Friday, January 29, 2010

Theme? What Theme?

Coming up with the worst-themed attractions in Walt Disney World was tough. This is because even the worst-themed attractions aren't that badly themed. And it's important to remember that not all of the worst-themed attractions are bad attractions in and of themselves (and should still be experienced at least once if possible). The same holds true for the best-themed attractions list - some of the best rides in Walt Disney World didn't make that list simply because the actual theme isn't top 10 material (i.e., Soarin') - but they're still terrific attractions.

So with that said, below are the Walt Disney World attractions that do the worst job of theming due to any number of reasons: having the least attention to detail, having shown their age to the point that it removes you from the fantasy of the experience, or simply lacking the "magic" of enveloping the guest in the experience.

Honey, I Shrunk The Audience, Epcot

Never mind that the subject of this attraction is woefully outdated and should be replaced immediately. That is beside the point. The real point here is the theme of this attraction is lacking horribly and has almost nothing to do with the 3D film. Honey replaced Captain EO in 1994 and at that time, there was still clear memory of the movie that inspired the idea of the attraction; it was still somewhat relevant. But it's clear that the minimum was done to give the theater a personality change after Captain EO. The pre-show room is bland and has basically no theming itself (compare/contrast that with Muppet Vision 3D), and the same basically holds true for the theater itself. This attraction relies almost completely on its 3D movie - which is a bad thing. At least if the theming were tremendous, the quality of movie itself might be forgiven (as with Star Tours).

Maelstrom, Epcot

This is a great example of what I consider to be a terrific attraction (one of my favorites in Epcot) whose theme (mostly due to its age) is starting to take away from the experience. This mostly has to do with a few of the older AA's having a slightly tougher time moving (the long, ferret-like Polar Bear, for example) and the oil platform scene after the little drop back, back down the falls. The lighting is such that you can easily see too much of the ceiling and walls - many of which the seams are very apparent and it takes you right out of the illusion of the scene. A little TLC would go a long way for this one. It deserves it.

Backlot Tour, Disney's Hollywood Studios

Now, the Backlot is not a typical attraction. It's not trying to fool your senses into believing you're in this fantastical setting. It is however, dependent on the content as the theme. And that content has dwindled for years. It's to the point that so much of what it had is gone, that there simply isn't that much to see any more. If the theme of the Backlot Tour is to show you a working backlot full of movie props and such, it's now way past its expiration date.

Turtle Talk With Crush, Epcot

Like Maelstom, this is a quality attraction that should not be missed. And while it doesn't have a bad theme, it just doesn't have a great one, worthy of the innovation of the main attraction (Crush's interactive Q&A with the audience - a technological marvel, especially at the time it came out). The pre-show area does have quizzes and different interactive and educational games for the kids to do while waiting for the show, but it just seems that this could be a much, much bigger deal of an attraction if they went all-out when designing the theme. More attention to detail - any attention to detail - in the Crush room would have sealed the deal.

Stitch's Great Escape, Magic Kingdom

I'm in the minority when it comes to opinions on the entertainment value of this attraction - I don't think it's all that bad. It has some very advanced audio-animatronics (Stitch) and even uses KUKA robots (the massive arm-like canons) to add a bit of a "wow" factor to the ride. Stitch took the place of Alien Encounter (which was a superior attraction), and as with Honey, I Shrunk The Audience, the minimum was done to give the attraction a personality of its own after having taken over a completely different attraction. The pre-show room that has the TVs hanging from the ceiling has a very similar feeling to the pre-show room at Honey - no theming at all, just TVs. Quite simply, lazy design. And while the next room has much more to offer, including another very good AA, the rest of the attraction does very little to sell the guest on the depth of the story - in other words, the theming is shallow and is one reason why many consider this attraction to be lacking the "Disney Magic".

Tomorrowland Speedway, Magic Kingdom

This attraction really has no place anywhere near Tomorrowland. And it takes up massive amounts of real estate that could be better used for something else futuristic that would make Tomorrowland truly phenomenal. Or, they could radically change the theme to make it an ultra-futuristic racing game so that its theme actually jives with its location within the park. Nothing about the attraction's theme makes sense as is.

