Sunday, May 30, 2010

But I don't know what Elvis this is!

This is pretty amazing. Typing on the iPad is much easier than I expected, and the floating spell fixer is nifty.

Did I say I got an iPad?

I bought the large wifi one. My mother taught me as a child always to get the most memory they sell, and she was right. I've never regretted having too much memory in any device I've ever bought, and always rued getting too little. We'll see if that makes a difference this time.

Starting friction was small, but not nonexistent. Either the iTunes store was swamped or my pad just wasn't getting there for a while, but that eventually ironed itself out. All my Touch apps came in, and I'd say 90% of them are keepers. Some of them have already morphed into iPad apps, taking up the whole screen rather than a touch-sized portion in the middle. My guess is that iPad Civ is worth the price of admission. I'm typing this in Pages, the iworks word processor, which I also expect to use for work. I haven't gotten too many other newbies yet; I don't want to spend all my money the first day.

So why did I buy it? A variety of reasons, but mostly because everyone who has one loves it. I'll certainly use it as a book reader for the DJ (and the chez). I'll watch videos in debate one-night cheap hotels. I'll play games when I should be tabbing. And maybe I'll even get my money's worth out of it.

We'll see. So far? I'm loving it.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Days at the end

“When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.” (So said my friend Joe McGrath, quoting Dr. Johnson, usually at least once a day for roughly twenty-five years or so. Actually, McGrath would change it from London to something else. Tired of cheeseburgers. Tired of Seinfeld reruns. Tired of rhinoplasty. But that is not why we are gathered here today.)

I have been to London many times, for one reason or another, starting as a kid with parents, going on as a parent with kid, for the DJ every now and then, and lately for the odd long weekend in the depths of winter (for me, a nice alternative to the Harvard tournament). So finally getting back to London this time, after mostly exploring the less frequented corners of the isle, was like old home week. I love London, which is just like New York in almost every imaginable way, and I love New York too, so there you are. There’s so much life in a big city; it’s a lot different from walking around the cliffs overlooking the Atlantic. There’s hustle, tussle, muscle, people of all shapes and sizes and colors (although all the women were still wearing black tights, except perhaps for the ones in burkas, who I can’t vouch for one way or the other), there’s noise and life but also peace and quiet in a large number of gardens and parks. Great food. Theater. (All right: theatre.) Art. Architecture.

What can I say?

As I reported on Facebook, our moment of highest culture was seeing the play “Priscilla Queen of the Desert.” This is a series of OMG moments piled one on the other, and it was great fun and I’m glad we went. Usually we see something bleak and British starring people you usually only see on Masterpiece Theatre. Here, the likelihood of any crossover with MT was highly unlikely. We also did the usual museums and whatnot, but we also took advantage of our seemingly endless BritRail pass to get outta town a couple of times. As a result, we had two great day trips.

First, we visited Brighton, site of the palace built by the Prince Regent, George IV. (Speaking of Joe McGrath, he also likes to point out that the play “The Madness of George III,” when it was made into a movie, was retitled “The Madness of King George,” so that people wouldn’t think it was the third movie in the series.) The chubby prince was something of a rake, and a wastrel, and this is one fabulous pile, let me tell you. It’s an Asian simulacrum opium dream of a place the insides of which make your jaw drop. When Victoria came along she sold the joint: it was just too small a place for a family. Jeesh. Brighton also has a wonderfully seedy amusement pier, and other wonderfully seedy amusements, which I just love.

We also visited Winchester, which has a remarkable cathedral, plus the other usual medieval odds and ends. You can see King Arthur’s Round Table, except that it isn’t really KA’s RT, but once something is 700 years old or so, it starts taking on a life of its own.

In London we also did other usual things like the National Gallery, the Leighton house, the War Museum, a garden museum, various walking tours, etc. Not unlike what one would do in NYC, except it takes longer to get there.

Which, aside from asides, pretty much sums it up. I’ll have more to say about particulars, but I wanted to cover the whole trip from start to finish, and then get back to normal, and then write up stuff as it occurs to me. I mean, at this moment we have Sailors in Omaha (home of one of the great American ocean ports), and there’s ongoing TVFTiana, and there’s new Disney Debate Adventure stuff to report on, etc., etc., etc.

Onward!

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Days whatever: The Cornish weekend

There is one direct train a day from Bath to Penzance, which is the end of the line to the west. We took it, and spent a bunch of hours watching the scenery (and also, in my case, watching a documentary on the St. Louis Worlds Fair on the good old Touch). Following which we had four full days planned for Cornwall.

In the past we have mostly visited London, or burbs not far from London, when we’ve gone to England. Cornwall is about as far away as you can get from that urban atmosphere. The people absolutely talk differently and look different (although I would like to send a message to every single woman in England: Get over this black tights thing!). They’re rural, and when you’re there, you feel as if you’re in a rural place. This is certainly a tourist area in the summer (beaches and whatnot) but we had beaten that crowd in, so it was peaceful and quite new from what we’ve become accustomed to.

As I said, Penzance is where the train ends. It’s not much of a town, although it does have a nice museum displaying the Newlyn school, which is right up our alley (we’re big on the 19th century, both the academic and the non-), the homegrown art for which the area is justly famous. The area has a long fishing history (and still has plenty of fishing, which meant fish for dinner every night), and mostly what one does is walk along the shore, which ranges from beach to cliff and drama to drama, and just take in all the nature.

Our day trips included Lands End, which we walked for hours, and which is, indeed, the end of the island. I took a picture of New York off in the distance, but it’s hard to make out too many of the details. A lot of this is edge-of-the-cliff-if-I-slip-on-the-gravel-I’ll-leave-Cruz-my-Disney-album-collection scary and high, some of it was easy, some of it was getting lost and roaming through hedgerows looking for any sign of civilization other than a sheep. This was one of those sunny days that made for great picture taking, and over the whole vacation I took about 1300, so it will take a little time to sort them all out, but I will, and I’ll share them eventually (the good ones, not all 1300).

