2016 Awaken Summer July Media Day
My alarm went off at 5:20 a.m. A bit early for some, but considering my WESH-TV sunrise shift for 4 years meant a 3 a.m. wake up-call? This was not so bad. Plus, this didn't feel like waking up for work; I was going to be spending the whole day at the Disney parks experiencing new summer attractions and getting to interview some of the awesome people responsible for making them happen.
*Disclaimer: I was invited to partake in the WDW Summer Media Day and was provided with meals throughout the day. I was not obligated to write anything in exchange. All opinions stated here are my own.*
There's something rather novel about parking at Epcot with no attendants and finding your way to whatever spot you want. The sun was still rising, and the nighttime lighting was still visible on the west side of Spaceship Earth.
Checked in and got my snazzy press lanyard as well as a magical FastPass card that would allow me to bypass lines all day at the THREE parks I was going to be traversing between scheduled press ops.
It's not 7 a.m. Yes my forehead was already sweaty. I came prepared: cooling towels for myself and my camera as well as my special UV parasol. We were escorted back to Norway first. Nice continental breakfast spread (stuffed my face with a bagel). The Summerhus and Frozen Ever After rides were open for us to check out.
I found my way into the Summerhus first (I already went recently with Daphne). Our first interview op was with one of the Imagineers for the Frozen Ever After ride in the Summerhus queue.
People are already marveling over the animatronics on Frozen Ever After. Turns out these are the first fully-electronic (no hydraulic!) animatronics ever implemented in the parks. The faces use a projection technology similar to Seven Dwarves Mine Train, but the bodies are all brand new tech. I wasn't allowed to shoot inside the ride (go to youtube, there are a million ride-through videos by now), but I was really impressed with the fluidity of the electronic animatronics on Elsa particularly. I also asked Lauren what her response was to the Epcot purists who might say that Arendelle isn't actually Norway. She was quick to talk about how the construction of the Summerhus was designed to be as authentic as possible (the imagineers saw it as an opportunity to "Extend the Norway Pavillion"). She also explained that, when it came to the ride, they wanted to tell the story that as you entered the queue, you were entering a portal to Arendelle (while the exterior would still be authentically Norway.
I visited the royal sisters and was intensely awkward without my child in tow. Elsa said she liked my braid and she'd give me my own personal flurry cloud (a lá Olaf) to help keep me from melting outside all day. Thanks, Queen. The meeting rooms are beautiful and spacious. I still feel like they should let you meet the sisters at the same time, but that's an argument for another day. I will say that they are doing a very impressive job of keeping the wait times low at Summerhus. I checked the My Disney Experience App throughout the day Friday and never saw a wait time over 20 minutes (usually closer to 10), quite the improvement over those 300 minute lines at Princess Fairytale Hall last year.
I exited the Summerhus and noticed a familiar face mingling around the breakfast tables. Brian from the Awaken Summer Resident Media Day! He remembered me, too! We bonded over his love for the Miami Dolphins (not that I love the Dolphins, but that the reason he fell in love with the Dolphins was Ace Ventura, which of course I love). When he found out I hadn't been on Frozen Ever After yet, he offered to come with me (he'd only been on it once himself).
I couldn't help myself from comparing the ride to Maëlstrom. Knowing the same building and ride track were being used, this was inevitable. First, as soon as you walk in you'll notice they've completely changed the queue as well as where the load-in platform is (it's now where the exit used to be). Epcot veterans will see familiar seaside buildings from the former exit area incorporated into the designs.
Notable addition to the standby queue is Oaken's sauna and trading post. You will hear Oaken inside his sauna, occasionally wiping the fog off the window between rousing bouts of "Let It Go."
I was not a person who mourned the loss of Maëlstrom. I loved it, but I certainly felt the ride was due for a facelift at least. Do I agree with Frozen replacing it? Honestly I'm pretty ambivalent. I understand both sides of the debate. In the end Disney had to meet a demand for more Frozen, and this was the fastest way to accomplish it. Even if you hate the ride, you can give it a hearty thank you for freeing up more top tier fastpasses at Epcot (lots of day-of Test Track FP's were available Friday, which hasn't happened in months). With all that said on my personal feelings (or lack thereof) on the subject, here's what I think of Frozen Ever After: It's fine. A bit anticlimactic of me, yes? What I liked: new technology (the animatronics really are neato), amazing life-size GIANT SVEN (can I get my kid a meeting op, please?), seeing different characters do reprises of the songs, Anna and Elsa appear in their Frozen Fever dresses at the end, and the puffins from Maëlstrom are still around post waterfall. What was meh: the video projection is still pretty glitchy (I'm sure this will get ironed out with time), Let It Go's reprise consisted of the changing of a single word ("share" instead of "see"), if you're still feeling pretty oversaturated with Frozen, this will not change your feelings about it.
I went on it again. All alone. I couldn't stop laughing at the novelty of being alone on a ride that still has a line regularly stretching into the China Pavilion. It's a fun ride, and I'm sure my kid will love it. But when it comes to booking my Tier 1 FastPass? I think Test Track and Soarin' remain my priorities. Speaking of Soarin'...
After my second trip to Arendelle, the media were escorted backstage (oooohh) to get loaded on to the new Soarin' Around the World. Of all the changes at the parks, I feel like this is the one that will have the most universal appeal. Soarin', while incredibly popular, suffered from aging technology and excessive wait times. With the opening of a third theater, updated projectors, all new high definition video, and the opportunity to fly all over the world while ending up AT EPCOT (Soarin' Over California ended at Disneyland), it's hard not to fall in love with Soarin' all over again. We took Daphne on it last week and she absolutely flipped her lid, so I'll link to her adorable reaction video again.
You get to visit places around the globe in stunning "I'M FLYING" high definition and smell the dirt on the African safari (but mercifully, not the elephants). They escorted us back to the now open park, but not before handing out Froggy Togs to get us all through the 100+ heat index July Day (I may have come prepared with my parasol and cooling cloths, but pretty much nobody else did). I was given an interview window to talk to one of the Soarin' imagineers that was at least 30 minutes away, so I put my magic FastPass to good use on Test Track. I also picked up a few Star Wars tsums in Mouse Gear (still my favorite merch store in any Disney Park. BTW, it's cheaper as an AP to buy tsums in the park than it is on the website with their 3/$15 plus AP discount, FYI).
This is Jason, and I only made him stand in the sun while I took this picture. We huddled under a tent while I asked him about what was new. The imagineers designed a completely new camera in order to be able to shoot the new footage at such an incredibly high resolution and mounted to so many different types of airborne vehicles. They've also added a new "Soarin' Challenge" for the standby queue: riders can partake in a travel trivia game, and if they participate on their smart phones, they get virtual passport stamps and can see how their score ranks at the end of their wait. We talked smells, and I brought up Fiji. There's a beautiful fly-over of the ocean and islands there, accompanied by a smell. I'm not sure what it's supposed to be, but I called it Ocean-Breeze soap, which prompted a chuckle from the Media Relations CM standing behind us who is apparently the only other human being in that group who has seen Muppets Take Manhattan. And because I can't let anything go, I had to do my best Kermit "Ocean Breeze soap will get you clean."
Post interview I opted to sacrifice my glorious Epcot parking space and make my way to the TTC.
With a handy Quick Service lunch voucher, I opted to check out some of the new food offerings at the frequently NOT open Tomorrowland Terrace. What can I say? My curiosity got the better of me when I saw a "Banh Mi" on the menu. Not your typical Disney fare. I couldn't bring myself to photograph my food (I saved that for the dessert party at Hollywood Studios later), but at $12 it was a large sandwich, if not overly authentic. With food in my belly and FastPass in hand, I decided to hit the town.
People Mover. Space Mountain. Seven Dwarves Mine Train. I eyeballed Fairytale Hall. I mentioned previously I don't generally go out of my way to meet characters without my kid. BUT in the spirit of checking out the "new offerings" of the park, I gathered my courage and headed in to see Princess Tiana at her new home. Her new AIR CONDITIONED home.
Now that Anna and Elsa have made the big move to Epcot, Cinderella and Rapunzel have split with Aurora joining Cindy and Tiana joining Rapunzel. I only had time to see my favorite frog, but wait times on either side of the hall seem to be averaging in the 20-40 minute range. Not bad for summer peak. Feeling remarkably refreshed, I braved the heat to go watch Mickey's Royal Friendship Faire up close.
So here's the thing with the new castle show: I don't think there's anything they could have done here that would have pleased EVERYbody. Dream Along With Mickey had such a die hard following (particularly the characters it featured), I just don't see how (particularly by including the divisive Frozen sisters) this show could survive ALL the critics. I was not die hard for DAWM (though I loved it), and was ready for something new. The positives of Mickey's Royal Friendship Faire: the costumes are spectacular; the Tangled cast, its unexpected star, Vladimir, and his ceramic unicorns; the royal frogs' incredible NOLA themed jazz/swing/tap number. The (what some people find to be) negatives: it's mostly a sing-along of preexisting movie music with basically one new music number and its reprise for the finale; there's not as much of a "plot" as DAWM had (though, honestly, DAWM's was rather flimsy); there's no conflict or villains. While all these negatives are things I can understand and even sometimes agree with, I still think Friendship Faire is worthwhile, fun, and has a very positive message. Did I mention Vladimir?
Also I barely survived the direct sunlight. Even with my froggy tog, cooling cloth for my poor camera, and parasol (which I lowered out of courtesy to my fellow viewers during the show).
I ran away to Heritage House for some air conditioning before riding Pirates. Headed back to the hub for the official press viewing of MRFF. Mostly I wanted to be there because Courtnee (my contact at Disney Parks social media) was getting to watch it for the first time, and she's a huge Tiana fan like myself. I made my way over to the East Lawn for the interview I was most excited about: Tara Anderson. When I found out I'd be doing this interview, I googled (after all, I'm "the one who does her research" now at these events). And I got excited. Then I got more excited. Tara's resumé includes (but is not limited to) seasonal trolley show, tiana's showboat jubilee, pirates and princesses party, move it shake it, boo to you, and she's the current manager of Festival of the Lion King. Of course, my first point of order after shaking her hand and telling her how much I liked the show was to call out the giant green (missing) alligator in the room. Or in this case, the concept art of MRFF. Yup, I'm still the person asking the questions nobody wants me to ask.
