The Most Highly-Coveted, Heavily Sought-After Disney Awards: TouringPlans’ 2011 Picks!

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The title is hyperbole, you say? Well, would it surprise you to learn that a certain B. Iger called me up yesterday and said: “Yo, Tom, it’s Igizzle. When are you going to sling out your totally legit awards for 2011?” Would it also surprise you to learn that a certain T. Baxter texted me and asked something similar?! Admittedly, the former was my distant cousin Bud Iger, pizza-making extraordinaire, and the latter was Tron Baxter, a random guy I met at elecTRONica who was staring at Laserman for several hours. (I’m not even sure that’s his real name–he had made quite a few stops at the End of Line Club, if you get my drift.) Still, the point stands. The world, nay, the universe, has been sitting on pins and needles, waiting on me to award the first annual “Planies.” Or “Touries.” Or maybe I should call it my “Airing of Grievances,” since that’s what a lot of them will be, anyway.

Star Tours: The Adventures Continue

Whatever they might be called, rest assured, these are the definitive awards in the Disney theme park universe. Unlike other awards that are the product of silly things like a “consensus,” these are the sole product of my preferences, thoughts, and ire. Without further adieu, let’s get the ball rolling!

Best New Disney Attraction: Star Tours: The Adventures Continue, Walt Disney World

This is a no-brainer. Well, except for those of you who contend that this attraction wasn’t new, but rather, a refurbishment of an existing attraction. That’s like arguing American Idol Experience was merely a refurbishment of Doug Live! If you’ve actually experienced Star Tours: The Adventures Continue, you know that it’s a wholly different attraction. Everything, from the queue to the film to the exit, is different. It’s a new attraction that resides in the shell of the former one, and shares the same intellectual property. To the point, though, this attraction deserves this award because it’s technically astonishing, incredibly re-rideable, and because it took the soul of its predecessor and replaced it with something equally soulful and even more entertaining. The fact that it’s self-referential and includes some wonderful details puts it over the top and gives it the nod over The Little Mermaid ~ Ariel’s Undersea Adventure and Mickey’s Soundsational Parade. It also receives the nod over the Disneyland version of the attraction because, overall, it’s a slightly better experience.

The Great Disney Light Hunt

Biggest Disappointment: Frontierland, Walt Disney World

With slipping maintenance standards in many Disney theme parks, this was a pretty heated race. Two candidates emerged for me immediately, and given the locations of those candidates, I knew it would have to be an entire land. Of course, I’m referring to Splash Mountain and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. In early 2011, Kevin Yee first brought the plight of Splash Mountain to the attention of the Disney fan community. I had experienced the attraction in Mid-May, shortly before Mr. Yee wrote his article, and I was astonished by what I saw. Dozens upon dozens of lifeless Audio Animatronics, filth, and a plethora of broken water (and other) effects. Similarly, on the same trip, I had the “privilege” of experiencing Big Thunder Mountain Railroad with its third lift hill in a state of utter disrepair. A tarp covered (and would cover for the next several months) the location of a missing boulder. Other boulders wouldn’t move. It was disappointing, to say the least, that these attractions have been allowed to operate in such states for so many months. Some may argue that Disney couldn’t simply take down two of the Magic Kingdom’s flagship attractions because of the impact on crowds and “ruined” vacations. I’d argue that Disney simply shouldn’t allow them to operate because, in those states, these two normally amazing attractions weren’t worthy of the Disney name.

The World Is A Carousel Of Color, Wonderful, Wonderful Color

Park of the Year: Disney California Adventure

Note that I wisely did not name this award “Best Park of the Year.” Were that the award, Disney California Adventure wouldn’t have won (that title would go to its older brother across the esplanade). However, this award measures everything the various parks have done over the past year, how they have handled with guests, and various other factors that are part of my secret algorithm. For this award, Disney California Adventure pulled together a surprise victory. First, we’ll start with what Disney California Adventure debuted in 2011. It opened Goofy’s Sky School (uh oh, we’re not off to a good start…), The Little Mermaid ~ Ariel’s Undersea Adventure, Paradise Garden Grill, Boardwalk Pizza & Pasta, among other things. It also plussed the already incredible World of Color with new tags, and added thematic enhancements around the park.