Primeval Whirl, Animal Kingdom

I can see what Disney was trying to do here. The aim was to create an area of the park that simulated a road-side carnival. If that is the aim of the theme design, they hit the nail on the head - job well done. I just think it's a bad (and ugly) idea. Another example of a huge waste of a massive amount of space that could be utilized for something truly cool - another huge Dinosaur-related "thrill" ride or even an actual fossil museum with incredible interactive educational experiences. Worst of all, it appears as though Primeval Whirl is simply a cookie-cutter "wild mouse" roller coaster with an ugly coat of paint reflecting an ill-conceived idea for a theme. Dino-Rama is the one big blemish that resides in an otherwise incredibly themed theme park.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Top 10 Best Themed Attractions

When it comes to attractions in The Mouse, two ingredients go hand-in-hand to create a typical, top-notch Disney experience: story and theme. Even in big "thrill" rides, the "thrill" is essentially secondary to theme, or else it would simply be a Six Flags or Busch Gardens ride. Disney has mastered the art of mixing incredible theme and just enough thrill to satisfy almost everyone. Today Around The Mouse counts down the top 10 best themed Disney World attractions.

1. Haunted Mansion, Magic Kingdom

The dining hall. The stretching room. The ghost host. The ghost writers. The wallpaper. The blinking eyes on the wallpaper. The hitchhiking ghosts. The attic scene. The pet cemetery outside. The glow of the windows on the front of the mansion at night. This place is incredible. And the concept of the Haunted Mansion comes directly from Walt himself. Attraction theming simply doesn't get better than this.

2. Expedition Everest, Animal Kingdom

If realism is the goal of theming, then Everest is the ultimate example. From the Yeti museum to the shrines and intricate wall carvings along the queue line to the mountain itself, no detail was spared here to sell the experience. In a park that is probably the best-themed Disney park in general, this is the best themed attraction. That speaks volumes.

3. Tower of Terror, Disney's Hollywood Studios

If we could have two attractions tie for second place, it would be Everest and the Hollywood Tower of Terror. But we had to pick one, and Everest got the ever-so-slight edge. But attractions like Tower was the true inspiration for rides like Everest: a massive thrill ride with ultra-realistic detail-oriented theming that is out of this world.

4. Kilimanjaro Safari, Animal Kingdom

The sheer size of this beautiful attraction lends to the engrossing, all-encompassing feeling of being in the middle of an African safari. The queue to the actual ride is also very well themed as you pass through ticket booths and offices along the way with promotional anti-poaching TV programs being broadcast for your enjoyment and education.

5. Pirates of the Caribbean, Magic Kingdom

Huge attraction (and Walt-inspired original) that is awesome both in the queue and during the actual ride. The aged authenticity of the Castillo del Morro is incredible with its weaponry, iron work and stone architecture. And, of course, the ride's dark dioramas are amazing.

6. Muppet Vision 3D, Disney's Hollywood Studios

Hilarious inside jokes, gags and puns everywhere in the pre-show room - you can get lost in there looking around at the little things. The theater is a wonderful recreation of the Muppets theater and includes the Waldorf and Statler AA's in the balcony. I always consider the courtyard and merchandise store as part of the attraction and those are also hilarious and worthy of adding to the theme of this attraction.

7. Star Tours, Disney's Hollywood Studios

The outdoor Ewok Village with the AT-AT may alone nominate this attraction for best themed attraction. But add to that the attention to detail of all the droid parts strewn about, C-3PO and R2D2 audio-animatronics and the Star Wars-style "airport" feel to the rest of the attraction, and this one still holds up (unlike its simulator movie).

8. Toy Story Mania, Disney's Hollywood Studios

Wonderful and whimsical come to mind when walking through this attraction. The classic games and toys blown up to giant size (in order to make you feel like you're the size of a toy in the bedroom) along the queue is great fun to experience. The theming doesn't let up once you're in the shoot-out portion of the game, or even in the car itself.

9. Kali River Rapids, Animal Kingdom

Kali is another attraction that makes the theming of the Asia section of Animal Kingdom incredible from top to bottom. It's the direct precursor to Expedition Everest, as is evident from the relics and art present along its amazing queue line. The thick trees and vegetation along the ride path and the logging scene with the fire erupting also create a sense of awe and can rattle the nerves a little bit. Quality theming in a type of ride (water tubing) that can be very difficult to theme effectively.

