I’m pleased to report that Walt Disney World started, this past weekend, testing a new atmosphere entertainment show in Dinoland U.S.A., in the form of a human scientist interacting with a velociraptor. There were many reasons to be cheerful about this news, when I first heard it. First, one obviously wants more “streetmosphere” added when possible; it brightens the park. Second, this particular area of the park struggles anyway with theme, so anything they could do with the dinosaur theme would be helpful. Third, this very section of this very park was once home to the first test of Lucky the Dinosaur, a (sort of) self-standing Audio-Animatronics figure that was impressive way back in 2005. Maybe Lucky was coming back? Or if not, maybe this new offering would incorporate ten years’ worth of innovation and advanced technology added to the Lucky build, and thus be even more awesome?

I don’t want to leave you in suspense. Let’s look at some pictures.

Here was Lucky, more or less autonomously moving around Dinoland in 2005:

Lucky the dino 2005-04-24-5077

Lucky the dino 2005-04-24-5082

Lucky the dino 2005-04-24-5114

And here is “Val” (short for “velociraptor”), the new character from 2014 introduced in Dinoland this past weekend:





Val walks the land, never really stopping. Her tail swishes hard and fast, so attendants have to be there to stop it from hitting visitors. She does have a high-pitched squawk she can emit, and she moves much faster and more fluidly than Lucky ever did. But you can, um, see the performer pretty effectively from many angles.

It’s difficult to know how to start discussing this. Lucky was something no other park in the world had; this new dino is a lot less high tech. Disney hasn’t advanced in nine years, they’ve arguably gone backwards.

Initially, I was tempted – as perhaps some of you are – to bring out the “Declining by Degrees” concept. I coined this term in 2006 to explain why it felt like Disney was lowering standards here and there – always in small ways – while keeping prices constant or raising them. I think we can agree prices have gone up since 2006 – has the experience? Most of the rides are the same now as they were then, so maybe you have stagnation on quality but increased prices over the same stretch. But if the quality and upkeep are actually going DOWN while prices are going UP, you have two forces acting in concert to lower and water down the overall experience. As a weekly visitor, I saw it happening in tiny ways in 2006 and tried to sound an alarm.

If you’ve followed my writing and reader reaction over the years, you know the attempt to “sound an alarm” was met with decidedly mixed results. Some folks agreed with me. Others felt I had gotten jaded and expected too much.

Unrelated image: Cabana Bay at Universal has a bowling alley.
Unrelated image: Cabana Bay at Universal has a bowling alley.

Do I raise all this ancient history now to crow that in fact the prices HAVE gone up a lot in those eight years and the rides HAVE stagnated and maybe even the quality of what they are offering HAS deteriorated? And that “Val” is the culmination of all these years of bone-headed decisions? Surprisingly, no.

I raise all this now because I think, finally, this half-human, half-velociraptor (VelociHuman?) has tipped the scales for me internally. Something has changed in my thinking. I was content to call it “declining by degrees” back in 2006 because the effect was mostly invisible. It needed a name because it operated in SUCH small measures, no one noticed when the actual event was occurring. The proverbial frog allowing itself to boil in water, because the increases in temperature were so gradual, is exactly the right metaphor for Declining by Degrees.

For some people, the frog is *already* boiled – I’m not seeing a lot of positive reaction by adults to the dinosaur (my seven year old likes it, though). And here’s what’s even more surprising: I’m not even all that bitter about it. I’m not turning in my annual pass, I won’t stop going, and I’m even going to continue writing about the parks – both here online and in books – because I have achieved a weird, unexpected sort of equilibrium and even ACCEPTANCE about it all.

Unrelated image: Diagon Alley at Universal nears completion.
Unrelated image: Diagon Alley at Universal nears completion.

Are the parks pale shadows of what they were two decades ago? Sure, in some ways, especially in operations. Queues are always filthy, the monorails are held together with duct tape (this is not an exaggeration), Cast appearance guidelines – slipped from a few decades ago – are not being maintained even as is, and the tailoring of operations to match demand has been devilishly competent, such that there *is* no off-season any more. Quiet areas have been converted to more sales floors, fountains switched off to conserve and save, and lightbulbs sit burned out for months at a time (also not an exaggeration) on the rooflines of the ultra-expensive Grand Floridian.

