Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Freeze Frame: Medfield College = The Disney Studios

It is often noted that Walt Disney wanted the Burbank studios to resemble a college campus in design and spirit.  In the 1969 movie The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, the studio played the role more directly, becoming the campus of the fictional Medfield College.
When Dean Higgins (played by Joe Flynn) stares out his meeting room window, he is looking at a panoramic backdrop of the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank.  It is the same backdrop that was often used when Walt Disney filmed introductions to the Disney television program on an office set on a studio soundstage.  When Dexter Riley (Kurt Russell) and his friends gather outside the college's administration building, they are in fact on an outdoor patio not far from the southern end of what was then the Animation Building.  Set designers placed a sign over an entrance to the building, identifying it as SCIENCE BUILDING.
Medfield College was originally the setting for two prior Walt Disney films, The Absent-Minded Professor, released in 1961, and its 1963 sequel, Son of Flubber.  But both those films used Pomona College in Claremont, California to stand in for the fictional Medfield campus.  The two subsequent Dexter Riley sequels, Now You See Him, Now You Don't and The Strongest Man in the World, continued to use the Burbank studio to portray the Medfield College campus.

Monday, March 29, 2010

The Lake Buena Vista Story, Part Four: Postscript

The Lake Buena Vista Story, Part Four: Postscript
By FoxxFur

So why should we care about Lake Buena Vista, in the end? Americans have never been particularly sympathetic to the creations of just a generation or two past, and it’s doubtful that too many of the people who approved the demolition of the Villas in 2002 saw much value in their outdated design, only in the land they stood on. While it’s true that the Villas were not yet old enough to be considered “cool retro” and perhaps, outside of the Treehouses, most average guests would agree that they were not very memorable, to point out the reasons why those little wooden apartments and condos and townhomes were important we should return to Dick Nunis in that 1982 issue of Eyes & Ears:

“I don’t think Walt ever intended to have a permanent resident population. I think he wanted to have a large tourist population and an area where people from all walks of life could come and learn.

I can remember when we got the final big parcel of our land which included Bay Lake. It was in the summer of 1966, and Walt called me up to his apartment in Disneyland, and he was really happy. He said, “Just think Dick, we own 43 square miles. That’s like getting on top of the Matterhorn and looking 7 miles one way and 11 miles the other. We’re going to be able to have our own Disneyland, our own Knott’s Berry Farm, our own Marineland and a couple of cities to boot.”

In Married to the Mouse, Richard Foglesong recounts how a memo found in the desk of Walt Disney following his death in 1966 pertaining to the development of the EPCOT city had every mention of “20,000 residents” and “voting rights” crossed out in red pen. It was these 20,000 residents that Disney dangled in front of the Florida legislature in 1967 to get their two municipalities – Bay Lake and Reedy Creek (later Lake Buena Vista) approved, as well as a total independence from all local government oversight. Perhaps most erroneous of all, from Florida’s perspective, a small passage in one of the three bills specified that these powers would remain in spite of any past or future legislation, freezing Disney’s powers in time at the moment when Orlando needed Disney most but Disney needed Orlando least (indeed, they had been threatening to pack up and move north to Ocala).

As a result Disney today exercises total control over their two towns through the independent Reedy Creek Improvement District government, with no need to move through the local planning and zoning boards. Disney can spend money and go out tomorrow to start shoveling dirt. This is how The Disney-MGM Studios beat Universal’s opening in 1989 by a year – the same amount of time it took Universal’s construction project to be approved by the local Orlando government.

But this is what made Lake Buena Vista, and all of Walt Disney World, extraordinary, was their total lack of oversight from local governing bodies, allowing their creations to be geared towards maximum effectiveness and aesthetic quality, something no mere housing development outside of the 27,000 square mile Florida property can hope to achieve. In his book Foglesong indicates that Disney likely never intended to build their EPCOT City. I’m not so sure that’s true, but I’m also not so sure that that Lake Buena Vista wasn’t the evolved version of the EPCOT City. For the last several years of Disney’s life WED Enterprises had more or less been doing their own thing, with Disney in a largely ceremonial role. At a 1966 lunch meeting with local Florida policymaker Billy Dial, Dial bluntly asked Disney:

“What would happen to this project if you walked out and got hit by a truck?”

“Absolutely nothing”, said Walt. “My brother Roy runs this company. I just piddle around.”

So the question becomes whether Walt Disney, had he lived another five or ten years, would’ve become just another Lake Buena Vista townhouse owner.

Where it’s hard to prove that the company ever seriously considered building a 20,000 person City of Tomorrow once they got their 1967 charter from the State of Florida, especially one that would’ve required the cooperation of dozens of American companies to make it successful, it is comparatively easy to prove that Disney did plan on building a 30,000 person vacation town. In his EPCOT film Walt Disney calls EPCOT a “showcase for American free enterprise” and accounts of what was planned for his EPCOT city involve errie images of nonpermanent residents with no voting or property rights being shuffled around on Disney controlled peoplemovers and living in houses where things like major appliances are constantly being replaced with the new prototype models by the companies that own them. Who wants to live in a house where you don’t even own your own computer?

But Disney could and did build a substantial portion of their “vacation city” project entirely on their own, using their own land and their own powers. And so in a way, that absurd old publicity line of Disney’s is true - Walt Disney World is EPCOT, it is a demonstration of American Free Enterprise – Disney’s Free Enterprise. Whether Disney knew it or not until a decade or so later, their Reedy Creek charter doomed EPCOT back in 1967. Now they didn’t need the rest of American Free Industry to build their model city. It’s hard to argue that the billions of people who have visited Walt Disney World in the last forty years and found it to be inspiring, artistic and unique wouldn’t attribute that to Disney’s free hand and total control of their kingdom. There is no more compelling argument for the effectiveness of a privately owned and controlled master planned community anywhere in the United States.

