Missesby Steve Russo, staff writer
Have you seen the announcements that have come out of the First D23 Expo in September? What’s coming to Walt Disney World is extremely impressive. The announcements include a significant expansion of Fantasyland, a new Dumbo ride area with a three-ring circus, a new ride featuring Ariel under the sea, a re-imagined Star Tours… and much more. There are lots and lots of new and exciting additions and changes coming to Walt Disney World in the next few years and, given the Imagineers’ record of success, we Disney fans have many reasons to be optimistic.
I can remember taking a trip in December 2003 and being very anxious to experience three new attractions that weren’t there on my previous trip, a mere 11 months earlier. The three were Mickey’s Philharmagic, Wishes and Mission: Space. I can recall how pleased I was when all three new attractions turned out to be winners. The Imagineers have an enviable record of accomplishment for turning out first class attractions on a regular basis and it seems their success has continued with more recent attractions such as Expedition Everest, Soarin’ and Toy Story Midway Mania.
But… have they always been winners? Has every new attraction hit a home run, so to speak? Unfortunately, the Imagineers have turned out a few clunkers over the years as well. In some cases, in an effort to “plus” an existing attraction, they have, unfortunately, “minused” it. My intention here is not to focus here on the negative, but sometimes we need to take a hard look at some of the things that didn’t work and try to figure out why. Here’s a short list of attractions that, at least in my opinion, have missed the mark (in one case, only temporarily).
Sure, it's a great ride...now. Photo © Walt Disney Company.
Test Track? What? What’s wrong with Test Track? Relax, absolutely nothing. It’s a fine ride and a great example of how the Imagineers can utilize technology to educate as well as thrill us. I’ll say again, it’s a fine ride… now. However, can you remember when it first opened?
Test Track was designed and built via a Disney Imagineering partnership with General Motors (GM) Engineering. The ride’s predecessor, the (also) GM-sponsored World of Motion, closed in January 1996. A short time later, Disney World opened the GM Test Track Preview Center where they displayed concept art and models of the upcoming and soon-to-open thrill ride. I remember viewing these displays and I don’t think it hyperbole to say that Test Track became one of the most anticipated rides in Walt Disney World's history. The Preview Center promised the attraction would open in May 1997. Unfortunately, many, many problems with the ride’s technology began to surface.
Finally, in December 1998, almost 19 months after its scheduled opening, it looked like the wait might be over. We first learned the ride was being tested by company executives. Shortly thereafter, it was in test by cast members. As you probably know, this is a common approach for new attractions. Just prior to Christmas 1998, they began the “soft opening”—limited previews for guests that, unfortunately, ran for only a few hours on certain days of the week. I can recall visiting during this soft opening phase, in January 1999. In an effort to experience Test Track, we visited Epcot multiple times during that week—only to find that the ride had gone down just prior to our arrival. “Is it coming back up?” would usually get a response like “We really can’t say right now.” It was very frustrating. Apparently, all of the bugs still hadn't quite been worked out, and the ride broke down frequently. Complicating things further, as you’ve probably witnessed if you’ve been near Test Track when it has gone down, it takes approximately one hour to reboot all the computers and get the vehicles rolling again. Not conducive to hanging around “in case they re-open it.”
Test Track finally opened on March 17, 1999, almost two years after its original scheduled opening. It’s a great ride today but those early days had many of us believing it might become Disney / GM’s version of the Ford Edsel.
Journey into Imagination... with Figment
It's a beautiful building... but so little is inside. Photo by Steve Russo
The Journey to Imagination pavilion was one of the original attractions opened with Epcot Center. It featured a dark ride, using the omnimover technology that had you follow the Dreamfinder and his friend, Figment, on a journey through your imagination. Many of us have fond memories of that attraction and the infectious song, “One Little Spark” (sing along with me… I-maaaaaaaaa-gin-A-shun…).
The pavilion also featured a 3D film, called Magic Journeys, in the Magic Eye Theater. Later, when that film migrated to the Magic Kingdom, it was replaced with the Michael Jackson space-themed musical adventure, Captain EO. Lastly, the pavilion also contained a very creative and “hands-on” area called the Image Works—located on the second floor. The Image Works was filled with some very clever and inventive gadgets that could occupy young and old alike.
While Captain EO was never quite my cup of tea, we made it a point on every trip to ride through the attraction with Dreamfinder and visit the Image Works. We often spent significant time there because… there was a lot of interesting things to do.
This attraction was “updated” in 1999 and, almost immediately, incurred the wrath of many Disney World fans. There was no evidence of Dreamfinder anywhere in the updated ride and Figment was relegated to a brief cameo appearance. The outcry from Disney fans was immediate and so loud that the attraction was rehabbed once again—and quickly. On June 1, 2002, the current version was born. Figment has a more prominent role but Dreamfinder is still nowhere to be found. While the new ride is an improvement over its immediate predecessor, it still pales in comparison to the original.
The robust exhibits of the Image Works have been greatly scaled back to today’s What If Labs. I often wonder if those exhibits are still up there collecting dust on the second floor, beyond that roped-off stairway.
