Expedition Everest

Attraction SignAs it turns out, the rumors of the total lack of internet access were greatly exaggerated. When I was ironing a shirt this morning, I found an ethernet cable hiding in the back of the closet, and I grabbed it like a kid opening a Christmas present.

It doesn’t make that much of a difference, since I’m still not in the hotel room enough to keep up with my usual level of internet slack time. But it does at least let me talk about Expedition Everest to an audience other than those who are jaded about Disney rides.

But first, the trip in general. So far it’s going so well that it’s unsettling. The travel itself was painless — they’d originally stuck me in the dead center of a 7-seat plane for a 4-hour flight, but just as I was about to sit down, someone asked me to trade seats so I got an aisle. And the flight got in ahead of schedule.

The weather here has been perfect. Again, to the point of feeling unnatural — it’s just not right to be in Florida and not be soaking wet from a combination of sweat and sudden thunderstorms. But it’s been clear, sunny, and cool all week. The food’s been good, the people have been friendly, the parks have been fun, and the hotel is about perfect.

So it’s just been a slacker’s vacation on Corporate Entertainment’s dime, right? Actually, no. Because we’ve got a smaller group here and because we’re far enough along in the project to know exactly what we’re looking for, we’ve gotten a lot accomplished, and the meetings have been going well. (Because I can’t say more than that on the internets, and because I don’t want to jinx it, that’s all I’m saying about that).

And because it’s been productive, there’s been more time to just relax. We went to Animal Kingdom yesterday and rode Expedition Everest two times (keeping in theme with the trip, the line was less than 15 minutes long), and went back today to ride it again (the line was a little less than an hour this time, which was actually good because it gave us a chance to see all the details in line).

It’s an astoundingly good ride, totally solid and a hell of a lot of fun. The Asia section of the park has remarkably detailed theming, and the ride fits in with that. The queue has tons of details throughout and combines a tourist center, a shrine to the Yeti as protector of the mountain, and a Yeti museum. That theming extends to the ride itself, as the lift hill goes through a temple that’s as detailed as anything you saw in the queue. And the rest of the ride crams everything good about Disney coasters into just over a minute — effects, animation, some innovation, an some genuine surprises (even though I knew the basic layout going in).

Apparently the word going around was that it was a “gentle” coaster, but it’s not. It leaves you with the same overall feel as Big Thunder Mountain, but it’s a good bit more intense, especially the section in the dark. And the Yeti (hope I’m not ruining the ride for anyone, but yeah, you do see the Yeti) is just awesome. As much as I enjoyed the ride, it was even cooler seeing groups of kids getting off clapping and cheering and running right back to the entrance to ride it again. It looks like they’ve got a hit.

Me, I got off, bought a T-shirt for it (I’d said I wasn’t going to buy any more Disney T-shirts, but this one was too cool to pass up), and casually walked back to ride it again. If the park hadn’t been closing, I would’ve tried to ride it one more time. There’s still two days left to get my chance…

Merge Right

When Robert Iger showed up at that Apple announcement last year to bring “Lost” and “Desperate Housewives” to the iPod, people were saying it showed that Steve Jobs and Disney were close pals now that Michael Eisner was gone. Maybe there was something to that, because Disney finally bought Pixar.

I guess things were going in that direction for a while, so it was inevitable. I couldn’t be less of an insider as far as the film/animation studio business goes, but at least from a surface assessment (Disney animation needs more innovation, Pixar animation needs more market profile) it makes sense. I also like seeing press releases that mention billions of dollars of stock transitions and “imagination” and “dreams” and “the child in everyone” all on the same page.

I didn’t notice any mention of whether they’re going to keep the Pixar brand name. If nothing else, it’ll reduce some of their ad text, so for parades and rides and such they can finally stop saying, “A Walt Disney Animation Production of a Pixar Studios Film Monsters, Inc.

Yeti!

Chuck SMASH!!A Disney podcast called Inside the Magic has posted two ride-through videos of the Expedition Everest ride at Animal Kingdom in Florida. It is what we Imagineers like to call so totally wicked awesome.

The video is from a roller coaster, so it’s dark and bumpy and blurry and such, but then that’s why The Zapruder Effect is in play. You can see the cool Yeti shadow effect, and the twisted tracks sequence, as well as pretty much the entire ride in the video. But what’s going on in all the pitch black sequences? And what’s it feel like on the ride itself?

