Thursday, May 23, 2013

Imagine Dragons

I admit it.  I’m stubborn.  I’m older than my years let on.  I can be a curmudgeon.  A fuddy-duddy.  I fancy myself an artist and therefore often find I turn my nose at those I perceive to fancy themselves artists in this hipster generation. 
And for that reason, I will admit that when I first saw there was a band called Imagine Dragons, I immediately rejected them and whatever they stood for.  How dare they choose a name I would have otherwise thought cool if not taken by some hipster, emo band of alt-rock minstrels posing as the next big thing?  Okay, maybe that’s a bit much.  In truth my reaction was more like:
“Imagine Dragons?  Um, already do.  All day.  Every day.  Gets me in trouble.  So no thanks VHI Artists I oughtta know.” 
It takes a real man to admit when he was wrong. I can’t speak to the rest of the album, but yes, I am officially in love with their anthem, “It’s Time.”  Go ahead, press play now . . . 

Yeah that’s right, I said anthem.  It’s mine now, that’s for certain.  For whatever reason something compelled me to download it today, and while driving listen to it over and over.  Every line, every stanza resonated through me.  I get it.  At least I get what I’m supposed to get.  It brought me to my emotional knees.  I got misty-eyed.  This guy is me.  He’s talking about what I’m doing right now.  He’s singing about the journey so far . . .   
Many of you know the road I’m on these days.  A few years ago I was laid off from a dead-end, soul-crushing corporate job; my third layoff in five years.  This time with a young child and another (and soon to be another) on the way.  I was scared, angry, the usual.  But that time I was something else.  I was resolved. 

“So this is what you meant when you said that you were spent.”

My dream since I was a kid was to be a storyteller.  I saw when I said or did something funny, or when I wrote out a little story or drew a picture, people laughed and smiled.  My biggest inspiration growing up  was Walt Disney and the Disney Company.  I decided then that I had tried to play the game the way we’re told we’re supposed to, and look where it got me.  Especially in this economy, there’s no security and there’s certainly no loyalty.  And I’d turned my back on my dreams for this?   

“And now it’s time to build from the bottom of the pit right to the top.  Don’t hold back!"
I declared that I would no longer do things the way I had before.  It was going to be a year of doing things different.  After all, following the established patterns had only led right back to the public dole.  Certainly no commendations, no reward.  Yes, I would find a job to make sure I was contributing, keeping the family fed and sheltered.  There were thoughts of going back to school, but I just knew there were stronger and stranger forces at play.  It was like something was saying the door is open.  First, I needed a test.  I published a little novel I’d written when my son was born, and low & behold, it actually sold a couple copies.  More importantly I got some of the most touching feedback, especially from parents of kids who’d read it.  One even took it to school and did a presentation about it.  That it made any money didn’t matter.  It was that feeling.  That fulfillment that I wanted, that fuels me.  I’ve got a virtual drawer full of follow-ups to that one still awaiting some final polish, holes filled, etc.  But I knew to soar I first needed to unchain my wings. 

“Packing my bags and giving the academy a rain check.”

Twain said “Write what you know.”  What I know, to some degree or another is Disney, specifically Walt Disney World.  I’m not one of those who gets lost in the minutia (to me at least) of who designed what, how many bricks are in this walkway, what year this opened and that closed.  It’s not my thing.  All I know is how much I love it all, how it refuels my creative cells every time, and plasters a rictus grin to my face the entire time I’m there, even when I’m exhausted and my feet are throbbing.  I also know the reactions I get from people when they find out me, all 6 ft, buh-buh-buh-hundred lb. man of me, loves Walt Disney World.  There it was.  The seed of creation.  The spark of inspiration.  A book about Walt Disney World for men. 
Seemed like a great idea.  I ran it by a trusted mentor, one I might mention already in the writing about Disney game who could have very easily said “scram kid, we don’t need another one around here.”  Instead he said it was indeed a great idea, and told me to lean in and charge, rather than retreat.  That was the boost I needed. 

“It’s time to begin, isn’t it?”

Of course I still had to run it by my wife.  Hey honey, I’m going to take a week and spend a chunk of money to fly Walt Disney World by myself to research a book I want to write completely on spec.  How could that go wrong, right? 

“This road never looked so lonely.  This house doesn’t burn down slowly.”

Where we come from, our backgrounds, our environment, people don’t write books.  They also don’t make movies or television, or write and record music.  Around here, those are things that happen elsewhere.  At least that’s the popular thinking that was drilled into our young heads.  So it wasn’t immediate, but she came around to it.  She didn’t understand it, but she got it.  Years ago she had a passion and wanted to start a business, and she did, and has been very successful.  She saw this was my turn.  Writing is my passion, and this book was a real dream.  It’s hard to explain to someone that being a writer is your business, but she did see it was a chance to focus this geeky obsession of mine into a product.  This was something I not only wanted to do, but it made sense.  It was something I had to do.  So it wasn’t much longer beforel I was on a plane before the sun came up, on my way to Florida with a full backpack, but also so much more riding on my back. 
                          “I don’t ever want to let you down.”

And now here we are, not even two years later, and that book Ears of Steel: The Real Man’s Guide to Walt Disney World is officially available for pre-sale on Amazon.  And will be on store shelves in the fall.  Is my next hope that it will be the greatest selling humorous travel guide of all time?  Well, of course it is! 

“So this is where you fell, and I am left to sell.”

