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Disney's Backlot Blunder? A WDW and Universal Orlando update!

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by , 01-23-2012 at 10:40 PM

Hop right up folks to your weekly Orlando Theme Park news and photo blog. If you haven't heard yet, President Obama recently made a visit to the Magic Kingdom in support of domestic tourism and we finally got the chance to actually play the new interactive Sorcerers in the Kingdom game. Next up, we stop by the Studios park to try and figure out what has gone so wrong with the Studio Backlot Tour. Finally, we drop by Universal for the latest construction shots at Despicable Me, the new Lagoon show, and to see what is happening behind the walls in old Amity. Come on, let's see what's hopping . . .

In a change to long-standing Cast Member grooming standards, Disney will begin allowing CM's to have beards and goatees beginning February 3rd. While this may seem like non-news to the rest of the world (where piercings, tattoos and other "alternative" choices are common) this is actually a big step for the mouse. We don't have much of an issue with any Cast Memeber's appearance as long as they are able to do their job and it is thematically appropriate. What would fly in Adventureland might not go over so well in Tomorrowland or Main Street U.S.A.. Let's hope they cast appropriately and uphold that squeaky clean Disney image, even if it does contain a few more hairs.

Main Street U.S.A. saw quite a bit of action this week. Aside from the maintenance projects that are making the rounds of the street, President Obama made a visit to give a speech on the steps of Cinderella Castle, promoting US tourism.

Maintenance work continues on the bakery facade on Main Street while construction walls have now crawled forward into the central hub of the park. Fences and supports seem to be getting fresh coats of paint and walls are going up all over the place.

The bridge that connects Main Street U.S.A. with the central hub.

The black, netted lights that were draped over Cinderella Castle are now begin removed with the aid of cranes and a little bit of help from the Fairy Godmother. You see, even Cinderella takes her Christmas lights down each year. It's almost February but hey, at least she isn't leaving them up all year.

The Magic Kingdom was very quiet and except for the extra walls and security within the walled off/roped off areas. The park was pretty slow, with Space Mountain at a 10 minute wait when we walked by (even with the People Mover being down at the time).

Even Streetmosphere (and the Mayor of Main Street) were kept off of Main Street. They greeted guests that walked into the park, and around Town Square.

There was a wall on this side of Main Street, seen as guests walked in. Security entering the park was not different than usual, but there was a metal detector for anyone invited to the event.

Guests were diverted through a backstage area, which was lined with decorations and floats (including ones that haven't been used in a while). Main Street transportation vehicles were also displayed.

Guests were hoping for a glimpse of the President, but every vantage point was blocked off:

The Hall of Presidents hosted a simulcast.

While it is understandable that there was limited access to the president it did seem that the Management did the best they could under the circumstances. A very special thanks to Denise Preskitt of for sharing her photos from the day.

It seems the future will be all about burnt out light bulbs.

Neon will be harder to maintain

Recessed lighting will be randomly illuminated

And signs will not be properly lit . . . Welcome to the future!

MiceChat's Orlando Parkhopper staff was recently invited to try out some of the interactive elements hidden throughout the Magic Kingdom for the new Sorcerers In the Magic Kingdom Game. The game, much like the Kim Possible game in Epcot's World Showcase, has guests seeking various locations and setting off a variety of effects hidden in plain sight. But instead of cell phones, the Sorcerer game requires the use of playing cards that players are to take to each location and present at specific times. They have certainly spent some money on this as each kiosk uses a cleverly hidden video screen and two cameras on the left and right of the guest to register interaction.The plot, which at this point is nearly meaningless, has guests defeating Yzma, from The Emperor's New Groove, as she and her minions wreck havoc on the fairy-tale happiness of the Magic Kingdom.

The game begins at the Firehouse on Main Street and we were then guided into Adventureland.

The Cameras that monitor your movement are very carefully hidden.

The ending was at this fireplace in Frontierland

Was the game fun? To a degree, yes it was. Guests will be exploring the Magic Kingdom with an entirely different set of eyes as they seek out planted details to progress in the game. To this end it was impressive.

But during the game, we traveled from the Firehouse, to Adventureland, to Main Street, to Frontierland, to adventureland, to frontierland, to adventureland, to fantasyland and then to Frontierland. There was A LOT of walking. For the smaller ones this may end up being far too much walking simply to set off yet another video screen. The effects and the sleuthing are fun, but may not be enough to compete with Splash Mountain or getting to hug Mickey Mouse.

In the end, this should be viewed as an enhancement to a trip to the Magic Kingdom, rather than a major attraction. We recommend playing the game at a leisurely pace and taking the tasks as you come across them. This way, you will see what the park has to offer while at the same time discovering the hidden bits of magic planted around the park. Have you had a chance to play? What do you think? Is this a fun for the whole family adventure?

