Enough happens in O-Town that it’s impossible for a single person to see everything, especially if trying to cram it all in on weekends. So it happens sometimes that I’m very late to the party, which is the case with this week’s topic: the Downtown Disney bowling alley, Splitsville (which opened several weeks ago). Verdict: a big thumbs up. This is a win for the outside company that built/runs it, and it’s a win for Disney in all the right ways.

Occupying the site of the former Virgin Megastore in the West End section of DtD, Splitsville sounded like a good idea when it was announced. It would surely be more of a draw that the Virgin store, which felt frankly like just a shopping experience you might find in any mall. There was nothing distinctive about it particularly. When Virgin closed, it was followed by a Princess Diana gallery that charged too much money and didn’t allow photos…and didn’t last very long. Then came the RC car Ridemakerz, which was at least interesting and different, but very much a mismatch for the cavernous space of the former Virgin store. When it moved to take up residence in the back half of another Disney shop (a much better fit), the space was ripe for a new concept, and Splitsville sounded fun.

Hello newcomer!

The basic idea is retro-cool colors and designs paired with modern amenities and a busy hipster vibe. At least for right now, while interest and crowds are high, it works. There’s a hive of activity on weekend nights anyway (also true of midweek?) that makes the place seem desirable and inviting. But the layout and overall design aesthetic would probably draw folks in even if it were empty. Without getting too technical in the reasons why, let’s just say that the design works. There’s a “Vacation Kingdom” mural in one corner of the first floor, and there are few things as retro-cool as that on the entire WDW property.

This time around, I didn’t even bowl (my wife had done it earlier, though, and liked it, even though the lanes felt awfully close to each other in her view). The designs on each lane are shimmering with opalescent colors in a way that reminds me of the 1960s without actually looking 50 years old. That’s impressive. What excited me, though, was the seating for each lane. Rather than the customary chairs, they have padded bench seating around a table. Your chairs, in other words, double as a dining table. Love it! It’s like they merged an Applebee’s and a bowling lane, and the marriage was made in heaven. That puts the emphasis on the food.

Great designs!

There’s a lot of food here: upstairs dining, downstairs dining, and oh yeah, no fewer than FIVE bars! You can order food from the bar menus, and I look forward to doing just that over and over and over again soon. The atmosphere here just kills it. Busy, fun, frenetic, happy. We saw in the upstairs outdoor bar and could have sworn we were in Universal Citywalk Hollywood–there’s just something about being on the second floor amid all that neon and activity below that made me lose myself for a few minutes.

Is this Hollywood or Orlando?

I’m going to be back for food and drinks, despite not getting a lot of attention from our server (it happens). I’ll also be back for bowling. In short, I’ll definitely be back. Multiple times. I have a less developed sense  of whether this is right for tourists. As a local, I’m sure I’m approaching this new establishment with different eyes, and I’m aware tourists might have a different reaction. Will they find bowling to be a pedestrian activity they can do at home instead? I tend to think the answer is no, for two reasons. First, there’s not a lot of options for nighttime fun at DtD at the moment. Second, Splitsville really is distinctive and eye-catching. It probably won’t look like “just bowling” to anyone wandering by.

IBM Think

Last week a new exhibit joined Innoventions West, in the space formerly occupied by IBM’s dual exhibits (one was a globe screen and monitors; the other was the put-yourself-in-a-video-game Runtime). The rainbow road was moved a bit and now IBM is only on one side of the road. The new exhibit, Think, can be summed up as a brief movie introduction (about 12 minutes long) and then a sleek set of wall displays. The tone and vibe of the exhibit is different from the frenetic, kid-oriented, touch-everything ethos of the rest of Innoventions. What interactions there are will strike you as more muted, more minimalist, and more modern. I know Apple is a competitor, but the color palette and design feel like an Apple instillation.

It seems kind of Orwellian from this angle.

When you first walk in, you’re meant to see the movie first. We didn’t know that and walked around first (the doorway is wide enough that I think a lot of folks will end up doing this, too), and the experience was a bit flat for my whole family. The kids only found a few things to touch and manipulate (more in a second on that), and the adults saw a lot of writing around the walls. It felt more like a static display with a lot of reading, which is pretty different from other Innoventions exhibits.

The big monolithic walls in the middle of the room are actually touch screens (several of which were not up and running yet when we visited). I called up a timeline of human history done in black/white cartoon format. It let you move around a bit and scroll through the decades. It was the sort of thing I liked looking at, but was done with after about thirty seconds.

Crisp and clean!

There are a few screens on one wall that offer a touch-based game. You scoop up one of the icons/balls on the bottom of the screen and try to get it in the ‘basket’ above. It’s very unclear what to do or why to do it. Eventually we figured out by watching someone else that you’re meant to mimic the logos around the outside walls, which display the word “100” in various ways (using pictures to stand in for letters), since IBM is celebrating 100 years (who knew?) That made more sense, but it didn’t make it more fun. I learned later when reading online that the workers give out buttons when you finish the 100-design you were working on, but no one told us that at the time. Even if they had, I’m not sure of the value of this game. It felt pretty forgettable to us.

We then watched the movie–out of order, as it turned out, since the end of the movie urges you to explore the exhibit further. The movie talks about limited resources in the world and what we can do about it (answer: use science to fix things). The message is very Epcot, though I’m not sure today’s audience will be highly entertained.