The truth is I do hope many people read my book.  And yes, I’d prefer you buy it to stealing it, but we address that in an early chapter.  Either way, just read it.  Yes it’s a travel book.  But I promise it’s not what you expect.  Those are made by real writers.  People who paid attention in English class and understand the mechanics of the craft.  I’m not really a good writer.  I’m a storyteller.  Even when writing non-fiction.  My book is a little bit travel-narrative, a little bit guide book, and a handful of deranged tangents and flights of fancy.  The publisher has of course attempted to tame it a bit, still I don’t expect would-be travelers to read it with a highlighter or a notepad, carefully mapping out their next vacation.  If they do they’ll be lost.  It’s just fun, whatever your reason for reading it.  And it’s to get you to go.  It will hopefully answer the question of those who don’t get why so many guys like me do love Walt Disney World.  Listen I don’t make a dime from Disney for telling people to go there (yet. . snootch!) but I want people to go anyway.  I’m still that kid who wants to bring laughter and joy to people, sometimes just by pointing them in the right direction.  I’m doing just that.    

“Turn in the rags and giving the commodities a rain check.”

Now that it’s almost ready for release, I will slowly get back to those other novels along with some other more fantastic ideas.  I can’t leave my own dragons alone for too long.  And yes, I’ve got a couple.  And we're still only halfway through the journey of this book.  But after nearly two years of working and sweating over it, I feel like (if you'll forgive the non-Disney reference) the white dragon in Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows when he finally broke free of his prison in the goblin bank in that great moment where he perched atop the building overlooking London and just let out a sigh of relief, as if to say "I made it."  Yes, there will be more books in the Ears of Steel brand too.  If it does well there will be a research trip west very soon, and to sea, and to who knows where (can you say “Aloha, Mr. Hand?”)  Beyond that, the sky is quite literally the limit.  I’ve got plans that stretch far beyond the page, paper or digital. 
I’m not stopping now.  Forty isn’t so far away, and my Twenties are long gone.  If not now, when?  If not me, who?  I won’t be constrained by the thinking that greatness is only for others.  That magic is only made by the established magicians.  That the best one can hope for is a healthy 401K at the end of the rainbow, and maybe 10 healthy years left to enjoy it.  Quite honestly, I owe it to my kids to show them they really can do anything they want.  Nobody instilled that in me, so it took me longer and with a lot of stumbles and falls to find it out for myself. 

“The path to Heaven runs through miles of clouded hell, right to the top.  Don’t look back!”

So now again, on my knees and near tears I say to that band I once dismissed, thank you for reminding me.  Thanks for telling my story, as I imagine it is the story of many, many others. 

“I’m never changing who I am.”  Never again.

Imagine Dragons?  I am one.  Watch me fly.  Better yet, break your own chains.  Spread those beautiful wings and soar alongside me.  It’s our time.  It’s our world.

It's time to begin.  Isn’t it?  

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

A Disturbance In the Force (or is it just them knocking down the parade float building???)

Came across a rumor today buried in one website that hyperlinked (warp speed) to another site that, while a mess of information overload, had some interesting things to say about "Star Wars Land" coming to Disney's Hollywood Studios.

I'm going to cherry pick the important parts to make it easier on those with ADD!  I won't really venture any guesses as I don't know the backstage geography of Hollywood Studios (can you believe a Disney blogger admitting he doesn't know something?!?!)  I have however been saying since the day the Lucasfilm purchase was announced that a Star Wars land at DHS had to be imminent.  Don't know how realiable this site is or their sources, but it certainly sounds feasible enough.  Read and see for yourself.  Feel free to comment, especially any Cast Members out there reading this.  I won't tell . . .

From . . .

>> (3/18/13) Screamscape sources tell us that Disney management informed the Entertainment CMs at the Studios that Pixar’s Countdown to Fun Parade hold final performances on April 6th. While a date was not announced, the insiders also claim that the Disney Channel Rocks show will also soon come to an end as well.
    Nothing was announced to replace them, however… there is an odd rumor claiming that the parade float buildings may also be on the chopping block as the park looks to possibly expand with a new project.

With Disney’s Hollywood Studios being the center of the Star Wars Fan Universe for about a month each and every year during the annual Star Wars Weekends events, it would only make sense if Disney were to try and expand their Star Wars themed offerings, wouldn’t you think?  The problem as always been space… as the Studios park was not really designed with huge expansion capability in mind, beyond Sunset Blvd, and really was pigeonholed into a corner by nature of its location between World Drive and Buena Vista Drive. The oddly placed parking toll road to the south and a really strange parking lot layout intended to serve both a portion of the Cast Members and Guests as well was just the icing on the cake.
    Without expansion being options being mostly off the table, the only way to expand the Star Wars offerings of the Studios would really seem to be to start making some dramatic changes inside the park’s boundaries. MuppetVision and the themed New York streets are located just behind Star Tours and to the right side of Star Tours, while to the left side is the large Backlot Express restaurant and then the Indiana Jones Show area. So it is pretty landlocked unless Disney is willing to star removing something to make room.
    In today’s news entry up above regarding the closure of the park’s big parade, there is also a rumor that the Parade Float building may also be removed to make room for a new future project. The parade building in question is located, I believe, essentially right behind the Backlot Express restaurant. This is only an ‘IF’ right now, but IF they were to remove the Backlot Express and clear out the property all the way from there back to the Parade Float building, that would open up a fairly large space where they could possibly build a new Star Wars themed mini-land that could include the often rumored Star Wars Cantina restaurant project proposed for Paris.
    There are no rock solid rumors on this yet, but with the Walt Disney World parks blocked from ever putting the Marvel characters to use, it would only make sense that the Studios try to take as much advantage of the Star Wars franchise as they can. And who knows… if they really have some big ideas for a major new attraction as well, there is always a ton of extra space they could work with if they closed down the Indiana Jones stunt show as well.  <<

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Mickey is my Gretzky.

