Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Where Walt and Pixar Intersect

Welcome back, Pixar! It's been two long years since the last theatrical release from Lasseter and company. Monsters University premiered in June 2013 and The Good Dinosaur, originally slated for 2014, was pushed back to later this year to sharpen its story.

Inside Out graced the silver screen last Friday, June 19th and has - again - raised the bar on Pixar quality. Pete Docter, who last spun gold with UP, shows us his gift for connecting us with the human spirit. Inside Out gracefully displays the balance we all have with our inner emotions. Simply put, we can't truly enjoy happiness and joy without understanding and appreciating the counterbalance of sadness.

Like all Pixar features before it, the film is peppered with hidden Pixar references. Fan favorites such as the Pizza Planet truck, the Luxo Jr. ball and A113 – the CalArts classroom where the future Pixar animators cut their proverbial teeth – all make an appearance. John Ratzenberger provides his voice to a secondary character, making him the only actor to appear in all fifteen films. There’s a brief tribute to Finding Nemo in the form of a board game box labeled Find Me! with a cartoon clown fish below it. Underneath that board game is another called Dinosaur World, a likely nod to the next Pixar film.

The aviary flock from the early short “For The Birds” can briefly be seen on a power line as Riley, the protagonist from Inside Out, and her family trek cross country from Minnesota to San Francisco (the same flock of birds can be seen in Cars, during that film’s cross country montage sequence).

Fans of the Disney theme parks are in for a treat as well, when the background music from the Haunted Mansion is briefly heard during a dream sequence Riley has.

However, perhaps the most unique and original Disney tribute can briefly be found in the film. Since the physical realm of Inside Out is set in San Francisco, Pixar animators, from their nearby headquarters in Emeryville, didn’t have to travel far for field research. San Francisco’s unique architecture, often set again dramatic hills, is well represented, including Lombard Street’s unique hairpin turn configuration. Disney fans know that the Walt Disney Family Museum is located in the City by the Bay, in the historic Presidio district. From a southern viewpoint, Guests can sight the museum in the foreground and the magnificent Golden Gate Bridge in the background. And that’s the setup.

(image courtesy of The Walt Disney Family Museum)

Docter and his crew created a briefly seen exterior set of an ice rink building, where Riley goes to try out for a local hockey team. This building is flanked by others that feature the distinctive terra cotta roof design used on the structures along Montgomery Street in The Presidio.

(image courtesy of the Pixar Animation Studios)

The placement isn’t accidental; the filmmakers used the location of the Walt Disney Family Museum, which honors the man that elevated theatrical animation to an art form and inspired countless boys and girls to aspire to be animators, as a deliberate tip of the hat to Walt Disney.

Well done, Pixar!

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Today's two-for-one special

To borrow an expression, “the only constant is change” is an apt phrase that can apply to Walt Disney World. Attractions, lands, restaurants all come and go, occasionally leaving behind a trail of metaphorical crumbs to guide us through the past. Today, we’re going to review a small corner of property that’s undergone significant change since opening day.

The Magic Kingdom’s gradual expansion of Fantasyland, dubbed New Fantasyland, was announced at the 2009 D23 Expo, and includes land formerly occupied by Mickey’s Toontown Fair and fallow property formerly occupied by one of Walt Disney World’s original E-Ticket attractions, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. This submarine voyage simulation, similar in size and scope to Disneyland’s 1959 addition Submarine Voyage, retraced Captain Nemo’s aquatic journey both through the lagoon, visible to Guests in the queue and around its perimeter, and an oversized show building, obscured by foliage, rock work and waterfalls, which hosted many of the sights featured in the attraction. It operated for over twenty years, from 1971 to 1994 when it was temporarily closed. Alas, the attraction’s longstanding weaknesses - low hourly ride capacity, slow loading, frequent ride breakdowns chief among them - finally caught up with it and Disney management shuttered the attraction for good.

This image, circa 1995, shows the lagoon still filled with water and the massive show building behind the tree line (on the far left is the it’s a small world show building, and on the right are the tents from Mickey’s Toontown Fair, the site repurposed from the ‘temporary’ Mickey’s Birthdayland originally set up in 1988).

