Time to return to the right coast (WDW and Universal) and work out my Demons of Happiness that author Ray Bradbury once spoke of. I bring to this challenge my bias as a native Southern Californian and longtime Disneylander. Below are more random notes on the state of the “world” through my pair of eyes. You can find Part One of my Disney World journey HERE. I encourage you to add your thoughts below. Together, maybe we will find the truth.

Let’s begin by admitting that visiting the Magic Kingdom for me is always a surreal experience. Since I grew up with Disneyland, everything in Florida is kind of where it is supposed to be but not really. I am sure those who grew up with WDW feel the same way when visiting Disneyland and I chuckle at the way you tend to freak out about how small everything seems and how close the parks are to one another. At least we now have an Earl of Sandwich too. Parity. Sort of.

Disney’s Animal Kingdom. It seems this poor park seems to get flogged by a lot of people but I feel that this is the most beautiful of the Florida parks. Maybe due to benign neglect, it has remained close to its original underlying storyline based on the transect and the expression of variations between the balance of and man and nature. I love the architecture, the landscape design, and the convincing illusion that I am completely immersed in a world that I am unlikely to experience any other way.

To illustrate my point, I present the Maharajah Jungle Trek. This is my favorite space in all of Walt Disney World. While the masses run to the Kilimanjaro Safaris or Expedition Everest, this trail has become my first stop. It has that Quality Without a Name that I tend to go on and on about. As a bonus, going early means there is rarely anybody else there and the tigers get pretty frisky in the morning. Don’t forget to pause and take in the five panels that describe the backstory for the entire park just beyond the tiger enclosure. Although this one is my favorite, I also enjoy the Pangani Forest Exploration Trail and the Discovery Island Trails (even with netting to protect you from limbs of the Tree of Life falling on your head).

As many of you know by now, they have been slowly sucking the poacher theme out of the Kilimanjaro Safaris and that transformation is now complete. Other than the film in the queue, there are no reminders of what was. No Little Red, Big Red or you chasing poachers. Instead, the climax is a dazzle of Zebras (look it up). It also seems that they have a lot more trucks on the road.

One thing not to miss is Flights of Wonder. It is a true hidden treasure. I am not a show kind of guy and the idea of an animal show would rank low on my list. This one is different. It is well paced, with a balance between education and humor. The show is based on demonstrating natural behaviors as opposed to stunts or cliches. The birds are beautiful and frequently pass inches over the heads of the audience. I also enjoyed the Bollywood dancing lessons in Asia. Nice touch.

During an earlier draft of this column I was planning on going on a rant about Expedition Everest. Then I asked myself, “Self, what will you achieve displaying this hostility? For it is merely a theme park ride.” So true. Therefore, I shall focus on the positive. The queue? I can talk about the queue! The ride has a first act that promises so much. We all know the queue has brilliantly themed, detailed and work at many levels. There is so much promise. Then the payoff… Wait. Not positive.

I understand many reasons to not fix the broken effects. I understand there is an attempt to turn him/her into a marionette. I wish them luck. Everest was once great and it needs the TLC to return to that status. The fact that Harold inside of the Matterhorn is scarier is enough said.

There are some attractions I call a “rubberneck” ride. Let me explain. You know when you are on the freeway and you are frustrated because there is congestion? Then you find that the slow down is caused by everybody looking at an accident or somebody getting a ticket? You tell yourself to look away and not be like everybody else but you still look (rubberneck)? I feel the same way about Dinosaur. I tell myself “no, don’t go” but I do. There is rarely a line and I want to see if it is as bad as I remember. You know what? It is.

As you can imagine, after writing a book about Walt’s vision for E.P.C.O.T. (Walt and the Promise of Progress City – the necessary holiday plug – makes for a great gift), I have a real soft spot for this park. This modern day World’s Fair has always been a bold experiment. And like all experiments, sometimes things work and sometimes they don’t.

