A different look at Disney...

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A little birdie whispered something disturbing in my ear recently: imagine if the Disney World you know and love was gone in a quarter century. Oh, there would be the same parks there to visit, but what if they were run by someone other than Disney, in the model of the Disney Stores or the Tokyo Disney resort? What if someone else controlled the hotels, ran the restaurants, and, as blasphemous as it seems to us right now, also operated the parks and rides themselves, and Disney only collected a licensing fee?

We may yet see that, friends and neighbors. What could cause Disney to give up its precious cash cow? Why, the cash cow no longer making money hand over fist, of course. And what kind of impossible scenario could create that, where Disney World no longer made money? Well, it's not impossible after all, but it's certainly nightmarish: the oil crunch possibly heading our way.

There are wildly different accounts and interpretations of what kind of future we might be facing regarding oil. There are prognosticators who confidently predict that not only has the world used up less than half of the 'proven reserves' out there, but that we're finding more all the time (indeed, that's almost a direct quote from Bill Nye in Epcot's Energy pavilion). But at the other end of the spectrum, people are making more and more noise about 'peak oil', also called Hubbert's Peak, named after a Shell geologist who predicted, correctly, that US production of oil would peak and then decline in the 1970s, and predicted a world peak in 1995. Hubbert was obviously off about world production, which is still climbing, but some experts warn that the 1970s oil instability caused the delay, and that the peak will be reached any day now (indeed, some claim it's happened already).

Imagine the markups that would be taken at the on property gas stations.
Imagine the markups that would be taken at the on property gas stations.

Big deal, you may be thinking, we still have half the oil left! Not so fast. China, India, and the emerging countries now gobble oil, whereas before they only sipped. Much worse is the fact that the remaining oil is much harder to obtain and much, MUCH more costly. The result, these folks claim, is that oil prices could rise sharply higher, and the entire economy take a turn for the worst. On a dime. Permanently. We're talking $200 barrels of oil (it's around $70 now, and was at $40 only a few years ago, and an incredible $10 in the late 1990s). The news only gets worse--as inventories shrink and demand STILL goes up, remembering that other countries will continue to need more energy, the prices will soar ever more. The really bad predictions say all this could occur in the span of just a year or two, once it starts. Remember, experts vary wildly on whether this event will even occur.

But Disney, understandably, is nervous. Shortly after 9/11 rocked the economy and put a very sizeable dent in airline travel, Disney re-examined its assumptions about the business it was in, and commissioned an internal study in the past couple of years, hiring a major investment banking and consulting firm to help them drum up scenarios. Not wanting to repeat the tourist shock of 9/11, Disney wanted to know what the future might bring. What's the worst-case scenario, they asked?

Turns out there are some pretty bad scenarios. The hired accountants brought back a picture of Disney World that no one wanted to hear. As you might suspect, there does come a time at which point oil is so expensive that Disney World ceases to make money. That part is intuitive enough--just imagine oil costing a hypothetical $2,000 per barrel, and a flight from Los Angeles costing $40,000. No one would fly to Disney World, right? To bring the numbers back to reality, the breaking point at which Disney World would no longer make money is much closer than we think: something less than $200/barrel of oil, perhaps as low as $160/barrel. True, that's more than twice the current level. But if you'd told me in 1999 that oil would vault from $10 to $70 in less than a decade, a seven-fold increase, and people would simply accept it, then I wouldn't have believed that either.

If you want to scare yourself--badly--then pick up a book called The Long Emergency by James Howard Kunstler, or just read the excerpts at www.rollingstone.com for the short version. Kunstler is at the far extreme end of pessimists on this oil peak business, and he's envisioning nothing less than the breakdown of society and a return to rural living. Cities would first contract, then die out entirely. Oil, it turns out, is needed not just for cars and planes, but trucks to move goods and also to move food around. Kunstler asks this pointed question: does your community have land enough to grow its own food? If there was no gasoline, you'd need to eat local food only. Kunstler is talking about this kind of scenario by 2030 at latest, with the first signs of the 'emergency' beginning no later than 2012.

