Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Seven Years Good Luck

Normally, I'm not really one to mark this blog's anniversary beyond the end-of-the-year recap. Some of this is because I don't really think anniversaries of things like websites is much to get excited about, and some of this is because the anniversary awkwardly comes in August, usually right when I'm busy with other things. But of course, those first few months don't really count because 1) the articles are terrible, and 2) I didn't really have a "vision" for this site until November, when I posted the two parts of "Two Shows By Marc Davis". I really got into those, and they set the standard (and style) for my own approach in the following years. When I noticed that we are now coming up on the seven-year anniversary (!) of the publication of those articles, and that this is concurrent with the 200th post on the blog, I figured it was high time to say something.

Passport to Dreams Old & New, whose title is a nod to Delta Dreamflight and which I probably should've changed in its first year, began on a lark. Upon moving to Orlando in 2003 I had allowed my old Haunted Mansion website to sit fallow, and in the intervening three years had found my relationship to the place, and to The Magic Kingdom in particular, to be shifting unpredictably. One of the odd things about a theme park is that when you are, yes, there on vacation, although you're definitely experiencing the place as it exists you're also experiencing some other place that doesn't really exist outside your head; where expectation and memory blur out much of the particulars.

In short after moving "to Disney" full time I had to learn how to truly see the place, and that involved going a lot, and going so much that both excitement and novelty finally wore out. In those first few years I was probably at Disney 3 or 4 days out of the week. Inevitably, that intoxicating freedom of being able to be there whenever I desired  soured to boredom.

And that probably would've been that for most people: I had my cake, ate it all, and would've moved on -- except I didn't. I found that the place was changing again, and now instead of a series of emotionally or ritualistically charged spaces, Walt Disney World was becoming something I could see on a micro or macro scale. Now that the urgent initiative to ride Space Mountain had been exhausted enough for a lifetime, I began to find new games to play with Walt Disney World, and the more games I played, the more my appreciation deepened.

In short I did things that no sane person on vacation would try to do at Disney. I spent a day where I made in my business to inspect every door knob and hinge at Magic Kingdom or EPCOT. I spent a full afternoon doing nothing but wandering World Showcase and staring at the way the ceilings of each shop or restaurant were painted. I rode the Haunted Mansion a lot. I found myself getting passionately involved with things like the Tiki Room and Country Bear Jamboree. I found that instead of an empty bag of tricks, the more I dug the more rewarding the place got. Combined with my increasing interest in Walt Disney World history, which circa 2005 had fairly limited coverage online, I started to see Walt Disney World in a way that few can.

None of this was really on my mind when I decided to experiment with this "blog" thing. There wasn't really much of anything to go on back then that may have dissuaded me. There was The Disney Blog, for news - a sort of outgrowth of those early hub sites like Laughing Place - but my main inspiration came from a duo of wildly influential early "single issue" blogs: Re-Imagineering and Epcot Central. I saw that a well-written article could change opinions, and that these opinions and ideas could (theoretically) start to circulate up through the fan community and, eventually, up through the company. I got to work. My instrument was a site called blogger and my thesis was that theme parks were art.

Around the same time, Jeff Pepper started 2719 Hyperion, which was the earliest example of what I think of as the well-rounded Disney blog, freely mixing up history, nostalgia, observation and review. In 2007, a rash of other blogs sprouted up - Main Street Gazette, Imaginerding, Progress City USA, If You Can Dream It, and more, and the blog as a major organizing influence in the Disney community took off.

It's interesting to consider that as recently as ten years ago, what we now know as a Disney blog didn't really exist. What did exist was articles on host sites that fell into two camps: Walt Disney World vacation planning, and park updates. The vacation planners have always had and will always have the biggest slice of the pie: the vast majority of people who go to WDW, and even those who go once or twice a year, spend no time engaging the fan community. These "cyclical" fans tend to have heat-up and cool-off periods of several months surrounding a trip, then simply drop off the community and don't think about Disney until they start planning their next trip. The truly successful sites - like Disney Food Blog - cater to this huge demographic of "planners" while also providing regular content for locals and regularly involved fans. I'm not in this group - if you've made it all the way to Passport to Dreams, you are either a hardcore fan or an interested party, which is why I can take certain things for granted in my writing. But the writing found here will always be a niche thing.

