I’m back!

For those who remember me, I last wrote in this space more than two years ago, with a veiled “goodbye” article about gnashers and foamers. The truth was, I was taking a breather. I had written a weekly article for MiceChat (and its spiritual ancestors) since 1999, and the experience was starting to feel a bit routine, so I wanted some time off. Fifteen years is a long time to do that sort of activity on a weekly basis, and I was ready to focus on family, fun, and time off. Two years later, I’m feeling invigorated and ready to return. That is, if you–the audience–will have me!

For those meeting me for the first time today, a little context. I was one of the founding writers of both MousePlanet and MiceAge, and a weekly presence at MiceChat for many years. You may know my work in the form of “Declining by Degrees“, a term I coined in 2006 for the Disney parks (technically, it was borrowed from Higher Education and the problems there). I returned to this concept at several updates over the years, pointing out how Disney was cutting corners, cutting costs, reducing services and benefits, and always increasing prices. It’s an important concept I’ll take up again in ensuing weeks.

Or, you might know me as an independent author of Disney books. I’ve written more than twenty now. In California I’m best known for “101 Things You Never Knew About Disneyland” (which is now admittedly pretty out of date), while in Florida the big title is “Walt Disney World Hidden History”, as well as an annual publication called “Walt Disney World ‘Earbook” (the idea is a photo essay of everything that was added, removed, and changed in the parks that year; there’s been an annual volume since 2010). I’ve got two international tour guide books: one for Disneyland Paris and one for Tokyo Disney Resort. You can find all of this on Amazon.com.

See http://bit.ly/kevinyee for more information
See http://bit.ly/kevinyee for more information

To paraphrase Dr. Seeker of the Dinosaur ride, “enough about me; let’s talk about you.” Specifically, let’s talk about what’s in it for you as a reader of this column. I view it as my job to bring you an alternative perspective. I spend my hours in the parks thinking deep thoughts, keeping a sharp eye out to spot observations that others may overlook, trying to view problems from all angles, and attempting to make connections that resonate once you hear them (but aren’t obvious before the fact). I was a Cast Member at Disneyland for fifteen years and certainly know the front-line experience, and I have a pretty deep historical understanding of the parks and their offerings, but I also want to fold in thoughts about the executive suite of the Disney elites, quarterly results as Wall Street sees it, and even examine the parks from a sociological / cultural point of view (I happen to have a Ph.D. in a related field in Humanities, so this sort of thinking comes second nature to me). The resulting mish-mash, I hope, is something you can’t find anywhere else online.

I strive for an even-keeled, often academic, with neither a “pro” nor “con” approach automatically dictating responses. That means when Disney deserves praise, I will give it. When Disney deserves to be “called out,” I’ll give that, too. Hopefully, I hit the sweet spot of being neither foamer nor gnasher. Not every blog aims for that much balance. In fact, I actively strive to match the credo of journalist Dan Rather: “The press [should be] a watchdog. Not an attack dog. Not a lapdog. A watchdog. Now, a watchdog can’t be right all the time. He doesn’t bark only when he sees or smells something that’s dangerous. A good watchdog barks at things that are suspicious.” That means that if I’m doing my job right, occasionally I’ll “bark” at things that turn out to be not actually “dangerous” once we learn more–we should expect that as part of the process.

I admit, I want to make you *think*. That’s what this column takes as its primary objective.

But hold–the story doesn’t end there. I view discussion boards and article commentary as central to the larger conversation. YOUR reaction to the stories, the discussion, and the argumentation, are absolutely going to influence my columns in future weeks. It’s not an accident that my prior “goodbye” article was about gnashers and foamers. The dichotomy, the argument, and the layers of truth in this argument are central to the main active questions out there in the Disney fan universe: where are we now; are we better or worse than we’ve been previously; and where are we headed? Not to invoke the academics too early, but here I’m going to agree with the philosopher Hegel. Only in the conversation, in the “dialectics”, are we going to find real answers. The back-and-forth is the only way to find the real truth. The conversations that erupt in the articles are central to my understanding of the Disney universe in ensuing weeks. I will not only READ what you post; I will make it a part of my ensuing arguments. You definitely get to influence me. In fact, I use your comments to help me re-align constantly in that foamer/gnasher continuum so that I can stay balanced.

