Sunday, 27 January 2013

Walt Disney World… Some Initial Thoughts

Having only just visited Walt Disney World Resort in Florida “properly”, I thought it would be apt to jot down some of my initial thoughts.

Epcot was our first park. We arrived in Orlando fairly late in the day, so it seemed logical to pick the park with the least to actively do. To my surprise, Epcot would be a park we would revisit. I struggled to be impressed with the dull Future World section of the park at it’s entrance, though visiting in January without the foliage displays I’d seen in photos was disappointing. I enjoyed how the landscape doesn’t feel like a theme park in places, but more akin to a resort or recreational park. But I couldn’t get past how dated parts of it look. I gather that might be half the charm for many, or perhaps the entire point – but I find that somewhat unconvincing logic based not on personal taste or experiences, but someone else’s preconceived idea. Like the nonsense of “its classic, therefore it’s good”.  The aquarium especially looks incredibly dark and brutalist, reminiscent of London Zoo’s aged architecture. I always thought of Disney attractions as being timelessly relevant and not appealing to contemporary designs of when they were build, but we found more outdated environments at the Transport and Ticket Centre and in Tomorrowland at Magic Kingdom. I felt like the intentions of this section of Epcot were no longer relevant, and possibly never was? I know little of the park’s history, so my opinions are purely objective to my experience in early 2013. Who in their right mind would pay that much for what is essentially a museum?

The World Showcase is something I wasn’t expecting to care for, either. But the quality and depth of immersion simply cannot be conveyed through photography or words. Each country has a depth to it waiting to be explored, with authentic feeling restaurants, shops, stalls and some even have a network of backstreets. This skill at conveying each country with relative accuracy is truly quite impressive. We found ourselves returning to Epcot to eat and escape the crowds at other parks twice, enjoying just exploring the environment. This is what Epcot is clearly for, chilling out. That would be fine, if it wasn’t $100 a day… Like I said, it kind of feels like a resort, not a theme park you paid to be in, but somewhere you can explore for free. It felt a pool, with a bar alongside and deck chairs, wouldn’t be out of place here. Without the freedom of a weeks worth of park hoppers, Epcot seems useless in its current state. It became apparent as the week went on that you’re encouraged to get park hoppers for at least a few days, through the sheer disgusting expense of a one day park ticket and the way the park’s have been created to all have a distinct feel, but simply not enough to do individually. The public transport between parks is great, but I couldn’t help feeling it should be better? Getting the monorail between Epcot and Magic Kingdom is fine, but the boat between Epcot and MGM is tediously long. It’s an attraction in itself, and great for that reason, as it passes the beautiful resorts on the way – but if you’re using it repetitively it could get frustrating. Animal Kingdom is just left out, with only buses, and NO bus taking you direct to Magic Kingdom from there annoyed me. I read the lack of a monorail extension to the other two parks as a lazy lack of updating, NOT as they are perhaps intended to be futuristic linking the more futuristic themes. A monorail isn’t some futuristic novelty anymore, it’s a method of theme park transportation. More outdated concepts.

If you have the freedom of park hoppers to use the space like you would Downtown Disney, Epcot is incredible. None of the rides are repeatable experiences, but I found this was true for most of Disney. I don’t really understand why you’d base entire attractions around exploration and looking, when so few people enjoy doing that as a primary form of entertainment. If this weren’t true, people would spend more time exploring the real world. Most people need a reason to go somewhere.

Magic Kingdom was busy. I imagine it gets far, far worse, but it was a lot busier than I was expecting for mid-week in January. Crowding isn’t something that typically bothers me, nor are queues, but at a park based around looking, how are you meant to enjoy a space when you have to concentrate on not bumping into anyone? Main Street especially was just never clear enough of guests to be enjoyed.

This park has one of the few attractions at the entire resort that is repeatable, Space Mountain. It lacks a narrative to force feed you with and is more open to interpretation as a rider, and fundamentally, because as a roller coaster it has a physical aspect to entertain you with. Such rides will always, in my opinion, be better than non-visceral attractions because they entertain on multiple levels. That isn’t to say that dark rides cannot be great, they can, but with a few exceptions, they have to have a visceral quality to make the jump into a truly great, memorable and complete experience. That’s why so many boat rides have a little drop. I guess you could argue that Disney’s rides are not meant to be repeatable, and that typical visitors only ride everything once per visit – true, but my issue is that almost every ride at Disney is kind of the same. A boat ride, or an omnimover, through some scenery.

