This week Disney released a message reaffirming that the Hall of Presidents (MK) would reopen *with* a speaking role for President Trump, as has been the attraction’s tradition since 1993. The re-opening is said to take place in late 2017 (so don’t look for it on the Fourth of July). Given the polarizing role this particular president plays, one can easily imagine Disney’s care in re-envisioning the attraction.
I think it’s clear we can expect big changes. Simply changing out the central Audio-Animatronic and leaving the show otherwise intact would send an unintentional and possibly hilarious message. While the oft-repeated refrain about a president being “one of us” made sense when Barack Obama was elected president, it would only really make sense if there was an audience of only billionaires now that Donald Trump is the President. He is many things, and one might plausibly construct an argument that “one of us” means “not a regular/career politician,” but I doubt this is what Morgan Freeman had in mind when he provided the voiceover narration. I’d wager that we’ll see a new preshow and slideshow when the attraction does reopen.
It’s an open question what we’ll see. Will it just be Trump reciting the oath of office? That might be the safe course. Most recent Presidents have instead given a custom-created speech crafted just for this attraction, and in a vacuum I would guess that’s what this White House will desire as well.
The risk is the catcalls and whoops/hollers that accompanied this attraction for many years. We saw it reach its apogee with President George W. Bush (both boos and applause), and the revised show for President Barack Obama seemed to give less energy to the “roll call” sequence. If nothing else, I think we might see a return to hoots, hollers, and shouts–both positive and negative–if there is still a roll call.
It might even be that Imagineers are counting on that. In a perverse way, “doing nothing” to mitigate the charged political environment is itself something of a political position. “Let the crowd roar as it may,” they may think, “and we are not responsible for the groundswell of opinion.” They may just let Trump speak for himself, and let the chips fall where they may.
If so, we may see several years of, well, “entertainment” at the Hall of Presidents (in the sense that it can be entertaining to people-watch, especially those with particularly vocal opinions). It might even become something of a rally point, maybe even for both sides of the political aisle. That’s not normally what Disney wants–this kind of attention is unwanted, usually–so they may not want to simply play the neutral game.
But it’s devilishly hard to steer a middle course with this polarizing President. They had a hard enough job with Barack Obama–it was apparently really hard for Imagineers to make sure they were appealing to both liberals and conservatives in the preshow video made when President Obama was new on the job–but that task is dwarfed by this one. I don’t envy them.
Rather than hear your thoughts in the comments about the new President, I’m curious whether you think the Imagineers can pull off this balancing act, and if so, your predictions for how they will do it. A reminder to please be civil to each other. In fact, I recommend you craft your reply in such a way that readers will have no clue where you personally fall on the political spectrum–that ought to keep us out of trouble.
AVATAR Flight of Passage: The “BEST” in Orlando
I’ve previously mentioned that Flight of Passage was a fantastic ride (even while also noting that the nighttime experience falls short, especially in light of the marketing messages being sent by Disney). I’ve also argued that the land as a whole has “scale” correct (meaning you are overwhelmed by the amazingly large, and looming, landscape features), but doesn’t have “scope” correct (meaning there aren’t enough rides here). What I’ve hinted at both times, but have not gone into details about, is that the central attraction is absolutely bananas. It’s an amazing, transcendent experience, and in my view, it marks a quantum leap forward for Disney. It’s an E-Ticket par excellence, perhaps the very definition of today’s modern E-Ticket ride. I’m going to go so far as to say it holds the current “crown” in Orlando. It’s the best in show. We should expect some TEA awards in the future. It comes awfully close to the “Best Disney Ride Ever” in my mind, and may even win that title in the minds of some viewers.
So what’s the big deal? At its heart, AVATAR Flight of Passage (FoP) is a simulator. The concept might seem passe to you. This sort of thing has been around since 1987, when Star Tours wowed crowds at a 60-hour party at Disneyland (attending that was one of my formative experiences, truth be told). So put in those terms, you might expect to be underwhelmed by FoP. But you’d be wrong.
It’s not a normal simulator. For starters, we’re dealing with a different kind of simulator here: each person has their own motion base simulator, rather than the whole room having a shared experience.