I’ll find out the next time my job takes me to Orlando. I’m feeling lucky!

If you use iTunes, you can get at the video podcasts part one and part two.

(And the goofy picture of me is just to test out ecto, a blog-writing app that I’m thinking of using.)

The Disney Taint

Tonight after work I decided to go see Chicken Little at The The The El Capitan Theater in Hollywood. I’ve been wanting to see the theater for a while now, and I had to do something to make up for not going to Disneyland this trip, and it was showing in Disney Digital 3D! I’m not familiar with the details, but apparently the theater is all historical and shit. It’s not as big as Grauman’s main theater, but they make up for it by making a big production out of everything.

When we went in they gave us all the Chicken Little 3D glasses to keep as a souvenir — and because you don’t want to be wearing the same glasses that some freakshow off Hollywood Boulevard came in and wore before you. As we went into the theater the guy was already playing on his swinging organ on stage. That was really cool — he did a whole Disney medley and they had it somehow hooked up in stereo so it was like being surrounded by organ. Yes I used the same dumb double entendre twice in a row. Then the theater manager came out and welcomed everyone and announced upcoming shows. And then we saw trailers of some movie about snow dogs that get lost in the Arctic, and The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe.

So far it sounds like great old-time movie house experience. Well, that was before the cute young singer in a short skirt ran out on stage and started dancing to one of the songs from Chicken Little and she brought out two people dressed as Chicken Little and the Ugly Duckling to dance on stage with her. And then she asked everybody in the audience to stand up and dance with her. Sure, it’s a G-rated kids movie. But it was at 10pm on a Thursday night, too. I didn’t go out to dance, and I didn’t go out to feel curmudgeonly, either, dammit. Luckily, nobody else stood up either. At the end of three minutes of dancing they launched the confetti cannons and started the movie.

And the problem is that that whole attitude of forced commercial whimsy carries on through the whole movie. The movie’s technically very well done, and the 3D is neat without being overdone. But it’s all just kind of flaccid and weird and formulaic and forced. It’s not even Dreamworks bad, like a mean-spirited Shrek movie that’s desperate to show how hip it is. This wasn’t cringingly unfunny; in fact it was pretty clever in some places. But there was no spark to it. Not just because of a lack of imagination; it feels like the imagination was actively supressed to make room for the songs and the commercial tie-ins.

I’m still trying to figure out exactly what it was, because the movie doesn’t have the usual Disney formula but still feels completely formulaic. I had somewhat high hopes, too. Not because I’m rooting for Disney in the whole Disney vs. Pixar thing, but because I’d like to see more good CGI movies coming out. Pixar can only release a movie every so often, after all, and I can’t say I’ve got high hopes for Cars. I’d even be rooting for a Dreamworks movie to be good if they ever announced one with any potential.

My point, I guess, is that I’ve been a Disney fan for so long that I tend to automatically filter out the stuff that people complain about the company. It’s vaguely unsettling to see it all laid bare.

(I won’t mention the bit about how I don’t know my way around Burbank and Glendale like I thought I did so I ended up driving all over the place for an hour and missed the 7:30 show and had to wait two hours for the 9:45 one so I missed a whole night of writing and I’m feeling all guilty about it).

Banned from Disneyland

No Disneyland for me this week, since they’re only keeping the park open until 8pm every night. Even I’m not stupid enough to drive at least an hour and a half through Los Angeles rush hour traffic to be able to spend 30 minutes to an hour in the happiest place on earth.

Okay, I am, but not this week. There’s just too much to do. I think we’re making a lot of progress on the project, which means that when I get back to the hotel I’ve got plenty of stuff to write on the design document. That’s good! But I’m so very, very tired. That’s bad. Still, having too many ideas and not enough time and energy to commit them to (virtual) paper is a hell of a lot better than vice-versa.

I did get to tag along on a tour today of the R&D presentation, following a group of Japanese employees of the Oriental Land Company (they run Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo DisneySea). The demo was really cool; there’s some really neat stuff in development. Plus, as it was all run through a translator, I got the abbreviated version that hit on all the special effects and visual “Wow” stuff. And I’m pretty sure that’s all I’m allowed to say about it.

Even if I didn’t have work, there’d be too much to do for Disneyland. I’m still fighting under the ever-escalating word count deficit. The zen of “it’s okay; I can do this” has gone away since I haven’t really made a dent in my fictional masterwork (fictional in that it’s a work of fiction and it doesn’t exist at this point), and I still have only introduced one character at this point and haven’t even gotten to the main plot.