(image courtesy Google Earth)

The lagoon was eventually drained of water and filled in and the show building removed. A tree line was stood up to hide the former property, and a small portion was modified into Pooh’s Playful Spot, a playground for restless children. Naturally, it was across from The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, itself an attraction in the show building formerly occupied by Mr. Toad. This next image, from March 2005, shows the outline of the former lagoon and show building.
(image courtesy Google Earth)

So, what do to with this site? The Magic Kingdom is the smallest of the four Walt Disney World theme parks and its most popular. Fantasyland was expanded, functioning as a glade and hosting new eateries - Be Our Guest and Gaston’s Tavern, and new attractions and shows - Enchanted Tales with Belle, Under the Sea: Journey of the Little Mermaid and the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train. Sitting on the footprint of the former 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea now is the Little Mermaid attraction. The last entry to open in New Fantasyland is the Mine Train, a lateral replacement of the shuttered Snow White’s Scary Adventures, which yielded to Princess Fairytale Hall. New Fantasyland is now complete.
(image courtesy Google Earth)

Today, tributes to the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Snow White’s Scary Adventures can be subtly found in New Fantasyland. When aligned, icons of both can be found along an upper sightline. A weather vane atop a building in Prince Eric’s castle features a squid, one of the notable antagonists from the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea film and the attraction. Just beyond it is a vulture found on the first lift of the Mine Train ride. The vulture is the former Audio-Animatronic previously featured in Snow White’s Scary Adventures.

Both of these original attractions are gone, but keepsakes and reminders remain.

But wait - there’s more. The iconic image from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is Captain Nemo’s submarine Nautilus, a terrifyingly original submarine designed by Disney Legend Harper Goff. His design influences for the sub include an alligator and shark - the green eyes and rough skin of the ‘gator and the imposing dorsal fin and tail of the shark led to the Nautilus’ unique appearance. An outline of the Nautilus could be found in a tree knot outline on the tree in Pooh’s Playful Spot. Presently, a larger outline of the Nautilus can be found in the rock work along the outside queue for the Journey of the Little Mermaid attraction.

For more information of the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea attraction, visit this wonderful fan tribute site.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

An Office For Rent

Disney fans and historians know that 1923 plays a significant role in the Walt Disney Company. It’s the year that a young Walt Disney relocated from Kansas City to Los Angeles to pursue dreams of animation and filmmaking. His Laugh-O-Gram venture ended in bankruptcy, and it seemed that a fresh start - a blank canvas - in Los Angeles was the ideal way to reboot his dream. Older brother Roy was already in southern California so the prospect of family made the decision easier. The legend goes that Walt arrived to Los Angeles that summer with all his worldly possessions in a cardboard suitcase, $40 in his pocket, and ambitious dreams. The initial working space was borrowed from their Uncle Robert, whose garage at 4406 Kingswell Avenue can perhaps be claimed as the origin of The Walt Disney Company, where Walt cobbled together an animation camera rig.

The young entrepreneurs needed office space but were tight on funds and couldn’t venture far. The solution was nearby on Kingswell. They rented a room from the Holly-Vermont Realty office for $10 a month. On October 16, 2013 Walt and Roy signed a contract with film distributor Margaret Winkler to create a series of films known as the Alice Comedies and the Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio was born. They soon outgrew the realty office room and relocated to another address on Kingswell. Within two years, they were expanding again to the Silver Lake region of Los Angeles. The Walt Disney Studio, as it was then called, made its home at 2719 Hyperion Avenue. For the next twelve years, Walt’s animators at this seminal location created Oswald, Mickey, Donald Duck and the beginning of the Silly Symphonies and the groundbreaking animated feature film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The profits from Snow White were plowed back into the company when Walt and Roy created from scratch a working studio to fill their every need. This facility, in Burbank, has been the home of the Walt Disney Company since 1940, where Disney has created animation, live-action and television classics. The genesis of the Disney theme parks took root in Burbank as well.

With so much of the classic Disney products coming from Burbank and the now-gone studio at Hyperion, it’s easy to forget the company’s humble roots on Kingswell Avenue. However, Disney fans on both coasts can find a subtle tribute to those early years.

At Disney’s Hollywood Studios, in the Echo Lake section, there’s a service door on the backside of Keystone Clothiers. It’s used only by Cast Members, but Imagineers took the extra step to dress it up for the region and to reflect Disney history.

(image courtesy Google Maps)

The door label reads Holly-Vermont Realty, Hollywood, Beverly Hills. It honors the realty company that gave Walt and Roy their first office space. The name, no doubt, was picked to identify the locale. Hollywood is a central component of the Los Angeles ethos, and Vermont Avenue runs perpendicular to Kingswell.