Another trip was to St. Ives (which kept resonating in my head with seven wives) which has a nifty Tate museum of modern art that, to my mind, could comprise a textbook collection starter set. It’s also got plenty of attractive town to walk around, mixed in with a lot of honkytonk resort beach town to walk around in. (I wonder what the UK equivalent of honkytonk is. Honqueytonque?) Then there was St. Austell, home to the Lost Gardens of Heligan, which is this old Victorian garden that went to ruin and has been rebuilt. To get there, in addition to a train, there was a small bus through city streets that were exactly the size of a small bus plus an inch on either side. The gardens were remarkably photogenic (I’m not much of a gardener myself except insofar as I’ll eat whatever you grow in it happily), and one was deeply tropical (the weather here is, as you know from sleeping through earth science, quite warm). And there were plenty of towns walking distance from Penzance which, well, we walked to. This was, in a word, four days of building up an appetite. Those fish dinners were truly appreciated. At one of them I had, for the first time, red mullet. Normally I wouldn’t order a fish named after a bad haircut, but, Mama Mia! This stuff takes just like lobster. Bring on the mullets! I also ate bunches of enormously excellent fish and chips and drank local ale (although, unlike many of the actual locals, I waited until after breakfast to begin my consumption).

The take on Cornwall? If you like hiking, you have come to the right place. I like hiking, so there you are.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Day 3-4: Bath

We first visited Bath about 20 years ago with Kate, so our return, staying for just a little over a full day, was fairly nostalgic. But we had liked the city, which has a lot of charm, the first time—including a must-see attraction, a charming abbey and some good food—so we went back to see how it had changed.

Bath is built around a hot spring that was an attraction back with the caveman. This thing bubbles up nice and toasty, and on those cold winter nights, it was probably just the thing for a prehistoric hot tub experience. When the Romans got there they turned the place into a major operation, and what you see now is the archeological remains of that Roman operation. And it is huge. You expect to go down and see maybe some bubbly water and a rock or two, but this thing has been excavated for decades and has all the latest scientific techniques going for it, so you really get a sense of what it was like (even more than when we were last there 20 years ago, at which point it was already mind-blowing). England is dotted with pieces of old Roman detritus, and you can’t swing a cat without hitting the original wall of something or other, but this is like finding half a city and walking through it. You can kill a whole morning working your way through it. And, of course, the spring is still there and bubbling away. I didn’t bother going for my complimentary free taste; I smelled it last time, and that once was enough. Them there bubbles is chemicals, folks. Good for what ails you? Maybe, but not my cup of tea, thank you very much.

Since Jane Austen lived in Bath for a while, if you’re a fan you can visit her house there (I think it's her house and not just a recreation—I didn’t go in, not that I’m not a fan but, honestly, it’s just some old house, and I’d rather read the books). Outside of it there are people all dressed in full bonnet drag, if that’s your fancy. Mostly I kept muttering to myself various comic turns on “It is a universal truth,” because I couldn’t avoid it no matter how hard I tried. (Unlike looking for a Cheshire cat chapeau in Oxford, on the other hand, I assure you that I was not seeking out any Mr. Darcy tee shirts or anything.) You can also walk around and see some lovely 18th Century architecture, and if you cross the river and hike up the open land on the other side, you can get a fantastic view of the whole vista of the place. That’s the nice thing about countries older than the US: you see things that have been around for a while, relatively unchanged.

The abbey in Bath is also memorable for me for two reasons. First, the ladders to heaven that flank the front doors, with angels climbing up and down, and second, the remarkable stain glass windows telling, on the one side, Old Testament stories, and on the other, New Testament. Apparently the difference between an abbey and a cathedral (which this would seem to qualify as, if one were to go by size alone) is the association of the latter with a bishopric. You learn something new every day.

One thing we couldn’t figure out was how the canals we both distrinctly remember walking along twenty years ago have disappeared. It’s one thing to have a faulty memory, but to have a shared faulty memory is rather frightening. At the end of our sole full day we rediscovered a restaurant we had eaten at lo those many years ago, and it was high end then and it was high end now. Good, classy grub! They also had a window where you could watch the cooks plating the food, trying unsuccessfully for a couple of minutes to stick a pressed beet shaped like a stick of chewing gum into a meatball shaped out of duck confit (which I had eaten—unbelievable!).

Visit Bath? It’s not too far out of London (nor was Oxford) if that’s your starting point, and either can be a day trip (although more is better). I’d say the place is definitely worth a full day, once every twenty years or so. Which, from me, is high praise.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Day 2: Blenheim

For this trip we bought a BritRail pass because we planned a lot of day trips outside of our immediate venues. I absolutely refused to rent a car. Liz and I are not so good getting around in new territories to begin with, I feel like driving is work rather than vacation since I have to pay attention to driving and not sightseeing (not to mention in this case theoretically paying attention to driving on the wrong side of the road), and I really like trains (and can live with buses). Our first day trip, in this case by bus, was out from Oxford to Blenheim palace.

John Churchill was a great general who won the battle of Blenheim. If you know nothing about that, or him, you should look it up. The whole period of the Restoration and the following years is fascinating. (I will give you a tip to remember succession at the time: cheeseburger. James I, Charles I, Commonwealth, Charles II, James II. As in bun, cheese, meat, cheese, bun. Granted it’s not the world’s greatest mnemonic device but you’ll just have to work with me here.) These people were politics and intrigue up the wazoo, let me tell you. Anyhow, Churchill was rewarded for his victory over the French with the title Duke of Marlborough, and also with this nice pile in the countryside, which is one bloody amazing palace. (And yes, Winston was a descendent, but was not himself Duke. Nonetheless Winnie was born in the palace. But he’s another story altogether, and another one worth studying.)

The palace is divided into two tours. One, you walk through and see the house in its glory, checking out all the noble knickknacks. With the other, you walk through a sort of theme ride where video actors discuss the house’s building and subsequent owners, something of a walk through Carousel of Progress. My favorite thing in part two was when Marborough (i.e., the present Duke, who lives there in rooms one cannot visit) comes on the telly at the end to thank you for visiting. If you had to imagine the perfect modern English Duke, this is it. He is wearing stripes, checks, polka dots and ziggurats in every color under the sun, and he looks like he just ate a lemon. His Grace dresses like everyone who doesn’t care how they dress if they happen to own a palace. But Brits seem to be like that in general. When they don’t have to dress up, they make Americans look like Milan during Fashion Week. But on the other hand, for sports and the like, they dress up at the drop of a helmet. They’ve got cricket clothes and riding clothes and ruggers clothes—but I (uncharacteristically) digress.

Not only is there the palace at Blenheim, with its formal gardens and the like, but there is the rest of the grounds, designed by landscape architect (i.e., gardener on the grand scale) Capability Brown. Now there’s a name to contend with. I like a name like Capability, and would like to see more like it. His real name was Lancelot Brown. What can I say? He’s no Ashmole. Anyhow, you walk these grounds and I have to admit it is absolutely stunning. Trees are planted over acre upon acre of land in such
a way that everywhere you look there’s a vista, with incredible color detail. We were there in the height of spring and the photo gives you a sense in a sort of abstract way of what you would see everywhere. Normally I don’t care one way or the other for gardens (although I like photographing them) but even I was impressed by this one. Plus it was an absolutely gorgeous spring day, there were sheep grazing in the hillside… [Sigh!]

Blenheim, not far from Oxford—definitely worth a visit.

Day 1: Oxford

The afternoon we arrived in Oxford (the official symbol of which is an ox fording a river) it rained a little bit. It never rained again for the remainder of the vacation. I would like to thank whoever is in charge of the weather for a superb performance.

Oxford is, as you might know, a college town. Dozens of them, actually, comprising the university. And they all look like Masterpiece Theatre, with a classic gothic building surrounding an open green quad. Come to think of it, the shops are big on selling Inspector Morse guidebooks, for those Mystery fans who have watched the shows (or read the books) so many times they want to see every crook and nanny where there were all shot. Whatever. I like Morse (and Lewis) as much as the next person, provided the next person isn’t the type to have bought one of those books. I gather they also give a Harry Potter tour of the burg, because some of the movies were shot there, not because Hogwarts is one of the colleges. Again, whatever. On the other hand, it is nice to roam around in a town where, once, the Reverend Dodgson taught mathematics and wrote a fanciful book or two (I really wanted a Tenniel Cheshire cat ball cap, but alas, none was found), as did JRRT and assorted others. Some stars are still roaming around, for that matter, but I didn’t see any of them.

I have read of Oxford, which is certainly a one-industry town, as being very much a place where you are either a part of It or you’re not, i.e., a student/tutor or a schlub servicing students/tutors. Perhaps. I mean, who wants to live in Hollywood and work at a gas station? As a tourist, there is no question that access to the town industry is severely limited, unless one connects up with a guide, an abundant enough resource. Under these auspices, we saw chapels and dining halls and quads and all sorts of things inside the walls, which made us feel very learned. You even get to see people toddling about in their gowns and whatnot, looking also very learned. There were various graduations while we were there, so in addition to these students there were also tons of proud parents. Very lah-di-dah. Our guide, a Lebanese immigrant who was very impressed by the fact that there were not only non-Brits but also women in both the student body and in positions of power, could not pronounce the word epitome correctly, but otherwise he did a good job, so our sightseeing tour was quite enjoyable.

There are various museums and whatnot, the most famous of which is the Ashmolean. This is named after Elias Ashmole. Let me tell you: if poor Elias were around today, the first thing he’d do is change his last name. Thank God I don’t have to announce that one at award ceremonies! Anyhow, the Ashmolean is actually a serendipitous collection of collections rather than a straightforward museum as such, and it’s quite fun. Things like a Stradivarius (plus step-by-step instructions on how to make one), paintings, old scraps of ancient pots and pans, you name it. Not terribly demanding, but worth a trip.

We spend a lot of time planning our meals on vacation. We don’t haunt the fanciest restaurants, but we do keep an eye out as we roam for likely dinner candidates, and we do enjoy our sit-downs at the end of a long day on our feet seeing this and that (and often outright hiking hither and yon). In Oxford there’s a new Jamie Oliver restaurant (called Jamie’s, naturally) that everyone was lined up for our first night (they didn’t take rezzes for twosomes), and we were intrigued but when I looked it up online (I had wireless in all the hotels for the duration) they said it was overrated so we decided not to go the next night, but then we changed our minds since it wasn’t so crowded that Sunday and it was one of the best meals we had over the vacation. Don’t believe everything you read on the internet! (Including this.)

DDA Interlude

I just found this great blog posting (with YouTube videos) on the building of Disneyland, if you're interested.

Monday, May 24, 2010

From Newark Liberty to London Heathrow to Oxfordshire

All right. We’re back in business. Although this seems to be becoming as much of a travel blog as a debate blog. Sorry about that, but you’ll just have to learn to roll with the punches. Nobody ever said that life in the VCA was going to be easy.

Our trip was planned to cover a number of locations in the UK. The problem is, international travel at this particular moment is plagued by wrath of the Icelanders, spewing the rest of us with their so-called “ash cloud.” As if. The truth is, their economy went bust, and none of us, certainly not you and not even me, as close as I am to these people, sent them even a single ruble to help them get over it. So now they are wreaking their revenge, the frigid bastids. We were planned to take off at around 9:00 on the starting Friday night. Thanks to the “ash cloud,” which was apparently generated by the same special effects group that photographed “man landing on the moon,” our flight was delayed over two hours. As it turned out, this was not a bad thing. By the time we were in the air it was midnight, and I was out like the proverbial (northern) light. Of course, I drifted in and out of sleep as I tend to do (I don’t need a plane to be an insomniac), but overall we both did pretty well, despite the usual squeezing in like (northern) herring. Needless to say, I spent the next two weeks tracking the “ash cloud” in the news, figuring that we would be stranded at Heathrow for a couple of months when we wanted to get back home. The good news was that, aside from an article claiming that the ash cloud was, indeed, an “ash cloud” in quotations (the Brits are just as good as anyone in doing Monday morning tabloid quarterbacking), there was nothing. But I will admit, I was worried. Add to this the threat of a strike on BA (which we weren’t flying, but strikes among furriners tend to be contagious, especially among the French which, thank God, the Brits aren’t), which in fact did come to pass the day after we arrived back home, and I spent much of my vacation in what my friend Jules would call a state of permanent depression, but, as it turned out, all for naught.

