A Theme Park in Flux

DHS_MainIt’s no secret that the Walt Disney World Resort (WDW) is undergoing some massive builds and refurbishments. With Universal Orlando (UO) stealing the leading market share from the media and entertainment conglomerate’s flagship resort, Disney is running to catch up. Although there are a number of refurbishments and builds presently taking place, the one that is the most obvious and potentially dangerous is the near-reboot of Disney’s Hollywood Studios (DHS). Just this week, it was announced that the extremely popular thrill ride Rock ‘in’ Roller Coaster is soon to be closed for a relatively short amount of time; however, during this time, all references to Aerosmith will be removed. Whether that is due to inside or outside influences is not what’s really important. What IS important is the number of closures over the last couple of years and even ones that are reported to be taking place within the next few.

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GMR_VintageIt’s the late 1980s, and then Disney CEO Michael Eisner has an idea for a new theme park at WDW. Unlike other parks which were more strategically planned, this one has a rather spontaneous birth. In short, Eisner desired to put a movie-based ride at Epcot. The name of that attraction? The Great Movie Ride (GMR). Sound familiar? From that attraction concept sprung the now Disney’s Hollywood Studios. The genesis of this park parallels Universal Studios Florida in many ways. Both began as Florida production counterparts to their respective Los Angeles headquarters and both opened within one year of one another featuring attractions based on film/TV IP; furthermore, both parks were active film and television production facilities and offered tours, live audience opportunities, and meet and greets with some of the stars. Back then (from 1989-2008) DHS was named Disney-MGM Studios with a scale replica of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre as the centerpiece. The operating hours were less than Magic Kingdom or Epcot because of the few offerings, so DHS was originally operated as a half-day park. The design of the park was mostly based on the idea of Hollywood at the hight of its golden age in the 1930s and 40s. From the buildings to the backlot, it was clear that this park was celebrating the art of motion pictures.

Map_MGM_Studios

Here is a map of the park at the height of attractions offerings (minus Toy Story Midway Mania and The American Idol Experience both added in 2008).

Disney_GG_HouseDuring the late 1990s and early 2000s, both Disney and Universal began to phase out the Florida production facilities. With that phasing out, the connection to the art of motion picture making began to mitigate. Specifically speaking about, Disney-MGM Studios, there were two major changes that directly affected the identity of the park during this first period of flux. While many may not recall the set tours of Adventures in Wonderland or playing Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, many long-time fans and guests of the park will remember the closure of Residential Street (part of the Backlot Tour) to make way for the now-closed Lights, Motors, Action Stunt Show. Residential Street included, among other houses, THE Golden Girls‘ house (used for the exterior shots starting in the 2nd season). During the pilot episode and the first season of the critically acclaimed show–still–with a huge fan base today, the house seen in the exterior shots (which you can drive to today) was/is located in Brentwood, CA. But I digress. With the closure of Residential Street, the now-closed Backlot Tour had to be reinvented to accommodate the new stunt show. This closure represented the first steps in the eventual identity crisis of the park.

DHS_TOTRegarding the addition of new attractions, the 1990s were a booming time for DHS because in 1994, something huge dropped in. The iconic and popular flagship attraction The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror (TOT) opened on Sunset Blvd! At the time, it was considered the most technologically advanced theme park attraction in the world. The attraction was so popular in Florida that a counterpart was constructed at Disneyland as part of Disney’s California Adventure (DCA). Sadly, Disney has confirmed all rumors and timeframes regarding the rebranding of the DCA Tower of Terror to be rethemed with Guardians of the Galaxy. Beauty and the Beast: Live on Stage and The Tower of Terror welcomed the addition of Rock ‘in’ Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith (RRC) in 1999. RRC was the first (and still only) roller coaster at DHS and continues to be a huge draw today. In addition to the 1990s welcoming TOT and RRC, Sunset Boulevard would also become the home of the nighttime spectacular Fantasmic! With room for close to 10K park guests, Fantasmic continues to be a popular show that requires guests to arrive 1-1.5hrs prior to showtime. However, the popularity of Sunset Blvd is not immune to radical changes. As you may be aware, and as I wrote in the opening paragraph, it was announced recently that RRC will be undergoing a short but drastic refurbishment in the next month that will transform the coaster into a more generic version of its current self. (Personally, I’d like to see RRC Starring Journey, 21 Pilots, Bleachers, or a range of songs by bands/artists about rollercoasters).