A similar tribute can be found on the Buena Vista Street expansion of Disney California Adventure in Anaheim. The texture of this new area is hip-deep with Disney history references and includes a sly tribute to the Holly-Vermont Realty company. Next time you’re there, look for a Hollymont Property Associates sign, a subtle variation of its DHS cousin.

(image courtesy of The Walt Disney Company)

Today, the site on Kingswell Avenue still stands and is a nondescript copy shop. Its owner is aware of the Disney history and has a sign in the window of Mickey’s famous side profile and the label indicates that it’s the home of the Disney studio, 1923 - 1931. The copy shop owner has reason to be proud of the building’s history but nonetheless has taken liberty with the dates.

(image courtesy Google Maps)

Inside, the owner has photos and newspaper clippings that commemorate Walt and Roy’s new venture, including a photo of a prodigious Ub Iwerks crafting the early Mickey Mouse shorts. Ub was a Kansas City business partner of Walt and joined him again in Los Angeles. Although Mickey didn’t come into existence until 1928 when they worked at Hyperion, Ub worked with Walt on Kingswell on the Alice Comedies. Ub went on to become a visual effects wizard for the Disney company with camera optics.

This story has a fascinating sidebar. It seems that the most interesting American success stories involve startups that began in a garage. Our beloved Spaceship Earth at Epcot briefly plays on this theme when discussing the personal tech revolution - “The solution comes in of all places, a garage in California. Young people with a passion for shaping the future put the power of the computer in everyone's hands.” Cadillac recently featured a promotion highlighting famous garages in history, which included the simple, detached unit owned by Uncle Robert. Robert’s ranch house is still there on Kingswell, but the garage has been relocated to the Garden Grove (California) Historical Society, where Disney fans can experience it first-hand.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

An Incredibly talented team

I had the recent pleasure of attending the National Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Pixar in Concert at our nearby outdoor amphitheater, Wolf Trap. It was a beautiful evening for a engaging performance. Highlights from each Pixar film were presented on a large screen while the orchestra majestically performed highlights from each film’s score. The music of Randy Newman, Thomas Newman, Michael Giacchino and Patrick Doyle filled the summer night.

While enjoying scenes from every Pixar treasure, I realized again that Lasseter and company create many layers of hidden secrets. Sure, A113 and the Pizza Planet truck quickly come to mind. And Pixar’s clever habit of cross-pollinating its films with references to future releases is worth mentioning - think of Jessie The Cowgirl’s cameo in Boo’s bedroom in Monsters, Inc. However, it’s the more esoteric entries that I find fascinating. In that vein, let’s examine a few that can be found in The Incredibles.

Walt Disney World and Disneyland have signs on windows, crates or posters that typically carry a deeper meaning or message. Similarly, two very brief scenes at the end of the film showcase members of the Pixar team that helped bring Bob Parr and his family to life.

As the Omnidroid is wreaking havoc on Metroville, the Incredibles and Frozone band together to fight back. In one tense sequence, Helen Parr rescues Violet and Dash from the crushing orb. In the background, a building is emblazoned with the name IMAGIRE CO.

This is a quick tribute to Bryn Imagire, an art director for Pixar. The film’s credits list her as art director: shading. Extra credit goes all around for having a very Pixar-esque name. Her additional Pixar credits include UP, Ratatouille, A Bug’s Life and Toy Story Two.

In another brief scene, Violet and Dash are seen in front of another Metroville building that bears the name LOZANO RECORDS. 

(images courtesy of Disney/Pixar)

Not only is this a peak into a bygone era when music came in the form of vinyl platters, but it’s a quick tribute to Pixar Art Director Albert Lozano. In addition to The Incredibles, Lozano has worked on Monsters University, UP, Cars and Finding Nemo.

There are probably other hidden tributes to Pixar’s vast team of artisans in The Incredibles, but these are two that I caught on a recent viewing.

