Saturday, 24 October 2015

Disney Dream Treats

Disney Dream Treats is a new pay-to-play mobile game from Disney Interactive in which players take a culinary tour of Disney's theme parks. Similar to many puzzle games available for Apple and Android products, this game has players connecting lines of identical snacks. Unlike other puzzle games, this one has the Disney brand and Disney assets behind it. For Disney fans, it makes it a lot more fun when you're in the Plaza Inn, scooping up Dole Whips for Mickey Mouse, and the Fantasmic fanfare plays when you beat the level.

The download itself is free, but they find ways they hope to extort real money. When the game is first downloaded, you are given five hearts that are required to play the levels. You can keep playing for as long as you have hearts. But every time you lose a level by not finishing it in the allotted number of moves, you lose a heart. Once all the hearts are gone, a window pops up offering to let you buy more with in-game tokens that can be purchased with real cash. Since hearts regenerate over time, all running out of them really accomplishes is giving you an excuse to stop playing for a while.

Where they really try to separate the coin from your wallet are the power-ups that become increasingly necessary as levels become increasingly difficult. Different power-ups scramble the board, clear away lines, and so forth. After an initial gift of a few, they become a monetary commodity. Unfortunately, there does not appear to be any set algorithm for each successive level becoming more difficult. They throw an increasing number of obstacles in your way (snacks that have to be "unwrapped" before they can be cleared, snacks that have to be "unwrapped" twice, snacks that have to be "unboxed" before they can be "unwrapped" twice, snacks that have to be "unboxed" twice before they can be "unwrapped" twice), with a random assortment of snacks, with a limited number of moves per level. If you are of the disposition to not throw away money on pay-to-play games, this has the potential of getting frustrating.

Another way to spend money is by buying outfits for your avatar. The game allows you to snap a photo of yourself and your friends to use as faces on the avatars you're feeding with all these snacks. Different hats, t-shirts, and so on can be purchased with in-game tokens.

The use of Disney's assets is the both the greatest benefit and greatest weakness of Disney Dream Treats. On the one hand, it is really fun to be visiting the Plaza Inn in Disneyland USA, the Akershus Royal Banquet Hall at Walt Disney World, and Buzz Lightyear's Pizza Planet in Disneyland Paris to clear away Dole Whips and churros. On the other hand, those are the only places you go, and only identifiable Disney treats you clear.

Levels only alternate between those three aforementioned restaurants, which serve as visual backdrops for the puzzle. It would have been better to rotate between different restaurants in those three resorts, maybe even increasing in stature as the player rises in levels (e.g.: from, say, Jolly Holiday Bakery to Pinocchio's Village Haus to Plaza Inn to Rancho del Zocalo to Cafe Orleans to Blue Bayou in Disneyland, or at least have Toad Hall, Cafe Hyperion, Casey's Corner, Silver Spur Steakhouse, Auberge de Cendrillon, and Walt's - An American Restaurant in Disneyland Paris). The lack of variety is compensated for having different characters host each level: Mickey and Friends for the Plaza Inn, Princesses for Askershus, and Toy Story characters for Pizza Planet.

Most of the snacks are generic things: purple cupcakes, green Key Lime pies, red Mickey donuts, etc. Only Dole Whips and churros stand out as real Disney snacks (unless I missed something because the last thing I would go out of my way to eat at Disneyland is pie or cupcakes). It might have been nice, in a visually rich game that doesn't have to rely on colours, to include turkey legs, Mickey ice cream bars, candy apples, beignets, Mickey waffles, mint juleps, and other distinctly Disney treats.

Despite those missed opportunities, Disney Dream Treats is still a fun little time waster to tide one over between trips to the theme parks. There are enough visual and auditory cues to stir fond feelings. If it is compatible with your device, download it before its shelf-life wears off.


Wednesday, 21 October 2015

The Hollywood ROOSEVELT Hotel

Looming over the corner of Hollywood Boulevard opposite the famed Grauman's Chinese Theater, the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel is an unmistakable influence on the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror found in the Disney resorts of Anaheim, Orlando and Paris. Completed in 1927, this Spanish Colonial Revival hotel was financed by some of the luminaries of Hollywood's golden age, including Hollywood's first couple - Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford - and producer Louis B. Mayer. By 1929, it's fame was such that it hosted the first Academy Awards banquet in the Blossom Ballroom on May 16 of that year. Far and away from the modern spectacle, the first ceremony was a more intimate gathering of 270 industry professionals and lasted a whopping 15 minutes. Charlie Chaplin was granted a special award that evening, but the top honours went to Wings for "Outstanding Picture" (now the "Best Picture" category) and Sunrise: A Tale of Two Humans for the now-defunct "Unique and Artistic Production."

At a time when hotels would take extended stays of months, the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel (named for Theodore Roosevelt) was home and home-away-from-home for such cinematic legends as Shirley Temple, Elizabeth Taylor, Gloria Swanson, Clara Bow, Charlie Chaplin, Judy Garland, David Niven, Errol Flynn, Cary Grant, Al Jolson, Harold Lloyd, Mary Martin, Will Rogers, Frank Sinatra, Clark Gable, Carole Lombard, and Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. Marilyn Monroe's first photoshoot was on the diving board of the hotel's pool while she was a resident. It is also said to be home to her ghost and other assorted hauntings.

