Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Tree Of Life

Here at Around The Mouse we've always been staunch defenders of Animal Kingdom. We love to sing its praises as we believe it's been given a bad rap and is a bit underrated.

Hope even says it's her favorite WDW park when it's not summer (the oppressive heat that time of year is the only thing that knocks it off the perch), and even though it's my 4th favorite of the four parks, it doesn't mean I don't love it. I just happen to be a sucker for tradition and and history, and Animal Kingdom is the youngest of the bunch. But I think it's awesome and definitely NOT a single day park, as you hear so many describe it as. Our article Defending Disney's Animal Kingdom (October 23, 2009) goes into many of the reasons why we love it so much.

One of the big reasons we love it is the icon of the park: the Tree Of Life. Not only is it an incredible and imposing structure, but it's beautiful and serves multiple purposes. The artistry that went into designing and then sculpting the animals of the tree is mind-blowing. I've been staring at it for years and almost every time I go and look at it I discover new details that I didn't notice or fully appreciate before.

The paths around the Tree Of Life wind right
up to the base of the structure - making for
an incredible close-up view.

The eagle is one of the most fantastic sculpts on the tree.

There's a striking resemblance here...

"The backside of water" can be found at the
Tree Of Life as well as The Jungle Cruise.

This guy was hamming it up for the camera.
Actually, he was in the lone sunny spot of his area
just trying to get warm.

The swan didn't want us anywhere near his humble abode.

The kangaroos were incredible to watch up close.

The walking trails around the tree are serene and beautiful. Animal and bird sanctuaries are plentiful. Countless signs detail the wildlife and provide an excellent educational experience for young and old alike. Waterfalls, streams and ponds dot the surroundings and plenty of tree shade shelters you from the sun. Walking around the tree is a wonderful experience that definitely should be explored and savored.

"Hello. And...and...and...welcome. Welcome to our show!"

The tree is also home to one of the best 3D movies in The Mouse - It's Tough To Be A Bug. Some younger kids find it disturbing, but mine have always loved it. The quality of the film has stood the test of time and the 3D elements are still very much effective.

It also has the what I believe to be the best 4D elements of any of the WDW 3D films attractions: giant spiders drop from the ceiling, hornets poke you in the back, beetles crawl under your butt and one of the best audio-animatronics in WDW makes an appearance (Hopper, the grasshopper).

Personally I believe the "weenie" (as Walt used to call the park icons) at Animal Kingdom is a worthy part of the lineup of icons that includes Cinderella's Castle, SpaceShip Earth and even the Sorcerer's Hat (as hated as that one is by many). And while the others may be more popular and historic, it's possible the genius of The Tree Of Life's artistry may surpass all of the rest.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Top 10: Live Performances In The Mouse

Many important factors make Walt Disney World what it is: attention to detail, phenomenal theming, great music, incredible food, constant upgrading, meticulous cleanliness, respect for tradition, family entertainment, education, thrills and one thing that sometimes gets overlooked: live entertainment.

There are countless live performances all throughout each park and resort every single day. These ultra-talented artists of every kind help make Walt Disney World what it is: a totally engrossing experience. They add to the atmosphere of the area of the park they're in and sometimes give you the most memorable experiences of your vacation. They're the unsung heroes of The Mouse.

In this article, we count down our top 10 best live performances around Walt Disney World. This will encompass singers, dancers, musicians, acrobats, stage shows, comedy acts and everything in between. If it's performed live, it's a candidate. Now, we do have to draw the line somewhere; we won't be counting CMs who work the queue lines and such, even those with larger role-playing efforts like the Haunted Mansion or Tower of Terror crews. These have to be scheduled live performances in and of themselves.

So without further ado, the 10 Best Live Performances in The Mouse:

10. Off Kilter
Canada Pavilion, Epcot

Off Kilter is incredibly popular. Every time they're on stage at Epcot's Canada pavilion, huge crowds gather to hear their fusion of Celtic and Rock music. I love their unique sound and because I'm such a fan of classic rock, their covers suit my personal taste perfectly. They're awesome and fun.

