Archive for the ‘Disney’ category

It’s a list world after all

November 8, 2009

On this lazy Sunday afternoon, as I’m watching the 49ers go toe-to-toe with the Tennessee Titans, I happened across a lengthy Disneyland meme on MiceChat, my favorite of the Disney theme park forums. I ditched several of the questions — figuring out which Disneyland attraction has the best cast member uniforms would require infinitely more brainpower than I’m willing to invest in such folderol — but here are my first-impulse jottings about the Happiest Place on Earth.

10 best current attractions: (in no particular order) Pirates of the Caribbean, Indiana Jones Adventure, the Haunted Mansion, the Jungle Cruise, Matterhorn Bobsleds, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, Splash Mountain, Space Mountain, the Enchanted Tiki Room.

5 best former attractions: Adventure Through Inner Space, the original Submarine Voyage, America Sings, the Carousel of Progress, the PeopleMover.

Attraction you have been on more than any other:
Pirates of the Caribbean.

Attraction you have never been on: Finding Nemo Submarines (it’s new this year, and the lines were way too long this summer when I was there), Gadget’s Go-Coaster (because my ginormous butt won’t fit in this kiddie ride).

Current attraction you will never go on again: Honey, I Shrunk the Audience. It’s long past time for a new movie in Tomorrowland’s 3D theater. Not even the sublime Marcia Strassman is enough of a draw to get me to sit through this once-enjoyable, now-shopworn experience once more.

Shortest average wait: Haunted Mansion. I can’t remember the last time I stood in line here.

Longest average wait: Splash Mountain. Especially on a hot July day.

Best attraction queue: Indiana Jones Adventure.

Best attraction pre-show: Haunted Mansion. Who doesn’t love the stretching room?

Best attraction storyline: Pirates of the Caribbean, especially with the addition of the Captain Jack Sparrow elements.

Best attraction music: Space Mountain (the Dick Dale surf-guitar soundtrack, when they’re playing it); the joyful sing-along songs of the Enchanted Tiki Room.

Best attraction spiel: Jungle Cruise, if you get a really funny skipper.

Best attraction set design/artwork: Indiana Jones Adventure.

Most immersive attraction: Pirates of the Caribbean.

Most thrilling attraction: Splash Mountain. A steep plummet, plus an ice-cold soaking.

Most boring attraction: Casey Jr. Circus Train. Seriously, a waste of space.

Best attraction ending: Splash Mountain. Not just the big drop near the end — the most adrenaline-packed moment at Disneyland — but the wonderful character-filled riverboat tableau that follows it. It’s like landing in the living room of old friends.

Attraction with worst post-attraction feeling (dizziness, nausea, etc.): Tarzan’s Treehouse. My acute acrophobia made my last trip up the branches a literally painful experience.

Best animatronic figure: C3PO, Star Tours.

Best visual effect: The Pepper’s Ghost effect in the Haunted Mansion ballroom; the Davy Jones fog projection in Pirates of the Caribbean.

Most unconvincing effect: The blowdart room, Indiana Jones Adventure.

Best attraction scene or room: The grand ballroom in the Haunted Mansion; the riverboat dock, Splash Mountain.

Worst attraction scene or room: The “Why the heck are we sitting in the dark with nothing happening?” sections of Indiana Jones Adventure.

Best ride vehicle: Indiana Jones Adventure.

Worst ride vehicle: Space Mountain. Does not make the fat guy happy.

Best walk-through attraction: The new Sleeping Beauty’s Castle diorama tour. It’s magnificent.

Best exhibit: The Disney Gallery. Always something interesting to see.

Best photo spot: Main Street, USA.

Best view of park: From the Monorail.

Best building or structure: The Haunted Mansion — it’s a classic.

Ugliest building or structure: Tomorrowland Terrace.

Best spot to sit and relax: The covered patio of the Hungry Bear Restaurant, overlooking the Rivers of America; a circuit on the Disneyland Railroad.

Best live entertainment: The Dapper Dans. Gotta represent for my barbershop homies.

Best daily event: Fireworks!

Best snack food from cart or stand: The Dole Whip from the stand outside the Enchanted Tiki Room. Frozen pineapple love in a cup.

Best counter service eatery: Cafe Orleans in New Orleans Square. Some of the best victuals in the park here.

Worst counter service eatery: Tomorrowland Terrace. Noisy, unaesthetic, and the food (I’m using that word advisedly) sucks.

Best full-service restaurant: Blue Bayou. You simply have to enjoy a meal here at least once in a lifetime.