Our first port of call was Oxford, which one accesses from Paddington, after first taking the express from Heathrow to that station. The Heathrow Express is one of the wonders of airplane travel, probably the fastest and easiest airport to city center there is, and certainly the fastest I’ve ever used. 15 minute trains every 15 minutes. Hard to beat. So after getting through customs in record time—because our flight was delayed we didn’t hit the rush—we were on either one train or the other, et voila! Oxford! Our hotel (actually B&B) was a short walk from the station, and before long we were checked in, washed up (as in clean hands and face, not on the shore like a piece of driftwood) and on our way. It was cool and slightly rainy, which was the last we saw of rain for the next two weeks. Perfect England weather? Whoda thunk it? In any case, we had arrived, and we were on vacation.

Let the revelry begin.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

New York State Debate Coaches' Assocciation

If you're a NY debate coach, you should join the NYSDCA. Write Cruz for details (I'm offline for a while.)

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Disney Debate Adventure Conclusion

One of the reasons we ended up with the schedule that we did is the minimal running of Fantasmic at DHS. This used to be every night; then it was some nights; when we’re going it’s hardly any nights. Our only chance to see it that made sense was Sunday, and there was no way O’C and I were not going to see it (we sing along with it on my iPod). So, day two of the trip is to Disney’s Hollywood Studios by default.

Dining here was tricky originally. There’s interesting theme dining, plus there’s one of the best restaurants on property, the Brown Derby. My daughter solved this dilemma (too much food in too little time) by pointing out that the Sci Fi Diner is totally an attraction, while Brown Derby is mostly just food, and you can get food anywhere, but attractions are few and far between in one’s daily life. That argument was totally persuasive.

By now process of elimination starts to point to Epcot for the next day. The Unofficial Guide has a two-day plan, one starting in the morning and ending midday, and the other starting midday and ending in the evening. Makes sense, so on the Monday, we start early and go through to lunch, mostly hitting the E tix in the Tomorrowland side of the joint. Lunch a choix as the Frenchies say, any of the counters on the World side. Then it’s off to one of the high points of the trip, the miniature golf tournament at Fantasia Gardens. I think we should play for money, just to make it interesting… After the heart-stopping athletics here, we’ll mosey back to the park for dinner at the Biergarten, which is a buffet with entertainment of the German persuasion. And so to bed, relatively early (keeping in mind that there is always the bar back at the hotel) for the Longest Day, Tuesday at MK.

There’s not much to say about MK for the DDA group. We’ll bypass the kiddie stuff, but there’s plenty of adult stuff. My single goal is Jungle Cruise at night; otherwise, it’s all standard. Drop that rope and we head off into Space Mountain, emerging in the night after the fireworks. I do expect to take a midday break and monorail over to a hotel for some peace and quiet and lunch or tea or something. One needs a break in the middle of all of this.

The final day will be Epcot part two, doing the countries, with dinner by the volcano in Mexico, and later watching Illuminations as the Grand Finale of the week. I can already see the tears in O’C’s eyes. Then we leave on the next day (although I’m hoping to squeeze a little Blizzard Beach into that morning, which is why I scheduled a late afternoon flight).

So, there you are. A week of fun and games for a group (extended) that is usually dedicated to fun and debate. I haven’t gone into such things as the mandatory hat purchase on arrival, for instance, or the insane fever of the pin purchasing, but I will blog everything in toto when the time comes. And, of course, photographs will be taken and shared.

And you thought all we cared about was getting the rounds out on time.

Friday, May 07, 2010

The Disney Debate Adventure Part 1

WDW has just conveniently offered the dining plan free for our dates. Please pass the mashed potatoes! Suddenly everyone is getting very serious about making reservations because this is a limited offer, and nobody wants to actually pay for those mashed potatoes. Can’t say as I blame them.

The first order of business in sculpting a WDW trip is figuring out how much exactly one wants to do. You could go down there and, with one thing or another, spend a couple of weeks if you wanted to see and do everything from “It’s a Small World” to Cape Canaveral. After all, Universal has 2 full parks (including the new Harry Potter area), SeaWorld has a whole day’s worth, there’s an overabundance of swimming parks (on and off the WDW grounds), plus there’s things like golf and riding horses and racing stock cars… Quite a menu, in other words. Sure, amusement/theme parks are at the heart of the experience, but you are smack dab in the middle of a resort, after all. In the case of the Disney Debate Adventure, I was thinking that this was going to be as much an in-and-out as possible. I don’t have a lot of days off available, for one thing, and the point was fairly pure Disney. By my way of thinking, this is five full days, one each for MK, DHS and AK and two for Epcot. If we had little kids with us, I might adjust that to include another day at MK and go down one at Epcot, but realistically, not even O’C is going to want to ride Dumbo all that many times. And the two Epcot days are, in fact, halves, allowing us a little breathing space in the middle of all of this. Keep in mind that I do Disney commando-style, at least for the first half of the park day. The last thing I wish to do is wait on a line, so I’m willing to prepare and act accordingly. I swear by the touring plans in the Unofficial Guide. They’ve gotten us through in the past, including during the most crowded times, and there’s no reason to believe they won’t work again. Put on your walkin’ shoes, mama, ‘cause we’re a’ headin’ out on foot!

Our first order of business was to find a hotel. The range at WDW is pretty wide. There’s the cheap ones, there’s the moderate ones, there’s the fancy expensive ones. The cheap ones, while having the advantage of price, tend to be the most kid-intense, and while the rooms aren’t terribly different from the most expensive, the hotels themselves have pretty much just basic amenities. So they’re okay pricewise, but they’re nothing special and they have a lot of kids running around (which makes a difference especially when you’re packing into a bus at the end of the day to get back to your hotel). On the other end, given how little time one will spend in one’s room, paying a lot just doesn’t make sense to me. Sure, being on the monorail for MK and Epcot is cool, but if you go to DHS or AK you’re back on a bus, so so much for that. The luxury resorts have great restaurants and character dining, but we could easily schlep over for the former if we wanted it, and we didn’t want the latter, so that was no attraction. So while I was telling the DDA folks that they could stay wherever they wanted, I was recommending a moderate hotel, and the one I was recommending was Port Orleans, which I stayed in ages ago and liked quite a bit. As it turned out, everyone else seems to have followed suit, so that’s where we’ll be. The moderate rooms are about what we pay for debate hotel accommodations, so they’re not terrible.