9. Finding Nemo, The Musical
Animal Kingdom

The longest stage show in Walt Disney World, this elaborate production is wonderful. The fact that they made a musical out of a movie that was not a musical is what's truly intriguing. The singers are ultra talented, the songs are well-written and catchy and the costumes and stage props are awesome. This show is extremely well designed and even if you've never seen the movie, it's very easy to follow the story. Plus, it's a great way to escape the heat for a good chunk of time.

8. DiVine
Animal Kingdom

We gave DiVine her props in a recent article (The Mouse Is In The Details: DiVine, Feb. 4, 2010). She's amazing, plain and simple.

7. Dragon Legend Acrobats
China Pavilion, Epcot

This acrobat troupe can make your jaw drop, no matter how many times you've seen them.

6. Citizens Of Hollywood
Hollywood Studios

So many of these talented folks belong on this list that we decided to include them all under one umbrella. They're called "streetmosphere" because they MAKE the atmosphere at Hollywood Studios what it is...a wonderful recalling of the Hollywood of yesteryear. Except they are hilarious. My personal favorite is the one and only Bucky Greenhorn.

5. Mulch, Sweat & Shears
Hollywood Studios

Quite simply, these guys are FUN. They are the ultimate party band and they put a smile on everyone's face. They usually set up camp around the Streets of America and inevitably a huge crowd gathers around to hear their stylized covers of classic rock songs. Basically, they're very talented musicians who make everyone feel good.

4. The Main Street Philharmonic
Magic Kingdom

These guys are big part of the flavor of Main Street, USA. There's nothing like being in the Magic Kingdom under the bright morning sun and hearing these guys playing their instruments in the background in Town Square. Talk about atmosphere. These guys ARE atmosphere.

3. Festival of the Lion King
Animal Kingdom

This is the closest thing The Mouse comes to Cirque Du Soleil inside the parks, except this includes live singing along with the acrobatics, unbelievable costumes and props. Katie was once chosen to grab an instrument and encircle the stage with other kids at the end of the show and it's a highlight of her Disney World life.

2. Voices of Liberty
United States Pavilion, Epcot

Inspiring, jaw-dropping, phenomenal talent. I can't count how many times they've made me choke up during America The Beautiful or The National Anthem (or countless other songs). The setting inside the rotunda in the American pavilion is perfect visually, and for their phenomenal sound.

1. Fantasmic!
Hollywood Studios

Even though not every aspect of Fantasmic is "live", I included this huge production because of the amount of actors and dancers who so expertly perform their role every show to make this the most mind-bending on-stage experience in The Mouse. I was simply blown away by Fantasmic the first time I saw it and have been addicted to it ever since.

Honorable Mention:
Jedi Training Academy
Push The Trashcan
Main Street Ragtime Piano Players
YeeHaw Bob Jackson
Flights of Wonder

Monday, February 15, 2010

Mouse Ramblings: A Wizard vs A Sorcerer's Apprentice

Disney World this summer is going to be an interesting (and fun) place to be. The newly announced Summer Nightastic is a good thing, with some very cool additions and/or changes to the parks coming our way.

I've never seen The Mainstreet Electrical Parade in person, so I'm very much looking forward to finally catching that in Magic Kingdom. I'm also looking forward to the new fireworks show (rumored to be the Magic, Music and Mayhem fireworks from the Pirates and Princesses Party) that will be replacing Wishes. A new drop sequence will be added to the Tower of Terror as will new sound and visual effects. This is VERY cool news. Animal Kingdom will be opened later at night (which is a GORGEOUS park after dark) and they will be bringing back the Sounds Of Summer concert series at Epcot. All the parks get a little something, and they're all good things.

