Your Souvenir Guide

Disneyland Ex Machina

Category: Extinctions (page 1 of 2)

‘This is our planet / you’re one of us.’

Michael's Housewarming Party

I did not know him. One could argue that no one really did, even his own family. But there are two ways in which I could begin to understand Michael Jackson, if I were to put my mind to it. Like me, Jackson was raised a Jehovah’s Witness, and like me he rejected that faith when he realized that there was a deeper well of art and imagination that the Witnesses wouldn’t ever allow him to touch.

And like me, he loved Disneyland. In fact, I was there on the day he moved in.

Even then, my friends and I had no difficulties in making Michael Jackson the butt of jokes — crude stories that placed him in sexual congress with everything from Emmanuel Lewis to Bubbles The Chimp. Even then, we knew that Jackson’s world had gone sideways, and that there were things about him that we probably didn’t want to know. But none of that prevented us from showing up at Disneyland late on the night of September 20, 1986, hitting up the Main Street Candy Palace for a bag of sour balls (“because long lines mean sour balls,” said one of my friends), and getting into the ninety-minute queue for Captain EO.

We cracked wise about Michael Jackson as the line rolled up Main Street, past the building that would become Star Tours (“Get ready for the ULTIMATE THRILL EXPERIENCE!”) and into the Magic Eye Theater, recently converted from the Space Mountain Stage. We talked shit about Michael Jackson even as we put on our 3-D glasses and the Magic Eye Theater darkened to an enveloping canvas of stars. We snickered nervously as Jackson entered the film and issued an unconvincing ultimatum (“We’re goin’ in”).

And then, suddenly, Michael Jackson was dancing and singing, and every one of us was struck dumb. I was amazed, even giddy, as I watched the consummate performer do what he was put on this planet to do. He jackknifed his body in ways that made it seem like his voice and movements were coming through him, not from him. In a film packed with $16 million worth of special effects, he was the only one that was absolutely convincing. We were scarcely out of the theater for thirty seconds before we decided to get in line again.

In the wake of Michael Jackson’s death, I find that I’m several distinct states of mind on the entertainer. There are those who mourn the last mega-star the music industry is likely to produce, and I understand that. There are those who say good riddance to bad rubbish, who say that we shouldn’t mourn the loss of a man who mutilated his face out of self-loathing and conducted personal relationships whose intensity became a matter for the courts, and I understand those folks, as well. I sympathize with those who pitied him, those who worshipped him and even those who didn’t get a flying fuck about him. Michael Jackson tried to be all things to all people, and his passing is the passing of an idea.

Today, though, I’m thinking of the overgrown kid who was raised in a prohibitive religion, dreamed of flying in a spaceship and battling aliens, and achieved a dream a bunch of us had as children: He wanted to live at Disneyland. For ten years, he did just that. And though I’m just likely to cringe at the thought of what he became as I am to marvel at the thought of what he once was, I’m glad he had me to his housewarming party.

The Adventurer’s Club, 1989-2008

The Adventurer's Club, 1989-2008

Jennifer and Lisa of Those Darn Cats! have graciously received me on their podcast for a second time. I’m always thrilled to talk katnip with the kittens, though I wish this edition of Cats! was driven by something other than the premature closing of Walt Disney World’s wonderful Adventurer’s Club.

I’ve tried to explain the Adventurer’s Club to friends several times over the past year and have continually come up short. Finally, I simply drew up the “interests list” that the Club would have likely had, had it not pre-dated LiveJournal by sixty years:

Aeroplanes, absinthe, automobile racing, Around the World in Eighty Days, Ashanti Fertility Dolls, Arthur Conan Doyle, Bits O’Biffel, bullfights, Chester Babbit Rawlinson, Colonel Critchlow Suchbench, double-entendres, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Egypt, Emil Bleehal, flying carpets, French Postcards, Gypsy Rose Lee, Handsome Hathaway Browne, Harry Houdini, hoopla, Humphrey Bogart, India, intrigue, Jean Shepherd, Kungaloosh, Marilyn Monroe, martinis, Mel Brooks, Newton Hasselcrone, Papua New Guinea, Philo B. Farnsworth, pugilism, Ray Harryhousen, ribaldlry, Robert Benchley, Samantha Sterling, screwball comedy, spelunking, steampunk, Susan B. Anthony, Teddy Roosevelt, The African Veldt, The Firesign Theater, The Himalayas, The Marx Brothers, The North Pole, The Pan-Columbian Exhibition, Tom Lehrer, Tom Waits, weasel-bats

I would have kept going, but the bar napkin was only so big. Kungaloosh, my friends. May we meet again at some future hoopla.

