Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Best Thing Disney can do at the Animal Kingdom

This week, we heard the tragic news of the death of a days old panda cub at the National Zoo in Washington, DC.  The heart-wrenching death was on front pages across the nation, and with good reason.  The Giant Panda is a rare and beloved animal that captures the hearts of people across the world.
Tian Tian from the National Zoo, photograph by Ann Batdorf, NZP photographer

The Chinese Government guards pandas with an intense, and almost fanatical, fervor.  With perhaps less than 2,000 bears left in the wild, acquiring a breeding couple is not easy.  However, in recent years Disney has held a productive and working relationship with the Chinese Government.  And I think it is time for that relationship to result in what I believe would be the single best investment Disney can possibly make into the Animal Kingdom, the introduction of a Giant Panda Habitat.

I often hear Disney fans discussing what they would like to see added to the Florida theme parks that would improve their overall experience.  And let’s face it, the Animal Kingdom has been the biggest target of criticism in these circles over a perceived lack of attractions since it opened.  It is usually agreed that a new “land” or “e-ticket” would do the trick, hence the announced Avatar expansion.  But I think those conclusions are incorrect.  An expensive and cantankerous partnership with James Cameron is not the answer, the answer is the Giant Panda.

Loaning a couple of pandas from the Chinese Government is an expensive and difficult proposition, I will admit.  The cost is reported at around a million per panda per year for a 10 year period.  Bring in two, and that is a cost of roughly $20 million.  Plus, their is the cost for care of the animals, potential breeding attempts, the physical habitat construction and, of course, the gift shop. But that is practically a drop in the bucket when compared to the price of attractions at Disney these days.  Reports put the cost of Expedition Everest at  $100 million alone, and that one doesn’t even work correctly anymore!  The price tag of the new Cars Land area at Disneyland’s California Adventure was somewhere around $450 million.  And I am certain there is more than one Disney bean-counter who hasn’t slept much since the announcement of the Avatar deal.

Bringing pandas to DAK would be cheap in comparison, but would likely yield an attendance and monetary increase similar to that of an e-ticket.  Zoos have reported an increase in attendance of 35% and even more after bringing in pandas, while the National Zoo was estimating upwards of half a million additional guests from just the birth of the cub.

Now, I can not say what exactly I think the attendance figures would look like at DAK after the opening of a panda habitat.  I am not an accountant for Disney.  What I do know is that unlike an e-ticket or land, pandas are a proven commodity.  And what I also know for certain is that nearly every person who comes to Walt Disney World, no matter their length of stay, would make a point of visiting the Animal Kingdom to see the pandas.  And that is something that simply does not happen currently.

And finally, while I am already up here on my soapbox, this is Disney’s Animal Kingdom, and not the Cameron Kingdom!  While I am not against the Avatar project, this is simply better.  Let us get the focus back on wildlife.  As I said before, the Giant Panda is one of the world’s most beloved endangered specie.  If Disney wants to invest in the park to make the turnstiles spin, is there a more appropriate way than this?  Personally, I think not...

by Dave McBride @davemcb1897

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla., Sept.18 — The Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund (DWCF) released its 2012 annual grants, awarding more than $1.8 million to 75 conservation projects around the globe including $130,000 to Florida based projects.

image copyright Disney

Since its beginnings in 1995 DWCF has donated nearly $4 million benefiting 257 programs from 59 organizations in Florida. This year, six projects supporting the conservation of Florida wildlife were selected, including:

The Sea Turtle Conservancy
The University of Florida
Marine Resources Council of East Florida
The Wildlife Foundation of Florida
The Coral Restoration Foundation
The Ecostudies Institute

“Disney’s commitment to protect the planet and help create connections between kids and nature around the world in 40 countries is amazing,” said Dr. Beth Stevens, Senior Vice President, Disney Corporate Citizenship, Environment & Conservation. “We are grateful to the many scientists, educators and community conservationists who devote their lives to conservation and are very proud to work with our guests, fans, employees and cast members to help ensure a better future for our planet.”

Through its grants program, DWCF is helping to preserve habitats, protect endangered species, foster kids’ connections to nature and ensure future generations can enjoy wildlife and wild places.
Highlights of the six Florida-based projects include:

The Coral Restoration Foundation has developed a project dedicated to restoring coral reefs in the Florida Keys through an offshore nursery.
The Sea Turtle Conservancy combines educational workshops with hands-on activities, to encourage awareness of a vital sea turtle nesting site located on Florida’s East Coast.
The Ecostudies Institute has designed a program to raise awareness about the ecosystems in South Florida and promote the conservation of the Mangrove Cuckoo, a species whose populations have shrunk by up to 95% in recent years.
The Wildlife Foundation of Florida explores water temperatures in Florida to determine the best habitat-rebuilding sight to promote manatee recovery.

