When I handed down my, now legendary, awards last year, I didn’t realize I would be issuing the inaugural awards in what would quickly become a storied tradition surpassing even the Academy Awards and Soul Train Music Awards in terms of clout. The number of Imagineers and Disney executives who now proudly display a “Planie” on their mantel is staggering, and I swear I only broke into like 6 of their houses to put the award there. In actuality, I’m sure the three or four people who read these awards last year scrubbed the memory from their minds approximately 30 seconds after closing the browser window. But I dare to dream that someday, these awards will have their own red carpet gala!
Although anyone who disagrees with my picks here is obviously wrong, it’s worth noting that these aren’t official picks of the TouringPlans staff. So if anyone on the staff wants to disagree with me (and be wrong) as to the winner of any of these awards, more power to them.
Best New Attraction: Radiator Springs Racers, Disney California Adventure
There’s absolutely no competition for this award. Radiator Springs Racers is the best US attraction Disney has opened since at least Disney’s Hollywood Studios’ Tower of Terror, or perhaps earlier. It’s an appropriate flagship attraction for Cars Land, and is a “destination attraction” in that it will be the reason kids convince their parents to plan trips to go to the “Cars Park” out in California for years to come.
Radiator Springs Racers sets a new bar for Disney E-Ticket attractions as it brilliantly combines a ride through Ornament Valley with dark ride sequences and next-generation Audio-Animatronics. The ride system is similar to Test Track’s, but comparing Test Track to Radiator Springs Racers is like comparing Dinosaur to Indiana Jones Adventure. Racing side-by-side with another car through the breathtaking Ornament Valley mountains is an amazing experience, but it’s the dark ride sequences, the queue detail, and the complete package of Radiator Springs Racers that make it one of the greatest Disney attractions ever.
Honorable mention here goes to Test Track at Walt Disney World. While not technically new, Test Track “2.0” is so drastically different from its predecessor that it might as well be new. For the first time in years, Future World feels like it embodies the promise of EPCOT Center a bit more. With Test Track 2.0, Disney finally nailed what an EPCOT Center “2.0” attraction should feel like. It’s a shame that it took until the 3.0 version of the World of Motion building attraction for this to happen, but hopefully things are finally on the upswing for EPCOT.
Biggest Disappointment: New Fantasyland, Magic Kingdom
Maintenance issues have plagued Walt Disney World for the last several years, with plenty of new and continuing issues, so awarding this honor to New Fantasyland over, say, the Tree of Life, Carousel of Progress, Splash Mountain, Maelstrom, Expedition Everest, and probably a few more attractions that I’m forgetting might seem disingenuous. And it might be. The thing is, I’d be handing out this award to attractions with maintenance issues for the next decade if I didn’t look outside that realm.
Instead, I’ll give it to New Fantasyland. Judged in a vacuum, New Fantasyland is a solid addition to the Magic Kingdom. It provides a nice contrast to the sea of concrete of Old Fantasyland with plenty of lush landscaping and interesting areas of explore. It’s heavy on rich details, which are otherwise light in the Magic Kingdom’s Old Fantasyland. Just as important, it gives the Magic Kingdom needed capacity to absorb crowds.
Given that praise, it might be difficult to see how it wins this award. It wins because this is an award for Biggest Disappointment, not “Worst” _______. The former is relative to expectations, the latter is absolute. New Fantasyland is a disappointment because it has been billed by Disney as the largest expansion to the Magic Kingdom in 41 years, and has been heavily touted by Disney since the 2009 D23 Expo. Disney, itself, has been building excitement and anticipation for this land for over three years and fans have been craving an adequate replacement for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea since it closed in the area of New Fantasyland in the 1990s. To put things into perspective, construction of New Fantasyland will take significantly longer than construction of Cars Land…and New Fantasyland is no Cars Land.
