Friday, September 30, 2016

Animatronic Afterlife: Chapter 1 (2006)

"Thank you all for coming! Thank you, thank you, thank you! Please watch your step! Thank you! Thank you!"

The skeletal animatronic hands lowered down to the controls, pressing buttons and levers as the futuristic score played over the speakers. The nine screens around the theater had darkened once again.

As the last guest left the theater for the evening, a cast member pushed a button, causing the show host's hands to stop moving. The lights dimmed slightly, creating a false twilight in the room. She exited the room, opening a wall panel in the exit hallway and pushing a button, causing the automatic doors to close.

The hum of the time machine continued until after the park closed.

An evening cast member entered the entrance queue, making his way past the bubbling tubes and into a service door near the theater. He climbed a flight of steps to the main control room, situated behind the back curve of the theater. Flicking nine switches, he shut down each of the nine projectors. He pushed a sliding dial down, lowering the lights in the theater to pitch blackness. Through a hole where the projector was pointing into the theater, the cast member could see the skeletal animatronic's face, locked into a smile, his headset microphone extended above his fiber optic hair, illuminated by the dull red numbers of the year 2006. A dial was turned until it clicked into the off position, causing the hum of the time machine and the quiet music to become quieter and eventually cease. The cast member took a key out of a drawer in the control room and inserted it into a switch. He glanced once more at the darkened theater, the red pall of death dimly cast inside the circular chamber. He turned the key counterclockwise into the off position. There was a hum of machinery settling behind the animatronic's control panel. The animatronic host leaned forward slightly as the red digits of the year 2006 slowly became dimmer and dimmer until finally winking out.

"Good night, Timekeeper," the cast member said sadly. "Looks like your time has come."

To be continued...

Friday, September 23, 2016

28 Years.

Yesterday, September 22, was my 28th birthday.

Most people celebrate their birthdays. I, however, dread mine as it rolls around.

You see, I don't have a very high esteem of myself, and as a result, don't feel like I'm worth celebrating. Also, I try very hard not o be a selfish person, and instead hate being the center of attention. Plus, I've been through a lot over the past twelve months, and celebrating a birthday reminds me about the fact that I almost didn't have a 27th birthday, something that was quite traumatizing and I still have a very difficult time dealing with.

But let me back up a little and tell you about my day yesterday.

I woke up at 5:15, per my usual routine and went downstairs to have my coffee while reading on the couch. By 6:15, my boys came downstairs and peeked around the corner, running to me yelling happy birthday. My wife came in and kissed me, surprising me with a new sweater, a book about explorers that I can use in my Advanced Placement World History class, and tickets to Disney On Ice, something I've never experienced.

I came to school to get some grading and planning done before my high schoolers showed up, and my phone rang. It was my daughter, calling to sing me happy birthday as she was driving to school. She felt bad that she'd overslept and wasn't able to celebrate with me before I left for school.

My school day was rather unremarkable. I was supposed to meet my wife for Mexican food after school before picking up the boys from school, but a last-minute staff meeting was called and our dinner plans fell through. My daughter's tennis match, which was out of town, was cancelled, freeing up her evening. Finding out that I was going to be spending most of my evening alone due to my wife's school open house, she cancelled all plans with friends and came home to spend time with her brothers and I.

I took the kids out for McDonalds and then to walk around Target, spending a half hour trying on Halloween costumes and being silly with them.

After the kids were in bed, my wife and I lay in bed and watched New Girl. I realized I was disappointed that, while I was able to spend time with the kids last night, my birthday was nothing remarkable or special, nothing that was any different really from the other 364 days of the year. I was pretty disappointed.

When I woke up this morning, I got into the shower, looking forward to going downstairs to drink my coffee and read my book. As I came out of the bathroom, my wife was already up and had a set of suitcases on the bed. I was very confused.

You see, after having the kids for a year and a half, my wife haven't really had a chance to get away to spend time alone, her and I. We've had a hard time justifying alone time with the separation anxiety our boys have. She explained to me that she's taking me away for three days, to come home on Sunday, leaving the kids with our close friends.

