Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Not So Scary, So Much Candy!

One of the things on my "must-do" list at Disney included finally doing a hard-ticket event in the Magic Kingdom. I'd heard that the Halloween Party was a lot more fun than the Christmas Party, so on my fall trip I was able to purchase a ticket.

The premise is this: everyone who attends is encouraged to wear costumes (but not TOO accurate for some costumes like Snow White or Belle) and can trick-or-treat in various areas around the park. Many attractions are still open, but there are special shows, dance parties, and fireworks that are the highlights of the evening.

I planned on arriving in the Magic Kingdom as the Ninth Doctor from Doctor Who, but I didn't want to be in the outfit all day, so I stored it in my car. People with party tickets can arrive at the park at 4pm (though the party doesn't officially start till 7), and I wanted to make the most out of my time, since this would be my only time in the Magic Kingdom all vacation.

I was in Epcot, and I took the monorail back to the Ticket and Transportation Center (TTC - where you have to park when you go to the Magic Kingdom). I walked to my car - I had gotten there so early I was in the second row - and got my costume. I went to a restroom in the TTC and changed, then went back to my car and dropped off the stuff I wouldn't need for the party. Then I grabbed a monorail to the Magic Kingdom. I was surprised at how efficient I was, and I was in the park by 4:30.

I spent most of the time before 7 in Fantasyland, which is completely different from what you might remember. The original area had buildings coming out from behind the castle, with the carrousel and Dumbo in the center. Now Dumbo is completely in a different part of the park, and there's a castle wall that separates the old area from the forest in Fantasyland. In the forest are several new attractions and locations.

I had seen construction walls in 2012, so I was elated to see the finished product. I held off riding the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train since the wait was really long, but I did ride the Journey of the Little Mermaid dark ride (fantastic!) and watched the very cute Enchanted Tales with Belle show. Whoever put that show together has an education background, since there's lots of movement and use of props and all the kids are involved somehow.

The Be Our Guest restaurant is the hot ticket right now, and people get reservations months in advance. But on a whim I decided to hop over to the kiosk and see if I could score a day-of reservation. And to my shock and surprise, they did have an opening! I could fit in at 7:40 - did I want it? YES.

Before my reservation I did one of my favorite rides: the Tomorrowland Transit Authority People Mover. I ended up being in Tomorrowland for the start of the party, and there was a DJ spinning tunes in the courtyard with the cast of Monsters, Inc. I checked out a trick-or-treat location, and they make sure to give you handfuls of candy at a time. And it's good candy, too!

I made sure to take lots of pictures of great costumes. There were some clever ones, like the Peter Pan and Show White families.

My dinner at Be Our Guest wasn't party-related, but still amazing. I dined in the ballroom where Belle and the Beast dance, and it looks exactly like it, enchanted windows and cherub ceiling and everything! They also have a West Wing area which is amazing, too. I ate ratatouille because of the movie - yes, it was very tasty! 

You get a chance to take your picture with the Beast (who the servers call "the Master"), and when he came out from a break there was a big announcement and everyone applauded when he appeared. It was really cool.

After my stellar meal, I roamed the Magic Kingdom. I caught a show in front of the castle called the Villains Mix and Mingle, which features Dr. Facilier and a bunch of other Disney villains. I got stuck in Pirates of the Caribbean for 15 minutes (which always happens to me - this is not the first time!). I went in even more trick-or-treat lines.

The Happy HalloWishes fireworks show was some of the best fireworks I've seen. At the end they have fireworks exploding not just behind the castle, but also around the hub and Main Street USA. That made a good impression on me.

And then there was the parade! It's called the Boo to You Halloween Parade, and I watched it from Frontierland (where it started). I loved the first sets of "scenes:" the very first one was with Mickey and friends, and the second was pirates-themed, with Peter Pan and Jack Sparrow featured on separate floats.

My favorite section by far was the Haunted Mansion. First, the caretaker walks by with his dog. Then gravediggers dance down the way. They have shovels, and when they scrape the shovels against the pavement sparks fly! After a small float with the famous gravestones, the ghostly ballroom dancers go past. The last part of the scene is a float with the Hitchhiking Ghosts. They were my favorite part of the whole parade because they acted like Audio Animatronics, with stiff movements making them even creepier than normal.

As a matter of fact, I was so impressed by the first half (and not at all impressed by the second half, which featured cowboys and a barnyard) that I raced through Adventureland and caught the beginning of the show again on Main Street USA! It was so worth it. And instead of pictures, I want to show you the entire parade!

Following the fireworks and parade I had an hour left, so I knew I needed to get in line for the Mine Train. I waited for about 30 minutes, and the attraction is fantastic! I wish I could have ridden it one more time.

