Sneak Peek Critique

by Debra Martin Koma, ALL EARS® Senior Editor

Feature Article

This article appeared in the March 29, 2005, Issue #288 of ALL EARS® (ISSN: 1533-0753)

Wait a minute -- it's end of the month. Isn't this spot usually reserved for our monthly "Bits and Bites" issue, in which we give you snippets of news and notes from around Walt Disney World?

Well, yes, it is -- usually. But this week we have news that's so exciting, so stupendous, so earth-shattering...

OK, maybe I'm getting a little carried away. But that's because I'm so excited! Last week, while my family and I spent half of our Spring Break in Orlando, we were lucky enough to see and/or do most of the new shows and attractions that Walt Disney World will be rolling out in conjunction with Disneyland's 50th anniversary, the upcoming "Happiest Celebration on Earth!"

In fact, I could scarcely believe my luck as I planned this Spring Break trip. New rumors circulated daily, indicating that Disney was about to offer "sneak previews" of nearly all of the new attractions and shows before their official May 5, 2005, debut -- and our vacation was going to coincide with these so-called "soft openings!" Although we didn't see everything that's coming up for the big celebration (we missed Crush 'n' Gusher at Typhoon Lagoon due to iffy weather, and Lucky the Audio-Animatronic Dinosaur isn't walking around yet), what we DID get a gander at more than made up for what we missed.

If you don't want to read any "spoilers" about the new attractions, you may want to skip down a bit -- I'll be describing things in some detail. But come on, admit it -- you're just as curious as I was about what's on the horizon for Walt Disney World!

We had heard they were having "soft openings" of the Lights, Motors, Action! Extreme Stunt Show patterned after a popular show in Disneyland Paris. In fact, they were even advertising the shows in the Disney-MGM Studios' weekly Times Guide. Guess that makes it a Not-So-Soft Opening?

On our first day at Disney, I ran back to the Stunt Show entrance to find out what I could, and saw a sign indicating that the show for the day was at 3 p.m. I got Fastpasses (the machines are located to the left of the main entrance) that told us to arrive between 2:20-2:40 -- instructions which we dutifully obeyed. As you can see from the photos (http://allears.net/tp/mgm/m_stunt3.htm) the theater for this show is HUGE -- it holds about 5,000. The bleachers are cold, hard, metal -- just like you'd find at a stadium -- and Cast Members encourage you to go higher... higher... telling you that the higher up you go, the better the view. This of course made us chuckle when we saw they were seating those in wheelchairs about half-way up -- they get the crummy seats? We walked up fairly far, to what I'd call the "nosebleed section." After viewing the show, I think a little lower would have been better, especially since once you pass a certain point your view is obscured by a number of posts.

We were warned at the outset that since the show was still in the testing phase, they might have to stop and restart. We were also aware that the jet ski element of the show had yet to be added -- the rumor was that they needed to cut some time from the show so that they could add the jet skis later.

The show starts out much the same way as the nearby Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular, in that a Cast Member introduces the show and warms up the crowd, and then introduces the show's "director." (By the way, the director for the performance we saw was Dennis Marsico, who I recognized from his previous stint as a host at Who Wants to be a Millionaire? Play It!) The director then talks about how they film special effects stunts for action movies, and then explains that they will edit the scenes they shoot into footage using "real" actors for the "real" film. None of this is entirely original. If you've been to the Studios' Backlot Tour, you've witnessed this video-editing technique before. If you've been to the Indiana Jones show, you've seen this "show within a show" premise before.

The "set" is built to resemble a quiet little French town (a salute to the show's country of origin), with quaint cafe facades (like Cafe Fracas and Cafe Ole) and storefronts. In the center of the set, a billboard advertising the show eventually turns into a big video screen. At first it quizzes the audience on action movie trivia to while away the time as folks are getting seated, then it converts into a big monitor to help those far up (like us, up high in the cheap seats!) see the stunts in some close-up detail. The action starts out with lots of precision driving, including leaps across ramps, with several black cars and one bright red "hero" car, and, eventually, a few motorcycles. After some time, we're let in on a few of the secrets of how it was all done, and a spectator is pulled from the audience to help out with a stunt or two. Oh, and how could I forget?! They trot, er, wheel out Herbie the Love Bug in a shameless plug for the upcoming remake of the Disney classic film. Even though Herbie ended up "beside himself" in a cute little trick, it wasn't enough to convince my preteen that this was a movie we should see -- the remake nor the original.

Toward the end of the performance, they are some great special effects -- some explosions and a man engulfed in flames. Finally, we see how all the individual scenes are strung together to make the finished product.