KY - Bullet Point Hurricane Matthew

It’s uncommon for all of Walt Disney World to close, but it happens (to find other examples, look to Floyd in 1999, Frances in 2004, and Jeanne in 2004–all landed hurricanes and threatened hurricanes). It happened again on Oct 7 for Hurricane Matthew. Disney has an established procedure of crews that “ride out” the storm with the guests in the hotels, though this can lead to insane working hours, long lines for the guests, and apparently some “aggressive pricing” this time around ($13 lunch boxes with very basic sandwich, yogurt, and apple contents). One user reported no drink, but a conflicting report indicates water was included.

It’s not clear that Disney adequately staffed its ride-out crews, given the long lines for food. Cast Members weren’t always given a lot of notice about cancelled shifts, which should have been a basic courtesy to the people who make the magic.

If for no other reason than the mark the semi-historic closures, it’s worth looking at the screen capture of the website that day! (note: eventually, Disney Springs would open in the evening, leading to major bus lines to finally leave Disney hotels. Apparently admission to DisneyQuest was free that night, as well).

Disney World


KY - Bullet Point Goodbye Stitch’s Great Escape

In every week, I’ll likely take a “deep dive” on a single topic rather than try to comprehensively comment on everything. So what is today’s central topic? I’m going to focus on Stitch’s Great Escape. This is likely going to amaze some of you, as Stitch seems unlikely to be worthy of much comment. This ride has recently gone “seasonal” (meaning it’s closed to today’s visitors, but may [may not?] open in future seasons), but as you’d expect, there’s an entire dissertation to be written about what that might mean. As is our habit, we’re going to examine this from all angles.

stitch's great escape 2004-05-16_2403
The construction wall in mid-2004.

First, let’s look at the pragmatic surface level. A closed ride means reduced labor costs. If nothing else, Disney is a publicly-traded company, and quarterly results matter. Profit equals gross revenues minus costs, and if costs can be reduced without influencing revenues, you’ve got more money. This is the basis of cost-cutting in general, and the calculus is always correct. Math wins. Disney is a for-profit company, and profit it always going to win. So closing an unpopular ride to save costs is a pretty obvious “duh.” The attraction seldom had any lines, so Disney operations has probably long viewed it as a drain on resources rather than adding to the park’s line-up.

There used to be FASTPASS machines for the attraction.
There used to be FASTPASS machines for the attraction.

How about Guest experience? It may surprise you to learn that sometimes the theme parks “score” better on Guest surveys if certain rides are CLOSED that day (I’m looking at you, Drew Carey show in the dark, now removed). Having an actively negative experience in the attraction roster can drag down the park scores for the whole day. So Stitch’s removal might improve overall park scores.

Now, let’s look at it from another point of view. This time, let’s look creative. Was Stitch a good creative fit for Tomorrowland? There are many who would argue that Stitch was never a good fit here. This part of the park was meant to capture the future, and visions of the future, while Stitch was an Elvis-influenced romp in the present (in Hawaii), which has very little to do with the future. The truth is, Stitch was brought in as an only-partly successful attempt to remove the failed Alien Encounter (more on this is a second).

Advertising the new attraction from the TTC.
Advertising the new attraction from the TTC.

How about the thematic side? Stitch was ever and always an overlay of the previous attraction (Alien Encounter), which itself was basically an overlay of Mission to Mars. The main guest experience wasn’t all that different: a briefing room, a second briefing room (this time with Audio-Animatronics), and a walk over to a circular theater, where most of the action happens in the dark. You can think of the experience as an entire building and show crafted around the desire to show off then-new binaural stereo technology, to make it really feel like the speaker is right there at your left ear. Disneyland had something similar with Mr. Lincoln for a little while, but to me the “haircut experience” was less insulting than, say, the chili dog burp from Stitch.

The second briefing room with the "90210" robot.
The second briefing room with the “90210” robot.