Globally, DWCF has awarded $20 million to support conservation programs in 112 countries on six continents since 1995. For a complete list of grant recipients and to view The Walt Disney Company’s most recent Conservation Report, visit www.disney.com/conservation

Friday, September 14, 2012

No One Drinks Like Gaston!

We try our best here at the Bwana Blog to keep our focus onto our subject, Disney’s Animal Kingdom, as often as possible.  But things happen.  Walt Disney World is a big place and we don’t pretend to spend our entire vacation at this one park.  So when things happen in other places at WDW that stir up a ruckus, it is hard for us to keep quiet.

And one such thing happened yesterday, when Disney announced that (insert phony gasp here) they would be selling alcoholic beverages at the new Be Our Guest Restaurant opening this November in the new Fantasyland at the Magic Kingdom.  When the announcement came, I showed it to my wife and said “hold on for the greatest Twitter and Discussion Board blow up you have ever seen!”.  And boy, was I correct!

Let me first say that I am something of an amateur Walt Disney historian myself, so I am well aware of the history surrounding Disneyland and its “dry” policy, or I should say “mostly dry” policy.  And let me also say that after reading, listening to, and watching volume upon volume about Mr. Disney I have absolutely no clue what he would have thought of this particular decision, and neither for that matter does anyone else commenting on this subject.  Walt’s original limited-alcohol decision is half a century old and was based on a park thousands of miles away from Central Florida.  I don’t know what he would have thought, and quite frankly neither do you.

Something inside of me says he probably would have amended this policy years ago.  What Walt did not want in his park was what happens at many a festival and amusement park elsewhere, public drunkenness and basic rowdy behavior caused by easy access to cheap alcohol.  Selling beer and wine at a sit-down restaurant in the park does nothing to cause that.  This is not a nightclub they are building at the Magic Kingdom.  Their won’t be jelly shots served in teacups by the tray load, or 19 year olds passing fake id’s to a bouncer dressed as Gaston.

And there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that this is the beginning of some slippery slope towards beer carts along Main Street USA.  (But a friend of mine had the great idea of serving Samuel Adams at the Liberty Tree Tavern, but more on that later!)  Let’s face it folks, right now anyone can hop on a monorail, head to a resort bar and drink themselves into an absolute stupor before heading back to the Magic Kingdom.  We have ALL seen this, and I promise Be Our Guest is not going to create any measurable increase in these folks at the Magic Kingdom.

And let us pivot back to Walt for a second, shall we?  In 1967 Disneyland opened another of Walt’s pet projects.  It is called Club 33 and, for those who don’t know, it is a private members-only lounge, and yes there are lots of overpriced adult beverages being happily consumed only steps from the unwitting masses.  And though I have never been in Club 33, I am fairly certain the drink menu is not limited to only beer and wine, like it is at Be Our Guest.  And I have yet to hear people complaining over the dozens of drunks stumbling out of the Club. So when we say Disneyland operates under some kind of dyed-in-the-wool “dry” policy, can we now properly change that to a “mostly dry unless you are willing to shell out thousands more” policy?

Walt was famously a drinker and a heavy smoker, so do not think for a second that this policy was at all based on some sort of moral objection towards liquor.  It was a policy used to insure that families would feel welcome, and come back often.  And as far as I can tell, adding beer and wine to the menu of one restaurant, a restaurant where we can be certain that each guest will be herded in and out as quickly as possible to make room for more wallets in those seats, will not make any measurable difference upon those same families who love the Magic Kingdom.

Now, back to that idea of serving Samuel Adams at the Liberty Tree Tavern...(Oh, and let me not forget to thank Tony, the all-knowing master of the fantastic “Friends of the Rose and Crown” Facebook group for this. Leave it to a fellow R and C junkie to come up with that grand idea!)

by Dave McBride @davemcb1897

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

A Requiem for Avatar?

Late last night, my Twitter account blew up with rumors that the hierarchy at the Walt Disney Company have killed the “Avatar Land” idea slated for construction at Disney’s Animal Kingdom.  While I can not confirm the veracity of these rumors, it gives us a chance to stop and think about whether any cancellation of this enormous project would be a negative for Animal Kingdom fans, or a positive in disguise.

image copyright Disney

First thing’s first, let me admit I am not a fan of the film Avatar, the James Cameron mega-hit that demolished box office records a couple of years back.  I saw the film once.  I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t love it either.  So when Disney and Cameron announced this project last year, I didn’t leap with joy.