And of course, yet another distraction. The game The Movies came out this week, and it’s one I’ve been semi-interested in ever since it was announced. It’s getting fair-to-middling reviews, but I’m still intrigued enough to check it out; the only question is finding time to do it. The game sounds like it does a pretty good job of Sims-like emergent behavior, getting results that were completely unexpected. Something as completely unexpected as GameSpy running a genuinely funny article, about one columnist’s attempt to make a western and ending up with Brokeback Mountain.

That Guy

Animal Kingdom Lodge LobbySo after dealing with all the nonsense at the airport, I drove angrily to Disney World, without getting all excited when I passed through the main gate, or looking around for all the signs and the attractions you can see over the tree-line. I just parked the car at the hotel and stomped into the lobby and as corny as it sounds, all that anger and frustration just vanished. The hotel itself is impressive; I put some pictures up on flickr, mostly for Skip but for anyone who wants to take a look. But better than that was how friendly everyone was — the bellhops, the people at the front desk, the people working at the restaurant. And it wasn’t a case of special treatment for employees, since there was nothing identifying me as an employee. And it wasn’t really anything particularly above-and-beyond, just a general level of friendliness and genuinely trying to make things easier for guests. The cynical-minded could point out that you pay a lot for that kind of treatment, but I just say that it’s nice that it even exists.

The big attraction of the lodge is the ability to see animals in the savannas all around the hotel. I didn’t see all that many — a few giraffes and a couple of zebras — but there were still plenty of neat touches. At night, near the pool, they have a cast member who gives you night-vision goggles to check out the animals. During the day they have cast members in the lobby with smaller displays of insects and other creatures for kids to check out. In the area between the two restaurants, the hosts and hostesses play African drums and invite guests to play along while they’re waiting for a table. And there are various displays about ecology and African culture and history all throughout. It’s exactly what a Disney hotel should be.

One of the worst things about losing my luggage — apart from having to wear the same pair of underwear for three days straight — was being on the Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster and realizing that I’d become That Guy. You know, That Guy. Mid 30’s to early 40’s. Alone at an amusement park. In the single rider line. Pale, glasses, kinda chubby. Wearing a shirt from that park or a different one, bonus points for a theme park in a different country. Likely wearing a goatee and/or a ponytail and/or a single earring. Waits for the front row, gets off the ride quietly. Walks past the photo booth at the end, glancing at the picture but without stopping. The male equivalent of the crazy cat lady.

And even though I fit all kinds of qualifications (I hadn’t noticed I’ve gotten fat again until I had to buy new clothes), I wasn’t put off by it until I found myself in the front row of the coaster sitting next to another That Guy, except I was the only one in the Animal Kingdom Lodge T-shirt. And then it all came crashing down. The ride was still cool, though.

I wasn’t able to actually get to a park until 7pm, and the parks closed around 8 and 9. So all I saw of Disney-MGM was the Rock’n’Roller coaster once, and the Tower of Terror twice. That was as cool as ever — seriously, it’s so much better than the California version, because they understood that the drop is only the climax of the ride, not the whole ride. After that I took a boat over to the Swan & Dolphin hotel, walked past the Boardwalk over to Epcot, and went in to get some fish and chips and watch the fireworks. Four of my favorite Disney World things back-to-back, not bad for two hours.

The rest of the trip was taken up either by work or by dealing with the airline. Still, nice work if you can get it. And driving around “backstage” was really, really cool. At Disneyland, it was just kind of off-putting, like seeing Space Mountain with the lights turned on. But at Disney World, the parks are so big that the backstage areas are impressive in and of themselves. I’ve been going there for years, and I’d thought I understood just how big and complicated the whole place was. I had no idea — it’s really a big city. With really expensive food.

And the last bit (I hope) about my experiences with American Airlines: I’d gotten a voice message last night, while I was still on the plane, saying that they had my bag and would be sending it to my San Francisco address. I got another call this morning, telling me that the bag was at SFO and they’d be delivering it to my San Francisco address, which was correct, and telling me that they’d be in the area between 8 and 12 and would I prefer them to call me on my cell phone when they were in the area, or just leave it on the doorstep. I got yet another call this afternoon, telling me that they had the bag, but they needed my address. I pointed out that they had already called me twice with the correct address, but they needed it again. Then tonight at around 11pm, a guy showed up at the door holding the bag, said just “hello,” had me sign a piece of paper, and then walked off saying “thank you.”