Next up was getting together on arrival. That one wasn’t so hard. The Downtown Disney area (formerly Pleasure Island) has plenty of restaurants and is easily accessible. Paradiso 37 was the one I chose. It looks casual, fancy drinks with fruit in them, tapas and the like. Sounded just about right, and they don’t take reservations, so we wouldn’t have to worry about when exactly to do what. If someone’s plane is late, so be it. Anyhow, that meet-up will kick things off on the Friday night.

Our next area of analysis was the park to start with. There are two schools of thought on this. One school says that MK is the purest Disney experience, so start with that. After all, MK has wall-to-wall E ticket attractions. I understand this philosophy, but I do not support it, especially if you’ve got noobs on the trip, or, for that matter, kids. If you start with MK, you’ve had the ultimate, and everything else, good as it is, sort of pales by comparison. Parks are not seen in the light of what they are themselves, but as compared to MK, and they inevitably are seen as lacking. They don’t have as many E ticket rides, they’re not as overwhelming, they’re not pure Disney, so they can appear second rate. On the other hand, the other parks, if seen in a vacuum, would blow away pretty much anybody. In fact, even comparing the other parks to one another, one would be hard-pressed to say this one is categorically better than that one. After much discussion on this on our trip listserver, we agreed not to start with MK.

My choice of a starter was Animal Kingdom for a couple of reasons. First, it’s an easy park to do in a day, so you’re not starting with a day of terrible exhaustion. After a little running around early in the day to take in the handful of E tix, it’s a mostly a lot of leisurely walking around taking in the animals and occasionally sitting down to watch a show or a movie. In fact, it closes at 5:00, so you couldn’t kill yourself if you wanted to. It’s also a great place to photograph, and an easy one, although for some reason pictures of the Tree of Life never seem to get it right. Whatever. We did have some discussion that O’C would forgo this park in favor of Cinderella’s autograph, but I think he’s gotten over that. After different initial plans, we decided to go for African buffet for dinner at the AK Lodge, which makes great sense after a day looking at lions and tigers and bears, or at least tigers. And Yetis. Might as well go to a restaurant where lions and tigers and bears (and Yetis) are on the menu.

Early to bed that night (sort of) in preparation for a long day coming up.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Animal Kingdom

The last of the major WDW parks to be built was Animal Kingdom. (There are also minor ones like the two water parks, and the virtually extinct Pleasure Island, home of the Adventurers’ Club, which we won’t go into.) For once it seems as if Disney Corp was on its own track, neither banging up against some local competition or reviving/extending some idea from the past, until you remember all the True Life Adventureland programming from the old Disney days, and the fact that the studio pioneered nature programming. The TV show was divided into those 4 categories: Adventureland, Frontierland, Fantasyland and Tomorrowland. I’ve already admitted that Fantasyland was my favorite. Frontierland came in second. This was back at the height of the popularity of Westerns, remember, into which Disney tossed the Davy Crockett mythos, which became one of the first real television fads. If you’ve ever wondered why Westerns were so popular in the 40s and 50s, it might help to recall that the parents of adults in those years were, indeed, the pioneers of history. The so-called Old West wasn’t that long ago from their perspective. So the tales and culture were still fresh, with recent generational spin on them. It wasn’t old history, it was virtually the history of the people watching it. There’s more to the popularity than this, metaphorically and culturally, but that’s not an insignificant part of it.

My third favorite “land” was Tomorrowland, and I did eventually become quite the SF fan as a youth. Unfortunately, if you watch any of those old science shows today, I guarantee you will not be able to stay awake. Many people credit Disney as one of the people who made the space race happen, instilling in the youth of America a desire to explore the moon and Mars and whatnot, and that’s certainly true, but still, you’ll need lots of Red Bull today to get through them. They’re just…stodgy. And dated. Let me tell you, that Wernher von Braun was no Davy Crockett!

And finally there was Adventureland, the 50s version of the Nature Channel, which was my least favorite. Later on as an adult I got into this sort of thing, but as a kid, watching dancing scorpions was a lot less interesting to me than watching dancing hippos. What can I say? When the adventure was somebody Indiana Jonesing through the great unexplored, fine, but when it was True Life? True life was as stodgy as Wernher von Braun. (If you don’t believe me, ask Mrs. von Braun.)

So Disney was a pioneer in nature programming, although they did get a lot of flak over anthropomorphism. Today in this kind of programming you see animals doing whatever animals do; back then, the Disney folk thought you had to make, ta-da, a narrative out of it. Big surprise. In any case, nature is in the Disney DNA, so the idea of a nature park isn’t a stretch at all. Originally the plan was to combine real (extinct and active) and imagined animals in separate lands, but of course that never happened. Animal Kingdom comprises a DinoLand (a take on the roadside Dino park of the Southwest, the sort of thing you’d see on Route 66), an African quarter (with a safari and a walking tour), an Asian quarter (with another walking tour and Expedition Everest, a coaster visit with the Yeti), and some odds and ends, making it, in essence, a Disney zoo (which is a word that they don’t like to use, but let’s call a place with a lot of animals that you walk by and look at in simulated environments what people usually call it). AK is the least popular of the parks with the general public, who see it as a half-day park, because it doesn’t have all the E-ticket attractions of even DHS, but I like it quite a bit. In fact, it’s how I’ll open the Disney Debate Adventure.

As I’ll explain next.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Disney Hollywood Studios

Universal Studios had tours back in the silent cinema days, as we’ve said, and Disney himself had considered a studio tour/park in the 30s. In the 60s Universal brought back its Hollywood tour, no doubt inspired by the success of Disneyland down in Anaheim, and over time it grew to include all sorts of attractions and shows. I was there on my trip to LA with my cousin that I mentioned earlier; there were stunt folks and a tram ride and strolling Frankenstein and Dracula types. There was also a strolling Invisible Man, but I actually didn’t see him.*

After WDW’s great success, Universal next decided to go big time in Orlando, planning on opening Universal Studios Florida, where you could “ride the movies.” Disney Corp, at this point under the leadership of Michael Eisner, didn’t like the looks of that, or so the story goes. Disney-MGM Studio raced to beat Universal to the punch; the former opened in 1989, the latter in 1990. I guess you can say Disney won the race. (There were other theme parks that tried, unsuccessfully, to cash in on WDW’s success, by the way. Not far down the road was a circus park, which failed and was replaced by a baseball park, which also failed. There was Splendid China, and there was also going to be a new age park where people would levitate, and I even vaguely remember a Jesus park. The SeaWorld folks, already in operation elsewhere, opened in Orlando in ‘73, making them one of the earliest and, of course, one of the few successful competitors to WDW other than Universal. Some folks believe that the Seas attraction at Epcot is nothing more than WDW’s water revenge…)