Over in Future World is Spaceship Earth, this experiment does not work for me. It is not the ride. I love how close you get to the Audio-Animatronic figures, the staging of each of the scenes, its sense of importance, and that moment when you are at the top with a view of earth. My issue is the script. Walt Disney had a thing about talking down to guests. He said, “Your dead if you aim only for the kids. Adults are only kids grown up, anyway.” The assertion that the only contribution that Arab and Jewish scholars have made advancing technology was to be the back up system to Western thought? If I am not mistaken, if it weren’t for the back up system, the concept of zero would have never come up and we wouldn’t have computers and we wouldn’t have Siemens. Please discuss. I am going to explore the rest of Future World.

I never saw the original version of The Living Seas. Or Horizons. Or World of Motion. I really missed something didn’t I? Maybe that is why one of my favorite Epcot attractions is the way back machine known as Living with the Land. I always feel like I have stepped back in time when somebody was trying to teach me something along with the ride.

The new version of Test Track is trying to teach. The emphasis is on design not engineering, which can be a somewhat abstract topic. By breaking the discussion down into four considerations (Capability, Efficiency, Responsiveness, and Power) they have made the complex simple. This is an appropriate topic for an Epcot attraction. Guests are presented with a “design key” that they use for the rest of the experience. What could be considered as the full experience is the stand by line. Here you learned about making compromises between those four factors. Although you get to do the same with the Fastpass and single rider lines, it is not the same. In this case, you really do miss out by going quickly through the queue.

As for the ride, it is the same track and the same cars (now painted blue), but you enter the world of Tron (in spirit). After you have designed your car, you become part of the computer simulation. The interior design is gorgeous with blacks and blues and lots of lasers outlining the flats. At one point, you pass by a homage to Walt’s E.P.C.O.T. Plus, the post show is filled with interactive elements that are driven by your design key. This is a really good update. If you like the old version, I think you will be pleased. With that said, I do miss the Belgium blocks.

My big question about Mission Space is what is going on with Gary Sinise’s forehead? Is that natural? Overall, the attraction is all about the thrill, it lacks a sense of humor, and you are congratulated for crashing but pushing all of those buttons and flipping switches before launch is so cool. I have mentioned I am over twelve, right?

Things don’t change much in the World Showcase. Well they do but at a glacial pace. The movie in France is now digitally projected and it is clean and beautiful. The film never seems dated which may be one of the best illusions in World Showcase. As a fan of the 360 degree film format I just love this park’s two other shows, Canada and China, as well. They are selling Dr. Who stuff at the UK. Maybe Top Gear stuff? I would love a “I am the Stig” t-shirt.

When pressed I would say my favorite pavilion is Morocco for many of the same reasons I like New Orleans Square. It is intimate, immersive, exotic, and accurate. My favorite attraction in all of Walt Disney World is The American Adventure. Walt was always searching for ways to add depth to his productions. The multi-plane camera, Audio-animatronics, and other technologies were meant to suspend the audience’s disbelief and enable the story to feel real. To me, the show represents everything that defines Disney technology at its best.

Over at Universal, I have always liked Islands of Adventure and my first visit was shortly after it opened. My wife, who thinks theme parks are…well…um…”fine,” actually likes this place. With the opening of Harry Potter, travel habits are changing and Universal has done a great job of making a great first impression by cleaning up and repainting much of the park. Seuss Landing sparkles. As for Wizarding World of Harry Potter, there is not much more that I can add that hasn’t been already said. Universal out Disneyed Disney. The stores aren’t filled with the same stuff you find everywhere. They are filled with the stuff from the books and films. And you better buy it while you are there because you won’t find much of this stuff elsewhere in the park. This idea has been taken so far you can’t even purchase Coke products. I like that.

Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey is gaining a reputation as a technological tour-de-force and a kick your ass ride. But most people that I talk to don’t care. It is the immersive experience of the land that is the real attraction. And if you can’t ride the ride but want to see the best part, the queue, here is a little secret. Ask a Cast Member very nicely and you can be directed to the queue that is built for Universal Express, their version of Fastpass. That line is currently not being used and you can slowly walk through the most amazing queue of all time and take in the entire story without having to ride the ride or hurry. Plus, how often does going to the bathroom become a must do attraction? Even if…well you know. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is superior to the New Fantasyland and, quite frankly, to Carsland as well.

