Big Picture: Forests & Trees

I spend a lot of time here on MiceAge looking at the “trees” (the details), intentionally giving shorter shrift to the “forest” (the big picture). That’s by design, since there are so many websites out there which cater to first-time or infrequent visitors. Everyone has to have a niche. Mine tends to be in the trees—or even, if you will, the weeds. And as the saying goes, it’s easy to get lost in the weeds of some arguments.

No, pandas, bamboo is not weeds!

It’s worthwhile, therefore, to poke my head out of the foliage every so often, and re-affirm just where I am on the map. To see the forest again. The criticisms I give of the “trees” (where Disney falls short, which seems to happen often these days, compared to its previous history of hits) might give infrequent readers the idea that I’m anti-Disney, or that I hate Disney. Nothing could be further from the truth. I love Disney. Why in the world would I spend practically every weekend at a Disney park otherwise?

There are legion other choices here in Orlando, yet it’s been months since I’ve been at SeaWorld and weeks since Universal. That should say something. The reality is that I happily spend almost all of my weekends at the Disney parks, because they still satisfy so deeply. At the risk of skirting the boundaries of tasteful expository prose, I daresay they feed my soul. Nothing else captures the enormity of the impact on me. I wonder sometimes if the effect would be detectable physiologically. I really think my blood pressure literally drops each time I set foot in Epcot and exhale with satisfaction.

All of Epcot is pretty much my happy place.

It’s this deep, abiding love for Disney that drives the dissatisfaction when things aren’t right. I harp on tarp-covered broken effects and broken yetis so much because the parks have this amazing ability to transform visitors—even ones who come every week, like me. It’s no exaggeration to say this is extremely rare on the planet. How many places can do that to so many people who visit? Certainly some natural wonders can do it, as can some ancient architectural marvels, but 40 and 50 year old amusement parks? It’s almost ludicrous to put such parks side by side with the great wonders of the planet, but when you think about the effect on visitors, it seems logical. For some visitors, the experience is akin to a religious pilgrimage…and I mean that in more than just a loose metaphorical sense.

Lotso at Epcot's entrance is equipped with a “smellitzer” to pump
out a strawberry scent from the box toward the walkway.

Part of the formula for success is that a million details still work at the Disney parks. I may jab at those which no longer do, and my pet theory of Declining by Degrees holds that if enough such details are broken, the magic suffers in real ways. But for all that, it would be a mistake to lump together the Disney properties with traveling fairs and trashy regional parks. Disney has not suddenly sunk to such depths as to no longer be unique. I may imply that such an endgame might be in the cards when talking about individual trees, but the reality still looks bright for Disney when talking about the forest. And it’s the forest that most casual and first-time visitors see.

The Strawberry Festival in nearby Plant City is really just another state fair.

Does visiting weekly make me jaded? Put another way, does familiarity breed contempt? Surely there’s wisdom in that old phrase, though in my defense I’ve been aware of this temptation from the very beginning, and I’ve taken pains to guard against it whenever I could. At least, I’ve tried to. If we get bogged down in the weeds sometimes, it was an honest attempt to place a “tree” under a microscope with the best of intentions, rather than a reflection of the overall forest.

Amazingly, I can ride Small World every few weeks and not hate the song.

I tingle with anticipation at the start of each weekend and face the end of each Sunday with a resigned kind of dread that has nothing to do with the workweek, but has everything to do with the realization that I’ll be away from Disney for the next few days. Every so often, I want to just revel in the glory that is the Disney universe. It’s amazing to live here.

Tourists might find the France movie boring (as I did, way back then),
but it’s now the height of relaxation and “old Disney” to me.

FastPass Alterations

Several credible online rumors point to the upcoming Meet Mickey FastPasses on Main Street (scheduled to re-open April 1, though it may be late) to have a new feature: a firm return time. Literally since its introduction in 1999, FastPass has been a lenient program. People could return late, even hours after the posted time, and Cast Members would not even bat an eyelash. They’ve been trained all these years to explicitly allow for late-return. The ostensible reasons are not hard to imagine. If the parade or a dining reservation gets in the way of a timely return, why not allow them to be late?