But that’s only scratching at the surface of the experience. The first time I rode it, the metaphor which came to mind was Universal’s Simpsons (formerly Back to the Future) ride. Imagine one giant screen, with many different pods experiencing the motion simulator as if they were the only people on the ride. Except it wasn’t like Simpsons at all. Or Soarin’, the other ride commonly used as a comparison. It’s not like Soarin’ (or Simpsons) in that the ride is much more intense. There’s more movement, and the nature of the ride alone gives every rider more involvement and ownership.
To truly get at why this ride succeeds so wildly, we have to get into the details (and thus spoilers). It’s the details, after all, that make Disney rides world famous.
Spoilers Ahead–What Makes Flight of Passage So Awesome?
As with so many great Disney rides, the answer to its greatness starts in the queue. Disney Imagineer Tony Baxter once likened a Disney queue to the first reel of a movie: it begins to tell the story, it sets a tone and atmosphere, and it establishes a sense of place that is absolutely vital for the ride that follows. This is one of the reasons many ardent Disney fans have been anti-FASTPASS from the very beginning. Let’s dive into those specifics:
- The queue sets the tone and the atmosphere:
- Watch the visitors. Rare is the person in the Standby line who fails to whip out their smartphone and snap a few photos. That should tell you something about the lushness of this area, the artful blending of real and imaginary plants, and the other-worldy feeling that exists here.
- Once you travel indoors, you first come to a cave decorated extensively as if by a non-technological culture and society (handprints, simply drawings on walls, etc). The tone here is one of complete immersion, and we can expect a Na’vi heavy story unfolding for us.
- An ensuing set of caves, which are purely natural without decoration (and providing a method of still more switchbacks), establish that the atmosphere is still overshadowed by the natural world (see below).
- Then comes a couple of rooms where the nighttime Pandora has taken over, and the visitor is basically overwhelmed with the environment. Remember when the Avatar movie came out and everyone wanted to live in the nighttime Pandora? It turns out you can’t do that in the River Cruise (you go by too quickly) or even in the walkways of Pandora (they just aren’t bright enough), it turns out this part of the queue fits the bill. This was surprising. This may be the one place in Animal Kingdom where you can see enough bright luminous landscape AND have more than a quick glimpse of it (because the line is moving steadily, but not “fast” – you have enough time to drink in the many details).
- Finally we enter the human research labs, and they are equally rich in details. Frankly, there’s “too much to see,” which was always the thing people loved about Walt’s version of Pirates of the Caribbean. When the details are so rich that it takes dozens of visits to see/hear everything, that’s a win. That’s some serious immersion toward interesting illusion (an idea I’ve had since at least 2007).
- The queue tells the first part of the story:
- The first part of the queue is outdoors. This tells you that the natural world of Pandora is its quintessential element; the sine qua non; the raison d’etre of the entire attraction (odd how other languages capture this essence better than English!)
- As we learn later in the queue, this attraction is set in the future as seen from the perspective of the Avatar movies. This is foreshadowed by the sense that nature is winning and overtaking any mad-made objects as we see them in the first part of the queue.
- The cave with its drawings sends a very clear sense of the story: the Na’vi have a long tradition of capturing Ikran (the banshees) and domesticating them (the subtext of Ikran slavery is touched upon neither in the movie nor in the attraction, though I’m sure a cultural scholar in the future could easily pick up this thread). There is also a seed planted among visitors that there is a sinister banshee-looking animal (later revealed as Leonopteryx, or as discussed in the movie, the “last shadow” you see before dying).
- After the natural cave, we enter a twilight area partly pacified by mankind (and partly still ruled by the glowing plants). There are signs here that advance the story, including the notice that mountain banshees live nearby.
- The human lab, once we enter it, has many messages for us from a story point of view. Courtesy of the advanced “Illusioneering” displays, we get a sense that this is an alien planet with things normal humans aren’t used to and can’t understand. This tells us we are at the research and scientific frontier here, at the vanguard of what bleeding-edge science and technology can do for us. This matters in setting a tone of urgency in the experience we are about to undergo.