It’s a common frustration for most adult Disney fans.  I experienced it more before I had kids but I still get it quite a bit.  Those raised brows, that slack-jawed grin that says “is this guy for real?”  You know what I’m talking about.  The reaction from normies when you tell them you love Disney.  When they find out how much you love Disney parks, movies, animation, you name it.  It’s as if the law states you must abandon your love of the mouse by the age of 14. 
Well, guess what?  I did, sort of, more around the age of 17.  Life got in the way.  But you know what else happened?  Life began to suck.  I reclaimed the mantle of the mouse ten years later, and it was as if a bright light flooded the darkness – illuminating every corner it touched. 
Okay, yes, that’s a drastic overstatement.  Well . . . perhaps not so drastic.  In the past I’ve thought about writing some kind of manifesto, some justification, a simple explanation as to why as a grown man, a husband, father, working stiff, homeowner, taxpayer, I am so attached to such a “childish thing.”  I’ve ultimately come to the same conclusion of course.  I don’t need to explain myself.  It makes me happy and doesn’t hurt anyone.  More to the point, if you don’t get it, I can’t explain it.  And the real question isn’t why do I love it?  The quandary is why don’t you??!
But if I had to put it into words, to define why I feel so strongly about Disney and the entire legacy of Walter Elias Disney, I’ve finally managed to boil it down to four simple words.
Mickey is my Gretzky. 
You’re saying “what?!?”  That’s right.  Mickey is my Gretzky.  What does he mean?  What is the connection?  Wayne never played for the The Mighty Ducks, did he?  No, of course not.  In fact, to explain I have to take you to the other side of the country, to New Jersey.  You see while Walt is my leader, my role model, and my inspiration, I have another hero in form of a man.  A writer/filmmaker/comedian/icon of geek-culture by the name of Kevin Smith. 
OMG!  Are you really going to write about me in your little blog?!?
Six years ago Kev started a podcast, or more appropriately a SModcast of which I became an immediate fan.  Kevin is always honest, often over-sharing about the ups and downs of his own life, professionally and personally.  A few years ago, he made what I will publicly declare was not only one of his best, funniest flicks, but one of the funniest comedies of the last decade.  Unfortunately, the promotion and marketing was grossly mishandled, the movie was released on a historically terrible weekend, and it was basically buried.  Kev slipped into a funk and sought refuge alone in his office, watching DVD’s and, um, discovering a gift from the Earth that many assumed was already a habitual part of his life, due to characters like Bluntman & Chronic! 
What he rediscovered in this blue period, or should I say “green” was his love for the game of hockey.  Specifically, the inspiration and grace from one Wayne Gretzky.  Kevin recounted a story told by Wayne’s father of when ‘the great one” was but a young one; he came home one night and told his dad the sad tale of a struggling player on his team.  “This boy has never scored a single goal all season,” Wayne explained, “so tomorrow, we’re all going to help him score a goal.” 
Such a selfless observation and determination in such a young man was awe-inspiring.  Almost like a religious awakening for Kevin.  And myself.  The story goes that the next day, with the help of the future NHL leader in assists, that kid scored twice! 
Smith turned a corner.  He would reinvent his career, doing things not the way Hollywood would suggest, but in the way he felt Wayne would.  As Walter Gretzky taught his boy, you can’t go where the puck has been; you have to be where the puck is going!  It would inform Kevin’s actions, his decisions, and even his wardrobe.  Many familiar with Kevin, as he’s been on television a lot more lately, know his daily uniform consists of jean-shorts and a billowy blue and orange hockey jersey, reminiscent of the Edmonton Oilers emblazoned with any one of his company logos (in a short time Kev has built many.)  What you may not know is what he wears underneath.
Yeah, if you're wondering . . . that's really Wayne's stick!  
In that time of reinvention, Kev was inspired by an idea.  He would carry Gretzky on his back (and front) at all times.  He found a vintage blue Gretzky tee and began wearing it every day under his jersey.  As recycling one t-shirt can get dicey, especially for us men of stature & girth, Smith ordered a number of them.  Every day Kevin Smith was sporting Gretzky, whether you could see it or not.  And that is the same time period where his entire career turned around.  He made a career changing & defining film called Red State.  His Podcast Empire exploded.  He suddenly found he couldn’t stay off television, including two shows he would produce and star in, AMC’s Comic Book Men and Hulu’s Spoilers (with rumored more to come.)   
As should be the way, one man’s inspiration in-turn inspires another.  One man’s own redefining helps another re-define himself.  As this was all happening, I found myself in a professional rut.  Working a soul-sucking job in a bank, with a dream of writing one day but no real plan.  Not even sure what I meant by “writing.”  Then I got canned.  I found myself with one young child and another on the way.  Talk about panic mode.  Being a survivor, I acted fast and found a new job quickly which actually paid the same for less responsibility and better hours, which is always a plus.  Being fired for someone else’s mistake was a blessing in disguise.  But this wasn’t the door being opened I’d been praying for.  It was time to really pursue my dreams.  They were not going to come to me, as I’d previously hoped. I knew I had to do things differently.  Almost like the “summer of George” I had to do everything differently than I normally would have the previous 35 years of my life.  I declared 2012 “The Year of Doing Things Different.”  
I had been greatly inspired by Kev’s Gretzky shirts.  And I do like the hockey.  That just wasn’t going to work for me.  What did inspire me?  In what did I believe there was true magic?  Who was my Gretzky?  What artist took a dream and a little idea, in fact, mouse-sized, and grew it into an empire?  Or should I say, a Kingdom? 
Of course!
I pulled out the handful of Mickey shirts I already owned and went online and ordered a bunch of Mickey Mouse t-shirts from the Disney Store.  Everyday, I would never leave the house without carrying Mickey with (and on) me somewhere.  To this day it is the case.  Whether you can see it or not.   
Photo: Hulk?  What Hulk?
Why yes, I am wearing something Mickey.  Wanna guess where?
Be it a shirt, or even a sock under another sock (yeah I’m crazy like that) I am sporting the mouse somewhere on my personal, physical being.  I like to think I'm somehow drawing in that creative inspiration, that magic, that symbol of the American dream achieved.  Maybe even enjoying a bit of protection, like a spirit animal totem.  Am I now a successful filmmaker?  Will my new television series be premiering this season?  No.  However, I did self-publish a small little book that, while didn’t enable me to quit my day job, seemed to touch a lot of folks who read it.  I’ve received so many kind, touching emails and messages about it.  While it was far from perfect, if certainly gave me the confidence to keep moving forward.  Now my first published book, the one I dreamed of writing years before while sitting at my desk in the bank will be on shelves across the country (and God knows where else) this fall. 
Plus I’ve suddenly had paying freelance jobs dropped in my lap.  Other collaborations have begun to materialize.  And I’m always looking for more (hint hint!)  You send me a job, I will tackle it with gusto.  I’ve found some of these writing assignments the most stressful work I’ve ever done, and yet the most fun and most fulfilling.  Even that “stress” feels amazing.  I thrive on it!  Those are the moments I’m doing what I was born to do.  When my publisher says “we should think about changing this or rewording that” I don’t argue – I say great!  A challenge!  More time to write, and write about what I love.  
And the blue sky picture in my mind is so vast and wide, I’m not even ready to speak it.  I’m fleshing out characters, building stories, dreaming big dreams.  Will I, like Walt, build an empire?  I don’t know.  I recently sat at an airport bar (in Orlando of course) due to a delay and after striking up a conversation with a fellow traveler, I said “nobody ever got rich writing travel books.” 
She looked at me with a straight face and retorted:  “What about Rick Steves?”
See that island?  I just bought it!  
As Kevin would say, hoisted by my own petard!  While I’ve got much bigger plans than simply travel books, it is fair to say anything is possible.  And so I press on, skating with all my might (even when it feels uphill) to get to where that puck is going.  Always with the mouse very close to my heart.  Literally.   