Since no one wants to play the game of deciding how late is “too late,” in practice everything is fair game. That had effects on the Standby line. If people can return late willy-nilly, that might lead to a faster-than-normal Standby line during the “actual” window and a slower-than-expected Standby line during those hours when people are returning late.

An unrelated update: The ‘whirlygig’ towers in Epcot’s
Future World central plaza have all been removed.

What might it portend that the new Mickey FastPass will have a firm return time? Obviously, they are trying to clamp down on the abuse of returning hours late. As a local, I’ll confess that I frequently return hours late. It won’t affect me too much to be held to return times in the future, if this program goes wide, but then again, it won’t affect me much either if I simply miss the window and elect not to ride that week. There’s always next week. Are locals really the target here? There can’t be that many weekly visitors in Orlando. The population of Orange County is only 1.1 million or so according to the recent census.

That leaves folks visiting from out of town. Some are assuredly repeat visitors (the DVC crowd leaps to mind), but many are infrequent or one-in-a-lifetime tourists. Will they benefit from stricter rules? I honestly don’t know. Many of them probably already return in the allotted window, not knowing that late return WAS allowed. So the answer might be a tentative yes.

The long-term solution will hopefully be a comprehensive line strategy across the parks. It’s starting to look like Disney is pursuing a multi-pronged strategy. There will still be FastPass, though some (most?) may be allocated to reservations-from-home done weeks earlier. Same-day FastPass still seems likely. And the standby lines look poised to get more interesting, what with the recent Pooh and Haunted Mansion changes.

We can expect a new queue for Peter Pan soon, too, when they tear down the Skyway building to make room for a revised FL walkway, and clear up space for the Pan queue. I say bravo. That’s one queue that REALLY needs games and interactions.

An unrelated photo of Stitch for the Flower and Garden Festival at Epcot.

Universal Up For Sale

You may have seen that one of the owners of Universal Orlando wants to sell to the other owner. The full ownership is a story unto itself. The Universal Orlando resort is 50% owned by Blackstone, and 50% by NBC Universal. Blackstone is trying to sell its half to NBC Universal.

But NBC Universal is part of a larger picture. It was acquired by Comcast a few months ago, so now it’s Comcast’s call what to do next. If they say no, Blackstone could try to sell Universal Orlando to a third party (including Comcast’s share, which they would have to sell if the conditions were right, whether they wanted to or not). And that option is risky, since so many of the partnerships, sponsors, and character licenses (including Harry Potter) at Universal Orlando could potentially become null and void in the hands of a new owner.

If that weren’t complex enough, Stephen Spielberg appears to have some veto rights, and may be eligible for a one-time cash-out in 2017 no matter what else happens. Complicated yet?

Terminator 2 3-D

Blackstone is also part of a larger picture. They are the sole owner of SeaWorld parks (and Busch Gardens parks), and they are a co-owner of Merlin Entertainment. Merlin, you may remember, is the parent company that owns Legoland, and there’s a Legoland coming to Florida in Fall 2011. What’s going on?

My guess would be that Blackstone and Merlin want to craft a vision of Orlando attractions that doesn’t include Universal. There’s probably more profit in crafting a Legoland-SeaWorld-Busch pass than a larger pass that folds in Universal (and hands over a bunch of the profit to NBC Universal and Comcast).

On the one hand, this is a shame. A united front by the non-Disney players in Orlando could pose a real challenge to the Mouse, and force concessions from Disney in price (or else force them to make fantastic new rides, which is a win for everyone). But divided these players offer less unfettered competition, and I wonder if Disney might just choose to ignore them. That would be a shame.

40x40 meet this week

While the gang of regulars will meet this week at 2pm at Enchanted Grove (the eventual destination being the Fantasyland carousel), I will not be able to attend this one. See you all the time after that!