How many miles do you live from Disneyland? 450, almost exactly.

The #1 priority for Disneyland now is: Get me to move closer!

Searching for Carmen Sandiego closer to home

September 24, 2009

…but not in San Diego, because I’ve been there several times. Not that I wouldn’t like to go back, but that’s not the point of this post.

In yesterday’s post, I listed several — thirteen, in all — locations around the world that I missed seeing when I was an Air Force brat in the 1960s and ’70s, but would like to visit someday if I had unlimited resources.

The fact is, though, that there are plenty of places right here in the United States that I wouldn’t mind checking out, but have never had the opportunity. Without further ado, here’s the domestic list.

Ashland, Oregon. I’ve actually driven through Ashland — at least, I’ve skirted it on the Interstate — so technically, it doesn’t belong on a list of “places I’ve never been.” But I’d love to spend a week or two at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which takes place there.

Seattle, Washington. Three reasons: (1) to see the Space Needle, a triumph of Googie architecture; (2) to visit the Pike Place Market, to watch the fishmongers toss their wares about (and perhaps dine on a few — wares, not fishmongers); and (3) to drink lots and lots of coffee.

Santa Fe, New Mexico. A noted artistic community, which means I’d fit right in. In contrast to its creative reputation, it’s one of the few U.S. cities of any size with a consistent, governmentally imposed architectural style.

Mount Rushmore, South Dakota. I hear from people who’ve been there that it isn’t quite as awesome in person as it seems like it would be from photographs, but I prefer to decide that sort of thing for myself.

New Orleans, Louisiana. Great music, great food. I’ll just plan to go when they’re not expecting a flood.

Orlando, Florida. It seems weird that a Disney geek such as myself has never made a pilgrimage to Walt Disney World, but such is life. I’d like to rectify that shortcoming. Not that there’s anything wrong with the original Disneyland — because there isn’t. I’d still want to check out the Big Kahuna.

Key West, Florida. As a writer, I have to drop in here at least once, don’t I? And, as a kid who spent several years in Hawaii, I’m down with the whole tropical vibe. Remind me to skip hurricane season.

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Not because it’s the Cradle of Liberty, and not for the plethora of historic sites, as interesting as those would be to tour. No, I just want to do my own onsite comparison of cheesesteak joints.

New York City, New York. Another location that doesn’t entirely qualify as a “never been there,” because I’ve flown into and out of both Kennedy and LaGuardia airports. Those airports, however, constitute the sum total of my NYC experience. I’ve gotta figure there’s more of the Naked City to see than just tarmac.

Westbrook, Maine. At first blush, an incongruous choice. My best friend from high school and her family — including her youngest child, my goddaughter, whom I’ve never seen in person — live there. More than reason enough for me.

Separate from any individual destination, I’d love to spend a summer traveling from one Major League Baseball park to another, until I’d seen a series in every park that I’ve never visited — which would include every park other than our local venues (AT&T Park and the Oakland Coliseum) and the two Greater L.A. sites (Dodger Stadium and Angel Stadium).

Iron Goofy, Incredible Duck, and the Amazing Spider-Mouse

August 31, 2009

This may be the biggest pop culture business story of the decade: The Walt Disney Company is buying Marvel Entertainment for $4 billion.

Already, the fanboys — and, to be fair, the occasional fangirl — are burning up the ‘Net with their prediction of what will happen when the House of Ideas collides with the House of Mouse.

The truth is simple: We’ll see.

Disney is now, and pretty much has been throughout recent memory, all about licensing. There’s no question that the reason they want Marvel isn’t because they crave a niche in the rapidly shrinking world of comics publishing. Heck, Disney can’t be bothered to publish comic books starring the characters they already own — they summarily dumped the last vestige of this connection, the hugely popular Disney Adventures magazine, a while back, with hardly a fare-thee-well — much less floppies about people running around in brightly colored underwear.

What intrigues Disney’s beancounters is the tremendous stable of familiar characters that Marvel represents — characters ripe for exploitation on toys, T-shirts, and oodles of memorabilia. A quick stroll around Anaheim’s Disneyland Resort will clue you in to how thoroughly and aggressively the Mouse House has co-opted the characters from their last mega-acquisition, Pixar Animation Studios. The mind boggles at the fun Disney will have — and the kajillions they’ll profit — marketing Spidey, Wolverine, and the rest of the Merry Marvel Marching Society.