But not EVERYTHING is broken. Despite the list enumerated above, the Orlando Disney parks do not resemble Six Flags parks in any way, shape, or form. New stuff does still get added – admittedly, many are restaurants or shops, or perhaps only SMALL attractions instead of E-Tickets. While it’s been frustrating to watch the local competition – Universal especially – move quickly while Disney dallies, it’s not fair to say that the Disney dream is absolutely dead. You’ll still encounter loads of happy tourists. You’ll find ride refurbishments that pay happy homage to company history and luminaries, which tickles me to no end. You’ll find young girls meeting the princess of their dreams and having literally the vacation of a lifetime. You’ll see once-per-decade visiting families who love Disney and don’t really see that a few rough edges are all that visible.

The truth is, BOTH perspectives are true simultaneously. The parks *are* pale shadows of their former selves, but they are also still a powerful draw and often still deliver powerful messages and emotions.

Unrelated image: Drew Carey theater now used for previews.
Unrelated image: Drew Carey theater now used for previews.


“Val” has helped me realize that for much of the past decade, I’ve been in mourning without knowing it. I’ve been mourning the Disney parks as I knew them. Certainly I was mourning how the Florida parks now do not hit the heights the Florida parks used to hit (Remember when Epcot was open until midnight all summer long? When the Halloween parties admitted half as many patrons, charged half as much, and gave you a free photo souvenir of your family? When every animatronic figure – let alone the central one of the attraction – was always working or else the ride would be shut down?)

Perhaps I was also mourning my personal loss of Disneyland as a playground since I moved to Florida – a little of that is probably true – and perhaps some of the adjustment was less “mourning” than it was simply culture shock since WDW is not DL.

Here’s the thing, though. Mourning and culture shock have some similar “stages” that everyone goes through. There’s a period of denial at first (during which everything in the “old” place was better) and, with culture shock (less so in mourning) a period of euphoria sometime thereafter. A true equilibrium comes even later, with true acceptance finally sinking in.

The “bottom line” has been true for me for some time now, and it’s probably been visible in my writings when seen longitudinally, yet I haven’t phrased it quite so baldly until this very second… but here it is: I accept Walt Disney World for what it is. The place delivers amazing Disney magic on a daily basis, but it also falls a bit short of what “could be” for a Disney park. (Anyone in doubt of the latter should just take a quick gander at TDL and especially TDS).

This velociraptor test is hopefully just that – a test. Perhaps saner heads will prevail, and recognize that the typical Disney standards for quality, not to mention believability and immersiveness, are not being met here. But perhaps not. And that, too, I will accept.

The true question is whether the larger paying public will be so forgiving. Not all of them grew up visiting Disney parks every single year, followed by working for 15 years for a Disney park, then visiting Disney parks twice a week for a decade after that (while simultaneously writing blogs and books about the experiences). In other words, Disney is in my blood, and I’m blessed to live locally to WDW, so it’s easy for me to keep going.

Will everyone reach the same conclusion? Will you? That’s the billion-dollar question, isn’t it? Do YOU have a straw that might someday break the camel’s back?

Ultimate Orlando Clicks #11

We start this week at Cabana Bay, Universal’s new value resort, and do an extensive photo tour in the middle of the day, with few visitors around. Then it’s off to see the Knight Bus at Diagon Alley, plus use a zoom lens to seem some new details being added. We also explore the new Starbucks at Islands of Adventure, and use that zoom lens to check out a safety sign for the train station at Hogsmeade (apparently, there will be no videotaping allowed on the train). We document the exterior of Zonko’s, which has closed permanently, and examine the somewhat-new midway games in Jurassic Park. Then it’s off to DHS, where we see the Constantin video in the queue for MuppetVision and look at the Sound Stage Studio (former Drew Carey spot) now showing a 3D extended trailer/mini-movie for Maleficent. Finally, it’s off to DAK to see the new walkaround dinosaur, a velociraptor named V (or Val, the second day). This dino is brought to life via a puppeteer inside the suit.

Direct link: http://youtu.be/G6zoPoeqyyQ

Ultimate Orlando Clicks #10

I didn’t have a MiceChat update last week, so here’s the Clicks video from last week, as well.

Capt Cook’s has closed, and the temp location of the eatery has no Dole Whip. We also tour the Epcot Easter egg hunt for kids (map, stickers, and a prize, but you pay to play) and the edible Egg display at the Grand Floridian. Then we hop into the Magic Kingdom to see updates on the Hub construction and smaller tweaks.

Direct link: http://youtu.be/Aitl7D46_kY

Ultimate Orlando

I’ve maintained a “side blog” since 2006 and now am unifying all my social networking around this one site and brand. That means I only use the “Ultimate Orlando” venues/accounts going forward on Facebook and Twitter. Also of note: I had to change the YouTube channel, so be sure you switch your subscription to the new one. If you follow me on any of these services, please update your bookmarks: