Friday, April 06, 2007

The Disney Experience Part 2: Disney MGM Studios

As I waited for a taxi to Downtown Disney, my heart sank when the receptionist at my hotel informed me that Disney MGM Studios (MGM) was only worth ‘half a day max’, and that I should instead go to the Animal Kingdom, this was in light of my initial disappointment with the Magic Kingdom the day previously. Never the less onwards to MGM I went, where I caught a bus to a Disney Resort which I cannot for the life of me remember the name of, but it was rock and roll themed with some quite cartoony d├ęcor, including a giant mobile phone on the end of a building. I only waited a short while before catching the bus to MGM which today was a thankfully uneventful experience. I have to say that I am quite, impressed how disabled friendly these buses are, not only do they lower to allow easier access, they also have ample room for wheelchairs. On this occasion there were two wheelchair users on the bus, and plenty of space to pass by to the seats. Just as an aside to this I noticed that American's tended to use the word 'handicapped' rather than 'disabled', where as in the UK we very rarely say 'handicapped'.

Upon arrival I was greeted by a gentleman wearing a pale yellow and white striped shirt, and pale yellow trousers (who designs these uniforms!?), I was directed towards the ticket office, where hey presto my details were on file from the day previously. Admission to MGM was cheaper than at the Magic Kingdom (I’m afraid the exact price escapes me). Once again I went through a theatrical security bag check, and had my finger scanned by Big Brother Disney, which I have now been informed is not a finger print scanner, but a different kind of scanner that measures the distance between, and depth of specific points on the finger – it’s still a ‘tracking’ device, and I still found this hard to get used to.

The finger scanner on the entrance barriers

Upon entering the park, I was confronted by my worst nightmare – the High School Musical parade! I knew that I would not be able to escape Disney without seeing High School Musical somewhere, and here it was, all singing, all dancing, all smiling, and all gut wrenchingly annoying. Before going any further I should explain that I have been tortured with High School Musical almost continually for the past six months, courtesy of my ten year old watching the Disney Channel. I even know the words to some of the songs – which annoys me even more when I find myself singing them in the shower. What I did find quite amusing was the almost ‘Presidential Parade’ level of security entourage which followed the parade – evidence perhaps of me not being the only person who hates High School Musical! In all seriousness though the sunglasses and ear piece wearing security entourage was something of an overkill, I mean I couldn’t exactly see anyone ‘bum rushing the show’ – it was reminiscent of ‘The Simpsons’ where the Springfield street parades are stewarded by Secret Service style goons!

As the parade melted into the distance, I walked along the main street of the park which (due to the time of year) was refreshingly quiet. Along the way I noticed several cast members performing street theatre routines, a nice touch by the park, and certainly popular with the visitors as each scene attracted a reasonable audience. I made my way to the main Disney icon which forms the centrepiece of the park – Mickey’s Fantasia hat. Stood in front of the hat meeting and greeting delighted children were Mickey and Pluto – it then struck me that despite the fact I had spent several hours the previous day at the Magic Kingdom, I had not seen Mickey or Pluto once.

Mickey's Fantasia hat

From Mickey’s hat I headed towards ‘Star Tours’, passing Sully, and a 60’s style diner on the way. Then the site that I had been yearning to see ever since 1980 loomed before me – an AT-AT. My favourite film of all time is The Empire Strikes Back, my favourite scene in that film, which 25 years later still sends shivers down my spine is when the rebels on the ice planet ‘Hoth’ first spot the AT-ATs on the horizon. The same shivers went down my spine as I stood dwarfed by the metallic beast, needless to say that it was photographed and filmed from all angles. Whilst I was so engrossed with this hulk, I hadn’t realised that the laser guns in the head of the AT-AT were in fact giant water pistols, and had I not realised at the last second, Disney would have been facing a bill for a new video camera. Thankfully it was only my elbow that actually got wet. Maybe a warning sign here will help to prevent future similar litigation.


After inspecting the AT-AT (and avoiding its weapons!) I went on the Star Tours ‘ride’ which was similar to the Back to the Future Ride at Universal, in that what you see on the screen in front of you, and some motion of the car that you are in, gives the illusion of exaggerated movement. The ride was OK, but maybe in 2007 it is getting a little dated now. After leaving the ride (through the gift shop) I was DELIGHTED to see a good range of quality Star Wars merchandise – and in my size too! When you have a 50 inch chest, buying t-shirts and tops is usually a laborious process, but the generous American sizes in stock (to cater for generously proportioned American visitors) meant that I had no trouble in satisfying my purchasing requirements, and I left with a cool cartoon style Boba Fett T-Shirt and a Darth Vader hoodie. This presented me with my next challenge – what to do with everything! I already had with me a bag, and camera tripod, so the additional shopping bag meant that my luggage could well become a pain. I had little to worry about however, as MGM comes equipped with lockers, into which went everything apart from my tripod (which unfortunately didn’t fit), so I ended up carrying it around. The locker cost approximately $3, with a deposit of $5 for the safe return of the key – and it was well worth it.

Next on my list was the 3D Muppet Show movie, which was quite entertaining and enjoyable, followed by ‘Honey I Shrunk the Kids’ which was packed full of screaming kids – so I left quickly before exploring further. I decided to get some lunch near Honey I Shrunk the Kids, the choice wasn’t particularly extensive, and the price was quite dear at $7 for a Hot Dog with chips (crisps) and a drink, but that said, it was on par or even cheaper than UK theme park catering prices.