These additions, however, would not be enough for it to take the crown. While fully operational, Disney California Adventure continued its massive transformation, which included the addition of new turnstiles and a new “main street,” to be known as Buena Vista Street. The park opened a surprisingly well-done temporary entrance behind Soarin’, and has managed to deal with guest-flow remarkably well during all of this. With this massive re-imagining of Disney California Adventure, Disney has shown that it’s not afraid to undertake a colossal project on a working theme park, while still allowing that theme park to shine with some of its new and plussed attractions. Despite all of the construction, Wine Country Trattoria and Ariel’s Grotto still made great places to relax, as did Paradise Garden. (Mark my words, in 2012 this park will contain Disneyland Resort’s version of a World Showcase as far as relaxing locales and leisurely hideaways.) Kudos to Team Disney Anaheim for making a construction-site theme park so fun, and kudos to every Cast Member who beams the excitement of what’s to come. Something tells me this park will be making another appearance in these awards in 2012…

Dining Establishment of the Year: Trader Sam’s, Disneyland Resort

While 2010 was a big year for restaurants at Walt Disney World, 2011 was Disneyland’s year to shine. Hungry Bear Restaurant and Village Haus both received incredible new menus. Pizza Oom Mow Mow made way for the incredible Paradise Garden Grill and Boardwalk Pizza & Pasta. However, the biggest and best change of all happened out at Disneyland Hotel, where Trader Sam’s was bestowed upon Western Civilization. In case you haven’t experienced it, Trader Sam’s is no simple tiki bar. This is Walt Disney Imagineering at its peak. The place is absolutely loaded with Disney Details and gags, and features many specialty drinks that create reactions in the bar. Trader Sam’s traces its roots to the Adventurers Club, Jungle Cruise, Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room, Joe Rohde, and other tropically-infused Disney offerings. For the sake of “research,” when we were there in November, our party made sure to order one of every drink and appetizer. The drinks are excellent and inspired, and the food is delicious. Even if you don’t drink, you absolutely must visit Trader Sam’s.

Resort-Hotel of the Year: Disneyland Hotel

Disneyland Hotel has been under the knife for a couple of years now, and the dividends began to pay off this summer as the new Monorail pool opened. This pool initially received a lukewarm reaction, but subsequent additions, including the E-Ticket pool, the new themed suites, and the details throughout the hotel demonstrated that the newly remodeled tours of the Disneyland Hotel would pay homage to the history of the hotel and Disneyland in general, while taking the luxury of the hotel to the next level. The new details here are stunning, from the fixtures to the classic attraction wallpaper in the restrooms! It may still be overshadowed by the beautiful Grand Californian Hotel & Spa, but the Disneyland Hotel now once again stands tall as one of the nicest hotels around Disneyland.

Announcement of the Year: Avatar Land, Walt Disney World

A lot of announcements were made this year (although not as many as fans would have liked, as evidenced by the reaction to the D23 Expo), but none were as divisive as the Avatar Land shocker. Divisive might be overly optimistic, actually. Many fans hated this announcement. As you can probably guess by my dubbing it the “Announcement of the Year” I fall into the minority of fans who were excited and elated about this announcement. Very excited and elated! To me, Disney’s Animal Kingdom is the weakest of the four Walt Disney World theme parks, despite having the most potential. The details are there, the theming is there, it has the makings of a beautiful and absolutely amazing theme park. Unfortunately, the attractions are not there. As far as I’m concerned, details and theming are only subterfuge for substantive shortcomings. The Nahtazu campaign? An implicit admission that the park is too much like a zoo, and careful marketing to convince guests otherwise. Yes, I realize Avatar is not Beastly Kingdom, and I’m actually not that big of a fan of James Cameron.