The rest of IOA has remained the same and that is not a bad thing. The Incredible Hulk coaster remains one of the most intense coasters I have ever been on and the water rides (Jurassic Park River Adventure, Dudley Do-Right’s Ripsaw Falls, Popeye & Bluto’s Bilge-Rat Barges) are very clever and will certainly get you very wet. Personally, I really enjoy Me Ship, The Olive, a child play area, in the Toon Lagoon section. I am sad to see that Dragon Challenge no longer syncs up the two coasters.

My favorite attraction of all time is Pirates of the Caribbean at Disneyland. After this trip, my second favorite is The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man. I always liked this ride, but with the new 3D technology it is just stunning. Although it is similar to Transformers at Universal Studios Hollywood, there is a sense of humor that just takes it to the next level.

Over at Universal Studios Orlando, I found Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit to be a clever idea with a terrifying outcome. You choose the soundtrack from a broad list and go on an intense ride. I picked the Beastie Boys. With your face pointing toward the sky on the lift hill, you start to wonder what you have just gotten yourself in for. I felt the same way when it was over. Am I alone suggesting that is a rough ride?

The ET Adventure is not a “rubberneck” ride. No, this one is in its own special category. Monsanto’s Adventure Thru Inner Space, Knott’s Berry Tales and Hershey Chocolate World’s Hershey’s Great American Chocolate Tour Ride. The low-def image of a much younger Steven Spielberg on the new hi-def monitors in the queue is a reminder of how old this attraction really is. It is part Peter Pan on the first half and an trip straight out of a Hunter S. Thompson book. A singing mushroom? That singing mushroom? Whatever you do, sit on the left side.

For Universal Studios Hollywood fans, get ready for Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem. This is the kid friendly ride that the park desperately needs. In many ways it is not much different than its predecessors (Jimmy Neutron and Hanna-Barbera) but those little yellow, banana loving guys are just a crack up and well used in this simulator ride.

I sense the WDW experience is going to change in ways never quite intended. The ticket books allowed guests to balance out their trips with big and small experiences. Fastpass put the emphasis on the larger experiences and working the system. There was a lot of Next Gen equipment quite visible on this trip and I wonder how that will change the experience for everyone. I have a Walt Disney quote on the back of my iPad that reads, “Happiness is spontaneous delight harmonized with circumstances.” How much “spontaneous delight” can you plan for six months in advance. This will be interesting. Love to hear your thoughts?

The holidays are here. Are you looking for the perfect gift for that Disney fan in your life? If you enjoy reading SAMLAND, you’ll love my book. Walt and the Promise of Progress City is a detailed look into how Walt Disney envisioned the future of communities. Along the way, we explore many facets of a fascinating man. Plus, buying the book helps ensure that I’ll be able to continue bringing you more Samland. It’s a win/win situation.

Follow Samland on Facebook and Twitter.

  • Trumpet

    Thanks for the article Sam

    I think DW parks are needing serious investment to keep up with USO. Maybe this will spur them on.

    Sam, I never went on ‘World of Motion’, ‘Horizons’ or ‘The Living Seas’. You are not alone thinking we have missed something.

    Nice plug fo your book. Might order it in the new year.

    Thanks again Sam and can’t wait for your next article. Hope you have a Merry Christmas and look forward from hearing from you in the new year.


  • ttintagel

    Some people like to blame Judi Dench for the nauseatingly condescending tone of the new Spaceship Earth narration, but she does the best any actor could with that stinker of a script. Show me anyone who can read the line, “Remember how easy it was learning your ABC’S? Thank the Phoenicians!” without sounding like a complete tool, and I’ll hand him or her a special Oscar.