I’d ridden this Space Moutain before, during a very brief and last minute 2 hour trip into Magic Kingdom, and I loved it. I love the queue music, I love the in-queue games, I love the now-rare seating arrangement and I love the ride experience itself. The only thing I feel it’s missing is some more lightning effects inside, so you can see the other trains occasionally, which would enhance the sense of speed and give a busy dynamic. I could ride this over and over quite happily; thoroughly enjoying the zippy transitions and surprising dips. It’s just genuine, honest fun with no bullshit. Until you get off. The exit is horrible. The travelator taking you to the giftshop is frankly vile. It takes forever, and the awful screens display those riding it towards the end grind everyone to a halt as they pull silly faces.  This would be fun, in the queue, but not when you just want to get off the ride. I’m sorry, but there’s no convincing me that I’m still in the attraction now, no matter the effort put into scenery here. By the time you’re FINALLY in the gift shop, you’ve aged so much you’ll struggle to recognize yourself in the on ride photos. If you can FIND the on ride photo booth, as you’re not forced past it… I wonder if their photo sales on Space Mountain are lower than on other rides? They have screens with the photos when you alight the ride, perhaps to get people to want it and thus go in search of the booth to purchase it? But personally, even if I wanted it, I’d have forgotten about it by the time I got out, and remembered hours later. I went to Disney expecting such “details” of the theme park design to be considered better than at any other park in the world, but they just aren’t.

Tomorrowland, as I mentioned before, is incredibly dated in appearance. Unlike Paris’ version, Discoveryland, which has a steampunk feel which helps it seem historically timeless, Tomorrowland is very much yesterdays vision of tomorrow. Charming, perhaps, but hinders me taking it seriously and being immersed in this shiny, cluttered, messy but ultimately rather bleak environment. Stitch’s Great Escape wasn’t as good as I’d hoped. I wish I’d ridden it back when it was Alien Encounter, the effects simply weren’t good enough for it to be convincing like I expected.

The other areas of the park use timeless, stereotypical themes. They are the most widely used themes found at parks around the world and I’m not sure if that’s a positive or negative. The fact that Disney set those standards is irrelevant to guest experience if they are boring themes. Overall, Magic Kingdom was by far my least favorite of the four parks at Walt Disney World. That is undoubtedly because this park is not aimed at me, but this is the thing… The Magic Kingdom style parks define themselves on being timelessly charming and able to bring wonder to children and adults alike. But this park at least just didn’t do that for me. One thing I will praise Disney on is that, unlike other parks, height restrictions pretty much just don’t seem to exist here. Tiny kids can ride practically anything. People misjudge just how brave kids are, but not Disney, and the set up assures parents that everything is child friendly when they would perhaps judge otherwise at other parks.

The park layout is mostly great, leading you through and past attractions in a practical manner, but why is Big Thunder Mountain at a dead end? It’s not made a spectacle of… Speaking of Big Thunder Mountain, it has pretty terrible sequencing. The multiple lifts extend the ride time, which is good, and they are all themed so they feel relevant, part of the narrative and not sequence killing hindrances… But there’s no excuse for that incredible build up on the final lift, to then have that pathetic finale. The Little Mermaid ride suffers a similar problem, with it’s exterior promising more than it offers. Haunted Mansion was my favourite ride after Space Mountain – it’s better than Space Mountain from a critical perspective. Stylistically it’s gorgeous, engaging with fantastic narration and it’s lengthy without becoming tedious. Peter Pan’s flight is one of the more interesting sit and watch scenery go by attractions. It shows it’s age, but the interesting ride carriage, with scenery lay out around and below you and the way the vehicle swerves slowly amongst the scenes, gives it a visceral edge over the others. Jungle Cruise is a terrible attraction, dated and notwithstanding the test of time. With rides requiring a live host to narrate the story, there’s just too greater risk of getting someone who’s simply not good enough. I had similar distaste for Jaws at Universal Orlando. They leave no gap in their spiel, constantly talking and making things awkward during parts where there is simply nothing to say. The fact they have been repeating the unfunny jokes all day is so obvious, it’s supposed to be part of the joke in that “so bad it’s good” style. At one point, our host on Jungle Cruise pointed out that we were not laughing, that WE were making it awkward and he can see us. Terrible, and the entire boat was filled of the same expression, except for that one guy trying to desperately make it less awkward with a fake smile. Pirates of the Caribbean was enjoyable, and both the highlight and the lowlight for me is the vast rooms made to look even more vast… Inevitably ruined by the flash photography of other guests. The crowds at Magic Kingdom had us escaping to Epcot, but on our return visits of an evening we found a much nicer space. Tomorrowland in particular comes alive at night, with the live DJ.