Lake Buena Vista was important because it was the one time, the single time, that Disney went out and put down in the soft Florida soil the few steps they took towards accomplishing their city, the stated reason for coming to Florida to begin with. Whether or not the Company ever took Walt Disney’s city concept seriously, they took their mission in Florida as community building very seriously. They wouldn’t succeed in actually opening a residential city and fulfilling their long ago promise to the State of Florida until the city of Celebration would open in 1996, Eisner’s nostalgic version of any anytown America of a half-century before. If one traces the evolution of the concept from Walt Disney to Michael Eisner, a fascinating irony becomes apparent: Disney’s city was forward thinking, revolutionary, fascinating, and scary. Disney’s heirs’ city was modern, ecologically sophisticated, adult and sedate. Disney’s heirs’ heirs’ city was backward-thinking, nostalgic, comforting… middlebrow. But still control-freak. Remember those stories of Celebration residents waiting until nightfall to paint their front doors a forbidden color as a form of protest?

Pointedly, Celebration also required Disney to de-annex their land from the Reedy Creek Charter since it would require residents with voting powers to be a successful draw. This led to a series of ugly public showdowns between residents and majority landowner Disney over the issue of public schools which eventually led to Disney’s removal of their trademark mouse ears from the Celebration water tower and the cessation of internal Walt Disney World promotion of Celebration as a tourism destination.

Lake Buena Vista simply got lost in the fold. But while it’s fun to talk about and think about things like Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride and If You Had Wings and the Main Street Wonderland of Wax, those lost components are just the nutshell. The real meat of the nut – the chewy center, the real thing – was the entire lost community of Lake Buena Vista, and the tendrils of influence the radiate outward from that development reach into nearly every area of the entire property – it’s the true story of Walt Disney World, impossible to ignore. So never mind EPCOT. EPCOT was a model, a dream, Disney’s El Dorado. Lake Buena Vista was out there, being planned, being built.

It’s still there if you know where to look. The back of the Lake Buena Vista Club still faces a shimmering lagoon… maybe not the one that diners there would’ve enjoyed in 1980, with stands of cypress and moonlight playing across the waves. It faces a golf course, a parking lot, and the back of the House of Blues. But she’s still there, waiting for you, a part of history which has escaped detection, demolition. Walk through her and see if you can guess where that couple sat long ago sipping wine, silhouetted by a 1975 Florida sunset, while a string quartet played their tune.

Go downstairs and walk through her pro shop and adjoining offices, and feel the 1970’s still alive down there. Go find the square patch of grass where once there was a pool, the Clubhouse overlooking her tranquil blue water. Go to the tennis courts, not moved since then, and imagine you’re winding up for a swing in the heart of the river and lake country of Central Florida, out away from it all.

That wooden bridge over Club Lake is still there too, by the way. Walk out across the bridge one foggy morning or breezy evening and tell me what you see. Maybe you’ll see those low little brown bungalows again too. I know I did.

Come find me!


Thanks very much to the following for their help in this article: Michael Crawford, Fee Doyle, Mike Lee, Martin Smith, Steve Russes, George Taylor.


“Chronology of Walt Disney World”, by Ken Polsson
“Disney News” Vol. 16 No. 3, Ed. Margaret Lee, June 1981
“Disney’s Village Resort Guest Atlas”, property map, Walt Disney World Co., 1989
“Eyes and Ears of Walt Disney World”, May 1982
Flickr.Com, user “Russes”
“Lake Buena Vista Peoplemover” 1976
“Lake Buena Vista Village News”, Vol. 2 No. 5, June 1976
“Married to the Mouse”, by Richard Foglesong, Yale University Press: New Haven, 2001
Mouse Planet, “Villas at Disney Institute” internet resource. retrieved Jan 20 2010
“Realityland”, by Davis Koenig. Bonaventure Press: Irvine, CA. 2007.
“Since the World Began”, by Jeff Kurtti, Hyperion: New York, 1996
“Treehouse Villas II: Electric Bugaloo” by Michael Crawford
Walt Dated World,
"Walt Disney World", promotional magazine, Walt Disney World Co., 1978
"Walt Disney World, 20 Magical Years", hardcover book, Walt Disney Productions, 1991
"Walt Disney World: the First Decade", hardcover book, Walt Disney Productions, 1982
“Walt Disney World Resort Guide”, promotional booklet, Walt Disney World Co. 1977
“Walt Disney World Vacationland”, Vol. 3, No. 2 ed. Jo Jac Bludworth, Spring 1974
Widen Your World,
"The World News", Vol. 6 No. 5, ed. Barbara Stuart, June 1976
“World Magazine”, promotional magazine, Walt Disney World Co., 1976

…and too many flyers and brochures to list!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Mechanical Kingdom

And here I thought I was taking quite a departure from Disney when I recently created Hawkins Strongbox.  It appears that steampunk is the latest popular trend to influence the creative minds at Disney Design Group.  Details can be found at the Disney Parks Blog.

Wonderland in Print

If you have become curiouser and curiouser about what good books have come out relating to Tim Burton's incredibly popular Alice in Wonderland film, we have just the bibliography for you.

Three books have been published that relate specifically to the Disney film itself.  As the new movie is not a direct adaptation of the original Lewis Carroll Alice books but rather a sequel of sorts, Disney has released a novelization of the screenplay.  Though most movie novelizations are generally unremarkable tie-ins, this adaptation by T. T. Sutherland is a handsome hardbound edition with an attractive cover illustration.  The book is directed at teens and younger readers who may find it a quick and entertaining revisiting of the events of the film.

Alice in Wonderland: The Visual Guide is a standard DK visual guide, though very well designed and produced.  Tim Burton's film certainly lends itself to this type of product with its amazing art direction and complex settings.  Some of the film's less than clear plot points and details are explained throughout.   Though somewhat slight at 72 pages, it is still an altogether attractive package that younger readers might find especially captivating.

A more extensive examination of the film is provided with Alice in Wonderland: The Visual Companion, set to be released later this month.  This oversize, hefty coffee table-type tome will, according to publisher advertising copy, " . . . take readers to the world behind Burton's camera, revealing the secrets of performance-capture technology, the marriage of live-action and CGI technology, and displaying its singular style in a deluxe, artistic format."

