EPCOT’s Soarin’ Around the World (review)

SoarinAfter having ridden Soarin’ three times, and now, in all three seating sections, I’d like to share my thoughts on the experience. It was GREAT! But because I can never simply attribute so few words to a review, you’re still going to get a bunch more. Like many, I too had grown tired of Soarin’ Over California. Although California is the home of Walt Disney Studios and it’s a state containing a dynamic landscape from the mountains to the seashore, it always puzzled me why we were soaring over California in Florida. Yes, I am aware the Florida is beaches, cities, and swamp; so, it does not boast nearly as beautiful a landscape (other than the beautiful beaches). And Yes, I know that Soarin’ is a carbon copy of the attraction at Disney’s California Adventure; however, I always thought that it would have been interesting to have Soarin’ over California at the Walt Disney World Resort and Soarin’ Over Florida at the Disneyland Resort. But, I digress. This new incarnation of a popular attraction is vastly improved in terms of picture quality, queue experience, and guest cycling. With the addition of the third auditorium, Soarin’ is able to load and unload guests much more efficiently than before. I half expected that the wait times would be 2+ hours even after the first couple of weeks, but honestly, the wait times have been relatively low. Yes, that is partly due to the drop is guest attendance at WDW compared to previous year; but, I attribute the lower wait times to the addition of the new concourse. Very much a wonderful and refreshing experience and I look forward to continued journeys to famous monuments, buildings, and landmarks around the world…

The first thing anyone who is familiar with the predecessor to Soarin’ Around the World is going to notice is the nicely refurbished queue. It’s a little less utilitarian looking and creates a more relaxing atmosphere. Perfect for preparing to embark on a flight around the world in fewer than eighty days. From the carpet to the color scheme, Soarin’ has a fresh feel and generates a ambiance of newness. Although there are some changes to the costume, they are quite minor and had to be pointed out to me by a friend with whom I first experienced the new Soarin’. If you enjoyed the interactive games in the queue before, you will be delighted to know that there are still games; however, not in the same fashion as the ones that had been a staple of the queue from day 1. The new activity is called “Soarin Challenge;” it’s a trivia based game that requires the user to participate by using his or her phone. Fortunately, for those who do not have an unlimited data mobile plan (that I’ve had since 2007 haha), there is ample access to the queue’s WiFi. Joining tens or hundreds of other players who are also in the queue, guests have the opportunity to answer questions on geography, cuisine, languages and more. Guests can also unlock passport stamps for their digital collection and aim to up their personal score on the leaderboard. Even if you do not have a mobile device–unlikely, I know–you can still participate by looking at the large displays overhead. One of the fan favorites of this attraction has long since been Patrick Warburton’s preshow. Good news! He is still here. In fact, the video is largely untouched. However, if you pay close enough attention, you will notice that the white Disneyland letters that were on his “pal’s” shirt are now gone. Much like the previous preshow video, this one also highlights the destinations.

Unless I am mistaken, I was unable to pick up on any differences in the ride system itself. After going through he attraction three times, I have been unsuccessful at noticing anything that has have changed during the refurbishment. If you have noticed changes, please let me know. Like with the previous ride video, this one is also best experienced in the center seating section (B). Although B-1 is definitely the best row, any of the rows in B offer a great experience. As for the flanking sections (A & C), the experience is slightly distorted. This has nothing to do with the quality of the IMAX image or viewing area, but simple physics. Due to the very nature of the “dome” having a curvature, the seating sections A and C display distorted imagery as the buildings, monuments, and landmarks move across to the bottom of the screen. I don’t think this is something that typical guest will pick up on, but it is something that caught my attention the second and third times I rode it. Other than that unavoidable distorted view form the house right and left sections, the experience was excellent. I thoroughly enjoyed the new sights, sounds, and yes aromas. Who would’ve guessed that the smell of the dirt on the Savannah could have been created?!? Great job Imagineers. Regarding the ride time itself, I feel that some of the locations could have been extended by 3-5 seconds while one of two of them could have been shortened.

Instead of ending at Disneyland, as the previous Soarin’ did, this one (in Florida) ends at Epcot during the nighttime spectacular Illuminations: Reflections of Earth. Tinkerbell welcomes you to WDW’s second theme park as a litany of fireworks illuminate the sky. Liked the Hidden Mickey in the last finale? You still have one in this ending. Great experience all the way around, and I definitely look forward to many trips around the word in this outstanding attraction.