At this point, now that I’ve got underwear and toothpaste and clean socks, it’s just comical instead of annoying.

Eastbound and Down

Tower of TerrorTomorrow morning I’m taking a flight down to Orlando to spend three days at Walt Disney World. I’d be a lot more excited, but it is a business trip, even if we are going to get two nights free. And being at Disneyland alone is weird but tolerable, while Disney World is more like being alone in a city. I’ll have the co-workers around during the day and likely at night, but still… it’s a business trip. There’s a weird disjoint there that I’m still wrapping my head around. It’ll be interesting to see it on an “adult” trip; my family and I have been taking basically the same vacation for the past decade and a half, so we’ve got our routine down (go on a ride, complain about how hot it is, repeat until it’s time to go home).

But it’s a business trip on which I’ll get to ride the Tower of Terror as many times as possible, so that’s not a bad thing. Plus, I’ll probably get a chance to see some of the backstage areas (but not the tunnels, because we’re not going to the Magic Kingdom). It was weird going into Disneyland through the back — walking around a bunch of warehouses and alleyways and turning the corner and all of a sudden being in Toontown. Kind of makes the place seem smaller and cuts a notch off the “magic.” It’s still neat to see, though.

And they’re putting us up at the Animal Kingdom lodge, which I’ve never been to but have heard great things about. The downside is that there’s no internet access, so I’ll be blogless for the next few days. We apologize for any inconvenience.

Man-child

Space Mountain via blurry cameraphoneI just got back from Disneyland.

I got into Burbank a little after 5:00, and I’m already caught up with my work (or more accurately, I’m at a complete deadlock with my work and would need some kind of divine intervention to get past it). So I could either sit around the hotel for hours, or I could take advantage of my annual pass, drive down to Anaheim and ride the new Space Mountain as many times as possible.

Turns out “as many times as possible” was once. Tuesday night at around 8 pm, and the wait was 80 minutes. Even with all that, including the hour drive and the kids behind me getting all up in my personal space the whole time in line (because they were excited, so I can’t fault them for that), it was worth it. The ride is that cool. I’ve just got to go with somebody else now, so I can actually talk about it instead of just writing about it on my weblog.

After all that, I didn’t feel like waiting for anything, although the waits for everything else in the park were under 30 minutes. I went on the Matterhorn right as the fireworks were starting, and that was pretty damn cool. Not quite as spectacular as riding Big Thunder Mountain when the fireworks are going on — on Big Thunder, you come out of a tunnel and see the fireworks spread out all over the park, and it’s amazing — but still a great sight. Some of the fireworks are launched from the top of the Matterhorn itself, so the show was going on all around us.

And apart from that, I just had a beef skewer, a Dole whip, and a chocodile (from a 7-11) for dinner. If I were accountable to anyone, I’d be in so much trouble right now. Now I’m going to stay up too late playing my new videogame. Maybe I’ll build a pillow fort in the hotel room.

Flickr and Raccoon Dogs

Now there’s the title for a 70’s action movie if I ever heard one.

I got my copy of Pom Poko yesterday and watched it on the commute back to San Francisco. I’m impressed; Disney released it unedited. And with a pretty tasteful translation — they always refer to them as “raccoons” and never describe them as different animals, which is kind of a shame but perfectly understandable; and they describe at the beginning that the males can inflate and transform their “raccoon pouch” and leave it at that. There’s no cautionary or explanatory material anywhere else on the DVD, and it’s really not needed. (There are also no bonus features other than the original trailers, and a second disc containing the entire movie in storyboard format, but that’s no big surprise as this was never a huge blockbuster release even in Japan).

And I ususally hate English dubs of Japanese movies, but they did a pretty good job with this one. Some relatively big names for voice actors, including John DiMaggio (Bender from “Futurama” and Doctor Drakken from “Kim Possible”), Brian Posehn (again), and J.K. Simmons (from “Oz,” Spider-man, and the yellow M&M). I guess Disney can afford to hire anyone they want. I’m thinking it’s pretty damn cool that the movie was released in the US at all, and the fact that it’s a well-done release is just an added bonus. I’m also very happy I don’t work for Disney’s complaint department.