Stay tuned to Hidden Disney - I’ll be featuring other Pixar personalities who have tributes on screen.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Fencing In The Imagination

One sign of a Disney park attraction (never a ride) is the overwhelming attention to detail. You won’t find simple lines for attractions. Instead, you have elaborate queues. The interior queue for the Rock ’n’ Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith is stacked with details worthy of your attention as you meander closer to the limo. The excitement within the G-Force recording studio makes the time spent outside in the bland (but covered) queue worth the wait. The studio also serves as a museum of sorts, featuring gold records, vintage guitars, poster and album artwork among the artifacts. The pre-show features a mockup of a recording studio with the band members from Aerosmith winding down their session. Their manager (who is channeling her best Bobbi Flekman) whisks them away to a performance for which they’re late. Steven Tyler, ever so courteous, arranges for a stretch — no, make that a super-stretch — limo, parked out back in the alley, to take us to the show.

This is where it gets fun. The indoor attraction has the luxury of utilizing a small and dimly lit space to reconstruct a faux alley, complete with a parking garage next to it, cheap apartments and a gritty, utilitarian fence separating the guests from the road. There are bills plastered along the wall advertising the Ska Review, about as diametrically opposed to Aerosmith as you can get, musically. 

Signs at Disney parks always have some meaning, if only to help elaborate on a theme, project a pun or offer a hidden layer of Disney goodness. Several signs here are worth noting. Two fall into the bad pun department: First up is an overhead sign by the parking garage entrance that reads Lock 'n Roll Parking Systems. A smaller sign on the wall is an advertisement for Sam Andreas & Son, Earthquake Busters, specializing in structural retrofitting, an obvious nod to the earthquake-prone antics of Los Angeles.

The best sign, albeit small and nondescript, is for the Buena Vista Fence Company and is attached to the chain-link fence: 

The phone number isn’t for a fence company, but instead for a different organization that’s near and dear to our hearts. It’s the number to the front desk of 1401 Flower Street in Glendale, California, home to Walt Disney Imagineering (minus the local area code, of course).

Walt created what was then known as WED Enterprises (for Walter Elias Disney) in 1952 as his ‘personal playground’ to develop Disneyland and its attractions. Buena Vista further adds a layer of Disney history, which references Buena Vista Street in Burbank that runs along the western edge of the Disney Studios. It’s also the name of the distribution arm that Disney established in 1953 for its films. Finally, it references Lake Buena Vista at Walt Disney World.

There you have it. A subtle tribute to Imagineering which, among other things, developed one seriously intense coaster. Keep your eye out for this sign the next time you’re there. Oh, and don’t forget Chris’ black Les Paul. 

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The details that are underfoot

There are no accidental props or artifacts at Walt Disney World’s theme parks. All items and signage serve to enhance or extend the overall story in a given area. Think of the elaborate scenery in the external queue and eventually inside the show building for the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, for example.

The smaller the item, the better, I say. The reward is finding the minor, esoteric details that Disney designers and Imagineers have concocted. Sometimes, they’re simply underfoot, waiting to be discovered.

Utility holes, in their most basic state, exist to allow access to the necessary underlying infrastructure that any municipality needs, including theme parks. Given their, well, utilitarian nature, they are typically of the no-frills variety. Not at Walt Disney World.

Around the property, you can find the old-school “Globe D” icon embedded in the center of utility lids. My favorite moderate resort, Port Orleans French Quarter, has lids that read “City of Port Orleans,” adding depth to the overall theming of the resort.

In this regard, I was thrilled to find another small nugget on a utility hole cover at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, near the intersection of Hollywood and Sunset Boulevards. The cover I found had a basic grid of raised squares, to allow for traction with the multitude of footsteps that fall upon it. There in the center in a square pattern is a four letter acronym RCID and a water wave icon, combined to make a larger central square. What, exactly, is RCID? And why is it important?

RCID is shorthand for the Reedy Creek Improvement District, and its roots trace back to Walt himself. As the Walt Disney Company was determining how to make Walt’s dream of an experimental prototype community of tomorrow a reality, it knew it needed land, and lots of it. Further, it would need an autonomous agency to aid and assist with the development of the property. Disney petitioned the Florida State legislature to create an Improvement District that “could act with the same authority and responsibility as a county government. The new legislation said that landowners within the Reedy Creek Improvement District, primarily Walt Disney World, would be solely responsible for paying the cost of providing typical municipal services like power, water, roads, fire protection etc.”* The legislation was passed, and the newly minted Improvement District was named for a nearby existing waterway, Reedy Creek.

Orange County and Osceola County sheriffs have legal jurisdiction at Walt Disney World, but the environmental and municipal issues are handled by RCID. The logo on a utility hole cover is perfectly natural.

RCID also provides fire protection at Walt Disney World. It’s why the fire houses on property sport the RCFD — Reedy Creek Fire Department — logo. 

