Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Most Vile, Unredeeming Hotels Ever Built—Ever!

Early concept drawing for the Dolphin
(c) Disney
The Swan and Dolphin Resorts at Walt Disney World. For a couple of chain hotels, there’s certainly been a great deal written about these buildings.

Back in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, when Disney was on an expansion bender, the Swan and Dolphin were emblematic of the new way things were being done at the Mouse House. Michael Eisner and Frank Wells were on a mission. For six decades, Walt Disney Productions accumulated an amazing array of assets and then, inexplicably, allowed them to sit fallow. The new team was here to leverage those assets, pronto.

At Walt Disney World, that meant exploiting the thing they had plenty of: LAND! Disney had plans for that land and was building like mad. The goal was to keep its current customers longer and to attract a new clientele—all while wringing visitors’ pocketbooks tighter than ever before. An explosion of new hotel rooms was just beginning. It was a key part of the new regime’s money-grab strategy.

Of course, the description above is pretty snarky, if not downright cynical. It also isn’t fair. Because, in spite of the ugly way Michael Eisner’s time at Disney ended, there really was a lot of finesse to his expansion program. In the case of the Swan and Dolphin, that finesse came in two main forms.

The first is the most conspicuous: the architecture of the Swan and Dolphin.
Unlike previous large scale hotels like the Polynesian Village or even the Contemporary—both of which plopped guests into hyper-realized fantasy locales in much the same way as the Magic Kingdom’s themed lands—The Swan and Dolphin refused a representational thematic approach. They also are not the “glass and brass” buildings found across from the Orange County Convention Center and throughout the United States (it’s worth noting that fact, as Tishman Realty’s original contract with Disney allowed them to build that sort of uninspired hotel structure as part of this development).

Instead, Eisner set himself on a hiring-spree, engaging the services of so many high profile “starchitects” that his mania warranted an article in a 1991 issue of Time Magazine. For these new Florida hotels, Eisner chose an architect who was fresh off a previous Disney commission, Michael Graves.

Model of The Walt Disney Company corporate
headquarters in Burbank
Graves and his team conceived the Swan and Dolphin storyline* and custom-designed everything, down to the detail of the hotels’ carpet patterns and the plates used in restaurants throughout the complex. The end result was strikingly different to anything that had ever come out of Disney before. It had a different scale and a lavish attention to detail. And it had the gravitas of being praised by architecture critics—something unusual for a company whose very name was often used as a prejorative among the Inteligencia.

Graves's designs for room furnishings in the hotels
(c) Disney

The second bit of finesse Eisner employed with the Swan and Dolphin is only slightly less apparent, but far more impactful: the hotels’ siting on Disney property and the subsequent development of this new expansion area.

When Walt Disney World debuted in 1971, it featured a Disneyland-style theme park buried deep within the Central Florida wilderness. This Magic Kingdom anchored a sprawling Seven Seas Lagoon that featured two large hotels, each one serving Disney’s guests and framing the Walt Disney World experience. This was Phase One, a world of its own, seemingly-complete, right down to the white sand beaches, man-made waves, and monorail-themed cocktails.

Flash forward eleven years later to the opening of EPCOT Center. For the billion dollars spent to create this massive project, absent was the peripheral development found along Phase One’s lagoon. For the entirety of the 1980’s, EPCOT Center, the harbinger of the world of tomorrow, stood alone in its swamp, miles distant from the Hawaiian luaus, buzzing watercraft, and hotel rooms that surrounded the Magic Kingdom and meant money in the bank for Disney.

The Eisner and Wells team wasn’t the first to acknowledge this omission and propose a remedy. Disney’s previous chairman, Ray Watson, had approved the Tishman Realty deal with the same objective in mind. But the new team’s approach was bold in the same way Graves’ aesthetic was bold. The location of the project would change. As Joe Flower noted in his Eisner biography Prince of the Magic Kingdom, the new hotels would be placed at the physical center of the WDW property, its “center of gravity.” Which nestled it in between EPCOT Center’s World Showcase and the then-under construction Disney-MGM Studios.

When it opened, this new development—anchored to its south by The Swan and Dolphin and their shared Crescent Lake—transformed the EPCOT Center experience. No longer was the park some hard-to-access offshoot that committed guests to travel by automobile, bus, or a convoluted monorail exchange just to experience its offerings. In fact, EPCOT Center was in many ways now the most accessible park for the guests staying at the Swan and Dolphin. You could get to the park by a Friendship launch, or a tram, or even by foot. And you’d enter through an exclusive backdoor, cleverly positioned near the park’s many acclaimed restaurants.

Even more importantly, the entire Walt Disney World property was transformed by this new development. As the Yacht and Beach Club hotels and, later, the Boardwalk Inn opened as part of the same area, the Florida resort now had two bustling mixed use centers, each with its own unique attitude and offerings, and potential for growth. With the Swan and Dolphin’s enormous convention facilities and the unique EPCOT Center tendency to attract adults, Disney imagined building a second nighttime entertainment facility in the area, similar to Pleasure Island.

Satellite view of the Swan and Dolphin Resort and the Crescent Lake development
that today connects Epcot and Disney's Hollywood Studios.
It was all so good. And it was successful to boot, attracting guests and keeping them at Disney just as intended. So why then the title of this article? Why are these the most vile, unredeeming hotels ever built—ever?

If you’ve read this far, you already know the answer. Because, for many Disney fans, these hotels represent a cardinal sin, an offense to a key tenet of the Walt Disney Methodology for Creating Entertainment Spaces. The Swan and Dolphin are distractions. They violate the rhythm, landscape, and illusion of EPCOT’s World Showcase. They are visual intrusions.

It’s pretty easy to find fault with the Swan and Dolphin, looming as they do over World Showcase’s southwestern attractions. There is no sense to it, no logic that explains why a stylized pyramid and a colossal gang of classically-inspired (but oddly cartoonified) water creatures would occupy the same horizon line with hyper-realized replicas of real-world landmarks. Japan’s castle, Morocco’s minarets, and even Eiffel’s Tower are all made diminutive, living like doll houses under the shadow of these post modern monstrosities.

It’s a collision between two worlds that do not belong together and it should never have happened. Themed spaces should be kept singular and uninterrupted by competing elements. Visual intrusions shouldn't exist in a well-designed themed attraction.

Actually, I don’t believe that. In fact, I think that reaction is far too prevalent in contemporary theme park design, especially at Disney. And I think it sucks.

Stay tuned for Part 2 and I’ll explain why…

*Werner Weiss unfolds the premise behind The Swan and Dolphin’s design in a wonderful article that reveals the truth behind one of my favorite WDW urban legends AND has a picture of a helicopter!

Friday, June 25, 2010

Unexpected Moments at WDW

While enjoying a cup of coffee one morning at Bay Lake Tower, I caught one of the small motor launches emerging from the dock facilities on the north part of the lake. Soon, all manner of watercraft, from motor launches to patrol speedbooats to the massive ferryboats began a procession from this little canal. It was one of those quiet little things that you don't really expect when you plan a vacation, but it was really cool, really serene. I made a point of being up and ready (coffee always in hand) every morning after that.

Hope you like these shots!

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Where Has All the Cool Gone?

Like most people my age, I first knew Louis Prima not as a Las Vegas lounge act, or as a big band leader, but as a monkey.
King of the Swingers
Image (c) Disney

When Prima was cast as the voice of King Louis in The Jungle Book, he probably didn't count on generations of kids associating his smooth, hep cat voice and improvisional stylings with an overweight orangutan. Today, that's probably how most people know him, singing that Ooobee Doo, I Wanna Be Like You-oo-ooo.

Of course, if you go looking for Louis Prima the man, you'll find one of the most refreshingly cool performers of all time, ever.

Prima was billed as "The Wildest." Along with his buddy Sam Butera, their band, The Witnesses, and his fourth wife, Keely Smith, Louis defined Las Vegas entertainment in the fifties. While Sinatra and the Rat Pack were performing their antics at the Sands, Prima was knocking them dead in the lounge at the Sahara.

It's a shame that there isn't the kind of cool today that Louis Prima created for his audiences forty years ago. Sadder still is that there are so few of his performances available for those who go looking.

Louis Prima was famous for singing "I'm Just a Gigilo." And for as fun as that little number can be, I've never regarded it as the throwaway that David Lee Roth tried to spin it into years later. There's a little bit of sadness and a little bit of truth in those lines:

When the end comes I know, they'll say 'Just a Gigilo.'
Life goes on without me.

We're all just hustlers, looking to get paid for our own little dance. Best we can do is do it like Louis. Classy and cool.

Yo Gabba Gabba's got NOTHING on this!