Disney-MGM Studio, obviously a joint venture like so much else under Disney’s park management, combined the classic films of MGM with the classics of Disney (especially featuring animation), plus there was active filmmaking from Disney’s real functioning studios. For that matter, real animation happened there; if I'm not mistaken they were pushing Aladdin one time when I was down there, which I gather was mostly being created there. In other words, there was some real studio work going on there (as there was at Universal, home of Nickelodeon). While Universal went for recreations of various films and some theming, DHS (let’s call it by its present acronym, Disney Hollywood Studios—MGM is out of the picture these days) went for recreating Hollywood in its heyday with full-blown theming. It’s an interesting experiment to walk down the streets of Universal and compare that to walking down the streets of DHS. Every now and then Universal pulls it off, but somehow it seems to lack the thoroughness of the Disney approach. Given that much of Universal was built by WDW grads, one should expect it to come close. Certainly many of the attractions are absolutely top drawer. But what DHS had going for it in the beginning was the glue of MGM, which was a lot sturdier than the glue of Universal. MGM meant Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind (and when Turner bought the library, a combining with Warner to include Casablanca and the old Cagney films). Universal went more for the latest hits, like Jaws and ET. Not bad, but not with the same cultural resonance. Still, both parks are fine, and my preference for DHS is an offshoot of my connection to those old films, a bit of which is lost nowadays without the MGM connection being active. One would be hard-pressed to explain why the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror ought to be in one park rather than the other, or why it would be any different if it were. What DHS does have now to cement its Disneyness, imported from Disneyland, is Fantasmic, which is a nighttime show that puts it all together, with all the Disney characters paraded out in a son et lumiere that simply blows you away.

DHS is in transition as it Pixarizes itself. While there is a little Pixar everywhere in WDW (some might say too much, but I disagree, as this is what kids today are seeing first and loving the most), at DHS it will eventually dominate. I have nothing against DHS, and I like it a lot, but I don’t love it. It’s got some great attractions, though. Star Tours (in Tomorrowland in Disneyland), the vastly entertaining Aerosmith roller coaster, Twilight Zone (which they keep plussing, as Disneyspeak defines improvement), the Sci Fi Diner, the aforementioned Fantasmic. (I haven’t seen Toy Story Midway Mania yet.) All good stuff. A fine park to enjoy, but not one to die for. I wouldn’t mind going during Star Wars Weekends, though, when the place is crawling with cosplay types and armies of stormtroopers and dancing Darths. I mean, that I could love. Especially in the company of O’C, who himself might be in dancing Darth attire. One never knows.

*This is what some people affectionately refer to as a joke.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Epcot

Epcot fit the World’s Fair pattern perfectly. First, it was a collection of pavilions pushing one or another look at science or the future or both, presented by a major corporation. (Those attractions cost money, and Disney has always been big on sharing the expenses, going back to ABC TV investing in Disneyland.) You had Horizons, showing us how we’d live in space, on deserts and underwater in the future (extending the same family as the one in Carousel of Progress). You had the past and future of communications in Spaceship Earth. You had lots of hands-on stuff in Communicorp, you had dinosaurs in Energy, you had whimsy (and 3D) in Kodak, you had modern farming in the Land. Any of these could have been built at any World’s Fair of the day, except that these were permanent, and therefore better. Calling Epcot a permanent World’s Fair, in fact, was pretty common. Matching the futuristic stuff there were exhibits from various countries displaying their wares and their people and their culture, a modern ethnographer’s (and theme park’s) look at countries, a little more sophisticated than savages in a zoo and a little less sophisticated than Michelangelo’s Pieta. With restaurants, of course. The countries that participated did, indeed, like the corporations, front money to Disney for the privilege. Hell, it made me want to go to Norway, so I guess it worked.

Epcot, opening in 1982, closes the connection between Disney and Fairs, connecting back to Disney’s father in 1893, to Disney himself in 64-65, and to all the business of fairs in between. By this time, World’s Fairs were certainly no longer what they used to be, and while they still existed, no one cared much. Epcot was good enough for most people.

Epcot when it opened got the reputation as being the educational park, and a lot of folks avoided it. We took Kate there her first time, in 1984, and she loved it. Unlike some of the scary aspects of MK, Epcot was very bright and friendly and welcoming. No witches lurking behind the rocks, for instance. But for most people, the idea of an educational park was anathema, and over time Epcot has revised itself into more entertainment and less World’s Fair, to its detriment if you ask me. Mission Space has none of the depth and sense of wonder of Horizons. It’s okay, but it doesn’t make you wonder about living in the future, it just makes you think that they’ve taken special effects and done a good job of plunking you into them. There’s a big difference. Still, I enjoy the park, and set aside two days for it. I love roaming the countries, I love the food, I love Illuminations (the nightly extravaganza). The attractions are all fine, but as I say, more theme park than World’s Fair, which in my opinion is the wrong direction, but what are you going to do? It is what it is. And one thing it isn’t is what Walt himself had envisioned. From this point on, WDW was a machine that ran on its own, separate from its namesake. At its best, it reflects that namesake. At its worst, it’s just another ride. Those of us who go back a ways love it at its best and make the best of it at its worst. We are going, I think, through a good period, with a lot of promising new stuff coming up. Time will tell.

Which leaves us two other parks.

Monday, May 03, 2010

Theme Parks

Some sources do not distinguish much between amusement parks and theme parks, but we will. A theme park is more than just rides and amusements: it is an immersion of visitors into a narrative. While one would like to officially credit Walt Disney with the idea of narrative immersion, to do so would be to ignore little parks like “Santa’s Workshop,” which predated Disneyland (and which was not the first of the Santa parks, but was the only one I ever visited; I was in kneepants at the time). In other words, the idea of creating amusement villages was not completely new.

