We’ve got an experiment for you this morning! We’ll do this update in the usual text-based fashion but ALSO offer it to you as a narrated slideshow/video. We want your vote—which way is better? Be sure to drop us an email to let us know or comment on the MiceChat discussion boards.

Read what you're missing...

First, here’s the video embedded below:

The text which follows is a mostly-similar report, though it’s got fewer topics (the smaller updates) and it goes a little deeper in the two topics which are discussed. It’s hard to know which is a better method for presenting this, so please help us out by providing feedback as noted above.

Splashless Mountain

I’m a fan of the Disney theme park experience; that should be obvious by now. What is the proper role of a fan? One possible answer is to “be positive about everything they do.” After all, you’re a fan (which, we recall, is short for “fantatic.”) My answer has always been to take it to the next step. If you love the product because it does a certain something right (in this case, escapism and immersion), does it not behoove the fans to let the company know when escapism and immersion are threatened by the way things are operated? Does a fan really have to be silent in the face of something less than the excellence which earned the fandom to begin with? I could imagine an extreme interpretation that says anyone who DOESN’T speak up when things are bad isn’t truly a fanatic.

Splash Mountain animatronics should be animated, right?

In this day and age of cost-cutting and imperiled economic recovery, does Disney really need much of an excuse to “let things slide”? I rather think not. So if they reduce maintenance budgets over several years (and they have done this at WDW), you’d expect things to start slipping (and they have). But now for the big question: would you expect people to pipe up about it? Here’s an obvious logical step: if NO ONE complains about it, Disney is probably going to continue to cut costs. After all, the fans don’t appear to notice.

So in that same spirit, I feel it necessary to point out to Disney when they fall short. And Splash Mountain is starting to fall pretty short. It recently had a rehab (most of January 2011), during which time things got freshened up, and they fixed the two super-splashes (one that headed toward the bridge now dissipates, and another that used to soak the log heading uphill now stops just shy). Those changes were appreciated and good.

But the past two weekends I’ve ridden Splash Mountain and come off the ride disappointed with the quality of the upkeep on the effects. This Sunday I kept a running tally of broken animatronics, and the number is easily over 30. They aren’t all broken in the sense that they are immobile, but they either don’t have their full range of function and motion (the turtle in the Laughing Place) or they no longer move their mouths when they are “speaking” (a full twenty of the animatronics now suffer this, including every one of the Brer Foxes). It’s embarrassing. It’s as if the characters are speaking through clenched teeth – it very much destroys the very immersion and escapism mentioned above, the kind of rich detail which causes us to be fans.

Can you talk through clenched teeth?

Frankly, it reminds me of the infamous PowerPoint slide in the early DCA (and Paul Pressler) days that held the caption “If it’s good enough for Six Flags”. Disney just raised its ticket prices, and they sure aren’t priced the same as Six Flags. So here’s hoping they recognize the need to fix this.

The problem appears to be budgetary in nature. The workers on the ride do perform the needed quality checks, and the nighttime repair folks are doing the best they can. One example is the beehive just before the Laughing Place drop. Last week, the bees sticking out the sides were immobile; this week they were missing. Clearly someone noticed them and removed them. Now, one hopes they will be replaced after being fixed. It would be equally a “decline by degrees” if they just took away the spinning bees and never brought them back.

If the folks actually walking the track are hard-working, then what’s the problem? The problem is that there aren’t enough of them. Comparing the workforce size of several years ago to now is instructive; they’ve lost dozens of overnight positions. The result is that the remaining workers are swamped, forced into a triage mode. They WANT to fix things, but don’t have time to get to everything.

Zip a Dee Doo Dah!

I’m hoping the executives take a ride on Splash Mountain to see for themselves how bad it’s gotten. You can’t just wish excellence into existence. If it’s supposed to be “better” than Six Flags, then they have to find the funds to get it that way. And we, the fans, have to demand it. Otherwise, why should they spend the money?


Comcast just bought the rest of Universal Studios parks and resorts it did not own, from theme park operator Blackstone. It may seem odd at first that Blackstone, which runs theme parks around the world, didn’t want this one. But Comcast likely had no choice in the matter, since the contract they had stipulated that if Comcast passed on buying up Blackstone’s bit, then Blackstone could sell it to whoever they wanted… for whatever price they wanted, with no input from Comcast.

Changes on the horizon?

Or then again, maybe Comcast wanted this deal. The new head of NBC Universal, who will oversee the parks, is Steve Burke. Remember that name? You should. He was once an executive at the Disney Stores, but more importantly, he led the charge in 2004 when Comcast tried to buy up the entire Disney corporation. In a nutshell, he’s got drive and chutzpah; he’s someone to watch. And now he’ll be in charge of the Universal parks.

