Sunday, November 19, 2017

Happy Thanksgiving and Happy First Anniversary for Haunted Serenade: Five Overlooked Walt Disney World Attractions I Am Grateful Are Still Around

It has now been a year (and a few days) since I published my first writings on Haunted Serenade, a tribute to masterpieces and strange things alike at Walt Disney World and regions beyond. As it is getting very close to Thanksgiving, that wonderful day of counting blessings, I thought I should express my thanks and gratitude for some of my own. To everyone who has taken the time to read and express their thoughts and appreciation of this blog, thank you. Your praise, thanks, and opinions have been nothing short of wonderful for me to see. I hope you all have an amazing Thanksgiving, and I look forward to sharing more of my thoughts and musings on some WDW's greatest or overlooked attractions and more!

Another thing I felt I should express my thanks for is those few remaining Walt Disney World attractions that are often overlooked but are childhood favorites of mine that are still alive and well at their respective theme parks in the World. Without further ado, here are five of the most underrated but personally beloved attractions that I am grateful are still alive:

#5: WEDWAY Peoplemover

(Joe Penniston on Flickr)
Rain or shine, daytime and especially nighttime, the Peoplemover has always been a reliable old friend, one of the most relaxing and comfortable attractions in the entire Disney World. The covered and sturdily supported track eliminates any fear of heights, and combines a gentle motion, a relatively quiet atmosphere, and wonderful looks at the attractions of the land to produce a singularly relaxing ride. It's particularly wonderful at nighttime after a long, sweaty and exhausting trip around the Kingdom, just the perfect kind of ride to put up your feet on and relax, especially if the obnoxiously loud Tomorrowland dance party is not performing. But no matter the time of day or night, the breeze from the motion of the Peoplemover and the dark and calming trips inside the show buildings are a much-needed respite from the brutal Florida climate. A preview of Buzz LightYear's Space Ranger Spin and a look of part of Walt Disney's original Progress City model are both wonderful, but the trip inside Space Mountain is undoubtedly the highlight of this experience. Otherworldly and soothing music from outer space accompanies glimpses of the lift hills, the incredible post-show dioramas, and a previously amazing look at the ride itself that unfortunately is now too dark to see much but still hints at the thrills and terrors of Space Mountain.

(Hector A Parayuelos on Flickr)

 Both the Magic Kingdom and the guests that enjoy it are very fortunate that the WDW Peoplemover has chugged along long after Disneyland's Peoplemover was first transformed into the disastrous Rocket Rods and then completely abandoned. The countless days and nights I've traveled up those conveyor belts to that platform underneath Astro Orbiter and been whisked away on the most pleasant and relaxing ride in the Magic Kingdom is one of the greatest pleasures I've ever had in visiting the Magic Kingdom. The Peoplemover continues to provide true magic on my vacations even as less and less of that magic is present in much of Walt Disney World, and for that I am most thankful.

#4: Gran Fiesta Tour

(Rain0975 on Flickr)
This may be a surprising inclusion for those who have considered this attraction in a lesser form after its conversion from El Rio Del Tiempo to Gran Fiesta Tour. But as I mentioned in my detailed comparison of both attractions and their success, I have every bit as much to love about Gran Fiesta Tour as I did El Rio Del Tiempo. Namely, one of the greatest yet understated scenes in a Disney boat ride I have ever experienced; the few moments of silently gliding through a dark, thick jungle, and emerging in that amazing lagoon with the Mayan pyramid, and the fiery volcano in the distance. This scene is one of the most comparable things in WDW to the sublime Blue Bayou in Disneyland's Pirates of the Caribbean, and it basks in that same incredible atmosphere of scenery and darkness.

(Sam Howzit on Flickr)
 Another thing I undoubtedly enjoy about this attraction is the starring role the Three Caballeros play. Although I am in general not a fan of character overlays of attractions at Epcot, Gran Fiesta Tour comes the closest to success as an attraction out of all of them, and it is nice to see old and overlooked characters such as Panchito Pistoles (the rooster) and Jose Carioca (the parrot) be featured in an attraction. Donald Duck also happens to be my favorite Disney cartoon character, so this ride can't help but be a personal favorite of mine. Gran Fiesta Tour also unintentionally continues in a way to inform people about Mexico and its culture; Dias De Los Muertos and footage of various real locations in Mexico figure prominently into the experience. All of this adds up to a fun, colorful, and enjoyable attraction with a great trio of characters that unlike Frozen Ever After does not completely ignore and in fact showcases the very real Mexico it is supposed to represent. That is indeed something to be thankful for.

