Cloning Downtown Disney,
Today's lead item is breaking news you aren't going to read about anywhere else: Walt Disney World (WDW) is planning to add another lodging, shopping and dining district to its Central Florida property. In some ways, it will be like having another Downtown Disney area. This time, the new zone will be on the exact opposite end of the property, at the junction of Western Way and the 429 toll road. The final product is still several years away from opening, and Disney doesn't seem anywhere near close to announcing it publicly yet, but things are already in motion to make this particular plan a reality.
As predicted in this space many months ago, the millions of dollars Disney invested building Western Way recently were not spent merely to capture a few dozen cars per day from the 429 toll road. While excitement built (including in my column) that there might be a fifth theme park on the horizon, the reality is both more mundane and more predictable: Disney built the road to make even more lodging, dining and shopping easily accessible. We just knew Disney wouldn't be building a "road to nowhere," which is basically what Western Way is today.
Details are still pending, but the "Western Beltway Development Project" (a placeholder name until a better one comes along) seems to be proceeding through the various pieces of red tape needed to actually occur. Spearheaded by Walt Disney Imagineering-Florida, it's to be a whopping 450 acres of retail and lodging with:
That last item, in particular, may give you pause. This isn't exactly a clone of Downtown Disney, which aims for a more upscale market. In fact, it's more likely that this shopping zone will mimic the offerings commonly found on the roads that ring WDW, namely SR535 and US192. Those tourist-trap retail outlets and fast-food eateries are always clogged with people. Specifically, people looking to save money. People who eschew the higher prices seen at Disney hotels and in Downtown Disney. So they've been flocking to the off-property offerings.
Well, credit Disney with once again identifying exactly how and why visitors leave the Disney property to spend time and money elsewhere. Disney did that with virtually all other Central Florida attractions competitors, and created their own attractions to counter the competition:
The most comprehensive plan of all was the "Destination Disney" program, now over a year old. There are several facets to this initiative (the PhotoPass program, the Pal Mickey program, etc), the most insidious of which are the revamped ticket price structure, which makes it increasingly difficult to justify spending time at Busch or Universal parks, when your Disney park tickets become cheaper the more days you buy, and the wildly popular Magical Express program, whereby visitors are whisked by bus directly to WDW from the airport. Fewer folks now rent cars, and thus decide not to visit Busch or Universal, not to mention Cape Canaveral or other venues.
The Western Beltway Development (to be built in five phases, per market conditions) will be just another piece of the Destination Disney program. Those people who want to visit Disney parks but save money by staying off-site and eating off-property will now have another option. This time, it may be equally as cost-effective, but it will be Disney itself reaping the financial rewards, not their competitors.
Disney plans to avoid the tacky look of the US192 shops and motels by instilling a sense of place to the new development. There will be a central fountain, a park, and even footpaths around. It may feel more like a city park than anything else, with universal signage, and even a grocery store. The makeup of offerings implies a cross between the shopping center Crossroads, once owned by Disney and containing a grocery store, an outlet mall, and the Disney-created town of Celebration. Resort bus stops are also planned for what appears to be yet another tier of Disney value-oriented lodging. And they have even taken into account that thousands of WDW Cast Members may also use many of the offerings there (fast food, markets, etc) on their way into or out of the property.
What sticks out in my mind is the victory, yet again, of the "Destination Disney" concept. The entire idea behind it is to keep Guests on Disney property and spending money at Disney shops and restaurants. It's been wildly successful in the past, and it looks like they've finally hit upon a way to capture that one last portion of the market which has eluded them up to now. In the end, even the most value-oriented customer may find the Disney product hard to resist.
But what does all this mean? Is it good news or bad news? For some, I imagine, it's going to be good news. Now these value-oriented customers can save the money they want, and still revel in knowing they are purchasing Disney goods and services, rather than knock-offs.
But for others, myself included, there will be serious questions about the brand erosion. Disney hawking cheap goods? That's pretty much the exact opposite of the "premium brand" image they cultivate with the theme parks (which are nobody's idea of a bargain) or the Disney Cruise Line. Since the days of Walt, a Disney product was meant to be one of the highest quality, which often meant paying a higher price.
To dilute the brand is to risk washing out the experience to an ever more homogenous shade of gray. Is it really necessary to capture every last dollar? Former Disney Attractions VP Dick Nunis once allowed for Disney World to be a "good neighbor" to the rest of Central Florida, and realized it wasn't required for Disney to soak up every last tourist dollar. Nunis understood that a rising tide raising all boats was still a rising tide--and that was enough.
Obviously, much depends on the execution of this plan. If the town center idea is cute, well themed, not tacky, and still somehow affordable, then the company might have dodged a bullet. But if not, watch out. The road to mediocrity is paved with good (profit) intentions.
Nemo: The Musical... a GRAND SLAM
Another week, another preview of a new attraction at Walt Disney World. The Nemo Musical at DAK is only the latest of new offerings in the seemingly never-ending procession at WDW—there are some advantages to living in a tourist Mecca, after all!
Before I get too far, I should caution that this section contains lots and lots of spoilers. If you wish, you may skip on ahead to the next section.
The "front" of the theater isn't used for entry; the
Before the show began, Anne Hamburger came out and announced we were the very first audience to see the show (she said the same thing at the second show of the day, though this time she got much less applause—I think the audience knew better). She cautioned that this was as much a dress rehearsal as anything else (echoes of Paul Pressler and the Light Magic preview, I thought), and then re-iterated what the voiceover warnings had said a moment before: no video, and no photography of any kind. Thus, I didn't take photos until the curtain call, when it's more acceptable and no one would be endangered (I also didn't use flash here). I don't know if this ban on photography will be around forever. It's part of the intro spiel, but Anne Hamburger didn't mention it the second showing when she did her introduction, so that's anybody's guess.