My mind and emotions shut down. I didn't know how to respond.

As I drove to school and puttered around my classroom this morning, a realization hit me.

I don't need gifts. I don't need celebration or noise makers or people to make me meals and clean up the dishes.

I have a wife that knows me and my needs intimately, so much so that she planned a weekend away for the two of us to recharge from school and the craziness of parenthood.

I have an amazing teenage daughter who cares about me so much that she calls me in the morning to wish me a happy birthday and cancels all plans to spend time with her brothers and I, even if it means eating at a McDonalds and goofing with us at Target.

I have two boys that adore me and look up to me, so much so that they were excited it was my birthday.

I have an extended family of brothers, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and close friends who care deeply for me and took the time to Facebook, text and call me to let me know they were thinking about me.

I have students who were upset with me because I didn't tell them it was my birthday so they could celebrate with me.

I have life and am finally getting back to a place of health after an incredibly difficult year.

And I have passion. I have things that I care deeply about and enjoy. I have a heart for teenagers, so much so that I'm that "crazy guy" who hangs out with them for eight hours a day, not just teaching them about "dead white guys," but spending an hour during my lunch with a student who just needs someone to talk to about the crap going on in his world. I have my love for Disney, which inspires me to be creative and innocent, to know that there is good in the world. I have my love for music, which allows me relax and contemplate the bigger things in life. I have a love of history, which helps me to realize that as awful and crazy the world is right now, that it was the same way in the 1860s and the 1960s and yet humanity came out on the other side. But most of all, I have my faith in God, that no matter what happens in my life and my world, with his help, I can get through it and understand that there is a reason for all adversity that I may face.

So it's not really a happy birthday, but a happy life day, a happy me day. Not celebrating the day, 28 years ago, that I was born, but rather celebrating who I am, the good and bad I've been through that have made me into the person that I am today.

Friday, September 16, 2016

A Historical Backstory: The Birth of A Historical Tour

"You're doing what???" my parents asked quizzically.

"Yeah. I've decided I'm going to train for a half marathon." I explained with a smirk on my face. I held up the torn out page from my Runner's World magazine. I pointed at the picture. "It's in early January. I figure that since it is June now, that gives me seven months to train. If I were to run in a race before January, there's no way I could train thirteen miles by then."

"Okay, Andrew," my dad said. "If you think you can train for a half marathon between now and January, then we will figure out a way to get you down to Disney for the race. You just need to remember that you're starting your freshman year of college in two months and that your studies come first."

"I know, Dad."


"ARRRRRRGH!" My Dad and I yelled, alongside two cast members dressed as pirates while another runner took our picture.

We were getting ready to participate in the Pirate and Princess 5K at Disney-MGM Studios, early in the morning hours of January 5, 2007. My dad, not a runner at the time, had agreed to travel with me down to the Walt Disney World resort so I could participate in the Walt Disney World Half Marathon. However, he also agreed to train for the 5K the day before the half marathon. Together, we would run through MGM amid a number of cast members dressed like pirates and various Disney princesses. As we ran past the Sorcerer's Hat, my dad even joked with a group of princesses that he "may need CPR." The characters giggled royally and waved at him as he huffed past.

The following day, I would fulfill my dream of running the Walt Disney World half marathon, beginning outside Epcot, running up and through the Magic Kingdom, and finishing beneath Spaceship Earth. I would complete this race in 2 hours and 24 minutes, which was about thirty minutes slower than I completed the Grand Rapids Half Marathon three months before, at 1:54.

This weekend was a significant one in my life. I fulfilled my dream of completing another half marathon, this time in my favorite place on earth. Shortly after returning home, I would also meet a wonderful girl, the one I would eventually marry and start a family with. However, this weekend also meant that I missed out on something that could have been potentially important for me, but helped to cement my love of history. A few weeks before, on December 26, 2006, president Gerald R. Ford passed away. His funeral and burial would be conducted in my hometown of Grand Rapids Michigan, an event I missed while running the half marathon in WDW. As I returned home, I fervently researched the event and watched replays of his funeral which took place a few miles from my house, showing me the significance of history and the role my hometown played in American history.


