Thursday, June 28, 2012

American Adventure Cast Members' New Costumes

I was very happy to receive such positive feedback on my interview with Lonnie Hicks, the wonderful Cast Member who introduces one of Epcot’s greatest attractions, The American Adventure (located in the World Showcase pavilion of the same name). Even Brad Rex, VP of Epcot from 2001-2007, commented, reiterating that Lonnie is one of Disney's outstanding Cast Members and an "Ambassador" of American Adventure. I’ve corresponded with Lonnie a few times since, and have been pretty happy to able to converse with one of my favorite Cast Members in all of Walt Disney World (come to think of it, in all of Disney). However, his most recent email to me didn’t start off well.

We are definitely not happy Disney World Cast Members at Epcot's "The American Adventure" pavilion.


In the near future, we will (unfortunately) no longer portray "Colonial Gentlefolk" and represent hospitable residents of the magnificent Georgian mansion which houses the unique Epcot Audio-Animatronic theater show known as "The American Adventure," because some Disney executive has decided to take away the appropriate period costumes from the Cast Members. This arbitrary change (after 30 years) seems like a misguided and ill-informed decision.

The interior of the "Colonial America manor house" -- American Adventure

I immediately replied and offered my support, since I too felt that this decision seemed rather arbitrary. With Lonnie’s permission (and probably blessing), I decided to post excerpts of his email here on The Disney Project. He has already sent the same letter to several other folks, including the current VP of Epcot. For the purpose of clarity, Lonnie's words will be in italics.

Instead, we Colonial Folks will wear modern suits and dresses, closely resembling air-flight attendants (perhaps these uniforms were discarded from the failed Disney/ABC-TV series "Pan Am"?). Yes, the color combination will indeed project a red/white/blue USA color scheme, but the same color comment could also apply to France, Norway, and the United Kingdom. Where is the distinct design and style?

When the Imagineers were designing World Showcase, great care was given to the “American section.” Walt Disney World is obviously in America, so they had to figure out a way to feature our great nation, without vastly overshadowing its neighbors. On the other hand, Americans would be less than pleased if Disney’s native country was under-featured. The design would be colonial America, as that was arguably the most important time period in our Nation’s history. It was a very good choice, and as always, costumes would be paramount in maintaining the theme. Disney knows this, as theming is something they do better than anybody. Can you imagine Pirates of the Caribbean Cast Members running around in a polo shirt and khakis?

Gone will be the classic period theming and atmosphere which has always ranked as a distinguishing hallmark of the various Disney theme parks. Where's the story, the living narrative, the character, the heritage, the culture, the attention to detail? The popular attraction's official Operating Guide clearly states that three years of extensive research were used, "... to obtain information as complete and as accurate as possible ..." from historical experts, libraries, and archival resources. Surely these modern uniforms will visually nullify the ambience which the original Disney Imagineers so carefully created and cultivated. Who will be next: the Fife and Drum Corps or the Voices of Liberty?

Ironically, in a recent edition of "Orlando Attractions Magazine" [Summer 2012, Volume 5, Issue 3] Richard Taylor (former Vice President of Walt Disney World Entertainment and Costuming) makes this statement: "One of the main components of the Disney experience is the meticulous attention to details, often in places that the public don't really notice. Costuming is one of those places, and it's the costumes of all Cast Members that really themes the parks." He then continues to detail how Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom was specifically constructed with utility corridors underground to solve the problem of Cast Members appearing in areas where their costumes didn't fit, a situation which troubled Walt Disney himself at Disneyland. Won't these contemporary costumes destroy that illusion of definite time and place?

Lonnie in the traditional male Cast Member costume for The American Adventure

Through the years WDW Guests have come to anticipate and appreciate the personal interaction and appearance of the appropriately dressed World Showcase countries inhabitants. One of the Guests' (as well as we Cast Members') favorite frequent activities is to pose for souvenir photos with the attraction's Colonial Folks. These picture opportunities seem especially important to visiting school groups and tourists from other nations. They often comment on how much they like or admire the historical-appearing clothing from America's proud past. What Guest will want to pose with a contemporary airline steward? What performance role will we now play if we don't look the part? Will these new contemporary costumes create Guest disappointment and dissatisfaction?

I have to imagine that these new costumes aren't going to be a hit with guests. Lonnie didn't have a photo to show me, but based on his description, they indeed sound oddly out of place. And perhaps more puzzling than the 'what' is the 'why'. Is it about money? Were some guests confused by the costumes, so much so that they flooded Guest Relations with queries and/or complaints? I hardly think so. Any kind of modern suit for Cast Members in the Colonial-themed American Adventure, regardless of its quality, is not going to in any way improve the motif. Odds are it's going to detract from the experience. At absolute best, it would only seem "a little weird" to some guests. So, again, why do it?