Disney isn't thinking quite so dramatically. But they do have this oil situation on their radar. They got pretty badly burned by 9/11, so they want to avoid a repeat performance. So what do you do to avoid injuring your income during such a crisis? Well, one option is to let someone else take the body blow.

In a nutshell, Disney has plans around that could include divesting itself of much of its Florida property. I do mean the excess land (there's a 25 acre parcel for sale south of DAK Lodge and along 192 right now, in fact), but I also mean the hotels. It is no accident that the two major hotel constructions on property right now do not belong to Disney. There's a Four Seasons going into the NW corner, and at Bonnet Creek (where the land isn't owned by Disney), a Waldorf-Astoria, a Wyndham, and a Hilton are going up. What are the odds that the hotels built for the eventual Western Beltway Expansion (still not much happening there; just a dirt lot) might also be licensed out? And there are whispers that another large deal, like the Four Seasons, might be announced soon, involving yet another external party.

But I'm talking about more than just hotels. If you're Disney and you want to recession-proof yourself, frankly you don't want to be the owner of the parks themselves anymore. Rather, you want to be the one collecting licensing fees. That's the model for the Disney Stores and the model for the Tokyo Disney Resort as well. Still, it's hard to imagine the WDW parks being run by someone other than Disney. I have a hard time even conceiving of it. Who would run the parks? Would quality suffer? Would they get new rides all the time still? It seems inconceivable.

Monorail Gold, like Monorail Lime, now has no central 
bar to get in the way of strollers. If the unthinkable happened and Disney sold 
things off, would improvements still come often?
Monorail Gold, like Monorail Lime, now has no central bar to get in the way of strollers.
If the unthinkable happened and Disney sold things off, would improvements still come often?

And yet... something about this also makes sense. It helps things fall into place. It's in keeping with Disney's recent strategy and expansions. Consider:

  • Disney is not only passing on the chance to reclaim lessee restaurants (like Alfredo's) as its own, Disney is even expanding the presence and reliance on outside restaurant chains. Consider the Yak and Yeti going into DAK, to be run by Landry's.
  • Disney wants to ramp up per-person spending at the WDW property, because they realize trends are for people to visit less often. Disney hopes that means they'll spend more when they DO visit. Increased oil costs definitely factor into tourists' decisions to travel now or delay yet another year.
  • Disney wants to expand in China, probably in Shanghai, because this is a major metropolitan center that, unlike Orlando, can support a Disney park even if oil were to collapse world markets.
  • Disney wants to bring regional hotels and very minor amusement parks to cities around the world (the so-called Location-Based Entertainment, or LBE). The oil problem makes the LBE move logical, even prescient. In fact, I could see the LBE concept coming to American cities after all, if the oil problem gets to be bad enough. Disney World would suffer dreadful declines in attendance, but local amusement park operators (Six Flags, this means you!) may benefit. Disneyland in Anaheim is probably OK and wouldn't need to be sold, since it relies so heavily on its base of locals.
  • Speaking of Anaheim, Disney isn't going to own the new 'Disney' hotels in GardenWalk, as our own Al Lutz reported recently, in a further example of pieces falling into place once we learn of this global wariness regarding ownership.
  • Disney is pushing the DVC concept hard not only because it's great profit for the company now, but also because it 'locks in' visitors to come back here year after year. This is as close as you get in this business to a guarantee that the tourists will come back, even if oil prices are much higher. Hotel ownership offers no such guarantee.
  • DAK Lodge DVC is under construction – this plot of land is BIG!
    DAK Lodge DVC is under construction – this plot of land is BIG!

    Disney is a publicly-traded company and its first allegiance is to its bondholders and shareholders--it has to make money. They'd be remiss if they didn't consider master plans that take major shifts of the economy into account. On September 17, Disney CFO Thomas Staggs held a press conference and announced that Disney so far isn't feeling the effects of a national downturn, though international travel still hasn't recovered to the pre-9/11 levels, even after all these years.