But my night ended in Liberty Square, where they were piping in music from the Haunted Mansion. Not the loud jovial stuff at the end, but the quiet, creepy stuff at the beginning. So it was midnight, I was in a nearly empty Liberty Square, and the Haunted Mansion music was playing all around me. It was creepy cool. I thought it was a great way to end my night.

As if on cue, my feet started screaming at midnight to get out of my boots, so I followed the crowds out of the Magic Kingdom, immediately got on a ferryboat, and got to my car and back to the hotel in no time at all. I found the night to be extra magical, and I'm glad that I gave Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party a shot!

Thursday, October 23, 2014

An Adventure with Indy

Fourteen years ago, my family crammed into a 3,000 seat arena-style theater, in the upper half of the bowl. It was the Indiana Jones Stunt Spectacular, where actors would perform three scenes from Raiders of the Lost Ark, including all the stunts.

Then a casting assistant director came out before the first scene, announcing that he was looking for extras to perform in the street market scene. My older brother, who had purchased a large hat to keep away the Florida heat, took it off and started waving it around like a mad person. Lo and behold, the cast member picked him as one of twelve extras!

He was ecstatic over this, and so were we. It was wonderful seeing him perform in front of so many people, because each participant gets to act out something and look pretty ridiculous up there. For example, he had to act evil, and his first instinct was to act like Dr. Evil from Austin Powers (that was popular back then, kids).

In the actual market scene it was hard to spot him out, but when he came back to sit with us he was doing figurative backflips. After watching his cute little brother get picked for fun stuff with Disney characters, it was his chance to step up and be awesome.

In my trips to Walt Disney World since 2000, I have often tried to get picked for various Disney performances or presentations, but never had the chance. But this time, it was different.

I was tooling around Hollywood Studios on Friday afternoon, hitting all the secondary attractions since all the headliners had long waits and no more Fastpass+. I wasn't going to have any time to do the Indy show the following day, so I decided to catch the last show of the day. I got in line, but suddenly realized that the show was actually 1/2 an hour later than I planned. I could have waited in that line for that extra 1/2 hour, or I could catch a band that was performing in front of the Sorcerer Mickey hat. So I ducked out of line and caught the tail end of Mulch, Sweat, and Shears before heading back to the queue.

By the time I got there, the queue was heading into the theater, and I followed with the group to the far right side of the theater. Since I was by myself, I could squeeze into any empty spaces very efficiently, and when the cast members told everyone to scoot in towards the center of the theater, I managed to move down to the third row of seats near the center of the theater.

About 10 minutes before the show started, out came the casting assistant - a woman this time. She made the normal spiel about extras, and I thought, I got a chance this time. I just felt it. She went over to the left side of the theater looking for loud people (and found four). I thought that was going to be it, forgetting that the casting director usually gets a lot more. Sure enough, she came over to my side next looking for happy people.

Around my family and friends I am the least interesting person - they have much more charisma and energy than I do. But none of them were around, were they? So I went all out, putting on my biggest smile and "Whooooooooop!"-ing as loud as I could with my arms waving like crazy.

And I was the second person the director picked, identified as "The young lady in the grey tank top."

Whaaaaaaaaat? Me?! Whaaaaaaaat?! Those were the thoughts racing in my head as I got up. I left my stuff and raced up onto the stage with three other peppy people, and we kept our happy-act going by whooping and high-fiving each other and jumping up and down. The casting assistant put the mic up to our faces and asked us for our names, and then she asked us to do something quirky. For me, she asked me to do a Minnie Mouse laugh. If I had more time, I would have done something much different than what I did, which was a screechy, high-pitched "Heeheeheeheehee!" But that is what came out of my disbelieving mouth, and it wasn't met with eye rolls or groans, which made me feel better.

She sent us up to the top of the seating area off to the right, where (unbeknownst to me) there was a portable closet with outfits for us to wear. But before I went up, I raced to my seat and grabbed my stuff. I couldn't remember if I'd be able to get to it during the show, and with no one else to watch it, I had to keep them myself.

I signed the waiver form (which I remember my brother talking about when he did it) and was given a tan-and-white striped cloak to put over my clothes, as well as a wrap for my head. I'll admit that I felt like I was in the Christmas pageant at my church again, since the outfits were very similar. But I was at Disney World instead! (Whaaaaat?!)

A third group of extras were shuttled up to the costuming area, and the rest of us were shown to the back row of seats for the first scene, AKA "The big rolling boulder scene." Everything was just as I remembered it - it would have to be, since all the stunts need to be perfectly choreographed. When the scene was done, the casting assistant (who was also in costume) ushered us all down, and I asked the people next to me in the row to keep an eye on my bag, which they graciously did. (Thank goodness!)