As it stands, the show runs about 35 minutes, a little too long to be sitting on those cold, unforgiving seats. They need to tighten it up a bit, I think, to hold your attention. In addition, we thought they needed to mix things up -- the first 10-15 minutes is all precision driving, and it gets a little repetitive. The special stunts at the end -- a man falling from a building, and some explosions with a person on fire -- were cool, but Alex, my nearly 13-year-old action expert, thought they needed even more of that. All in all, I think it has the potential to be a fun show, but will they ever fill the 5000-seat capacity? Gosh, that's a big theater.

There's not much I can say about the new Cinderellabration, inspired by the stage show in Tokyo Disneyland. I mean, it's cute, and if someone in your family is a big princess fan, they'll love it. It's performed on the Magic Kingdom's Castle Forecourt Stage, with the beautiful, newly gilded Castle and the multi-colored Magic Mirror as a backdrop. The nearly 20-minute show has a very simple storyline -- it's Cinderella's coronation day, and much singing, dancing and, well, celebrating, ensue. In addition to Cinderella in an elegant, pure white gown, the princesses include Snow White, Aurora, Belle, and Jasmine, all with their princes, and all looking very glamorous. In fact, the costumes themselves make the show -- they are just spectacular. The day I saw the show it was quite warm -- I felt for all of the actors, who had to be roasting under all that brocade and velvet (except for the scantily clad Jasmine, of course). The music is pretty, though it's less than memorable -- I'm not sure I'd recognize it if I heard it again. But the story is sweet, the costumes and set are colorful and vibrant, and you have to love the daytime fireworks at the end. (http://allears.net/tp/mk/cinder30.jpg)

Also in the Magic Kingdom, I paid a visit to the new Tomorrowland Terrace Noodle Station (on the site of the former Plaza Pavilion counter service restaurant). A few friends had recently stopped there and found the Shrimp Pad Thai and Chicken Noodle Bowl to be quite good, and the Ginger Creme Brulee, while not up to California Grill standards, to be "very nice, with a nice crust and only the tiniest hint of ginger." But they'd deemed the steamed bun with BBQ pork and Asian slaw just so-so, so I opted to try a few other items. The egg roll ($2.39) was a very generous size, and stuffed with both meat and veggies -- the outer wrapping was not too greasy, either, one of my common complaints about egg rolls. The pot stickers, at $2.99, might sound expensive when you learn that there were only three of them, but they were also a nice size, and when you consider you're talking about fast food at the Magic Kingdom, they weren't such a bad deal. They were lightly crisp on the outside, filled with pork inside. They came with a rather thin hoisin dipping sauce, but the flavor was good. I liked the looks of the rest of the menu, too, and will definitely try other items on future visits. Interestingly enough, though, the rest of Magic Kingdom was so crowded you couldn't move, yet the Tomorrowland Terrace Noodle Station was nearly empty and eerily quiet... even at peak lunchtime. I hope that it will catch on. (http://allears.net/menu/menu_ttns.htm)

Finally, in Epcot -- Soarin'... yes, we were lucky enough to see it! A friend told me he had seen it the previous week, and that it probably wouldn't be testing over the weekend. So on Monday we ventured over to the Imagination building and I asked a Cast Member if she thought we might get lucky. "Oh yes," she said, "the queue's right there (pointing to a roped off area on the path that leads to the restrooms behind Imagination)." We waited along with a few other eager and expectant folks (including travel agent Chet McDoniel, who we bumped into while he was on his honeymoon). As we chatted, we traded news and rumors and we Disney enthusiasts tend to do, we heard that the ending of Stitch's Great Escape has been changed slightly -- Stitch supposedly now ends up at the Magic Kingdom castle instead of on AstroOrbiter. Unfortunately we didn't get the chance to follow up on this and see it for ourselves.

About an hour and a half later (yes, we waited that long, although we were minutes away from giving up), a half-dozen or so Cast Members in royal blue flight attendant-type suits with flag-emblazoned ties came out to greet us and take us into Soarin'. Woohoo! I have to say, the queue is beautiful -- I hear it's designed to be a three-hour wait and I believe it! We walked and walked through the high-ceilinged building, past beautiful photographs of landscapes and seascapes interspersed with slides of nature-based trivia questions on the walls. (By the way, they were very strict about the NO PHOTOGRAPHY rule, so I didn't get any pictures -- sorry.)