This whole modern costume situation at Epcot's "The American Adventure" attraction seems so sad and pointless, particularly since nobody was consulted or surveyed, not even management (If so much money readily exists in the current budget, new seat covers in the theater would have easily qualified as a much better project). But for now, we Cast Members directly affected are not happy about our future portrayals at Epcot's "The American Adventure" attraction.
     Sincerely, Lonnie Hicks ...
     16 year Disney Cast Member and a Partners in Excellence honoree

Thanks for taking the time out to write this letter, Lonnie. Your passion for creating a memorable guest experience is always appreciated, and exactly what Walt wanted for us.

When Lonnie referenced the article that detailed the reason for Walt Disney World's utilidoors, the incident in question came when Walt Disney himself witnessed a Frontierland cowboy sashaying through the space-aged Tomorrowland, completely destroying the illusion. Walt Disney, possibly above all else, was a showman. He knew better than anybody what it took to entertain the public. Having yet to see these new costumes, I am forced to reserve judgement. My only hope is that if they are awful, and end up "minusing" the guest experience at what should be Epcot's most celebrated pavilion, that Disney listens to guest feedback.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Wonderful World of Jeff Kurtti

Jeff Kurtti is one of us. He is not a faceless author whose ego precludes him from mingling with his readers. He is not a creative eccentric with oddities that supersede his talent. And he is not a Disney executive who may or may not be concerned with Walt’s legacy. Jeff Kurtti is a fan. He didn’t submit an application to Disney because that’s who happened to be hiring when he graduated. For him it was a simple case of exposure that would forever shape the course of his expressive life, and it came at a very young age.

“The first movie I remember seeing was Mary Poppins during its original release,” Jeff stated. “It was a transforming event, and from that point on, I was fascinated by anything ‘Walt Disney.’ I think it was a recognition that it was a man and not a brand name that made a deep impression.” He began to collect Disney information anywhere he could find it. Comic books, magazine articles, and Disney on TV every Sunday night weren’t enough to satiate Jeff’s newfound passion. In 1966, he acquired a biography written for young people titled Walt Disney: Magician of the Movies, by Bob Thomas. To this day he still owns his childhood copy. And before there was Wikipedia, there were encyclopedias, and Jeff read any Disney-related content within them that he could get his hands on.

It wasn’t long before Jeff discovered that all of this learning came with a pleasant side effect. He remembered, “What began to happen for me was a trait that continues to inform my work and life, and Wonderful World of Walt, too. Everything I learned about Walt was a portal to learning about something else. For reasons still unknown to me, I just wanted to know more. So, drawing, animation, and filmmaking consumed my interest. I studied the geography of Missouri and the history of Southern California. Abraham Lincoln and Caribbean piracy, World's Fairs and World War II, it was all driven by a desire for background, context, and further understanding of Walt Disney's life and work.”

Jeff with the Sherman Brothers in Walt's office

Jeff utilized his vast knowledge of Disney, and combined with a lot of hard work and determination, he began officially working for the Mouse in 1986. His first role was Executive Assistant to the President of a little project titled “Euro Disney.” It was an important role, because in addition to all of the basic office duties an assistant is expected to perform, he was also tasked with helping his boss understand the structure and history of The Walt Disney Company. He worked on the project that would eventually become Disneyland Paris until 1988, and immediately followed that with a position in Walt Disney Imagineering. 

Jeff was recruited from Imagineering to a position in Corporate Synergy and Special Projects, where he was tasked with helping businesses across the entire Company to understand the cultural assets within Disney. He continued working for the Mouse until 1995, after which he decided to venture out with his own business, producing award-winning DVDs and content. Also a prolific author, he has written over twenty books (most of them about Disney), and countless Walt-related magazine articles and blog columns.

But Jeff’s biggest challenge came in July of 2005, when he was approached by the Walt Disney Family Foundation for help on what would take a few years to conceive and construct, The Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco. How do you pare down arguably one of the greatest lives in American history to fit into ten galleries of Museum space? Well the end result was nothing short of spectacular. Prior to the Museum’s opening Jeff acted as creative director, content consultant, and media producer, and since its opening he has consulted on an array of endeavors, as well as presented or moderated dozens of programs. Simply put, this man knows his Disney.

