Saturday, November 29, 2014

Orlando: Destination D

The 1964 New York World’s Fair has always loomed large in my family’s lore. My uncle Manuel and aunt Eva stopped there on their way to Spain in 1965—a trip almost too exotic to imagine, especially since I had never traveled farther east than Palm Springs. My family, wearing our Sunday best, took them to LAX, where, in those days, we could wave good-bye at the gate. It was the first time I had ever been to an airport. I was 11 years old and completely fascinated by the idea of a World’s Fair that I would never see.

Since then, I’ve learned that Walt Disney had a big hand in contributing to the success of the Fair, designing no less than four major, and wildly popular, attractions—Ford’s Magic Skyway; Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln; the Carousel of Progress  for GE; and Pepsi’s It’s a Small World—all of which became part of Disneyland once the Fair ended. No surprise, then, that I was one of the first members to buy a ticket when D23 announced that it was going to commemorate the Fair’s 50th anniversary at the third Destination D convention, held last weekend in Orlando, FL. It was a wonderful event. Plus, as you can see below, Tim and I got to spend some quality time at two of the Walt Disney World parks.

Souvenir guide to "It's a Small World"

Compared to D23’s every-other-year Expo, which draws thousands and thousands of members and non-members alike, Destination D tends to be an intimate nostalgia-fest for several hundred dedicated Disney fans. The theme of the two-day gathering always relates—subtly or not so—to an historic event and/or new Disney product. Not only did we celebrate the NY Fair’s golden anniversary, we also soon learned that the Fair plays a key role in the upcoming movie Tomorrowland, which was teased in a 10-minute filmclip. Historians, archivists, and long-time employees, such as “Disney legends” Marty Sklar and Bob Gurr, shared memories, photos and artifacts of Disney’s influence on the Fair. And, of course, we saw lots of footage of Walt describing "Mr. Lincoln," etc., on his Wonderful World of Color TV show. Walt was nothing if not brilliant at self-promotion.

Disneyland Goes to the World's Fair video

So here’s some of the more interesting stuff I learned at the convention:

• Walt was all about getting other people to pay for the development of new technology that he then incorporated into Disneyland. He first pitched “Mr. Lincoln” to Coca-Cola, who declined because they couldn’t see how the president related to their product. So Walt eventually connected with Illinois state officials, who loved the idea for their pavilion. Disney’s life-like animatronic Lincoln was quickly acknowledged as the most technologically-advanced marvel at the Fair.

• Pepsi, too, declined Walt’s initial pitch to make “it’s a small world” the centerpiece of its pavilion—that is, until PepsiCo board member Joan Crawford stepped in, leading to the creation of one of the most popular rides in theme park history. Although “small world” was originally designed as a walk-through attraction, Disney’s engineers knew they wouldn’t be able to handle the anticipated 3800 visitors an hour and so decided to transport folks via boat. And that’s how “it’s a small world” became Disneyland’s first flume ride. By the way, it took 48 Global Vanline trucks to transport "small world" to Anaheim once the Fair ended—not so small, after all!

An entire LP of "small world" music (yikes!)

• For the “Magic Skyway” ride, visitors rode actual Ford convertibles through dioramas depicting scenes from world history, starting with the Stone Age. When Ford execs asked Walt what prehistoric creatures had to do with automobiles, he insisted that people would long remember his life-sized dinosaurs, and when they did, they’d remember they saw them while riding in a Ford! Today the dinosaurs are part of Disneyland’s Santa Fe railroad train ride.

Ford video of the Magic Skyway

• Although Walt Disney was already famous as an entertainer and theme park creator, he didn’t gain worldwide renown as a visionary and technological innovator until the 1964 World’s Fair.

In addition to Fair history, the convention also included a segment on Disneyland attractions of yesteryear. Did you know that:

• An exhibit from the movie 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was installed in Tomorrowland in 1955. (Does anyone remember this?) Captain Nemo’s peddle-organ is now part of Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion ride.

• Walt originally intended the Main Street opera house, where “Mr. Lincoln” currently resides, to be a TV studio. However, the only broadcasting done there was when the building served as the international HQ of the Mickey Mouse Club in 1963-65. Two years earlier, the opera house briefly hosted the Mother Goose Storyland set from Babes in Toyland, which park visitors could see for an extra 25 cents. (Does anyone remember this?)