But I'm not blown away with this. Don't get me wrong - I like all of it. They are all positive changes to shake things up a bit, something Disney should be doing all the time...but a bit underwhelming in my opinion. Especially when considering what their competition up the street has planned for this summer: The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

Potter will be a massively popular addition to the Universal Orlando theme parks. It WILL be a major success. And it will take visitors away from Disney World. How much it will effect WDW is another question. Will families taking their summer trip down to central Florida skip Disney altogether and just hit Universal? Will they hit both and give each about equal time when they used to give the vast majority to Disney? Will they spend the majority of their time at Disney, but give one or two days to Universal for the express purpose of seeing Harry Potter when they wouldn't have left Disney otherwise? In this economy, these are legit questions.

This doesn't mean Universal is going to out-draw Walt Disney World this summer. It won't, and it won't be close. But you can bet a healthy percentage will be taken out of Disney's pocketbook as a result of Potter. And like we said, in this economy, when the crowds are expected to be down this summer to begin with, The Mouse will feel it.

All of this is why I'm surprised Disney didn't have something major up their sleeve for this summer. Something HUGE. As in E-Ticket huge. As in Expedition Everest E-Ticket huge. As nice as Summer Nightastic sounds, can it really be the answer to something as culturally enormous as Harry Potter?

Don't underestimate how popular Harry Potter is around the world. Those books and movies are monsters. People will come from all over to be able to surround themselves in that world - it's perfect for a theme park. It's going to be a hit.

In a recent article, we talking about how Epcot is due for a major E-Ticket attraction (Random Mouse Ramblings: Epcot's Next E-Ticket, Feb. 1, 2010) - they haven't had one there since 2005 (Soarin), and they're due. This would have been the perfect answer to Potter. They could have torn down The Wonders Of Life pavilion and put something incredible there - something HUGE to counter punch Potter. There has been plenty of time; the plans for Harry Potter have been known for quite a while, and in the last two years or so Imagineering could very well have come up with that answer. Maybe they did, but budget held it back? But then how did they see it appropriate to throw billions of dollars around at the Marvel acquisition and the RFID technology project that's going on behind the scenes?

The Fantasyland expansion is on its way, but that won't be open for another 2 years. Over that time, Harry Potter will have the run of things as THE big new addition to central Florida theme parks. Star Tours 2.0 will open in 2011, but that's still giving Potter a year with virtually nothing opposing it. And even when Star Tours does open back up, it's still a single attraction - it may have groundbreaking technological advancements and it may be awesome, but it's still a single attraction. Potter is a whole area with multiple attractions. That's a whole different ballgame.

The point is, Disney has seen Potter coming for quite a while. Epcot is due for an E-Ticket and they have the space (Wonders of Life pavilion) to accommodate it. Considering Disney's investments, they obviously have the money. They also have the talent. They should have prepared a MASSIVE counter punch to strike back with this summer. It would have been good for us - the consumer. When businesses compete, they go the extra mile to make the customer happy...we benefit. But it almost seems as though Disney is conceding the summer to Potter, and Nightastic is their way of making an effort, but not a big effort.

And as huge a Disney family as we are, we will probably eventually make our way to Universal once to check out Potter. We'll be back to Disney again and again afterward, but that's still a trip we wouldn't have made if Potter wasn't opening. And in this economy, I'm sure there are families out there who aren't local who can't afford to do both - or give all the time in the world to both - and they just might pick Universal and Potter instead of Mickey this year.

That should frighten Disney. But it didn't seem to frighten them enough to go toe-to-toe with Harry Potter this summer. And that's not a good thing - for us.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Review: Hollywood Studio's Animation Academy

Very early on in Around The Mouse, we talked about one of the special FREE things that you can bring home with you when at The Mouse: drawings from the Animation Academy at Disney's Hollywood Studios (Oh, You'll Love This, Just One More (Free) Thing..., October 27th, 2009). Recently the kids and I had another opportunity to take advantage of this great attraction.

First, this is part of the larger Magic Of Animation attraction that's housed in the Animation courtyard in Hollywood Studios. The attraction in general is pretty cool, although it used to be quite a bit better back in the day. But this is one of those attractions that if you never experienced the original, this version will seem just fine.