Which is why it should come as no surprise that his latest enterprise entails producing a weekly column for The Disney Insider, with a specific focus on Walt himself. Each article is rich in detail, and often includes rare and delightful images of Walt Disney. Jeff educates us on topics such as what an outstanding father Walt was, to the trips he took to Scotland. For “Walt-ists” like myself, these articles are Heaven in pixels. For those out there who know a little less about the man who started it all, Jeff’s column is a terrific way to acquire insight into Walt’s fascinating yet humble life. I hope you’ll consider taking a look at The Wonderful World of Walt. Few people can speak about Walt in such an enjoyable yet erudite manner, and Mister Kurtti is definitely on that short list.

Monday, June 25, 2012

The Disney Project: First Birthday

It was one year ago today that I embarked on a little journey called “The Disney Project.” Looking back at that first post, I can’t help but chuckle at one of the comments I made: "I doubt I'll be able to update it every day, but then again even if I did have the time I doubt I'd be able to come up with interesting stuff to post day after day for very long." At least I had the foresight to realize the flaw in my plan early on. When you work full-time, go to school almost full-time, go to the gym regularly, and do volunteer work, posting every single day is quite the unrealistic strategy! I try my best to update the blog every 1 to 2 weeks, however, and I try even harder to make sure the content is at least a little interesting.

When the blog first premiered it had six sections. Six “original lands,” if you will. Home, Walt, Trips, Reviews, Museum, and About. Waltland fell by the wayside, since many of the posts found in the (Walt Disney Family) Museum page were already specifically related to Walt. Trips and Reviews are currently a little sparse, but I am keeping them around because I hope to beef up both sections soon.

While we lost a section, we gained two in its place. The Video page is a collection of videos that have been featured on the site over the past year, ranging from film reviews to attraction ride-thrus. And Wish List is a brand new feature that showcases my meager Photoshop skills; each image will be something Disney-related that I have been wishing upon a star for. There are also plans for a few new pages later this year. The site also recently received a design makeover, which I am pretty happy with.

Over the past twelve months I have met some incredible people, mainly thanks to this blog. I don’t want to rattle off a bunch of names, but if you scroll through past articles, you’ll see. It has been an amazing experience, and I have no intention of stopping any time soon. If anything, I am writing even more. I did a guest post or two for some fellow bloggers recently, and I am very proud to say that I am now a contributing writer for Storyboard, the official Walt Disney Family Museum blog. While I love the movies and adore the parks, I have always been a Walt guy first. Writing for and volunteering at the Museum has been one of my life’s greatest joys, and I would like to thank each and every one of you for following along this journey of mine, and watching The Disney Project mature before your very eyes. I hope TDP has many birthdays to come! Thanks again.

-Keith Gluck

Friday, June 22, 2012

Radiator Springs Racers

Come take a ride on Disney's California Adventure's newest E-ticket ride, Radiator Springs Racers! Based on the Disney/Pixar Cars films, this ride combines clever storytelling, state-of-the-art audio animatronics, and stunning scenery. The rock work of Ornament Valley is amazing to behold.

And Radiator Springs Racers at night is even more beautiful! Check it out.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Disney's California Adventure Grand Re-Opening Ceremony

So I didn't get in line at 4:30pm the day before the Grand Re-Opening. Instead I got there at about 5:30am on June 15, 2012. Because of that I didn't make it inside to see the ceremony, but they had it showing on a big screen for us. I filmed that, and I also filmed Disney CEO Bob Iger personally opening the gates for us!

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Interview with Lonnie Hicks

The Disney Project sits down with Lonnie Hicks, cast member extraordinaire at The American Adventure (pavilion and show) in World Showcase, Epcot. We learn things like why the pavement is curved between the France and Morocco pavilions (it represents the Strait of Gibraltar), to what exactly is he doing with that little light at his podium during the beginning of the American Adventure show (he’s keeping track of the show’s attendance). Because Lonnie is basically a font of knowledge, the “quick” interview I had planned lasted close to 30 minutes. It has been condensed for your reading pleasure.


TDP: Hi Lonnie. Where are you from?

Lonnie: I’m from Southern Illinois. A town called Mt. Vernon. Not to be confused with Mount Vernon, Virginia, which is George Washington’s home.

TDP: How long have you been a cast member at Walt Disney World?

Lonnie: I have been here since 2002, although I’ve been with the company over 16 years. While I was still in education in Southern Illinois, I worked at The Disney Store in downtown St. Louis. When I retired from education I stayed with the company and transferred my time down here.

TDP: What prompted you to become a cast member?

Lonnie: Well I pinch myself sometimes to realize that I’m the same little boy that used to watch Uncle Walt on TV back in a small town in Southern Illinois in the 50’s, and now I’m here, a part of all this.