10. Space Mountain, Magic Kingdom

This probably wouldn't have made the cut if it weren't for the latest refurb; even if some people don't believe they did enough to the actual ride track itself, there's no denying that they hit a home run with the theming. It is now a comprehensive story that even ties in other Disney attractions (Horizons) with some cleverly placed nods to the past. The games along the queue tie into the story and the new graphics along the ceiling are top-of-the-line. Even if the ride itself is the same as before, the theming is far, far superior.

Honorable Mention:
Maharajah Jungle Trek, Animal Kingdom
Spaceship Earth, Epcot
The Seas With Nemo & Friends, Epcot
Splash Mountain, Magic Kingdom
Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Magic Kingdom

Friday, January 22, 2010

Well, So Much For Swinging On The Hammocks

When Walt Disney was originally planning "the Florida project", part of the logic was that the warm weather was perfectly suited for what would amount to an all-inclusive year-round resort. The Experimental Prototype Community Of Tomorrow, The Magic Kingdom theme park, and multiple waterfront resort hotels would provide the Disney World guest with a complete vacation experience. And one of the main parts of that experience was to enjoy the water-related activities at the hotels: pools, water skiing, sunbathing, etc. Unlike Disneyland, this place had the space enough so that nobody would have to leave for any reason. Everything was right there. And beautiful, warm weather had everything to do with it.

Walt laying down the law in Florida.

This is why pools and related activities are so important to most of the Disney World resort hotels. Many are themed so well that they're close to being a water-based attraction unto themselves. This aspect helps to lend these hotels their theme and personality. When the theme park is closed, or if it isn't an option, there's something fun to do outdoors at the hotel other than sitting in your room watching TV. It's the benefit of being located in Florida.

The awesome newly renovated pool in Port Royale.

Keeping that in mind, the Caribbean Beach Resort at Disney World is supposed to provide an experience that's similar to a Caribbean Island vacation. Replete with beach sand, hammocks, water sports, beautiful pools, surrey bikes, paddle boats, bright colored buildings and a light and festive atmosphere.

A lonely hammock trying to sway in the 20 degree wind.

It's just that the Caribbean Islands don't ever experience 20 degree weather. That's definitely not swing-on-the-hammock-with-a-frosty-beverage conditions. It wasn't built for that, and neither was Walt Disney World.

Two watercraft that would make CBR a great place
to play almost any other day of the year.

Unfortunately, for marathon weekend at The Mouse, the frigid (for Florida) conditions put a damper on experiencing what the Caribbean Beach Resort has to offer. Of course, that has nothing to do with the resort itself; obviously Disney can't control the weather, no matter how powerful they are. And it won't stop us from going back to the Caribbean Beach Resort, because we did see first hand what you could do there, if the weather is right.

But that also taught us a little lesson: if you are visiting Walt Disney World in the winter months, you may want to go with another option outside of CBR, as the weather may render much of what makes it great as useless that time of year.

Now, 20 degrees in Lake Buena Vista, Florida is not normal, like Walt Disney understood when planning all this. And next winter, there may be no cold spell quite that cold at all. But there may be 30 degrees or 40 degrees, or even 50 degrees - which would still make many of the water and beach related activities very uncomfortable. It's enough of a risk that you may want to opt for Port Orleans or even a cheaper value resort instead of something like Caribbean Beach (why spend the extra money on a resort if you can't take advantage of what it has to offer?). For something like Marathon weekend or the week between Christmas and New Years, you'll just have to book much earlier in the year before it fills up.

All this being said, we really like this resort. We could tell it has great potential and in the right season, it would be an absolute blast. We have experienced little bits of the resort before as non-guests. We've taken an afternoon or two to walk the grounds, swing on hammocks and rent paddle boats. It was a LOT of fun. It would be even more fun if you're staying there and can retreat back to your room and take the recreation as you want it, when you want it. So we can definitely see the value here, especially with their newly refurbished and pirate-themed main pool at Port Royale.

Hope and the kids enter the check-in area at CBR.
A fireplace would've been nice.

As for our stay, let's start with the check-in. It was marathon weekend, so the situation was a little different than most times of the year. We arrived at about 2:30 or so in the afternoon on Saturday and was hoping that we could potentially get an early check-in. If we didn't get it, no big deal, it was just a half hour or so until it was officially check-in time, so we'd simply wait it out. We didn't realize until having gotten there that during marathon weekend, they allow runners to have a late check-out to accommodate for if they needed more time to rest post-race in the early afternoon. They informed us that check-in could be as late as 5:00 p.m. That was a little surprising, but we couldn't complain - Hope was running the marathon the next morning and we may very well need that generous service. So we said, "OK" and went on our way.