I went down with the rest of the garbed group and met the director, who told us to do some actions like "Act scared!" "Act shocked!" and "Act joyful!" I remembered the instructions when I was in productions at school, which was to make every action bigger than you feel you need." So I used my hands and arms and made my face extra big.

Then the actors playing Indy and Marion came out and we got to shake their hands! (Sweet!) Then the director told us to just follow what the casting assistant was doing and saying, and if we saw any other extras zoning out to gently guide them along. I did NOT want to be that person, so I made sure to keep my focus.

It was fun hearing the actors get ready behind us, especially when one yelled out, "Last one guys!" meaning it was the last performance of the day. I knew the feeling after doing four MLC Children's Theater shows in one day. Of course, my only choreographed movements involved doing the "We're All in This Together" dance from High School Musical, not jumping from buildings or avoiding explosions.

I was put in a group that was shopping in a clothing area, which we were supposed to do for five seconds before the sword street performers started performing and we needed to watch them. When they started their show, we were supposed to cheer and ooh and aah, and I made sure to be extra expressive while watching.

It was fascinating to watch the scene unfold right in front of me - especially when the actor playing Indy broke out the whip and made it snap! right in front of us! He really knew how to use it, and it was so close!

Indy and Marion throw some punches and then race up the buildings, and the casting assistant moved us all back onto the mat, so we could cheer them on. I was going nuts up there, yelling at them to "Give them a left! Do it again! Give them a sucker punch!" Everyone else was pretty tame around me, but I didn't care. They said to give it a lot of emotion, and I was!

Then the actors jumped down (we were supposed to yell at them to "Jump! Jump! Jump!" which I did with gusto) and came back to the mat. Just as the casting assistant was telling us to back off the mat, I realized the actor playing the crazy-knife guy was right behind us!

He came out and did his crazy shtick (and then Indy shot him), and the final stunt was done with a truck racing away from the scene and then exploding! We were supposed to react to the explosion by collapsing onto the ground, which I did with glee, while a few others didn't quite get the memo to collapse until the effect was done - but that was okay since everyone was watching the explosion anyway.

With that, our scene was done. We weren't finished off the field, because Marion needed to pick the fake extra from the group and beat him up. It was easy to tell who it was (he was the distracted one), but it was fun watching the lady next to me freak out a little bit. I asked her, "Have you ever seen this show before?" And she said "No!" Not long after that she said, "He's not a real extra, is he?" so she figured it out fast.

I had done some really fun acting, got to take some bows and wave my arms at the crowd as I left, and returned to the costuming area. They gave us some water (that was hot, hard work!) and let us watch the third scene with the airplane.

It was wonderful being able to participate, even though the only pictures I got were selfies in my costume. I was hoping that maybe some cast member photographers would take pictures and give us a card with our experience (like they do pretty much everywhere else), but no luck. Oh, well. I got to have an amazing time and now you all got to hear about it!

Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Adventures of the Birthday Button

I am going to make this perfectly clear at the start: I was celebrating my birthday in Walt Disney World.

Did I plan to? No.

Was it my birthday? No.

But will I ever be in Walt Disney World the first weekend in May, when my birthday falls? No.

There are a variety of reasons why this will never happen. Firstly, this weekend is usually when Confirmations take place. This weekend has also been the weekend of grade school track meets since I started teaching. And it is too close to the end of school to take an extended vacation.

So as a result, I celebrated my birthday in October.

This came about when I was picking up my ticket at the Transportation and Ticket Center Will Call. I had purchased my tickets at a discount online, and had no trouble giving them my ticket voucher and getting my card.

When I was about to wrap up, the lady at Will Call asked, "Are you celebrating anything on this trip?"

I shrugged. "I'm on a break!" Which I was. I was on fall break from teaching. That was enough for me.

It wasn't enough for her. "Are you celebrating your birthday?" she queried.

I paused for a moment.

This was a solo trip. I was going to be experiencing things on my own that seemingly should be celebrated with two or more people. I would be getting those looks of "Oh, where is your boyfriend/friend/family?" as I got my food at a counter or table service restaurant. I would be the ride vehicle with just one person inside. And I wouldn't be able to split this trip's costs with anyone else, either.

So I decided to give myself a perk. A way to keep me from fading in the background of cast members who would rather cater to families with small children than to that single person in the back.

I said "Sure!"

She put my name on the birthday button, added a Mickey silhouette (with the ears too small, like I routinely make the mistake of doing), and handed it to me.

I fastened the button on my shirt as I waited for Epcot to open. And almost immediately, the button did its magic.