Go listen to the podcast, dammit.

Irons & Wine: Seasons of the Vine, in review

Wine Fugue

Jeremy Irons, we knew you when. We knew you when you worked on indie films with Cronenberg and Soderbergh. We knew you when you gave the needle to Sonny von Bulow. We knew when your name wasn’t synonymous with crap like “Die Hard 3” and “Dungeons and Dragons.” We knew when you gnashed your teeth and bit the recess lady’s breast. How can we forget?

And we knew you when you went to Disneyland. Irons has done three voice acting jobs for Disney of which I’m aware — the voice of the Von Bulow-like Scar in “The Lion King,” the narration of Spaceship Earth (now replaced by Dame Judi Dench), and the narration of “Seasons of the Vine,” a now-defunct short film at Disney’s California Adventure. (He also appeared as H.G. Wells in “From Time to Time,” a Circlevision 360 film that ran at the Magic Kingdom parks in Florida, Paris and Tokyo. Sadly, I never had the chance to see it firsthand.)

The first two voice jobs are listed in Irons’ CV on the IMDb. The third is not, even though it is an actual, live-action short film. Let’s clear about this: Irons’ IMDb listing includes instructional videos, video-game work and even his “Comic Relief” appearances, but not a film that ran at a Disney theme park for seven years.

The reason for this apparent oversight is simple, and embarrassing: No one knew it was there.

“Seasons of the Vine” had the dumb luck of being in the most anonymous part of Disney’s least-attended and most-maligned American park. It had little in the way of visible signage, was barely mentioned in park maps and promotional materials … and no thanks to some truly baffling operational choices, it was almost never open. (“Seasons” wasn’t run by the attractions division, but by foods — which meant that in order to get into the attraction, most days you had to find someone from the nearby wine bar and cajole him or her into letting you in.)

“Seasons” is gone now. Its former space is soon to be occupied by a “coming attractions” showcase like that which used to sit on Main Street (next door to the Hills Bros. Coffee House/Town Square Cafe, which really needs to come back). While I readily understand why a short film about wineries didn’t appeal to a crowd that was largely too young to drink it (and the prospect of a new Disneyland Showcase is exciting indeed), I do miss the film terribly. It offered a respite from the day, it put me in the mood to hit up the nearby wine bar, and by golly, it was a good Jeremy Irons movie. Much better than “Kafka.”

Gorgeously photographed in the heart of California wine country on Robert Mondavi’s nickel (the winery dropped its sponsorship of the attraction soon after DCA opened), “Seasons of the Vine” is a perfect example of Disney’s gift for the candy-coated sell. It reminds me of the films that debuted with EPCOT Center — the lyrical “Impressions de France,” the fanciful “Magic Journeys,” the epic “Symbiosis.” Every one of those films sells something — paycheck environmentalism, Parisian vacations, Kodachrome — but they do so in such an artful way that the golden glow of the medium lingers after the message had faded. As “Impressions de France” does for Le Tour Eiffel, “Seasons” makes you feel simply great about living in a world with winemakers in it.

See the film here. Obviously the effect is somewhat diminished when viewing it at home without the promise of a glass of wine in your future, but at least one of those problems is easily rectified. Enjoy Irons’ relaxed, avuncular narration; it’s the warmest reading I’ve ever heard from him. “A celahbraaation of liiiife.” To achieve it, he surely must have had a few.