Though unrelated to the new film, two additional Walt Disney Alice in Wonderland books are engaging and nostalgic in both presentation and context.  Little Golden Books has reprinted their original Disney Alice in Wonderland edition from 1951.  Illustrated by studio veteran and Disney Legend Al Dempster, it is a terrific value at a mere $3.99.  Dempster's Legends web page notes, "Al left perhaps an even more intimate and enduring legacy in his work on the design and illustration of more than a dozen Disney Golden Books. Always concerned with controlling the quality of Disney art, Walt would often assign the illustration of books to Studio staff between their other projects."

Another studio veteran who often did book illustrations was Mary Blair.  Disney Editions has been publishing a series of illustrated storybooks featuring Blair's artwork of which an adaptation of Alice in Wonderland is the latest release.  The book is equal parts storybook and artistic resource and will definitely delight fans of Blair, who has become one of Disney's most renown and highly regarded artists.  The story was adapted by author Jon Scieszka of Stinky Cheese Man fame.

And for those who simply want to revisit Lewis Carroll's original 19th century Alice texts, there are numerous editions of both Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass available.  Of special note is a brand new Alice audiobook that features Jim Dale, the very popular narrator of the Harry Potter audiobooks.

Monday, March 22, 2010

The Lake Buena Vista Story, Part Three: 1982 - 2009

 In 1982, EPCOT Center opened, costing an astonishing $1,400,000,000. 1983 was the year of Horizons, of The Disney Channel, of Tokyo Disneyland, and of a huge executive shakeup which resulted in the ousting of Ron Miller and the installation of Michael Eisner and Frank Wells. Lake Buena Vista, as well as all significant development at Walt Disney World and Disneyland would be put on hold until the duo would get the movie side of the company knocked into shape.

1983 saw two more hotels join the Motor Plaza across from the Village – the Buena Vista Palace and the Orlando Hilton. And in 1985, the collection of Villas - which had never quite ever been unified under a single name - became the Walt Disney World Village Resort. By this time, the Lake Buena Vista Club had been renovated to become more family friendly. And in 1989, to coincide with the opening of Pleasure Island and the renaming of the Walt Disney World Village to the Disney Village Marketplace, the Villas’ name was again shortened to Disney’s Village Resort.

The atmosphere of “another little corner of the world” was rapidly changing, especially with the introduction of Pleasure Island. Over in the Village, classy upscale restaurants intended for adults became things like Minnie Mia’s Italian Pizzeria and Chef Mickey’s at the Disney Village Marketplace. The Lake Buena Vista Club was again renovated and the signature restaurant became The Pompano Grill, serving American family food like ‘crispy fried ravioli’ and ‘Key West Caesar salad’. These small changes were big indications of a changing tide, in both Disney’s objectives and in what the public was expecting. But there were others, too.

As part of Eisner’s entry into Disney in 1984, he was required to appease the majority shareholder in the company, Texas oil baron Sid Bass. To prevent a hostile takeover attempt Bass increased his share in the company to 25%, under the condition that Eisner would begin aggressive expansion on the Florida property. Bass saw huge potential in hotel building in Lake Buena Vista and Eisner would begin his expansion plans just a few years later in an agreement which would become his legacy in Walt Disney World.

Club Lake Villas pool, early 1990's

1992 saw the opening of the Dixie Landings and Port Orleans moderate resorts up the canal from the Village Resort, and also in the same year, a sprawling Key West themed hotel complex called the Disney Vacation Club appeared right along the most northward boundary of the Lake Buena Vista Golf Course. The rooms were spacious for the time, and could be rented in studio, one bedroom, two bedroom, or three bedroom configurations. Disney also opened a Disney Vacation Club branch in South Carolina, The Hilton Head, at the same time. Long planned to be a component of the Villa’s transient population, timeshare programs had finally come to Lake Buena Vista, and boats began winding their way up and down the canal which had long bordered the Treehouses on their western side, now known as the Sassagoula River. Development had stretched almost as far north as those 1976 projections called for, with nary a tennis or equestrian community in sight.

By the early 1990’s, having created a successful brand out of floundering Disney divisions like the live-action feature division and the television division, and having overseen the successful rebirth of feature animation at Disney thanks to efforts spearheaded by Roy E. Disney, Michael Eisner was feeling much more confident and hands-on in the theme park and resort division of the company, and he delved into it with considerable gusto. The Disney-MGM Studios had opened to tremendous success, built on Eisner’s experience in the American movie industry, and he had pushed the Disney empire into the heart of Europe with the artistically ambitious if financially burdened Euro Disneyland. Eisner had big plans for the Village Resort, too.

A 1985 visit to the Chautauqua Institution by the Eisners had inspired Michael Eisner to attempt to develop his own version at Walt Disney World, modeled on the 135 year old adult recreation resort in upstate New York. The Disney version would also be modeled on a sleepy small town in New England, and it would be built right on top of the Villas. The teachers would be the on-site Imagineers, animators, chefs, and technicians already installed at Walt Disney World, as well as the occasional visiting author or celebrity.

A 1995 construction project saw big changes and not so big changes at the Village Resort. Club Lake became Willow Lake – a not unfitting name change due to its’ willow dotted shoreline – and the Club Lake Villas and Conference Center were painted in low key earth tones and re-named the Bungalows (left). The Conference Center’s interior was converted into classrooms and became the North Studios. A rock climbing wall was constructed in the forest behind the Conference Center, near two new structures known as the Teaching Gardens.

The Treehouses remained relatively the same in name and appearance, getting a new coat of paint and new interiors. Gone were the rich wood tones, replaced with white painted interiors and uninspired décor. The shag carpets went away. The Vacation Villas were re-dubbed the Townhouses and got by with a new coat of exterior paint. The collection of four houses, rarely used, became Grand Vista Homes. The Fairway Villas were not so fortunate, retaining their name but now painted in garish “tropical” colors. A similar fate befell the Polynesian Village and Village Marketplace, once wonderlands of natural stone and wood, now caked with bright primaries. All of the original community pools were refurbished but untouched. Unlike Eisner developments like Dixie Landings or Caribbean Beach, there would be no central themed swimming pool.

