Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Disney in Depth – Country Bear Jamboree

Guilty pleasures – we all have them. Some might think my Disney obsession alone would qualify, but that doesn't even scratch the surface for me. And of my Disney guilty pleasures, my love for the Country Bear Jamboree has to be towards the top of the list. Therefore, I thought it would be fun to take an in-depth look at this classic attraction.

♪ Let's start at the very beginning, a very good place to start. ♪ (I think we all know that's not the last time I'll be singing in this article. You've been warned.) The Country Bear Jamboree (CBJ) got its start long before Walt Disney World was brought into existence. “Of course,” you're thinking, “it must have premiered at Disneyland.” Wrong! CBJ was first conceived as a dinner show for Disney's Mineral King Ski Resort which Walt Disney was trying to build in the mid 1960s. Walt wanted to make sure that after guests spent their days skiing and hiking, they still had a reason to remain at the resort for the evening. According to the book Disneyland: the Nickel Tour (by Bruce Gordon and David Mumford):

 So Walt commissioned [Imagineer] Marc Davis to come up with shows that would keep those folks (and their money) right there at Mineral King. “Walt thought maybe we should have a show that had something to do with bears,” Marc recalled. “Lots and lots of bears.”

Davis, together with Al Bertino, began developing the concept. One day, Davis was working on drawings of the characters in his office. Walt walked in and saw the drawings and laughed because he loved the characters. That was the last time Davis saw Disney, who died a few days later on December 15, 1966. CBJ has therefore become affectionately known as “Walt's Last Laugh”.

Although the Mineral King project was eventually scrapped, the Bears lived on. When it became clear that the resort would not be built in the foreseeable future, the Disney Company decided to move the attraction to the soon to be opened Walt Disney World. The attraction debuted as the Country Bear Jamboree with the rest of Walt Disney World on October 1, 1971.

Located in Frontierland, Grizzly Hall is the longtime venue for my beloved Bears. As you wait in the front room for entrance into the theater proper, make note of the “claw marks” in the floor. This is one of my favorite Disney touches.

Inside the theater, your first introduction to this wonderful cast of characters are three fellows that have just been “hanging around” to meet you. (Sorry; I couldn't resist.) Melvin the Moose (voiced by Bill Lee), Buff the buffalo (aka Disney Legend Thurl Ravenscroft, who is also heard in a few places you might know – the Haunted Mansion, Walt Disney's Enchanted Tiki Room, and Pirates of the Caribbean, for starters), and Max the stag (Pete Renaday) join you in waiting (with varying degrees of patience) for the show to begin.

The show. Here's where I start to get a little sad. You see, when the show first opened in 1971 (sponsored by Pepsi and Frito Lay, no less), it ran for about fifteen glorious, fun-filled, knee-slapping minutes. In 2012, Disney closed the show briefly for a refurbishment, and reopened with a bastardized truncated version. I'm still bitter.

That wasn't the first time the show had been changed. In 1984 the attraction was given a new show during the holiday season called the “Country Bear Christmas Special”. The show would return annually around Christmastime until 2005. And in 1986, Disney decided to create a new show for the attraction, "The Country Bear Vacation Hoedown". Vacation Hoedown featured the bears in their vacation outfits, singing new songs such as “Ghost Riders in the Sky” and “On the Road Again”. Due to attendance struggles, however, the new show only lasted for six years and the original thankfully returned. (Until the 2012 travesty, that is.)

Here's a lovely introduction to the show as it appears in my 1972 “Original Sound Track, a magnificent full-color illustrated book and long-playing record”:

And now, allow me to introduce you to my favorite ursine entertainers:

Henry- The host of the show, Henry is a large, friendly brown bear sporting a grey top hat, starched shirt, and a string tie. Voiced by Pete Renaday (who also provided voices for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, The Hall of Presidents, and the WEDWay PeopleMover/Tomorrowland Transit Authority), Henry plays the guitar and sings. He is featured on the songs: "The Bear Band Serenade", "The Ballad of Davy Crockett", "Come Again", and prior to the 2012 refurbishment of the attraction, "Fractured Folk Song". Henry is joined in the final three songs by Sammy, his raccoon pal who cuddles around Henry's top hat, acting like a coonskin cap.

Gomer- Gomer is a tall bear who wears a collar and tie. He's the resident piano player/accompanist, and according to his bio is highly regarded by the other musicians because he can play in a key other than C.