The fact that most serious Disney writing is inherently niche is the reason why you've seen more and more blogs joining umbrella sites like MiceAge - the park updates and vacation planning drives attendance, and the niche authors drive the content. And although I've considered it, I've never felt that my writing belonged on such a site - for one thing I'm unable to write to a deadline and for another, my stuff has always been a hobby for me, not a vocation. Once I stop having fun, Passport will die.

The good news is that this extended project doesn't yet have an apparent end date; in fact, this past year has been unusually active at Passport. I've finally created those sub-pages with navigation bars to steer readers towards the popular topics on the right, hopefully making seven years of my rambling earlier to sort through. My video posts have been very popular, so they will continue, and you can see additional weird stuff on my YouTube channel, including shots and angles that don't get the full edited treatment but still function as documentation. And still the words flow on.

In many ways I've avoided writing one of these celebratory posts for so long for the same reasons that are probably evident in this piece itself: there's little worth saying that can't already be said in the essays anyway. So instead of extending this least essential of essays, I thought I'd take the time to point out a few personal favorite pieces, some popular and some perhaps overlooked, and offer some notes on each:

Buena Vista Obscura: The World Cruise - 2011 - As far as a straight WDW history primer goes, I think this is my peak moment, and even moreso in that the history of this attraction was already in danger of being totally lost. It took me many years to even find somebody who knew anything about The World Cruise and laying out the sad history of the Seven Seas Lagoon sidewheelers was a long but fruitful process. As much as anything here, I'm proud to have rescued this obscurity for the ages.

Go Away Green - 2012 - Every year I try to do what I call a "micro-attention" piece, where I go take photos of very minor parts of theme parks and use them to build large stories about design. I think this is the best of these, about hiding things in plain sight.

Riding the Haunted Screen - 2013 - This piece from early this year seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle, and it's not hard to guess why, as it's a) nearly 10,000 words long, and b) spends forever getting around to anything "Disney", spending nearly half its bulk outlining the development of the American supernatural thriller. I think that's a shame, because I worked hard to lay out my theories with full support, and this one was very much a labor of love. Give it another shot with a big spoonful of patience. Which makes it something of a companion piece to our next highlight from early this year:

Death of a Moonwalker: Captain EO - 2013 - laugh if you must but this one is, as of right now, my favorite essay on this site. It isn't so much because of my affection for Captain EO as it is the challenge of neither praising too much nor damning too little something I love dearly but also think is a ludicrous cultural train wreck. It's hard to write something that makes a case for anything by enumerating the virtues of its faults, but both technically and emotionally I've come nearest to writing the article I imagined here than at any other point in the past seven years. My objective was to provide a new perspective for both those who love and those who hate this controversial show, and I'm immensely proud of Death of a Moonwaker.

Three Jungle Cruise Mysteries - 2012 - I like to think this site is second to none at unpacking obscure WDW minutia, and this continuing saga of that one random Jungle Cruise staircase is some of the most fun I've ever had over-turning stones. I've also kept it updated over the years, adding more material as it's uncovered, so you can tell this is a subject dear to my heart.

Start to Shriek and Harmonize - 2011 - if the Haunted Mansion is the one subject I'll never truly escape then I think this essay is my finest moment on the subject. It's hard to find things that are disliked in this ultimate cult attraction, but those pop-up heads come the nearest to being universally panned as cheap or unimaginative. And that's where the story begins.....

Buena Vista Obscura: Johnny's Corner - 2012 - There is remarkably little online information about Central Florida before the Disney invasion began, although newspapers and magazines of the era paint a vivid picture of a near-panicked population and a mad gold rush on land. This is one of my proudest moments because the story stretches from the era following World War I up to our present day, using a little country store as a window into other times, and making the past seem to be a real, shared experience is what good historical writing should be all about.