I left the food outlet and made my way towards the ‘Tower of Terror’ – I was determined to have some thrillertainment – and thrillertainment I would get! The queue was of a reasonable length, and I stood in line for approximately 15 minutes before entering the first part of the ‘hotel’ which was themed on the Twilight Zone. Costumed cast members lead us into a room where we watched a short video before being taken into the ‘guts’ of the building – the basement, which looked quite authentic, with numerous pipes, vents, water tanks and gas cylinders. I was soon shepherded into a ‘lift’ which would take me up the tower. I was seated on the back row of a car that had approximately 20 people in. The lift doors closed, the ascent began, and my stomach began to knot ever so gently. I had a good idea of what to expect, but still the first time on a ride such as this is always going to be in the very least a ‘bit’ nerve racking. The ride included video footage and voices from the Twilight Zone, and before the ‘scary’ bit, the car that I was sat in was transported horizontally along rails. Some more video followed, then darkness, before the car didn’t just drop, it was pulled down at a speed faster than gravity alone, before coming to a stop and then shooting back up into the air, then dropping, then up again and then down again. During this time you see the briefest glimpse of daylight through an open window, which gives the crowds below a snap shot of you, but more importantly – they hear your screams! I have been on similar ‘drop’ rides prior to this, which were actually scarier than the Tower of Terror in the fact that the height and view of the landscape presented much more of a fright, none the less the Tower of Terror was good thrillertainment, and an experience which I was glad that I’d had.

Next to the Tower of Terror was the ‘Rock 'n' Roller Coaster’ – I love rollercoasters, so was really looking forward to this ride. Again there was a short queuing time of ten minutes, before I found myself watching a video of the band Aerosmith in their recording studio. There was a feeble amount of acting from them, and a storyline which suggested that they were going to cruise in a limo, and we the riders could join them. In my opinion the ride doesn’t need this kind of branding, I mean would you associate a new, fast, dynamic, jet coaster with wrinkly old rockers, that are not far off being pensioners? I think the ‘Rap 'n' Rollercoaster’ would have had a better sound and image for a young audience, although this probably wouldn’t sit comfortably with a number of ‘conservatives’ who may consider Hip Hop as not being American enough and tainted due to the image of gangster rap. Let’s not mention the antics of Aerosmith and other rock and roll artists over the years then! Anyway (before I get side tracked on an issue which will be explored further in a future blog entry), after watching the Aerosmith video, a door opened and the queue began for the ride itself. This again took approximately ten minutes, before I found myself sat seated in a Rock and Rollercoaster car. There was no slow cranking start to this ride, the rock and rollercoaster is a jet coaster, so immediate acceleration was followed by twists, turns, loops and drops to a rock and roll soundtrack. Again this was decent thrillertainment, but what I found most disappointing about the ride was the fact that it was a dark coaster, so it was difficult to get a perspective of the scale, size and layout. I much prefer rollercoasters that are out in the open, and believe that they achieve a greater ‘thrill’ effect.

I moved on to the Indiana Jones show, which featured a number of well rehearsed re-enactments of scenes from the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark. The stage, arena, and show itself were all impressive, the stunts and pyrotechnics were spectacular, the audience lapped it up and gave rapturous applause – some scenes from the show can be seen below.

Time was getting on and unfortunately I missed the stunt car show, as I got side tracked watching some street theatre performers. I did get chance to look around just about all of the park though and was impressed with the attention to detail, and the effects, one example being a stack of newspapers which was made of fibreglass, I also liked the street which was designed like a movie set and backdrop. I did find to my disappointment that like the Magic Kingdom there were still far too many shops and other concessions here. Whilst walking around, I came across a row of Disney photographers who were being put through their paces with how to use an SLR Camera to capture an image, they all stood in a row and took turns photographing a subject, this is a rarity at Disney, witnessing their staff development in a live environment, when it is traditionally ‘behind-the-scenes’.

Fibreglass newspapers

I really wanted to see the evening water show ‘Fantasmic’ which uses lighting, sound, pyrotechnics and other special effects to help Mickey Mouse do battle against a number of Disney bad guys, but unfortunately I had an evening appointment away from the park and would have to miss this.

Disney MGM Studios, was a much more positive experience for me than what the Magic Kingdom had been previously. What Disney MGM presented was a snapshot of large and small screen ‘greats’ from my youth – Star Wars, Indiana Jones, the Twilight Zone, and the Muppets. It is interesting that these now ‘dated’ icons can still attract audiences of fans, and is a testimony to their greatness. Whilst the Magic Kingdom was aimed at more of a ‘family’ market, MGM seems to have a greater mass appeal. It is interesting that my hotel receptionist (who was aged approximately 20) only considered it worthy of half a day, when I spent a full day there and still didn’t get to see everything, evidence enough that people have differing tastes and perceptions, there will never be a product that can please everybody all of the time. What Walt Disney World has is a number of theme parks that are aimed towards differing segments of the visitor market. What would have been more helpful for me from the outset would have been a plain speaking, and honest guide book that explained this.

In short I had a good day at MGM, so good, that on my way out I even bought Rebecca a ‘Wildcats’ High School Musical T-Shirt! I hope to return with my family in the not too distant future.

THE END (for this Disney adventure anyway).

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