Sunday, January 10, 2010

A Really, Really GOOD Film

So, I finally got around to seeing Disney’s latest animated feature The Princess and the Frog.

image (c) Disney

Let me start off by pointing out that it is January 10th. I am an acknowledged Disney fan (or in Katzenberg-speak, a “Disnoid”). I have two kids, 5 and 4. And I had more than a week off between Christmas and New Year. And here I am, seeing this major release, almost a month after it opened wide.

Why is that? Well, all sorts of reasons. Perhaps the biggest: my kids didn’t want to see it. Let me restate that: my 5 year old son and my 4 year old son didn’t want to see the latest Disney feature because “a princess movie is a girl movie.”

I never thought I would be the dad whose sons would be so impressionable by gender role hogwash that they would actively reject something on the grounds it was girly. And for years I thought I’d succeeded. My boys have no problems doing the whole pretend play in a kitchen, or hanging out with girls their age and playing dolls, etc. They even dress up as women and make na├»ve, sometimes uncomfortable, commentary on breast feeding and the like.

But for these little dudes, a princess cartoon crosses the line. Further thoughts on that later. Here’s my take on The Princess and the Frog:

I thought this was a really, really good movie. Great? Not so much…but really, really good.

The story is a fun concoction, with what feels like a fresh setting—New Orleans set in some non-specific, old timey, jazz age that seems like it should have happened. The principal characters are on the money, including a plucky, working-class heroine, a vain prince with a heart of gold, and a conniving bad guy with supernatural talents. And the plotline is a classic fairy tale thread with just enough of a twist to add a sense of clever freshness.

The songs are vibrant and move the plot. And the animation is, truly, top notch. So why is this just a really, really good movie?

Well, in the end, and in spite of all its originality, this flick feels like it is just going over familiar ground. The design of the movie feels too much like so many other animated films, that sort of early 1950’s Disney animation with the 1990’s Ashman-Menkin Broadway style layered on top. Everything feels a little too cute and too rendered and too similar to stuff I have seen before.

Added to that is the structure of the thing, which is the same three act plotting, the same pacing with the requisite “yearning moment” and the “quiet moment of realization” and the “fast paced chase” that culminates in the villain’s demise. Oh yeah, and the same awkward exposition used to transition between musical set pieces and add narrative points overlooked by the songwriters.
But, in spite all of that, this movie had its high points. Almost any screen time featuring the villain, Dr. Facilier, was delicious. As mentioned previously, the music breathed real life into the film. Likewise, the film’s New Orleans setting is often rendered as a glowing fantasyscape that this viewer wanted to get lost in, similar in some ways to the Italian village in Pinocchio.

And, surprisingly, I fell for many of the supporting characters. I would say the most surprising was Charlotte, the spoiled little princess wannabe (is this some commentary by Disney on what may be its biggest consumer base?), if not for the lightning bug Cajun stereotype, Ray. I love the little guy, in spite of the fact that I regarded him as an all-too-easy bit of a throwaway character; in the end, Ray buzzes right into the heart of this film.

Ray...seriously, this guy bugged me when he was first introduced. Image (c) Disney

So, what would have made this a better movie for me, a real Disney classic, perhaps? I can think of three things, at least:

1) Find a new design aesthetic. For far too long, hand-drawn Disney films have looked the same, and that’s really not a good thing. Visually, The Princess and the Frog is tired. It's design speaks to the 1990’s, not the second decade of the 21st Century. Today’s world is a virtual buffet of distinct graphic styles. Some are like nothing ever seen before. Others are contemporary homages to past (often lost) movements. The best offer some commentary on the time we live in.

And, for what it’s worth, this isn't an argument to change just for change's sake. Walt’s artists were constantly mixing up their design, in part to add new visual pep to their pics. Compare Bambi to Cinderella to One Hundred and One Dalmatians. Those films were made between 1942 to 1961. In that span of 19 years, you have everything from Bambi’s impressionism to Cinderella’s spare Mary Blair-influenced alternative to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to the very-Modernist approach to Dalmatians.

Now compare the Disney product from 1989 to 2009. What, really is different between the styling of The Little Mermaid, The Lion King, and The Princess and the Frog? Colors are more saturated (thanks, computer!) and, well, what else? Very, very little, at least from a general audience’s perspective.

2) Invest FULLY in music. For all of the early Disney innovations and trademarks in creating animated product, it’s too easily forgotten how much music influenced these films. Hell, every time I watch Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs I’m surprised how much of that film is set to verse. Characters used to move to a musical beat, action was staged against it.