We needed a couple of hours to take up - but it was already cold. About 34 degrees. The family took a vote as to what they wanted to do, and it voted for DisneyQuest. It's indoors and the kids love it. Hope wanted that too, as she didn't want to expose herself the day before the full marathon to getting a cold from too much frigid outdoor exposure. I was indifferent, so DisneyQuest it was.

I did get a text message from Disney at about 3:45 or so telling us that our room was ready! That was a pleasant surprise, as it didn't take as long as we thought. We took off from DisneyQuest and found our room.

Home sweet home for the next two nights.

We had room 2324 in the Martinique area. Not bad at all - it was adjacent to Port Royale (the center hub with the shopping, dining, main pool and marina) which was a short walk away around the lake. Our room was also very close (probably 50 yards or so) from the closest bus stop - which was a HUGE break at 4:00 a.m. Sunday morning when Hope had to be there to catch the ride to Epcot for the race. With some other hotels on property, the bus stops are MUCH further away and can be quite the walk to get there - which would have been harsh this particular morning (wind chill gave the weather an 11 degree "feels like" temperature).

Katie trying to decide which sink to use.

The Nemo theme didn't go much further than
the comforter and trim at the top of the walls.

The chest almost made a perfect bed for Chance.

A wider shot of the room. Check out the Nemo
trim along the top of the walls.

Chance and Katie having lunch.
Katie obviously has nefarious plans for something.

We ended up with one of the newly refurbished "Nemo" rooms - over the last year or so they refurbed a chunk of the resort to have themed rooms - either Nemo or Pirates of the Caribbean. It was a nice touch. It wasn't anything Earth-shattering, but it was nice. The trim along the top of the walls were murals of Nemo, Dori and other characters from the movie, as was the comforters on the beds. The curtains had a water/wave pattern to them, lending to the overall theme of the room. Even though the depth of the theming wasn't quite to the level of rooms such as those in the French Quarter, it still gave the room a novel charm and some personality.

The room was very much spacious enough. No complaints there at all. The bed was comfortable and the double sinks with the privacy curtain was definitely a welcome perk of this moderate-level hotel room.

It included a refrigerator, a sizable dresser and the standard coffee-maker (which was well-used the morning of the marathon). We also packed several meals for the 3 days and the fridge came in very handy.

This is what a beach looks like at 20 degrees.

Caribbean Beach has absolutely beautiful grounds.
The bright colors of the buildings are perfect for the Caribbean theme.

This was the little plaza/courtyard just outside of our room in Martinique.

A small, cute pool closer to our quarters.

We did brave the cold a couple of times to take a look around the grounds, but it was short-lived. The grounds are very well themed and there are tons of little secluded areas that I'd love to just relax in. The hammocks definitely looked lonely. So did the pools. And watercraft. Unfortunately, we happened to pick the coldest week central Floria has seen in decades for our weekend getaway to Caribbean Beach Resort. Oh well. However, we saw enough to make us want to come back in warmer weather and do it the right way the next time.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Review: Disney's Health & Fitness Expo

For a few years now both Hope and I have wanted to attend Disney's Health & Fitness Expo that is always part of their annual Marathon Weekend, but for various reasons just never made it over to the Mouse for that event. But the 2010 Expo was different because Hope actually ran in the marathon and needed to go to the Expo at some point to pick up her racing packet and goodies. And after finally going on that Friday afternoon (January 8th), we're really glad we got the chance to check it out this year.

An overhead of the Health & Fitness Expo.
This wide shot leaves out about half the's huge.

First off, the Expo is HUGE. Massive. It's essentially a trade show centered around racing/running, athletics and fitness. If you're into all of that, this event was like being World. Ahem. And that's why we loved it. As fitness and Disney World maniacs, if we had unlimited funds, we would have gone nuts there.

The Expo ran from Thursday through Saturday but had to visit there on Friday. We couldn't make it over on Thursday due to school and work schedules, and didn't want to go there on Saturday in order to not wait to the last minute to pick up her packet - Disney's advice is to not wait that long because it's a madhouse on Saturday.

