I'm in Orlando this week for the annual IAAPA theme park industry convention and trade show, but I flew into town a day early to catch up on all the new stuff I've missed over the past year at Walt Disney World.
My first destination? Frozen Ever After at Epcot. Yeah, I know that some people remain upset with Disney's choice to bring one of its fictional IPs into Epcot's World Showcase. But Disney's done that before and, frankly, Walt Disney Imagineering crushed this one. Frozen Ever After provides the template for what a five-minute Disney Animation dark ride can be.
We used to call that class of attraction a "Fantasyland" ride, and I suppose that Frozen Ever After would have fit better thematically in that land than usurping Maelstrom's place in the Norway pavilion. But Disney — wisely, I think — recognized that Epcot's under-utilized World Showcase could better handle the crowds that Frozen would bring than the already-slammed Magic Kingdom possibly would.
So let's judge Frozen Ever After for what it is, rather than where it could have been, okay? This might be the best installation of Audio Animatronics in the world right now. Disney's chosen to focus on those characters here, eschewing the opportunity to create the richly detailed backgrounds that Disneyland visitors will find in California Adventure's Frozen stage show. But we're watching that show for nearly an hour. Frozen Ever After clocks in under five minutes. With that little time, and the restriction of working with the existing Maelstrom ride flume, Disney's Imagineers had to focus. People want to see Elsa, Anna, Olaf, Kristoff, and Sven in a Frozen attraction, and Disney delivered them here, in beautifully realized ways. Movements are smooth, facial expressions lifelike, and the experience completely convincing.
I rope-dropped the attraction and still waited 35 minutes in standby. When I exited, that line had grown to an hour, so this remains one of the toughest "gets" at the resort, despite the waits coming down from their hours-long heights in mid-summer. But if you can arrive early, or grab an early-morning breakfast reservation at the adjacent Akershus Royal Banquet Hall (the best deal for a princess character on property, according to many fans) for first access, or land one of its elusive and prized Fastpass+ reservations, Frozen Ever After will reward you for that effort.
Skipping the new Soarin' Around the World because I've seen it multiple times at Disney California Adventure, I headed over to the Magic Kingdom for my next two destinations.
The Jungle Navigation Company Skipper Canteen wasn't open yet when I arrived, and the next Muppets show in Liberty Square wasn't for over an hour, so I decided to visit a show I hadn't watched in years, America's Rorschach test — the Hall of Presidents. Let's skip the movie and get straight to the roll call of Audio Animatronics:
When this show comes back up next Fourth of July from its impending refurb, forget watching the robots. I'm watching the crowd — that's where the real show's gonna be. And that's all I'm saying about that.
Our winner for Best Restaurant in the Theme Park Insider Awards this year was Magellan's at Tokyo DisneySea. What does that have to do with anything today, you ask? Well, Magellan's is, in Disney lore, the headquarters of the Society of Explorers and Adventurers, whose members include Henry Mystic of Hong Kong Disneyland's Mystic Manor, Harrison Hightower of DisneySea's Tower of Terror and... Dr. Albert Falls, the grandfather of Alberta Falls, the founder and owner of the Jungle Navigation Company Skipper Canteen. Yep, we've got a SEA-themed location at Walt Disney World again, following the late and widely-lamented Adventurer's Club at the old Pleasure Island. And it's a welcomed addition to the dining options in the Magic Kingdom.
Occupying the former Adventureland Veranda, the Skipper Canteen serves Asian fusion with a menu and price points that might challenge some Magic Kingdom diners. But not everything we eat in the park has to be covered in cheese or deep-fried, okay? I started my lunch by honoring the host with the SEA Shu Mai [$10], stuffed with "a legendary blend of pork, shrimp, edamame beans, and spices," according to the menu. And for the beverage, I went with the Schweitzer Slush [$5.50], an apple and passion fruit slushie with apple Boba topping.
The shu mai were a bit larger than I've found in the dim sum joints in my home San Gabriel Valley. But the flavors were there, though I missed not having a pair of chopsticks with which to pick up and dip the dim sum in the accompanying sauce. If you're looking to experience the Skipper Canteen without all the expense, order these along with the Falls Family Falafel [$8.50], share 'em both with a friend, and call it a reasonable lunch.
Because I am not reasonable, but I am a total hypocrite, for my main course I selected... the fried fish.
Not just any fried filet, though. I ordered the Fried Whole Lionfish [$30], served with jasmine rice, grilled scallions, and soy-ginger vinaigrette.
Yeah, this one requires some work. Forget the nicety of the provided silverware. For this, we're going in with our hands, to pull apart these fish and extract every morsel of buttery flesh from the bones. No, it's not the most filling option on the menu, unless you eat all that rice, but I enjoyed getting messy with the one. Want an easy meal? Go get that burger, served countless other places in the resort.
I finished my meal with one more shout-out to Disney theme park geekdom — the Kungaloosh! [$8]. A brownie-dense chocolate cake, topped with cashew-caramel ice cream and a caramelized banana, the ice cream was the tastiest part of this dessert, which didn't rise to the level of the rest of the meal.
Getting into the Skipper Canteen was a breeze on this moderately-crowded Sunday in the Magic Kingdom. Reservations are same-day at this point, leaving plenty of walk-up spots for people with a more adventurous palate than the average Disney World visitor and a need to take an hour off their feet in this wonderfully decorated space.
After my meal, I walked back to Liberty Square for the next performance of The Muppets Present Great Moments in History... but Just the American Part.