So why does The Princess and the Frog toss all that aside and, transition out of these sparkling musical passages and into these exposition-filled, lead balloon scenes where so-and-so is explaining to whatsherface that Old Man blah-blah-blah will be king of the hoo-haw. Such forced, uninspired story-telling is beneath the better qualities of this films.

3) This is for the Marketing folks…PLAY UP THE DATE NIGHT ANGLE. Look, there’s a place for princess films. I’ll be the last person to say that just because little boys don’t like girls in gowns this company should abandon the princess flick. Hell, princesses are part of the DNA of the company (as well as one of its current revenue crack pipes).

But these things need to be events, like Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin were a decade and a half ago. Disney’s Marketing team needs to make a film like The Princess and the Frog the film to see with a squeeze on opening weekend.

And to support this, the Mouse should have added a little more sex to this flick. Not out and out doing it, but heat. The kind of heat that permeated films like Tarzan and Spider-man. Visceral freedom mixed with should-I-kiss-her anxiety. Face it, if you’ve found yourself splashing around in the water with someone attractive that you only kinda know, well, there’s a certain arousal there. Nothing wrong with playing that up a bit.

So...all that said, I can't wait to see The Princess and the Frog again. I hope it has a long life after it's theatrical run, and I really hope to run into Tiana and Dr. Facilier at Disneyland for years to come. Let's all hope this is a toe in the water for Disney Feature Animation and that the big splash is just lining up at the diving board!

Tuesday, December 1, 2009


All my life, I have dreamt of hosting the perfect Christmas party, with just the right blend of love, mirth, and decadance. Who knew Bob Dylan had already gotten there?

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Science Centers, The Future, and FUN...

Chesley Bonestell's visions of space travel were big, sweeping visions. Who wouldn't want to live to see that Future?

I worked for a science center for almost a decade. Even now, they remain a part of my life.

So needless to say, I have a stake in these places. It comes down to my belief that science museums can be vibrant, influential places. They can change perceptions and lives. How, you might ask?

Well, when I was young and working in science centers, there was that day's dogma--things like turning girls on to science, creating exhibit platforms that embraced the then-burgeoning Internet, and doing something with "the environment" (no one ever knew what that meant). Follow those prescriptions and that is the path to making a real difference.

Today, I'm older and the dogma is different-ish. Science centers now think they should do things like serve as a model for early-childhood learning, showcase hot-topic technologies like energy and medicine. Oh yeah, and keep doing something with "the environment."

There's nothing wrong with any of those ideas. They can become foundations for exhibitions or they can be infused into other exhibit concepts. But they are transient ideas, falling in and out of favor based on the technology, concerns, and consultant-speak of the day. There is nothing big, nothing lasting. Here's an example: the 1990's ideas of internet-based exhibits have been chased and, in so many ways, fizzled on delivery. In 2009, the Internet isn't an exhibit thing so much as a marketing thing. So, ask yourself: in ten years, how relevant will today's energy or medicine exhibits be?

Here's my premise: Science centers in their heyday and at their best sold two things better than anyone else: The Future and Fun.

Today's science centers miss that way too often. Instead they become corporate mouthpieces, chasing checkbooks by telling potential Big Money sponsors what they want to hear in the words they like hearing.

When I was a kid, it was a real treat to visit the original COSI. The place was a veritable funhouse. Experiences ranged from hands-on interactive things to funky dioramas to shows that you wouldn't find anywhere else.

Sure it was pure Leave It To Beaver...but it was also a projection of something cool. Where do you get these kinds of visions today?

And even in my youth, I knew the place was selling something more than amusement park-style escapism. There was a message there. I was a kid and all of this stuff was pointing to the future. An OPTIMISTIC future. One that would not only employ new technologies but one that would learn from the accomplishments and hardships and grit of people that had come before.

To my way of thinking, science centers today are devoid of that Future. One that is made fun based on BOTH the nature of the activities--the interactives, demonstrations, etc.--and an encompassing position of OPTIMISM.

The world we live in is cool. The people who have either explored or revealed or invented or (in some cases) dreamed up all the amazing things we know--they are themselves amazing. And tomorrow's world, the world of today's kids, is right there--ready for all kinds of new amazing things created by new amazing people.

That sentiment is at the heart of all the best science centers. Those are the places that inspire tomorrow's inventors and explorers, the engineers and researchers.