However, I am a fan of highly immersive environments and I am a fan of quality. James Cameron will demand both. Cameron is a perfectionist, and this is one project that I highly doubt will go under budget. To be sure, it would have been great if Disney executives trusted WDI to create a great original concept, but no attraction ever failed because of the property on which it was based. Just look at fellow “award” winner Splash Mountain. How many people who love that attraction have seen Song of the South? The quality of the Avatar expansion at Animal Kingdom will be mutually exclusive of the popularity and quality of the films. The environment and the attractions that get built in that environment (and from what I’ve seen, the environment of Avatar is a pretty awesome and detailed mythical natural environment…wasn’t that exactly what Beastly Kingdom would be?!) will stand on their own, and will hopefully give Animal Kingdom what it has lacked: attractions predicated on the mythical world, instead of live animals, that capture the sense of fantasy and awe that the other parks achieve so wonderfully. It’s because the announcement of Avatar Land will finally help Animal Kingdom realize so much of its unrealized potential that this is the announcement of the year.

Am I way off with my picks? What are your picks for 2011 Disney Awards? Share your thoughts in the comments!

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Posted on January 6, 2012

15 Responses to “The Most Highly-Coveted, Heavily Sought-After Disney Awards: TouringPlans’ 2011 Picks!”

  • by Dogstardaddy on January 6, 2012, at 1:33 pm EST

    Great list, but I’m not sure I agree with you on the “new” of Star Tours. I guess other than the name, ride system, and characters, the ride is kinda new. Don’t get me wrong… I love the “classic” ride, and experienced the 3D version for the first time just a few weeks ago and was impressed. Cool thing is, I found the “new” ride right where the old one was. Very convenient! Yes, the 3D is new, and yes, the interaction element is new. But if we follow your criteria, do Tiki Room and Haunted Mansion count as a new attraction as well? If so, I might pick HM over ST. I wasn’t blown away by the 3D effects in ST, but I thought some of the recent changes in HM were wonderful. I guess we have to wait until the Fantasyland expansion to see truly “new” attractions at WDW.

    • I have a hard time buying into your comparison. This year, Haunted Mansion received a new queue and enhancements to two existing scenes in the attraction. The vast majority of the substance of the attraction remained exactly the same. By contrast, Star Tours didn’t just receive a 3D enhancement to its existing film, it received an entirely new film that completely changed the story. It also received a new queue. The substance of the attraction is 100% different. To me, that’s a pretty critical distinction. I guess reasonable minds can (and do) differ on that, though!

      • Fair enough :) I haven’t ridden HM in probably two years, so perhaps that colors my perspective a bit. It’s changed alot since then. Or maybe I was just hoping to be more blown away by the new ST, which was already one of my favorites.

        • by Dogstardaddy on January 8, 2012, at 1:10 pm EST

          Maybe we need a dishonorable mention for Muppets. The one attraction that SHOULD have had some sort or refurb or improvment this year to play off the success of the movie. Alot could have been done there to refresh the ride, and take advantage of the Muppet’s newfound popularity.

  • by Mousejunkie Adam on January 6, 2012, at 4:08 pm EST

    I totally agree with your characterization of the Disney maintenance standards as “slipping”. This was very noticeable and disappointing on our family trip last year. I hope Disney starts paying a bit more attention to attraction maintenance in the near future, otherwise a bit of the “magic” of Disney’s famous attention to detail will disappear.

    • Things seemed much better when we were there in December and January (both Splash Mountain and BTMRR looked MUCH better). Crowd management was also spectacular. Figure I better give props where props are due.

  • I can’t argue with any of these selections (I too lean to Star Tours as more than a “refurbishment” or a “plus” to the old attraction).

    Especially glad to see Trader Sam’s on the list. And the boos for Frontierland (several of the bears are broken on Country Bears as well!).

    • I am shocked Trader Sam’s doesn’t have lines out the door every night. That might be the best overall addition to Disneyland Resort this year. So, so awesome. A lot of Disney fans don’t give it a chance because it’s a bar, but it’s really so much more than a bar. Like I said, even those who don’t drink should visit.

      CBJ is disappointing, especially given the recent (well, maybe it was in 2010) long refurbishment. That refurb didn’t seem to address much of anything.

  • I love this idea for an article and only wish you had included more categories!