"Here goes!" I said to my girlfriend as I clicked the send button. I watched as the article I wrote disappeared into the WorldWideWeb to the email address for Orlando Attractions Magazine. The founder of the magazine, a prominent Disney podcaster, had made an all-call a few weeks before asking his listeners to submit ideas and articles for the first issue of the travel magazine. I had decided to write about the trip my dad and I had taken to Orlando to run the half marathon, a story that would eventually be published in the premier issue of the magazine.

I would go on two write one more article published in the magazine, the topic dealing with Disney collecting and Disneyana. However, as the popularity of the magazine expanded and it became less "environmentally friendly" to publish magazines in print and the trend adjusted to blog articles, I approached the editor of the magazine with a new idea.

What if I, as a trained historian and aspiring history teacher, researched some of the more popular Disney attractions and argued whether the details in the attractions were historically accurate? The editor thought this was a great idea, but asked that we publish the article on the blog for the magazine.

I spent the next few months researching the historical details for one of my favorite Disney attractions, Pirates of the Caribbean. The final product was a ten page article, examining everything from the architecture of the burning town, the layout and historical facts behind the fort the queue winds through, to even the design of the attraction vehicles. I also examined whether pirates buried treasure, talked the way they are portrayed as speaking, and even whether pirates will "pillage, plunder, rifle, and loot." However, the editor of the magazine felt my article was "too academic" and did not fit his target audience. He insisted that I cut down my article to a more bite-sized entry that would appeal more to the layman. You can find the article eventually published here. I later went on to publish a second article about the Jungle Cruise, examining how the classic attraction was actually based on a very dark period of history, the age of imperialism. However, after publishing this article, I received an email from the editor of the magazine explaining that a few readers had written to him complaining about my "lack of understanding" on the Jungle Cruise, tearing my article apart by ultimately saying I didn't know what I was talking about, either in terms of historical fact or Disney history and details. He would go on to say that I either needed to prove my facts or he would pull my article from the site. I was adamant that I knew what I was talking about, citing sources from my extensive research, including courses I had taken in college and academic and literary pieces. The blog would eventually publish the following disclaimer on its website prior to my article.

"Editor’s Note: This article is Andrew’s interpretation of the history behind different sections of the Jungle Cruise attraction. No one knows exactly what the inspiration behind the design was except the Disney Imagineers who built it, so this article shouldn’t be taken as Disney fact, but how one man interprets it through research. His sources are listed below the article."

As a historian, this was a slap in the face. I was especially frustrated, as I had been told not to make it too academic so the layperson would actually read the article. I watered down the historical detail for the readers, and was now being disrespected as a historian both by readers and the person who had given me the opportunity to write. I took this as a sign that I would no longer write for the magazine, as the editor stood by the fact that I was wrong. I would not write historical articles for a long time after that. That was 2012.


In November, 2014, I received a rather odd email. I didn't recognize the name of the email nor the domain, and frankly I was not sure if it was legit or not. The email basically said something along the lines of "I've seen your historical research articles that you did for Attractions Magazine and I am wondering if you'd be interested in writing a book similar to the research you did for those articles." I looked into the publishing firm to find that Theme Park Press had actually published some authors with which I was already familiar, including Jim Korkis and Didier Ghez. I began writing back and forth with the publisher, pitching him some ideas of chapters I would like to include in my first book, which would become A Historical Tour of Walt Disney World Vol. 1. He agreed to allow me to use my original academic essays written about Pirates of the Caribbean and the Jungle Cruise that the editor of Attractions Magazine later made me cut down for the lay reader (as a result, if you're interested in knowing more historical detail behind the attractions, read Vol. 1 for more info). These two chapters would be joined by chapters detailing Main Street USA, Adventureland, the Enchanted Tiki Room, the Crystal Palace, Tomorrowland, and the Carousel of Progress, published in March, 2015.