Cast members giving the tourists directions would pause to say "Happy Birthday!" Cast members walking around picking up garbage would pause to say "Happy Birthday!" Cast members taking my meal order would make sure to say "Happy Birthday!" A couple of them even used my name, which I loved.

I think sometimes these greetings get ignored by other birthday button wearers, but I made sure to turn to each one, give them a big smile, and say "Thank you!" I didn't do it with a smirk on my face, or chuckling in my heart. I was genuinely glad that they had gone out of their way to congratulate me. They were making me feel special, and it worked!

But the magic didn't stop there.

My first day was in Epcot, and I was tooling around World Showcase snacking. I went to the left first - something I never do since I love the Canada and Great Britain pavilions on the right - and I passed Mexico. The band Mariachi Cobre was playing, and I'd never heard them before, so I stopped to listen (one of few since World Showcase had just opened). When they finished their song, one of them motioned for me to come under the shade of their stage. They mentioned I was celebrating my birthday, and they played Mexico's birthday song for me, which was so cool to hear in the harmony of a mariachi band! They finished by playing "Happy Birthday."

My night was spent at Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party at the Magic Kingdom. I had somehow snagged an incredibly hard-to-get reservation for the Be Our Guest restaurant, where you eat in Beast's castle, since I was going to be around for the party. (I suspected they stopped taking reservations after 8pm, and I got one for 7:40, 40 minutes after regular park members were supposed to be gone.)

I was escorted by my hostess (who had said "Happy Birthday!") to my table, which was a small 2-seater in the grand ballroom (where Belle and the Beast had danced under the cherub-filled ceiling and marvelous chandelier - both of which were present in the room I was in). My waiter was very nice and got my order in very quickly (ratatouille, if you were wondering). The two tables on either side of me were quickly seated with an older group of 4 and 2 men, so I didn't feel awkward and on my own.

The meal was delicious, albeit a little above what I'd anticipated spending on dinner that night. So when the waiter asked if I wanted to see the dessert trolley, I declined. "The ratatouille was my splurge for the night," I said. He nodded and cleared away my dishes.

But he left my fork.

A little while later he reappeared with a tiny plate and a card. The tiny plate held some of the infamous "grey stuff" from the song "Be Our Guest" (do I really have to sing it to you? no? good) with sprinkles on top and a lit candle. The card had been signed by Belle and the Beast. (My friend pointed out later that both names had the same kind of "B," which definitely meant that Belle had signed for the both of them. I thought this was genius.)

The waiter told me that I couldn't leave without trying some of the grey stuff, and that the Master had insisted. He was going to stop there, but then the two tables on either side of me decided to sing "Happy Birthday" to me! It was short and sweet, but very cool. And the grey stuff was, indeed, delicious. (Chocolate mousse, if you were curious.)

The next day in Hollywood Studios I had just come out of "MuppetVision 3D" - one of my favorite shows at any park. Nearby was the snack cart, and I realized I needed to eat my Mickey Bar - a traditional food I've always eaten on my Disney trips. I went up, ordered, gave him my ten dollars, and he gave it right back to me, saying "Happy Birthday!"

Mickey Bars and grey stuff are not all that expensive, but it still meant something that cast members were being extra kind to me. That Mickey Bar was the best I've ever had.

As I was purchasing my traditional vacation pin for the trip (Mickey ghost!), a really nice guy said, "Have you gotten a birthday phone call?" And I said no. He pulled out an old phone, picked it up and dialed, and then handed it over to me. It was Goofy, wishing me a happy birthday! It wasn't anything grand, but it was really cute.

One final kind touch was the next day in Epcot. I was at the Food and Wine Festival in World Showcase and had just ordered a teriyaki bun at the Japan kiosk. The lady took my order and also presented me with a tiny, beautifully-folded origami paper crane. It probably hadn't taken much for her to fold it, and I could see quite a few decorating her cash register, but it was still neat all the same.

Five little acts of appreciation for the girl on her own, and it helped make this one of my best vacations ever.

Will I ever get a birthday button again? No. This was a unique solo trip, and I won't celebrate my birthday at Disney ever again.

However...if I come with family or friends whose birthday falls in that month, you bet I will make sure that they get a birthday button, and then watch as they are blindsided with kindness of castmembers!

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Magical Trip: An Overview

My trip to Orlando is over and done, but I'm still riding high on the fumes of awesomeness. I can barely get out of my mouth how great the vacation was when people ask. I'm going to take a couple of posts to explain everything, but if you want to know the trip on a whole, this is the post you're looking for!

Day 1 - Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure


New Area I was Anticipating: Everything, but mostly The Wizarding World of Harry Potter

I had gotten in to Orlando pretty late the night before thanks to airline and luggage delays, but I finally made it to my hotel at 2am and crashed. Universal opened at 8am the next day, so I was up by 6 and out the door by 7 to make sure I got there on time.