What does it all mean for Marvel in terms of its comics line? Who knows? Comics are a dying industry. Movies and video games, on the other hand, have never been hotter, and Marvel offers a veritable cornucopia of product to churn through. I don’t know how much longer comics will last, regardless of who holds the reigns. With Disney pulling the strings, however, it seems likely that Marvel’s signature superheroes will plow ahead in one form or another for the foreseeable future, and perhaps beyond.

As for the worriers who believe that suddenly Marvel’s going to get all family-friendly because Disney takes over: (a) I’m not sure that would be an awful thing if it happened, and (b) remember, this is the company whose ABC Television Network brings you Desperate Housewives and Grey’s Anatomy.

In the words of the immortal Stan Lee…

Excelsior!

Life is not a John Hughes movie

August 6, 2009

I just saw the bulletin that movie maven John Hughes died today, of an apparent heart attack.

How great a loss this news is to the cinematic community depends somewhat on your tastes. It also depends, to a certain degree, on your age, as Hughes — one of Hollywood’s most active and popular producer/directors throughout the 1980s — helmed his last film in 1991. Hughes retired to his native Upper Midwest in the ’90s, and has been entirely absent from the entertainment scene for the past decade.

But when the man was working, he was money in the bank.

I first discovered Hughes long before he got into the movie business, when he was a staff writer and editor for National Lampoon magazine in the 1970s. Hughes was my favorite Lampoon scribe, contributing infinite belly-laughs to those halcyon times when I sported considerably less belly. I still have, buried in a filing cabinet somewhere, a copy of the Sunday newspaper parody that he and PJ O’Rourke cowrote in 1978. It was one of the funniest things my adolescent brain had ever read at the time. I’ll have to dig it out and see whether the sophomoric humor holds up.

Hughes soon segued from publishing to film, scripting the comedy hits Mr. Mom and National Lampoon‘s Vacation in 1983. The following year, he made his directorial debut with the movie that made Molly Ringwald a superstar: Sixteen Candles. For the next several years, Hughes could do no wrong — he wrote and directed such classics as The Breakfast Club, Weird Science, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (my personal favorite), Planes, Trains & Automobiles, and Uncle Buck.

When Hughes wasn’t directing his own scripts, he was penning screenplays to be lensed by his army of protégés — Pretty in Pink (directed by Howard Deutsch), Some Kind of Wonderful (Deutsch again), National Lampoon‘s Christmas Vacation (Jeremiah Chechik), Home Alone (Chris Columbus) and its two theatrical sequels (Columbus redux, then Raja Gosnell), Career Opportunities (Bryan Gordon), Beethoven (Brian Levant), Dennis the Menace (Nick Castle), and the live-action remakes of 101 Dalmatians (Stephen Herek) and Flubber (Les Mayfield).

If you added up the combined box office from all of the above flicks, you could pretty much erase the national deficit.

The critics didn’t always embrace Hughes’s works, especially in his latter period from Home Alone forward. (In fairness to those critics, they were right about the stuff Hughes churned out during the 1990s.) His name became synonymous with teen angst, the Brat Pack, and mawkish sentimentality. For abut 15 years, though, the public devoured almost everything on which the Hughes name (and his nom de plume Edmond Dantes) appeared.

I never knew why Hughes left the business in the late ’90s. I don’t know whether he lost creative focus, got tired of the ridicule from film snobs, or just decided to take his mega-millions and go home. But when one’s name becomes the brand for an entire genre of cinema — if you say “John Hughes film” to anyone who knows movies, they know exactly what you mean — he or she has accomplished something. Like it or not, Hughes’s legacy is more than secure.

In memoriam, we present Uncle Swan’s Top Seven John Hughes Films, in ascending order of greatness.

7. Nate and Hayes. The third Hughes screenplay produced in 1983, and the only one to bomb at the box office, it’s Hughes’s most atypical effort — a pirate movie starring Tommy Lee Jones. It’s largely forgotten today, but if you enjoy Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, it’s well worth seeking out. Directed by the otherwise obscure Ferdinand Fairfax.

6. Weird Science. Best remembered for its bombshell starring turn by Kelly LeBrock (the future Mrs. Steven Seagal) and its quirky theme song by Oingo Boingo, this bizarre fantasy also features solid work by young actors Anthony Michael Hall — a Hughes staple — and Ilan Mitchell-Smith. Any movie in which Bill Paxton turns into a humongous pile of excrement — literally! — is worth seeing once.

5.The Breakfast Club. The quintessential Brat Pack flick. The acting is worse than you remember — Emilio Estevez, Molly Ringwald, and Ally Sheedy are dreadful here, and Judd Nelson is… well… Judd Nelson. But the screenplay, while overwrought, is effective, and the lesser roles are excellently performed (especially the underrated Hall — again — and Paul Gleason). Besides, it’s an icon of the Me Decade.