  • fnord

    Wow Sam, love that Walt quote, and it’s exactly why I’ve longed for the demise of fast pass
    since I first heard of it, and using it didn’t change my mind. This next gen travesty sounds absurd. If there is an attraction you came miles to see, but you opt for a fast pass ticket, you’re a fool. If that attraction breaks down, that little ticket may be your only souvenir of the experience, instead of jumping right in line and taking your chance along with everyone else for rich memories.
    I also agree that Spiderman remains the best non Disney ride ever, and that the Wizarding World works so well because of the immersive Hogsmeade village in the shadow of
    Hogwarts with it’s wonderful ride. I think Dueling Dragons should be retired so the area could be used to add to the WW. The queue building could become the Shrieking Shack, the
    Burrow could be there somewhere too, perhaps, and the Dursley’s home, with Harry’s
    Cupboard under the stairs.
    The last 2 times I’ve been to parks in Orlando, it’s been Universal. The next time I’m in
    Orlando will be for the completion of the London WW, and the Hogwarts Express, which
    I hope will be something the family can do together.
    Perhaps the new Fantasyland will be completely finished by then so I can visit MK as well

  • jcruise86

    Thanks, Sam! Do you really like the 360 Canada film? Glad to hear that the French “film” looks great! You increased my desire to to go to both WDW, but maybe spend a day less there. And you increased my desire to go to Universal.

  • eicarr

    I think WDW is fine for the resort it is. The park experience doesn’t have to be the greatest. You’re supposed to go there in part for golf courses, beach resorts and water parks. They have all those busses, monorails and roadways to maintain. The theme parks there are important, but are less a priority in vacations. If guests are back at the hotel eating, shopping and at the spa Disney is making more money. You can’t just take a quick walk for naps to recharge at a hotel across the street… You have to commit to waiting in lines for buses and monorails, so rather than coming back for more rides you go back and enjoy hotel amenities or a nearby waterpark. This is the type of resort where instead of trying to get on all the fun old small rides you spend your trip going to a mall for bowling and waiting in line to buy a sandwich. The USF parks will end their growth spurt shortly. But I think it will age poorly over time and WDW will have to do little to pull back ahead. Most people always did a space center or sea world to balance out their trip, so long term I think those parks will hurt more than Disney. It’s a waste of stockholder’s money to fix small things that the typical WDW visitor would not have the length and frequency of visit inside a park to notice. Instead of new large rides, I think they’d get a better return of investment on putting their concentration into timeshares. If they can convince people that timeshares are a great investment of money and they see that bowling and sandwich lines are what people will pay money to stay at Disney hotels for, then less efforts on the actual theme parks is justified. Just update and upgrade what’s there, shutting down aged attractions to offset costs.

    • Kidgenie

      Hi Meg. Welcome to Micechat.

    • Kidgenie

      Hello Meg! Welcome to Micechat.

  • wdwprince

    Thanks for pointing out all that is great with Animal Kingdom. The attractions you described such as Maharajah are amazing and most people skip them then complain about AK being a half day park.

    I also like the theory that maybe the one benefit of neglect that this park has received is that it has stayed true to it’s original intent and story.

  • horizonsfan

    Great post, Sam. Regarding your last comment about the loss of spontaneity at Walt Disney World, I also have serious concerns this will happen with the NextGen (Fastpass+) modifications. It’s also started in that direction with Fastpass, which makes you run all over the park to see the rides without a long wait. These are going to seriously mess with how things work, particularly in the StandBy line. I can see a scenario where I visit and just skip the headliners. The other option is to just reserve a few spots on those and wander through the rest. I can’t see a situation where the mid-level rides aren’t available for a short wait during the slower times. We’ll see. The big danger is how Disney will keep up-charging for these “perks” that we didn’t need 20 years ago.

  • Really enjoyed this post Sam. I agree with you about the quieter places at Animal Kingdom. I LOVE the animal trails and safari at the park above even the big rides (of which there are really only 3). If folks took the time to enjoy the trails, they’d be surprised at how much fun they are. Now, about that Yeti . . .

    • mratigan

      ^lets not talk about that 😉
      thanks Sam hope there will be a part two

  • JiminyCricketFan

    Great comments Sam! I have to say I agree with most of it. I feel that DAK has so much potential, but is not living up to it. With looser rides like Dinosaur, Disney has degraded the whole park. But instead of fixing the problems, Disney seems to want to milk as much revenue as possible out of disappointing experiences.