Mickey is my Gretzky.   

So I guess the take-away from all this is . .. who is your Gretzky?  Who inspires you enough you'd strap them to your back (figuratively speaking please) for that added rocket boost?  Think about it. 

Oh . . . and Kevin is my Jari Kurri!  Check out this video of him moderating the D23 20th Anniversary of The Rocketeer event in Hollywood!   

. . .

See those sheep.  I just bought 'em!

Friday, January 25, 2013

Ain't casting stones, but how 'bout casting a little grattitude!

Author’s Note:  Hello friends . . . while I know I don’t need to do this, and some would say I shouldn’t, I feel the need to give a quick disclaimer.  This post has nothing to do with religion nor is it a criticism or indictment of any one group or organizations religious beliefs.  Here at NADFB we adhere to a strict “no politics / no religion” policy.  It is simply a criticism of another media/themed entertainment company’s perceived lack of professional etiquette.  Now, if you’ll please bow your heads with me . . .”
          There seems to be a lot of debate among Disney-themed podcasters and bloggers (and authors & publishers it turns out . . . ahem) about how much one should criticize the Disney Company.  Some of them will come out all guns a blazin’ blowing holes in anything Disney does that clashes with their own personal preferences.  Others dare not ever speak a critical word toward the mouse or the actions of thereof.
Personally, I tend to take the middle road, although I like to belief I’m much closer to the prudent than the loudmouthed fanboys who decry everything (my favorites being the ones who claim NOT to be fanboys as they clearly don’t understand the definition.)  However from time to time, I will give an honest, although respectful opinion even if it’s not in favor of the current directions.  More often than not, my philosophy is “trust Imagineering.”  And to that end, trust Disney management.  Are they perfect?  No, but they’ve certainly been right far more than they’ve been wrong.
When I am critical at all, it’s usually in the company of like-minded Disney lovers.  I will rarely speak any “ill” in the company of non-believers.  Nor will I accept any anti-mouse chatter from them.  It’s like the old saying “I can say whatever I want about my family, but you better not dare.” 
I am very protective of my beloved Disney.  I know, that’s cute.  They don’t know I exist.  They’re a bazillion dollar corporation (yeah, that’s right... bazillion) and I’m protective of them.  But it’s true, none-the-less.  I won’t suffer any smack talk, especially from someone clearly ignorant about that which they speak.  That’s also why I tend to get riled up when I see what I interpret as disrespect of “my” company. 
This is why I found myself getting really irritated by something seemingly small late last night.  I was flipping channels and I saw on the guide something called “Night of Joy 2012” on TBN.  TBN is The Trinity Broadcasting Network, an evangelical basic cable channel.  Night of Joy, as most Walt Disney World fans know is a huge contemporary Christian music festival held in the Magic Kingdom each year.  It’s hard for some to imagine what with all the potty words I use, but there was time I was deeply ensconced (note to self: look up the word “ensconced” before posting) in the world of Christian music.  I must confess I didn’t know a single name in the line-up listed on the cable guide but I made a stop on the channel anyway.  After all, anything featuring the Magic Kingdom or Walt Disney World automatically gains my attention.  