Of course, I didn't get a date. The good news, however, is that Tara assured me that Louis' invitation to MRFF "hasn't been revoked, only postponed." So confirmation that he would come back at some point is the best we could have hoped for at the moment.
I also asked her what she was currently working on, and I brought up Boo to You (and how my kid is obsessed with the soundtrack right now). She mentioned that might be something she's involved with right now. I brought up the fact that they usually decide if they are making any changes to the parade in February, and I got the look again (the one that says "How'd you know that"), but I found that in an interview on youtube she did a few years ago, no shady investigative practices here.
So Tara confirmed that there will definitely be updates to Boo to You this year. Possibly a new unit, but she wouldn't give me anything else. Let the rumors commence.
I lost track of time once I started reflecting with Tara on some of her past work. That's when I got played off. Yup, I stayed too long at the interview fair, and the PR lady started smiling and subtly nodding her head to cut me off. In fairness I probably would have stayed there all day if she hadn't done that. My bad. I fangirled.
I left the hub and met up with some of the other media and Courtnee for dinner at Liberty Tree Tavern. I didn't know they did family style all-you-can-eat at dinner (it's a la carte at lunch). I got to sit with a table full of gentleman, one of whom was fresh back from Disneyland Shanghai. I got to simmer in envy.
I headed to studios early so I could try to ride Rockn Roller Coaster for the second time ever. It was shut down. Of course. I was not remotely disappointed to ride Tower of Terror instead.
Tower of Terror is probably my favorite theme park ride ever.
Rockn Roller Coaster was working again. I forgot my glasses were on top of my head and caught them as they were flying off. Ninja skills.
At that point it was time to check in for the Star Wars Galactic Spectacular dessert party. There were alcoholic beverages (including Bailey's and iced coffee), a cart full of mickey bars and popsicles, a savory stand with veggie/olive skewers and C3PO crackers. The dessert spread was pretty impressive.
My personal favorite was the "truffled hazelnut mousse." The hazelnut mousse is tossed in some liquid nitrogen, then they drizzle a raspberry or chocolate sauce over the top (or both).
There were adorable Darth Vader and BB8 cupcakes, blue milk pannacotta, darth maul cookies...
I didn't know what to think of this. It was advertised as a galactic bread pudding. There was definitely bread pudding under there (and a DIY topping/sauce options to the side), but whatever was on top looked like what would happen if I left my kid alone in the kitchen. There are M&Ms, pretzels, marshmallows, nuts, bits of candybar... basically everything you can think of. The bread pudding under it was moist and tasty with the creme anglaise poured over it, but the topping was beyond my capacity. After sampling the wares, Courtnee approached me. Our itinerary included an "interview opportunity" from 10pm-11pm in Launch Bay, but I warned her I was flagging and didn't think I'd be up for it. She let me know the interviews were set up now, so if I wanted to go speak to Michael Roddy before the spectacular I could. Wait... did you say Michael Roddy?? THE MICHAEL RODDY?! I didn't have to google to start fangirling all over again.
Michael (yeah, sure, we're on a first name basis now) is such a passionate guy, and it's refreshing to watch him speak about his work, particularly on Star Wars. He really loves the franchise. My first question for him was, given the popularity and high regard of Symphony in the Stars... why change it? "I'm actually glad you asked that..." Michael brought up that Symphony in the Stars was a showcase of something that Disney has been doing very well for more than 40 years now: fireworks set to music. But the company has progressed, technology has come a long way, and they saw an opportunity to try to tell a real story and immerse the audience in the saga. They worked with John Williams' music editor to create an original 12 minute piece for the Galactic Spectacular, then they went about incorporating the interactive elements (projection, lasers, surround sound, pyrotechnics, etc.). I got to see Michael geek out a bit over the fact that Star Wars originally premiered at the Chinese Theater, and the Galactic Spectacular also starts with a projection onto HS' own Chinese Theater. He stressed their desire to tap into how emotionally connected people are to the franchise by engaging them in specific iconic moments as you move through the entire saga. So I told him about my own experience with Daphne watching Symphony vs Galactic Spectacular, how much she loves seeing and hearing her favorite characters, how she "wow"d and "ooh"d and "ahh"d. Then I asked him what he was currently up to. Of course he wouldn't commit to anything specific (I'm so used to the question dodging by now), BUT he hedged around that he might be developing the new Star Wars additions at Hollywood Studios!
I love Galactic Spectacular. No, there aren't as many fireworks as Symphony in the Stars (duh), but it's a multimedia show and EXPERIENCE that engages you in a lot of different ways.
At 10 pm I went home. In case you're wondering what my day looked like...
This is how I justify the bread pudding. And truffled mousse. And panna cotta.