- The final room, with a series of switchbacks while large screens overhead track human-avatar interfaces, also tells a story about how mainstream such interfaces have become.
- The queue establishes a sense of place:
- If it wasn’t enough for you to be surrounded by normal AND alien plants in the first part of the queue, try paying attention to the poles used to hold the walkway lighting. They are vaguely Maui-hook shaped (think Moana), but after only a short scrutiny you will realize with some horror that they are ALL different from each other. We are talking dozens – maybe even in the low hundreds – of lamps here. Each one is distinct and its own work of art. Some have moss, some have a multi-colored “brain color” design, and others have a dinosaur-inspired ridge of plates and/or scales to them. It’s a bit mind-boggling how much attention was paid to this detail, actually. As I’ve long advocated, this much detail isn’t “lost” on even the casual viewer. It’s part of the background noise, and the overall “realism” of the place. To my mind, this right here is what copycat parks get totally wrong. They think it’s enough to imply a sense of “where we are” without knowing to go to the nth degree when it comes to detail, and so they stop short. This is precisely the thing that makes non-Disney parks feel like cheap knockoffs. Let it be said that Pandora at DAK commits none of these errors.
- The combination of design and effects makes you feel “you are there.” First, let’s acknowledge how awesome real waterfalls are in a land. They are there in the floating mountains, but we pass right through them in the queue, which is even better. But if there is anything more transcendent than real waterfalls, it’s fake ones that seem fully convincing. Cast your eyes toward the very top of both water/river/waterfall pathways, and you’ll see the top-most waterfall in both cases is, amazingly, not actually made up of water. The designers knew that real water at this distance would look thin and wispy, so they went with an artificial waterfall (it’s actually a conveyor belt, if you look close enough). The illusion is amazing, and among the best anywhere in the Disney universe.
- The cave with its low-tech painted scenes establishes that we are among primitive cultures (at least as far as technology goes…perhaps less so from a culture point of view).
- The human encroachments on the nighttime Pandora landscapes in the latter parts of the queue are among the best Disney has done. You truly feel “transported” here, which so often is the clarion call of a Disney attraction. You can sense that humans were once dominant here, but that the jungle is starting to take over again (at least in these outskirts of the lab, which is still protected).
- The human labs, finally, give you the sense that what’s about to happen next with your actual “ride” is the product of science. This provides reassurance, since what we’re about to undergo is tested and ought to be trusted, as science usually is.
It is, to my mind, the best queue since Disneyland’s Indiana Jones Adventure, and may even surpass it. There are things about Journey to the Center of the Earth (Tokyo/TDS) that might make me choose that queue instead as the world’s best, but this one does so many things right.
One final thought on the Standby queue: it seems to move pretty fast. I’ve seen some speculation that the number of FASTPASS reservations has been more restricted here than at other rides, presumably with the express purpose of making more folks wait in the Standby line but having the side benefit that the Standby line will move faster (since there are fewer returning FASTPASS visitors). I hope that’s true. It would bode well for Operations to recognize what Imagineers have tried to build all these years.
Whew! All that for just the queue. Maybe because the queue is so effective, there is less to say about the various pre-show elements. The Synchronization Room, or first preshow, is fine as far as those things go. I was impressed that it came with a mechanism for providing extra show when folks are delayed because the other groups haven’t loaded their pods yet. The basic ride system is one screen with many pods (technically there are four screens, each with six pods), so that on any one screen there will by definition be pods who load early, and those who load late. Those loading late get a shorter pre-show. Those loading early may get a longer pre-show–we have only once, for instance, seen the bit about our bodies being infested with a parasite and thus the need for a cleansing in the room.
The two preshow elements seamlessly blend required safety video elements with background story…apparently even enough to satisfy visitors who never bothered to see the original Avatar movie. All you really need to know is that humans can interface with a Na’vi-looking artificial “avatar” body, which can then use my consciousness to fly a banshee. It’s communicated well enough.