The bulk of the work went on in and around the Buena Vista Club, which finally expanded to become a central lobby and check in facility for the surrounding villas. The Club was built up on the land side, stretching north and east to nearly three times her original dimensions, then west again. The space of the original Lake Buena Vista Club became a dining room known as ‘Seasons’, retaining the original outside patio seating as ‘Seasons Terrace’. On the north side of the new facility, overlooking the ampitheater through tall, sun-splashed windows was a lounge called The Gathering Place, dressed in sophisticated whites and wood tones, high-beamed ceilings, and wispy silky hangings. A signature red tower rose to the West - a dramatic entrance lobby - which linked back to a new façade on the north side designed to mirror the signature chalet-roof of the original Club. A general goods store called Dabblers appeared off the lobby in the main building. This rambling structure also pushed east, widening and swelling to a huge warehouse of a health club and spa.

North of the spa a tree-dotted grassy courtyard came into existence with the construction of two levels of classrooms wrapping its other three sides, dubbed the South Studios. Nearby, directly behind the expanded Clubhouse, an amphitheater amidst rolling greens was carved out of a hillside, and next door, a covered Performance Center, key lime green and topped with a huge painted sign proclaiming “Disney Institute” was constructed. When opened in February 1996, the Disney Institute had a small town atmosphere at its center, complete with sound studios, computer labs, and theaters.

It’s easy to fault Eisner for thinking small due to the legacy of the last ten years of his post at Disney – cheap direct to video sequels, under funded theme parks, bad decisions, and the wreckage of nearly every division in the company - rife with aborted brilliant projects and promising ideas fulfilled on the cheap. But his first ten years in office were as promising as his last ten were disappointing, and the Disney Institute is emblematic of this. It’s a concept that simply wouldn’t even be considered now, fifteen years later.

It’s important to realize about Eisner’s early efforts in the theme park division that prestige was as important to him as profit, sometimes beyond any economic reality, and it is his efforts to bring Disney into the world of contemporary adult recreation that we have to thank for Walt Disney World’s current fleet of modern, stylish restaurants and resorts. The Disney Institute was similarly a prestige product – aimed at somebody who wasn’t very interested, perhaps, in spending all of their time in the theme parks – a stance which is today unthinkable. “You won’t believe what you can do!”, promises a 1998 brochure: “It’s a whole new vacation experience where you can do things you you’ve always wanted to do. You can custom design your vacation, making it as active or relaxed, as you like. A Disney Institute vacation will allow you to combine intriguing and engaging programs with outstanding recreational opportunities. These activities and programs are designed to stretch your body and mind. You’ll have opportunities to see, hear, and do things you never thought possible.”

Rather than work against what was there in 1978, the Disney Institute project embraced the subdued, adult atmosphere of the Lake Buena Vista Villas by crafting a subdued, adult recreation resort, only building onto an existing structure to add the needed support facilities of a modern resort-hotel. Children under the age of seven couldn’t even enroll in any of the Disney Institute programs, and those younger than seventeen didn’t have too many options either. Families with young kids could take their business to one of the other Disney resorts. The program categories were:
Entertainment Arts: Radio, TV, Photography, Acting, Animation, etc

Design Arts: Painting, Decorating, Drawing, Sketching

Story Arts: Disney storytelling

Lifestyles: Self-help, Motivational seminars

Sports and Fitness: Golf, Tennis, Aerobics, Swimming, etc

Culinary Arts: Disney Chef demonstrations

Gardening and the Great Outdoors: Gardening, Landscaping, Conservation

Performing Arts and Film: visiting celebrity ‘instructors’

Youth Programs

But within just a few years, it was clear that the Disney Institute was not becoming very popular with Walt Disney World guests, despite Disney’s massive marketing campaign to keep the resort in the public eye. The Seasons Dining Room had closed, unable to compete with the Village’s offerings across the water – Pleasure Island had, in fact, expanded in 1998, creating the West Side, and the entire trifecta of Village, Pleasure Island and West Side was again rebranded – Downtown Disney. The reasons why the Institute was not doing well are easy to guess at. First is that not many guests at Walt Disney World, then or now, are too interested in taking time out of their vacations for an extracurricular class. Another may be saturation. While Walt Disney World has grown, the average length of the American vacation has not. Eisner’s construction mania may have finally done in his brainchild – when he and Frank Wells inherited Walt Disney World in 1984, it comprised two theme parks, a 100,000 square foot shopping complex, five Disney-owned hotels and six participant hotels. Today there are four theme parks, a 300,000+ square foot shopping complex, seventeen Disney-owned hotels, seven timeshare resorts, eleven participant hotels, and four miniature golf courses. And with only slightly over 450 rooms – the average Disney hotel is more like 850 – and a cast member to guest ratio of one to fifteen, the Institute was a costly failure.

In the meantime, the Disney Vacation Club had ballooned up. In 1996, more Vacation Club units opened at the new Boardwalk resort, and several hundred more were added every two years henceforth, so many that, in fact, the original 1991 development lost it’s status as the singular “Disney Vacation Club” and became “Old Key West”. Since Vacation Club memberships are flexible, require payment up front and yearly dues, and tend to sell pretty quickly, they are a relatively risk free way to build rooms in the Florida property. Even if you build a quality hotel, there’s no guarantee that anybody will come stay in it, and even if they do, it may take years to recoup costs. Vacation Club timeshares sell quickly and return dividends rapidly – as the fastest growing and most consistently profitable element of Walt Disney World by the end of the 1990’s, the writing was on the wall.
After the bottom fell out of the tourism industry in the United States in late 2001, Disney shut a number of resorts – including the Disney Institute. When it finally closed in 2002, the most cost effective measure was to convert the entire Lake Buena Vista development into Vacation Club properties, properties that continue to rake in profits every year – for 50 years. Disney chose to keep the newest developments – the Disney Institute “downtown” with its spa – and a bulldozer did what Eisner had not done back in 1995. Every original building was leveled.