  • waymire01

    “Spontaneous delight”.. Our last trip to WDW was two years ago.. we spent 18 days in “the world”. We had not had a vacation in five years and wanted to go all out, we even did the deluxe dining plan. I had an older teen who wanted to ride everything big twenty times, an eight year old who only wanted to ride everything her brother didn’t.. and the first three days were highly structured marathons of reservations, fastpasses, opening and closing the parks, and trying to do as much as possible. On the fourth day we were exhausted, frustrated, at each others throats, and my daughter was so tired she got carsick and threw up on the bus on the way to our fourth character meal. I told my son what time dinner was and where and sent him on his way. The rest of us cancelled all our meal reservations (except for dinner, which was rescheduled to the latest reservation of the night), tossed the itinerary I had spent a month making scheduling us down to the second, slept in every day, and moseyed our way through the parks. We checked out every gift shop, wandered down little paths that we had never been down before, stopped and chatted with other guests and castmembers, ate what we felt like when we were hungry, sat for an hour watching an artist draw, took a ton of pictures, went on whatever attraction caught our fancy.. our only care was that we made it to dinner on time. It was wonderful. We barely saw my son for the next 3-4 days, he was off riding Rockin Roller Coaster 35 times.. then all of a sudden he started spending more and more time with us. By the end of the first week he was with us full time, by choice, and we actually started having that family vacation you hope for. I have a photo of my kids holding hands in the queue of Thunder Mountain Railroad.. just because they felt like it. My only regret is that I did not toss all the nonsense on the very first day.

    • Kidgenie

      What an outstanding story. Illustrates a point AND touches the heart. Nicely done!

  • Amy VandenBoogert

    “My big question about Mission Space is what is going on with Gary Sinise’s forehead? Is that natural?”

    Ok that gave me a good laugh. I don’t ride Mission Space often but when I do, I have to “salute the rug”.

    And yes they’re selling some Doctor Who merchandise in the UK now. Just 2 or 3 shirts. I’d love to see more stuff like Dalek figures, sonic screwdrivers, mugs…

    I would love to see some Top Gear merchandise, but sadly the show has ended. Jeremy Clarkson said earlier this yea that after Christmas, there would be no more new episodes of Top Gear in the UK. The crappy American version is still on though (and Clarkson is part of that production team… they were just here in Tampa a few weeks ago to race a Bugatti Veyron over the Gandy Bridge).

  • johnnylately

    Great article Sam.

    When you wrote “Then I asked myself, “Self,…” it reminded me of a skit that I saw on Andy Williams’ old variety show. One of the funniest lines ever!

    One Spaceship Earth: The theme is supposed to be communication. It would be nice to include other details that expanded the roll of different cultures but something has to be cut I suppose. Maybe they could pipe it into our monitors during the numerous ride stoppages?

  • Kandace Sparkles

    Sam, for once I agree! I love the beauty and charm of Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Maharajah Jungle Trek is one of my favorite parts to visit (after lunch at Flame Tree BBQ, of course!) because I enjoy watching the Tigers roam. Just watching them walk, play, and run reminds me so much of how my domestic cats are — only more cuddly! Also, where else can you see a komodo dragon? And in Discovery Island you can see the cotton-top tamarin — a favorite of the Dustysage, too. 😉

    And YES — you missed A LOT of what EPCOT is and was. You’re missing a lot of it’s origin and message. How can you know what it should be if you don’t embrace all aspects of it? This is the bread and butter of WDW in a lot of aspects. I think you need to learn to love more of it. 🙂

  • ajcphantom

    Great insight! As frequent visitors of Disneyland, my husband and I tend to be a little critical of WDW also. We recently returned from our second trip there. While we love that there is more to experience there, including some things that are “newer” to us, we will always love the intimacy of Disneyland. And you just can’t top the fact that Walt himself walked there….it intensifies the magic for us!