That brings us to the ride itself. As with the queue, there are a BUNCH of things that combine to make this really work:
- Sleight of Hand is Masterful. The old magician’s trick of sleight of hand referred to making you watch the left do all this movement…while the right hand actually switched out cards or hid handkerchiefs. When you sit in the ride vehicles (which look like metal horses you have to mount), you are facing a metal wall. Once the ride starts amid some visual trickery, you are amazed to discover you are seeing an IMAX-sized screen and riding a banshee (artificially). Massive tricks were employed to make this work, and they are all masterfully accomplished. First, a screen on the “bike” urges you to look downward until the ride starts. Once everything gets rolling, blinding flashes emanate from exactly this area, blinding you. You glance up, and you see some confused blinking lights as if we are in a starfield. You don’t know what happened to the metal wall you were facing (the answer: it rolled up, like an antique roll-top desk, over your body and now sits behind you. It happened while you were looking at the blinding flashes on the console below you). The starfield is followed by a “warp tunnel” effect as if our consciousness is moving to another body, and suddenly we are on top of a banshee.
- Breathing Legs. It’s a cheap trick, but the apparatus holding you includes ways to trap your calves and thighs, and these parts of the machine “breathe” as if they were the banshee beneath you. The more you think about it, the dumber the effect seems in principle. But in reality, especially the first time you ride it, you are elated with the simplicity and the execution of this effect. “It’s as if I’m really there!” you might declare in your mind (never mind the obvious and painful echo of the ludicrous virtual reality from Carousel of Progress, where the grandmother utters essentially that exact phrase).
- Visual Clarity and Acuity. Let’s face it, humans react to what’s new and novel. If something is “just 3-D” these days, it will feel almost mundane. But there’s a visual pop to AVATAR Flight of Passage that feels fresh and almost jubilant. More than a decade ago, I was treated to my first view of what is now called HDTV at the Consumer Electronics Show, before such technology was available to the public. The massive frame-rate used for the display turned out to be a bait-and-switch…it would be years before consumer electronics had that kind of detail. But what I saw on a custom computer screen was mesmerizing…details almost BEYOND regular reality, almost BEYOND what the eye could see. I was reminded of that when I saw Flight of Passage for the first time. This isn’t your grandfather’s 3D anymore…and it’s not even YOUR 3D. It’s something new. And it’s exciting. The clarity and depth are astonishing, and really defy explanation. They go a long way toward explaining why those who exit the ride are excited and pumped up.
- Superior Simulation Skill. The experts who work in simulation recognize that motion sickness is the main evil to overcome in rides like this. The generally-received wisdom is to give the audience a target to look at, one that can move just ahead of the audience, so there is a visual cue that we are about to move left, or about to move right. Few simulator rides have gotten this right. Star Tours is mostly free of such leading visual elements. Back to the Future had one, but the audience car didn’t really track the on-screen lead car very well. Flight of Passage gets this right (as, it must be admitted, does the Minions ride at Universal). We frequently have a banshee guide who presages where we are about to go by heading in that direction first…this goes a long toward reducing our own visual discomfort and sickness. Those sitting at the edges might not otherwise keep their focus on the main part of the screen (which is the most in-focus). Alternately, those who might want to look at the machinery and leave the immersion have a reason not to. A motion simulator ride without motion sickness is a big win.
- Soundtrack. If you’ve been on the ride, you were likely impressed by the visceral nature of the experience. Much of that has to do with the auditory cues. When the visuals are soaring, so too are the orchestral themes. When the danger is close, the thumping rhythms impart new urgency to the experience. When we are in a cave of awakening bio-luminescence, the music implies magic are close at hand. This is a perfect soundtrack, matched to the emotions of the ride without driving those emotions artificially.