But there’s the rub!  I said “featuring” Magic Kingdom.  Boy oh boy, was I wrong.  While the bands were performing on the castle stage right in front of the unmistakable, universally recognizable Cinderella Castle of the Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World, if you closed your eyes (or I suppose are blind) you’d never know that’s where it was taking place.  See between performances they had two “personalities” discussing the acts with far more enthusiasm than necessary, one of who seemed like he was doing an impression of Cam from Modern Family.  In fact, I thought he actually was Eric Stonestreet in character, right down to his flamboyant shirt (what I’m saying his shirt wasn’t the only thing that was flamboyant!)  

Eric "Cam" Stonestreet
TBN's Nick Kroger         
           The more I watched and listened to these two excitedly regurgitate what was on the prompters in front of them, the more something became glaringly clear.  They never once said where they were.  Now the experienced eye would see right away they were on the Tomorrowland Terrace, the same patio area one can rent out for a Wishes fireworks dessert party.
They kept repeating “you have to come down here next year to see this show!”  “Talk to your family, talk to your church, bring your youth group here next year.” 
I know this may sound like the ranting of a Disney-obsessed lunatic.  Well . . . guilty as charged, but I’m telling you now it seemed so apparent that they were going out of their way NOT to say they were in Walt Disney World that it actually started to make me angry.  Perhaps I am a little oversensitive.  After all, I was raised in an Evangelical environment at a time when many prominent church leaders were commanding their flocks to “boycott Disney for their glorification of dragons, witches, black magic, and demons.”  And now they’re hosting a nationally recognized Christian music festival, allowing some miniscule satellite network with a clear agenda to come into the parks and broadcast, and these ingrates can’t even utter the name of the park?!? 
Then it dawned on me.  TBN, the same organization that gave the world Jim & Tammy Faye Bakker, is not just a global media outreach, it is also the newest owner of rival theme park (I use the term loosely) in Orlando, The Holy Land Experience.  I’m not ripping the Holy Land, in fact I think in theory it’s a great idea and done right could have been a huge success.  But calling it a rival to Disney is like calling a chipmunk the rival of the mastodon.  So when that mastodon raises its tusks and lets you in to grab a few acorns, be appreciative.  

"Where do we get Fast Passes for The Garden of Gethsemane?"
Do I still sound crazy, and a bit Disney-paranoid?  Well explain why the only time the words “Walt Disney World” came into play in any moment of the program that I saw, the tape literally sped up as the end titles said “from Walt Disney World” so that it only hovered on screen for a split-second before vanishing once again.  Even the logo for the concert, which was the neck of guitar, the top of which was shaped to resemble the castle came across the screen in the blink of an eye.  As soon as it was gone, the TBN logo appeared where it stayed, stagnant on screen for what seemed an eternity.  One could not only read it, you could crawl out of bed, grab paper and crayons, and trace it for yourself! 
As the show ended, the two hosts repeatedly thanked TBN for broadcasting the concert, and for reaching out to the world.  They must have said “special thanks to TBN” at least a half-dozen time in the span of 2 – 3 minutes.  The “thanks to Walt Disney World for hosting this concert” count?  Zero-point-zero! 

Here's the full logo, with the castle guitar . . . the one only Hummingbirds could see!  
What does it matter to me?  I guess it shouldn’t.  In the interest of full-disclosure, I only watched the last 20 minutes or so.  Perhaps in the opening they lathered Walt Disney World with praise and adulations, flashing the words “Come to the Magic Kingdom” across the screen over and over.  I doubt it, but maybe.  I just found it irritating and distasteful.  I’ve never been to their park, but I have a dozen ideas that could increase attendance and revenues – you know, the two factors that keep a theme park in business.  This broadcast was simply one more reason I’ll likely never bother checking it out.  That and the fact there’s nothing to do there aside from walk through some show sets, see replicas of ancient artifacts, and watch live TBN broadcast tapings.  Oh, and stop by the food court!  Heck even that museum in Kentucky has animatronic raptors in the Garden of Eden!  Whether it’s scientifically accurate or not is not for me to judge – but it sure sounds rad!!!     

If I were Bob Iger the first thing I’d do is give TBN a lifetime ban from ever broadcasting on Disney property again.  Well, that’s not true.  If I were Iger, the first thing I’d do is build a Lady & the Tramp dark ride in Fantasyland, a Jungle Book themed flume at the Animal Kingdom, restore Imagination to it’s original glory, and rebuild Horizons brick by brick!  But then . . . watch out TBN! 
Should I get my knickers in a twist over it?  No.  But it’s a slow news day and this has been gnawing at my brain for two days.  All I’m saying, if you hope to be David among Goliaths, give credit where it’s due!  Especially when there are probably thousands of people who are only watching your network at that moment because of where you are. 

This is a picture of actress Jennifer Lawrence.  She has nothing to do with any of this.  But when you search "night of joy hosts" in Google Images, this is a choice.  And I love her.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Tell 'Em Bamba Sent Ya!