(Inazakira on Flickr)

Unfortunately, out of all the attractions in this list, Gran Fiesta Tour may be in the most imminent danger. The Pixar film "Coco" appears to be doing great in the box office, and it doesn't take a genius these days to figure out what will happen next. The fundamental problem with what would be the second IP overlay of the original Mexico ride is that "Coco" to my knowledge almost entirely focuses on Dias De Los Muertos and the Land of the Dead. If the Mexico ride were to be rethemed to feature Miguel from this movie, it would most likely mean that the attraction would be rethemed as well to mostly be about Dias De Los Muertos, and that's the equivalent of an attraction at the America Pavilion that only focuses on Halloween (I know the two holidays are not exactly the same, but it's as best of an analogy as I can make). This would mean that only one main aspect of Mexican history and culture would be represented in that pavilion's attraction, a questionable decision at best. I hope fervently that this does not happen, in part because of the reason just stated, but also in part because I still hope to enter that misty tunnel and see those wonderful Three Caballeros on the other side.

#3: Tom Sawyer's Island

(Rain0975 on Flickr)
 I bet you can feel the motion of the raft taking you to Tom Sawyer's Island right now. I know I can. I feel sorry for anyone who hasn't boarded a raft named after Tom himself or one of his friends and made for the island across the Rivers of America. From the moment you step off the raft and start exploring the island, there's no limit to the adventure or relaxation you seek. Whether you sit down on a barrel and play rustic checkers with a friend, precariously cross the unpredictable floating barrel bridge, venture into the abandoned, creaky Harper's Mill, or try to scare each other stiff in the dark and eerie tunnels and caverns beneath the island, there is always something to do, a path to walk, and a way to relax. Isolated from the rest of the Kingdom by the Rivers of America, you can enjoy the quiet, shaded woods of Tom Sawyer's hideaway as you watch the Liberty Belle sail by or the wild trains speeding on Big Thunder Mountain in the distance. If the last raft didn't return to the mainland well before sunset, you could spend all day and all night on this island and may still not do or see  everything that's there. Fort Longhorn in particular is a playground for child and adult alike; junior cowboys and Indians would be at home running around while the parents admired the dioramas of fort life within its walls. There are even mock rifles to shoot with! Tom Sawyer's Island is a veritable treasure of adventure and fun in all forms, and I am thankful for the many times I've gotten to go on whatever adventure I wanted to have in that wonderful place.

#2: Living With The Land

(Hector A Parayuelos on Flickr)
By all accounts, the mere fact that this Epcot attraction is still alive is a miraculous and joyous thing. Of all the attractions in the original Future World that truly strove to entertain, inform, and inspire, this is the only one still left. In a world without Horizons, the original Journey Into Imagination, World Of Motion, the Nemo-less Living Seas, and Universe of Energy, Living With the Land is still alive and well, its refurbishment in 1994 updating it rather then ruining it. While the ride still has the misfortune of having part of it become outdated by about two decades, that is a far better fate then being gutted and replaced with a shell of itself or outright demolished. Those guests who step into one of those beautiful canopy-covered boats end up experiencing the last true bastion of EPCOT Center and its dreams and ideals. The ride itself is neat. The dioramas of a thunderstorm, tropical rainforest, desert and prairie are all wonderful works of classic Imagineering from the WED era. The living greenhouses, aquariums and laboratory, completely unique experiences in an attraction that set it apart from its peers in Future World, boasts a mind-boggling array of plants, crops, and aquamarine life, not only displaying great advances and experiments in agriculture and aquaculture, but also contributing to the supply of ingredients for meals served at Walt Disney World. While it is a shame that this in particular is where the out of date parts show, hanging plants and hybrid agriculture are still cool sights to see, reminders of Epcot's original geeky spirit.