The Five Bear Rugs- The Five Bear Rugs are the Country Bear Jamboree's main/house band. They appear on center stage and perform, "Bear Band Serenade" and "Ole Slew-Foot". Prior to the 2012 refurbishment of the attraction the Five Bear Rugs also performed "Pretty Little Devilish Mary". The band consists of:
  • Zeke- The Five Bear Rugs lead singer, Zeke plays a banjo and taps on the dishpan with "a real ol' country beat". He is a grey bear with glasses who wears a tan top hat. He was voiced by Dallas McKennon from October 1971 until July 1975, when Randy Sparks rerecorded his vocals.
  • Zeb- Zeb is the band's fiddler, a brown bear with a light brown stomach. He wears a hat and a bandanna, and is voiced by a member of the Stoneman family.
  • Ted- Ted is a tall, skinny bear who blows on the corn jug and plays the washboard. His fur is brown, and he wears a white vest with a brown hat. 
  • Fred- The biggest of the five bears, Fred plays mouth harp (he plays it kinda sad). He is a brown bear with blue jeans held up by suspenders as well as a striped red and white tie.
  • Tennessee- Tennessee plays the One String "Thang", which sounds just like a guitar but only has one string. He is brown and wears a red bandanna around his neck.
  • Baby Oscar- Unlike the other bears in the Five Bear Rugs, Baby Oscar plays no instrument. He does carry a teddy bear, however, which he squeaks from time to time. According to my aforementioned record set, he's Zeb's son (Oscar's mom is off modeling fur coats somewhere).

Wendell- Wendell is a buck-toothed golden brown bear who plays the mandolin. He wears a blue bandanna and a hat. Voiced by Bill Cole, Wendell sings "Mamma, Don't Whip Little Buford" with Henry as well as joining the bears to sing the finale, "Ole Slew-Foot". Prior to 2012 Wendell performed "Fractured Folk Song" with Henry.

Liver Lips McGrowl- A big bear who gets his name from his large lips, Liver Lips plays the guitar. He is voiced by Jimmy Stoneman and sings "My Woman Ain't Pretty (But She Don't Swear None)" and joins the bears in the finale, "Ole Slew-Foot". As a side note, he always reminded me a little bit of Elvis.

Trixie- Voiced by Cheryl Poole, Trixie is a large brown bear who appears in a blue bow and tutu, holding a blue handkerchief and wine glass (which never spills!). Trixie is one of the few bears that does not appear in the finale of the show, however she does sing one of my favorites, "Tears Will Be the Chaser For Your Wine".

Terrance (aka Shaker)- Terrance is a tall bear with tan fur and a bit of a snaggletooth who plays the guitar while wearing a cap and yellow vest. He is voiced by Van Stoneman and sings "How Long Will My Baby Be Gone” as well as appearing in the finale.

The Sun Bonnet Trio- Those little Sun Bonnets from the Sunshine State, Bunny (Jackie Ward), Bubbles (Loulie Jean Norman), and Beulah (Peggy Clark) sport identical blue bonnets and dresses. The sisters appear on center stage and sing "All The Guys That Turn Me On Turn Me Down".

Ernest- Ernest is a brown bear who plays the fiddle while wearing a brown hat, a white collar and a red polka dot tie. Ernest was also voiced by Van Stoneman from October 1971 until July 1975 when Randy Sparks took over his vocals on “If You Can’t Bite Don’t Growl”.

Teddi Barra- Teddi knows how to make an entrance. She comes down from the ceiling on her pink rose-studded swing, fabulously decked out in a pink hat and long pink feather boa. She is voiced by Roni Stoneman and sings "Heart We Did All That We Could".

Big Al- Big Al is a big grey bear who wears a burgundy vest and hat and plays an out-of-tune guitar. He sings "Blood on the Saddle" and his insistence on interrupting Henry and Sammy with an unsolicited encore leads to the grand finale of the show. Big Al is voiced by Tex Ritter (father of comedy legend John Ritter) and is modeled after Imagineer Al Bertino.