For many of us, getting down to Walt Disney World or over to Disneyland is no easy, or cheap, proposition.  Most of us have full-time jobs and families that require 101% of our time, resources, and income.  In the interim time between Disney trips, we are forced to find reasonable substitutes.  Of course we know there’s nothing that ever feels the same, but if you’re lucky, you find an oasis or two that come very close to replicating the feelings and emotions of being surrounded by Disney magic. 
If you’re really lucky, that oasis serves food too!
For me, that respite is Rainforest Café.  
I know, I’ve heard from a few people who immediately say “that touristy place?!?”  Well, yes, I suppose.  From the early days when Steve Schussler founded RFC, he was brilliant enough to know that a concept like that was likely to have a higher survival rate in a highly-tourist-populated area.  Hence the first Rainforest Café being established in The Mall of America up der in Minnesota, hey?  
Now I take issue with anyone who immediately implies or assumes a themed restaurant is somehow bad or unworthy.  Although I suppose a great many of said restaurants are to blame.  A certain chain involving cardboard & ketchup pizzas and another over-sized singing mouse comes to mind!  Strip the theme completely, and I’ve never had a bad meal at a Rainforest Café.  And you may have noticed I know a thing or two about eating!  I’ll go on record that the Blue Mountain Chicken Sandwich at RFC is the best chicken sandwich I’ve ever eaten in my life.  I find it very hard to deviate and order anything different. Though I have plenty of times.  The coconut shrimp rock.  The ribs, sorry “Mojo bones” are excellent.   
And since we’re all grown-ups (or at least grown-“olders”) here, let’s talk about the bar menu!  I love me a good margarita sirs!  Rocks, never blended, and no salt, por favor and any skilled “Navigator” (that’s RFC lingo for bartender) can mix-up a good one.  But if it’s a taste of the exotic you seek, and why shouldn’t you, order Rainforest’s Green Python! 
    < =Gross!
<= Delicious!
Like Indiana Jones, I hate snakes.  But this particular beverage is one serpent I find quite charming!  Rum, Midori, banana liquor, sweet & sour, and pineapple juice; I can’t believe Jimmy Buffett hasn’t written an anthem about it yet! 
 I must say too that in the past when someone has said to me “the food’s not good” I’ve retorted with, when was the last time you ate there?  In every case it was usually, “I don’t know, a long time ago.”  While every restaurant has better days and worse, I’ve found RFC has taken giant steps forward in quality and consistency since Landry’s Restaurant group bought the concept and took over operations in 2000.  I always respond to those people the same way.  “Try it again.  Trust me.” 
Read Steve's book It's a Jungle In There!

That’s no knock against Steven Schussler and the company he created.  Schussler is an amazing entrepreneur and crazy dreamer and built RFC from a concept in his house (literally, right down to a live baboon and waterfall in his living room) to the amazing restaurants we saw popping up all over the country in the late-90’s.  He’s a visionary and a risk-taker who believes in making something amazing that will blow guests away.  Sound like someone else? 
There’s no mystery why Rainforest Café is immediately associated with the Disney Parks in my mind, or so many others’.  From the detailed theme, to the animatronics, to the actual smells of the gift shops and dining rooms (yes, I stand by my belief that Rainforest Cafes have the “Disney smell”) to creating roles for the employees to play.  Your server isn’t your waiter; they are your Safari Guide.  The hosts and hostesses are your Tour Guides.  The kitchen staffers are called Trailblazers. 
My home RFC! 

My family and I frequent our local Rainforest and a large mall in Schaumburg, IL and on multiple occasions we’ve been served by a Safari Guide named Johnny.  Now I don’t know the guy personally, but I’ve been compelled to contact the company multiple times to praise him for the job he’s doing.  I worked in the restaurant business for a few years out of college.  I waited tables, tended bar, and quickly found myself training new hires, preparing them for what restaurant work is really like.  Even in your average I Can’t Believe Its Tuesday’s it gets so hectic some nights you want to run out screaming.  I can’t imagine the distractions, the pressures, and hurdles to be leapt gracefully in such a high-flow, intensive, interactive environment.  Yet this Johnny pulls it off every time without ever letting his guests see him sweat.  I believe it’s due to one simple thing – he buys into the concept 100%.  He is a Safari Guide.  No, he’s not role-playing, but you can see he gets it.  Rainforest Café doesn’t just serve food, they serve entertainment.  They deliver an experience.  Every meal there must be something special.  Just like the best Disney Cast Members do.       
That is also why Rainforest Café was such a perfect fit at the Disney parks.  There’s a beautiful two-story RFC in Downtown Disney at Disneyland in California.   
This was the first location I took my son when he was just two.  And yes, it’s another reason I’m so connected to the company.  There’s one at Disneyland Paris.  And there are actually two Rainforest locations on the Walt Disney World property in Florida.  One, appropriately so is located inside Disney’s Animal Kingdom (I think it would be a bigger mystery if there wasn’t one there!)  My favorite however is the location in Downtown Disney-Orlando.  It’s so big there’s even a volcano sprouting from the roof.  No, if you know the menu not the dessert!  Although, that would rule!  
I don't know where I'm a gonna go when the volcano blow!

And Schussler Creative and Landry’s did it again in 2008 with the opening of a brand new sister-concept to Rainforest Café.  Well, if that sister was created from fossilized mosquito blood extracted from amber, mixed with a little frog DNA, and hatched from an ostrich egg into a colossal goat munching super-predator . . . but I digress.    
"I have an idea for a restaurant!"  

