the top. These rides (particularly the top three) offer incredible experiences that you should check out even if you're not a fan of the movies. Let's pull down the lap bar and check out the list! Remember to keep your arms and legs inside the vehicle at all times.

Honorable Mention: Men in Black Alien Attack, Universal Studios Florida
This interactive ride is arguably the most ambitious shooter ride that's ever been created. You start out as an agent trainee and are quickly tasked with taking down a massive alien and saving the world. There are plenty of clever touches within this large attraction, including having a Steven Spielberg alien holding a newspaper. You even get the chance to shoot other cars and send them into a tailspin. In typical Universal fashion, Men in Black cranks up the intensity near the end. While traveling under the very impressive alien, you start wildly spinning, which can test even the strongest stomachs. It's still a great attraction with well-done theming, but the end brings it down a notch. Will Smith does give you a different message based on your score, which is a fun way to close it out.

5. Buzz Lightyear's Astro Blasters, Disneyland
We're staying with shooting rides for this choice, which improves on the original Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin at Disney World. It isn't as high-tech as the Men in Black ride but is a lot more fun. You'll find similar rides to this one in your local parks, but it's the extra touches that make the difference. The targets react to being struck by your blasters, and it's just a great time. This is one of those attractions that never gets old because you're competing with friends and looking to find a way to improve your score. It's based on the plot of Toy Story 2 and has a lot of clever nods to the characters and the entire franchise. Disney also has a newer interactive ride, Toy Story Mania, which is in 3D and has better technology. However, it falls a bit short of this attraction in terms of pure fun.

4. Revenge of the Mummy, Universal Studios Florida
Based on the Mummy films starring Brendan Frasier and Rachel Weisz, this elaborately themed attraction is a mix of a dark ride and a roller coaster. Even the queue is worth seeing because it sets up the production of a fictional sequel. You hop into mine cars to get a closer look, but this set is cursed. Skeletal warriors, hordes of scarab beetles, and the Mummy himself threaten you in this technologically advanced ride. When the coaster part takes over, it's disorienting because you're indoors and don't know where it's heading. There are fire effects, steep drops, and even a false ending. It's not as wild as some of the other Universal coasters, so it might be a good middle ground if those are too much. I've only chosen the Orlando version of this ride because it's longer and more detailed.

3. Star Tours: The Adventure Continues, Disneyland and Disney Hollywood Studios
Originally appearing in 1987, Star Tours gave visitors a chance to ride through the trench of the Death Star and catch a glimpse at the Star Wars universe. Riding a motion simulator was exciting, but there were only so many times you could take the same trip. Fans anticipated a new version for many years, and it finally arrived in May 2011. The result is a stunning revamp that provides a different ride nearly every time. The 3D images represent a new level of sophistication and go way beyond the previous technology. The big draw is the possibility of 54 different combinations. This is slightly deceptive because it takes into account each part of the attraction. Basically, you start at one of two points, then visit two worlds randomized by the computer each time. Options include Hoth, Tattoine for the pod race, and the congested air traffic of Coruscant. You also get a visit from familiar faces like Princess Leia or Admiral Ackbar. The reason I'm hesitant to go overboard is the fact that I've ridden Star Tours fives times and traveled to the Wookie planet during all the rides. This is just bad luck, but it shows how it may take a serious number of rides to experience the six planets. Regardless, this is a stunning improvement that doesn't lose any steam with repeated visits.

2. Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, Universal's Islands of Adventure
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter was a blockbuster addition in June 2010 for Universal that completely changed the theme-park landscape in Orlando. It didn't put them on even par with Disney, but it earned them huge attendance gains. Theme-park fans were talking about them a lot more than their juggernaut competitor for the first time in a while. The centerpiece of this new land was Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, a combination of a dark ride and simulator attraction. You board "enchanted benches" and soar through Hogwarts while encountering Dementors, a dragon, and other familiar entities. The queue for this ride is worth seeing even if you're not reading for the intense attraction. You walk by talking paintings, hear from a holographic Dumbledore, and Harry and his pals before boarding the ride. I wrote a longer post about this entire area back in March if you're interested. This ride lives up to the hype and uses amazing robot-arm technology to seamlessly move you through some amazing set pieces.

1. Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Forbidden Eye, Disneyland
Opening in 1995, this breakthrough attraction tells an entirely new story where you join Indiana Jones and explore an ancient Bengalese temple. You board vehicles that appear to be standard jeeps, but they're actually enhanced motion vehicles. Unlike typical simulators, they actually move through a large building but provide a greater range of motion to increase the excitement. The show building is huge for this ride, which incorporates many familiar Jones conventions while still being a new story. The theming is amazing and combines with fun surprises to deliver a remarkable experience. We also run into Jones (voiced by Ford) a few times during the craziness, which takes us past snakes, a giant boulder, and inventive fire effects. The queue for this attraction even surpasses Harry Potter and provides a remarkable setting. You're completely immersed in the story, and the huge scale sells the feeling that you've stepped into Jones' fantastical world.