Here is the latest video update from Kevin Yee. This week he covers Flamingo Crossings
, the announced but unbuilt expansion of Walt Disney World to the west of Animal Kingdom

The Role Of Authenticity At The Studio Backlot Tour

After a recent tour through the Studio Backlot at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, I rolled my eyes and thought to myself, “Does anyone ever buy this?” Truth be told this is nothing new. I get a little irked every time I experience this attraction.

Michael Bay’s voice is the least enthusiastic one I heard all day at the park.

Is the attraction a shadow of its former self? Yes, it’s been radically nipped and tucked over the years. Is the tired Michael Bay and Jerry Bruckheimer-flavored Pearl Harbor attack sequence a forced and stale relic? It is to me. And if you’re going to put on a show, the Cast should come across as professional, not community theatre-level human automatons (that we are normally subjected to).

The “director” in my show had such poor enunciation and had apparently recited her patter so many times that she was nearly unintelligible.

But there’s more to it than just bad show. I feel like they’re trying to sell me something genuine that is, in fact, not.

I mean let’s face it, when was the last time a costume made in that costume shop was created specifically for a television show or film? Does anyone imagine the prop shop makes anything for productions outside those created for and performed in the resort itself? And who has ever really bought the whole “we’re now entering a hot set” shtick Amy the “production coordinator here at the studios” would have us believe as the tram enters Catastrophe Canyon?

Hi, I'm Amy, a production coordinator here at the studios. And if you believe that. . . I have some lovely Florida farm land I'd like to sell you.

I suppose it could be argued that, technically, all of these things are used in production. The first time I saw the Indiana Jones Stunt Spectacular, for example, and they introduced the guy playing Indy as a “professional stunt performer,” I laughed because it’s both true and recursive. Whether or not he had any noteworthy stunt credentials beforehand is irrelevant in the world of theme park winks and half-truths. He’s hired as a stunt performer in the show and that makes him a professional. But it’s a tease, isn’t it? If you’re in a park that celebrates the movies, and you are watching a movie-themed stunt show, and they introduce a professional stunt performer, do you play the same kind of logical hopscotch I did or do you just assume he’s for real to one degree or another? And before you accuse me of being an overly-skeptic “foamer,” you should know I both knew and had worked with this particular performer at a rural Renaissance Faire. And that, my friends, is a long way from Hollywood. So I guess the chief questions are these: Is the Studio Backlot Tour authentic? And does authenticity even matter?

I imagine no one ever plans a visit to a Disney park expecting authenticity. The whole point is that we are visiting a purposely-distorted representation of places real and imagined. These richly themed environments are expected to be false and that’s part of the allure. Experiencing an art directed, entertainment-oriented place created with a specific point of view like Main Street U.S.A. is, in part, an interactive extension of a movie going experience. There is no real suspension of disbelief, but rather one plays along to enhance the enjoyment level these environments provide.

So then does the Studio Backlot Tour at Disney’s Hollywood Studios provide the same kind of themed fun? It struck me the reason I roll my eyes may not be the fault of Disney but of mine. After all, do I think that old mansion in Liberty Square is haunted? Or even a mansion for that matter? No, of course not. In his June 4, 1989 New York Times review of the park, Jeffrey Schmalz wrote, “But any visitor expecting an elaborate tour of a working studio, a look over the shoulders of the dream makers as they actually shoot movies, will be disappointed… it is actually 90 percent theme park and 10 percent movie lot.” The Studio Backlot Tour is neither “studio” nor “backlot” and is as false a creation as Castillo Del Morro or Harambe or Tumbleweed. So, is my inability to relax and enjoy the tour like I do while on Pirates or Kilimanjaro Safari or Big Thunder Mountain Railroad entirely my own fault? Disney doesn’t play a complicit role in a deception here differently than that of any other themed attraction, right? Or do they?

Universal Studios Hollywood stopped offering tours of actual production studios in the early 1930’s when sound was added to motion pictures. About thirty years later, after MCA took over Universal, a studio tour was re-opened to add to studio profits. And while, in the half-century or so since then, staged events and canned shows have overtaken more authentic elements on the tour, the fact remains Universal Hollywood isn’t just a theme park but also a real, working studio. And this fact is what makes the cheesiness of something like The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift demonstration palatable, or at least forgivable, because the tour also drives you through a nearby plane crash set from the film “War of the Worlds,” of which the authentic origin is clear. During any visit, it might be possible to glimpse evidence of an actual production from the tour tram. And though Universal Studios Florida was originally billed as an authentic production facility with full-sized replicas of New York streets, they have long since abandoned the conceit of selling the park as anything but movie-themed fun. It is with this adjustment of intent, for example, that the 2008 update of “Earthquake” to “Disaster!” at Universal Orlando created some cheesy good fun out of an otherwise outdated attraction. So why hasn’t Disney also dropped the “working studio” fiction from the Backlot Tour and readjusted its intent to be that of movie-themed fun?