T-Rex Café was founded in 2006 with its first location in Kansas City.  Two years later it found its next natural home at Walt Disney World.  Life Rainforest, T-Rex features life-size animatronic dinosaurs, special effects, themed dining rooms, and of course a large merchandise area.  It’s also home to the special hybrid of the popular Build-A-Bear stores, Build-A-Dino!  Come on, you can try to roll your eyes all you want, but that’s pretty cool!    
Seriously, the outside looks like a nightclub in Bedrock complete with the complete skeleton of a brachiosaurus (or some other sauropod . . . geek check) stretching its neck over the entrance.  
As soon as you walk in you are greeted by a life-sized mama T-Rex and her pups!  I wouldn’t say you’re just there to look around - she doesn’t like it!  Just kidding.  The restaurant is sprawling and inhabited with all sorts of dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures, from the giant octopus guarding the bar to the wooly mammoth perched above the glacial Ice Cave room.  Yes Bill Nye Science Guy, I realize mammoths and dinosaurs never would have . . . you know what?  Shut it!   
The Ice Cave, I should add uses one of the coolest lighting effects I’ve ever seen in a restaurant.  It’s like dining in Superman’s Fortress of Solitude.  And just like Rainforest Café, the food is good.  The menus are admittedly similar, but if it ain’t broke, as they say.  My last visit I had the Boneyard, a large platter of ribs and roasted chicken.  The name was fitting by the end of dinner, as it was nothing but a pile of bones, cleaned right down to the white.  I was the apex predator that night, my friends!  My buddy Joe had the Gigantosaurus burger – a loaded double-cheeseburger so big you should lift it with your legs, not your back!  And we kicked the night off with their mountainous Colosso nachos!  Fair to say our end of the table was definitely man cave Heaven!  Fear not, the wives got salads and split a pasta and fish entrée (you know, “lady food”) and were very happy with their meals too!     
Listen I’m no yokel who falls for the lights and spectacle (and robots) of every themed restaurant that pops up.  See my earlier post where I skewered another eatery on Disney property; the Celestial Sphere of the City Where Movies Used to be Made!  And no, I’m not on the Landry’s payroll (although I’d be happy to be . . . *winks*)!  I tell it like it is here, and Rainforest Café (and T-Rex Café) is a great experience not to be passed up, whether it’s in Chicago, Kansas City, or Downtown Disney.  It’s an enhanced family dining experience, wonderful on its own, but even more special to us Disney fans!  Don’t overlook it in favor of some celebrity chef name or trendy hotspot of the moment.  Go have a great meal at Rainforest Cafe, and throw a couple ducats to the crocodile while you're at it!  
Oh . . . and trust me on the smell! 

Saturday, November 24, 2012


This past summer I was speaking to a friend and fellow animation fan and told her I'd seen Pixar's Brave.  "Ooh, you did?" she asked.  "How was it?"
"It was good," I answered with a bit of a shrug.  "But I really wanted it to be great."

Today I finally got to see Disney's latest animated feature, Wreck-It Ralph.  While I thought the concept was clever enough and the animation looked pretty, I went in expecting it to be shoulder-shrugging "good."  What it was turned out to be freakin' great!
In fact, I'd call it a modern day masterpiece!

I was completely blown away like a loose brick in an unfortunate wall pummeled by Ralph.  Put aside the amazing animation and 3D effects used to their full potential and actually serving the story, this movie is an incredibly well-written, entertaining tale full of heart.  From his first words of dialogue, Ralph is the most likable "bad guy" ever to appear on screen.  You're rooting for him almost immediately, and as a man you feel for his sense of discontentment in his career and desire for more, not materially but spiritually.

The plot is completely original and unique, even if somewhat predictable in a few places.  It's so perfectly executed, even the moments you saw coming don't disappoint.  In fact they still manage to fill your heart with satisfaction.  Don't get me wrong, Wreck-It Ralph threw me more than a few curve balls.
Mentos and diet soda . . . who saw that coming?!?
Even plot devices I figured would return eventually were still used in completely unexpected ways, making even us soured old adults laugh and cheer and want to clap for our brutish hero and his adorable sidekick!

Not only is the story writing near perfection, the voice-casting is spot-on!  While there are plenty of recognizable voices, I wouldn't call any of it "stunt casting" where some big star is hired in the hope their fame will equate to more ticket sales . . .even if their voice doesn't serve the production  (*cough* Rosie O'Donnell in Tazan *cough*)
All these actors seem to have thrown themselves into the roles and it pays off so well!  In fact one actor created such a perfect character, I could not for the life of me figure out who it was!  King Candy is voiced masterfully (with a nod to the late great Ed Wynn) by Alan "It's called a lance" Tudyk of A Knight's Tale and cult-favorite Firefly.  John C. Reilly and Jack McBrayer were born to play their parts, and Sarah Silverman may have actually reinvented her entire career with this movie as Venellope!  We'll have to wait and see what she does next, but Silverman has never been this lovable!

Even Jane Lynch who I will admit I find to be a bit over-saturated right now was fantastic.  And her character is pretty hot too!

I never saw Wreck-It Ralph coming.  I expected a decent, funny animated effort full of video game references, half of which I wouldn't get as a non-gamer, that would fill 90 minutes and keep the kids interested for the most part.  This film will not be relegated to the second shelf of my collection with Bolt, The Wild, or Meet the Robinsons.  Wreck-It Ralph is a new Disney classic.  This movie, even with it's very specific video game references will hold-up and remain timeless.  Ralph will rest alongside Peter Pan and Pinocchio.  I truly believe if Walt could see this movie he would stand and cheer, filled with joy for what his animation studio has accomplished!  They managed to make a beautiful piece of cutting-edge visual art yet placed inside it a beating, feeling heart that touches every audience member regardless of age.  It's not the "Roger Rabbit of video game movies."  It's so much better!
What surprised me the most was how many times I felt myself getting emotional, almost tearing up.  This isn't a video game movie at all.  It touches the human spirit.  Perhaps even more-so for us big guys!
And let's be honest, how bad do I want to play a real Sugar Rush game now?!?

What saddens me just a bit is something that also recalls that earlier conversation I mentioned.  When I told my friend how I kept waiting for Brave to really reveal it's self, to feel that punch in the gut so many earlier Pixar films always delivered, she sighed and cocked her head with concern.
"Do you think Pixar has peaked?" she asked.
I thought for a moment, then told her I didn't want to say it.  I still don't.  It wasn't very long ago there were those who said "Disney Animation is dead!  Pixar is the only hope.  Long live Pixar!"
As Brave kind of fell at the finish line for me, and I see the plan for the next few years is to keep going back to the old Pixar wells and trying to draw up more water, my concern grows. 