This may be a good point to stop and say out loud that Stitch just wasn’t an entertaining or good show. Things happen to you and the various technologies (restraints that move as if characters are jumping on them in the dark, etc) are put through their paces, but none of it really gels. This is to say nothing about the reaction from little kids, who don’t like utter darkness (first) and then sit-alone restraints (second), let alone the creepy thought of a loose character terrorizing them (third). As stated before, the heart of the show never really changed from the ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter predecessor.

The briefing room animatronics weren't even changed for Stitch; just their names and backstory.
The briefing room animatronics weren’t even changed for Stitch; just their names and backstory.

So let’s look at THAT show. Alien Encounter was built in Florida but conceived originally for Disneyland. A refresh of the Anaheim Tomorrowland drawn up in the 1990s would have seen an alien “musical” show called Plectu’s Fantastic Galactic Revue in the old America Sings building (later Innoventions), and an overall alien invasion that also included Alien Encounter. For many years, a swirling galaxy “color test” was visible on the ceiling of Tomorrowland Terrace, but that’s as far as this version of a Tomorrowland re-do ever got, and eventually it was replaced by the Agrifuture version of Tomorrowland and brown color schemes. Where Plectu was going to be good fun for the whole family, Alien Encounter was meant to be more edgy and mark a departure in Disney attractions. It would be the first time there was an intentional targeting of older audiences. I mean, even today people do not associate “Disney” with the horror genre.

Sigh. At least it's not a picture of the castle with toilet paper all over it (which also happened to 'advertise' the new attraction).
Sigh. At least it’s not a picture of the castle with toilet paper all over it (which also happened to ‘advertise’ the new attraction).

As with most things in the Eisner era, you could probably tie the direction of the company to Eisner himself. It’s a fair bet that Michael saw his son Breck bored by the typical / stereotypical “Disney” attraction in the parks at the time, and thought to himself “we need to do something to cater to these other audiences.” Eisner was far-seeing in some ways. Similar thoughts about his own hobbies and interests (and those of his immediate family members) gave us a giant selection of hotels on Disney property, instead of a mere smattering. It gave us the Wide World of Sports complex. He was proven right on both of those projects, but with Alien Encounter and its creative descendant Stitch’s Great Escape, I think history has shown he was wrong here. Disney doesn’t really belong in the horror genre; their correct niche is “fun scary” like you find in Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party.

Even on opening weekend, they knew little kids would still be scared by this attraction.
Even on opening weekend, they knew little kids would still be scared by this attraction.

The involvement of George Lucas in Alien Encounter may also give us a second direction to lay blame; Disney was big into collaborating with Lucas in the 80s and 90s. This of course turned out to be very profitable with the eventual acquisition of Star Wars, but it might have meant letting Lucas get his way on attractions like Alien Encounter even against the weight of history. Basically, if George wanted something, he probably got it, and his name on the attraction marquee is probably not merely token credit.

alien encounter 2003-05-27_7059

Putting all that together, the full context of Stitch going seasonal (or closing forever?) is that Disney’s one attempt at the horror genre is finally coming to a close. We may see Stitch back for the holiday season, but it’s a good bet it would be only for a short time. Ultimately, Experiment 626 was an in-park “experiment” that has run its course.

The leading rumor to replace Stitch is Wreck It Ralph, a not necessarily “brand new” property, which makes the rumor a bit head-scratching at first. But if it comes to replace Stitch eventually, we’ll have a whole new set of filters to run through. Does THIS new attraction fit, and what shift does it signify in the direction of the ever-evolving “Tomorrowland”?

The monorails in Walt Disney World occasionally come to a stop between stations, and an automated message proclaims that we are “holding for further traffic clearance.” In Lake Buena Vista, what it means is a delay you simply have to wait through. To some extent, finding out the ultimate fate of Stitch’s Great Escape is similar; we’re just going to have to wait this out and see if it returns at all, and for how long. The one safe bet is that we’ll see a dramatic shift in tone with a replacement. There will be no Version 3.0 of a horror attraction in this spot, and that’s a good thing.

Jump in! I’d love to hear your thoughts, refinements, and ideas.