Once we reached the end of the queue at the bottom of the ramp, we were directed to one of two theaters. Each boarding area has three rows, with room for about 10 people in each. As we waited to board, there was a pre-flight briefing and slightly humorous safety spiel. I recognized the "flight attendant": it's Patrick Warburton (perhaps best-known as Puddy from Seinfeld, and as the voice of Kronk in Disney's The Emperor's New Groove).

Inside the theater, we filed into one of three rows. The rows of seats are like sectioned-off benches, with grip bars on the sides of each space, but there's no lap bar. There is a seat belt, though -- in fact, for small children (and those with a fear of falling, like me!), you can pass your seatbelt through the additional loop between your legs for some extra security.

As for the attraction itself? Amazing!

The lights went down as the rows of seats rose into the air -- those in the top row are about 40 feet off the ground, those in the bottom row (where we were) are only about 10 feet high. It was a little odd to look up every now and then and see a long line of feet dangling overhead! Thankfully, the Cast Members advise you to stow any type of slip-on shoes in the mesh bag under your seat, or else leave them on the floor during the flight, otherwise those on the lower levels would be dodging flying footwear!

As we took off, we felt the rush of the wind in our faces, just the start of the many sensations we were to experience. I hear that the film we saw is identical to the one shown in Disney's California Adventure -- we soared over a number of California landscapes, including the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, hot air balloons over Napa Valley, skiers at Lake Tahoe, Yosemite Falls, California orange groves, and golfers at Palm Springs. The scents of pine trees and oranges wafted up to us at different points, and many times I found myself reflexively ducking or lifting my feet -- I felt like I was IN the IMAX screen projections that much. At the end of the film, we flew over L.A. at night, ending up at Disneyland as the fireworks began over Sleeping Beauty Castle. All too soon (actually a little over four minutes go by), we gently returned to the ground. What a ride! Oh, and by the way, Soarin' will have both Fastpass and Single Rider Lines -- and I predict that it'll be so popular it will need them!

Other new things that we had the chance to try:

We went to an evening Extra Magic Hour at the Disney-MGM Studios. Considering that this was during the week leading up to the Easter holiday, I had thought perhaps the park would be as crowded at night as it was during the day. Not so. We were able to walk on to Star Tours (several times) with no wait, and walked straight in to MuppetVision 3-D, no wait. Our only complaint about evening Extra Magic Hour at this park was how few of the shows were running -- no Indiana Jones, no Beauty and the Beast, no Animation or Backlot Tours, no Millionaire. On the other hand, if we had wanted to have a late sit-down meal, both the '50s Prime Time Cafe and Sci-Fi Dine-in Theater were seating diners until 10 p.m.

My husband and son used their new Magic Your Way tickets for the first time this trip. Neither had any problems with the biometrics, but it was clear that scanning fingers for everyone definitely slowed down entrance at the park turnstiles -- especially with all the spring break crowds we encountered.

We also had the chance to use Disney's PhotoPass this trip. As ALL EARS® Editor Deb Wills pointed out in her feature a few weeks ago, the system works well, although the photo quality is not very good for the price you pay. Overall, we'll be sticking with our own digital photos.

Finally, does the rehabbed It's a Small World count as a NEW thing? It definitely had the look and feel of a brand new attraction! The bright ticking clock replicated from Disneyland's attraction is a welcome addition, and we had fun trying to spot the new dolls placed throughout the attraction. Everything's been refreshed, and the colors truly seem more vibrant than ever before. And the music throughout the ride has been significantly enhanced -- you can now clearly hear the different cultural influences in the music in each area, whereas before it all was just "That Song" over and over (and over and over) again. The thing that made us smile the most? We noticed the surfer dude perched atop a wave near the end of the ride sporting a yellow Lance Armstrong LiveStrong bracelet. (http://allears.net/tp/mk/sworld24.jpg)

After several recent attraction disappointments (Stitch's Great Escape comes to mind), we found lots to be positive about during this most recent trip. In fact, even though I've already had the chance to sneak a peek at a lot of the "new stuff" that Disney is promising, I'm more excited than ever about the upcoming Happiest Celebration on Earth! Hurry up, May 5!

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Related Links:

Lights, Motors, Action! Extreme Stunt Show Photos: http://www.allears.net/tp/mgm/m_stunt3.htm

Cinderellabration Photos: http://www.allears.net/tp/mk/cinder2.htm

It's a Small World Photos: http://www.allears.net/tp/mk/mk_small2.htm Soarin': http://www.allears.net/tp/ep/e_soar.htm

Other articles by Debra Martin Koma: http://allears.net/btp/dkoma.htm

And you can always drop Deb a line at dcdeb@allears.net


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Editor's Note: This story/information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all current rates, information and other details before planning your trip.