I'm certain Pixar's success and the guidance of the great John Lasseter over the last few years helped right the ship, and have steered a new direction for Walt Disney Animation.  Now it seems, at least to me the ship is steering itself beyond perhaps even that captain's vision.  The last Disney animated feature I truly loved was Tangled.  Also NOT a Pixar flick.  And call me what you want, those direct-to-video Tinkerbell movies have for the most part been fantastic.  Especially the most recent offering, Secret of the Wings.  That could & should have been a theatrical release.  Meanwhile, I've been disappointed with the last couple Pixar releases.  Even Toy Story 3, which I did love, played more to our sentimental attachment to those characters, and not a great story.  I'm not saying "screw Pixar, we don't need 'em anymore."  I hope they find their way and aren't just making a few last cash grabs with sequels and prequels, knowing their best is behind them.

What I am saying is Wreck-It Ralph proves that Walt Disney Animation is still the champion.  They may have had a few years on the ropes, but they've sprung back to their feet, stronger and determined, with the eye of the tiger.  They certainly knocked this one out!  I can't wait to read the standings on Monday, as I predict even weeks after it's premiere, Ralph will have pummeled Dreamjerks latest offering, Rise of Tattooed Santa . . . or, uh . . .whatever.  Ralph rules!             

Update:  Since writing this, Wreck-It Ralph received an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature, along with lesser-worthy films Brave and Frankenweenie.  I suppose as long as Disney wins, we all win.  But if the best man shall win, it will be a man with enormous, brick bashing arms!  Go Ralph!!! 

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Talkin' Turkey!

Happy Thanksgiving to all my friends! 

In honor of this day where we give thanks and appreciate the blessings in our lives, I just wanted to take a moment to say Happy Thanksgiving to all of you and thank you for being friends, readers, and supporters! 

Thanksgiving always makes me miss my grandmother.  We always spent Thanksgiving with her and she was an amazing cook.  She turned their little apartment in a retirement village into a 4 Star gourmet restaurant.  Okay, hillbilly gourmet . . . but damn it was good! 

This holiday's never been the same since my grandparents passed on.  But this year we're keeping it small, just my wife and kids and I.  And I'm liking it!  But if I weren't at home, there's one place I wish, other than my grandmother's table that I could be spending Thanksgiving! 

If every day on Mainstreet USA is the Fourth of July, then it’s always Thanksgiving in Liberty Square!  That is, if you’ve got your dinner ADR for Liberty Tree Tavern.  
That's a hypothetical “if” because if you don't eat there at least once, well, you're dumb!  Fashioned after the Colonial inns our founding fathers dined in, Liberty Tree Tavern is the perfect location for family dinner.  The food is old school traditional American eats.  Servers drop off family-style platters of roast turkey, pork, beef brisket, vegetables, fresh baked rolls, mashed potatoes and gravy, and Mac & cheese.  It's all you can eat and it's all delicious!  In some cases even better than mom used to make.  Just don’t undo your belt after dinner.  That would be weird.

Don't try to walk-up and expect a table either.  The staff will of course try to accommodate, but plan on being hungry for another hour or more because that’s how soon you’re likely to be seated.  

Of course, if I were at Walt Disney World today, I might not want to sit down to a big meal . . . even on Thanksgiving, the Super Bowl of eating holidays!  
 Thank goodness the parks always offer another alternative to satisfy your craving for what was almost our National Bird!  

Lately I’ve noticed every carnival and fair sells turkey legs.  But the first place I ever enjoyed one was at Walt Disney World.  I tried one at our local County Fair once.  I spit out the first bite and pitched the rest to the raccoons.  It was heinous.  A criminal offense to my taste buds.  I was so pissed I tied the vendor to the Tilt-a-Whirl and punched a prize-winning sheep on my way out. 
However, the barbecued turkey legs at Walt Disney world are amazing!  I don’t know that anyone would ever plan a trip just for these babies, but they’re almost reason enough!  They’ve become something of a staple snack at every Disney Park, but the first park I ever tasted one was Hollywood Studios.  Theme park food is often hit or miss, but these ginormous drumsticks are a definite hit!  Perfectly smoked with a nice pinkish color, they taste almost more like pork than poultry.  Drop one (or let’s be honest, two) of these babies on my Thanksgiving plate and I’m a happy Neanderthal.  
There was a time when a turkey leg constituted a “snack” and one could use a snack credit from their Disney dining plan.  Apparently someone in management wised up because that option has been removed.  At nearly $10 bucks a leg, they might be the most expensive snack on property.  Fortunately it’s a snack that eats like a meal.  And let’s be real, if you drove down the center of the park on a Harley, wearing a Viking helmet, smoking a cigar, with two Hooters waitresses on the back of the bike, you wouldn’t look as manly as when your canines are ripping bird from bone, as nature intended!   
You’ll feel like Henry the VIII!  Plus, no table required.  You don’t even need a plate.  The bone is nature’s handle.  You can keep on walking while you eat; guaranteeing you won't miss out on any fun!  If only more food came with a built-in utensil!
Plus, how many foods inspire their own souvenir apparel?!?

And let's not forget the wonderful, condensed version of Thanksgiving between two slices of bread at the Earl of Sandwich in Downtown Disney . . .
Still, I wouldn't hop on Star Tours or Tower of Terror for at least 3 hours after consuming an entire Thanksgiving feast in a single sandwich!  

Happy Thanksgiving everybody . . . just a little over a month til the Disney Parks Christmas Parade!  That ought to give you sweet dreams as you snore in front of the football game this afternoon!!!