At 8am I wandered my way through the rest of Universal and made it to the back of the park - pretty much where everyone else was going. You can't see Diagon Alley from the other areas of the park - instead, you can see various buildings from London (including King's Cross Station). You need to go through a brick archway to finally see Diagon Alley lay before you, and WOW. That is an amazing view!

I knew I'd have more time later to enjoy the sights, so I headed straight for the main attraction of the area: Escape from Gringott's. They have lockers (which you can use for FREE for a certain amount of time) so I stuffed my stuff inside and made it to the single rider line. It didn't take much at all, and I was in a Gringott's cart ready to pick up my galleons.

I'll leave the story of the ride for you to find out on your own, but I'll just say that it was my favorite ride of the day. Great effects and a great story! I actually came out of the attraction and got right back into line! I would have done it again if the line hadn't started getting longer.

I wandered around Diagon Alley (sampling butterbeer for the first time!) and eventually took the Hogwarts Express to Hogsmeade Village, which is actually located in Islands of Adventure. This section has been open for a few years, but it is still awesome. I wandered down the path and made it to Hogwarts Castle. The ride there - Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey - is good, but made me a little motion sick.

I ate lunch at the Three Broomsticks, which was pretty great, and then kept on wandering. My little brother suggested I go ride the Hulk roller coaster, so I did that twice and just kept doing the loop. I passed Dr. Seuss Land, Marvel Superhero Island, the Lost Continent, and Jurrassic Park Land before getting back to Hogsmeade and taking the train back to Diagon Alley. There are effects and video projections on the train that really make it feel like you're traveling in England in the world of Harry Potter!

I tooled around Universal Studios next and rode the Mummy, Transformers, Shrek 4D, and finally saw Terminator 2: 3D after hearing about it for so many years (it was just as good as advertised). The new roller coaster, Rip Ride RockIt was working (though it had to shut down twice while I was in line to clean up vomit), and I rode that one and really enjoyed it!

Eventually I went to Diagon Alley one more time and rode the train to Hogsmeade and got some great shots of Hogwarts at dusk. The park closed at 7, so I was out of there around 6:30 and ate at one of the restaurants found in CityWalk, a late night area that you walk past to get from your car to the parks. The restaurant I chose was Vivo, and it was really good!

This was my only early night of the trip - I got back to the room around 8:00.

Day 2 - Epcot and the Magic Kingdom

New Area I was Anticipating: New Fantasyland and Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party!

I read on TouringPlans.com that if you're visiting two parks, park your car at the park you'll be at for the end of the day. So I drove to the Magic Kingdom, parked at the Transportation and Ticket Center, and took a monorail from there to Epcot to open the park.

Future World is the only thing open in Epcot for the first two hours, so I did Soarin', The Seas with Nemo and Friends, Test Track, Mission: Space Orange (queasy!), and Living with the Land before venturing over to the Food and Wine center (which used to be The Wonders of Life pavilion...RIP). There I found a Ghiradelli booth with drinking chocolate (MELTED CHOCOLATE FROM GHIRADELLI) that was cheap  and amazing. My first food from F&W was incredible.

I didn't do too much in World Showcase on this day, only venturing around one-third of the park before heading back to see Spaceship Earth. While I was there, I ate food from a Fresh Fare cart (pepper hash - yum!) and China (steamed bun - double yum!). You pay a couple of dollars and you get a small amount of food, but put it all together and you have a delicious meal in many courses!

My phone battery was low, and I'd heard there was a charging station in the American Adventure, so I walked all the way to the back of the park and found the Chase Lounge - an area in the pavilion only for Chase Visa cardholders. I was one, so I was able to charge my phone in there, take a load off my feet, and enjoy some free pop!

It was time to head back to the Magic Kingdom for the Halloween Party, so I hopped on a monorail, changed into my costume (Fantastic!) and entered the Magic Kingdom. The decorations down Main Street were amazing to finally see in person, and I wish I'd spent more time on Main Street during the party.

My destination before the party started (I was there by 4:30, the party started at 7) was to see New Fantasyland, since the last time I was there it was all construction walls. It was beautiful - lots of greenery and atmosphere to put you in the right mood. I rode the new Little Mermaid attraction and visited Belle in the library of Beast's castle, and even got a hard-to-get reservation at the Be Our Guest restaurant!

Eventually the hordes of people left and we partiers were the only ones remaining. The music turned spooky, and the party started! There are tons of trick-or-treating stations, and they give out handfuls of the good kinds of candy. My bag was full in no time!