In the hotel lobby.
The lobby from above. 
Detail of the lobby ceiling. 
A corner of the Public Kitchen and Bar restaurant. 
The Blossom Ballroom, venue of the first Academy Awards.
Entrance to the Blossom Ballroom, just off the lobby. 


Saturday, 10 October 2015

Disneyland Needs Quiet Spaces

Back on September 24th, Disney announced that the construction of the new Star Wars themed section of Disneyland would necessitate the temporary closure of the Disneyland Railroad, Rivers of America, Mark Twain Riverboat, Tom Sawyer Island, and Fantasmic for over a year, and the permanent closure of Big Thunder Ranch Petting Zoo and Barbeque. The Disneysphere lit up with questions about what, if anything would happen to the established attractions while the towering peaks of some planet from a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away rise up. Disney's social media accounts confirmed that the Rivers of America and Disneyland Railroad would have a new route, and websites have fermented rumours that this rerouting will involve a reduction of the Rivers of America by 25% and a shaving down of the publicly-inaccessible north part of Tom Sawyer Island.

The reduction of the Rivers of America doesn't actually bother me as much as one might think, though in a perfect world where Disneyland should be a museum, it would be left inviolate. It may mean the loss of both the Native village and Mike Fink's Cabin, yet one hopes that those can be replaced on another spot along the truncated river. Perhaps I'm finally hitting "peak indifference" when I hear of Disneyland botching up something else, like they did with the renovations of Club 33 and New Orleans Square, or perhaps it really doesn't matter that much. At least the Rivers of America are staying, even if the Mark Twain Riverboat becomes a mere 10-minute ride.

There are two things, though, that legitimately concern me with these plans. The first are the sightlines across Frontierland into Star Wars Land. Little projects like allowing Rapunzel's tower in the Magic Kingdom to be visible from Liberty Square, or dotting the faux-Mississippi with pirate shipwrecks, don't fill me with a whole lot of hope that Imagineers care much about sightlines anymore. However, if they successfully disguise the backside of Star Wars Land and block out views of it by resurrecting Cascade Peak, I would consider that a net benefit. We'll have to see what happens there, and only time will tell.

The second and more pressing concern is the loss of the Big Thunder Ranch Petting Zoo. What I mean is what the loss of Big Thunder Ranch does and represents about Imagineering's ambivalence to having quiet, secluded spaces.

As I observed in our review of our honeymoon in Walt Disney World, what makes a Disney park appealing and superior to the "competition" is the variegated list of attractions and spaces that provide a layered, well-paced experience. E-tickets are great, but you also need to have A, B, C, and D-ticket attractions, good restaurants, well-themed and visually interesting spaces, and places to sit down that aren't charging you for it. These together make for a nicely rounded and pleasant day.

Couple this with the #1 thing that causes a good day to be ruined: crowds. There is a very deliberate reason why Ashley and I always endeavour to travel anywhere (let alone a Disney park) during the off-season. It is because lines are interminable, and no matter how beautiful and interesting and fun and inspiring a place may be, that experience will always be diminished by a crowd. There was no place on Earth I wanted out of more than the Palace of Versailles.

"Hell is other people." - Jean-Paul Sartre.
Of course there is nothing that a tourist hates more than other tourists. Typically I am critical of the snobbery that says that I am the only person who should want to visit somewhere and everybody else should stay home. Anybody who can pay has the right to visit Disneyland whenever they want. It is not my private playground. But as Disneyland's attendance continues to skyrocket, there is an increased need to manage those crowds effectively so that the experience does not become a victim of its popularity.

Constantly raising prices, while sound from a supply and demand model, is the laziest answer and apparently no solution. The crowds keep coming with every increase in ticket prices. The unending cry of "more rides" isn't the answer either. The "competition" needs more rides to drum up attendance; Disneyland needs to manage record crowds that are already attending. E-tickets that can keep hundreds of guests locked in lines for hours is fine and I am not one to turn down new rides, but that is not the only thing that a crowded park like Disneyland needs. It also needs places to get away from the crowds. This is where Big Thunder Ranch Petting Zoo comes in.

Ashley is a Highly Sensitive Person, which is not some cheesy, self-diagnosed Internet mental illness, but simply an acknowledgement that she gets easily overstimulated by noise, dynamic visuals, and crowds. I'm not exactly a big fan of crowds either, as I already explained. During our last trip to Disneyland in May of 2012, crowds were already at such a high during what was traditionally part of the off-season that there were several instances where we had to "time out." In Disneyland there were already a limited number of places to do that, the main two being the Court of Angels and Big Thunder Ranch Petting Zoo. We got to know the animals in Ranch quite well. It really is a hidden gem in a park that has been combed from top to bottom.