My sister "wearing" Mickey's hat!

My sister “wearing” Mickey’s hat!

The mid to late 2000s began to see some changes that would completely redefine the identity of the park as it continued to move away from the production of television and film. From Residential Street to the center of the park, due to licensing issues with the then new owners of the real Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, Disney erected Mickey’s Sorcerer’s Hat to serve as the centerpiece for the park and as the logo for marketing. In retrospect, the erection of this hat upstaged the Chinese Theatre, representing the end of the first season of Disney-MGM and ushered in the second season. Contrary to popular opinion, the hat was not connected to the eventual renaming of the park in 2008 but the result of the owners of the Chinese Theatre wanting more money for the famous Hollywood landmark to be featured in marketing materials. Obviously, if you have been to the park in the last year, you have noticed that the Chinese Theatre is back to being the centerpiece thanks to–again–new owners of The Chinese Theatre (TCL). It would appear that DHS is going back to its roots in the art of motion picture production, but that may not be the case. While the entrance to the park is almost back to its vintage state, the rest of the park is being redefined and is presently in a state of flux as the seasons change once again.

DHS_NewLogoEven before Star Wars and Frozen, DHS was already in a identity crisis. The most notable change, whether you are a park regular or not, was the complete renaming of the park in 2008 from Disney-MGM Studios to Disney’s Hollywood Studios (on that note, the park will be getting a new name again with the opening of Star Wars and Toy Story lands). Although the renaming is partly due to the disconnect from motion picture making, it is mostly due to MGM falling into bankruptcy. 2008 continued to be a big year of changes with the opening of the still-popular Toy Story Midway Mania attraction located in the Pixar area near then-Animation. Furthermore in 2008, DHS opened the now-closed American Idol Experience (licensed from Fox). It took the place of Doug Live in the show building that was vacant from 2001-2008. From 2008-2012ish, it was extremely popular and hundreds, if not thousands, of park guests auditioned everyday. Towards the end, the attraction would have to cancel shows because so few guests auditioned. The attraction finally closed its doors at the Superstar Theatre in 2014 to make way for the Frozen Live show that can now be seen daily. More recently, the–what was left of the–Backlot Tour is now closed, DHS_ OFSDLalong with the Honey I Shrunk the Kids playground, Streets of America (home to the now deceased Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights during the holidays); and it’s rumored that in 2018 that The Great Movie Ride (GMR) will be massively rethemed to a Mickey dark ride. Supporting evidence of this is in the decline to renew the–actually still new–licensing agreement and sponsorship of GMR by Turner Classic Movies. The removal of GMR would essentially mean the park will lose all connections to the original idea for the park. Theme park researchers are also predicting the closure of the Indiana Jones Stunt Show to make way for more Start Wars. Looks like DHS is moving into season three of its life. What does all this mean?

dhs_map_2016_aHere is a map of Disney’s Hollywood Studios today. Notice anything?

DHS_TSL_WallIt is clear that this park is continuing to truly find and solidify its identity. If you look at the map above, you will notice that there are far fewer offerings than in the mid-late 2000s at DHS. This new season of DHS is simply the next in a long history of fluctuations. Originally designed as a half-day park, it appears as though DHS is unofficially returning to that model–for now, anyway. Once RRC closes (even though it is for a relatively short time), there will only be a few rides left: Star Tours, Great Movie Ride, Tower of Terror, and Toy Story. As far as other attractions, guests will still be able to enjoy Indiana Jones, Frozen, Beauty and the Beast, Fantasmic, Little Mermaid, and Muppet Vision 3D. Comparing that list to what was offered in DHS’ prime years, the offerings are somewhat anemic. Although it is too early to announce a target opening date for either Toy Story or Star Wars Lands respectively, Disney is known for prolonged expansion construction. So, it is safe to assume that we are looking at 3-5yrs until the lands open. The danger in closing so many attractions over the years and nearly cutting the park in half (when it was already small) is a potential side effect of a significant drop in guest numbers. Hopefully, the numbers will climb back up once the lands open. DHS_SWL_WallThat being said, here is an idea. It’s no secret that Disney is presently losing out to Universal. Of all the parks, DHS is definitely seeing the sharpest decline in numbers (which translates to revenue). Not knowing what the daily operating cost of the park is, I can only speculate; but,  WDW may be in a better position if it were to completely close DHS for 18-24mos and ramp up the construction of Star Wars and Toy Story. With the park remaining open, the construction moves more slowly than if the entire park were to shut down. Cities have proven that this approach works when it comes to massive repairs or expansions of expressways. Would you rather keep a park open that has a few attractions and the new lands take twice as long to build or would it be better to close the park (which could potentially save money in the long run) and the lands open up in half the time? Whatever the case, it’s definitely something interesting to think about. All we can do is watch as Disney’s “movie” based theme park transforms yet again. On the plus side, the new lands look awesome! I will, though, miss the magic of the movies at this park.