After all of this build-up by Disney, it’s a bit disappointing that the “flagship” attraction of New Fantasyland is a C-Ticket Little Mermaid dark ride that, while containing a few really impressive Audio-Animatronics, also includes a lot of static and listless ocean denizens and regions of empty space. Be Our Guest Restaurant and Enchanted Tales with Belle are both arguably more impressive than the substance of the Little Mermaid ride (the official TouringPlans.com score for this attraction is 3.5/4, so clearly some people are going to disagree with me on my evaluation of the ride). Under the Sea ~ Journey of the Little Mermaid’s queue and exterior partially redeem it, but it lacks the wow-factor or charm to be the cornerstone of “the largest expansion in the history of the Magic Kingdom” at that land’s grand opening.
The level of hype as contrasted with the one ride of the expansion that’s currently open, in a nutshell, is why New Fantasyland wins this award. Be Our Guest Restaurant is beautiful and has fairly imaginative cuisine for the Magic Kingdom, and Enchanted Tales with Belle is a captivating experience that will surely leave an indelible mark on many youngsters. From a selfish perspective, I wish the funds for these two lavish elements of the expansion were allocated towards dark rides based upon “Disney Animation Renaissance” films (or even towards smaller, charming attractions like Casey Jr. or the Storybook Land Canal Boats), but I can understand and appreciate both as solid additions to the Magic Kingdom that others will surely love.
Plenty of New Fantasyland supporters will, I’m sure, point to the hunks of steel rising in New Fantasyland that will become the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, contending that it will be the flagship attraction of New Fantasyland, rendering my disappointment moot. I also have high hopes for this attraction. However, at the time of the “grand opening” of New Fantasyland, this attraction wasn’t open, and I’m not willing to deem something that hasn’t opened a panacea for New Fantasyland. I’m sure it will have its own grand opening in late 2013 or early 2014, at which time it might take “Best New Attraction” or might help the Magic Kingdom win “Park of the Year.”
Honorable mention here goes to Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom. The attraction (or whatever you want to call it) isn’t itself all that bad. It’s not for me, but I’ll concede that a lot of people enjoy it. The disappointment isn’t in the substance of the attraction, but in that Disney has allowed profiteers to “lurk” around stations of the attraction, attempting to trade their common cards for rare cards held by unsuspecting guests (not all traders are like this, and profiteer traders are certainly the exception rather than the rule, but the bad apples are still enough to taint my opinion of Disney’s execution of the game). I’m disappointed in Disney having knowledge of these profiteers, and doing nothing to prevent them from preying on tourists and their kids.
Park of the Year: Disney California Adventure
Do I really even have to explain this one? Disney California Adventure was reborn in 2012, like a phoenix rising from Arizona! 😉 I could go on for thousands of words about Disney California Adventure’s rebirth (and have!), but that would be beating a dead horse at this point. There were no challengers for this award, and Disney California Adventure easily walks away with it thanks to Buena Vista Street and Cars Land, plus a lot of placemaking around the park that made it look new again.
Dining Establishment of the Year: Be Our Guest Restaurant, Magic Kingdom
I’ve only had the chance to dine here for lunch, but that was all it took to know that Be Our Guest Restaurant deserved this award. The artisanship, special effects, and details throughout Be Our Guest Restaurant make it as much an experience as it is a restaurant. The food is fairly inventive (especially considering this restaurant is in Fantasyland) and guests will find themselves taking time to walk around the restaurant looking at all of the effects and little details, instead of dining and dashing. While I personally don’t think the forced perspective on Beast’s Castle works, and the main dining room felt a tad like a mess hall during lunch, these are the only blemishes on an otherwise perfect dining experience.
In other years, Gaston’s Tavern and Flo’s V8 Cafe each probably could have taken this award. It’s interesting that for the second straight year, one of the best overall additions was a restaurant/bar. With Trader Sam’s and Be Our Guest Restaurant, Disney has really pushed the envelope on dining experiences.
Announcement of the Year: LucasFilm Acquisition
There were no theme park announcements deserving of this award in 2012, so I’ll punt this award to the LucasFilm acquisition, which undoubtedly will have indirect theme park implications at some point in the future. How near or distant in the future is anyone’s guess.
Am I way off with my picks? What are your picks for 2012 Disney Awards? Share your thoughts in the comments!