    It should be noted that there isn't much new about this plan--Disney has been thinking these thoughts for some time. The plans on the books include a scenario to completely divest itself of the hotels, the land, and the parks within twenty-five years.

    I must stress that Disney having plans is not the same thing as saying that they will actually use the plans. Think of them as options, or even as contingency plans. But Disney may yet have to consider them. A good many analysts think the lifespan of the major airlines can be measured in decades, not centuries, and air travel as we know it may not return again. If that happens, Disney World will face a gigantic crunch, since so many people fly here.

    Maybe it's not so inconceivable that they could sell off the parks, after all. Let's hope for all our sakes that the oil crunch doesn't happen. Thankfully, there's nothing imminent about this story.

    Haunted Mansion, 2.0

    It's going to be very hard, after the possibilities mentioned above, to drum up enthusiasm for any other updates, but I've got a sure-fire way to perk myself up: just think about the Haunted Mansion as it is now, and put any talk of the future out of the way.

    Late last week, the Magic Kingdom removed the customized refurbishment wall and unveiled Haunted Mansion 2.0, and what an amazing difference it is! It's not unusual for a ride to have an annual rehab period, during which things are repainted, replaced, and made spiffy again. But it's very common in the real world of dollars and cents that not everything hoped-for gets accomplished in those annual rehabs; there always seems to be a compromise. But in the case of this HM refurb, no such compromise appears to have been necessary. The Mansion is a premier attraction again!

    A vintage postcard.
    A vintage WDW Haunted Mansion postcard.

    I hesitate to say the place sparkles--after all, the inside is supposed to be dirty and full of cobwebs. Is it a compliment to say "it's dirtier than ever" inside? Because it is. And yet the things that are supposed to be clear really are clear. Take, for instance, the luminosity of the ghosts in the ballroom scene, accomplished by a magician's effect called "Pepper's Ghost". These guys had been getting rather pale and dim. This is a very real part of why people, such as MiceAge's own Al Lutz, come away from WDW sometimes thinking that the place is pretty stale. When effects are allowed to droop into mere imitations of themselves, and lose their greatness, they stop being effective. Well, no more. The ballroom ghosts are bright and colorful--they must have dusted this window over here and changed out that light source over there; whatever they did, it "sparkles".

    Doombuggies were often jerky and rough before the rehab. By replacing many of these, and presumably re-machining some of the parts in the system down in the track, they have restored smoothness to the ride. This isn't just nice and a matter of comfort; the smoothness is part of the theme of the ride. It helps establish the mood and character of the set, if you will. Spookiness and creepiness are harder to achieve when the ride vehicle spasms at every turn.

    Audio was muted in several parts of the ride. The doombuggy speakers were, well, buggy, and audio cut out entirely sometimes. This has been addressed. But also environmental sounds have been restored, and this really makes a difference in places like the graveyard, where more than a dozen individual tracks at any one moment overlap, harmonize, and swell together into an incongruous mixture I think of as a harmonic cacophony. These audio tracks are again crisp, clear, and they make the scene really pop. It was surprising how much of the ride is made better by restored audio effects.

    And yet, it wasn't all restoration. A great many new things were added too (Note: the rest of the article is full of spoilers! Click here to skip them.)

    One of the most noticeable, and most exciting changes, is that one set in the middle of the ride has been changed out. Previously, after the library and busts-that-follow-your-gaze, we passed a sofa and the ghost pianist as we headed up a grand staircase. At the top of the staircase were oversized cobwebs on either side, with a colorful spider, furry and unrealistic at about two feet across, at the center of each web. The effect always recalled similar spiders in Knott's Berry Farm's 'Knott's Berry Tales' ride, and it was cartoony, not scary.