Me and my sister during her first trip to Disney World.

Me and my sister during her first trip to Disney World.

“Huntsman: Winter’s War” movie review

HuntsmanWintersWar“Let it go” Universal, Disney already has dibs on the Snow Queen. Prepare for the unnecessary prequel/sequel Huntsman: Winter’s War this weekend. It won’t take long for you to realize that you have seen this story before. Albeit, a more family friendly and Disney’d version, but this plot nevertheless. However, after researching the actual Hans Christian Andersen fairly tale The Snow Queen, it is clear that Universal Pictures does a more accurate job of adapting the fairy tale’s words than Frozen did. The problem with this attempt is that it feels like it’s coming around a little too late. With one-dimensional characters and a predictable plot, Huntsman attempts to tell the “real” story of the Snow Queen that appeals to teens and adults, but it looks so incredibly “Frozen” that it leaves you feeling like you’ve done this all before. Although there are increased action and romance scenes in the film, the whole idea of close sisters having a falling out, the one heading to the frozen north, while the other remains in the south with the north creeping on its doorstep, and love melting frozen hearts, is the foundation of the narrative and feels like a bad case of deja vu with little to add.

Travel back to the land of Snow White, and come face to face with a little known story that has yet to be told. Before poison apples and dwarfs, Queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron) and her sister were running the kingdom after the death of the good king (Snow White’s father). Ravenna’s younger sister Freya (Emily Blunt) falls in love with a man promised to another woman but has come to bare his child. After Freya finds her lover having set fire to the nursery and the innocent child, Freya becomes acutely overcome with anger, grief, and hatred and suddenly displays powers of ice and snow. Unable to control her anger and power, Ravenna send her sister to the north to find a kingdom of her own. After having her child murdered, Freya decides to raise a kingdom by making love illegal and taking children from villages and raising them up as warriors known as huntsman. When she finds that two of the huntsman Brighton (Chris Hemsworth) and Sara (Jessica Chastain) have committed the unpardonable sin of falling in love, Freya steps in to put a stop to their forbidden love. Banished from the kingdom of the frozen north, Brighton is contacted by Snow White’s kingdom to retrieve the infamous mirror filled with dark magic before it falls into the wrong hands.

Every once in a while, I come across a movie that really doesn’t require a lengthy description of the critical elements of the film; and this is one of those. Just felt very much under-developed and forced. Anyone who has seen Frozenand let’s face it, that’s practically everyone whether they wanted to or not–will instantly pickup on the parallels between both movies. Huntsman: Winter’s War is definitely geared towards an adult audience but it still feels like it stole many elements from Frozen. Even the coloring and costuming are very similar. For those who have examined Frozen from a critical perspective and read up on the development of the blockbuster, you may be familiar with the evolution of the script: it starts out as an adaptation of The Snow Queen but then the writers scrapped that idea for more of a contemporary Disney animated feature story. But then the writers didn’t like that direction either, they essentially took the first half of the first draft of the script and spliced it together with the second half of the second draft, added in some catchy music and boom! You have FrozenHuntsman is similar to what you would have got in Frozen had the first draft been the produced movie.

On the plus side, this film contains some beautiful imagery and simple but stunning visual effects. The goblins are extremely well done–too bad you get so little time with them in a scene that is completely removable from the rest of the film. That scene and others were clearly under-budgeted and under-developed. Despite the fact that you can watch this movie in D-Box and IMAX, there is really no reason to spend the extra money. Watching it in a standard auditorium will suffice perfectly. If you want to get a better idea of the darkness of the original Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale before Elsa and Anna, then you may enjoy this movie. However, if you would rather wait for it to be on Amazon Prime or iTunes, then that works too.