4. National Lampoon‘s Vacation. Still hilarious after all these years. Right now, I’m betting that you can quote a dozen lines from this movie. Docked one place on the list for making Chevy Chase think he’s funnier than he is. (Has Chevy ever made a non-Vacation comedy that was even remotely good?)

3. Some Kind of Wonderful. The best Hughes film not directed by Hughes is also one of the strongest, most realistic teen pictures in Hollywood history. It also boasts the solid cast that The Breakfast Club desperately needed. Can you imagine Eric Stoltz as Andrew, Lea Thompson as Claire, Mary Stuart Masterson as Crazy Freak Girl, and Elias Koteas as Bender? Now that would have been some kind of wonderful.

2. Planes, Trains & Automobiles. Hughes’s most adult comedy, and his only one centered around two fully realized and believable adult characters. It’s one of the few films in which Steve Martin plays straight man to a superior comedian. John Candy finally got a starring role worthy of his talents. A Thanksgiving weekend staple at Casa de Swan.

1. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. The best teenage comedy ever made — period — and among the finest film comedies of all time. About as flawless an example of the genre as could be constructed, while managing to be touching and thoughtful at the same time. Matthew Broderick creates one of the truly great comic heroes, and Jeffrey Jones matches him note for note as one of the great comic villains.

As Ferris Bueller once said, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” John Hughes, dead at 59, proves the truth of those words.

Let’s all warble like nightingales

July 14, 2009

I loves me some Disneyland.

Living, as I do, some 450 miles from the front gates of the Magic Kingdom, I don’t get to visit Uncle Walt’s happiest place on Earth with anything approaching the frequency that I’d like. So, when I found myself attending a convention literally across the street from Disney’s Anaheim resort, I made it my business to squeeze in as many hours of blissful Mickey love as an already jam-packed schedule would permit.

With time at a premium, I had to be selective about the attractions that I visited. That meant taking a pass on a few old favorites with agonizingly lengthy lines — sorry, Peter Pan’s Flight — in favor of getting the most bang for my Disney Dollar. It also meant foregoing some of the most delightful but schedule-consuming parts of the Disney experience — wandering through the three Disney hotels, character dining at Goofy’s Kitchen, cruising the Downtown Disney shopping and dining complex, taking leisurely circuits on the Monorail and the Disneyland Railroad.

Alas. Sometimes, you’ve just gotta get stuff done.

Between three abbreviated trips, though, I managed to get around to most of the attractions that mean Disneyland to me, as well as several new experiences that have appeared on the Disneyscape since my last visit seven years ago. Some of the highlights follow.

Pirates of the Caribbean. Number One on my list since the first time I rode it 37 years ago, and not even an interminable action movie franchise can change that. Unlike many Disneyland fanatics, I’m not such a hardcore traditionalist that I resist change, so I was tickled to see the new tweaks that have been added to Pirates to tie the ride and the films closer together. The appearances of Captain Jack Sparrow and company, in my opinion, actually give the ride more of a thematic through-line. And the Davy Jones mist-projection effect is wicked cool.

Haunted Mansion. Another classic that has benefited from a handful of high-tech upgrades. I love the new talking bride effect in the wedding scene. She’s a fitting companion to Madame Leota and the singing busts.

Toy Story Midway Mania. The newest addition to the offerings at Disneyland’s companion park, Disney’s California Adventure (hereafter referred to as DCA), is worth the trip all by itself. It’s a spectacular melding of a traditional Disney dark ride (it reminded me a lot of Roger Rabbit’s Car Toon Spin) with a shooting gallery video game, with the added flair of 3D. The mothership park has its own newer ride based on a similar concept (Buzz Lightyear’s Astro Blasters), but TSMM kicks the basic notion up about five levels of awesomeness. I could spend hours hopping back into the queue for this one.

Splash Mountain. It’s worth getting soaked — and believe me, I did — to experience one of Disneyland’s best-designed attractions. I’m old enough to recall when most of the Audio-Animatronic characters in the final scene resided in the Tomorrowland attraction America Sings, which long ago retired to Yesterland.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Forbidden Eye. I’ve never quite gotten past the bizarre disconnect of finding Indiana Jones in Disneyland, but when it’s working (the technically complex attraction breaks down frequently), this is still an amazingly fun ride. I do wish the Imagineers could find ways to fill in the attraction’s several dead spaces. Then again, if they put more effects in, the ride would probably break down even more often.