It’s nice to sit down for a while!

I did absolutely love the reference they snuck in there, without calling attention to it, of a 1977 science film called “Powers of Ten.” That older film aimed at younger audiences and discussed scale and magnitude. It shows up here as a picnic “scene” painstakingly reproduced without really saying why. It’s very much a “hidden” tribute, and I love it for that. Look at how many of the details they bothered to reproduce!

See the baskets? The food items? So much detail.


Ooh La La

Also new recently (believe me yet that Orlando is just insanely fast-paced?), the France pavilion in Epcot made two alterations. First, the Bistro de Paris changed its name and its menu. It’s now called Monsieur Paul, which sounds like a ludicrous name until you remember that Paul Bocuse is one of the three “chefs de France” who are involved with the Epcot pavilion. The menu is still haute cuisine, with entrees in the $40-range. I haven’t made it upstairs yet to see if the decor is any different.

The bakery nearby has closed, and a new one opened up in the shop at the exit to the Circle-Vision movie. They’ve also set aside a ton more room for tables (and some stand-up tables). The new restaurant space is much larger. It keeps the idea of two lines, this time splitting up so that the room is actually two separate, identical facilities (the right side and the left side).

One line at first, then splits into two lines.

The menu hasn’t changed much (or at all?) from the previous bakery. You can still find a few sandwiches on baguettes, various croissant concoctions, and assorted pastries and tarts. I think the prices might be a tick higher, however.

They put your purchase on golden-colored metallic trays.

Overall, the move is an improvement. The previous bakery was cramped and sometimes slow, and the new one will push people through faster (which is better for guest satisfaction as well as profit margins). The feeling more modern now, partly because they also rethemed the shop to have fewer banners and fewer visual distractors.

Marty Sklar always urged designers to remove the distractions and get at the core of the thing.

A final note: they also added two single-user bathrooms along one wall, which is nice because France was previously a bathroom-free zone. Both rooms are unisex rooms, however, and I already saw one confused person look from side to side. I wonder if they will eventually become just men on one side and women on another?

Be Our (Lunch) Guest

I’ve previously reported on our (excellent) experience at the Be Our Guest restaurant for dinner, but the hecticness of the holiday season prevented me from visiting during the lunch hours. I’ve remedied that, and I have to report how wonderful the experience was. There was nothing but positives to the whole experience:

  • The queue is assembled smartly. Although the line sticks out onto the bridge and looks imposing, it moves fast. And then you’re indoors, out of the elements, which is a good thing. There are suits of armor that “talk” (and snore) to each other, so you’re kept amused until it’s time to order.
  • The order stations are plentiful and logical. I love touch-screen ordering, and I am happy indeed that they built enough stations to really justify the line.
  • The hockey-puck-sized “pager” works in reverse. Instead of it telling you to return to get your food, it simply tells the server where you are (by RFID?), meaning you can sit wherever you want and they bring it to you. Just neat technology.
  • Self-serve drink cells. If you’re the type to want refills at your lunch, this is the only place in the Magic Kingdom to do it.
  • The food is priced reasonably (for Disney), and it tastes AMAZING. The French onion soup was good (not Club 33 good, but decent enough). The braised beef was flavorful and complex. The turkey sandwich, which sounds so pedestrian, was phenomenal. I want to go back just for this. It had unique tastes that combined and ricocheted inside my mouth. The lemon meringue cupcake dessert was moist enough to qualify as insanely good. This is the kind of premium cake we had at our wedding and find it difficult to locate otherwise, so it was a fantastic surprise.

Just for Kids

SeaWorld has launched a mini-promotion for early 2013, showing kids concerts in their indoor theater. The Imagination Movers were first, and they put on a super-high energy show. That was a real joy to participate in. Up next will be Laurie Berkner and then Choo Choo Soul with Genevieve–these are big name acts in kids’ entertainment!

Rich (from behind)

There are other elements to the promotion, such as a Franklin meet and greet, an Elmo Rocks show (didn’t get to see this one), and various meet and greet opportunities with other characters.

Bake Your Noodle

Have you The Matrix? Our hero Neo is told by the Oracle “don’t worry about the lamp.” When Neo asks “what lamp?” he accidentally knocks it over. The Oracle tells him that what will really bake his noodle later is when he starts questioning whether it would have happened even if she had said nothing.

Disney bloggers bake their noodles all the time. Would something really have been cleaned up if they had said nothing online? The evidence is pretty clear that SOME items end up getting fixed as a result of scrutiny they receive online. Sunshine is the best disinfectant, said Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis, and over the years I have definitely seen examples of things that looked bad for weeks, months, and even years that get fixed REAL fast once they are pointed out online. So it’s not as much of a headscratcher as the Oracle’s question to Neo. We KNOW what would happen if nobody said anything out loud, because it’s the same thing that happened for months before anything was said. In other words, nothing would have happened.

What prompted this rumination today? I visited the Carousel of Progress this weekend. And it’s looking great! Not too long ago, it was starting to look and sound shabby, and Jeff Heimbuch wrote an article about the poor condition here on MiceChat not too long ago… is it coincidence that the ride looks great now? In particular, the side turntables were loud and creaky before, and now are pretty soundless. It looks to me like they gave it some tender loving care.

Unlike Neo, I won’t need to ponder too much to realize the truth. In this case, the truth is that pointing out the deficiencies can be beneficial.

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