Cinderella (2015)

Cinderella (2015)Bibbidi Bobbidi Bomb! That’s precisely what the most current adaptation/remake of the timeless classic is. Watch as everything you loved about the original Disney Classic is sucked out of this version. But, after this same tired story has been remade again, and again, and again, and again, what can you expect??? From the casting–with Cate Blanchette being the exception–to the writing to the over all poor execution of the famous fairy tale, you will understand why Disney had to add the Frozen short film prior to the opening credits just to get people to see this travesty unfold. On that note, it too was poorly produced and shoved down the movie patrons’ throats. After the tragic adaptation of the beloved Into the Woods, laughable revisionist Sleeping Beauty/Maleficent, and this year’s flavor of Cinderella, I am fearful of the upcoming live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast.

Ordinarily, this is where I summarize the plot; however, this story has been remade so many times that I won’t bother. But, I will tell you that in an effort to add some new zest to the story, Disney does modify some of the events and adds in additional backstory. And, I will say that I liked the modifications and additions. So, I suppose the whole thing wasn’t a total flop.

One of the cardinal rules of filmmaking: don’t remake a classic and virtually change nothing! Your audience will most likely be bored to tears. It was Cecil B. DeMille who said, “the greatest art is the art of storytelling.” Unfortunately, the storytelling in this movie was not artful or original at all. And I use the term original lightly. I’m aware that many films are based on other works of literature or plays. However, it is vitally important that, when adapting a work of fiction, adding something new is required. Nobody wants to see the same thing over and over. Good examples of creative twists on the Cinderella story were Ever After, with Drew Berrymoore, and the funny, entertaining Cinderella with the beautifully talented Bernadette Peters. Both these versions took the familiar story and created something new. Speaking of Ms. Peters, I have yet to understand Disney’s blatant aversion to casting her in roles that are made for her, such as the witch in the recent Into the Woods and the role of Godmother in today’s Cinderella. Another excellent choice for Godmother would have been the incomparable Michelle Pfeiffer.

On the note of casting, I am overall very disappointed with the performances. I will directly point out that I am very happy that Disney chose Lily James for the iconic role of Cinderella, because she boasts a very natural beauty that is not typical of those ordinarilly chosen to play–or drawn to play–Disney princesses. She is someone girls could look up to and not feel like they could never measure up to the unrealistic Disney princess image that often graces the screen. Another positive casting choice was Blanchette as Lady Tremaine (stepmother). She played the role with excellence and truly brought the character to life. At first, I wasn’t too sure about her when the cast was initially announced; but, I stood corrected when everything from her look, to her tone of voice, to her attire screamed ‘I am the evil stepmother.’ She took the Disney villain to a whole new level with the addition of taunting and belittling. As far as the rest of the cast, yes–including Helena Bonham Carter (as Godmother)–I am very disappointed and was constantly thinking of who else should’ve been cast in the various roles. 

Pacing is very important to the structure of a screenplay, and the pacing was way too quick for this story. There were many times that it felt like key turning points or plot twists were just glazed over for the sake of runtime. Another area that structurally suffered was the very ridged narrative. It’s like we jumped from scene to scene without well-crafted transitions. An example of this is when Lady Tremaine has Ella’s glass slipper. We are never even given any clue as to how she thinks to look for the iconic shoe. One of the elements that made Ever After such a hit when it came out was the writing and casting. It took a story most people are familiar with and came at it from a whole new angle. This angle allows the storytellers/filmmakers to include what was loved in the more fictitious fairy tale and build upon it to being the story as close to reality as possible. Between the narrative structure and the casting, this live-action Cinderella still remains a favorite by many. Likewise, the (also Disney, by the way) movie musical adaptation of Cinderella in 1997 made its mark on the classic tale/broadway show by giving it an impeccable cast and adding new musical numbers (“Falling in Love with Love” being a fantastic addition). As you can see, both these movies (as well as Into the Woods and the other Cinderella adaptations over the years) often put their own spin on the story to essentially create a new experience for the movie audience. I find that this version of Cinderella failed to create something new and simply rehashed poorly what has already been done.

Note to Disney: Disney, you need to try something new! Please stop your current trend of creating live-action versions of your beloved animated movies that made you the king of the industry that you are, because you are losing sight of the art of storytelling. I really hope this live-action adaptation of the animated movie is not a foreshadow of what we are to expect with Beauty and the Beast. At this point, I wouldn’t be surprised if they do not cast Angela Lansbury as Ms. Pots–and no one can play that role like she can. Movie go-ers beware: this is not your childhood Cinderella.