Jungle Cruise. My enjoyment of this classic is closely tied to the raconteurial talents of the skipper who guides the tour. Skipper Randy earned a solid B on this trip — nothing fancy or outside the box, but skillfully delivered. I confess a preference for the skips who push the envelope and really make the monologue their own, but I realize that isn’t everyone’s bag.

Enchanted Tiki Room. A visit to Disneyland would be woefully incomplete without a stop at the original Audio-Animatronic attraction. As I told the energetic and enthusiastic cast member on duty during my visit, the Tiki Room never gets old to me. Even in my advancing middle age, I feel no shame in singing along with the animated birds, flowers, and tikis. For 15 minutes, it’s my 1960s Hawaiian childhood all over again. Be sure you get a Dole Whip frozen pineapple dessert at the stand outside. Dole Whip is life.

Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. The older I get, the less of an adrenaline junkie I am — not that I was much of one to begin with. But of all the Disney roller coasters, this one remains my favorite. The ride is less monotonous than Space Mountain — which, aside from the environment, is an awfully pedestrian coaster — and more jarring and electric than the Matterhorn. It’s also the only one where the theming really works. Always a treat.

Soaring Over California. The signs outside this DCA ride warn that people who are afraid of heights may want to skip the experience. No one on the planet is more acrophobic than I am, but I absolutely love this ride. The idea is that you’re soaring in a giant hang-glider over a series of scenic California locations. The effect is achieved through a combination of ride effects and an enormous IMAX screen — and what an effect it is! The one thing that would make this ride more effective is less abrupt transitions between the sequences. Oh… and 3D.

The Many Adventures of Winnie-the-Pooh. When last I visited Disneyland, the Pooh dark ride was still under construction. (Somewhere I have a photo of my daughter sitting in the ride vehicle that was then on display as a teaser for the coming attraction.) I’m glad I finally got to see the finished product. It’s a throwback to such old-school Fantasyland attractions as Snow White’s Scary Adventures and Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, but with a modern twist. Nicely executed. (Bonus: No wait to ride.)

Monsters Inc.: Mike and Sulley to the Rescue: Another of the newer dark rides, this one at DCA. It’s an excellently themed attraction that makes clever use of the characters from Monsters Inc., though I doubt that the storyline makes much sense to anyone who hasn’t seen the film. For some reason, this ride is tucked away in an obscure corner of DCA that makes it difficult to find — at least, it did for me. I’ve never had to ask for directions at the Disney resort before, but I needed help from a friendly cast member this time.

Sleeping Beauty’s Castle Tour. The walk-through dioramas relating Princess Aurora’s story have been completely redone, incorporating distinctive visual effects. This little gem has always been one of Disneyland’s hidden treasures, but now it’s every bit as stunning as any of the other Fantasyland attractions. Very, very cool.

Independence Day fireworks. The Disney people outdid themselves with the aerial display on the night of July 4th. They threw in several pyrotechnical effects I’d never seen before. I can’t recall the last time I enjoyed a fireworks show as much.

Beyond my unavoidable time constraints, the only disappointment of my Disneyland journey was missing the Finding Nemo retooling of Tomorrowland’s venerable Submarine Voyage. This has always been a slow-loading attraction with a lengthy wait, and with the new theming, everyone who visits the park — especially everyone with Nemo-loving kids — wants to see it. I’ll have to catch it next time around.

Shopping is an essential facet of the Disney experience, and I’m pleased to report that I contributed my fair share to Mickey’s corporate coffers. I brought home souvenirs for the girls: KJ got a sweatshirt, a new Disneyland tote bag to replace the one she’s been carrying for the past seven years, a Mickey mug, and an addition to her spoon collection. KM got a Tinker Bell T-shirt and a Cinderella mug, the latter laser-etched with the legend, “Once a Princess, Always a Princess.” (She’ll need that as a reminder when she heads off to college next month.)

For myself — yes, of course, I bought goodies for myself; it was my trip, right? — I picked up a vintage baseball shirt (memo to Disney Merchandising: stock more apparel in plus sizes, because fat guys spend money too), a rolling tote that will be the new addition to my travel ensemble, and a terrific mug reading, “Beneath this Grumpy exterior beats the heart of a dashing hero.” As Baloo would say, “You’d better believe it!”

After singing my heart out on the BHS International stage and tripping the Disney light fantastic, I capped my Anaheim trip on Sunday afternoon by taking in a baseball game pitting the homestanding Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim against the visiting Baltimore Orioles. More about that in my next post.

Until then, save me a seat in the Tiki Room.