Well, almost.

In the tourism slump which was fallout of the September 2001 terrorist attacks, Disney had quietly shuttered the Treehouses and was using them for housing for International College Program Cast Members. But 2004’s Hurricane Charley, which had unexpectedly hit Florida and caused nearly $13 billion dollars in damage, seriously impacted several original Treehouses and the entire complex was abandoned while construction continued on the site of the former Disney Institute.

Above: the Treehouse kitchen in 1976.
Below: the Treehouse kitchen in 2003, as Cast Member housing.

The Disney Institute concept’s lineage in the Chautauqua Institution resulted in an upper-crust New England atmosphere which had to be honored if the Institute buildings were to be kept, which in turn resulted in a new theme, another one borrowed from upstate New York and the old resort town of Saratoga. Because the original pools and recreation centers of the Lake Buena Vista Villas had been destroyed with the rest of the 1970’s structures, the Disney Institute’s amphitheater became a family-oriented swimming pool themed to Saratoga’s famed hot springs. Everything else remaining received a minor horse-themed overlay: the lobby became known as the “Carriage House”, the Seasons dining room re-opened as the “Turf Club” with whimsical jockey jackets on the walls, and so on. The new four-story, cookiecutter design hotel units matched the Disney Institute structures remarkably well except in one area – quaint charm. The first units of the Saratoga Springs Resort & Spa were ready in May of 2004.

While Saratoga Springs units were selling steadily, Disney turned their eye towards the abandoned Treehouse Villas. Since the Treehouses were on protected wetland, Disney couldn’t level the original structures and build more of the high rise buildings going up elsewhere in the new Saratoga Springs development due to a 1985 Florida wetlands protection law. Similarly, the 1990 Americans with Disability Act would cease protection of the original Treehouses under its’ “grandfather” clause if Disney were to attempt significant repairs on the damaged Treehouses, resulting in costly reconstruction efforts. The most cost efficient thing to do was to block off the entryway to the Treehouses and let them sit, which is what Disney did for several years.

Finally in 2007, the original Treehouses began to come down, replaced with modern versions which, unlike the 1974 Treehouses, were totally elevated, which increased the net drainage space under each structure and allowed Disney to legally work on the protected wetland. The new versions, large, sleek, and modern, opened in 2009 as deluxe accommodations. A legacy that had begun even before Walt Disney World had opened had finally ended.

The Club Lake Villas/Bungalows shortly before demolition.
The bridge was retained for Saratoga Springs, but rebuilt.

Next week: a Postscript and Why We Should Care

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Snapshot! - The Hyperion Film & Camera Exhange

I'm not sure how we managed to overlook this particular detail for so long.

Hidden amidst the upper floor business venues on Main Street USA in Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom is the Hyperion Film & Camera Exchange. It makes claim to the world's largest film library and provides daily screenings at 4 p.m.
We've decided to shamelessly use the Hyperion Film & Camera Exchange for our own synergetic devices here at 2719 Hyperion.  In honor of this most notable and auspicious company, we have collected our archived motion picture, cartoon and media reviews and articles together under the Hyperion Film & Camera Exchange banner. Going forward, reviews and articles presented on 2719 Hyperion relating to Disney film and movie-based entertainment will be archived there.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Pana-Vue Slide: Mission Control

We have been long overdue in resuming our Pana-Vue Slide series of posts.  Let's dust off the projector and screen for a return to some retro Disney World fun.

Pana-Vue Slide WDW-674 features one of our very favorite Tomorrowland personalities, the always knowledgeable Mr. Johnson of Mission Control.  Mr. Johnson oversaw Missions to Mars during his eighteen year tenure in Walt Disney World from 1975 to 1993.  His prior incarnation, Mr. Tom Morrow supervised Flights to the Moon from 1971 to 1975. 

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Multi-Dimensional Thinking

Almost a year ago, animation journalist and historian Jerry Beck made a rather stringent pronouncement on his Cartoon Brew blog:

"3-D is a fad."

Beck, a self-proclaimed 3-D fan, was quite harsh in his then assessment of the future of 3-D presented films.  He made this arguement:

" . . . the studios are promoting 3-D films right now in an effort to convince the theaters to convert to digital projection. Once all theatres go digital, there will be no need for the studios to create expensive 35mm prints, they’ll be no more costs for reels and cans; the cost of transporting 100 pound film canisters coast to coast, the cost of storing prints in film depots and later, the cost of destroying worn prints will be eliminated. The savings to the studios will be enormous."

He concluded:

"  . . . as soon as all theaters (or a majority of them) eliminate film and go completely digital, I predict the current 3-D fad will end."

Other well known film historians and critics have weighed in with similar harsh assessments of the current wave of 3-D movies.  Roger Ebert commented in 2008, "The 3-D process is like a zombie, a vampire, or a 17-year cicada: seemingly dead, but crawling out alive after a lapse of years. We need a wooden stake."

But this current wave of 3-D is showing no real signs of abating any time soon.  The movie-going public has apparently embraced the process and are enjoying the enhancement.  It is by no means everyone's cup of tea.  But at least at my local multiplexes, customers are given a choice of 3-D or 2-D; no one is being slighted in the movie-going process.

So returning to Mr. Beck's seemingly adamant statement of 3-D being a fad, he and others of similar persuasion will need to bring a lot more to the argument before I myself am wholly convinced.

The previous high-water mark for 3-D movie exhibitions extends all the way back to the general debut of process back in the early 1950s.  It's ultimate mainstream demise by 1955 related not so much to a public rejection of the principle of 3-D movies, but an inability to refine the process enough on a technical level to overcome issues of eye strain, picture quality and compatibility with theater venues that were more and more expanding to accommodate widescreen presentations.  Today's digital projection technologies have dramatically overcome these prior hurtles.  Sure, there are still occasional criticisms relating to eye strain and picture quality, but they have been very, very minimal and do not seem to pose any type of threat to the long-term viability of current 3-D digital processes.