Even the goats find Big Thunder Ranch relaxing.
The Court of Angels has already been taken away from use by the average guest. Apparently having quiet spots is a luxury to be reserved for the super-rich and well-connected, not for the plebeian rabble. Carnation Plaza became the Fantasy Faire. The Disney Gallery with its lovely courtyard was punted to the Bank of Main Street to make away for an exclusive apartment, and then punted again to make way for a shop. Now Big Thunder Ranch Petting Zoo is being taken away as well, with the entire Big Thunder Trail area soon to become a major thoroughfare for access to Star Wars Land.

Disneyland is a small park with an understandable need to economize space as much as possible, but those quiet spaces to get away from crowds and to relax are every bit as important to the theme park experience as are those big ticket rides and money-guzzling stores and restaurants. They help to thin out the crowds and provide a break from them, with all the physical and psychological benefits that come with it. They offer the opportunity to recharge in a way that being bombarded with merchandise or animatronics don't. One of the most common words of advice for guests to a Disney park is to leave in the middle of the day and have a nap back at the motel... Quiet spaces in the park let guests have that sense of rest without having to leave, which is more efficient for guests and profitable for the company. These spaces allow for moments of personal reflection and more intimacy with friends, family, and loved ones. It is amazing what even a few minutes on a bench in the shade with proportionally few people around can do to pick your mood back up and energize you for another few hours.

The "courtyard" model of each land makes crafting these spaces difficult - if Adventureland is already a courtyard flanked by the Enchanted Tiki Room to the east, Adventureland Bazaar to the north, Jungle Cruise to the south, and Tarzan's Treehouse to the west, where could you even put a smaller courtyard? Aladdin's Oasis maybe? It would befit the name - but a few still remain. Snow White Grotto is one. Some of the back spaces along the boulevard to It's a Small World and the lagoon can help a bit, though it has Monorails gliding overhead. Even the Rivers of America qualify as a quiet spot, if you can find a nice place on Tom Sawyer Island or the Mark Twain Riverboat to sit still and enjoy it. The island still exists for the time being, as laborious a process as that is to get to and from, but those spaces are dropping and dwindling fast. This is also why I hold out hope for a new Cascade Peak: to maintain the peace and solitude of the River.

In some ways, the dollhouse-like quality of Disneyland in which everything is small and close and crammed together lends a certain charm. That charm is diminished as increasing numbers of people are also crammed in there without relief from one another. I suppose the simplest solution would be the old refrain "if you don't like it don't go," which can be arranged but isn't the ideal situation when we still love Disneyland. We just need places to relax for a little bit throughout the day that aren't a line or a restaurant or in the middle of a thoroughfare. I can't imagine that we're the only ones. The loss of Big Thunder Ranch is a done deal, but for future reference, providing those small, secluded spaces should be as high on Imagineering's list of priorities as the next shop or ride.

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

The Wilderness Lodges of Yellowstone - Part 3

Yellowstone National Park's stunning vistas of mountains, valleys, lakes, and wildlife cover a terrible secret. The park's variety of thermal features and igneous rock layers in turn betray it. Roiling beneath Yellowstone is a magma hotspot; an up-swelling of material from deep within the earth that fuels the park's system of geysers and mineral springs, as well as the 1000-3000 earthquakes that happen there per year. Periodically, this hotspot has become so unruly that it vents itself in a pyroclastic fury of unimaginable scale. In its last major explosion 640,000 years ago, 240 cubic miles of ash and debris were thrown into the atmosphere, falling back to earth as far south as the Mexico border. Its caldera measures 34 miles by 44 miles across.

What exactly causes the Yellowstone Hotspot is unknown, but it has lain beneath North America for approximately 16 million years. As the continent moved through plate tectonic action, a succeeding number of volcanic blasts carved out the Snake River Plain that cuts a swath through southern Idaho, terminating at Yellowstone. Moist air from the Pacific channelled up this valley condenses and collapses on Yellowstone, dumping 150 to 300 inches of snow each winter. Some 2.1 million years ago, the hotspot arrived beneath Yellowstone. That was when the first of four eruptions happened that shaped the park as it stands today. A second and smaller explosion happened just outside the park's modern boundaries about 1.3 million years ago. The third happened 640,000 years ago, with the last minor eruption happening about 174,000 years ago. The caldera of this much smaller eruption was filled in by water from Lake Yellowstone, forming the West Thumb. The shore at West Thumb is dotted with thermal springs and minor geysers that have entertained and entranced generations. In the early days, when such activities were permitted, guests could fish in Yellowstone Lake and then swing their line over to a geyser, drop the fish in, and cook it on the spot.

The "Black Pool."
The shoreline at West Thumb Geyser Basin,
dominated by the "Big Cone" geyser.

"Fishing Cone," where visitors would boil fish on the line.
Springs drain into Yellowstone Lake.

Nowhere is the energy of the Yellowstone Hotspot more apparent than in the famous geyser basins. As that 150-300 inches of snow melts and sinks into the earth, it becomes superheated by the magma beneath. Returning to the surface, it explodes in magnificent geysers, bubbles out hot mineral springs and mudpots, or evaporates out in billowing fumaroles. There are an estimated 10,000 thermal features in Yellowstone, with the world's highest concentration of geysers. More than that, these geysers are nearly half of all the known geysers in the world. The most famous of Yellowstone's geysers is, of course, Old Faithful.