And the rest, as they say, is history. I've once again accomplished a lifelong dream of becoming a published author, not once but twice with the recent publishing of A Historical Tour of Walt Disney World, Vol. 2, both of which can be found on Amazon (here and here) or Volume 2 focuses on topics including Spaceship Earth, Casey's Corner, Storybook Circus, the Country Bear Jamboree, and the Sunset Ranch Market.

A Historical Tour of Walt Disney World, Vol. 3 is in production, although after hard work on writing Vol. 2 during my recovery from a traumatic injury (which I'll write about in the future) in only four months, I've decided to take a bit of a break from regular writing.

Thanks as always for reading! I'll be taking a break from the blogosphere for the weekend. Enjoy your weekend!


Thursday, September 15, 2016

Honey, I LOST The Kid Playground

I opened my eyes. I couldn't believe it.

I was standing in the middle of a forest, but rather than trees surrounding me, tall fiberglass blades of grass towered all around, springing up out of a spongy, rubber ground. Mounds of fake earth led up to rocks made of concrete, while a single brown ant the size of a small elephant stood off to the side. A large plastic Lego block cast a shadow over the area in a similar manner to other larger-than-life household items.

And the entire area was scurrying with the most terrifying creatures of all: other children.

Having grown up during the early 1990s, I was familiar with the Honey film franchise (Honey I Shrunk the Kids, Honey I Blew Up the Kid, Honey We Shrunk Ourselves). I understood the context for the playground at Disney-MGM Studios, something that has been lost to the most recent generation, many of whom would give a quizzical look if you mentioned Wayne Szalinski, asking if you're talking about the hockey player (although I doubt many of today's youth would be familiar with Wayne Gretzky, either). As a result, I was immediately immersed in the world of the film, living the scene in the film when Nicky and Amy are attempting to make it through their backyard back to the house so they can become unshrunk. Looking back on the film and the playground now, I realize how much junk the Szalinski's have in their backyard (leading me to wonder if I'm that bad).

My parents had brought me into the HISTK Playground to escape some of the Florida sun, shortly after ending our three or four hour Backlot Studio Tour. They decided to stand off to the side, where they could relax in the shade while I played. Being an only child, I was reluctant to go off and play. And being an only child, I was nervous around (or better than?) other kids. They suggested I go over to the giant slide meant to look like an "old" camera film canister, and I begrudgingly went along with their ploy. I began to walk up the rubber steps, headed in that direction, entering the "fibergrass" (see what I did there?) forest, hiding the rest of the playground from view. Being only four or five, I wasn't that great at direction yet, and as I came to a split, decided to go in the most obvious direction, away from the film slide. I wandered around the playground, somehow managing to stay out of my parents' sightline (I mean, let's be was the 90s and parents weren't too concerned about kids being around strangers, as long as they didn't offer you candy). I discovered a large black dog's nose sticking between some enormous blades of grass. The nose began to sniff, blowing air through my bowl cut. A large hose hung over a clearing, dripping water out of the tip every time someone stepped on a pressure point on the ground. I hobbled over giant cheerios that were obviously never saturated in milk, because they were as hard as concrete, and scurried up a spider's web, terrified of getting stuck and ending up as someone's snack.

Finally, I found a way out of the maze of grass stems and ginormous litter. It was a walkway situated between a corrugated metal wall and a ten-foot-high fence. Metal signs hung from horizontal poles over the walkway. As I came to the end of the walkway, I found myself standing before a bottle of Coca-Cola that was three times my height, spewing steam out of the cap. A fountain stood nearby with dolphins and a naked mermaid. People rushed past me. I realized I wasn't where I was supposed to be. I started to cry.

Luckily, a kind cast member named Harry (okay, I lied, I don't really remember his name) found me and asked me where my parents were. I admitted that I was supposed to go down the film strip slide but got lost. He took my hand and guided me back down the path into the HISTK Playground, where we found my kids. I was "lost" for maybe forty-five seconds, but in my mind, it felt like a lot longer.