But the scope of Disneyland, combined with some other things, allows it to take pride of place as the real original that it is. Take away names and descriptors, and it unquestionably stood alone. Disney brought to its design a corporation with a backlog of narrative and the skills to work that narrative into three dimensions, both in attractions and ambience. If any proof that what he was doing was different, think about Sleeping Beauty’s castle. It was pure theme. There was no ride there, no nothing. It was simply decorative, setting the tone of Fantasyland (and, of course, the whole park). In 1955 you didn’t spend money on something in a park that served no useful purpose, but of course, the castle did serve a useful purpose; it just happened to be a new purpose unlike a ferris wheel or a tilt-a-whirl.

The narratives of Disneyland were pretty broad. History, adventure, fantasy, the future, plus an old-timey main street. You could fit a lot of storytelling into those categories. And they did (and still do). Disneyland was of limited space, but if you walk through it now it seems as if there’s something every inch of it, and none of it is wasted. But it was limited, and that’s why WDW came into existence. WDW would solve the problem of space presumably forever. The territory that the Disney corporation bought in Florida was about the size of San Francisco; given that California is able to put all of San Francisco into San Francisco, it is reasonable to assume that this is more than enough space for the Disney folks. And so far this has proven true. They have plenty of room for a lot of parks and a lot of hotels and resort functions. It’s hard to imagine that they would need much more space because even the hardiest WDW fan would eventually run out of either time or interest.

Walt’s plan for Florida was more than just a version of Disneyland in Florida. As we said, he was a dedicated futurist, and his vision included a city (Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow) where all the people who worked at the park would live. The idea is that you have some large industry (in this case a theme park) serviced by a city, all of it planned. With that city, you solve all the problems of city life. You eliminate slums, unemployment, eyesores, traffic jams. You provide well-thought-out living spaces surrounded by greenery, with easy (perhaps underground transit) access to shopping and entertainments and churches and schools. Cars do not interrupt the life of the community. Everyone is happy as a clam in a modernist science fiction environment, and all they need is futuristic science fiction pajamas to finish it off.

This vision of the future, which we saw promoted by the world’s fairs, was not uncommon in the first half of the Twentieth Century. The cities designed by, say, Le Corbusier were not unlike this. The sterility of this vision did not deter anyone, and that sterility was, in fact, one of its great appeals. But in the real world of cities and city planning, sterility (as opposed to cleanliness) doesn’t work. The prosperity of cities is affected through its mishmash of services and offices and apartments and whatnot, the organic growth and decline and rebirth, the rhythm of neighborhoods. Most people don’t want to live on the set of a sci-fi movie. They want to live within walking distance of a decent Chinese restaurant, maybe a park, a newspaper stand and a sidewalk cafĂ© to watch everybody else.

Promoting his vision of EPCOT was one of the last things Walt Disney did before he died in 1966. See for yourself here. Would this have worked? Hard to say, but probably not. The Disney machine was, as this video (which includes the one above, if you’ve got the time) points out, pretty good at planning large spaces successfully and moving lots of people through them. But a city to live in? A popular idea for a long time that was probably on the way out. Or, maybe the promise of a new age that someone else will have to take on someday hence. Whichever, after Disney died, although the building of Disney World (later Walt Disney World) continued under the leadership of Walt’s brother Roy, the EPCOT idea was put aside and, ultimately, discarded.

But at Disney, nothing is ever truly discarded. Ideas and materials may lie in attics for decades, but then someone remembers them and revitalizes them, maybe as originally intended or maybe as something totally new. The Disney Corp, after WDW was a reality, wanted to move forward, and so they reimagined EPCOT as another theme park. And gave us the Epcot (without the capital letters) that we know today. Curiously enough, this new theme park was, for all intents and purposes, a World’s Fair. Which shouldn’t be surprising at all.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Amusement parks

Distilling the history of amusement parks as separate from World’s Fairs is a bit dishonest in a way, because they have similar roots. So let’s establish one essential difference (although there are many differences): amusement parks were permanent, or perennial. World’s Fairs were one-time events.

Still, the roots of both are trade fairs and farm fairs and whatnot, going back centuries. One way or the other, people like to get together, and they like to have fun. They like to be amused, in other words. In the 19th Century, we finally have amusements that go beyond performances from singers and players. Now we have the technology to build physical amusements, like carousels and railroads. We start seeing parks permanently set aside for such amusements. Tivoli, in Copenhagen, opened in the 1840s. The Prater in Vienna precedes that by a hundred years or so (but as a place of amusement, not yet a place with amusements, as it became). We commoners love to be amused!

It is what are called trolley parks that started the amusement park business in the US. In the late 18th Century, newfangled trolley companies were jumping during the week, but were pretty quiet on weekends when no one needed them to get to work. So the trolley companies started building amusement areas at the end of the line outside of town, and people would go out to those areas on the trolleys, and there you go, the idle-trolley problem solved. (It is unclear how many fat guys were thrown off the bridges to stop the trolleys, if those of you who debated Sept-Oct of '08 were wondering.) The idea caught on, and others aside from transportation companies started to realize that if you could find cheap land at the end of the line somewhere, people might come for amusements. Coney Island, therefore, was a natural place for amusement parks to spring up, because people had been going there for years just for the beach. Throw in railway traffic, and eventually a number of parks opened (the original of what we think of as Coney Island was a number of parks, not just one big one). Milton Hershey built a park for his employees near his chocolate factory, which he later opened to the general public. Next door to my home town, Port Chester, we have Rye Playland, a beach area that was already popular when it was turned into a bona fide amusement park in 1928. The early part of the previous century was the golden age of amusement parks, as the growing middle class came into its own. Add to this that the parks were relatively cheap entertainment, they remained popular during the Depression into the war years.

Amusement parks didn’t hold up that well after WWII. Maybe people had other things on their mind: adults were busy doing what was necessary to make the Baby Boom happen, and maybe the move to suburbia was a factor, or maybe the operators’ money was running out, but there wasn’t much movement anymore in terms of development and in some cases upkeep. There certainly weren’t many new ideas. Maybe the amusement parks just became old hat. Now you could go see movies in 3D, in glorious Technicolor, breathtaking Cinemascope and Stereophonic Sound (thank you, Cole Porter). You could watch television. Sure, you’d take the tots to kiddyland, but the bloom was off the rose. This was what Disney was saying when he spoke the myth of going with his two daughters to an amusement park and being bored. The parks weren’t relevant anymore.