Captain Hook’s long-lamented pirate ship, which was dismantled when Fantasyland was renovated in the early ‘80s, has been recreated at Disneyland Paris. I wonder if they serve Chicken-of-the-Sea tuna. . .

Memories of Disneyland days past: a car from the old
Skyway ride—or as my sister and I used to call them,
the "Barf Buckets"

Miniature of one of my all-time favorite rides:
Monsanto's "Adventure Thru Inner Space"

Orlando: Magic Kingdom

Cinderella's castle

We arrived in Orlando a day early so we could spend time at the Magic KingdomBut before going to the park, we bulked-up on carbs at our favorite vacation breakfast spot, the Waffle House, conveniently located just up the block from our rented condo. Love those hash browns!

Loading up at the Waffle House

10 minutes later!

When Disneyland was built in the mid-1950s, it was pretty much plunked down in the middle of the already-developed city of Anaheim and so was necessarily confined to a specific space. Walt Disney World (WDW), however, was built on Florida swampland and so the parks there are enormous. The Magic Kingdom is much more spread-out than Disneyland, even though the basic configuration is the same: Main Street, Fantasyland, Frontierland, Adventureland, and, of course, Tomorrowland—all of which feature many of the popular rides of Disneyland, only slightly different—the storyline of Orlando's Haunted Mansion, for instance, is told in a different order.

Now I love Disneyland's Sleeping Beauty castle, but even I have to admit that the Magic Kingdom's Cinderella's castle is far more beautiful and majestic. With no Matterhorn to compete for attention, Cinderella's castle is the centerpiece of the park and is truly magnificent.

Cinderella's castle: side-view

By far, my most favorite part of the Magic Kingdom, however, was Tomorrowland, where the old PeopleMover and Carousel of Progress still live! This was a wonderful surprise. 

On the PeopleMover

In addition, the Monorail is much more extensive at WDW, carrying visitors from the parking lot to the Magic Kingdom and even onto Epcot, which is located several miles away. The Monorail also goes to the three main hotels, including the Contemporary Resort and its gorgeous eight-story tile mural by Mary Blair, the Disney artist who designed the dolls and color palette of "it's a small world."

Monorail inside the Contemporary Resort

Part of Mary Blair's fabulous mural

The Magic Kingdom also features Liberty Square, a separate area that Walt, at one point, hoped to incorporate into Disneyland. Located here is the Hall of Presidents, an expanded version of "Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln."

Eating an all-American hot dog in Liberty Square

The Liberty Belle: Magic Kingdom's version of the
Mark Twain paddleboat

Luckily, there were still tickets available for the after-hours Christmas party when we arrived at the Magic Kingdom that morning. Nothing beats Disneyland's wonderful Christmas celebration, but the Magic Kingdom's holiday fireworks and lightshow, shown against Cinderella's castle, are absolutely breath-taking. 

Christmas party: Main St. and the castle

Castle detail

Snowflakes on the castle

Bidding us adieu: the Main St. train station

Orlando: Disney's Hollywood Studios

Gate to Disney's Hollywood Studios

On Sunday, I left Destination D early so Tim and I could explore Disney's Hollywood Studios theme park (formerly Disney-MGM Studios). Imagine our surprise when we were greeted by the same faux Pan-Pacific streamline-moderne architecture that also welcomes guests to our own Disney California Adventure (DCA). Even more exciting was the park's main street, "Hollywood Boulevard," which completely resembles L.A.'s mid-Wilshire district, where we lived for several years. I could hardly believe my eyes: 1930s Los Angeles Art Deco recreated right in the middle of Orlando, FL. Who knew? (Click here for the first in a series of interesting articles about the architecture of Disney's Hollywood Studios.)

Excellent replica of the iconic Crossroads 
of the World spire (sans Mickey) that's 
located on Sunset Blvd. in Hollywood, CA

Recreation of the 1935 Darkroom camera shop on
Wilshire Blvd.

Reproduction of the old J.J. Newberry 
store on Hollywood Blvd.