Fun Facts:
  1. According to a plaque located above the Country Bear Jamboree’s main stage, the Jamboree was founded by Ursus H. Bear who lived from 1848 until 1928. In the attraction's backstory, "after a restful hibernation, (Ursus) rounded up his musically inclined kinfolk and friends to put on a down-home celebration".
  2. Grizzly Hall claims to have been built in 1898.
  3. Initially, Five Bear Rugs’ member Tennessee was going to be named Lemonade.
  4. In The Big Bang Theory, Sheldon wisecracks in response to Penny's awe over Wolowitz's mechanical robot arm, "At best, it’s a modest leap forward from the basic technology that gave us Country Bear Jamboree" (Season 4 Episode 01 – The Robotic Manipulation).
  5. A Goofy Movie contains a parody of the show known as "Lester's Possum Park."
  6. We don't mention the 2002 movie around these parts. Move along; nothing to see here.

And now for your viewing pleasure, here's a video of the original show I've shamelessly stolen from YouTube. Enjoy!

♪ We hope that you'll be coming back again.
That you'll drop in to see us now and then.
We've had such fun, we're going to cry.
We just can't "bear" to say goodbye.
We hope that you'll be coming back again. ♪

Sunday, June 19, 2016

The Blame Game

I spent most of Tuesday night crying, constantly refreshing my news feed, hoping that the news trickling in wasn't true – that it was a hoax, a mistake, a case of internet sensationalism. Unfortunately, it was all too real.

A little after 9:00 PM Tuesday June 14, 2016, two-year-old Lane Graves was snatched by an alligator outside of Walt Disney World's Grand Floridian Resort and Spa and dragged into Seven Seas Lagoon.

The mainstream news wasn't reporting it yet, so I was getting the details and news updates from a few Disney fan forums, posted by locals and guests who were on-site as events unfolded. As I read through the posts, tears streaming down my face and my mind constantly picturing the nightmarish events like a clip from a horror movie that was playing its own hellish loop in my brain, I realized that perhaps even more than news updates or expressions of fear, hope, or condolence, I was seeing one overwhelming theme: blame.

Blame the parents: Why weren't they watching their child? Who lets their baby play in alligator-infested waters? What was a child that young doing out of bed at that time of night, anyway?

Blame Disney: Why are there alligators on Disney property? Why weren't there warning signs of the danger?

Now that more of the facts are in, I think it's time to review what really happened. I'm going to try to be as fair and unbiased as I possibly can, but spoiler alert: There is a party I find somewhat culpable in this tragedy.

From what I understand, here's how the situation unfolded: Matt and Melissa Graves from Elkhorn, NE had taken their children (four-year-old Ella and two-year-old Lane) down to the beach of the Grand Floridian to watch Zootopia, that night's complimentary outdoor movie screening. Lane was a little restless, so Matt took him for a stroll. The were walking together near the water's edge (Lane was maybe a foot in the water, where it's about three to four inches deep) when an alligator sprang from the water and clamped its jaws around the boy. Matt Graves tried to rescue his son, but was not able to. He received minor injuries as he wrestled with the seven-foot alligator that had his son in its jaws. Melissa also dived in to help, but to no avail. In a few seconds, their son was gone forever.

So, to review, the parents were right there. The child was not unattended. It was just a fight the gator was destined to win. Further, it was not irresponsible parenting that had them on the beach at night; they were there to watch a Disney-sponsored event, surrounded by other families with young children.

Here's the stickiest point, and the one where fingers seem to be pointed in every direction: Why was the child splashing in an alligator-infested lagoon? Should the parents have been more aware of their surroundings, or should Disney have done a better job of warning them?

For the record, there are “No Swimming” signs on that beach:

Is this an adequate warning of the potential dangers? Well, when it comes to alligator attacks, courts in Florida have held that a swimmer's disregard of "No Swimming" and other warning signs were the sole cause of the serious injuries, thereby relieving the property holder of responsibility. There's also the ferae naturae doctrine, in which wild animals are presumed to be owned by no one specifically but by the people generally. Simply put: Under the law, wild animals are unpredictable and uncontrollable, and a property owner is not responsible for their actions (unless they are being kept as pets). And in Florida, the law does not require a landowner to anticipate the presence of or guard a guest against harm from wild animals.