"Please don't ever leave me ever again!" I pleaded with my parents.

"Okay, Andrew." They responded, caringly. "Now go on the slide."

Again, reluctantly, I climbed the rubber/concrete/dirt steps, but took the opposite split at the top. I found the large black, yellow, and gray tube of film and rode down the slide. As my parents took my picture, I crossed my arms and frowned.

Stupid slide.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

PizzeRizzo and Gonzo's Royal Flush: Where I Hope The Muppets Go

Stretching back to the original concept of Disneyland in 1955, Walt Disney had originally wanted to put his guests into his live-action and animated films. In fact, in many of these original dark ride attractions, many guests were disappointed to find that the titular characters never even made an appearance. For example, in Snow White's Adventures, many rode through the attraction and noticed that the original Disney princess was no where to be found. Many didn't understand that the guests themselves were meant to step into the role of the characters and live their story in the three-dimensional world created by WED.

WDI has continued this tradition of placing guests into the midst of the films, stories, and universes over the past sixty years, continuing this tradition to the east coast at Walt Disney World. This became a literal reality in 1989 with the opening of Disney-MGM Studios, the third theme park in the 46-square-mile vacation complex. One of my personal favorite parts of the park was the back corner of the park, which included the Honey, I Shrunk the Kids playground, the Backlot Studio Tour, and MuppetVision 3D. During the mid-90s, the park went through various refurbs, and the Toy Story Pizza Planet Arcade opened across from MuppetVision 3D. Based loosely on the restaurant from the original Disney-Pixar film, Toy Story, the Pizza Planet Arcade served personal pan pizzas and side salads until its closure earlier this year.

While I personally loved these Disney pizzas, I always believed the execution of theming here was off. I saw Toy Story in theaters when I was seven years old and instantly fell in love with the film series. Shortly after Christmas of 1995, I received as a gift from my parents the PC and Sega Genesis games based on the film, which included levels taking place in the space-age restaurant. One of the levels even included the alien-shaped slushy machines from the film that vomit out different colored slushy concoctions, requiring the player to remember the order in which the aliens barfed the delicious icy treats.

I didn't first eat at Pizza Planet until the early or mid-2000s, but when I entered the restaurant, I was immediately disappointed. Rather than being themed to the awesome restaurant from the film, I was in a very basic quick-service video arcade. The games did not include a rocket-shaped claw machine from which I could grab a three eyed LGM (Little Green Man, for those of you not accustomed to Toy Story/Buzz Lightyear: the TV series lingo), nor was there a Whack-a-Alien game for me to crush aliens popping out of an astronaut's chest. I was devastated that there were no giant purple alien robots guarding the door, and especially upset that I was not able to drink the projectile vomit from the mouths of the aforementioned alien mouths. Rather, the decorations were made up of painted murals on the wall, static statues hanging from the ceiling, and a random assortment of arcade games guests could find at their local Chuck E. Cheese or Dave and Buster's restaurants.

Why couldn't they have incorporated better theming? I understand that this was simply a way to fill a gap for quick-service dining location. However, with the rich opportunity for theming ripe for the "clawing," I feel as though Imagineering fell flat.

Recently announced is a new iteration of the dining location, PizzeRizzo. Named after the character, Rizzo the Rat from the Muppet universe, this quick service dining location will also serve pizza. Unfortunately, very little has been released by WDI in the way of concept art, save a few pictures of what the exterior of the building will look like. The brick facade will feature architectural styles reminiscent of Italian pizza joints in New York, complete with red, green, and white signs and flags. A large sign will sit atop the building, outlining the name and manager in neon. A small nod to the previous restaurant explains that the establishment will serve the "Best Pizza on the Planet!" One of the key features of the restaurant will be a second-level exterior seating area overlooking the Muppet Courtyard, while a blue water tower crowns the roof of the building featuring a flying tomato below the word, "Heckler," perhaps a reference to Statler and Waldorf or even a verbal and physical attack against some of Fozzie's lame jokes.