This 10-minute street show is exactly the type of addition that Disney needs to plus the always-crowded Magic Kingdom, the world's most-visited theme park. Disney rotates two shows in the windows above the Heritage House: one on the Declaration of Independence and the other about the ride of Paul Revere. I caught the Declaration show:
Disney's gotten the Muppets' style of humor spot-on here, with the right blend of silly puns, irreverent mayhem and, ultimately, respectful optimism. (Kermit's final line? "Oh, and to England, no hard feelings. You're still one of our best friends.") Take a moment to find your way over for this show. It's the best use of the Muppets in the park I've seen yet.
After killing some time on riding the Railroad and the Tomorrowland Transit Authority PeopleMover — two beloved ways around the park that I can't ride back at Disneyland these days — I drove to Disney's Animal Kingdom for my final stop.
Tiffins is Animal Kingdom's new signature restaurant. Located in an extension of the Pizzafari building, next to the entrance of the coming Avatar-themed Pandora land, Tiffins lies on an obscure dead-end in the park, awaiting the notice that will come with Pandora's debut.
But what Tiffins is doing, in some ways, represents what Disney's creative team is trying do with Animal Kingdom today. Let's set that thought aside for the moment, though, and talk about the food.
If Skipper Canteen was good, Tiffins is amazing. I started with the Thai Curry Soup [$13], a mild red curry served over a knuckle-sized bite of lobster, which added a touch of richness to the flavorful soup. The complementary bread service was a pomegranate-glazed focaccia, which arrived just as I was scarfing the final bite of my appetizer.
Usually, I skip the free bread at any meal. Who needs all those relatively tasteless carbs? Why fill up on that, instead of the good stuff? But I always try it first, and this bread tempted me to keep eating, with its mildly sweet glaze that entertained my taste buds instead of beating them into a cloying submission. But I resisted finishing the plate, as my entree was on its way to the table.
The Hoisin-Glazed Halibut [$42] comes atop black Forbidden Rice, wrapped in Swiss Chard, perched upon a thin pool of Turmeric Sauce. Far more substantial than the lionfish — and far less effort — the firm halibut held its own next to this formidable supporting cast. Why is the rice "forbidden?" Because, legend tells, some emperor liked this stuff so much he didn't want to share it with anyone else. And for good reason. The black rice and turmeric balanced the sweet hoisin with a wonderful blend of sweet, spicy, and umami, encouraging me to reach back for that bread to dredge up every last taste from the bowl.
With my check, the server brought me the "parting gift" for every Tiffins guest — a copy of a sketch by Imagineer Joe Rohde, who led the design of the restaurant. The sketches will change on a regular basis, she said, making these a sort-of trading card for high-end Disney theme park geeks. (Thankfully, I couldn't find even one on eBay! Score one for WDW fans over their entrepreneurial west coast rivals.) It's a lovely touch that reinforces the idea that the experience of Tiffins is as much about art as it is food.
So let's talk about the meaning of this. As I awaited my seating time, I walked a lap around this park — which might be Disney's most beautiful in America. Disney's Imagineers created a design that rewarded visitors with detail at every step: animal encounters, thoughtfully-explained habitats, richly decorated environments, and a few stunning vistas that kept you walking toward the next big thing in the park.
The problem? For there always is one in narratives such as this — timing. Disney created the perfect animal theme park... just as the public stopped caring for non-fiction themed entertainment. As SeaWorld and Busch Gardens also eventually learned, people these days don't care nearly as much about seeing exotic animals as they do the opportunity to spend time with wizards, princesses, and super heroes. Ours is a time that pushes us toward escapism in our entertainment, not toward envision a better version of the reality in which we live, as it did in the modernist era of the mid-20th century, the time in which Walt built his Disneyland.
So people walk past all those animal exhibits at the front of the park and around Discovery Island — some which stand empty today, perhaps in response. If we want to see animals, we'll do it on the Kilimanjaro Safaris, where the animals come wrapped with a ride... and a story.
Story. That's it. That is what we crave these days. A story that distracts us from our troubles and delivers us someplace where if we can't find comfort... we at least find hope. Disney knows this. And it knows the financial power of a franchise — a framework upon which creators can build a never-ending collection of these stories, that the public is ever-eager to buy.
But the wise among us know that stories don't have to be fantasies. And here is where we come back to Tiffins.
There's nothing special about the architecture of this restaurant. As I mentioned, it's basically an extension of the Pizzafari building. Inside the main dining room, you'll find a basic A-framed roof, with simple cross supports and exposed air ducts. I suppose that there's been an attempt to make this look like the inside of a large safari tent, but that is as plain a structure as can be. It's literally a simple framework.
But what you see inside Tiffins is never simple. Upon the walls, Rohde and his crew have hung a collection of wonderfully engaging art. It's a gallery, really, with sculptures of butterflies along one wall, and an illuminated tapestry honoring the forthcoming Rivers of Light on another. Handcrafted totems divide the room. It's a space that compels you to defy restaurant convention and leave your table to wander and look at the collection... to read the accompanying placards and flag down a server to tell you their stories.
Again, the stories. If we can't be bothered to examine animals and the natural world any longer, perhaps we still can be tempted by stories about them. Maybe they employ the science fiction metaphor of Avatar, or the international mythology of Rivers of Light. Or maybe they're found in the handwoven textiles on the wall of a Walt Disney World restaurant.
Even for an audience that craves fantasy, and for corporate patrons who demand franchise development and merchandise deals, artists find ways to tell us the stories that we need to hear. Even in this fallow environment, an artist can grow our thoughts. Tiffins is a simple building — a simple framework — upon whose walls Rohde and Disney Imagineering are telling amazing stories about our very real world. Here — if you take a moment to look up from your meal and look at it — you will find a sign that someone is still out there, fighting the good fight.
If you'd like to read Robert's review of all the stuff he didn't miss the first time around in 2016, pick up a copy of the just-published Theme Park Insider: 2016 Year in Review, now available exclusively through Amazon.Tweet
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