Hollywood Studios was our third park and perhaps the park I was most looking forward to, for only one reason though. It’s home to thee Disney attraction I was most looking forward to, the Tower of Terror. But past that, I was expecting generic movie-style park, and lets face it, they do all look the same and are filled with attractions I typically hate. I do not understand most shows, especially those based around watching a 3D movie. Why would I visit a theme park to do something I can do at home? Theme parks are about true, live, physical experiences, being a part of something real.

The walk up to Hollywood Tower Hotel is a sight to behold. The structure perched beautifully against the (hopefully) blue sky at the end of the street, framed by buildings on the right and market stalls to the left. The lush greenery surrounding the attraction creates a wonderful, shaded queue, kept cool as the breeze rushes through the foliage. The music leading up to entering the building incredibly atmospheric, and the balcony overlooking tropical trees really made the place feel like a vacation destination somewhere fancy, away from the rest of the theme park. Inside the mood quickly darkens…. Past the sheer joy of the ride experience, and the different ride cycles to catch reriders off guard, is the pleasure of watching other riders, especially young children, shit themselves. Here’s a ride I’ve heard SO much about, SO much appraisal for, but it was hard to imagine just what you could do with a tower ride to make it more than just a drop ride. I knew the ride vehicles moved horizontally as well, but when it happened it wasn’t how I’d imagined. The ratterly cage you’re trapped inside slides clumsily forward in a way that feels inherently wrong. Everyone sharing your elevator remains silent with confusion at the sounds and scenery looming in the darkness. The ride experience is unpredictable and and filled with atmosphere created by the recorded screams. Glimpses of the light outside as the doors open on random floors give a terrifying sense of height, before the car plummets down or shoots up the shaft, seemingly at random.

Rock 'n' Rollercoaster has a horrible queue line. We decided to wait single rider. The station is by contrast beautiful and the ride an example of how audio really can transform what is a mediocre ride into something pretty great. Star Tours, from external, to queuing, to boarding, to the actual ride, was delightful. And, upon reriding, it was a wonderful surprise to find it to has reride value created by different show sequence! When I later learned there are 50 or so different possible ride cycles, I was in awe. It’s hard to imagine just how good a simulator style ride can be, and one that can successfully mimic sensations expected from the visuals, but the sensation of speed created is impressive. The 3D aspect is pointless, because 3D is a stupid gimmick that really needs to go away, and added nothing to the experience. Toy Story Mania was something I’d heard was pretty good, but as a shooting ride I was expecting to be indifferent towards it. What I found was something so wonderfully fun. Shame it was again in pointless 3D, but for a screen based ride it was very impressive and immersive. The urgency created by the spinning and sharp directional changes of the vehicles added a lot and set it apart from similar attractions, giving it a dynamic, energetic feel, encouraging riders enthusiasm to participate. The method of firing is an, er, questionable motion… But the physical effort it requires adds to the energy of it all. It’s a fantastic ride. MGM is definitely the park of exciting, energetic rides. But like all the parks, it feels incomplete.

The last day was reserved for Animal Kingdom, a park I had already done when I visited Orlando to do all the non-Disney parks 3 years ago. The empty line for the bus to Animal Kingdom each morning hinted that this is the least successful (if you can call any Disney park that) of the 4 here. Americans really don’t seem too interested in animals, not compared to how we do back home in the UK, anyway. The US is filled with incredible wildlife, most of which is seen as a pest. No locals seem to know the names of birds I’ll see daily when visiting, yet most people at home will know the common ones found outside their window. People keep their dogs outside in pens and kennels, an alien concept in the UK. I don’t know if the attitude is unique to the UK because we have fairly uninteresting wildlife, or even if my observation of the America’s general attitude to animals is incorrect? Either way, a park entirely themed to the natural world is exciting to me. It’s interestingly the only time I’ve experienced the “suspension of disbelief”. The lush environment doesn’t feel maintained, but wild and naturally beautiful. The illusion of free roaming animals in beautiful sets, with no cage bars or chicken wire in view, is a zoo experience unlike any other. On a good day, Kilimanjaro Safari’s is enough to make you feel like you never need visit Africa. We got a good host and I was glad to find the old poachers ending sequence removed, as it was awfully fake force-feeding of a narrative on an otherwise realistic attraction, and it just didn’t work. Sometimes I feel Disney rides try too hard to put in stories for the sake of it when there really is no need, and all they do is distract from some rides ability to entertain and remove their rerideability. A story doesn’t have to have a beginning, middle and end, nor does it have to be linear.