    The entire staircase scene has been replaced by a new effect. There are staircases all around you--left, right, and even above. Some are upside down. They head in all directions without rhyme or reason, often overlapping each other and seemingly moving in circles; the cumulative effect is very much like the artwork of M.C. Escher, noted for optical illusions involving staircases. That analogy is also apt since there is assuredly some optical illusion or three utilized here to make the field of staircases look so eternal. On first ride-through, visitors are doubtless going to come away completely unsure of how the effect is created; it's that good.

    Lit dimly and yet enticingly, the staircases manage to look inviting but also creepy. The spooky element is also helped along by illuminated footsteps that ascend some of the staircases as you pass by, implying ghosts are moving around the house.

    You won't find this wallpaper pattern at Home Depot.
    You won't find this wallpaper pattern at Home Depot.

    At the top of our ascent, the darkness and gloom is penetrated by distinctively-shaped eyes peering at us; we see them because they are illuminated, and shine through the darkness. We round a turn at the top and the light gradually returns. In a stroke of absolute brilliance, someone crafted a meld between sets using those illuminated eyes. As the background moves from darkness to dimly lit, those illuminated eyes go from bright illuminations to dim lights superimposed over patterns on the wall, to just wallpaper. Yes, it's the same old wallpaper as before in the 'haunted hallway' (where something's trying to break down the doors), and the genius of the rehab is that they kept that design of eyes in this wallpaper, and made illuminated versions to transition from the previous set. It's a glorious effect, and so seemingly simple, but all the more inventive for that.

    There were a few prominent changes incorporated from recent upgrades to Anaheim's Haunted Mansion. First, the séance scene, when Madame Leota calls the ghosts into existence (notice how they are invisible until Leota calls them out?), the room was previously quite static, as doombuggies rotated around a stationary Leota. Now, Leota's crystal ball floats high above the table and moves around; the effect is dynamic and it injects some needed kinetics into this scene. I was highly irritated that I was allowed to only enjoy this effect for a mere two seconds before the idiot in the doombuggy next to me took a flash photo, thereby illuminating the wires and showing me how it was done. I couldn't undo the mental picture of the wires after that or on ensuing rides, so in this one moment, the effect was ruined for me.

    Leota floats, but the table doesn't move.
    Leota floats, but the table doesn't move.

    The other major change imported from Anaheim is the attic segment. My four year old loved the ghosts that would jump up here from behind objects and loudly cry "AHHH" (my son called it the 'boo-ahh' room, as if they were playing hide and seek with us). He's crushed that those ghosts are now gone (of course, he also laments the demise of the wand on Spaceship Earth, and any jokes about the need for a paternity test aside, this really points out the generational differences when viewing Disney parks).

    What's there now is a completely different set of objects in the attic, many more cobwebs than before, and an entire backstory. The objects in here refer to a 'black widow' bride, a woman who gets married over and over, and one can see paintings of her with various men (although their heads are missing, in a sinister foreshadowing of the truth: she has killed them). The bride herself now appears on the left (it used to be on the right), she has more visible features than she used to, and she now talks (via projection on her statue) about killing, as a hatchet appears in her ghostly hand. The overall effect is to install a single backstory to the attraction in this one room. Apparently, this is her mansion, and the ghosts are her former husbands. This also explains the hanging corpse from the stretching gallery. Previously, the attraction didn't really have a cohesive backstory, though it had elements of three separate ones.

    Another element imported from Anaheim comes in the form of the 'changing portraits' that switch between 'normal' and 'haunted' modes, such as a sailing ship whose sails are either whole or ratted. These have been added to the ride portion, in a hallway right after the ride starts and just before the library. The portraits don't simply fade back and forth on a timer. They stay in 'normal' mode until lightning flashes from the windows on the other side of our doombuggies, and for the duration of that flash, they switch over to 'haunted' mode. It's a very convincing effect. Previously, this hallway was home to portraits that had eyes which followed you as you passed by. Those portraits now hang in the loading zone, on the opposite side of the doombuggies from the moving platform.