Sure, there are real prop vehicles from well-known flicks in the bone yard.

I take them at their word that the garishly painted chicken coup is from a Miley Cyrus film. (I hope you’ll forgive me if I refuse to vet that fact personally.)

And there are a ton of authentic props in the queue separating the Harbor Attack special effects demonstration and the tour tram loading area.

But how is that any different than Tibetan props at Expedition Everest, or for that matter all the junk screwed to the walls of your local TGI Fridays? The one part of the tour that got really enthusiastic responses from guests on my recent ride-through is Catastrophe Canyon. There is no discounting the sheer thrill of the heat from fireballs or the rocking tramcars or the thousands of gallons of water pouring down the mountain.

The framing device may be totally inauthentic but that’s real fire and real water and the fun that kind of live spectacle creates cannot be discounted.

Impressive, too, is the engineering reality of making something like that happen every ten minutes all day long. The infrastructure for which is presented in plain view as the tram rolls around behind the canyon.

But it’s not a film set. It’s a theme park attraction. And Amy isn’t a live production coordinator. She’s a canned voice-over artist. Sorry to pop the magic bubble.So, does it matter if it’s authentic? Perhaps not. But the difference between the white lies about a Studio Backlot Tour and the narrative of the cursed mine train of Big Thunder Mountain is that Disney doesn’t operate a mine. But they do make Hollywood films. And people are more apt to buy snake oil from a snake charmer. So how about showing this long obsolete part of the park some love, Disney, and at the same time show us a little respect for being smarter and more savvy than you seem to think we are? Drop the working studio conceit. Drop the cheesy trunk show of Harbor Attack and stop pandering to the lowest common denominator. Keep Catastrophe Canyon and even keep the tram vehicles if you must. But gut the rest and build us something amazing and awe-inspiring that befits a 21st Century theme park and celebrates our love of film.

Sure would be nice to see the trams full again.

Folks, this is just how I see it. What would you like to see done with the Studio Backlot tour, if anything? Love it or hate it, we'd love to hear you sound off in the comments below.

The Boneyard play area is suffering from some maintenance issues. However, this one in particular is sad. These bones normally create a touch sensitive xylaphone. Unfortunately, you have to beat the heck out of them to get them to activate at all, when they should be just activated by a mere touch.

The drinking fountains here were also too high for most of the children to use them. It appears there is a box on the ground for kids to stand up on, but this doesn't look all that safe... we were even able to move the box around. A more permanent, lower drinking foiuntain, seems like it would be a much better and safer soultion than this movable box.

Islands of Adventure is one of our favorite parks in Orlando. For the last year, they've been spending a lot of time and money refurbishing the park. Record crowds from a hot new attraction (Wizarding World of Harry Potter) will do that for you. They recently finished refurbishing the Dudley Do-Right Ripsaw Falls. This, "You will Get Wet" flume ride is wildly inventive and unique in certain aspects, but a let-down when it comes to the hollow stretches of empty show building that could be telling story (and were meant to before the pre-opening budgets were slashed). The ride is now back up, but we hope that a little of that magic Harry Potter money makes it to Toon Lagoon to flesh-out this cartoon ride out a bit more.

New stilt performers were spotted working the crowds in the Lost Continent area of the park. A nice touch indeed.

As the Dudley Do-Right flume ride came back up, the Jurassic Park River Adventure went down for its annual refurbishment.

HOLLYWOOD DRIVE-IN GOLF:Here are the latest progress shots from the Hollywood Drive-in Golf course under construction in CityWalk. This project continues to impress and we can't wait to try it out.

The mini golf can be seen from the speed ramps at CityWalk, which gives them great curb appeal. The two courses have the potential of being among the most popular in Orlando due to the massive crowds which zip by them every day.

The Toon Store near E.T. Adventure is undergoing refurbishment.

No visible progress has been made in Amity since the Jaws Closure. We will keep you posted.

Unfortunately, Universal can't use magic to make this Harry Potter expansion happen overnight. These construction walls will be around for a while.

Work continues on the infrastructure for the new Lagoon show coming this summer.

Not as ugly as the big inflatable balls used for Universal 360, but not pretty either.

More exterior work is noticeable at the Despicable me overlay. Minios have begun to greet guests ahead of the opening of what is sure to be an entertaining simulator attraction.