Since there's been no concept art released for the restaurant's interior, I have high hopes. Rizzo the Rat worked in a New York restaurant in the 1984 film, Muppets Take Manhattan, alongside his family members, many of which looked like Rizzo but wearing different clothes and big 1980s hair. Kermit originally "meets" Rizzo when he goes in for a bite, ultimately befriending one of the human waitresses, much to the chagrin of Miss Piggy. Without knowing too much of the backstory of PizzeRizzo at this point, it seems as though Rizzo was able to leave his job in the kitchen of the Manhattan diner and open his own pizza eatery.

So where would I love to see PizzeRizzo go? I would love some animatronic puppets of Rizzo and his rat family working in a kitchen or sticking their heads out of mouse holes. Disney has used Living Character technology in the past, such as MuppetLabs starring Beaker and Honeydew, as well as the upcoming live show starring the Muppets in Liberty Square (more on this bane of my existence later). Even if not operated by a live cast member, an animatronic Rizzo could use pre-recorded lines similar to the Mr. Potato Head animatronic in the queue of Toy Story Mania. It might even be entertaining if there was a life-size walk-around character of Rizzo to pose and interact with guests, like there is of the proprietor of Chuck E. Cheese. This wouldn't be too unreasonable, as it would be a self-deprecating joke by Disney, much in the manner of having Rizzo posing as Mickey Mouse in the MuppetVision 3D preshow video. If Disney opted not to do animatronics, I think that a translucent window showing the shadows of various Muppet waiters scurrying around the kitchen in the same vein as the concourse window from StarTours 2.0 would work as well.

And how about Gonzo's Royal Flush bathrooms? We all know that Gonzo is something of a daredevil. How cool would it be if guests had to dodge flying toilet paper rolls or Lou Zeeland's flying fish to get to the bathroom or if a hole in the wall tooted an odd sound while smoke erupted from it every time guests flushed the toilet, referencing the running joke from the opening credits of The Muppet Show? What if Sam Eagle instructed guests on proper handwashing technique from the other side of the mirror or the voices of Statler and Waldorf made fun of individuals as they did their business in the stalls? But in all seriousness, there could be plenty of zany Muppet puns and humor in the bathrooms. I mean, think about the awesome theming for Magic Kingdom's Tangled restrooms and how great they could do restrooms themed around everyone's favorite fuzzy puppets?

Disney has the capacity for doing great things with theming lately, and I hope for my sake, and that of future guests, they don't let me down.

Blog Post 1: Origins

Let me start out by being completely honest with you about a few things:
1.) I love Walt Disney World.
2.) I love history.
3.) I love history so much that I studied the Walt Disney World attractions and wrote some books about the historical accuracy of the parks.
4.) My books are not doing as well as I would like.

Now that I've thrown those out there, especially number four, let me explain to you the purpose of this blog.

Advertisement. Self-promotion.

I know what you're thinking: I don't want to read some guy's constant advertisements about why I should buy his book! Trust me, I get it. I frequent a lot of popular (and not so popular) Disney blogs and forums and get sick of the shameless self-promotion for individuals in the Disney community wanting to make a buck. Don't get me wrong. I'm a teacher in the great state of North Carolina, receiving the second lowest teacher salary in the country, so the selling of my books helps to supplement my income on a quarterly basis.

However, that's not the route I would like to take.

The best part for me in becoming an author with work published about my passion is getting to know people throughout the InterWebs. I've created a Twitter page (@HistTourWDW) and a Facebook Page (A Historical Tour of Walt Disney World),  and through these social media outlets, have made some new friends who understand my oddball hobby and passion and...let's face it--obsession.

So rather than my blog being an infomercial, I figured this can be more of an outlet for me to discuss my thoughts on the goings-on of the parks, to offer park visiting advice to newbies, to give short snippets of my historical research on the validity of the parks, and even offer glimpses to future projects that I'm working on. And maybe in the process, you'll be interested (or sympathetic) enough to purchase one or both of my books. :)