Also, give a receptive ear to Bruce Broughton’s score. The Emmy-winning composer has penned his share of memorable themes fro the American West (most notably for Lawrence Kasdan’s “Silverado”). “Seasons of the Vine” is very much part of that tradition — after all, the vintners who took California’s wineries to victory in the 1976 “Judgement of Paris” were also cowboys after a fashion. And though the film never mentions that fateful wine tasting, the Spanish and French elements of the score tip their hat to it as they weave in and out of one of the Copland-like Yankee Doodle compositions at which Broughton excels.

The music, available on the official Disneyland/DCA soundtrack album, is all that’s left of “Seasons of the Vine.” Most people don’t miss it; even the rose-colored lens of Yesterland dismisses it as “just a film.”

Maybe so. But I’ll tell you this: I now hear Broughton’s lively score in my head every time I walk into a wine shop or cellar. And when I savor a glass of wine on my palate, I now think of the journey it took to get there. I almost never think of “Dungeons and Dragons,” no matter how drunk I get.

The VMK Death Watch continues

Kids of the Virtual Kingdom

To be honest with you I haven’t been visiting much lately. Maybe a couple of times a month. Sometimes I’ll get into a pattern of visits whenever they’re giving away something nifty or whenever I get to missing Disneyland more than usual.

On those occasions, Disney’s Virtual Magic Kingdom – a free, Second Life-style online community based on Disney’s theme park properties – is a godsend. It’s a fishbowl and a toybox and a ViewMaster reel and all other manner of good things, and looking at it calms me down.

Many times I’ve been content to simply stare at VMK, marveling at its friendly, colorful design and observing how players related to the environment. Some are consumed with the acquisition of in-game prizes, while too many others try to form meaningless boy-girl matchups (I had to turn off friend requests after a while to avoid them.) But I found that most players were like me – they weren’t there to win prizes or make connections, but simply to get the feeling of a Disney park. Players sat on benches and took in the scenery or danced in front of the “Castle” at closing time, delighted simply to be “in Kingdom.”

Disney’s decision to shut down VMK down permanently on May 21 illustrates perfectly why the entertainment giant can’t get a Google-sized fire started on the web. Disney Online spokesman Seth “Yavn” Mendelsohn claims that VMK was created only to promote Disneyland’s 50th anniversary celebration in 2005 – the single-most successful promotion the Park has ever seen, an event that really didn’t need the help.

“VMK was a valuable part of the Disneyland 50th Celebration, but it was never meant to live on forever,” Mendelson wrote. “It’s now time to focus our resources on our new virtual worlds.”

Meaning: We don’t have the time or the resources to support a game that doesn’t have a paid membership structure. Or our contract with Sulake ran out. Or we’re tired of chasing down hackers and people who put their VMK prizes on eBay – to say nothing of policing the developing hormones of thousands of tweens.

The real reason for the shutdown probably isn’t important; the company has made up its mind, and once that happens it’s only a matter of time the Peoplemover becomes the Rocket Rods. Besides, we’ll never know what forced Disney’s hand; the Mouse has mastered the art of non-transparent “transparency,” in which they justify their unpopular decisions by citing a valid reason that ultimately doesn’t matter in the final analysis. It’s like blaming a house fire on the existence of matchbooks.

Disney was likely unprepared for the outpouring of protest that followed Mendelson’s announcement. Message boards and bl-gs have exploded with anger and disappointment; a petition has sprung up; and even Motley Fool columnist Rick Munarriz, one of the fondest friends the Mouse has got in the investment world, has tasked Disney over the decision.

(By comparison, the recent debut of Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean”-themed online world has made scarcely any impact at all. Game reviewer Alice Liang damned the game with faint praise: “If you’re looking for a hardcore experience, you’ll be sorely disappointed … Outside of finishing the story-quests and general tomfoolery, there isn’t much to do.” Curiously, the same could be said of VMK, but users don’t seem to mind.)

It’s logical that Disney should want to roll its VMK audience into “Pirates” or “Faeries” or “Toontown,” but they need to understand a couple of important things. The audience can’t be rolled from one property to another, and more importantly, they have only themselves to blame for that failing. It would be one thing if Disney had presented VMK as a simple trivia game or community site, but they did more than that: They offered up VMK as another Disney theme park. They didn’t close Disneyland Paris when it was struggling, and it just made a profit, like, last week.

The free play doesn’t matter to players as much as the ability to visit a Disney theme park from their home, study hall or office. As of today you’ve got just under a month to shrink yourself into the Inner Space shop, launch fireworks over the Castle, photograph animals from the Jungle Cruise, capture ghosts at the Haunted Mansion or simply sit on a Main Street bench at the end of a long day in the real world.

I’m no corporate strategist – but I don’t think you need to be one to know when you’re going against the will of your customer base. In creating VMK, Disney re-created the Disneyland experience in a new and wholly engaging way, and engendered brand loyalty. In killing it, they’re telling an entire segment of their online audience that their wants never mattered. Welcome aboard the Rocket Rods.

Easy Pieces: In praise of the coin-stamper at Pieces of Eight

Eight Easy Pieces

You don’t know what this is, do yeh?

There’s a tiny shop at the exit to Pirates of the Caribbean called Pieces of Eight, which has served your every pirate-y need since long before the POTC concept was translated into three blockbuster feature films (one-and-a-half of them critically acclaimed) and even before the WaltDisCo got the bright idea of putting impulse buys at the end of every. popular. ride. in. the. Park. If you need a plastic sword, a handful of plastic jewels or to have your fortune read by Fortune Red, Pieces of Eight stands ready to serve, me hearties.

Until recently, Pieces of Eight was home to one of those carny machines that would print any group of 30-some letters on a souvenir coin. You’d drop your four bits, swing a “Metropolis”-like clock hand to the desired letter and pull a handle — and deep within the machine you’d feel and hear the satisfying, metallic thunk sound of the letter being pressed into the coin. (I’m not describing this very well. Come back, Paul Lukas! Your country needs you.) When you finished, you’d pull a handle and out would come your custom-stamped coin, which looked for all the world like a genuine doubloon. (Heh. A doubloon isn’t the same thing as a real de a ocho, though never mind.)

As satisfying as the printing process was, it was an even greater pleasure to hold the finished product in the palm of your hand. Other such carny machines issued coins of flyweight aluminum, but Disney gave you a nice, heavy piece of nickel alloy that actually felt like it had some value. You could melt it down for grapeshot. You could spend a lifetime attempting to transform it into gold. Or you could use it as a decorative anchor for your keychain, as I’ve done.

I’d love to tell you to run down there and get your own customized filthy lucre, but the machine is gone, and has been for several years. There are rumors of occasional re-appearances (dropped off by the Flying Dutchman?), though when I query a Cast Member about its absence they either tell me that it’s out for repairs (quite possible; it’s a sensitive piece of machinery) or they don’t know what the bloody hell I’m talking about. One strident teenaged girl insisted that the machine had never existed at all — at which point I showed her my keychain.

“Go soak yer head in the salmagundi, ye underpaid powder monkey!” I might have bellowed at her, if the talk-like-a-pirate thing weren’t so played out. “Yer pwned!

And so, for the first and last time, I will address the Disney decision-makers who will never, ever lay eyes on this bl-g: Please bring back the coin-stamping machine formerly located at Pieces of Eight. (And if it’s there now, please keep it there.) Oh, I’m sure that you have your reasons for having removed the machine, reasons that seem valid to you: I imagine that it’s fairly expensive to maintain and stock the machine, and considering how skittish you’ve become about stitching nicknames on souvenir hats, I’m sure that you don’t want today’s teenage gangsta goths imprinting your souvenirs with four-letter words, gang slogans and Fall Out Boy lyrics.

Here’s the thing, though: I don’t remotely care about any of that. Yours is a billion-dollar concern and you can afford to eat a few thousand bucks a year. If you have the wherewithal to make three Pirates of the Craibbean movies, you can build a second doubloon-stamping machine to sit in for the broken one. And if you’re worried about teenaged kids putting blue words on their coins, get this: The coin on my keychain has bore a prodigious number of filthy words for nearly twenty years now, and as near as I can tell, it has created no great rift in the public decency. It’s a pirate coin; what do you want? Pirates say naughty words, ye cowardly cacklefruits. An’ no sea rat e’er palmed a coin that weren’t already dirty.

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