For an in-depth review of development of Disney’s Florida property, including the Reedy Creek Improvement District, turn to Chad Emerson’s fascinating and detailed book, Project Future.


Sunday, December 1, 2013

A two-for-one Main Street special

One of the  many reasons I enjoy visiting Walt Disney World is for the immersive experience it provides. In Adventureland, I’m transported to exotic ports and  layers of intrigue. Liberty Square is Disney story-telling at its finest, from the patriotic tones of the Hall of Presidents to the playfully spooky Haunted Mansion. Everything has a beginning, and for the Magic Kingdom that’s Main Street U.S.A. It’s a fanciful recreation of a bygone era, showcasing life at the turn of the century - the 20th, that is.

The Walt Disney Company, diversified as it is today, built its foundation on movie making, first with animation and then live-action. The Magic Kingdom borrows many filmmaking elements, beginning with how Guests are introduced to the park. As you arrive, you walk underneath the train station along red carpeting, as if you’re attending a movie premiere gala. Attraction posters line up either side of the tunnel, as if they are trailers for future films. As you exit the tunnel, you enter into Main Street, transported back in time. Continuing to use filmmaking concepts, the buildings utilize forced perspective, a technique that alters the ratio of second and third stories, making them appear larger. We’ll start with the establishing shot, which takes in the broad avenue of Main Street and ends with Cinderella Castle, it too featuring forced perspective, allowing us to believe that its spires are magnificently tall. The wide shot of Main Street also features store fronts and a horse-drawn trolly gently clip-clopping along. Next, a medium shot is featured, highlighting the town square and the adjacent Town Square Theater. A dolly shot, tracking alongside its subject, showcases the eatery Tony’s Town Square and the nearby confectionary shop and The Chapeau, featuring Disney hats and custom monogramming. Finally, a closeup shot fixates on a pink hat box hanging outside The Chapeau. That’s where our story begins.

(quick sidebar - whenever I think hear the word chapeau, I immediately recall Steve Martin’s monologue about the French language: “Chapeau means hat. Oeuf means egg. It’s like those French have a different word for everything!” But I digress . . .)

A pink hatbox hanging outside a hat shop? Perfectly natural, of course.The Main Street barbershop still uses the traditional red, white and blue striped pole to indicate the service offered within. The ornate hatbox, complete with a bow, elegantly states Chapeau, indicating it’s a fancy store. If our story ended here, it would be, pardon the pun, neatly wrapped up in a bow. Instead, this is where it gets interesting.

Recall that Tony’s Town Square is next door. Its inspiration is from the 1955 Disney animated classic Lady and the Tramp, a canine love story. A key scene in the movie is set at an Italian restaurant, lending an air of authenticity to Tony’s Town Square. There’s a clever nod to the film outside Tony’s, where a paw-drawn heart, pierced by Cupid’s arrow, is forever memorialized in the cement. Two sets of paws are within, one from Lady and the other from Tramp. However, the key establishing shot from the movie is Lady’s entrance. Jim Dear presents a gift to his wife, Darling, one Christmas morning, in a beautiful lavender- and cream-striped hat box. As Darling unwraps the bow, the lid pops up to reveal Lady, a sweet cocker spaniel pup. There it is - Tony’s Town Square and The Chapeau shop next door, each cleverly referencing and reinforcing each other.

But wait - there’s more.

Disney fans will be thrilled to learn that the Christmas scene from the film also has a story, taken directly from Walt’s life. Walt longed for a family pet but his wife Lillian was steadfastly against it. Walt researched the ideal dog breed to counter Lillian’s objections and settled on a chow, given their disposition, odor and fur. The next challenge - how to deliver it. Walt used a Christmas eve family gathering to present his special gift to Lillian. While family guests weren’t looking, he placed the chow pup into a hat box and set it under the tree. The label read: To Lilly, from Santy Claus. When presented with the hat box, Lillian made the logical conclusion that she was getting a hat. To her great surprise, instead it was a dog! She quickly fell in love with the gift, and named the chow Sunnee. You can hear more about this special gift in Walt’s own words, courtesy of the Walt Disney Family Museum.

There you have it - Main Street U.S.A.’s two-for-one hidden Disney tributes. The chapeau sign cleverly referencing a classic Disney animated feature, and also pays tribute to a special moment between Walt and Lillian Disney.