Is this enough? Could the parents have known that “No Swimming” means “stay away from the water entirely”? Most people from Florida with whom I have spoken think so. The old adage in Florida is that if it's bigger than a puddle, it's undoubtedly home to gators. They're ubiquitous. (And not just gators; be aware of snakes and brain-eating amoeba. Yes; I'm serious.) But could parents from Nebraska be expected to know this? I'm from Ohio, so when I see “No Swimming”, I assume it's either because of boat activity in the area or lack of a lifeguard. (Or because pollution may be so bad that the body of water may catch fire, but that's another story entirely.) Do we Northerners know there are snakes and alligators in Florida? Of course. Do we expect to encounter them in as heavily populated and traversed an area as Walt Disney World? That's a tougher question. I do, but I'm a Walt Disney World and Florida nut. I'm also a big believer in knowing my enemy and trust me: Snakes and alligators are high on my enemy list. And I've seen snakes and gators with my own beady little eyes at Walt Disney World. I'm aware and I'm scared appropriately cautious. But I'm sure many people happily ensconced in the “Disney bubble” prefer not to ponder these possibilities.

Should Disney have done more to make guests aware of the issue? As I mentioned before, Florida courts have previously been satisfied with the “No Swimming” signs. It's also worth noting that in its 45-year existence, no other WDW guests have been killed by alligators. The only other reported alligator attack I've been able to find was 30 years ago. (There have been some snake attacks, but I'm trying not to think about those – particularly because one of the most frequent spots where snakes are spotted is near the Treehouse Villas at Disney's Saratoga Springs Resort and Spa, where I'll be staying on my next trip.)

It's worth noting that Disney is taking steps to try to keep this from happening again. They are putting up small fences along the beaches (designed to keep guests out of the water, obviously not made to be gator barriers):

They're also erecting more explicit signs:

And as for keeping alligators (and snakes) off Disney property? Simply put, it can't be done. Disney does work with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to remove any alligators over four feet that are spotted, but Florida is one big swamp and there's simply no way to keep them out. If you choose to visit Florida, snakes and alligators were there first, and they aren't leaving.

Why do we look to blame anyone? I think it's fear. I believe that deep down we think that if someone brought this upon themselves, we can find a way to make sure it doesn't happen to us. But I don't think it was the Graves' fault, and I don't think it was Disney's fault. 

There is a group that I think may have some culpability, however: other Disney guests.

I've seen it more times than I can count: guests thinking it's cute to feed the wildlife around WDW. They're told not to:

But they don't listen. Further, it's illegal. According to Florida Statute 372.667, feeding a wild alligator is a misdemeanor of the second degree. 

According to Disney Cast Members, some of the most egregious violators of this law are the well-heeled guests staying in the Bora Bora Bungalows on the water at Disney's Polynesian Villas & Bungalows. One told The Wrap Wednesday that several CMs have become concerned about guests feeding alligators over the past fourteen months. Guests who stay in the bungalows have access to the wildlife at the Seven Seas Lagoon and apparently frequently feed the alligators that swim there.

Another common saying in Florida: “A fed gator is a dead gator.” You see, once an alligator starts to associate humans with food, all bets are off. It's going to lose its natural reticence to interaction with humans, and a tragedy is bound to occur. At that point, the gator will have to be caught and killed. So even if you don't get attacked by the gator you fed, you may be setting up a chain reaction that will lead to tragedy.

I was going to posts videos and pictures of alligators and snakes at Walt Disney World along with some stories of snake attacks, but this article is too long already. Please Google the subject if you're interested. Suffice it to say, there's plenty of examples out there.

And please, don't blame the Graves. And don't blame Disney. Just be aware, be safe, and don't feed the wildlife!

Thursday, February 25, 2016

My Letter to the Walt Disney Company

Sometimes friends have to be honest with each other, and when you're doing something stupid a real friend will point it out.

It was in that spirit that I sent the following letter to several Disney executives:

February 25, 2016
Dear *******,

Thank you for taking the time to read my letter.

I must confess, I'm rather at a loss on how best to word this message. I'm not out to attack you personally, and I'm certainly not angling to score any Disney “freebies”. I am rather concerned about trends I've seen develop within the Walt Disney Company over the last several years, and I thought it may be of value to you to let you know how decisions are being viewed by consumers.

Let's start with ticket prices. According to The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World 2015 (and I'll trust Len Testa's math skills over mine every day of the week), the cost of a Disney vacation has increased roughly three times faster than US workers' median wages (6.2% vs. 1.9%) since 2005. To put that in perspective, it took the average worker 3.8 hours to earn enough money for a 1-Day Base Ticket in 2005. In 2015 it was 4.9 hours. If this trend continues, it will be 8 hours in a decade. According to my math, that means a person in 2025 would have to work an entire 40 hour week just to get his family of 5 into a theme park for a day. I really hope they're not hungry.