TDP: Have you ever visited Marceline?

Lonnie: Yes sir I have. If you look in the reconstructed barn, you’ll see there are autographs all over. Mine’s up there as well.

TDP: I did an autograph too! So you already alluded to it earlier, I was gonna ask because of your vast knowledge: Are you a former History teacher?

Lonnie: No, retired librarian. As a librarian you’re sort of like Velcro, you pick up bits and pieces of all sorts of things.

TDP: What got you started as a cast member at The American Adventure?

Lonnie: This is where I was assigned. I could have been placed anywhere, but I think maybe they checked around and thought, “Maybe this would be a good fit.” It’s almost like I knew Ben Franklin personally. Which I really didn’t.

Lonnie doling out some pre-show goods

TDP: Most people know that Will Rogers was originally slated to be the third host. Let’s say Disney came down and said they were going to add a third host, and they wanted your input. Who would you suggest and why?

Lonnie: Well let me explain why they didn’t choose Will Rogers. According to an interview with the original show producer, Randy Bright, they did a survey with college History students, and a lot of them had no idea who Will Rogers was. He died, unfortunately, in a plane crash, so his influence did not carry on. But at the time he was quite influential. He had a radio show, a newspaper column, he was a movie star, was friends with presidents, and as a matter of fact he and Walt Disney played polo together. In fact after he died in that plane crash, Walt was reluctant to fly in a small plane for a long time. So anyway, they felt that he (Rogers) was not a strong enough figure to go on into the 20th century. If you pay attention closely to the show, you’ll see they start using radio announcers, voice-overs, a newsreel announcer, that kind of thing. So, actually, I think they made the right decision by not going forward with a third host.

TDP: Do you ever get to hang out in the VIP lounge upstairs?

Lonnie: When Epcot first opened, the pavilions were sponsored by businesses or corporations. Everyone had a VIP lounge for them to come with their guests. When this pavilion (American Adventure) first opened it was co-sponsored by Coca Cola and American Express. They had offices up there, and they could also use that area whenever they had special guests visit. They have dropped their sponsorships, so now Special Events has taken it over, and they rent it out for receptions, banquets, parties.

TDP: For those who have never seen The American Adventure, what would you like them to know about it?

Lonnie: Well first of all, it is not the Hall of Presidents.

TDP: (laughs)

Lonnie: Second of all, it is not a movie. A lot of people come up expecting a movie, and I say, 'No, it’s a stage play.' I’m very emphatic on that. I describe to guests when they come up that they’ll sit down in a 1,000-seat auditorium, the curtain goes up, and onstage you have scenes of United States History, performed by audio-animatronic actors.

American Adventure Pavilion--Epcot

TDP: Besides the American Adventure pavilion, do you have another favorite pavilion here in World Showcase?

Lonnie: I think one of the prettiest ones is Morocco. When you walk back in there, you lose sight of the rest of the park, especially in the evening with the lamplight and the shadows. It really feels like you may be on a street in Marrakesh or Casablanca. One reason I think it’s so particularly beautiful is because when it was being built, King Hussein sent over about two dozen artisans to do all the elaborate mosaic and plasterwork. It’s very pretty, and very authentic.

TDP: What would you say is the best thing about being a cast member at The American Adventure?

Lonnie: It’s air-conditioned (chuckles). It’s indoors, I get to sit down throughout the day. A lot of cast members in their roles don’t get to sit down. I’m right across the street from all the wonderful concerts during the year, and especially the big Christmas Candlelight Processional performances during the Holiday season.

TDP: Do you have any interesting stories from your experience working here?

Lonnie: Well, one special occurrence happened when I hadn’t been here all that long, maybe a year or so. I was introduced to the gentleman who did the voice of Benjamin Franklin for our show, Dallas McKinnon. He did a lot of other voice work for Disney, and Rick Rothschild (The American Adventure show director) was telling me that he became Benjamin Franklin, the way he inhabited the character. And, he had never seen the show. I actually introduced him before one of the shows, and he performed a poem he had composed himself. It really was a special experience.

TDP: Thank you very much for your time, Lonnie.

Lonnie: Thank you.

After the interview, Lonnie and I continued to talk on our way out of the park. He educated me on several aspects of World Showcase and its design, and I asked him a few random questions (some of which are outlined in the opening paragraph). Even before our interview I always admired Lonnie’s attention to detail, and his ability to “plus” the American Adventure experience by providing several interesting facts before the show. Cast members like Lonnie are a true joy. Walt once said, "You can design and create, and build the most wonderful place in the world. But it takes people to make the dream a reality." Well Lonnie is definitely doing his part.