I think the common discussion about whether theme parks and attractions can replace travel to their real counterparts is missing the point. Stuff is good because it’s enjoyable, regardless of whether it’s real or pretend or copying something else. How many Disney goers would even want to visit Africa, let alone have the money or ability? Maybe it sparks people’s interest to do a “real” (and thus obviously better, duh) Safari? It certainly makes me curious, just to see if Disney’s rendition is better, I mean, more enjoyable… The Africa and Asia sections of Animal Kingdom are perhaps my favourite themed environments anywhere.

On the flip side, Dinoland USA is one of the worst themed environments anywhere. Self-representational, themed to a roadside funfair. That’s not the reason it’s bad, but like many other hyperealistic theme park environments, people don’t get it. (See my post on realism.) It doesn’t help that this one is hideous. The space feels perpetually hot, barren and unpleasant and is home to attractions that, unlike others at Disney, make no effort to hide the fact that they are cheap carnival rides. With similar rides to the spinning coasters Primeval Whirl found at LOCAL funfair style parks like Fun Spot, and every similar park in the damn world, even casual visitors to the park recognize this monstrosity. And that’s the point, the ride hardware is part of the theme. But then what does this theme achieve? It begs the question “what is theming for?” The most common answer is that it’s to create a greater, unique experience from otherwise off the shelf hardware. But in that regard, Dinoland USA fails miserably, as it themes itself to a lesser experience in a “Fuck you, this is Disney and you’ll come here regardless” kind of way. It’s a colossal kick in the balls experience where guests become resentful.

I’m fairly certain that most people visit Disney not for any “world class” attractions, either known about or awaiting discovery, but rather just because it’s Disney. The idea of Disney greatness has snowballed out of first the brand, second it’s initial originality in the world of amusements and now has reached a point where people will go regardless or what they did. Some will argue that the California Adventure park disproves this, being the least visited of the Disney parks in N.America prior to the recent expansion, because it was not a “Disney Style” park, but it was still above any non-Disney park in terms of attendance.  There’s a reason Disney-style parks without branding are rare, firstly because what company or individual could muster the cost to do things the Disney way? But also because they’d ultimately fail, because the expense isn’t worth the return. Or, so I suspect anyway. Prove me wrong! Buying cheap, off the shelf hardware and painting it up is a shitty way of doing things. And amongst the actual great unique attractions that deserve the term of being “imagineered”, the Disney experience is a whole lot of meh. But does Disney really have anymore of those great rides than any other park, and are they any more enjoyable, really? I’m not convinced. And as an environment, does it offer more than a nice amusement park like say, Hersheypark? Again, not convinced.

This popularity through illegitimate cause isn’t unique to Disney. Cedar Point springs to mind, as a park that is nice but ultimately full of sub-par roller coasters, whilst neighboring Kings Island contains a wealth of honest quality. Interestingly, both parks have fairly similar attendance upon investigation, but how much do you hear about Cedar Point and not Kings Island? Similarly, Alton Towers holds a legendary status in the UK, because it’s Alton Towers. The quality is pretty irrelevant, as most guests fail to see the distinction once visiting between it and the far easier accessible Thorpe Park.

Expedition Everest is one of my favourite attractions at WDW, in that illegitimate way. It’s sheer scale makes it far more interesting than it actually is and the thematic set up is so full of depth it’s hard to not be blown away in the same way I was at Epcot. This IS Nepal, transported into Orlando in mini-… actually no, its not miniature at all. There’s a 200ft mountain, which appears far more massive, ahead. As a ride Everest is decent, but nothing really special and far from faultless. As the train coasts up an incline, ahead mangled track blocks your path. But the drama of that moment is instantly killed when the train stops coasting and feels mechanically pulled up further. And then, just to make sure the magic is dead, stabbed in the back a few times by waiting far too long before reversing. This gives everyone in the train time to consider what’s happening and work out the magic trick before it happens. It’s the one thing that Thirteen at Alton Towers really got right and why Winjas at Phantasialand is so superb. Their trick track elements have drama to them.