(Joe Penniston on Flickr)

With the recent and painful closure of Universe of Energy making all too clear the demise of both EPCOT Center and the Epcot park that still strove to inform in some way, it seems to be only a matter of time before Living With The Land as we know it is gone. What confounded ride based on an existing IP will replace it? I don't know. But this I do know: I am especially grateful to be able to have experienced the last great and true EPCOT Center attraction, and learn some things about living with the land.

#1: Walt Disney's Enchanted Tiki Room (AKA Tropical Serenade)

(Norm Lanier on Flickr)
 Were it not for a fire 6 years ago that to this day is still known as a freak act-of-God, this attraction would probably not be on my list today. This fire, far from ruining the Tiki Room, saved it from the tyrannous rule of Iago, a rule that was all 11-year old me had ever experienced in the Tiki Room before the fire. When I at last got to see the true Tiki Room, it was one of the best things I ever got to experience. The amazing towering pagoda that marked the entrance and the marvelous interior of the Tiki Room with its brilliant window dioramas of tropical paradise were already things I knew and enjoyed, however plagued the actual show was by the New Management. But I had never gotten to meet Clyde and Claude, that absolutely wonderful pair of toucans perched on the tiki god inside the waterfall before. And when the first few lines of "The Tiki Tiki Tiki Room" passed with no obnoxious Iago interrupting and descending from the ceiling, well, the true enchantment of the Tiki Room began. The glee club's cheerful singing and whistling during the first song delighted me in no small amount. Jose, Michael, Pierre, and Fritz made excellent hosts of the Tiki Room, their playful banter and one-liners showcasing the natural talents of the Tiki Room that had been suppressed for so long. When the wunderbar birdmobile descended from the ceiling and the girls sang, their song was a pleasant surprise: "Let's All Sing Like The Birdies Sing" was one of my fondest memories from the Disney sing-along films I used to watch constantly as a little kid. But it was when the flowers and tikis did their incredible performance of the Hawaiian War Chant that I really fell under the spell of the Enchanted Tiki Room. I sat enthralled as the chant got faster and more raucous, as the volcanoes and peaceful blue skies in the windows turned an eerie red, and smoke poured out of the center planter and enveloped the room. Then came the thunderstorm to punctuate the climax, and afterwards the joyful goodbye bid by the tiki birds to the tune of "Heigh Ho". It did not take long after I passed through those beautifully carved exit doors for Walt Disney's Enchanted Tiki Room to become my favorite show in the entire Walt Disney World.

(CarrieLu on Flickr)

The return of Walt Disney's Enchanted Tiki Room to the Magic Kingdom was nothing short of a miracle, a stunning resurrection of a show back from the abyss in which many late great Disney World attractions have gone and never come back. But now, rumors swirl about Moana "joining" the Tiki Room, and it will remain to see if Disney remembers the critical lesson that the terrible Under New Management taught them about not messing with the Tiki Room. It would be heartbreaking if they didn't. But regardless of all that, I will be forever thankful and happy that it returned and is still around for countless guests to enjoy, and for getting the incredible opportunity to enjoy for myself Walt Disney's Enchanted Tiki Room (and getting to eat a Citrus Swirl while seeing it!).

The End

Happy Thanksgiving from Haunted Serenade, and Happy First Anniversary Haunted Serenade!

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Happy 80th Anniversary to The Old Mill: The Disney Silly Symphony That Paved The Way For Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

A great number of Disney animated film fans remember 1937 as the year that Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs - Walt Disney's first and truly sublime feature-length animated film - was released. But not as many people know about Walt Disney's The Old Mill, a superb short film released in the same year, on this day 80 years ago. Over a month before Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs opened to heartfelt applause at the Carthay Circle Theatre, this humble, overlooked film tested and proved many of the incredible advancements in animation featured in Snow White, and became an amazing motion picture and work of art in its own right. To celebrate the 80th anniversary of The Old Mill, I'll take a look at its history, and how it went on to pave the way for one of Walt Disney's greatest successes.