But I'm not kidding myself; the median US worker isn't exactly your target market, is it? It now costs more than an entire year's travel budget for 80% of US households to take a trip to Walt Disney World. If you're one of the 230 million Americans making less than $100,000 annually, then a yearly Disney trip just isn't in the cards.

So you're targeting the top 20%, once-in-a-lifetime visitors, and foreign tourists. You know what? I get that. I don't love it, but I understand it. If revenue is up (which it is; I pay attention to the annual reports), then the market can obviously bear this strategy, at least for now. (Once you're only bringing in the top 15% instead of the top 20% I think you could be in trouble, but that's a conversation for another time.) And let's face it; the parks are busy – crowded, even. Lines are long and guest satisfaction is down. Now, here is where I have an issue.

I've seen Disney using lower guest satisfaction due to long waits as an excuse for raising prices, as so many Disneyland AP holders will attest. But that's not the whole story, is it? Not when reports have surfaced that across-the-board cuts are coming to all domestic parks and resorts. Numbers of Cast Members are being reduced wherever possible. Fewer CMs will be at registers in shops, operating resort front desks, handling bags at the resorts, and running attractions. Overtime is being suspended wherever possible, and when Cast Members leave, they are not being replaced. And all of this despite record numbers of tourists and profits being reported. Shorter park hours and fewer Cast Members mean longer waits, and less things to see and do: Meet and Greets have been cut; rooms taken out of inventory at the resorts; reduced park hours; reduced operating hours of attractions, shops, and restaurants; and lower levels of customer service. And sadly, the Disney standards have slipped so far already. I can't count the number of times I’ve encountered filthy – indeed swampy – restrooms at places as varied as Epcot, the Magic Kingdom, and the Beach Club Resort. It's a sad, sorry decline from the days when top Disney executives would dive to pick up stray pieces of garbage.

And why are guests being treated to a sub-par experience? It's not like 2001, when guests were staying away in droves. No, the general perception is that these cuts are because of issues in Paris and Shanghai, and perhaps some lingering fallout from the boondoggle that was MM+/FP+. So once again, the geese that lay the golden eggs (the domestic theme parks) are being starved and deprived to cover ineptitude in other facets of the company. I have to feel that under those conditions, the production of golden eggs won't continue forever.

I obviously don't know your personal feelings or attitudes towards the Disney fan community. But I can tell you that the general perception among many Disney fans is that you view us as unintelligent, unsophisticated rubes that you can continue to milk shamelessly, and we'll continue to smile vacantly and thank you for the honor. How else to explain the outrageous increases in price combined with the egregious decline in service? Or that we continue to subsidize other aspects of the company, when there hasn't been a new country added to Epcot's World Showcase since 1988, and one of only two rides there has been out of service for a makeover since October 5, 2014? And don't even get me started on the Graveyard that was Formerly Known as Disney's Hollywood Studios. Don't you feel the least bit embarrassed about charging for a full day's admission there right now? Of course, I'm very interested in what may eventually come to that park, but if DAK's Avatar is any indication, I have to wonder if it will actually open before I'm in a nursing home.

I suppose now is the time when I should threaten to pull all of my business and never visit again, but the fact that I care enough to send this letter tells us both that's not very likely. I can tell you that even as a DVC member, I won't be visiting in 2016. 2017? Time will tell, I guess. More than anything, I'm just disappointed. I've always considered the Walt Disney Company as the gold standard for customer service, and modeled myself after you professionally. I'm truly sad to say that I believe I now provide a higher level of service to my customers than you do to yours.

If you would like any clarification to what I've said or to discuss this with me directly, please feel free to email me at ************ or call me at (***) ***-****. Thank you very much for taking the time to read and consider what I had to say.

Teri ********

In case you'd like to contact Disney executives as well, here are some useful email addresses:

Robert Iger

Tom Staggs
Chief Operating Officer

George Kalogridis
President of Walt Disney World

Jim MacPhee
Senior Vice President of Next Generation Experiences and Walt Disney World Parks

Phil Holmes
Vice President of Hollywood Studios, Former Vice President of Magic Kingdom

Sam Lau
Former Vice President of Epcot

Trish Vega
Assistant to Tom Staggs