There’s not a lot to do at Animal Kingdom, and whilst I can spend hours watching animals, most people (certainly Americans it seems) really cannot. It’s kind of similar to Epcot in that it’s much more about chilling out, it seems, than doing anything. It’s a slow, casual day about exploration and discovery, where Magic Kingdom and MGM are dramatic.

I should mention the hotel. We stayed in the budget All Star Music hotel. It had everything we needed, and more, but I couldn’t help feel that it’s utterly hideous appearance was to make sure we knew we were in a budget hotel, and jealous of the extravagant and beautiful hotels elsewhere in the resort. My friend comments that the colours were just “not quite right”, like an abandoned copy-cat theme park in China.

Throughout this post, I’ve judged the parks individually for their lack of substance. That’s perhaps a little unfair. As I hinted with Epcot, Walt Disney WORLD is an experience meant to be served whole, over the course of a week. You’re supposed to go to and from the parks as if they are one entity, one World as the title suggests. You’re supposed to experience the other attractions, such as their waterparks, downtown Disney, golf, Boardwalk, transportation, restaurants and bars and hotel facilities. The issue always comes back to cost. Doing Disney on the cheap is unfortunately just not the way to do it. In fact, I’d argue that the Orlando parks are in fact one entity to be experienced together, for their complimenting features and experiences. A fortnight trip to Orlando is something that I will have to do, one day, to experience the place as it seemingly is intended.

As always, I’d love to hear your responses. Sorry for the lack of photos.


  1. "I don’t really understand why you’d base entire attractions around exploration and looking, when so few people enjoy doing that as a primary form of entertainment. If this weren’t true, people would spend more time exploring the real world. Most people need a reason to go somewhere."

    I like this point, it seems that a lot of interactive media fail if they don't set an "objective" for participants to follow. Most video games need to have a very clear goal waiting at the end, or if it's a niche design based program where a committed user is able to create their own goals for what they want out of the experience. But games (or movies, art installations, etc.) that seem to just open up into the universe and don't offer an easy way to organize their content in any rational pattern in order to make sense of it, just don't seem to do very well, even if they should from an artistic perspective.

    In the case of when I go "exploring" in a Disney park, I always have to consciously make this into a goal for myself. Similar to how we make the short-term goal "I'm going to ride the Haunted Mansion next", we also have to specifically provide ourselves with the task "I'm going to go discovering in Main Street or Tom Sawyer Island", because simply "being" a free individual in a theme park can be too difficult for most of us. I become very aware that I'm trying to spot all the "Easter eggs", and I'm either too thorough or else I just ignore it completely and focus on other aspects that I think will have more immediate entertainment value for me.

    And unlike a real city or natural environment, whose details are the result of millions of people collaborating, or a millennia of geological processes, the teams that design a theme park are by necessity too limited and in-grouped for the product of their designs to really warrant as much attention to detail as enthusiasts are willing to give them, at least while doing so authentically and without the "Easter egg hunt" mentality. Animal Kingdom seems to try the hardest to overcome this inherent fallacy of discovery-based theme park design, but as you note it still becomes hard to keep this attitude up for a whole day, especially when you're having to fight the crowds in the process.

    Here's another point this brings up: FastPass really ruined the parks, didn't it? I mean, as long as it exists I'm going to try to maximize my use of the system as much as I can since I hate not having a FastPass when other people do have one, but I'm only contributing to the problems it creates in the first place. FastPass doesn't improve the park's capacity, it only shifts it around to different locations, and in a way that I think hurts the overall experience. Instead of everyone taking part in one fast moving queue which allows you to share in the atmosphere and story as everyone else before the ride begins, there are now two separate queues, both of which tend to stagnate for minutes at a time although one of them allows you to briskly walk through most of it before it stagnates for the last five minutes. And all the people that are briskly walking through the queues in the FastPass lanes are now spending more time crowding the midways, since if people aren't waiting in line they have to be somewhere else in the park to fill the time instead. At Magic Kingdom I had this really strange phenomena where (because I knew when and where to use Fast Pass all the time) I never had to wait more than ten minutes in line for anything, but as soon as I got off I'd find many of the walkways were jam-packed with people, which pressured me into feeling like I needed to fight my way through the congestion to get to my next ride as soon as possible (thus feeding the vicious cycle even more).

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