Disney changed that by inventing the theme park. (We’ll go into detail on what that means, distinct from amusement parks, next time.)

The success of the Disney enterprises did not go unnoticed by others. Not only were there theme parks emulating Disney’s success in their own way, there was also a rebirth of amusement parks, mostly revolving around thrill rides. This may be connected to the rise of the group known as teenagers, which didn’t exist as a cultural force before WWII, with their own transportation and disposable income and the ability to ride rides that would turn adults into pea soup. (Ultimately this spurt of new or improved parks evolved into coaster wars: the highest, the fastest, the meanest.) Plus there was the runoff from the more tony enterprises. You couldn’t go to Disney World without getting on a plane and staying for days, but you could go to AroundTheCornerWorld easily because it was, well, around the corner and it claimed to be a theme park. It wasn’t, but it was close enough on an off day if you did enough squinting.

Recently amusement parks have hit some hard times, thanks to the recession, but that’s probably just temporary. After all, the theme parks were also hit, and no one is predicting that WDW will go out of business. I sort of think that we’ll see less on that coaster war front: you can just go so fast or so high and it isn’t fun anymore, even if you’re a total masochist. But I could be wrong at that. As a fan of wooden coasters, I’m looking for something else anyhow.

So amusement parks go on, and Worlds Fairs go on, and theme parks go on. So where was Disney in all of this after Disneyland opened in 1955?

Saturday, May 01, 2010

New York Fairs

I have seen the future. Or at least that’s what the buttons said after you rode Futurama, the General Motors ride at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. The famous quote it echoes is, “I have seen the future and it works,” Lincoln Steffens’s comment on the new Communist Russian state. Well, maybe not, in Steffens’s case.

But the 1939 Fair was indeed the future, and it did work. There’s a variety of reasons why this fair stands out in the collective cultural mind more than many others. It was New York, it lasted two seasons, it was 1939 (and Poland and Czechoslovakia did not return in 1940), it just happened to hit the zeitgeist the right way. Whatever. By now Fairs looked not only at the past and present but at the future, and one of the most popular attractions was Futurama. Check it out:



And compare Democracity, the exhibit inside the Perisphere.

Makes you want to live in 1960, doesn’t it? Futurama and Democracity offered a great dream of these wondrous cities with great transportation, all coming real soon now. The narrators of the day were full of confidence; you might even say that their unshakeable belief in what they were promising was their distinguishing characteristic. They didn’t sound like people, they sounded like the voice of God. And the point is, if you think about it, this promised future actually happened! By the 60s almost everybody did have a car. There were interstate highways. Airports were right outside the main cities. There were suburbs.

( Note that these future cities are very much of a piece with Disney’s own future city, EPCOT. You could easily say, in fact, that Walt’s vision in the 60s was nothing more than this vision updated. Add to this the mechanics of Futurama: the ride was a set of continuous seats that moved across the panorama. Is this starting to seem familiar?)

In the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair, the one that I hung out at, we were treated to the fulfillment of the 1939 Fair. Much of this fair simply proved that the earlier fair had gotten things right. That was '64's glory and its tragedy. While 1939 made all sorts of promises for the future, 1964, while demonstrating how ‘39’s future had arrived, didn’t get much right about our future thenceforth, or for that matter even have all that much to say that was new about out our future thenceforth. Not to detract from it, because it had a lot to offer in terms of entertainment and culture, but what it didn’t have was God promising a future that actually happened. We are not living on nuclear fusion power. We do not use machines that eat rain forests on one end and spit out six-lane highways on the other. We don’t call each other on videophones; well, all right, we sort of do, but not really, because mostly we text. At the point where 1964 did not predict the personal computer, it absolutely failed to predict our true reality. 1964 was 25 years after 1939, and 1939 got it mostly right. 1989 was 25 years after 1964, and almost everything had been gotten wrong. Futurology ain’t what it used to be.

Some other side notes. The site of '39 and '64 was the same; before it was a fair site, it was that valley of ashes in The Great Gatsby. The '39 Trylon and Perisphere symbols were torn down; the '64 Unisphere still stands (and is copied in Columbus Circle). Both parks had separate amusement park areas; I admit to never once visiting the '64 amusement area because it couldn’t hold a candle to fair stuff. Both parks had Robert Moses, whose great final goal was to turn Manhattan into a road and eliminate all that pesky city stuff that was already there, replaced with new modern buildings that separated all the parts of our lives into work areas and play areas and living areas, much as Futurama and EPCOT described. This never happened, which is good, because it’s a terrible idea. And, of course, as we stated earlier, '64 was the launching pad for much of what followed in what we could call phase 2 of the Disney theme park era.

There have been plenty of other fairs. This year there’s one in Shanghai, China’s first. Nowadays fairs tend to be dedicated to a theme, like living with the sea or some other ecological or social goal, and are wonderful showcases for architectural follies. Plus, countries show off, as they have always done. If you want to see Copenhagen’s Little Mermaid statue this year, for instance, you’ll have to go to Shanghai. At Hannover in 2000 we saw Lucy the hominid (first time out of Tanzania, I think), among other things. Speaking of which, the '64 fair had a moving sidewalk past Michelangelo’s Pieta; they didn’t want you standing there staring at it blocking others, although when I recently saw it in the Vatican, it was just another statue in St. Peter’s and there was no gawking crowd (but I will admit it is worth the gawk). But despite fairs continuing, they don’t carry the weight they used to. We don’t expect them to limn the future, plus the world has shrunk to easy manageability both physically and via communications, and not only can I get to China in less than a day, I can communicate with China in a nanosecond (and vice versa, if they’re not blocking the internet). So the age of the great fairs is over, although they still go on, explaining how problems might be solved and building sewers and subways in outlying suburbs and selling that newly developed area to international corporations in one way or another after the fair closes. It’s not the same, but nothing is.

We have seen the future, but the future isn’t what it used to be. Our expectation now is change at light speed, unpredictable and totally paradigm-shifting. We don’t bother to predict changes, because they happen faster than we can predict them. We just live through them. I’ll still go to fairs when I can (I’ve got my eye on Milan in 2015), but it won’t be the same as a teenager taking the F train out to Flushing in 1964 to confront the future head on. I can do that at home. So can—and does—everyone else in the world.