More notable is, that beyond the backlash from a very vocal but distinctly small minority of critics and moviegoers, both the public and the film industry seem to have accepted 3-D and moved on.  So much so that the average moviegoer seems to have no problem ponying up the extra $ surcharge that theater owners attach to 3-D tickets.  And a 3-D connection to a film no longer necessarily comes with any critical baggage, as all the various awards and accolades for both Avatar and Pixar's Up would indicate.

Relating this discussion to " . . . the many worlds of Disney entertainment," as our tag-line suggests, is fairly obvious.  The Walt Disney Company has been one of the leading proponents of Digital 3-D, and has very much been reaping the box-office benefits thereto.  My first exposure to a digital 3-D film was Disney's Meet the Robinsons back in 2007 and I was extremely impressed with both the movie and the 3-D process.  I have since enjoyed Bolt, Up and Alice in Wonderland in 3-D presentations; I regret that I was not able to see the converted 3-D versions of The Nightmare Before Christmas and the Toy Story films.  I personally find that animated movies are far more compatible with 3-D, but cannot deny that Avatar was stunning in its 3-D presentation.  I found the picture for Alice in Wonderland to be a tad bit murky and dark, but I'm not sure whether to attribute that to the quirks of my own vision, Tim Burton's vision, or to the fact that the film was converted to 3-D in post-production.

Speaking for myself at least, the intention on the part of Hollywood to draw people back to movie theaters via the enticement of 3-D, is in fact effective.  Since last year, I have been quite content to see movies for the first time via my own high-definition home theater set-up, but a 3-D presentation of a movie I particularly want to see will send me out to a big-screen venue.

In the end, current digital 3-D is simply an enhancement to the movie-going experience.  It appears that most enjoy it, some do not.  It is not an essential component of any particular film; I have thoroughly enjoyed movies such as Up, Coraline and Meet the Robinsons in non-3-D presentations.  At the same time, I do not think that seeing Monsters Vs. Aliens in 3-D would have redeemed it for me on any level.   Three-dimensional mediocrity is still, well . . . mediocre.

With all due respect to Jerry Beck, who I have long followed and admired (and Roger Ebert to some extent as well), making predictions is a dangerous way to gamble with your own credibility.  Is it really worth the potential "I told you so" payoff that, at least in the case of digital 3-D, may not materialize any time soon?

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Drawing on Tradition: The Princess and the Frog

Drawing on Tradition:
The Princess and the Frog
By Jeff Pepper

The Princess and the Frog represented a major paradigm shift for me in terms of how I approach and ultimately purchase access to the latest Disney entertainment.

Translation:  I waited for the DVD.  More specifically, I waited for the Blu-Ray disc.  The cost for a family of four to go to the movies now well exceeds the price of even a deluxe edition Blu-Ray package.  For the first time that I can recall, I balked at running to the multiplex on opening day to see the latest Disney animated feature, and instead patiently waited a very short three months to enjoy The Princess and the Frog in the privacy and comfort of my own relatively well-furnished home theater.  As Bob Dylan would say, " . . . the times they are a changin'."

It's not that I wasn't anxious and excited to see the company's celebrated  return to traditional hand-drawn animation since Home on the Range underwhelmed both critics and audiences in 2004.   (Celebrated, if not just a tad disingenuous--after all it was Disney itself that killed 2D six years ago.)  It's just that I had been feeling a wee bit cynical throughout much of 2009 about the Walt Disney Company's overwhelming uber-synergetic marketing machine and its relatively transparent desire to drain my checking account.

Let me just quickly and unequivocally state that The Princess and Frog was totally undeserving of my somewhat immature and misdirected contempt.  It is a wonderful, energetic and very satisfying film that, while not groundbreaking or wholly original, still manages to set itself apart from the vast majority of over-produced animated fare that has crowded theaters for the past few years.  Despite the film's reliance on tried and true Disney formula, there is still oh so much to compliment and endorse.  The songs and score by Randy Newman infuse the story with a style wholly new to a Disney feature.  Animation is top drawer, backgrounds are lush and beautiful, characters are distinct and well-realized and the story moves along at an energetic and entertaining pace.  And similar to title character Tiana's passion for making the perfect gumbo, the film adds just the right dash of sentiment that will fill and break your heart at the same moment.

What truly impressed me most was the obvious desire on the part of the film's makers to not just return to the mechanics of hand-drawn animation, but to literally draw on techniques and visual styles that could never be realized or matched in computer-generated productions.  The musical sequences "Almost There" and "Friends on the Other Side" especially feature creative designs reminiscent of classic vignettes from films such as The Three Caballeros, Melody Time and Dumbo.  To think that some bone-headed executive decided five years ago that this type of visual expression was obsolete and irrelevant is both chilling and disturbing.  Thankfully, saner minds have been restored to Walt Disney Animation Studios.

Though the disc's supplemental features are a generally slight collection of very brief sound bite vignettes by the film's directors, cast and animators, they serve to very much illustrate the passion that these individuals had for bringing about a return of traditional animation to the Disney company.  The Princess and the Frog was truly a labor of love, especially for 1980s and 1990s animation veterans such as Mark Henn, Andreas Dejas, Eric Goldberg and directors John Musker and Ron Clements.  Experiencing their joy and enthusiasm by way of what are usually standard talking-head segments was an unexpected delight.

Though not a success on the level of a Pixar film, The Princess and the Frog demonstrates that a traditional animated feature can still be welcomed and enjoyed by critics and audiences alike.   Bravo to its creators, animators, cast and crew.  You have accomplished something truly meaningful at the precise moment in time when it so desperately needed to be accomplished.  Well done.