In the interest of full disclosure, let me assure you that I came to this preview fully prepared to pan it. I knew that the Nemo show would in some ways resemble the Voyage of the Little Mermaid show at Disney-MGM Studios, in that they would use puppets animated by hand. But this time, the performers would be fully visible, not hidden behind absolute blackness. It seemed so spitefully avant-garde I was pretty confident that I'd hate it. You might even say I wanted to hate the visible-puppeteer element, partly because this gimmick is so beloved from the "Avenue Q" production, and such things always seem so overrated that by the time I get to them, they never live up to the hype.
Not so. The show knocked my socks off. I'll get that off my chest right now. I liked Nemo the Musical several orders of magnitude more than I thought I would. Not only will I go back, I'll do so often and frequently. I'd be there right now, but for the fact that it's not open this late at night. This show is going to drive attendance at DAK.
In the first scene, Marlin and Coral establish that they've just moved into a new house. The audience sees the puppets – maybe three feet long each and held up on a single hand (so they must be lightweight) – and instantly sees the puppeteers too. Dressed to match their characters, they are not only holding the puppets up, they animate their mouth movements (and eye blinking?) via a trigger near the base of the puppet, operated with their free hands. These are some talented performers, for they must not only give life to a minimally-moving puppet, they are also singing the songs and voicing the dialogue live.
For the first minute, I found myself eying the actors as much, if not more than, the puppets. At this early stage, it flitted across my imagination that my worries had been vindicated, and that I was going to be far too distracted by this new theater presentation to really enjoy the story or indeed enjoy myself. But that didn't last, as I was soon sucked in. I think it was the immersive scenery (mostly humans wielding elaborate costumes that reached into the sky, and made them into giant coral fans and the like). Or maybe it was the inventive choreography. Or it could be the singing, which started almost right away after Coral is killed by a barracuda (just a projection) and Marlin leads Nemo out into the big blue world, our first song, and a duplicate of the one in use at the former Living Seas pavilion in Epcot.
The song forms a bit of a musical underscore for the show, though it's only in heavy use at the beginning and at the end. Marlin sings to it, sort of, as he chides Nemo that sharks aren't your friend... didn't [Nemo] see Jaws?
Apparently there is to be a CD of the show released soon. Sadly, this was recorded using professional talent in New York, not the Orlando cast. That makes me sad. It's not as if the Orlando cast are slouches. The actors come from all over. They cast top-quality folks here, and they would have done fine on the CD.
After the big scene in the corals, which also features a large Mr. Ray puppet (so big it has to be brought out on a giant tricycle), the set transitions to the drop-off, where Nemo defiantly swims out to the underside of a boat (courtesy of a very long puppet stick). A huge projection on the back wall of the theater shows us the scuba diver's face, as an oversized net scoops up Nemo. Marlin panics, and the actor races with him up into the audience. The old runways from Tarzan Rocks have been preserved, and in fact the benches are similarly placed too (though the actual equipment is new). Up in the audience, Marlin meets Dory, similarly played by an actor holding a puppet on a stick. They cavort briefly, playing with the theme of Dory's poor memory, until suddenly Bruce the shark appears.
Judging by the audience's reaction, I was not the only one blown away by this scene. Bruce and his shark friends sing "Fish are friends, not food," a show-stopping number that is jazzy, boisterous in its energy, and overall fun. The singer-puppeteer for Bruce in particular was marvelous in his ability to chew the scenery.
Sometime after the fact, I realized that this scene marked a turning point for me: I was no longer watching the actors, and focused solely on the facial expressions of the puppets. For the rest of the show, I looked back and forth from the actor to the puppet, and rather than being bothered by the disconnect, it started to fascinate me. I was intrigued by the way the singers-slash-puppeteers were also, in a very real sense, stage actors, providing full facial expressions to match every scene. This was not an off-putting avant-garde experience, and it wasn't exactly Brechtian "epic theater" either, but it was enthralling nonetheless.
The shark scene ends with a bang, predictably, and the show proceeds to move through most of the scenes of the movie: the tank gang are represented here, and the impressively enormous neck and head of the pelican Nigel poke in from one side. Gil sings a song that seems to be titled "We Swim Together," a ploy that will later be used to escape from nets by swimming downward. Crack comedic timing turns Gil's plan of escape into a scatological joke. It's balanced out a few minutes later, back with Marlin and Dory, when Dory makes a hilarious reference to Marlin's son "Tivo" (a joke that may not make it past the company lawyers for long).
Dory sings "Just Keep Swimming" while flipping around on high wires, a scene that leads to the crowd-pleasing sequence with the choreographed fish giving directions to the EAC (and mimicking the Sydney Opera House). This is accomplished by a dozen or so actors, each with a silver fish on a mitten, and some fun choreography. Dory and Marlin, still on high wires, bounce into the air and through the jellyfish, given form here via really large puppet props – they seemed to be 20 or 30 feet tall, and there were a lot of them.
The first real plot point to be skipped occurs here, and rather than see Nemo's first try with the filter, we only hear about it. We return to Marlin and Dory, not with Crush and friends. Crush is another really giant puppet, and he sings a song possibly titled "Go With the Flow," a ditty about taking a stress-free approach as a parent.
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