    The changes imported from California and the new endless staircases do much to rejuvenate the attraction, but they are joined by another effect new to the East Coast version of the ride: an enhanced stretching gallery. Sure, the paintings look clean and great, but it's not the visuals here which catch attention--it's the audio. The sound has been remastered, but the trick here is the introduction of very effective surround-sound, and the adjustment of the existing sound tracks to make use of the new speakers, which include powerful new subwoofers.

    Paul Frees' voice as the Ghost Host now reverberates with more tenor and timbre, and you feel it almost in your bones. Better yet, it doesn't simply emanate from one speaker and then jump to the other side of the gallery. Instead, his voice swirls around one speaker, bleeding slightly over into other speakers, and then moves more organically around the room. The voice kind of fades in, as though penetrating our realm from the spectral barrier. Echo effects add still more chill to the presentation.

    In the 1965 Disneyland 10th Anniversary show host 
Walt Disney gives Julie Reihm (the park's first Ambassador) an advance peek at 
the Haunted Mansion stretching room portraits. The ride finally opened in 1969.
    In the 1965 Disneyland 10th Anniversary show host Walt Disney gives Julie Reihm
    (the park's first Ambassador) an advance peek at the Haunted Mansion
    stretching room portraits. The ride finally opened in 1969.

    In short, this really feels haunted. It's like every major Hollywood version of a haunted house, with an authentically chilling disembodied voice. On top of all this, there are very loud creaking sounds--you can hear the room actually stretching for the first time. The corpse hanging from the ceiling is illuminated, and one hears bats fluttering away loudly. Loud is also a good way to describe the crash of the corpse onto the floor below. As in, so loud you halfway expect the floor to move slightly when the corpse supposedly hits the ground with an amplified thud.

    With this one room, the Mansion puts to rest the debate Imagineers had just after Walt's death, when the attraction was not yet finished. "Should it be scary or fun?" they wondered, and in the end, it was a little of both. The graveyard and its song amplified the fun side. While the song is still there at the end of the ride and the ride is presumably still supposed to be fun, this new stretching gallery puts forward a much more sinister, scary vision at the start. There is no trace of fun in the Ghost Host's voice here in the stretching gallery. It's all spookiness and creepiness. One friend said his young child was mildly scared of the Mansion before and now is really scared. I also witnessed another girl, maybe six, sobbing into her father's shoulder as he searched for a way out after the gallery (he opened a CM door before finding the actual exit).

    If spooky and scary is your thing, the new stretching gallery alone will 'make' the revised Mansion for you. It injects a hard edge to a light-hearted attraction. It doesn't do so inappropriately, the way Alien Encounter had done, but there is still the dangerous element that people know the Mansion and its old tone, and may not expect the new scariness. This, I suspect, was what happened with the girl I had witnessed. That said, I hope Disney doesn't retrench and pull out these new scary effects, even if they weather some Guest complaints as a result. The difference is subtle, not dramatic, but it has definite influence on the overall tone and tenor of the experience.

    Remaining changes are decorative. I noticed a new mound of fresh earth added to one grave only just outside the attraction: Master Gracey. This, I assume, was the most recent husband?

    Several of the tombs also sported roses this opening weekend.
    Several of the tombs also sported roses this opening weekend.

    The outside also features a new canopy in the line, and it's much wider than the old one, so they have space to make an actual switchback here, rather than the wide boulevard that used to encourage either wasting space or people crowding so much on the sides that they raced ahead of those who stayed in the middle. The new system is more fair. One side effect of the new larger canopy is that one can see even less of the Mansion from the line.

    Fix the fans! It was unbearably hot this weekend.
    Fix the fans! It was unbearably hot this weekend.

    On our visit over the weekend, the overhead fans installed in the canopy were switched on, but by golly they seemed to do not a single thing. The hearse is back after all (some rumors said it wouldn't return), and in the exit area, the cobblestones lack the supposed 'ring' in the ground (an old guest control post had broken off in the concrete, leaving what looked like an embedded wedding ring in the ground, and people invented stories about the bride hurling that ring out the window). The lack of this ring now hopefully means the urban legend about it will die out.

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    © 2007 Kevin Yee

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