Monday, March 15, 2010

The Lake Buena Vista Story, Part Two: 1975 - 1982

By 1976, The Lake Buena Vista Club was hosting brunch. On Mondays, one could enjoy a Night of Wine & Roses – wine sampling at the Village Spirits, a rose from the Flower Garden, then a romantic, silent flote boate cruise to the Club for dinner. Tuesdays was Dinner for Tue, with a candlelit Club dinner followed by a moonlit cruise. Sundays brought about a Champagne Brunch with stops at Village Spirits, a flote boate cruise to the Club, and a brunch with eggs benedict and roast beef. And Disney was building again in Lake Buena Vista – this time to the West of the Lake Buena Vista Club, East of the Treehouse Villas, nestled comfortably between four golf holes – the 10th and 11th to the east and north, and the 17th and 18th to the west and south. Because of this, these became known as the “Fairway Villas”.

The Fairway Villas were amongst the most dramatic and distinctive of Disney’s developments in Lake Buena Vista, as well as the most architecturally sophisticated. From Walt Disney World: The First Decade:“Designed to showcase energy-efficient housing ideas, the Fairway Villas benefit from thoughtful positioning and energy-conserving construction methods and materials.

Exaggerated roof overhangs and double-glazed windows reduce heat absorption through exterior walls during warm weather. Air-to-air heat pumps serve as energy-minded air conditioners. When an air conditioner is on, heat is recovered from its condenser to provide hot water.

To preserve the major portion of the surrounding acreage for parks and recreation, Disney planners clustered the Lake Buena Vista Villas around heavily wooded courtyards and cul-de-sacs. Planners avoid the ‘grid’ system found in many neighborhoods, where residences are uniformly built on rows of small, square subdivided lots.

Most of the Villas look out onto natural surroundings, rather than onto other dwellings. Thus, clustering not only saves more space for recreation, it retains a sense of privacy while enhancing the spirit of community.”

And an earlier 1977 magazine: “The Villas, expected to yield energy savings of 50 percent with their unique design, each have a 720-square-foot living, dining, and kitchen area and two bedrooms, one of which can be combined with the adjoining Villa. Designed for family vacations, meetings, seminars, and executive conferences, the Villa units will be arranged so that as many as four bedrooms can be rented by one tenant.”

Crazy concept art for the LBV houses

The Treehouses and Fairway Villas, of course, had nearly as many windows as walls, and the Fairway villas had their distinctive skylights, encouraging the use of Florida’s ample sunlight instead of eclectic lamps. Car parking was provided underneath the Villas in dugouts. Today these touches may not be as impressive or obvious as something like the Universe of Energy’s solar panels but in 1976 they were stylish as well as forward thinking, something few residential houses can today claim. Disney even built full-scale residential houses in the style of a ranch house as part of this development, four of them: numbers 301, 302, 303 and 304, clustered around their own little cul-de-sac away from the other Villas. These were intended to be real honest to goodness houses, perhaps in later days as retirement houses for prominent Disney officials. Each had a little car / golf cart port and was built in a different style: southwest for 301, a beach house for 302. Number 303 was a square little ranch house and 304 was a grey little number with some volcanic rock accents.

The LBV houses in later days. Top to bottom, 301 - 304

The experiment was not repeated, and today the houses which are on Walt Disney World property remain hidden off 535 and on the far side of Bay Lake, a carefully selected “population” of less than 50 people.

In 1977, the Sun Bank building went up south of the Village, near Interstate-4 and SR 535. Read some 1978 Disney literature: “The first building of the new Office Plaza, developed by Oxford Properties, US, Ltd, boasts one of the country’s most up-to-date banking systems. The five-story building is the first phase of a planned 13-building office park on a 50-acre site.” Disney was building themselves quite a little town on the outskirts of their property.

1977 brought more changes to the Village. The Shopping Village was originally built on the south-eastern side of an inlet, with Captain Jack’s Oyster Bar, as the northernmost building, facing a sylvan forest. A bit further north along the Village Lagoon (by now re-named the Buena Vista Lagoon), the Vacation Villas had, for five years, faced a little bar of land in the middle of the Lagoon as it narrowed into the canal system near the Lake Buena Vista Club. Disney dammed up an area to the north-west of the Pottery Chalet, sliced off several dozen feet of land off the Villages cozy cove - turning it into more of a bay - removed the island facing the Villas, and began construction of the Empress Lilly Riverboat.

Between it and the pottery Chalet they built the Village Pavilion, a series of interlocked structures housing three new eateries. When the Empress Lilly opened, a new dock was added on the water side of the vessel, facing Captain Jack’s. Now the flote boats would depart exclusively from the Lake Buena Vista Club and silently dock alongside the Lilly, disembarking passengers ascending a gentle ramp and emerging into the Promenade Lounge. Motorboats would ply between “Cruise Dock West”, near Captain Jack’s, and the Lake Buena Vista Club.

The 1977 expansions officially brought a name change to the Village, now the Walt Disney World Village at Lake Buena Vista.

Since the earliest days of the Lake Buena Vista Club, a canal wrapping around its north face had always widened into an elongated dewdrop of a lake, called Club Lake. And in 1978 a series of little buildings began to spring up along the shores of Club Lake, on the shore near the Club and across from it, in what would turn out to be Lake Buena Vista’s final growth spurt in over a decade… The Club Lake Villas.

Probably the most charming of the Lake Buena Vista developments surrounding the Clubhouse, the Club Lake Villas were smaller one-family townhouse type accommodations with a bedroom, a square little living room generously splashed in sunlight thanks to dramatically vertical ceilings and skylights, and a kitchenette. They were clustered in little courtyards with roundabouts between each grouping of four, and each Villa looked out across Club Lake at the far side’s grouping of Villas. A long wooden footbridge was constructed to link the Villas on the north side of Club Lake with the Villas on the south side, which had their own pool and recreation facilities. Or one could follow the golf cart path onto the Lake Buena Vista Club and her pool and marina.

In 1978, the Post Office had moved out of its’ spot in the Village to make way for an expansion of the Village Spirits shop – The Vintage Cellar – and made its way over to the old Preview Center building, where the Lake Buena Vista Post Office became the Lake Buena Vista Welcome Center, offering check in services for those staying in the Villas (a temporary building off Buena Vista Blvd, the major vehicle entryway from Preview Blvd., had served as the Welcome Center until now).