This sign at the D Sports merchandise store greets
visitors to the Expo in Disney's Wide World Of Sports.

So we picked up the kids from school and headed up for the afternoon/early evening on Friday. It had been several years since I'd been to the Wide World Of Sports, so I was looking forward to heading over there again.

The Wide World Of Sports Cafe is one of the few spots
in Wide World Of Sports Complex where you can spend
some time if you're not watching a sporting event.
ESPN at Boardwalk is far superior, however.

Basically, unless you're there for a specific sporting event at one of the fields or facilities, or there to watch an Atlanta Braves spring training game, there's not a lot to do at Wide World Of Sports. But I was still looking forward to heading over and checking the place out and of course, to hit the Expo.

Plenty of signage is available at Wide World Of Sports
to help out those who aren't familiar with the huge facility.

We started out doing what we really HAD to do there - picking up Hope's racing packet. There were plenty of signs to follow to get you where you're going and also plenty of people to follow. The registration area was held in a building called "The Milk House". Basically, this is an indoor gym/athletic facility sponsored by "Got Milk?"

I think some kind of beverage sponsors this building,
but it's not clear which one.

The registration process was pretty easy. There were no lines for her area of the alphabet, it was taken care of very quickly. Hope was very excited to see her bib, and her commemorative 2010 Marathon pin that she ordered back when signing up for the event many months ago.

The registration lines were very short on Friday afternoon.

Registration was simple and quick. Don't forget your ID!

Ahhh, that commemorative pin and racing bib.

The bib and pin, along with the censor strip for her shoes and other paperwork all came in the registration packet. It was indeed cool to open a late Christmas present!

Hope and Mickey have an eerily similar smile going.
Hopefully she would be smiling like that during his marathon.

There was a small merchandise area in the middle of the registration was but a taste of what was to come in the actual Expo. But still, it was enough to get really excited about the reality of the event. Between the merchandise and the racing packet, gave the feeling of it's here. It was time. Now, it's real.

They also had guest speakers in the Milk House talking about running and fitness and training and their experiences. Unfortunately, we didn't get to hear any of them as most of the speaking engagements were in the morning...we didn't get there until about 3:30 in the afternoon or so.

This was a quality trade show - Disney does Marathon weekend right.

From there, it was time to hit the main event: the Health and Fitness Expo. This is exciting because both Hope and I are group cycling instructors (a program called RPM). We love fitness as much as we love Disney, so this is something that we really excited for. Combining these two important things in our lives was a great thing.

As you could see from the first picture in this article above, the Expo was enormous; a massive trade show, essentially. Some of the biggest names in fitness and endurance sports: Adidas, Clif, Garmin, Polar, Brooks, Puma and countless others. They had massage tables and merchandise of every kind imaginable.

Another look from overhead - check out the massage tables.

The Clif Bar table was popular - they were handing out samples.

Adidas was one of the many shoe manufacturers there to
get the runners into new gear.

Brooks makes one of the most popular and effective racing shoe.

A $10 rack. Proof that there were some semi-affordable
merchandise to be had at the Expo!

Garmin makes phenomenal heart rate watches that incorporate
GPS technology to help runners keep track of everything they need.

Like Adidas, Puma was representing.

Hope's favorite shirt.

After looking at some of the vendors that were at the Expo, we made our way to the other side of the show area to pick up Hope's Goody Bag. We were also really looking forward to seeing what was going to be in here as well. Turns out it had several very cool things inside, including a sharp running shirt Hope wore around Epcot when we got our pics with the Fab 5.

Hope receives her Goody Bag.
It was actually incredibly helpful for the race.

The day after the marathon - Hope sporting
the complimentary running shirt that was part
of the Goody Bag.

After getting the Goody Bag, we went back through the entire trade show again, this time making our way to the Sharpie booth that was set up special for making signs the families and friends of the runners could hold up during the marathon. This was a GREAT idea. They were handing out free heavy poster paper, about tabloid size (11x17") and had tables set up with dozens of Sharpie markers set out for people to use. We made great use out of our signs during the race.

The kids hard at work on this signs for mommy.

We had a great time at the Health & Fitness Expo. Free samples were handed out at several of the tables and just seeing the latest and greatest in the fitness industry was fascinating. All within a professional Walt Disney World wrapping. It was definitely worth checking out and we'll be doing it again in the future.