I’ve also been looking more at Flickr.com and am starting to catch on more to the appeal of it. I’m always late to the party with these internet phenomena, but it’s still worth pointing out. What’s neatest to me is the support for public forums and groups, and the ways that people are using them. Those networking sites like Friendster and Orkut are neat for the first couple of days, but after you settle all your “hey, that friend knows that friend! Small world!” incidents, it’s pretty useless. They try to create “communities,” but it just ends up being “so you like ‘Mr. Show’ too? Cool.” followed by awkward silence. And silences between internet geeks are the most awkward silences of them all.

The flickr people have realized that you can’t just facilitate people’s getting together, you’ve got to give them something to do. And, what’s most surprising to me, people have actually picked it up and run with it. What with this being the internets, there are of course the predictable “look at me naked” and “hey u live in sf too thats cool!!!1!” groups, but most of the ones I’ve found have been surprisingly clever and creative. Usually when you give a ton of people on the internets the chance to be creative, they don’t do much other than reaffirm the idea that 99% of everything is crap. But at least on the groups I’ve seen, people stay on topic or with the theme — “Tiki culture,” “Route 66,” “Most photographed landmarks,” “What your world looks like at 5:00” — and it ends up being pretty cool.

I’m actually encouraged to take pictures again. And just for their own sake, not to be “artistic” or as part of some larger project or some special event, but just because it’s pretty fun. An internet creativity experiment that actually encourages people to be creative; I never would’ve thought it possible.

I realize that I could use my RAZR to post on Flickr, but at that point I’d be turning into one of those guys who always talks about moblogging and geocaching and uses the term “blogosphere” non-ironically and refers to himself by his online handle. And SolGrundy don’t play that, yo.

Disney shows some balls

I just read that Disney is actually releasing Pom Poko on DVD in the US next week! This is my favorite Studio Ghibli movie and in fact one of my favorite movies, but I assumed that since Disney owned the US rights, we’d never, ever, not in a million years, no way no how, ever see a US release.

One of the reasons I like the movie so much is that it was my first exposure to an entire section of Japanese folklore. Before seeing Pom Poko, I’d never heard of tanuki. (Actually, it turns out I had, but I’d never made the connection.) But the “problem,” as far as Disney’s concerned, is that tanuki are always depicted as having huge testicles, and in the folklore it’s the source of their power. It’s non-sexual, or at least more a symbol of fertility than sexuality, but to Americans (myself included), the first reaction is always, “Whoa, check out the ball sack on that raccoon!”

Which is why I thought that once Disney bought the US release rights to all Studio Ghibli movies, we’d never see an American release of Pom Poko. It’s not just a case of how the characters are drawn, either; it’s actually the source of a couple of major plot points — one group of tanuki attack a police group using their scrotums, and another wise old tanuki turns his into a giant sailing ship. So Disney was left with the option of either going in and heavily editing the movie, or not releasing it at all. Since it’s a relatively obscure movie even among anime fans, I can’t imagine the money they’d make from the release would warrant the time and effort it’d take to edit it so heavily.

I haven’t seen it yet, obviously, so they could’ve turned the movie into a eunuch. But I’m encouraged by this interview with the translators, which suggests that they got around the concerns simply by translating “scrotum” as “pouch.” We’ll see.

And although I realize I’ve spent the entire post so far talking about testicles, the point is that it would be a shame to see it edited because it’s relevant to the folklore but such an inconsequential aspect of the movie overall. The real reason I love the movie so much is because it gets its message across so perfectly. It’s mostly an environmental message, like many Studio Ghibli movies, but it’s not reduced to platitudes or schmaltzy symbolism. It has talking animals throughout, but like Watership Down, they stay true to their nature. They’re not just furry stand-ins for humans, they’re really animals.

Or at least, they’re really animals as the traditional folklore portrays them. Tanuki are fun-loving tricksters, and they have difficulty fighting against the humans destroying their mountain specifically because it’s not in their nature to take anything too seriously. When they try to fight back on the humans’ terms, they fail. When they’re in hiding and the humans try to call them out by singing the traditional children’s song, the tanuki can’t help but sing back. And more importantly, when they try to deny their true nature and blend in with the humans, they lose the essence of themselves. I’m sure that it has something to do with the fact I was working for EA the first time I saw it, but the ending never fails to make me start tearing up, every time I see it.