DCA’s Hollywood Tower Hotel Under New Management

TOT_DCA_GGThe recent news of the Guardians of the Galaxy makeover of the iconic Tower of Terror (TOT) ride at Disney’s California Adventure has many, if not most, fans of the attraction up in arms. Apparently, it was not being guarded too well. Suffice it to say, those of us who spend a great deal of time in the parks (for me, it’s the Florida parks mostly), we are accustomed to seeing iconic attractions go by way of Jaws: the Ride. That does not mean that one ever gets used to or accepts it; but the fact is that the theme parks have to evolve in order to keep up with those who bring in the most revenue (kids and teenagers, because of their parents or grandparents). Of course, some evolutions are better left in AutoCad. With the Walt Disney Company unable to integrate the Marvel IP into the Florida parks to any significant extent (in terms of attractions), it seems the only choice is to overhaul the Disneyland Resort (DLR) near Los Angeles…

At first, many theme park enthusiast must be wondering why??? However, exploring this recent news from a critical perspective reveals that it is a business decision, plain and simple. As I have written many times, theme parks are glorified arms of revenue–a business line item–that are designed to be cash cows, instant revenue. Most likely, the DLR company conducted surveys and focus groups concerning a proposed idea to refit the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror with Guardians of the Galaxy. Although it is expected that some attractions have to be removed or retrofitted, there are certain attractions–especially in the Disney Parks–that should not be touched. The Disney Parks more so than the Universal Parks rely upon nostalgia. In many ways, this modification of the TOT at DCA is sacrilegious to the original theme of the parks and will upset many people. With the massive refurbishment of TOT, this leaves park regulars and future tourists wondering what iconic attraction is next. If TOT is not safe, then is any attraction safe from elimination??? But, is retheming an attraction always met with disdain? Certainly not. When the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea attraction at Disneyland Park received its Finding Nemo refurbishment, it was generally met with excitement and praise. That is probably because the soul of the attraction was left in tact. By extension, it could be said that retheming Mission: Space at EPCOT with a Guardians of the Galaxy makeover would actually be welcomed and appreciated as that attraction is getting dated and simply does not see even half the guest numbers that it once did. But should Spaceship Earth get rethemed to a Marvel IP? Definitely not. There are attractions that need to be rethemed or reimagined every couple of decades or so, and then there are those which are best left alone for all to appreciate over the years. But how to know the difference? That’s the question.

Many theme park researchers and fans alike never thought that ToT would become extinct; that is until the rumors began floating around in the last year or so. Much like Universal Studios Florida, Disneyland Resort suffers from lack of room for expansion. Yes, I am aware the Universal has acquired more land recently; but for argument sake, it is important to be able to compare the two. One reason why Universal needed to retheme and replace entire attractions is because it did not have the luxury of expansion until recently. So, the only way to integrate new offerings into the parks was to replace existing ones. Much in the same vein, DLR is also landlocked; and in order to integrate new offerings, it too has little choice but to replace or retheme existing attractions or lands. Accepting the fact that DLR has limited room for geographic expansion, leaves only one alternative: continue to modify the park every 15-20 years or so. The largest source of revenue for theme parks are kids and teenagers. Not that young and older adults do not add large numbers; but the families with kids and teens are the ones who bring in the most revenue due to multiple family members needing multi-day tickets and potentially several nights in a hotel. For every one or two people going to the park alone or together, there is likely one or two families or groups of 4-6 or even more who are also going. Think of it as a 1:4 ratio (and that is probably conservative). Much like Disney’s Hollywood Studios is almost losing its identity with and connection to the magic of filmmaking, with the massive addition of Star Wars and Toy Story Lands, DCA looks like it is also shedding its story of California and Hollywood and dawning the dominant theme of Marvel and Cars. Yes, the parks are integrating movies but not in the same way that the parks were originally designed.

Why is losing its original identity an important part of the equation on whether something is considered a legacy attraction or not? Because once the identity of old Hollywood or the magic of filmmaking is stripped away, then what was once seen as iconic or legacy no longer has that image or appeal. If DCA no longer represents Old Hollywood, gold rush California, or beachside amusements, then the Hollywood Tower Hotel no longer seems relevant. Although many people recognize the Twilight Zone music, it is safe to say that most kids and teens do not know what the Twilight Zone is or was. They don’t know that it was a groundbreaking anthology series in TV’s earlier days. So, if those who are not driving the most revenue into the parks do not understand the significance or nostalgia of the Twilight Zone, if they do not see the park as representing Old Hollywood or filmmaking, and if they have never seen the Tower of Terror movie, then that attraction becomes a prime target for a complete overhaul or massive refurbishment. Essentially, it is like a member of a royal family getting striped of his or her title under a new monarchy. Simply stated, it is apparent that the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror no longer qualifies as a legacy attraction at DLR.

We can analyze this decision all day long and arrive at a litany of conclusions or rationale for why this was or was not a good decision; but the fact of the matter is, unless things change, the ToT at DCA is going to become a Guardians of the Galaxy attraction. In my personal opinion as a theme park enthusiast and long-time fan, I am saddened to see this attraction get replaced by a newly acquired IP; but, the analyst in me can understand why the company is making that decision. Looks as if the Tower of Terror left it “guard” down. Perhaps the new theme will be a success! However, that success comes at the cost of an opening day attraction that many will miss.