Of course, I couldn't stock up on candy because I was eating in the Beast's castle! They led me into the ballroom, which looks exactly like the one in the movie, and I had ratatouille and the grey stuff. (It was delicious!) I ended the meal by touring around the creepy West Wing and got my picture with the Master himself!

The rest of the night was spent trick-or-treating, viewing a villans show, watching some incredible fireworks, and seeing the wonderful Boo To You Parade, featuring a section devoted entirely to the Haunted Mansion! I loved seeing that section so much, I ended up racing to another section of the park to see it all over again!

The night was fantastic, and I'm so glad I was able to go.

Day 3 - Animal Kingdom and Hollywood Studios

New Area I was Anticipating: Most of this day was just doing the awesome stuff I'd done before!

My time in Animal Kingdom was short because, as much as I try to embrace the idea of the park, I still can't enjoy it. I did Expedition Everest twice, walked around the Asia and Africa areas, saw an amazing show called Finding Nemo: The Musical, and ate lunch. Then I was hot and done with the Animal Kingdom!

I took a bus back to the Studios and enjoyed my time there immensely. The Studios is my favorite park because there's always something new to view. The Citizens of Hollywood are improv actors that appear every hour or so to make wisecracks and be genuinely funny. I saw the Public Works guys rib each other, and it was hysterical!

I did also fit in a few rides. I did Star Tours, The Great Movie Ride, The Magic of Disney Animation (which I'd never done before!), MuppetVision 3D, and the Animation Academy (I drew Minnie!). I saw three shows - the Indiana Jones Stunt Spectacular (and I got to be an extra in the second scene - more on that later!), the Frozen Singalong, and Fantasmic! - my favorite nighttime show ever.

I loved just wandering around the Studios, too, and catching all of the inside jokes that are all around. I made sure to go right back the next day!

Day 4 - Hollywood Studios and Epcot

New Area I was Anticipating: Epcot's Food and Wine Festival

I started in the Studios so I could catch all of the major attractions I didn't see the day before, like the Tower of Terror, Rock'n'Roller Coaster, and Toy Story Midway Mania. All three were stellar and I'm glad I got to do them all again!

I also visited Star Tours again, and then headed over to Wandering Oaken's Trading Post (yoo-hoo!), where you could visit the shop and then play in some snow! (Yes, snow!)

I took a friendship boat between Hollywood Studios and Epcot, since they are connected by waterway, and entered Epcot through the International Gateway. This was the day I would enjoy F&W, and I did!

First was France, where I went to the newly refurbished Boulangerie de Patisserie and got a carmel/chocolate torte that was INCREDIBLE. Then I stopped at the Brazil booth and got some cheesebread. In Japan I got a stuffed beef teriyaki bun (probably my favorite food of the F&W festival!), and then I stopped in the Chase Lounge again to drink some pop and put up my feet.

I was able to watch the Voices of Liberty twice (they did different songs both times), and they are incredible to listen to. I also watched the American Adventure movie/show, which is always a great experience for me.

I continued my food journey by eating a gelato cookie standwich in Italy, a pork lettuce wrap at the South Korea booth, a potato pancake with smoked salmon at the Scotland booth, a chicken gyro at the Greece booth, and wrapped it all up by going to the Refreshment Station and getting "adult Dole Whip": pineapple Dole Whip with creme de cacao liqueur! (AMAZING!)

My tummy was satisfied and my time was almost up, so I quickly saw the video in Canada and toured around the shops in Great Britain before finally heading out of Epcot. I rarely have spent much time in Epcot, but I am learning to appreciate and savor the experience of World Showcase!

My car was at the Studios, so I took another friendship boat back to that theme park, hopped in my car, and headed back to the airport for my trip home.

Needless to say, the trip was fantastic. There is soooo much more I want to talk about, but I'll save those for different blog posts. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

My Definitive Harry Potter Movie Rankings

The night after I finished reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, I started the Harry Potter movies. I watched one movie per day, and it was great. Because I had just read the books, I got a lot more out of it, and also noticed when things were different. Because of the differences, the rankings of the movies are very different to those of the books.

The reasons for this are clear: there were different directors for the movies (four different directors, to be exact), different music composers, and different screenwriters bringing their own visions to the Harry Potter universe. Thankfully, the differences were not due to the actors. We could have had the worst series ever if the actors were wooden and didn't bring anything to the table. But the veteran British actors complemented the young adult actors very well, and made for a very good series of eight movies - a very hard feat to accomplish.

Let's look at these rankings, shall we?

8. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

Director: Chris Columbus

Screenwriter(s): Steve Kloves

Composer: John Williams

Cast MVP: Alan Rickman perfectly takes on the role of Severus Snape in the very first outing - that's like hitting a home run in your first at-bat of the season. If anyone had any ideas about who Snape was or what he looked like from the books, Rickman matched it. Although I always had the impression he looked like Gargamel from The Smurfs.