The Old Mill, Walt Disney's Silly Symphonies, and Snow White

(Kevin Slavin on Flickr)
In 1929, a ghoulish danse macabre captivated audiences of Walt Disney's newest project. The Skeleton Dance was the first in a series of bold experiments in animation initiated by Disney called the Silly Symphonies. These animated short films were a showcase for Disney's newest innovations in film technology, story development, and character animation. If the Disney animation studios had a new technology to experiment with or a new story idea to try out, a Silly Symphony was their experimental apparatus. For 10 years, the Silly Symphonies were produced by Disney for this purpose. Most of these films featured a completely unique story, and almost all were set to a wonderful musical score, classic or contemporary, hence the name "Silly Symphonies". In 1932, Flowers and Trees, a delightful film about the anthropomorphic trees and flowers in a springtime forest, became the first commercial animated film to feature three-color Technicolor, a remarkable improvement over the two-color films of the time, and went on to win the inaugural Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film. In 1934, the Three Little Pigs became the first major success of the Silly Symphonies, thanks to an incredible advancement in Disney's storytelling: the story department, a department of storyboard animators solely dedicated to the purpose of story development. By creating emotionally gripping stories that wouldn't let audiences off the hook, Disney produced many more wildly successful films long after the classic Three Little Pigs, which went on to win another Academy Award for Disney.

But perhaps the greatest achievement in the history of the Silly Symphonies were yet to come. In 1937, final production for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was in full swing. This full-length animated film promised to be truly groundbreaking, attempting something that had never done before in the United States, featuring truly spectacular advancements in film and story production. But, it also was an incredibly risky project, one that was already being called "Disney's Folly", and was predicted by many in Hollywood to be an absolute disaster. No matter how confident (or not) Walt Disney was in his project, there needed to be a good test of the techniques and technologies that were to be featured in Snow White. Thus, The Old Mill, a new Silly Symphony, came to be.

DISCLAIMER: I DO NOT own this video; Disney does. Used for purely educational purposes.

The Old Mill became one of the biggest successes of the entire Silly Symphony series, and won yet another Oscar for the studios (a Silly Symphony won the Academy Award every year between 1932 and 1939!). It achieved great heights thanks to the unprecedented ideas and technology used in its creation.

A relatively simple story of a community of animals inside an abandoned mill weathering a powerful summer storm was brought to great heights by the subtle but effective introductions of the creatures that call the mill home, and the wonderful build up of the story to the raging climax of the thunderstorm that threatens the lives of all the creatures living inside the mill. The moment when the sails of the windmill break free from their rope restraints and the mother robin and her egg-filled nest are nearly crushed between the spinning gears of the mill is a heart-stopping and powerful moment, a great testament to the emotional connection the story developers created between the audience and animated characters on a screen.

A greatly-developed story was not the only reason for The Old Mill's success by far. The multi-plane camera, an astounding tool that used a camera and multiple layers of animation cells that could move on platforms separate from each other to provide near perfect perspective in zooming in or out shots, was used by Disney for the first time in The Old Mill. Among the many other great advancements in animation that brought The Old Mill to life were the highly realistic designs and animations of animals, plants, and water, from ripples in a pond to splashes, reflections, and pouring rain. The latter would combine with incredible animated clouds, lighting, wind and thunder sound effects to form a terrifying thunderstorm that temporarily resurrected a long-abandoned mill to horrifying life and then stopped it forever. Lighting, color, and rotation of detailed three-dimensional objects would also aid in bringing a new level of realism, depth, and emotion to The Old Mill.

(Tom Simpson on Flickr)

All the lessons learned in the creation and success of The Old Mill would be put to use just a month later. The powerful connection between audience and film would happen again when audiences joined Snow White in hopeful wishes, flights of terror and silly songs of celebration, each scene perfectly timed and sequenced as similarly emotional scenes had been in The Old Mill. A terrible thunderstorm like the one that ravaged an old mill on a summer night struck down the Wicked Witch to her horrible death. The wonderfully realistic yet softly caricatured forest animals that aided Snow White had a predecessor in the inhabitants of The Old Mill. And the lighting, colors, multi-plane camera and rotation of 3-dimensional objects that had created amazing scenes for The Old Mill was used in even more spectacular ways in the story of Snow White.

This December, in honor of the 80th anniversary of what I like to call "Disney's Triumph", I plan to write about perhaps the greatest film Walt Disney ever made, sharing my thoughts and exploring the long and deep connection me and many others have with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. But next time you think of Snow White, the Seven Dwarfs and the amazing film that tells their story, I hope you remember the tale of an old and not-so-abandoned mill that made it possible.