In the late 1990s, Captain EO gave way to Honey, I Shrunk the Audience. This 3D film features some wonderful special effects that will have you believing you’ve been shrunk down to miniature size and the entire theater is being lifted and carried by a three-year old. Unfortunately, even I have to admit it’s getting a bit long in the tooth. Does anyone recall the original pre-show for Honey I Shrunk the Audience? It was an audio/visual presentation called "True Colors" and included a tremendous photo show. That’s also now been replaced. The new video featuring storylines about a lost dog and a frog at a wedding is OK… but it’s no True Colors.
All in all, what once was a “must visit” on every trip has become a filler while I wait for my Soarin’ FastPass window to open.
Looks good enough to eat, doesn't it? Photo by Steve Russo
What were they thinking? For Walt Disney World’s 25th anniversary, Cinderella’s Castle was turned into a cake. Arguably, the most photographed building in the world was rendered into a hideous monstrosity that looked like a cartoon dessert gone bad.
Like many people, I didn’t like it—at all. At least I had visited Disney World previously and had safely tucked away approximately 600 photographs and three hours of video featuring Cindy’s Castle, as it should be. Moreover, I would visit again, after some construction crews had scraped the icing of this atrocity. What about those folks that were visiting for the first time? What did they think? Even worse… how about those unfortunate souls that were on that “once in a lifetime” trip to the World. I’m sure they had seen photos of the Castle but when they finally reached the Magic Kingdom and began that walk down Main Street… what must they have thought?
There have been several other attempts to modify the Castle. In November 2004, guests entering the park were greeted by a castle draped with toilet paper. This was opening day for Stitch's Great Escape and, apparently, the mischievous Stitch had TP’ed Cindy’s home. That was received with mixed feelings but at least it returned to normal state quickly.
A few years ago, in celebration of Disneyland’s 50th Anniversary, Cinderella’s Castle was given a temporary yet, in my opinion, tasteful makeover. Gold trim was added to windows and turrets, a magic window was visible and a few flying characters (Peter Pan, Dumbo) could be found.
Most recently, the Castle undergoes a transformation during each Christmas Holiday season. Thousands of icicle lights are affixed to it and provide a beautiful experience when they’re switched on after dark each night. The beauty of this is the length that the Imagineers have produced the lights and mesh grid work in a color that blends perfectly with the Castle’s exterior, so almost nothing is visible during the day—a detail I’m sure we all appreciate.
Bottom line? I thought all the modifications to Cinderella’s Castle are at the least, acceptable (Stitch’s toilet paper) and, at the most, magnificent (the icicles). But… the Cakestle? Please—never again.
Stitch’s Great Escape
This is the first part of the Stitch daily double. I don’t hate Stitch’s Great Escape. I just think it was better as the ExtraTerrorestrial Alien Encounter.
The initial attraction that occupied that space was the old Mission to Mars. There, guests sat around the theater-in-the-round and stared at a supposed window in the ceiling while the chair vibrated… slightly. It was none too convincing as space travel back then and certainly, when judged against today’s technology and rides like Mission: Space, it’s not in the same solar system.
When that theater was gutted and reopened as Alien Encounter, we had a dark ride (maybe very dark, possibly too dark) that tried to scare the stuffing out of you by using your own senses. An alien escaped into the room and when the lights went out you could hear the screams of its victims and its footsteps behind you. You could hear and feel its breath on your neck. That’s pretty scary stuff and if you argued it, I could buy into the fact that it probably shouldn’t be in the Magic Kingdom. Nevertheless, I thought it was well done.
Apparently, management felt it might be a bit too intense so it was toned down a bit (actually, a lot) and Stitch’s Great Escape was born. The basic premise of an escaped alien was left intact but rather than tearing people to shreds, this alien would giggle and hit you with a chili-dog belch.
I’m not a huge Stitch fan but I did enjoy the movie. I’ve always felt, however, that after many tries, Disney has not been able to capture Stitch’s personality, or his appeal, in a park attraction. Which leads me to…
Stitch’s Supersonic Celebration
Thankfully, it didn't last long. Photo by Steve Russo
For quite some time, I peered behind construction walls while riding the Tomorrowland Transit Authority and watched some significant activity. A new stage with a large flat-panel display was built along with a separate control building.
In May of this year, I happened to be there for the opening of this newest Tomorrowland attraction. In fact, I was able to conduct an interview with Jason Surrell, one of the Imagineers who helped develop Stitch’s Supersonic Celebration (read it here). Jason is a fascinating person with a lengthy list of successes under his belt. Unfortunately, this attraction wasn’t to be one of them.
The story line focused on the celebration of Galaxy Day. The host, Tip Trendo, was every bit as lame as the name implies and, except for some attractive go-go dancers (yes, I said “go-go dancers”) and some break-dancing robots, there was little to recommend here. Couple that with the fact that it was a 30-minute show and the viewing area was on the concrete pavement in full sunlight. Try that on a nice, sunny July day… in Florida.
Thankfully, it never made it that far as the plug was pulled after only six weeks. I’m now hearing the stage will be used this year for a Holiday season show of some kind so the construction won’t be wasted entirely. I’m not certain if this was the shortest attraction life at Disney World but it has to be in the top three.
Although the Imagineers have hit many, many home runs, as you can see there are no guarantees. The list, above, are a few of my “misses” from Disney World. Do you agree or disagree with my choices? Can you add to them?