The Case For The Florida Pirates - 2010 - I could easily instead have directed you to the overall perhaps much more serious companion piece to this essay, written about the Disneyland version of the ride, but much as with the Captain EO post included above, I'm somehow more partial to this essay, which attempts to draw out the positive qualities of the worst version of my favorite ride. That may seem strange or even counter-intuitive, but despite the reputation it carries, the Florida Pirates strikes me as a fascinating failure. I actually once submitted Fire In The Night as a writing sample to a degree program, so I clearly think it's no slouch, but overall I'm prouder of flying here against the grain and against common sense, and coming out with a darn good piece at the end of the gauntlet. Revisit it and think again about the reasons why we classify attractions, or any art pieces, as failures.

And in the end, in the face of such a torrent of words, what else can truly be said except thank you?

When I think of Passport to Dreams, I think of a truly valuable personal pastime which has put me in position to write some seriously rewarding material and also put me in touch with like-minded fantastic individuals the world over. What more can be expected from a silly little blog? Here's to many more!

This article juxtaposes photographs taken in my first months in Florida in  2003 with those taken last month.  What has ten years done to you?

Saturday, November 02, 2013

Sunrise Over the Polynesian

Here's a somewhat dispiriting paradox for you: the Walt Disney World theme parks are at their most beautiful when nobody can see them.

This isn't really by design, mind you. Once the last guests roll out of the park at night and the various facilities power down and turn their work lights on, and bit by bit as third shift rolls in, the "show lights" which make places like Magic Kingdom and EPCOT so beautiful at night turn off. Trucks and cars replace pedestrians. Even the street lights turn off, and the theme parks become dark, even beautifully sinister places. Many third shift employees bring their own stereos, and a patchwork of FM radios and CDs replaces the familiar peppy background music. Electrical generators create pools of light for projects amid the stark darkness, and sidewalks are hosed down. The parks become dark and dripping places.

Pre-Dawn sky, 2005
Then, gradually, the sky turns midnight blue and this strange place begins to turn back into the place we know, and that's when it happens. The open Florida pre-dawn sky gives way to a beautiful, indirect yelllow sunlight, somewhat like the light Disneyland gets out West in the first part of their day, and pockets of humidity become a gentle ground fog that settles over bodies of water. If the parks ever open at 7 am or 8 am around Christmas, some of the very end of this may be observed. By 10:00 am the air gets hot and humid and the light turns that Florida white-hot and the day truly has begun.

Pre-Opening Sunlight
As a Cast Member I savored these hours before the madness truly descended. Seeing the parks so clean and so empty and so lovely was a reward that made up for the pathetic monetary compensation, and I could see it whenever I wanted. I wish I could get there so easily still, but the parks are not open to those who don't work there in those morning hours, meaning I mostly have my memories and a handful of photos to guide me.

But, you know, you can go to the resorts whenever you want, and late last month I did just that. The Polynesian Village hasn't changed much since 1980 but appears to be next up on the block for Disney Vacation Club expansion, the same fate which brought us a huge tower sitting beside the Contemporary. Although hopefully the Polynesian iteration will be less destructive to original design elements than others have been - they have, after all, nearly no space to work with - it felt imperative to capture something of the feel of this easterly portion of the resort on the eve of the start of construction. Working steadily for about 45 minutes, I was able to capture a mostly unbroken sunrise over the Old Polynesian.

This is the edited version. Compared to some of my other videos, I've done very little to this footage - no music to accompany it, no reshuffling of shots - I did abridge certain shots with fades, but allowing for the fact that this condenses an hour of material into six minutes, it's as close to a real-time sunrise as you can get without being there.

I like the unedited feel of it - the true look and sound of a remarkable place coming online. My overall goal in these videos is to capture that dimension that motion pictures are capable of but photos aren't always - that sense of place and time and, like the Lumiere shots of Parisian street scenes, I've found that the camera plunked down somewhere and allowed to simply record can capture pools of magic. Listen carefully here, and you can hear the Walt Disney World Railroad being brought on the tracks across the lagoon, deliveries being made at the Polynesian, and more.

It's not quite like going into Magic Kingdom on your off day to watch the sun rise over Cinderella Castle, but it's close.

And check out my YouTube page for more videos, including unedited single-shots and some shorter edited sequences.