Thoughts: Once again, the first movie in the series is the weakest one, because it needs to introduce so much information for veterans of the books and people just looking for a nice movie to watch. I found my mind wandering a lot more as I watched it. The movies is filled with warm colors - the red of the Hogwarts Express and the fire glow from the Great Hall - colors which become more muted as the series progresses.

7. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Director: Mike Newell

Screenwriter(s): Steve Kloves

Composer: Patrick Doyle

Cast MVP: Ralph Fiennes. We were all kind of wondering how Lord Voldemort would look and act, and although Fiennes gets little screentime at the end of the movie, he does his time well. He also makes sure not to underestimate Daniel Radcliffe, even though his character underestimated Harry.

Thoughts: One of my favorite books turned into one of my least favorite movies due to unnecessary plot twists (something that my older brother never lets us forget when this movie comes up) and too much additional material. Barty Crouch Junior was in too much of the movie (a huge complaint for me, since I love David Tennant). He wasn't supposed to be in Little Hangelton at the beginning of the movie (it spoils the surprise of him being alive at the end). He was supposed to be under an Invisibility Cloak when he set off the Dark Mark. He was supposed to be a scared, shrieking teenager when convicted of being a Death Eater. And while everyone else's voices stayed the same for the Polyjuice Potion (in the movies - something I never understood), Moody's voice turned into Brendan Gleeson!

Another issue is the direction of Michael Gambon as Dumbledore. While he does incredibly well in his first foray into Harry Potter (Prisoner of Azkaban), he turns into someone completely different (and unlikable) in this movie. I hate him during the Goblet of Fire scene, and I hate him at the end when he's sitting on his chair talking to the students. Not cool.

I did finally see the age difference between Harry and Cedric, Krum, and Fleur - it's clear they are more experienced and older. I did also like the teenage drama. The fact that Harry and dead Cedric come back from the graveyard and the crowd cheers with a happy tune is so sad because none of them are aware of the horrors that took place, and they just think everything is peachy.

6. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Director: Chris Columbus

Screenwriter(s): Steve Kloves

Composer: John Williams

Cast MVP: Jason Isaac playing Lucius Malfoy. Even without the long flowing white hair, you can definitely see where Draco's selfish, righteous manner comes from. Playing the villain must be so much fun.

Thoughts: This movie introduces a lot of stuff pretty well. Dobby was animated relatively well, and his innocence is played very well by of Toby Jones. The Chamber of Secrets was far more elaborate than I had envisioned in my head, and the basilisk battle was very good, and mostly the same as the book. We don't get to see too much of Ginny's fear.

5. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Director: Alfonso Cuaron

Screenwriter(s): Steve Kloves

Composer: John Williams

Cast MVP: Gary Oldman plays creepy convict incredibly well here, and if you don't know the story, you are genuinely scared about Sirius Black.

Thoughts: I had high hopes for this installment of the series. Unfortunately, it fell flat for me. A few things from the first two movies were changed in this one (the layout of Hogwarts, the Fat Lady painting, Professor Flitwick) and I should have appreciated the change in tone, but I actually didn't like that sudden change in so many things.

There were also too many artsy shots - hands hovering over something for a bunch of seconds, actors surveying the grand scenery, etc.

However, I did appreciate a few things. One is the "immaturation" of the kids. They wear their school robes for class, but outside of class they are running around with their ties askew and their shirts untucked and their outfits aren't all the same (some have cardigans, some have vests, etc.). On weekends they just wear normal clothes. They also act a lot more like kids instead of actors - I especially liked the scene after the Great Hall scene where the Third-Year boys in Gryffindor are eating random food and making all sorts of noises and just goofing off. That was nice.

4. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Director: David Yates (note: You'll find that the top four movies are also the four that David Yates directed. Coincidence? I think not. Great job David Yates.)

Screenwriter(s): Steve Kloves

Composer: Nicholas Hooper

Cast MVP: Tom Felton finally gets some substance to work with as he takes Draco Malfoy from a snob to someone forced to eat his words and be genuinely scared. Because we look through Harry's eyes in the book, we don't get as much in character development outside of Harry's world. In the movie, we get to see Malfoy working on the vanishing cabinet, and feel the worry and fear about what he is being forced to do.

Thoughts: I find this one to be very uneven. I loved a lot of stuff, and I didn't like a bunch of stuff. I wish there had been more flashbacks, but it wasn't hugely necessary to the movie's plot. I didn't like Ginny in this movie - as has been said before, the Ginny in the books had a great personality and you could see Harry falling for her. Here, she just kind of gives nothing. I didn't like the unnecessary Christmas-burrow Death Eaters scene, either - especially since the Burrow is completely repaired by the seventh movie.