I'd love to hear your thoughts about this list. What are your favorite theme park rides based on movies? You should also check out the archive of past Top 5 Lists if you've missed them.

March 8, 2012

Exploring The Wizarding World of Harry Potter

I'm currently wading through the fantasy genre with my Once Upon a Time marathon, which gives me the perfect opportunity to spotlight a different type of creation. Last month, we visited the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Orlando at Universal's Islands of Adventure theme park. While it isn't directly related to watching movies, this area is definitely worth seeing for fans of the Harry Potter films and books. Universal has created a remarkable environment that ranks among the most impressive theme park locations I've seen. The attention to detail is excellent throughout the area and immerses you in the fantasy setting. Even if you're not a theme park enthusiast, this land is worth a visit for any Potter fanatic.

The feature attraction is Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, a technological marvel that combines the simulator (aka, riding in front of a screen), with a dark ride through impressive sets. The transitions are seamless and really unexpected at times. For example, your "enchanted bench" flies by a dragon on the screen, then glides away and faces a large animatronic dragon. The ride system is accomplished through Kuka Robotic Arms, which grab your bench and direct it seamlessly through the various screens and sets. I caught a glimpse of another vehicle during the ride, and it resembles complex robots created by Skynet. The money required to built this attraction is easily in the hundreds of millions of dollars. The downside with this technology is the possibility of motion sickness as you're being pulled rapidly through the scenes. I didn't have a problem with it, but I expect this fact eliminates many fans from getting the chance to experience the attraction.

The centerpiece of this land is Hogwarts, which houses the Forbidden Journey attraction. Even if you're not interested in the ride, it's worth a trip through the queue. The exterior portions are well-themed like in the photo above, even with the unfortunate railings that keep the crowds moving. Inside Hogwarts, you could easily spend an hour browsing through the many rooms. There are countless details that went over my head but should please the Potter experts. They even have an entire room of talking paintings that are very believable. We visited during the off season, so there was basically no line. This is usually a good thing, but it actually kept me for spending much time looking at everything. Closer to the ride, a Dumbledore hologram appears when you enter his office, and it's an intriguing effect. The final step is meeting Harry, Ron, and Hermione to explain the basic story. They also use the same hologram technology that goes well beyond simple video screens. The effect on the first arrival is pretty overwhelming, so multiple visits are definitely recommended.

Beyond the attractions, the Wizarding World succeeds because of the sharp attention to detail within the entire area. The village of Hogsmeade includes plenty of fun nooks and crannies to explore within the enclosed setting. It's easy to forget that just a few minutes away are Dr. Seuss or Marvel Comics areas with completely different atmospheres. J.K. Rowling was closely involved in the planning, and her approval was required for everything. This brings a much different feeling to this area than the rest of Islands of Adventure. There are great attractions throughout the park, but they lack the unique feeling of this location. Rowling stressed the importance of adhering to the world of the books, even if it led to some unfortunate consequences. The shops are extremely small to match the original Hogsmeade, but that makes for some extremely cramped quarters in there. I was ready to escape after a few minutes, and I can't imagine those buildings on busy days.

Universal made a serious investment in the Harry Potter franchise, and their risk paid off with huge gains in profits and attendance during 2011. They're already planning to expand into both Orlando's Universal Studios park and their Hollywood location in upcoming years. Although it offers a great experience, this land also functions as a huge money-making enterprise. I couldn't resist the urge to fork over serious money to drink Butterbeer, and it was worth it. The taste resembles cream soda with a strong butterscotch kicker, and I expect it's addictive to regular visitors. An even larger profit center is Ollivander's wand shop, which gives kids the chance to have their wand choose them. The lines for that cramped store are the longest in the park, so we didn't make it inside. Also, the idea of spending upwards of $100 seems like a crazy idea. When you add in the t-shirts, special candy, and other merchandise, the profits for Universal must be enormous. That said, there are plenty of fans willing to spend the money, so it's hard to be too critical of this approach.

Along with the Forbidden Journey, there are two other attractions in the Wizarding World that are re-tooled versions of rides already in the Islands of Adventure. They were formerly part of the Lost Continent area and have received some minor alterations to fit the Potter theme. The roller coasters pictured above are the Dragon Challenge, formerly known as Dueling Dragons. These inverted coasters weave inside each other and are a great time, even if they're not at their previous level. Their major draw in the past was the fact that they came pretty close to colliding and created the illusion that it might happen. After several freak accidents, Universal stopped them from "dueling" anymore. I never rode them until this trip, and they still provide a great ride. The other attraction is the Flight of the Hippogriff, a kid's coaster previously known as the Flying Unicorn. Both of these are fun rides, but they seem a bit out of place in the Potter world.

I'm a theme park fan, so it's clear that I'm biased to enjoy this type of big-budget creation. Considered from that viewpoint, the Wizarding World is a major success and ranks with the best additions in recent years. Hogwarts and the Forbidden Journey are the highlight, but it's also worth seeing for the overall environment. If you find yourself near Orlando, I highly recommend taking a day to check it out. When you add in the remarkable Spiderman ride and the powerful Hulk coaster, this park might even convert a few skeptics.