Club Lake in the Institute days

Spring 1980, a high roofed structure surmounted with a signature square tower appeared along the northern coast of Club Lake – the Lake Buena Vista Conference Center. Aimed at the corporate sponsors Disney was still courting in 1980, the “8,000 square foot facility was designed to expressly for small to medium sized meetings and seminars. Movable walls in the cedar-covered, chalet-style building allows the four rooms to be configured in several ways. When the rooms are combined into one 6,500-square-foot space, more than 500 guests may be comfortably seated theater style. The Conference Center also features advanced lighting, sound and audio-visual systems, and can handle television broadcasts, press events and multi-media shows.”

And it was this arrangement – the Lake Buena Vista Golf Course, the Motor Plaza, the Clubhouse, the Marina, the Conference Center, the Treehouses, the Fairway Villas, Vacation Villas and Club Lake Villas – anchored by the Walt Disney World Village – that was pretty much the “finished” form of Lake Buena Vista for over ten years.

What is today hard to emphasize enough about this is how unique, not only for accommodations at Walt Disney World, but unique amongst each different kind of Villa, this community was. The Polynesian and Contemporary Resorts were a pretty standardized size of room, each not especially distinguished from any other high-end resort hotel except for the remarkable Disney design work outside their four walls and the location they were in. Disney themselves certainly never made too many claims that the actual experience of the rooms in their resorts was much to write home about, and priced them competitively in the 1970’s to make staying on property not only convenient but affordable.

The Golf Resort, in comparison, offered somewhat larger rooms, and the Campgrounds at Fort Wilderness larger still, with very large cabins and additional campsites added in 1978. But the Villas were really something else, truly room to spread out in. Not only that, if one wished to ‘go shopping’ amongst each model she could compare things like beddings, staircases, interior finish and kitchen facilities to find a truly comfortable, truly perfectly tailored “best fit”. In these days before Eisner’s aggressive expansion of Disney’s hotel properties, each unit could be uniquely designed and furnished, uniquely situated, uniquely tailored to an individual’s vacation needs. Although it’s hard to fault the hotel addiction on Eisner’s part too much if he gave us great architectural works like the Wilderness Lodge and Boardwalk, but each of those rooms are identical to the others in layout and basic amenities, a far cry from those funky, unique Villas dotting the landscape across from the Village. It may seem out of place here in 1978 to bring up Eisner, but in a very real way Eisner was to alter the future of the Villas… directly and indirectly.

Of course, as of the early eighties with the excitement of the Walt Disney World ‘Tencennial’ and the opening of EPCOT Center, none of that was even foreseeable. From a May 1982 interview with Dick Nunis:

“But what [Walt Disney] really wanted to do [in Florida] was develop an area where all types of corporations, governments, and academia could come together to really try and solve some of the problems that exist in the world today. We started with the recreation area, and then began the community, which is Walt Disney World Village, and now we’re building the center … Epcot Center, and we’re going to connect it all with the monorail system. […] In addition, we have some dreams for the Walt Disney World Village. From the Empress Lilly, we’re going into a New Orleans street, and you’ll walk right into a beautiful New Orleans hotel.”

To this end, in 1981, Disney began to purchase extra monorail beams and pillars from Morrison-Knudsen, a concrete manufacturer, who had also supplied the beams for EPCOT Center at a very reasonable price. Since 1977 Disney had been publishing and promoting a little model showing an expanded Walt Disney World Village, complete with a fully realized office complex, an expanded shopping village, and a monorail and peoplemover running through it – yes, a Peoplemover. As of 1976 the Lake Buena Vista Land Company had begun to plan for a Peoplemover to bring guests from the Motor Plaza hotels into the Village, stopping at the Pottery Chalet, and then moving on. On to where? Well..

“Future plans in the commercial area include a two million square foot office park to be developed in the next ten years. The project is contemplated as the headquarters offices for major financial institutions as well as for local professional business. The shopping village will be expanded in the next ten years to approximately 300,000 square feet. A multi-modal station will become the focal point for both the city [Lake Buena Vista] circulation system and the regional transportation network. There will be medium to high density living units constructed near the village lake front to create the balance of day and night activities in the commercial center.”

This multi-modal station would comprise bus, taxi, monorail and peoplemover transportation. According to “Lake Buena Vista Peoplemover”, a project proposal published in 1976 and from which the above is quoted, the station would link in with city and regional transportation with the aim of developing a city center “completely void of the private automobile”. This is a manifestation of Disney’s then-commitment to working with the state of Florida, which even in the early 1970’s was rapidly becoming one of the most quickly growing urban areas in the country and much of the local government’s interests at the time were geared towards reducing vehicular congestion. Interstate 4 was online as early as 1957, and in 1971 Disney had quickly constructed a “STOLport”, a small landing strip meant for intra-state commuter planes, another ambitious attempt by then Florida governor Reuben Askew to alleviate traffic congestion. The Florida state flight industry dried up before it even got started, and today the Walt Disney World STOLport sits abandoned. But a transit hub is undeniably a cornerstone of a growing community, which is what Lake Buena Vista was going to be. According to Disney’s plan, the Lake Buena Vista Villas was phase one of an elaborate four-community vacation community, comprising recreation themed communities – golf, tennis, boating and horses – and a transient population of 30,000!

A transient population of 30,000? A peoplemover through a downtown area of shopping and dining? Commercial highrises? Monorails? Modern homes situated in grassy, pastoral suburbs along cul-de-sacs instead of grids? Haven’t we heard this before? That’s right, it’s nearly every component of Walt Disney’s Progress City – only spread out across a huge area instead of the compact circle Walt Disney was envisioning in 1966. Disney was building a community – a real community – or at least trying to.

Come back next week when the Villas become an Institute, an Institute becomes a rubble pile and a hurricane destroys everything!