Luna, however, is given a lot more here, and it's great. I almost wish they'd changed from the book and had Harry be with Luna instead!

If any scene is spot on with the books, it's the Felix Felicis scene. Harry is so positive and upbeat, and he knows everything is right. Everything he does turns out great!

3. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1

Director: David Yates

Screenwriter(s): Steve Kloves

Composer: Alexandre Desplat

Cast MVP: Rupert Grint and Emma Watson show that the producers chose wisely when they were cast in the roles of Ron and Hermione. Watson has consistently showed that she was perfect for the role, but in this film Grint gets to be splinched, show jealousy over his friends supposed "love-relationship," and save the day. The argument between Harry and Ron is so great, with a lot of tension finally bubbling over, and then Harry and Hermione's dance is great, too - he's not trying to be romantic; he's just trying to cheer her up, for a minute.

Thoughts: I could really have a three-way tie for first place, because these last three movies are great. There are some changes I could do without, but the difference between these movies and the others are that there are things in the movies that I like better than the books. Shocking, right? They also take things that I didn't like in the books and make them so I don't mind them in the movies. I didn't like the hundreds of pages with Harry, Ron, and Hermione camping. In the movies, I really liked those scenes, because they did a great job of character development, too.

The opening scene of the kids is great. It really sets the tone of the movie. Another improvement is that Hedwig dies trying to save Harry - she knows which one is the real one. How sad is that?

The Ministry break-in is much better here - I like that Harry got to utter another "must not tell lies" statement to Umbridge. And wasn't it great how they used such an unsettling, high-pitched sound when the Horcruxes were near? So creepy.

2. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Director: David Yates

Screenwriter(s): Michael Goldenberg (the only movie with a different screenwriter!)

Composer: Nicholas Hooper (I LOVE his work here. It's finally the perfect music for the series.)

Cast MVP: Imelda Staunton. She didn't look like a toad, but she embodied everything else about Dolores Umbridge to a "t." She was easy to hate. The best part was a line not in the book, when she tells Harry to tell the centaurs that she means no harm. Harry replies, "I can't Professor. I mustn't tell lies."

Thoughts: Crazy, huh? One of my least favorite books is one of my favorite movies in the series. Michael Goldenberg wrote something that perfectly embodies a Harry Potter novel. While there is danger, there is also a lot of fun and adventure. There are many more "DA" scenes here than in the book, which is great, because I always wished there had been more of those in the book.

More improvements are the introduction (and use) of Gwarp, and the use of flashbacks to scenes from the fourth (and especially first) movies. Did anyone think they'd see 11-year-old Harry in this movie?

We get to see a proper wizard fight for the first time, and it's AWESOME. I wish it had been longer.

1. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2

Director: David Yates

Screenwriter(s): Steve Kloves

Composer: Alexandre Desplat

Cast MVP: He could be the "most improved player" of the entire series, but Daniel Radcliffe does great work with Harry here. Starting from the second movie on, he gets better every time showing the struggles Harry deals with.

Thoughts: When I looked back on the first time I saw this movie, I remember being picky about all the things not there from the book. But when I rewatched it this time, after a Harry Potter movie marathon, I liked it a whole lot more. The Battle of Hogwarts is different from the book in many respects, but I'm okay with that. The book could explain stuff with its words, but the movie could explain stuff with actions much better than just long scenes of people talking.

Seamus' tendency to make stuff explode has been hinted at in other movies, but Professor McGonagall actually makes a blunt statement of it when she sends him and Neville to blow up the bridge. I didn't get that part the first time, but after seeing all the movies, it was pretty neat.

Maggie Smith gets another great scene when she basically owns Snape and sends him out of Hogwarts with everyone watching. They only mention Snape's escape in the books - I liked this better.

During the Battle of Hogwarts, when Harry, Ron, and Hermione are going to the boathouse (much better than going to the Shrieking Shack), the scene plays out so well. There's no dialogue; there's only music and sound effects as they avoid the giant, the spiders, and the dementors. You can sense the chaos all around them and genuine fear that they might not make it out alive.

One last thing: If you watch carefully over the last two movies, whenever Lucius tries to get Draco to do something, he hesitates or doesn't do it. But when Narcissa tells Draco to do something, he does it without question. Even at the end, when Voldemort calls for recruits, it's only after Narcissa asks Draco to come that he does, and she's the one that takes him away from Hogwarts even before the battle is over, while Lucius is still unsure of what to do (another scene better than the book!).

So there you have it - all my thoughts on the Harry Potter movies. What do you think? Do you disagree with me on anything? I'd love to hear your thoughts!