    One thing I have to say, though. I’ve been reading Disney park fan sites and message boards for 15 years, and a constant throughout that time is die-hard fans bemoaning the “slipping” maintenance standards. 15 years of slipping standards! Wonder that we don’t see a rat-infested trash heap where the parks used to be. ;-)

    • I’m supposed to stick to 1,000 words in these articles…this one crept over 1,600. That’s the only reason there aren’t more categories. I also wanted to limit it to things that happened this year. I could have included a “Best Table Service Restaurant” category and awarded that title to Napa Rose. I could’ve created a “Best Attraction” category and awarded that to Walt Disney World’s Tower of Terror. I could have made a lot of categories–but a lot of them would have been more static. ToT and Napa Rose could win those awards many different years–I wanted things more specific to 2011.

      To your last point, I think maintenance standards at Walt Disney World HAVE been slipping for the past 15 years. I’ve heard that Disneyland was doing badly for a while in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but the ship has been righted there, it seems.

  • Ever since my first ride in the spring of 1993, Splash Mountain has been my hands down favorite attraction in WDW. I even remember the excitement I felt at age 7 in 1990 when I saw those giant construction walls in Frontierland filled with posters promising that Splash Mountain in Florida would be “openin’ real soon!”

    Up until a few weeks ago, I hadn’t ridden Splash since 2008 because my previous visits had been during MLK weekend when the attraction is typically closed. I had recently read some bad press on the internet about the collapse of maintenance on my favorite ride, but couldn’t possibly believe it could make a noticeable difference on such a large scale attraction. Well, Sunday, December 18th I boarded my log in anxious anticipation of my all time fav and was saddened to see that the internet buzz was quite accurate. Splash was exactly as you described in this post, and I can only hope that Disney notices too and gives our furry friends and their home some TLC.

    • It would probably make you even more sad, then, to know that the attraction was in MUCH worse shape in May and June than it was in December. We saw it the week before you (and the week after you) and on both occasions, it actually looked respectable as compared to the spring. It still looks bad, but by comparison, December was a good month for Splash!

  • I just wanted to say (without reading all of the other comments) that I think you were being a little too harsh on Splash and BTMRR…NOT because maintenance is needed, that I havent seen for my own eyes b/c I havent been there since 2010, but because when Disney does schedule a big overhall (like the one that BTMRR is having) EVERYONE..alright ALMOST everyone, complains…so Im just saying, if people want the rides to look perfect, then people shouldnt beef about closures. Everyone wants things to be perfect but no one wants perfection to occur during THEIR trip. Sounds like both rides need an overhall, and they closed the worst (is that a word?)..one first..Im sure they will be closing Splash for extensive repairs in the near future…hopefully after MY trip b/c minus a dozen is better than none at all!!! Ü HA!

    • Ah, yes, I know all too well about those complaints. That’s why I made the sarcastic “ruined” vacations point in my post.

      This is part of the reason why we’ve embraced Disney California Adventure despite the great amount of ongoing work there. It’s also why I’ve never complained about a refurbishment occurring during my trip. I know refurbishments only make the parks better, so I say bring ‘em on! Plus, I know we’ll be back.

      Unfortunately, though, I realize a lot of people won’t be back. This is their once-in-a-lifetime trip, and they want to see it all. As callous as this may sound, if I were Disney, I wouldn’t care too much about the complaints of those people. They’re never coming back again, anyway, so what do they matter? That said, even once-a-year guests complain about closures during their trips, which I don’t quite understand. The parks do have to be maintained. It stinks that it’s during your trip, but it will be there next time, and will look better.

      I’ve heard people complain about Swiss Family Treehouse being refurbished, saying that it’s their favorite attraction. People will complain about anything. (To be fair, I realize I’m complaining about maintenance in this post and subsequently complaining about people complaining.)

      My point is that I’d much rather see things operating to Disney standards than open and in poor condition because “X attraction CAN’T close during Christmas, Easter, Summer, etc.”

      • We are in agreement, definately keep things up to Disney ‘par, Im in between the once a year goers and the once in a lifetime goers…I go whenever I can scrape up $$ to do it right (for me)..and I treat each trip as if it may be my last,…who knows right? … I totally enjoy all things Disney and although some things are not always perfect, to my eye it seems to go undetected…my final thought…If its “bad” in Disney, its still Head and EARS above the rest!!!…I wouldnt want to be anywhere else!! thanks for the blog!