We'll miss Jimmy Neutron's Chicken Dance, but are really looking forward to seeing what the minions have cooked up.

Ever dreamed about playing baseball and learning from former greats of the game? Every January, the Detroit Tigers host a Fantasy Camp at their spring training home in Lakeland, Florida. During the week that camp lasts (there are 2 camp sessions), campers are mentored by former Tigers and ends with playing against them. The final games on Saturday are open to the public at Joker Marchant Stadium for a $2 donation, which supports the local Boys & Girls Club.This year's Fantasy Camp featured a salute to former Tiger great (and current Arizona Diamondbacks bench coach) Alan Trammell. "Tram" himself came out to partake in the fun, along with other former Tiger greats such as Lou Whitaker, Darrell Evans, Willie Horton, Mickey Lolich and more! Autograph seekers have a field day getting signatures from the players they watched while growing up (the players sign randomly during the game and between innings, all up to their discretion). The games are a lot of fun to watch and you never know what kind of shenanigans might go on.

A beautiful day for baseball... in January? Hello, Joker Marchant Stadium!

Player introductions.

Alan Trammell signs some autographs before the game.

Let's play ball!

The 2nd week of this year's Fantasy Camp is this week, ending with another game of campers vs. former major leaguers on Saturday January 28. For more information about Detroit Tigers Fantasy Camp, you can visit Detroit Tigers Fantasy Camps | Fan Forum.

Cogratulations to PhilippeP for guessing last weeks parkhopper in posting..."Hidden PH : Kraken ... too easy "

Look into the magnifying glass below and see if you can figure out where the park hoppers are this week. Post your guess in the comments area below. If you are the first to guess the answer you will be featured in next week's update. GOOD LUCK!

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Please join us in thanking the fantastic and talented crew of writers, photographers and news contributors who worked so hard this week to bring you the latest information from the parks. This week's team included:

- ABOMIBOT - Personal Photo Blog
- Aimster - Pictures by Aimster
- Denise Preskit -

- Eric M. Davis

- Miles Bresin - Miles' Photos

- Professor Brainard

- Editors: SummerinFL, Fishbulb, Dustysage

Thank you for reading, we hope you've been inspired to explore Orlando's many wonderful attractions. We'd love to hear your comments below.

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  1. danyoung's Avatar
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    I had a friend who used to work in the WDW video production department, back when there was actual production going on. It used to be totally cool to see studio setups, the vehicle boneyard when it was changing all the time, and especially for me the state of the art video editing facilities. But once they took all of this out the tour became a pale shadow of its former self. I still take the tour every once in a while for the Catastrophe Canyon segment. But the rest of it is a big snooze. Same problem with the animation tour, which I've refused to go on once they closed down the Florida animation unit.
  2. Twist1234's Avatar
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    I say scrap the back lot tour it's a mess. Cut up the area and make multiple rides or one big E ticket with it. Whatever "studio" authenticity it had was gone when MGM left and contrary to the Great Movie Ride there are no redeming features to that mess (execpt maybe the various props laying about the place which should probably be put in a better place, including the prop from the grove scene in Horizons (R.I.P.)).
  3. TodAZ1's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by J.J.
    I remember the tour from 1995 and that real production was happening there. Wasn't "The Lottery Ticket" part of the tour at that time? I fondly remember when real animation was being done at the studio as well. Call me nostalgic, but I miss those days.
    I can remember going through the Animation Studio at Disney/MGM Studios (back in the day) and watching the animators/artists working on Mulan.

    Those were the good old days, I guess.
  4. Disneylandfan85's Avatar
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    If they took out the studio tour but left Catastrophe Canyon, what would be the point of that?
  5. DoubleD's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Disneylandfan85
    If they took out the studio tour but left Catastrophe Canyon, what would be the point of that?
    Maybe create additional special effects shows and tour through those, ala Earthquake at Universal. Driving through vacant costume areas and through prop houses that aren't really being used is just stale and antiquated. Maybe remake the "tour" into Hollywood's best special effects, and then build off of Catastrophe Canyon. Scrap the rest, and re-imagine the whole area. After all, isn't that what Disney is best at?
  6. Disneylandfan85's Avatar
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    And though Universal Studios Florida was originally billed as an authentic production facility with full-sized replicas of New York streets, they have long since abandoned the conceit of selling the park as anything but movie-themed fun. It is with this adjustment of intent, for example, that the 2008 update of “Earthquake” to “Disaster!” at Universal Orlando created some cheesy good fun out of an otherwise outdated attraction. So why hasn’t Disney also dropped the “working studio” fiction from the Backlot Tour and readjusted its intent to be that of movie-themed fun?
    How did Universal go from "working studio" to "movie-themed fun"?
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