- Just Enough Thrill. The motion base concept has been around a long time. But it seems like Flight of Passage pushes the limits when it comes to thrills. When our banshee is plunging down seemingly straight toward the planet, so too does our individual “horse” simulator cradle tilt impossibly far. This more than we usually see in individual simulators. It will be lost on most riders, of course. They are too engrossed, and appropriately so, on the action on the screen. Which brings us to the final quality…
- The Illusion is Actually Interesting. You can have the best-executed ride on a technical basis, but if your story and your visuals are boring, you’ll lose the audience instantly. Absolutely none of that is in danger in Flight of Passage. The world seen here is expansive, visually intriguing, and we get to fly straight into the heart of it. Going exploring is always interesting, and doubly so when the planet in question is so different from our own. We soar, dive, hover, rest, attack, and dive-bomb at turns, with seemingly a new (and believably naturally-occurring) task arriving every thirty seconds. There’s appropriate division here between drama, danger, romance, idealism, naturalism, and adventure.
I’ve previously been an advocate that the Harry Potter rides (maybe especially the first one, Forbidden Journey) fitting the bill as the top ride in Orlando. On some days, I could be persuaded that the title belongs to SeaWorld’s new Mako roller-coaster, which is a hypercoaster (those of you who don’t know the joy of a hypercoaster has an epiphany awaiting you).
But now? I kind of think the crown has passed back to Disney, who for so many years held the title in Central Florida with other rides. As with many things, competition turns out to be good for the consumer.
Fun Spot Roars
I don’t know how much the non-locals pay attention to Fun Spot. In theory, these two carnival-type operations (there’s one on International Drive-north and one on SR-192 not too far from Disney’s entrance on World Drive) are seen as second, or even third choices in the crowded market of things to do in Orlando. They are the sorts of places you might go if your vacation is not 7 days long, and not even 11, but more like 14 or 20.
It seemed a major turning point when Fun Spot near I-Drive opened White Lightning, a wooden coaster (rare in Central Florida!) and a darned good one. So it’s with pleasure I now see the other Fun Spot (on 192) opening Mine Blower, another woodie. The one-two punch is enough to get us to buy the annual pass to both places (it helps that our kids are still young enough to really enjoy the go-cart racing that’s included with the pass). It’s $99 for the rest of 2017, and includes all the rides (but not the skycoaster) at both parks. I’m not sure the non-locals will find it a compelling buy, but we do.
First Disney Springs Vendor has Closed
Some time ago, I engaged in a guessing game. There were so many new vendors in Disney Springs that eventually one of them would go bust. Which would it be? My money was on everything from Art of Shaving to Erwin Pearl, but I lost the bets. The first vendor to close its doors was Sound Lion.
Like so many things, this makes sense in retrospect. Few people were in Orlando to buy earphones. Someone’s got to go first, logically, so there isn’t a huge surprise here.
What’s coming here instead? Savannah Bee – a vendor that until recently was one of the “booths” rather than the regular shops.
I think it’s a safe bet to say that we will see further churn (and burn!) in the list of Disney Springs vendors. As a business, Disney wants to charge top dollar for its spaces to lease. That’s logical enough. As independent vendors, many will try and some will fail. I think we are going to see a succession of attempts in Disney Springs for many years to come.
Attractioneering – T-shirts and Pins
My good friends Steve Fox and Carise Pernell have launched a business selling t-shirts and lapel pins (similar to official Disney trading pins) that use wry humor, clean and fun designs, and wit. The combination is irresistible eye-catching stuff. I think they are designed to get people’s attention while you wander the parks, and each of their items seems like the sort of thing that random strangers might comment on as they walk by–which, let’s be honest, is part of the fun and a part of the reason to buy them. Things like “Lit like Lumiere”, “Moana’s Te-Fiti Island Tiki Lounge”, “Golden Boy” (C-3PO), and “I’m Mary Poppins, Y’all!”.
Also, may I just register a large amount of disappointment that I didn’t think of this name first. “Attractioneering” is perfect!
Since they are third-party, they obviously don’t use trademarked Disney designs or characters, but they are savvy enough to create things that leave no doubt.
You’ll find T-shirt sizes from XS to XL (usually $25), and lapel-style pins for $12. Orders over $30 get free domestic shipping.
As a final indication of what this company is like, here’s a screen-grab of one product. I love how the product description includes fan-friendly callouts (“SQUIRREL!”)
Kevin Yee is the prolific author of many Disney books. You can find them listed on Amazon HERE.