Kevin Yee may be e-mailed at [email protected] - Please keep in mind he may not be able to respond to each note personally. FTC-Mandated Disclosure: As of December 2009, bloggers are required by the Federal Trade Commission to disclose payments and freebies. Kevin Yee pays for his own admission to theme parks and their associated events, unless otherwise explicitly noted.

2011 Kevin Yee

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Kevin's Disney Books

Kevin is the author of many books on Disney theme parks, including:

The Unofficial Walt Disney World ‘Earbook 2010 is a photo-rich volume of 70 pages that park fans will find especially useful if they want to know what’s changed at WDW since their last visit.

History was on my mind as I composed this book. As you might expect, there is a section on additions, another on removals, and a third on events. But I wanted to make sure to include some prices from January 2010 in the book, the better to capture in future years (and future generations?) exactly what it costs to buy admission, parking, a night at each level of hotel, or such food items as a turkey leg. I also wanted to provide a bit more specificity to the unfolding of events, so the various additions and removals, as well as smaller alterations and debuts, are laid out in a timeline broken down month-by-month.

In short, the book is designed to appeal to those folks who are similarly history-minded, as well as those who are hungry to know what changed at Disney World since their last visit. Or perhaps it’s a worthwhile keepsake for anyone who DID visit in 2010—it captures what was new, after all.

Also recently issued...

Walt Disney World Hidden History: Remnants of Former Attractions and Other Tributes:

As the title implies, this is all about those little things in the parks that have significance to insiders and long-timers, but are never explained or highlighted. When a ride closes, sometimes pieces or props from that ride are folded into the replacement attraction (think of the World of Motion car seen in the queue of Test Track). Other times, designers intentionally craft a tribute to the previous ride—an example of that might be the carving of a submarine in the cement tree created for Pooh’s Playful Spot where the 20,000 Leagues subs used to be.

The other kind of homage in the parks concerns not rides, but individuals. The designers, artists, engineers, executives, and people important to Disney’s history often provide the inspiration for names and titles used at the attractions. Sadly, these are almost always unheralded. All of these remnants and tributes are normally left for the truly obsessed to spot piecemeal. They are usually not even discussed in the official Disney books and tours. This book sets out to change that, and catalog all such remnants and tributes in one spot.

The final result is 225 pages of hyper-detailed historical factoids. Broadly speaking this is a “trivia” book, but remember that it’s a particular kind of trivia. You’ve known before that the Walt Disney World theme parks wove a thick tapestry of details and backstory into a seamless (and peerless) experience. But armed with the specifics of homages and tributes, you’ll become aware that the parks are even more alive, and layered with meaning, that you could have ever imagined.

Might this be an ideal present for the Disney fan on your shopping list? If so, please have a look.

Also written by Kevin...

  • Your Day at the Magic Kingdom is a full-color, hardcover interactive children's book, where readers decide which attraction to ride next (and thus which page to turn to) - but watch out for some unexpected surprises!
  • Mouse Trap: Memoir of a Disneyland Cast Member provides the first authentic glimpse of what it's like to work at Disneyland.
  • The Walt Disney World Menu Book lists restaurants, their menus, and prices for entrees, all in one handy pocket-sized guide.
  • Tokyo Disney Made Easy is a travel guide to Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo DisneySeas, written to make the entire trip stress-free for non-speakers of Japanese.
  • Magic Quizdom offers an exhaustive trivia quiz on Disneyland park, with expansive paragraph-length answers that flesh out the fuller story on this place rich with details.
  • 101 Things You Never Knew About Disneyland is a list-oriented book that covers ground left intentionally unexposed in the trivia book, namely the tributes and homages around Disneyland, especially to past rides and attractions.
  • 101 Things You Never Knew About Walt Disney World follows the example of the Disneyland book, detailing tributes and homages in the four Disney World parks.

More information on the above titles, along with ordering options are at this link.