That Burke once wanted Disney and now heads up the Universal segment is telling. It implies he wants to be like Michael Eisner, who as head of Disney famously saw himself as a creative giant capable of making good programming decisions on the movie/TV end, and good decisions on the park side as well (Disney was a much smaller and sleepier theme park operator before 1984). Eisner got Disney out of the habit of playing it safe.

If Burke wants to be Eisner, I wonder if he’ll similarly not play it safe. He’s only 52 years old; probably ambitious enough to want to make a name for himself, and now he has a chance. We might see some spectacular changes out of this. Exactly what we might see is of course unknown. But it will be big, I think. Would he try to unite the two Orlando parks into a single ticket? Add a land (maybe based on Transformers)? Remove entire lands that aren’t working anymore? Add things from the amazingly well-themed Universal park in Singapore? (That place looks dynamite. I have just got to get there someday).

Islands of Adventure is no theming slouch.

Or maybe a different route. Disney was always dominant, courtesy of its amazing offerings and high bar set decades ago (though I wonder if a snarky comparison here between Potter and today’s Splash Mountain might be in order?) But Disney’s dominance grew in the past couple of decades due to a long-running, slow-moving effort to get people to stay on Walt Disney World property and NOT venture out to Universal and SeaWorld. In the 80s, park operators played the good neighbor role, but no longer. An explicit operation (“Destination Disney”) was created to plan out how programs and investments might be made to guarantee people stay here, don’t leave, and thus spend all their money here. The most visible components are the Magical Express buses (no need to rent a car), the Magic Your Way tickets (it’s ludicrously cheap to add extra days to your vacation, so why bother going to Universal?), and hotel perks like Extra Magic Hours (soon to be other perks like special FastPass or NextGen interactive goodies?)

Universal needs an initiative like that. Build enough hotels to hold thousands (their three small current hotels are not enough), then make it free to take the bus there from the airport. Keep the hotel perks (free Universal Express pass to skip lines) and make the park admission tickets cheaper if you stay longer. Since they have two parks instead of four, perhaps they should opt to just make the tickets cheaper in general to hotel guests rather than trying to squeeze ten days out of two parks? We may also see many more strategic FlexPass ticket offerings that combine all the non-Disney Orlando attractions in creative ways. Such a ticket exists now for $305 (six parks, 14 days). I wonder what would happen if they cut the price in half?

One thing’s for sure: Disney won’t bat an eyelash at the competition unless something actually moves the needle on Disney’s own bottom line. If Universal ups the ante creatively but people still stream into Disney, we may not see much happen. If Disney’s bookings (and more importantly, profit margins) slip, then we’ll see action.

Just this week, Wizarding World’s Website won a Webby! (say that five times fast!)

In the 1980s, when Eisner took over, the company became “reactive” to the competition. When Universal announced a studio park, Eisner moved quickly and not only announced his as well, he got his open first. When Busch Gardens Tampa was a draw, Eisner approved a Busch-like park in the form of DAK. Similarly Mission:Space for Kennedy Space Center.

Now, the reaction comes “after the fact.” When Potter was announced, Disney didn’t do much at first. Then, they belatedly announced an expansion to Fantasyland and touted it as amazing. That lasted until Potter actually opened, and the hordes pronounced it amazing. Disney then re-tooled the Fantasyland expansion plans. Do you suppose they saw a bottom-line effect of Potter already? If Burke makes big moves, expect Disney to react slowly.

Lastly, back to our experiment. This update was written in text and also delivered by video, but I can’t do that every week, so I need to know your preferences. Be sure to vote at the survey or drop us an email to let us know (or comment via MiceChat).

40x40 Meets – New Location

We’ve switched locations before, seeking air conditioning, but our Town Square location at the exit to Meet Mickey was high traffic once they installed a store in that nice open zone we selected (Ha! We should have known!) So we’re switching locations again. From now on, we’ll be halfway up Main Street and opposite the Emporium, at the Main Street Cinema (it still has a marquee on the outside like a cinema).

We still meet at 2pm every Saturday and welcome all visitors. Drop by if you’re on vacation and just say hi, even if you don’t want to hit the “ride of the week” with us.

This week’s ride is Peter Pan. Because it gets so very crowded and has such an irritating standby line (until they fix that with the coming interactive queue), we should all get FastPasses earlier in the day. So even before that 2pm meet, come early to the Magic Kingdom to grab a FastPass. We’ll ride around 2:20 (though as you know, you can always come ‘late’ to a FP window).

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.