But I am a realist as well.  This film was a HUGE hit, and I know many, many folks, mostly college age and younger, who think this was the greatest film ever made!  Those people did, in fact, leap with joy when this announcement was made, and those of us who hold more traditional views of where Disney should go when seeking inspiration for a new “land” need to admit that fact.

Yes, an Avatar area of the Animal Kingdom is something of a continuity stretch.  The film has a very palpable conservation message which goes well with the park’s existing message, but that is about where the relationship ends.

From a conceptual standpoint, the film does lend itself well to a “land” type of treatment.  The most absorbing part of the film for me was the world it created and that world does bare a resemblance, albeit abstractly, to something that can fit aesthetically into DAK.  And if, like the rumors suggested, it replaces Camp Minnie-Mickey and moves the Festival of the Lion King to the Africa section of the park, those are both good things.

I am also not one who bangs my fist on the table over the very thought of Disney using someone else’s ideas for inspiration in the parks.  I never cried sacrilege when Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI) turned to George Lucas or Jim Henson.  And the last time I checked Chevrolet, the Twilight Zone and Michael Jackson are not Disney products but all made for good attractions.

I must admit something to myself, my ideas for what I would like to see at DAK are probably not the kinds of things that would set the marketing world ablaze.  What I feel the park does best is bring us to the wildest corners of the world.  I would love it if we got a new “land”, like Australia or even North America, filled with wildlife exhibits and a couple of themed attractions.  While I think those things work best for me as a devoted fan, I realize they do not change the overall perception of the park, especially with tweens and teens, like a giant blockbuster film would.

But having said all of that, I was simply never excited about the idea.  And fans of DAK have been divided over the idea as well.  There is a park already devoted to taking advantage of box-office successes, and the Animal Kingdom is not it.  Expedition Everest proved to us that the park does not need James Cameron to make a splash and we would like to see more of that type of attraction in this park instead.

Like I said before, these rumors are unconfirmed, and anyone on Twitter can tell you many of these so-called “confirmed news” stories can tend to disappear into the dense wildernesses of 140-character posts seemingly overnight.  But things seem to fit together here.  Since the official announcement almost a year ago, stories of disharmony between Disney and Cameron, along with infighting within WDI over the project, have been an almost constant fixture within the rumor mill.  Disney will need to comment on this sooner rather than later.  And I am here to tell them that if they in fact confirm that Avatar is dead there will likely be more applause than groans.

by Dave McBride @davemcb1897

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Celebrating the Cast Members of Disney’s Animal Kingdom

We just got back from 9 awesome days at the Mouse. We spent five different days at Disney's Animal Kingdom. In the coming days and weeks, I will delve into restaurant reviews, a report for each day, a review of our time spent at Kidani Village, and some of the great information and tips for everyone. Plus, we took a ton of photos. But first, I want to talk about how great the cast members are at the Animal Kingdom.

At first, I have to say that cast members at the Animal Kingdom have a lot more guest interaction than in other parks. I spent 18 years as a docent at the Bronx Zoo and my function was, for the most part, to relay information about the animals to the public in an effort to raise awareness of the plight of those animals. The Animal Kingdom has numerous cast members that perform that function, interacting with the public in a teaching capacity, which you don't find at any other park. Cast members are located throughout the animal exhibits. And, of course, there are the Kilimanjaro Safari drivers (my choice for coolest job at Disney other than Imagineer).

I would like to take a moment to recognize some of the cast members who made our most recent trip magical. First, I have gone on the safari at least 40 times in the past but, on our last trip, August 31st, we had our best driver to date, Nicole. She was a wealth of information and she played the role so well. At one point, she even cracked a funny joke about the African music on the radio. The cast members located throughout the Maharajah Jungle Trek are all excellent. We especially got some good information from Andrew. I also have to thank Thom from Finance who let me know there was a recent meeting on the herd of zebra set to occupy the safari and that they are all doing extremely well.

I would like to thank Temalo (from Botswana) and Mbali (from South Africa) who spent time with my two kids teaching them how to play Mancala, a popular counting strategy game, which we are currently shopping around to buy for upcoming family game nights. There was also Samantha who we ran into at the gibbons one day and the crocodile at Dinoland another. She too, was a wealth of information and so helpful. And finally, there was Katie. She was working the parade and was able to get me and my family reserved seating for a later Lion King show. Well, the seats were amazing and my kids got to participate, including demonstrating the giraffe noise to our section and to march in the big finale.

Thanks Katie, you are the best and my family will never forget it.

By Safari Mike
Twitter: @JamboEveryone