In the full version, you wait in a queue for the start time of a movie to begin that features Mushu from Mulan in an explanation of the creative process by which an animated character is made. It's not a bad movie and does a decent and humorous job of getting its message across. We did find out that you can skip this movie by asking the CM and they will point you toward a second door that will lead to the interactive area (we'll expand on this in a minute). The reason why this current movie is ripped by people who saw the previous version is because it used to have actual Disney animators working live in front of the guests explaining how the animation process worked.

For example, we went there once and saw them working on Brother Bear, explaining it all step by step. Now it's a generic movie that is the same every time. The greatly diminished role of the classic 2D animation style was probably mostly responsible in the elimination of this part of the attraction (Princess and the Frog not withstanding). If 2D animation won't be a constant anymore (considering the tepid theatrical response to ...Frog) Disney might want to now include a portion of the attraction showcasing the art of 3D rendering that's so expertly used by Pixar. Just an idea, Disney.

From the movie you enter an area that overlooks an actual art studio. The last couple of times we've been there, a Disney artist has been sitting in the studio working on animation cells that were to be sold in the Art Of Disney stores (according to the nice CM nearby). This annoys people as well because this studio used to be occupied by animators working on actual cells for animated pictures instead of art to be sold in stores. Anyway, I still think the room is great to look at and it's still worthwhile to see.

After that, you pass by another art studio that features examples of storyboard art at various stages during production. The current art that is featured is from The Princess and the Frog.

From there, you move into the "interactive" area where several things are going on. There's three meet and greets, including a permanent area that features Sorcerer Mickey, an area that currently features the Incredibles, and a third area that houses the Up! characters.

Katie trying out one of the interactive touch-screen games.

There are also interactive games to be played mostly involving art games on touch screen monitors. Several other small interactive activities are present that most kids love to spend time doing. Some activities are similar to the games and exercises that can be found in the Create area of DisneyQuest, if you're familiar with those.

A shot of the CM animator's desk who instructed the class on how to draw Pluto.

Katie and Chance ready to put some pencil to paper.

In my opinion, the best part of this whole attraction is the Animation Academy. As we mentioned in the previous article, it's a free activity. A CM leads a class full of guests in showing them a simple and quick way of accurately sketching popular Disney characters. All you have is a light table, an eraser-less pencil and a piece of blank paper with the DHS logo on the bottom corner.

Mid-way through my sketch of Pluto. Remember - light lines!

It's actually a great exercise in freehand drawing. They emphasize to tread lightly with the pencil, using very light lines - you'll go heavier with the pencil after you get the shapes fleshed out. They do a great job in continually switching out the characters they're drawing all the time - we've done this attraction probably 4 or 5 times and haven't drawn the same character twice. This last time, we sketched Pluto.

My finished product of Pluto.

Katie proud of her Pluto!

The kids always beg to do this attraction, and it's really worth it. Not only does it teach valuable lessons in the art of drawing, but it's simply a very different experience from most things you can do in the parks and it's FREE. Take advantage!

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Chance Walks This Way For The First Time

7-year-old Chance had only three attractions left in Walt Disney World that he couldn't do because of height: Primeval Whirl, Sum Of All Thrills and Aerosmith's Rock N Roller Coaster. For years he looked up to Rock N Roller Coaster with awe and with the aspirations of one day being big enough to actually ride it. Well, he's finally big enough, and he finally rode it.

The first thing he said when he got off?

"CAN WE DO IT AGAIN?!?!?!?!?!?"

This is the same kid who at age four rode Tower of Terror. And then immediately after his first ride, went on to ride it 12 times in a his persistent request each time. He also did Test Track at the same age (TT was actually his first "big" ride).

This event rings in a new era, as Chance now can look forward to Sum and Whirl sometime soon.

Chance and Katie enter the lobby of Rock N Roller Coaster.

Always thought the lighting in the lobby was critical to setting the mood of the ride.

Chance wasn't so excited that Katie was really proud of his new milestone.

The famous door of marbles that just HAS to be rolled whenever walked by.

Steven just wanted to give everyone backstage passes.

The drum kit inside the studio.

Check out Chance in the front row. Now THAT is a priceless look.
He'll love this pic when he's older.