Based on the Academy Theatre in
Inglewood, CA

Inspired by the Floral Depot in
Oakland, CA

Commemorating the long-lost Carthay Circle 
Theatre, where Walt premiered Snow White,
and which also inspired the glorious Carthay Circle
restaurant in Disney California Adventure

The glamorous now-gone Brown Derby restaurant on 
Vine in Hollywood

The entire park is a giant homage to 20th-century movie-making. Instead of a plethora of rides, Hollywood Studios offers plenty of shows, like the "Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular," and backlot attractions. We ate lunch at a charming facsimile of L.A.'s world-famous Original Farmer's Market and then rode the "Great Movie Ride," a 20-minute journey through the history of Hollywood's classic cinema. Afterward, we visited the "Walt Disney: One Man's Dream" exhibit that ends with a brief but moving documentary about Walt.

Disney calls it the Sunset Ranch Market,
but we know it's really supposed to be
L.A.'s Original Farmer's Market

Replica of Walt's office in the "One Man's Dream" exhibit

Entrance to the "Great Movie Ride:" a
faux Grauman's Chinese theater,
complete with celebrity footprints

Many of the rides and shows (e.g., "The Magic of Disney Animation," "Star Tours," and "Twilight Zone Tower of Terror") are also available at DCA and Disneyland, so I doubt we'll ever return. But it was fun seeing a group of pre-teen kids learning to use lightsabers, and then dueling with Darth Vader, as part of their Jedi Academy training. I can think of at least one young man who would probably love a bit of Star Wars cosplay at Walt Disney World.

"Sorcerer Mickey's Hat," similar to the one
at Disney's Burbank studios—reports confirm
the Orlando hat is being removed in early 2015

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Getty Museum in Fall

One of my passions is the Arthurian legend, so Karen and I dashed up to the Getty Museum on Sunday to catch a chivalry exhibit that leaves at the end of the month. The exhibit was good but tiny—only one small room—a bit disappointing, especially since it costs $15 (!) to park at the Getty. Luckily, Karen noticed that a tour of the campus gardens was happening shortly after we arrived. We quickly joined a large group of people waiting at the museum entrance.

Jousting in a spectacularly illuminated
medieval manuscript

19th-century actors depicting "The
Parting of Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere"

The Getty, opened in 1997, was famously designed by architect Richard Meier, who, we soon learned, also designed the landscape. The Central Garden, which cascades from the buildings above, was designed by artist Robert Irwin. Where Meier is all about straight lines and white travertine marble, Irwin is about color and the senses. In fact, Irwin calls his work “a sculpture in the form of a garden.” It is considered the Getty’s largest—and most expensive—art installation. The plants, which are regularly changed to reflect the seasons, are most glorious in the spring. Still, we enjoyed Irwin’s warm autumn palette in stark contrast to Meier’s white buildings.

Under one of Meier's angular arches

Peering through one of many sycamore trees

My favorites: the bougainvillea sculptures

The gardens

Sunday, November 02, 2014

Stan Lee's Comikaze

It’s been many years since we’ve had the chance to buy tickets to San Diego’s annual Comic-Con, so I’ve had to rely on other venues to release my inner “geek.” Stan Lee’s Comikaze convention is underway in downtown L.A. this weekend. We decided to go late yesterday afternoon.

Though there were lots of interesting panels on all manner of topics related to comicbooks and science fiction, we went just to soak-up the atmosphere and see the costumes. Thankfully, the crowds were much smaller—a couple thousand (maybe) compared to 125,000 at Comic-Con—but the cosplay was just as good. We especially loved folks dressed like characters from Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxywe are Groot!—and, of course, several Maleficents, one of whom won 2nd place at the big Comikaze costume contest, which we stayed to see. It was exhausting—we may have been the oldest people there—but very fun! I’m already planning ahead to next year . . .

An excellent Wolverine

A scary Skeletor

Perennial Star Wars fan
favorites: C-3PO and R2-D2


Female fans of Mothra and Godzilla

Don't know who they are, but their costumes
are amazing

 World famous cosplayer and costume
contest judge Yaya Han

Funny, but who are these guys?

Lifesize statue of Groot, possibly the most wonderful movie
superhero ever to come out of a comicbook

And Groot's best friend, Rocket Raccoon

Groot and Rocket cosplayers

With Peter Quill, Star Lord

Perhaps the oldest people in the room!